14-year-old Junior High Student
Cause of Death: Stabbed and Strangled
Ruby Baker Ciler
Cause of Death: Bludgeoned, Suffocated
Motive: Sexual Psychopathy
Murder Scene and Date
Ciler Home and Farm
Lower Muscatine Road
1 Mile Southeast of Iowa City, Iowa
April 8, 1953
By Nancy Bowers
Written April 2015
The April 8, 1953 Johnson County murders of Beverly Brenneman and Ruby Ciler were chilling and horrifying, brutal and senseless.
So thoroughly did the homicides and their violent aftermath grip the public’s interest that a United Press poll of news editors and directors ranked the crime as the number ten Iowa news story of 1953.
☛ The Victims ☚
After their parents divorced and went their separate ways, Beverly and her two brothers lived with their grandparents Ida and C. J. “Chris” Brenneman on a farm one-half mile southeast of Iowa City on the Lower Muscatine Road. Described by the media as “large and mature for her age,” 14-year-old Beverly attended junior high school in Iowa City.
A quarter of a mile from the Brennemans — in what newspapers characterized as “a lonely farmhouse” — lived Ruby Ciler, 51. She stayed by herself during the week while her husband James worked in Chicago as a linotype operator for ABC Electrotype Company.
Living alone was sometimes worrisome for Ruby. She told neighbors that around the first of April she heard someone prowling outside her house for nearly an hour, leaving her “petrified with fear.” She said she had a revolver, but felt she’d be too scared to use it in case someone broke in.
Beverly and Ruby shared a friendship, partly based on television viewing.
On Wednesday, April 8, 1953, Ruby invited Beverly to watch “Arthur Godfrey and His Friends,” the girl’s favorite program. Beverly promised her grandparents she’d come home afterwards and finish her homework.
The program came on at 7:00 p.m., so Beverly left the Brenneman farm at 6:50, walking along the blacktop rather than going directly across the fields, and then turned up the circular driveway to the Ciler house.
☛ Horrible Discovery ☚
While Beverly was gone, Chris and Ida Brenneman attended church. When they returned home at 10:30 and Beverly was not there, they became concerned. Chris saw a light on at the Ciler house, but his telephone calls went unanswered.
About 11:00, Brenneman drove to the back door of the Ciler place and honked his horn. No one stirred inside, so he got out of his car and walked to the house. He knocked on the kitchen door and called for Beverly. When he entered the kitchen, he made a gruesome discovery.
The room was blood-splattered. And Ruby Ciler lay dead on the floor from what appeared to be massive head wounds and knife cuts to her throat that had nearly decapitated her.
Beverly was nowhere to be seen. Chris Brenneman ran into the living room where the television was still on. He phoned authorities and then called his sons, who hurried to the scene to help hunt for the girl.
When investigators arrived, they searched the outside premises with flashlights and found a horrific scene.
Beverly lay partially clothed near a small barn behind the house. There were indications she struggled hard against her assailant who dragged her 30 feet from the driveway where she was initially attacked.
Her blue jeans lay nearby and her blouse was partly torn off. Wire and remnants of a clothesline rope were wound around her neck. Her mouth was stuffed with rags and her nostrils were crammed with grass and dirt. She had deep cuts on her head and mutilating stomach wounds.
Johnson County Sheriff Albert J. “Pat” Murphy’s office combed the crime scene. No weapons were found, although a short piece of wire conduit was discovered in a recently-plowed field about 60 feet from her body.
Ruby Ciler’s two small dogs were locked in a shed attached to the barn, where she put them just before suppertime. The dogs ran away that afternoon and two neighbor boys chased them down. The boys told authorities Ruby got her purse and gave them a nickel each. They saw her put the purse on the kitchen table.
☛ Investigation and Autopsies ☚
State Bureau of Criminal Investigation (BCI) Agent Robert Gregson and Iowa Highway Patrolmen arrived on Thursday to assist Johnson County Sheriff Pat Murphy in the investigation.
Johnson County Coroner Dr. George D. Callahan performed autopsies on the victims.
