Hulda Emma Fischer
Cause of Death: Stabbed
Murder Scene and Date
418 North 5th Street
February 25, 1975
By David Jindrich
Written February 2014
Hulda Emma Fischer and her husband John moved to Maquoketa after their marriage in Chicago on February 5, 1914. The couple operated Fischer Tractor Repair on Western Avenue until selling the business to Gale Stickley and his wife prior to John’s passing on March 6, 1965.
They made their home at 418 North 5th Street, a white ranch-style home, and became close friends to next-door neighbor Helen “Hattie” Petersen. Hattie’s nephew Ronald Keller and his companion and business partner Thomas Goodwin lived above their business, The Antique Room, on West Grove Street directly behind and to the southeast of the Fischer house.
In her senior years, Hulda Fischer was known as a “grandmother” to area children. She had a large circle of friends through the Order of the Eastern Star and Assembly of God Church.
On Tuesday, February 25, 1975, the temperature was a chilly 25 degrees with a snow base of 10 inches in Maquoketa.
Leah Zugschwerdt stopped by Hulda’s residence to routinely pick her up for an Order of the Eastern Star meeting at the Masonic Building that evening. Hulda failed to answer the door, and Mrs. Zugschwerdt went on to the meeting; but Hulda was not in attendance.
Leah Zugschwerdt phoned Hulda’s neighbor Hattie Petersen and expressed concern about the absence of Hulda at the meeting. Hattie went next door to check on her close friend and discovered that the drapes where not pulled and she could see into and through the house, which was odd because, as Hattie told investigators, “Hulda always closed the drapes at night.”
Hattie Petersen summoned her nephew, Ronald Keller; he had a key to the Fischer residence given to him by the late John Fischer before his passing.
When he arrived, Ronald Keller noticed tracks in the snow leading from the rear entrance of the home at the northwest side, giving the appearance that Hulda had walked away. Keller unlocked and entered the house and shouted Hulda’s name several times without response. Hattie Petersen waited outside and then came into the entryway and opened the door to the basement. When she saw Hulda’s leg, she called to Ronald Keller:
“I think I’ve found her.”
Both Ronald Keller and Hattie Petersen went down the stairs to the basement and found Hulda spread out on the floor.
Keller left the Fischer home and went back to his business and returned with his partner Thomas Goodwin, who had medical training from his service in the Armed Forces. When they looked closely, they could see that Hulda was dead with a butcher knife imbedded in her chest.
The Maquoketa Police Department and the Jackson County Medical Examiner Dr. J.A. Broman were summoned to the home. Dr. Broman determined the cause of death was multiple stab wounds to the chest and abdomen; he set the time of death at noon on February 25.
Maquoketa Police Chief Buddy Olson and Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) Special Agent Tim McDonald ran the investigation.
In searching the Fischer home, authorities found blood evidence on the kitchen stove and floor; under a kitchen rug, they discovered a hair clip smeared with Hulda Fischer’s blood and hair.
Authorities were particularly interested in a single set of footprints in the snow that led from the backdoor of Hulda Fischer’s home to the back door of Hattie Petersen’s home.
Investigators ruled out robbery as a motive.
Hulda Fischer’s neighbor Ronald Keller was eager to assist investigators; he theorized to both police and the press that whoever committed the murder was in the home for over five hours and, thus, would have had time to clean up the area, saying:
“The layout of my antique shop provides a view of Mrs. Fischer’s backyard and back door. We usually work at the back of the store refinishing furniture. Any movement in the backyard would have caught our attention. I often joked with Hulda, that if she had a boyfriend he would use the front door.”
“Tom and I have lunch with my aunt [Hattie Petersen] promptly at noon each day. It seems to me that the killer would have to be familiar with our schedules in order to avoid being seen. At about 5:00 p.m. every day we close up and go upstairs to our apartment or out to supper. The second story view does not make it easy to see her backyard.”
Keller speculated to authorities that Hulda Fischer’s killer was known to her because that person seemed aware of the doors at the back of her house — an interior entry door and storm door that were always locked when she was home. Keller claimed that when he and Hattie Petersen entered the house, both doors were unlocked as though Hulda had willingly opened them to her killer.
