Spring Break Killer: Murder of Sarah Ann Ottens 1973

Murder Victim

Sarah Ann Ottens
20-year-old Student
University of Iowa
Cause of Death: Suffocated
Motive: Sexual Psychopathy

Murder Scene and Date

Room 429, Rienow Hall
University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa
Johnson County
March 13, 1973


By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2010

location of Iowa City, Iowa

location of Iowa City, Iowa

Just before midnight Tuesday, March 13, 1973, 20-year-old Sarah Ann Ottens of Morrison, Illinois, was found dead in room 429 of Rienow Hall at the University of Iowa in Iowa City.

Sarah Ann Ottens

Sarah was lying partially naked on the floor under a clean bed sheet with her clothes strewn about the room. She died of suffocation from severely swollen neck injuries. She was also struck on the face and chest, possibly with a broom handle found lying nearby.

The killer had washed her face and hair and left bloody water in the room’s sink. Authorities refused to confirm if there was sexual assault.

Rienow Hall, where Sarah Ottens was murdered (courtesy University of Iowa).

Sarah was found by Brenda Simpson, a student from Waterloo, who was the only other resident staying on the 4th floor in the coeducational dormitory during the university’s spring Break.

The room was home to two other coeds who were gone. It had been made comfortable with a TV and stereo and was a popular gathering spot for students of both sexes. Sarah’s own room was 408, but she had a key to 429 and sometimes slept there.

Sarah gave up a trip with friends to Florida for Spring Break to earn extra money waitressing in the cafeteria of the University Hospital School, a rehabilitative center for handicapped children where she worked part-time. She planned to visit her family in Illinois later in the week.

Suspect James Hall, 1973 (from the Cedar Rapids Gazette)

A Grand Jury heard testimony in the summer of 1973 and in September indicted 20-year-old James Wendall Hall for the murder. Hall was a part-time University of Iowa student from Toledo, Ohio, and a former football player who lived in a dorm across the street from where Sarah Ottens’s body was found.

He was arrested on Wednesday, September 19, 1973. His bond hearing was attended by a large support group, mostly of Iowa City’s black community and fellow athletes. His bail was set at $50,000, which he could not raise. In December of 1973, he was charged with forgery in a separate case.

At Hall’s May 1974 trial, the Prosecution introduced hair evidence; the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation Lab said hair on Ottens’s body matched Hall’s and that hair on Hall’s shoe matched Ottens’s. A bloody fingerprint on a faucet in the murder room was identified as Hall’s. He was found guilty of second degree murder and sentenced to 50 years.

Investigators at the Ottens crime scene (from the Cedar Rapids Gazette)

Appeals began shortly afterwards. Witnesses came forward saying that “most” jurors consumed alcohol with their supper at the University Athletic Club before going back for two hours of deliberation and finding Hall guilty.

The defense claimed there was “a mystery man” seen with Ottens that day who was not black. There were also allegations of racial statements made during Grand Jury proceedings, as well as an alleged juror’s remark that Hall was guilty before a verdict was reached.

The Iowa Supreme Court upheld Hall’s conviction, saying that he had received a fair trial. In October 1977, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his case.

In 1983, an appeal was launched that claimed another man, suspected of three campus sexual assaults, confessed to killing Sarah Ottens.

James Hall, 1993 (from the Cedar Rapids Gazette)

In late November 1983, Hall’s conviction was over-turned because the Prosecution had withheld evidence. Hall was released from John Bennett Correctional Center at Fort Madison, Iowa, after spending seven years in prison for the murder.

No one else was ever charged with the crime.

In 1993, a Davenport, Iowa, jury convicted James Wendall Hall of strangling 31-year-old Susan Hajek in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on March 20, 1992.

☛ Sarah Ann Ottens’s Life ☚

Sarah Ann Ottens was the first child of Myra Schaut and Robert William Ottens. She was born February 9, 1953 in Morrison, Illinois, where her family of Dutch lineage was prominent and civic-minded.

Her father was Manager of Accounting at the Morrison General Electric Plant, one of the area’s largest employers, and her grandfather was a county official.

Sarah Ottens’s tombstone in Grove Hill Cemetery in Morrison, Illinois, photo by Pam and Dave Jindrich

At Morrison High School, Sarah was involved in drama, the school newspaper, a radio station and the yearbook.

