Lucille Elaine DeVries
22-year-old Secretary, Iowa Company
Waitress, Frontier Ballroom
Cause of Death: Burns
Crime Scene and Date
607 3rd Street NE
Mason City, Iowa
Cerro Gordo County
October 10, 1962
By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2010
The 1962 death of Lucille Elaine DeVries still puzzles Mason City authorities. Despite exhaustive investigation and the passing of fifty years, they cannot say definitively how she met her end, although there were many suspicious aspects to the case.
The 22-year-old was a happy and hard-working young woman of Dutch descent. She shared an upstairs apartment in a house at 607 3rd Street NE with Judy Siskow, a school friend from nearby Thornton, where both were raised.
When Lucille awoke on Tuesday, October 9, 1962, it no doubt seemed an ordinary day to her. She could never imagine that in fewer than 24 hours her life would end in a fiery blaze.
☛ Day of Death ☚At 8:00 a.m. on Tuesday, October 10, 1961, Lucille arrived at Iowa Company, an insurance office where she was employed full time as a secretary. She put in a day of work and left at 5:00 p.m.
At 6:00 p.m., she started the second portion of her working day as a part-time waitress at the Frontier Ballroom at 725 Kentucky NE just outside the city limits.
When the ballroom closed at 1:30 Wednesday morning, she left by herself and went to the Wheel-In restaurant and ate a meal sitting alone. Lucille left the restaurant alone about 2:45 a.m., drove to her apartment, and parked in the driveway next to the house where she and Judy lived.
☛ Mysterious Fire ☚A man going to an early-morning job saw Lucille’s car at 607 3rd Street NE. Although he noticed the driver’s door ajar and the dome light on, he did not see her inside. Two other witnesses observed the car, but reported it at different locations on the sloping driveway. None of the three saw a fire.
About 3:30 a.m., Lucille’s roommate Judy Siskow was awakened by the smell of smoke but returned to bed when she couldn’t find a source. She woke again about 4:10 a.m. and looked outside to see Lucille’s white two-door car ablaze in the driveway. Judy, as well as two neighbors, phoned for help.
By the time firefighters arrived, the car windows had shattered and the metal roof was sagging from the intensity of the blaze. Inside, the dash was melted. Flames rose high enough to blacken the edge of the house roof.
On the backseat was Lucille’s body, burned so severely it was difficult to identify. Except for the portion directly underneath her, fire had consumed the back seat down to the springs.
An autopsy that day by Cerro Gordo County Medical Examiner Dr. J.E. Christopherson concluded Lucille burned to death. He also found smoke inhalation but not enough carbon monoxide in her blood stream to kill her. Christopherson speculated that Lucille discovered a fire in newspapers on the back seat and that, fatigued from her over 17-hour workday, she was overcome by smoke and heat as she tried to put it out.
Immediate questions arose about the involvement of alcohol; Lucille had been charged with drunk driving and had her license suspended for 60 days after a car accident on the night of December 19, 1961.
She and Judy Siskow were traveling on Highway 18 about two and one-half miles east of Clear Lake when Lucille struck another car from behind, knocking it 300 yards. Both cars were extensively damaged and the young women were taken to Mercy Hospital in Mason City.
However, Lucille’s blood alcohol at autopsy was not high enough to cause intoxication or disorientation.
Mason City Fire Chief A. Boyd Arnold reported that local police and fire — working with the State Fire Marshal’s office — found no evidence to contradict the Medical Examiner’s opinion that a smoldering cigarette or something similar started the fire in the back seat.
Lucille’s death was ruled accidental, pending further investigation.
☛ Lucille Laid to Rest ☚
A prayer service for Lucille was held on Friday, October 13 at the Wartnaby-Grarup Chapel in Thornton with funeral services afterwards at St. John’s Methodist Church.
She was buried in Pleasant View Cemetery. Lucille was survived by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Gerald R. DeVries, her four sisters — Rose Springer, Mildred Jensen, Mary DeVries, and Mrs. Muhlenbruck — as well as four brothers, Don, Richard, John, and Robert DeVries.
