Cold Night Out: Murder of Donald Nervig 1965

Murder Victim

Donald Amos Nervig
52-year-old Co-Owner
Nervig & Avila Speedometer & Electrical
Cause of Death: Struck with Ax or Hammer
Motive: Unknown

Murder Scene and Date

7380 6th Avenue
Des Moines, Iowa
Polk County
December 15, 1965



By Nancy Bowers
Written March 2010

location of Des Moines, Iowa

location of Des Moines, Iowa

On Monday afternoon, December 15, 1965, 53-year-old Donald Amos Nervig — co-owner of Nervig and Avila Speedometer and Electrical in Des Moines — told a friend on the phone he was tired and looking forward to relaxing at home after work and taking a hot bath to ease his rheumatoid arthritis symptoms.

When he closed up the store at 814 Center Street that evening, Nervig was wearing a brown work uniform with the name of the automotive supply shop stitched over the pocket and a brown tweed sports coat. He carried a bank bag containing the day’s receipts.

Nervig, however, didn’t go home as he planned. He walked to the Executive Lounge at 605 Seventh Street, where he encountered loan company official Ronald Leroy Kyger, 26, of 2930 Tiffin Avenue.

The two never met before that night, but they shared drinks and drove in Kyger’s car to Chuck’s Restaurant at 3610 6th Avenue in the Highland Park area for pizza. Kyger later claimed Nervig invited himself along to eat and had no money to share the costs of either the alcohol or food. Both men at this point were described by other patrons as very intoxicated.

Afterwards, the men drove north and Kyger said they argued about his driving and he shoved his companion after Nervig grabbed the car keys. He claimed Nervig got out of the car at Second Street and Hoffman Road near the Firestone Tire and Rubber plant close to the city limits. Kyger said when he drove away at 9:15 p.m., Nervig was on his hands and knees on the shoulder of the road.

It was a bitter night. A temperature of 27 degrees and 16-mile-per-hour winds created a wind-chill of 14 degrees, which would have been especially uncomfortable to Nervig, who had severe arthritis, took heart medication, and was unable to walk long distances.

☛ Missing Person ☚

Donald Nervig

When Donald Nervig failed to come home that evening, his wife Stella was concerned because he was not in the habit of staying out overnight. His pickup was still at his place of business and the daily receipts were not deposited.

Stella Nervig did some quiet checking among her husband’s friends before notifying local authorities on Friday, December 16. Donald Nervig had a minor record of intoxication arrests and even joined AA at one point, but he was never known to create any serious problems. Police suggested she wait a few more days to see if he came home.

An official missing person report was filed on December 18. Des Moines Police and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement describing Nervig as standing 5’10”, weighing 150 pounds, and having black hair and blue eyes.

Police Detective Chief Cletus Leaming told Des Moines Register reporter Nick Lamberto that Nervig was believed to have over $300 when he left work — some in checks and cash from his business and the rest in personal money.

☛ Searching For Clues ☚

Search party looking for Donald Nervig
(from the Des Moines Register).

On  Sunday, January 9, 1966, Nervig family friend Floyd R. Gabbert organized a search party of 150 people — Boy Scouts, law enforcement, firemen, and volunteers — to walk the vicinity where Nervig was last seen.

Starting at 8:00 a.m., they broke into five groups and scoured the area from the Des Moines River to East 14th Street and from Broadway Avenue north to and including the Margo Frankel Woods State Park.

Travelers on Interstate 80 saw them tramping the fields north and south of the busy highway.

When the search began, it was five degrees below zero. Volunteers took breaks to warm up and have hot drinks at the Saylor Township Fire Station.

Floyd Gabbert remained optimistic that they would find nothing and believed his friend Donald Nervig was still alive.

But Donald Nervig did not come home. His family observed Christmas without him; his fifty-third birthday on December 28 came and went without any communication. New Year’s Day ushered in 1966, and still there was no word about the missing man. Seven weeks had passed since the victim was seen getting out of a car into the dark, cold night.

☛ Body Found in Snow-Filled Gully ☚

Satellite view of the wooded ravine where Nervig was found (Google Street View).

NW Sixth Avenue (County Road R56) and NW Sixteenth Street intersect in Polk County a mile north of Saylorville. From the elevated spot at the intersection, a wooded ravine runs southward and parallel to NW Sixth Avenue. In those days after a snow, neighborhood children launched their sleds at the top and slid down to a little creek that ran under NW Sixth Avenue 100 feet away where they skated.

About 5:00 p.m. Sunday, January 26, 1966, Michael Dale Howell, 13, and Stephen Lawrence Bacon, 12, both residents of NW Sixteenth Street in rural Polk County, made their last run of the day down the ravine and headed home.

Usually, the boys would have gone to the road to walk back, but that day they pulled their sleds up the deep ditch. They tripped over something in the snow and, when they saw what it was, ran to get help.

The boys had discovered the body of Donald Nervig frozen into the ice at the bottom of the ravine, five miles north of where he was last seen.

