A Death in White Bear Lake
A Death in White Bear Lake is a true crime book by journalist Barry Siegel, published in 1990. The book recounts one of the most notorious cases of child abuse ever prosecuted in the United States, the murder of three year-old Dennis Jurgens by his adopted mother Lois Jurgens. The case was significant because the murder was committed in 1965, Lois Jurgens was not charged with the crime until 1986. Lois Jurgens was convicted of murder in the third degree in 1987.
Lois Jurgens initially escaped prosecution due to ignorance of child protection in the mid-1960s, though it is also speculated that the fact that her brother, Jerome Zerwas, was a lieutenant on the local police force also protected her. The case was reopened nearly twenty years later due the actions of Jerry Sherwood, the boy’s natural mother. Sherwood sought out her son after giving him up for adoption almost two decades earlier, only to find that he had died as a toddler. Through tenacity and research, she discovered a coroner’s report which described a child riddled with evidence of severe abuse, including multiple bruises, bite and burn marks, and a ruptured bowel - most likely caused by being hit with a blunt object. Peritonitis as a result of the ruptured bowel was the official cause of death, yet the officials did not classify the injury as an accident or murder, but marked the case as "deferred." It remained at that status until Jerry Sherwood (with the help of the media) demanded that the case be reopened.
Lois and Harold Jurgens (who was never charged or prosecuted with any crime, yet according to reports from the surviving children of the household rarely protected them either) had previously adopted a boy named Robert, who was spared the brunt of the abuse, but was later (as an adult) able to give testimony which led to his adoptive mother’s conviction. In spite of suspicions surrounding the death of Dennis, the Jurgens were able to adopt four school-aged siblings from Kentucky, who suffered severe, sadistic abuse at the hands of Lois Jurgens, and eventually joined their older brother Robert in running away and contacting authorities. Lois and Harold Jurgens' parental rights, and the possibility of their adopting or fostering additional children, were eventually terminated.
The story of the adoption, the abuse and murder of Dennis Jurgens, the resulting cover-up and the mishandling of the investigation by the authorities, the extended pattern of abuse as Lois and Harold Jurgens adopted more children, and the eventual conviction of Lois Jurgens, allow author Siegel to create a mosaic that makes A Death In White Bear Lake possibly the definitive text on the realities and weaknesses of child protection in America.
Siegel's research delves into the heart of small town America, and specifically the town of White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Through exhaustive interviews with witnesses to the abuse which Lois Jurgens had inflicted on Dennis (some of whom had held their silence for decades), the reader is led to understand how the abuse and murder of Dennis Jurgens was allowed to go unpunished for decades. Siegel places the case in the context of the development of child abuse law, and particularly the development of the use of battered child syndrome as a viable way to prove abuse in child murder cases.
The book was well received and is considered a classic in the true crime genre. The New York Times Book Review called it "fascinating, exhaustively documented ... a work of compelling narrative force and enduring value." The Washington Post called it "a distinguished entry in the annals of crime documentary." FBI agent Kenneth Lanning, a specialist in child abuse investigations, declared that the book documents one of relatively few cases that can accurately be described as "ritual abuse".
- Lanning, Kenneth V. (1992). Investigator's Guide to Allegations of "Ritual" Childhood Abuse (PDF).; Archived October 25, 2003 at the Wayback Machine