A Cold Case
On February 26, 1976, a year had elapsed and the murder of Hulda Fischer had become as cold as the icy wind and frozen temperatures. The Jackson Sentinel published a first-year anniversary article about the murder.
In the article, Maquoketa Police Chief Buddy Olson told a reporter that police interviews had been conducted and polygraph examinations completed on all those connected to the case, including one on the day before the anniversary of the murder.
In the same article, BCI Special Agent Tim McDonald stated:
“Usually in a homicide investigation determining who is involved is perhaps the easiest part; however, getting enough information to go to trial is the problem.”
It does us no good to make an arrest without some assurance that we will be able to make a conviction.”
On February 24, 1976, Sentinel Editor H. James Potter interviewed Ronald Keller, who told Potter that the investigation has been “unnerving”; he leveled charges of harassment against the Maquoketa Police Department, specifically against Chief Buddy Olson. He claimed that the police were at his house every day and night for months after the murder and that squad cars parked on the street in front of his home for hours. He asserted that this harassment caused his business to suffer with a decline in customers and income.
Keller claimed that he offered to help investigators solve the case by setting himself up as a “clay pigeon” to lure the murderer back to the scene; however, his offer was ignored. Police Chief Olson denied that Ronald Keller had approached the department with that plan.
Ronald Keller also claimed he provided suspect names to the police for investigation. He was particularly fixated on Hattie Petersen, saying:
“She is the only person in the neighborhood that I could think of that didn’t get along with Hulda.”
According to Keller, Chief Olson didn’t investigate the relationship between Hattie Petersen and Hulda Fischer because Petersen was Chief Olson’s mother-in-law. Hattie Petersen moved out of the neighborhood the day following the murder.
However, Chief Olson denied Keller’s accusation and disclosed that Hattie Petersen was interviewed and had cooperated by taking a polygraph examination, which was negative.
Once again, Ronald Keller offered his theory of the murder of Hulda Fisher in connection to the official time of death set at 12:00 p.m. on February 25, 1975:
“The murderer apparently entered Hulda’s house at that time. When we returned to work he was trapped, because the windows at the back of the shop, where we do most of our work, look out on Hulda’s back door and we could have seen anyone leaving.”
Keller claimed that whoever killed Hulda Fischer entered from the front door (putting back into place a rug usually kept there) and left by the back door:
“She always put a rug under the front door to keep the draft out. That rug was in place when we went in.”
Hulda Fischer’s Life
Hulda Emma Fischer was born April 3, 1890, in Chicago, Illinois, to Hulda Yeskie and Theodore Skibby. She married John L. Fischer on February 5, 1914; two sons were born to their union — LeRoy Fischer and Arthur Fischer.
She lived 84 years and became a valued member of the Maquoketa community, where she was involved in community organizations and church. Hulda was a 50-year member of the Maquoketa Order of the Eastern Star and active in Rebekah Lodge. Hulda Fischer is laid to rest next to her husband John at Mount Hope Cemetery in Maquoketa.
The Neighbors, One Himself Murdered
Ronald C. Keller was born on July 30, 1934, in Lost Nation, Iowa, the son of Ollie Gibson and Clarence Keller. He owned and operated Modern Upholstery & Antiques in Maquoketa for more than 48 years. He died of natural causes on December 20, 2002 and is buried at Oakland Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa.
Thomas W. Goodwin was born August 25, 1943, in Iowa City, Iowa, the son of Dorothy M. McEvoy and Robert E. Goodwin. He owned and operated an antique and upholstery shop at 110 West Monroe Street in Maquoketa.
On October 10, 1984, Goodwin was murdered in his apartment at 227 South Main. According to the official reports, he died by suffocation during a robbery. On October 13, 1984, Thomas W. Goodwin was interred at Mount Hope Cemetery in Maquoketa.