Among memories shared about Lucille was that in 1957 she was selected by the local American Legion Auxiliary to be a delegate to Hawkeye Girls State.
☛ Questions Linger ☚
Citizens of Mason City were skeptical of the official conclusion of accidental death and wanted questions answered:
- ☛ What kind of person was this young woman?
- ☛ What happened during the time she left the restaurant at 2:45 and the call to the Fire Department at 4:15?
- ☛ Because she was still breathing when the fire began, was she unconscious or incapacitated?
- ☛ Why was her body in the backseat of the two-door car?
- ☛ How did a witness — his time estimate validated by his work sign-in card — see no fire in the car but notice the dome light on and the driver’s door ajar?
- ☛ And why did a fire rage so ferociously on a mild, clear, humid night with winds of only 5 miles an hour?
☛ Inconclusive Final Report ☚
In mid-February of 1963, almost all the information from a four-month investigation into Lucille’s death was made public, although Cerro Gordo County Attorney David J. Butler said he held back a few details to protect the inquiry.
Local agencies and the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation agents spent more than 1,500 man of hours during 16-hour days working of the investigation. The Mason City Fire Department alone devoted 244 man hours to the case. At least 100 people were interviewed. Lie detector tests were voluntarily taken by friends and witnesses to verify their accounts and establish a time frame for the fire.
Investigators examined Lucille’s finances and created a victim profile based on interviews with friends and co-workers. They learned she was a “reasonably attractive” and seemingly normal young woman without enemies who had moods like everyone else but was not depressed. She dated but had no steady boyfriend. Her employers found her highly competent and hard-working. There were no red flags.
Authorities believed Lucille got into the backseat on her own because there would be no reason to move a dead or incapacitated person to that spot when they could easily be left on the front seat and a fire started there.
As for what one witness saw, firemen believed the fire itself illuminated the car from within to create a dome-light appearance and that darkness obscured any smoke.
From burn patterns, investigators concluded that the driver’s door was ajar, even though firemen found it closed when they arrived. They speculated a draft created by the fire, in combination with a door spring weakened by the heat, caused it to shut.
The only question that investigators could not answer to their satisfaction was what caused the fire to start and then to build up so rapidly. Witnesses saw the car in the driveway, still not on fire, for from 20 minutes to half an hour before the blaze was called in. Based on their car fire experiences and car body experiments, firemen concluded that the blaze developed too fast for “normal circumstances.”
The engine and its fuel were not involved. Gasoline and other petroleum-based products were ruled out as an accelerant, although chemicals in Lucille’s clothing or the car seat materials could have caused the fire to spread. However, tests could not identify the agent any more specifically than to rule out un-vulcanized rubber used in elastic.
Authorities admitted that none of the interviews with Lucille’s contacts established any motive or suspects nor placed her with any particular individual the night of her death.
The report did not rule out foul play entirely. It was questioned how a suspect might have disabled Lucille so she could not escape the fire but do so without killing or injuring her, as there was no evidence of concussion, skull fracture, choking, broken bones, or smothering enough to cause lung collapse. It was, however, conceded that injuries could be obscured by the extensive burning.
Investigators told the Mason City Globe-Gazette that any “criminal involved” would have “had extremely good luck, excellent planning or both.”
Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.
- ☛ “Burns to death in parked auto here,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, October 10, 1962.
- ☛ “Investigation of death by fire still under way,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, October 19, 1962.
- ☛ “Iowa Woman Found Dead in Burning Car,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, October 10, 1962.
- ☛ “License action,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, January 11, 1962.
- ☛ “Mason Cityan’s [sic] death ruled accidental and due to fire,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, October 11, 1962.
- ☛ “No Conclusions after 4-month investigation in DeVries death,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, February 16, 1963.
- ☛ “No new clues in fire death,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, February 8, 1963.
- ☛ “Two women injured in car accident,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, December 20, 1961.
- ☛ U.S. Census.
- ☛ “Woman, 22, Found Dead; Car on Fire,” Muscatine Journal, October 10, 1962.