He ruled that Ruby Ciler died of a severe brain laceration and suffocation caused by hemorrhaging from slashes to the throat. She was stabbed 15 times.
Beverly Brenneman, Callahan ruled, died of slashing of the head, stab wounds to the stomach, and suffocation from strangulation. She had also been scratched, beaten, and raped.
The autopsy indicated that at least two different types of weapons were used. Both victims were stabbed with knives. Ruby was struck with a heavy object and Beverly’s head was cut with an unknown instrument, perhaps an axe, hatchet or meat cleaver. It was not clear how the electric conduit figured into the attacks.
Authorities believed that Ruby Ciler was murdered first and that Beverly was running away from the killer when she was overtaken on the driveway and dragged to the barn.
☛ Weapons Found ☚
On Thursday morning, 10-year-old Emily Bream of 105 N. Governor was on her way to school when she found a glove and two bloodstained cutting tools — one a butcher knife, the other a paring knife — on the Governor Street Bridge over Ralston Creek. Police were notified.
Authorities retrieved those two knives and then found two more in the shallow brook behind 200 Evans Street. Downstream they discovered a leather purse; a glove and bank book inside belonged to Ruby Ciler. Thirty yards from the purse, investigators located a bloody porcelain bucket.
It appeared that after murdering Beverly near the barn, the killer returned to the Ciler house, placed the knives in a kitchen pail, took Ruby’s purse, and left in a car.
Then he drove three miles to Ralston Creek and threw the purse and the bucket containing the blades off the bridge. The knives on the sidewalk fell from the bucket as it was thrown; the others in the stream jarred out when the bucket hit the creek bottom.
Residents living near the bridge reported seeing a “shiny” car stop on the structure Wednesday night and turn off its lights. One person heard a sound like a pail or bucket hitting the side of the bridge a little before 9:00 p.m.
On Thursday, authorities attempted to take fingerprints from the home, the rusty electric conduit, and the knives found in the creek.
☛ Local Killer? ☚
On Thursday, April 8, a 36-year-old transient was arrested in Moline, Illinois; Agent Gregson and Sheriff Murphy questioned him and were satisfied he wasn’t involved.
Murphy afterwards announced that the murders were considered a “local job,” not committed by someone just passing through the area.
With the newspapers referring to the killer as a “crazed assailant” and the crimes as “mutilation-slayings,” the Iowa City area was racked with concern and fear.
Parents forbade their daughters to babysit and hardware stores were swamped with requests for keys and window and door locks. University of Iowa coeds locked lower-level windows and were extra vigilant.
The community was also awash with theories and rumors. Calling the populace “puzzled and cautious,” the Cedar Rapids Gazette wrote of the rumors:
“‘Dope ring’ . . . ‘marijuana’ . . . ‘narcotics’ are the common words in many of them. Variations of the gossip mention an assortment of individuals and groups. But from County Attorney Meardon comes this official emphatic word: ‘We have found absolutely no evidence of any narcotics in this thing. We’ve heard all kinds of rumors and stories, we’ve checked with many people supposed to know the facts, and we have found absolutely nothing.’”
☛ Tips and Clues ☚
Tips streamed in and were investigated by Iowa City Police, Sheriff Murphy’s office and BCI Agent Gregson. Many were about suspicious cars or activities around the Ciler house the night of the murders. One neighbor said a prowler tapped on his window about 11:00 and left footprints. A dark car was seen parked along the road west of the Ciler place about 8:00.
Every tip was thoroughly explored because even the smallest clue could break the case.
Investigators met in the office of County Attorney William Meardon at 3:00 p.m. Friday to evaluate their findings and share information.
☛ A Routine Suspect? ☚
One key task for investigators was to interview all persons who had contact with the victims near the time of the homicides.
Authorities learned that 17-year-old Iowa City High School junior Charles H. Nelson — who lived with his parents Carl and Audrey and brother Richard at 728 Rundell Street in eastern Iowa City — had done yardwork for Ruby Ciler the day before the killings. Someone reported the two argued.
