Sarah Ann Ottens
University of Iowa
Cause of Death: Suffocated
Motive: Sexual Psychopathy
Murder Scene and Date
Room 429, Rienow Hall
University of Iowa
Iowa City, Iowa
March 13, 1973
By Nancy Bowers
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 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.
Written March 2010
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.