Nervig was still attired in his work uniform but was missing one shoe. His brown tweed sports jacket was found along a fence 50 feet away on NW Sixth Avenue.

from the Carroll Daily Times Herald

His wallet contained $7 — although his companion that night Ronald Leroy Kyger said Nervig seemed to have no money for the drinks and pizza.

Volunteers from the Saylor Township Fire Department used axes to free the body from the ice. Underneath, there were traces of blood. The body was taken to Dahlstrom’s Funeral home and allowed to thaw so Nervig’s person could be searched and an autopsy performed.

Nervig’s body was found 50 feet from an old barn on the property of Charles “Charley” Warren at 7390 NW Sixteenth Street. Warren observed the search party for Nervig on January 9, but it did not come as far northwest as his farm. Warren also said that the creek where Nervig was found did not freeze over completely until January.

Polk County Medical Examiner Dr. Leo Luka determined Nervig died from a blow to the back of the head with a heavy object that had a protrusion — like a hammer or ax — which created a circular wound an inch deep and an inch-and-a-half wide. Luka found evidence of both brain bleeding and trauma. A search of the area near the body failed to turn up a weapon.

Because there was no food or alcohol in his stomach, Nervig had to be alive at least 10 to 12 hours after he was last seen at 9:15 p.m. on December 14, 1965.

Dr. Luka stated that the body was lying in the creek before snows that fell on December 16 — two days after Nervig disappeared — and on December 24.

Des Moines Police worked with two Polk County Sheriff’s Deputies on the case to follow up tips and track down witnesses.

☛ Speculation Continues Into the New Year, Robbery Ruled Out ☚

from the Des Moines Register

On Sunday, February 6, Deputy Polk County Sheriff Eldon Lewis took advantage of a snow melt to again search the area where the body was found. About a hundred feet away from the site along the side of NW Sixth Avenue, Lewis found Nervig’s glasses and a partly-smoked cigar believed to have been the victim’s.

Most importantly, however, Deputy Lewis found the bank bag Nervig carried the night he disappeared. The bag contained $305 — $279 in checks and the rest in cash. After this discovery, robbery was ruled out as a motive in the slaying.

Polk County Sheriff Wilbur T. Hildreth

Polk County Sheriff Wilbur T. Hildreth

Polk County Sheriff Wilbur Hildreth asked the public for information concerning Nervig’s whereabouts between 9:15 p.m. December 14, 1965 and mid-morning the next day, a time when he was believed to be still alive. Hildreth hoped someone saw him walking on the street or gave him a lift.

The last person known to see Nervig alive — Ronald Leroy Kyger, identified by Executive Lounge patrons who saw the men together — took a lie detector test which authorities told the media “tended to substantiate his account.” Kyger said he was certain that Nervig got out of his car at 9:15 because he then drove to pick up his wife at the Hyperion Field Club, arriving at 9:45.

His employer stated that Kyger missed work the next morning and a newspaper reported that he later was let go from his position due to ongoing association with the case. Not long after the homicide, Ronald Leroy Kyger moved to California. He passed away on November 4, 1993 in Orange County.

Authorities could only speculate about how Nervig’s body got to the spot where it was found. Polk County Medical Examiner Dr. Leo Luka said that it was remotely possible for him to live for a number of hours after his type of injury, but it was highly unlikely.

There was speculation that Nervig was struck on the head, crawled over the barbed wire fence between the road and the creek — which would have caused the scratches on his body — and collapsed and then died in the creek bed. The fact that his coat and glasses had been removed and his cigar thrown on the ground suggests that he might have been preparing to engage another person in a confrontational way, such as a fist fight, or to defend himself against assault.

A definitively satisfactory account of the mysterious death could not be arrived at, however.

Stella Nervig offered a $500 reward for information in the homicide, but no tips or leads provided answers.

☛ Donald Nervig’s Life ☚

photo by Tom Stanley

photo by Tom Stanley

Donald Amos Nervig was born December 28, 1912 in Hardy, Humboldt County, Iowa, to Sadie Serena B. Nelson and Amos T. Nervig, Sr., residents of the Norwegian community there. He had a sister, Edythe M. Nervig Hartung, and four brothers, Amos T., Jr., Thomas A., Irvin L., and Stanley M. Nervig.

On October 23, 1937, Donald Nervig married Stella G. Hansen, and they had three daughters — Carole and Donella at home in Des Moines and Jerletta Ann “Jeri” McGiverin, who was married and living in California at the time of his death. The Nervig family resided at 1331 Mattern Avenue in Des Moines.

Despite having acute rheumatoid arthritis, Donald Nervig was drafted during WWII and sworn into the U.S. Army Air Force on June 19, 1944 at Camp Dodge, Iowa. His official induction papers note that he graduated from high school and had skills as a chauffeur and possessed experience in driving buses, taxis, trucks, and tractors.

His daughter Carole believes that Donald Nervig’s Army training and service exacerbated the arthritis in his back. He was honorably discharged in November of 1944 with a one hundred percent disability.