County Attorney Meardon called Charles Nelson at 8:20 p.m. on Friday and asked him to come in to discuss the case as a matter of routine. Nelson — who Meardon later said appeared to be neither “shocked or startled by the call” — said he was on his way to a cookout near North Liberty but could come in at 9:00 the next morning, Saturday, April 11.
☛ Another Violent Death ☚
Because the Nelsons worked on Saturdays, their neighbor John Dalton routinely looked in on Charles and his 15-year-old brother Richard to make certain they were awake. On April 11, Audrey was working at a dry cleaning store and Carl was a patient at Mercy Hospital.
At 9:00 a.m. — the exact time of Charles Nelson’s scheduled appointment with County Attorney William Meardon — John Dalton made a horrible discovery when he went to check on the Nelson brothers.
Richard was not in the home, but Charles lay unconscious in a pool of blood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, shot in the chin and in the forehead. A .22 caliber bolt action rifle was nearby; a bloody paring knife and a yellow knit glove lay close to the body. Dalton summoned authorities and medical help.
At Mercy Hospital where Nelson was taken in critical condition, doctors found numerous superficial cuts and slashes on his chest and shoulders. Surgeons operated, but Charles Nelson died at 1:45 p.m. of the bullet wound to his head. He never regained consciousness.
As investigators examined the Nelson house, they found odd clues. Two gas jets on the stove were ablaze and two knobs that controlled burners were broken off. In the living room, the television screen was smeared with blood; and written in blood on the inside of the front door was a word, which looked like “man,” “nan,” or “ran.”
The family car which he drove on Wednesday night appeared to have been recently cleaned.
☛ Accident, Suicide, or Murder? ☚
Investigators tried to determine if the shots were accidental, self-inflicted, or fired by another person. Although no note was found, BCI Agent Robert Gregson said he believed the act was a suicide. Yellow fibers similar to those from the glove found by the body appeared to match fibers on the rifle.
Now the authorities had two mysteries to investigate: the double homicide and the suicide. And they needed to know if the violent acts were connected.
Was the dead young man the killer of Beverly Brenneman and Ruby Ciler? Had he taken his own life as authorities closed in on him?
County Attorney Meardon told the Waterloo Daily Courier:
“We learned that young Nelson had done some yard work for Mrs. Ciler early in the week. We asked him to come in just as we have asked literally dozens of others during the past few days. He definitely was not classified as a suspect in the case.”
And to the Cedar Rapids Gazette Meardon said:
“There is nothing to definitively connect the boy with the case, although we don’t have anything that definitely eliminates him.”
Neighbors and friends characterized Nelson as a nice, quiet boy. Schoolmates thought he was incapable of the violent acts and wouldn’t have been able to attend school the next day as though nothing happened had he killed two people. They speculated that if he did murder Beverly and Ruby, he had help planning and covering it up.
Funeral Services for Charles Nelson were held on Tuesday, April 14; he was buried in Memory Gardens Cemetery in Iowa City.
The next day, William Meardon told the press that all authorities involved in the case agreed that Nelson’s death was a suicide.
☛ Setting the Timeline ☚
Investigators tried to rule Charles Nelson in or out as a suspect in the double homicide by following the timeline: Beverly and Ruby were killed between 7 and 8:45 and the knives and purse were dumped off the bridge just before 9. Nelson’s whereabouts could be accounted for at least part of that time, but not all of it.
Nelson and his mother went to see his father at Mercy Hospital, where visiting hours were 7:00 to 8:00. The father thought they arrived about 7:30. The boy’s grandparents, who lived across the street from the hospital, said Charles and his mother stopped by before and after the hospital visit and then parted company. His brother Richard and a visiting friend claimed Charles came home a little after 9:00.
One of Charles Nelson’s acquaintances told authorities Nelson asked him to provide an alibi for 8:15 the night of the murders by saying the two were at a roller skating rink.
☛ FBI Analysis of Evidence ☚
Circumstantial evidence was strong against Charles Nelson, but physical clues linking him to the double murders were needed.
