The Wrong Brother? Murder of William VandeBrake 1920

Murder Victim

William E. VandeBrake
30-year-old Drugstore Owner
Cause of Death: Gunshot
Motive: Romantic Obsession

Murder Scene and Date

Corner Drugstore
302 Main Street
Rock Valley, Iowa
Sioux County
October 19, 1920


By Nancy Bowers
Written August 2011

location of Rock Valley, Iowa

location of Rock Valley, Iowa

In the early evening of Tuesday, October 19, 1920, 30-year-old William E. “Will” VandeBrake of Rock Valley was shot and killed in the Corner Drugstore at 302 Main Street.

He died later that night at a hospital. There were no witnesses to provide a description of the killer.

VandeBrake co-owned the drugstore with his pharmacist brother Eibert “Bert” VandeBrake. The brothers bought the store only eight months before the murder.

☛ Investigation

The VandeBrakes’ pharmacy was on Rock Valley’s Main Street
(courtesy Penny Postcards from Iowa).

Sheriff Robert B. Spratt investigated the murder for Sioux County. In addition, the Mayor of Rock Valley appointed these six local men as special Deputy Marshalls to help search for the killer: William Hoeder, Albert Veen, William Goomahs, Henry Bpyker, Peter ton Napel, and Elmer ten Pas.

At a mass meeting in Rock Valley, incensed and frightened townspeople publicly expressed their emotions and pledged a $1,000 reward for information about the murder.

The Hospers Tribune wrote of the killing:

“There is practically no clue as to the murderer. Different theories are advanced as motive for the shooting. Some would have it robbery, the murderer being frightened away after seeing what he had done. Others, that some dope fiend asked for drugs and upon being refused shot him . . . . But even if caught the man would have to confess as there is no one who could identify him.”

Despite the reward and the special deputies who assisted Sioux County Sheriff Spratt, the killer of Will VandeBrake was never found.

☛ Aftermath ☚

Left behind by the tragedy were Will’s 28-year-old widow Pearl and two young daughters — Dorothy J., aged 4, and Patricia who was 1 year and 8 months.

Will VandeBrake’s mother Petertje declined after his murder.

In April 1921, Will VandeBrake’s mother Petertje passed away from pneumonia. The Rock Valley Bee reported:

“The deceased had reached the age of seventy years, and had always enjoyed good health, until last fall, following the death of her son, Will VandeBrake. She never seemed as well after this great shock.”

Not long after their mother’s death, Will’s brother Bert sold the Corner Drugstore.

☛ Mistaken Identity? ☚

from the Hospers Tribune

In a personal letter in 2011, VandeBrake family member Dan Mouw provided to me the following information that was passed along through the generations:

“[On the evening of the murder], Bert was scheduled to work, but at the last minute something came up, and Will worked for him instead. It is thought that Bert was the intended target of the killer; and since the brothers looked very much alike, the gunman thought he was shooting Bert who was behind the prescription counter at the time.

The killer’s motive to shoot Bert was the killer wanted Bert’s wife, who I’m told was beautiful. (Bert’s wife did not know the killer was even interested in her). It looks like the killer concluded the only way he would have a chance of being with Bert’s wife was to kill Bert.

It all does make for quite the story: murder for love.”

Was William VandeBrake, then, the wrong brother? Was the killer a man obsessed with a beautiful woman he could not have?

☛ William VandeBrake’s Life ☚

courtesy Iowa Gravestone Photo Project

William E. “Will” VandeBrake was born January 14, 1890 in Sioux County to Dutch immigrants Petertje Den Herder and Eibert VandeBrake.

His siblings included Jene “Jane” VandeBrake Harmelink, Gerrit VandeBrake, Gijsje VandeBrake Wayenburg, Hendrik VandeBrake, Winnie VandeBrake, and Eibert “Bert” VandeBrake.

At the time of the 1915 census and when he registered for the WWI draft, Will VandeBrake was a self-employed barber in Sioux Center.

In early 1920, Will and Bert VandeBrake, bought the Rock Valley business; although they named it “VandeBrake Pharmacy,” locals always called it the “Corner Drugstore.”

Will and his wife Pearl moved to Rock Valley and bought a home for their young family near the business.

Will VandeBrake is buried with his extended family in Memory Gardens Sioux Center Cemetery.


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



  • ☛ “Council Proceedings,” Sioux Center Nieuwsblad, November 10, 1920.
  • ☛ Dan Mouw, VandeBrake Family Member, Personal Correspondence, December 2011.
  • ☛ “From Our Files: Ten Years Ago,” Lyon County Reporter, October 23, 1930.
  • ☛ Rock Valley Bee, April 1, 1921.
  • ☛ “Sheldon Shots,” Hospers Tribune, October 29, 1920.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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