After graduation, she attended St. Francis School of Nursing in Peoria, Illinois, before transferring to the University of Iowa, where she was conscientious and serious about her nursing studies.

Friends and teachers regarded her as a sweet, attractive, vivacious young woman with a good sense of humor.

Sarah’s funeral was held March 16, 1973 at the Emmanuel Reformed Church in Morrison, Illinois, and she was buried in Grove Hill Cemetery.

In addition to her parents and paternal grandparents, Harriet Ten Boer and William Ottens, she was survived by siblings Sandy, 13; Scott, 9; and twins Susan and Sam, 18.

Click here to read David Jindrich’s moving article about Sarah Ann Ottens.

Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.



☛ David Jindrich contributed special research and correspondence to this article. ☚

  • ☛ “Additional Charge Filed Against Hall,” Waterloo Daily Courier, December 4, 1973.
  • ☛ “Coed Death,” Estherville Daily News, August 15, 1973
  • ☛ “Coed death,” Muscatine Journal, July 21, 1973.
  • ☛ “Convicted killer’s attorneys say another confessed to the crime,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 7, 1983.
  • ☛ “Evidence Emerging In Slaying, Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 27, 1973.
  • ☛ “Evidence in Coed’s Death Seen,” Waterloo Daily Courier, July 22, 1973.
  • ☛ “Fingerprint, Samples of Hair Are Evidence in Ottens Case, Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 4, 1973.
  • ☛ “Floor Not Sealed Off,” Muscatine Journal, March 17, 1973.
  • ☛ “Grand Jury To hear Evidence In Sarah Ottens Murder Case,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 20, 1973.
  • ☛ “Hall,” Oelwein Daily Register, October 4, 1977
  • ☛ “Hall Gets Plea Time in Ottens Murder Case,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 20, 1973.
  • ☛ “Hall jurors hear tapes again, question judge,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 23, 1993.
  • ☛ “Hall knew finding body would put focus on him,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 26, 1992.
  • ☛ “Hall’s lawyer asks for mistrial,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 14, 1993.
  • ☛ “Hall murder trial goes to Davenport,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 17, 1993.
  • ☛ “‘I did not strangle Hajek,’” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 21, 1993.
  • ☛ “Iowa City killer seeking new trial,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, July 29, 1983.
  • ☛ Iowa Department of Public Safety Division of Criminal Investigation Cold Case Unit.
  • ☛ “Investigate murder of SUI coed,” Ames Daily Tribune, March 16, 1973.
  • ☛ “Johnson County Grand Jury in 2-Week Recess,” Waterloo Daily Courier, July 30, 1973.
  • ☛ “Judge Studies Bid To Cut Hall’s Bond,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, September 21, 1973.
  • ☛ “Jury nearly set for Hall trial,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 7, 1993.
  • ☛ “Jury to Study Coed’s Death,” Waterloo Daily Courier, August 15, 1973.
  • ☛ “Lawyer asks for mistrial for Hall,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, April 11, 1993.
  • ☛ “Morrison Coed Dies of Suffocation,” Freeport (Illinois) Journal-Standard, March 15, 1973.
  • ☛ “Plea Seen In Slaying of UI Coed,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 27, 1973.
  • ☛ “Probe Into Slaying of Coed To Be Widened,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 17, 1973.
  • ☛ “Slain UI Co-ed Remembered as ‘Outgoing,’” Iowa City Press-Citizen, March 16, 1973.
  • ☛ “Slaying Suspect’s Bail Is Reduced,” Waterloo Daily Courier, September 26, 1973.
  • ☛ “State Sets Forth Evidence In Sarah Ottens Murder Case, Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 14, 1973.
  • ☛ “Suffocation Seen in UI Coed’s Death,” Waterloo Daily Courier, March 15, 1973.
  • ☛ “Supreme Court rejects Hall’s murder appeal,” Waterloo Daily Courier, October 4, 1977.
  • ☛ “Tighter Dorm Security After Iowa Coed Slain,” Estherville Daily News, March 15, 1973.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • ☛ “Warn Women In Iowa City,” Des Moines Register, April 5, 1973.
  • ☛ “Waitress, Bartender Claim Jurors Drank,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, June 17, 1974.
  • ☛ “Witness’ ‘ambush comment’ condemned by Hall attorney,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 10, 1993.
  • ☛ “Woman strangled, C.R. police decide,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 25, 1992.
  • ☛ “Women Urged To Be Cautious,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, April 4, 1973.
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