A rust-colored suede jacket that he wore almost constantly was missing. Investigators wouldn’t say how it was discovered, but it was eventually found in the Nelson home. It appeared to have blood stains on it, as did a pair of shoes, items he was not wearing when he shot himself.
Iowa City Police Detective Ollie E. White took Beverly’s and Ruby’s clothing, the knives from the creek, the bloody bucket, a paring knife from the Nelson home, and Nelson’s clothes to the FBI Lab in Washington, D.C., for examination and evaluation.
On April 24, County Attorney William Meardon announced that the FBI Lab’s analysis of the items was inconclusive.
The three persons each had different blood types: Beverly’s was type B, Ruby’s was O, and Nelson’s was A.
Blood on the butcher knife found in the creek was type O, the same as Ruby Ciler’s.
Blood on Nelson’s pants was found to be his type but there was not enough blood on his shoes to determine whether it matched his or the victims’. The blood on the paring knife matched his.
But the most compelling piece of evidence — Nelson’s rust-colored suede jacket — yielded no clues other than that its stains were human blood. FBI Lab technicians said they were unable to type the blood because of the dye in the garment.
☛ Grand Jury Hears the Case ☚
The Johnson County grand jury convened May 4, 1953 to hear evidence concerning the deaths of Ruby Ciler, Beverly Brenneman, and Charles Nelson.
J.W. Barrow of Coralville acted as foreman; other members were Ella Taylor of Wellman, Harry Sieverts of Lone Tree, Terry Burns of Oxford, Leonard Rayan of Swisher, and from Iowa City Frances E. Shaina and Mrs. George Hunter.
Over two dozen witnesses were called before the jury, a group Assistant Johnson County Attorney William Tucker described as “practically every person who knew any facts about the case….”
On Tuesday, May 19, the seven-member panel presented its findings to Judge Harold Evans:
“We report that upon the evidence presented to the grand jury, we find that Charles Nelson took his own life and was responsible for the deaths of Ruby Ciler and Beverly Brenneman.”
Johnson County Attorney William Meardon told the Cedar Rapids Gazette: “Most of the evidence has been printed in the papers, although there was some additional evidence submitted which I am not permitted to disclose because of the nature of grand jury action.”
☛ The Lives of the Victims ☚
Beverly G. Brenneman was born February 15, 1939 in Iowa City, Iowa, to Ida Fleming and Emil D. Brenneman. She had two brothers, Robert C. and Emil Duane Brenneman. At the time of her death, she was a junior high school student. Visitation was held at Oathout Funeral Chapel. Beverly’s funeral was conducted at 10:00 a.m. on April 11, 1953 at the Church of the Nazarene by Rev. Ira J. Hoover; she was buried in Iowa City’s Memory Gardens.
Ruby Baker Ciler was born May 8, 1901 in Silverwood, Indiana, the daughter of Norabell and Clarence Baker. Her surviving siblings were one brother, David Baker, and three sisters: Hazel Baker, Grace Baker Barry, and Alva Baker Cushman. On June 30, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois, she married James E. Ciler. The couple had no children. They had lived near Iowa City since 1949.
Her body lay in state at the Hohenschuh Mortuary and her funeral was held at 2:00 p.m. on Saturday, April 11, 1953 at the Coralville Evangelical Free Church with the Rev. E.V. Steed officiating. She was buried in the West Liberty Cemetery in Covington, Indiana.
Please note: Use of information from this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “2 Murdered near Iowa City,” Waterloo Daily Courier, April 9, 1953, p.1.
- ☛ “2 Slain at Iowa City,” Creston News Advertiser, April 9, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Another Knife Found in Creek Near Iowa City,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 16, 1953, p. 63.
- ☛ “Blood Analyses May Give Lead In Farm Deaths,” Oelwein Daily Register, April 14, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Boy Is Shot; Possible Link to Slayings,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, April 11, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Boy’s Death Baffles Probers,” by Lou Breuer, Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 12, 1953, 25.