On May 17, 1985, Mitch James Ronek was convicted of the first degree murder of Thomas Goodwin and sentenced to life in prison. On February 14, 2014, Ronek was re-sentenced on appeal and granted a minimum sentence of 25 years to life. He remains in the Iowa Department of Corrections. A co-defendant, Brent Owen Donatsch, was convicted and sentenced on January 8, 1985 for the second degree murder of Thomas Goodwin. Donatsch discharged his sentence on November 15, 2006.
It has been 39 years since the brutal murder of Hulda Fischer, raising many questions about why no charges were filed and a conviction rendered.
As I researched this case at the Jackson County Historical Society, several staff speculated and shared gossip from 1975 when they were in their youth.
One source confided that Hulda Fischer and Ronald Keller had several long-standing issues between them.
One issue may have been that Keller and Goodwin were in a same-sex relationship that would not raise an eyebrow in 2014. However, in a small conservative community in 1975, judgment was passed on their lifestyle. Presumably Hulda Fischer was uncomfortable with it.
In addition, Keller and Goodwin had a small dog that barked when put outside near the Fischer home. The dog occasionally relieved itself on Hulda Fischer’s flowers and shrubs, which created ill will.
Another staff member at the Jackson County Historical Society confided that Ronald Keller had admitted his guilt in the crime by statements made when speculating about a third party being responsible for the murder of Hulda Fischer. That staffer thought that an argument in the kitchen led to Keller’s stabbing the victim to death and pushing the body down the stairs to the basement. In addition, she noted the tracks that led from Hulda Fischer’s back door to Hattie Petersen’s back door showed that the killer walked between the houses.
The statements from Hattie Petersen and Ronald Keller differ from the initial discovery of the body and the interview in 1976 with Jackson Sentinel Editor H. James Potter. Initially, Hattie Petersen said that she summoned her nephew Ronald Keller because he had a key and could let them in to the home. Keller told H. James Potter that the door was unlocked upon arrival.
Another Jackson County Historical Society staff member claimed that Hattie Petersen never privately spoke to or had contact with Ronald Keller after the murder of Hulda Fischer. Hattie allegedly confided to family that she believed Ronald Keller killed Hulda, walked through the snow to her home, and then had lunch with Tom Goodwin and herself.
Hattie Petersen was the Chief’s mother-in-law and was aunt to Ronald Keller; therefore, the Chief was related through marriage to the primary suspect in the homicide he was investigating! Why didn’t Chief Buddy Olson turn the case over to the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation due to his conflict of interest?
Unfortunately, most of the witnesses and police investigators have died or are in their senior years, making assumptions in this case nothing but speculation.
Ronald Keller has passed away and judgment is placed with a Higher Court!
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Cause of death ‘suffocation,’”Clinton Herald, October 12, 1984.
- ☛ “Fischer Murder,” Jackson Sentinel, February 28, 1975.
- ☛ “Fischer Murder Unsolved One Year After, Police Frustrated, Keller claims Harassment,” Jackson Sentinel, February 26, 1976.
- ☛ Hulda Fischer Obituary, Clinton Herald, February 27, 1975.
- ☛ Hulda Skibby Birth/Marriage records, familysearch.org.
- ☛ Jackson County #CR-5082 / State v. Brent Owen Donatsch.
- ☛ Jackson County #CR-5086 / State v. Mitch James Ronek.
- ☛ “Maquoketa man found dead – Possible homicide probed,” Clinton Herald, October 11, 1984.
- ☛ “Maquoketa Woman Stabbed”, Clinton Herald, February 26, 1975.
- ☛ “Mrs. Fischer Apparent Homicide Victim,” Jackson Sentinel, February 27, 1975.
- ☛ “Murder Investigation Continues This Week,” Jackson Sentinel, March 4, 1975.
- ☛ “Murder Suspects Arrested,” Maquoketa Sentinel-Press, October 17, 1984.
- ☛ “Nothing New In Fischer Murder,” Jackson Sentinel, March 1, 1975.
- ☛ Ronald Keller Obituary, Clinton Herald, December 21, 2002.
- ☛ Thomas Goodwin Obituary, Maquoketa Sentinel-Press, October 17, 1984.
- ☛ “Town Is Tense after Murder,” Clinton Herald, February 27, 1975.