His Army experiences made Donald Nervig especially sensitive to the needs of other disabled veterans and he received an award from the Veterans Administration for employing disabled vets at his business.

Donald’s daughter Carole also noted about her father:

“He was well respected by the black community that lived near his business. He treated them with respect and charged them fairly . . . something out of the ordinary for that period of time.”

Carole also believes that her father’s constant pain, “although not an excuse, was a factor in his heavy use of alcohol.”

Donald Nervig was laid to rest in Pine Hill Cemetery in Saylor Township of Polk County.

A Family Member Speaks

In February of 2014, I had the privilege of receiving an email from Donald’s daughter Carole Nervig. The thoughts and emotions she poured out demonstrate all too well the anguish that befalls families of unsolved homicide victims and show that murder does not just take the life of one person but changes profoundly and forever the lives of the survivors. She described how her mother spent her life working to take care of the family and to help her daughters cope with the psychological impacts of the tragedy.

Carole wrote:

“At the time of the incident, my mom, sisters, and I were so emotionally distraught we did not pursue finding out the truth of what happened. I think the Nervig family in general shied away from any publicity, typical for stoic Norwegians. None of Dad’s immediate family demanded answers. This I will never understand.”

In addition, Carole spelled out how in retrospect she is troubled by unanswered questions about her father’s death and recalls various reports that came to the family’s attention:

“One thing that has always troubled me. A year or so after Dad’s death, a close high school friend of mine told me that he knew there was more to the murder than was being told. That the police were holding back as to not upset our family. This male friend of mine was acquainted with some of my father’s friends.”

The Nervig family, Carole said, struggled not only emotionally but financially:

“Another question of concern to Mom when he was found was that Dad had always told her that if anything ever happened to him, she would be taken care of. Well, that was not the case. She only received $2,000 from an insurance policy. In addition, Dad’s business partner eventually bought out Dad’s share of the business from my Mom. I think his partner knew that she had no idea of its value, so he bought it for almost nothing. The only way my sister and I were able to attend the University of Iowa was due to my Dad’s disability. The VA paid for our tuition.”

After her husband’s murder, Stella Nervig worked for over 20 years as an inhalation therapist at Des Moines’s Iowa Lutheran Hospital. Carole described an incident at the hospital:

“One day at work, a Des Moines Police officer recognized her and told her that blood had been found in the car but the police and Sheriff Hildreth did not pursue testing the blood or at least make results public, the source of the blood. This police officer suggested some sort of cover-up.”

Donald Nervig’s family continues to hope that someone with information — however small the detail — will still come forward or that law enforcement will reopen the case and apply scientific methods to a new investigation that might answer their questions and bring justice for their husband and father.

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



  • ☛ “2 Boys Find Body of Man Missing Here,” Des Moines Register, January 27, 1966.
  • ☛ “150 Fail to Find Missing D.M. Man in Day-Long Search,” Des Moines Register, January 9, 1966.
  • ☛ “Autopsy Seeks to Identify Missing Man,” Muscatine Journal, January 27, 1966.
  • ☛ “Bag contains belongings of dead Iowan,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, February 7, 1966.
  • ☛ “Body of Missing Man Believed Found,” Carroll Daily Times Herald, January 27, 1966.
  • ☛ Carole Nervig, Personal Correspondence, February 2014.
  • ☛ “Foul play indicated in death,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, January 31, 1966.
  • ☛ “D.M. Man Killed By Blow On Head,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 2, 1966.
  • ☛ “Des Moines death probe is continuing,” Mason City Gazette, February 1, 1966.
  • ☛ “Find Nervig’s Bag and Money,” Carroll Daily Times Herald, February 7, 1966
  • ☛ Iowa World War II Bonus Case Files, 1947-1954.
  • ☛ “Missing Man ‘Couldn’t Walk Far,'” by Nick Lamberto, Des Moines Register, December 21, 1965.
  • ☛ “Nervig Alive ‘8-10 hours,'” by David Eastman, Des Moines Register, February 1, 1966.
  • ☛ “Nervig’s Bag, $305 Found,” Stephen Seplow, Des Moines Register, February 7, 1966.
  • ☛ “New Facts in Slaying,” Estherville Daily News, February 1, 1966.
  • ☛ “Police Continue to Ask: How, Why Did Nervig Die,” David Eastman, Des Moines Register, March 10, 1966.
  • ☛ Polk County Sheriff’s Office (photo of Sheriff Wilbur T. Hildreth).
  • ☛ “Say Blow To Head Killed Man,” Waterloo Daily Courier, February 1, 1966.
  • ☛ “See Foul Play In Iowa Death,” Muscatine Journal, January 31, 1966.
  • ☛ “Seek Help in Nervig Case,” Des Moines Register, February 4, 1966.
  • ☛ “Set autopsy on body at Des Moines,” Mason City Globe-Gazette, January 27, 1966.
  • ☛ Social Security Death Index.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.
  • U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946.

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