- ☛ “Boy’s Missing Jacket Sought By Authorities,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 13, 1953, p. 2.
- ☛ “Brutal Murderer of Two Iowans Sought,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 9, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Charles Nelson Asked Friend to Provide Alibi,” Ames Daily Tribune, April 13, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Dead Youth Held Killer,” Burlington Hawk-Eye Gazette, May 20, 1953, p. 44.
- ☛ “Double Murder Leaves Iowa City Puzzled and Cautious,” Art Heusinkveld, Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 10, 1953, p. 34.
- ☛ “FBI Analysis of Clues Fails to Solve Slayings,” Creston News Advertiser, April 25, 1953.
- ☛ “FBI Can’t Link Nelson With Killings,” Waterloo Daily Courier, April 26, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Find Boy’s Stained Jacket; Blood Types of 2 Women, Youth Differ,” Ron Breuer, Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 15, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Find Nelson Asked Friend for an Alibi,” Waterloo Daily Courier, April 13, 1953, p. 2.
- ☛ “Funeral Services Set: Burial of Victims To Be Saturday; Grandfather Expresses Shock,” Daily Iowan, April 10, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Glove Fibers on Gun That Shot Nelson,” Waterloo Daily Courier, April 15, 1953, p. 2.
- ☛ “Grand Jury Says Youth Slayer of 2,” Waterloo Daily Courier, May 20, 1953, p. 3.
- ☛ “Iowa City Death Cases Growing More Complex,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, April 14, 1953, p. 19.
- ☛ “Iowa City Deaths Prove More Complex,” Cherokee Daily Times, April 14, 1953, p. 8.
- ☛ “Iowa City Slayer Remains at Large,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, April 10, 1953, p. 9.
- ☛ “Iowa City Student Critically Wounded,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, April 12, 1953, p. 3.
- ☛ “Iowa City Youth Had Sought To Establish Alibi,” Mt. Pleasant News, April 13, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Iowa City Youth’s Death Ruled Suicide,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, April 16, 1953, p. 29.
- ☛ “Iowa’s Editors List Top News Stories of ’53,” Ames Daily Tribune, December 19, 1953.
- ☛ Joy Brenneman Lindemann, Personal Correspondence, March 2015.
- ☛ “Jury Rules Youth Killed Iowa Cityans,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, May 20, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Killer of 2 at Iowa City Still at Large,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, April 10, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Link Dead Boy to Killings,” Waterloo Daily Courier, April 12, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Linked To Murders; Dies,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 11, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Murder Blame Laid on Grave Of Youth, 17,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 20, 1953, p. 2.
- ☛ “Nelson Termed ‘Responsible’ for Double Murder, Suicide,” Daily Iowan, May 20, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Officials Think Butcher Murders Are ‘Local Job,’” Oelwein Daily Register, April 11, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Oleo Battle In Legislature Topped Iowa News in ‘53,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, December 18, 1953, p. 10.
- ☛ “Oleo-Butter Got Biggest Iowa News Spread in ’53,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, December 22, 1953, p. 10.
- ☛ “Report on Three Iowa City Deaths Expected Today,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 23, 1953, p. 3.
- ☛ “Search For Crazed Killer Widens: Tedious Hunt Continues as Iowa City Waits and Watches; Police Comb District For More Clues,” Daily Iowan, April 10, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Slayer of Two Still At Large,” by Lou Breuer, Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 10, 1953, p. 2.
- ☛ “Slaying Case ‘Far From Closed’ After FBI Report,” Daily Iowan, April 25, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Two Are Slain In Iowa,” Cherokee Daily Times, April 9, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Two Murdered Near Iowa City,” Mt. Pleasant News, April 9, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ “Two Slain by Brutal Killer at Iowa City,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, April 9, 1953, p. 11.
- ☛ “Two Slain by Brutal Killer at Iowa City,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, April 10, 1953, p. 1.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Youth Responsible For Two Slayings,” Council Bluffs Nonpareil, May 20, 1953, p. 22.