Murder of Dennis Jurgens
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Dennis Craig Puckett
December 6, 1961
Sauk Centre, Minnesota, United States
|Died||April 11, 1965 (aged 3)|
White Bear Lake, Minnesota, United States
|Cause of death||Homicide by blunt force trauma|
|Known for||Murder victim|
Dennis Craig Jurgens (December 6, 1961 – April 11, 1965) was an American 3-year-old boy who was murdered in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, in April 1965. Jurgens was the only fatal victim of Lois Jurgens, his adoptive mother and a prolific child abuser, who abused a total of six adopted children from 1950 to 1970. The trial of Lois Jurgens for the murder of 3-year-old Dennis made national headlines and was the top news story of the state of Minnesota in 1987. It is one of a few crimes that FBI agent Kenneth Lanning argues can legitimately be described as "ritual abuse".
- 1 Early history
- 2 Dennis arrives at the Jurgens home
- 3 Abuse at the hands of Lois Jurgens
- 4 Murder
- 5 After the murder
- 6 Investigation
- 7 Murder conviction and sentence
- 8 Aftermath
- 9 A Death in White Bear Lake
- 10 In popular culture
- 11 See also
- 12 References
- 13 Bibliography
- 14 External links
Dennis Jurgens was born Dennis Craig Puckett in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. He was the son of teenage Jerry Sherwood (who was herself a ward of the state) and her teenage boyfriend. At the urging of authorities, Jerry placed Dennis for adoption after being told that he would receive good care.
Dennis was adopted by the Jurgens, of White Bear Lake, Minnesota, a suburb of Saint Paul: Harold Robert Jurgens, a former bandleader turned electrician, and Lois Germaine Josephine Zerwas Jurgens, a homemaker. Lois had grown up in an impoverished family of sixteen siblings and used her marriage to the middle-class Harold Jurgens as a means to improve her social standing. She had a pathological need for control over her environment and obsessively cleaned and tended to her home and garden, desperate to appear the picture of the perfect housewife.
In the decade preceding the adoption of Dennis, Lois Jurgens had suffered bouts of depression and psychosis, including an extended stay at a psychiatric institution where electroconvulsive therapy was administered. She was diagnosed as having mixed psychoneurosis and also unable to conceive a child with Harold. This drove Lois further into madness, as she felt she needed children to complete the "perfect picture" of her life.
Officially forbidden to adopt children owing to Lois' history of mental illness, the Jurgenses managed to adopt a baby named Robert privately. Robert fit in well at the Jurgens household, as he learned from a young age not to get in his mother's way or cause an undue mess that would likely send Lois Jurgens into a rage. The Jurgens adoption of Robert seemed successful in the eyes of authorities, who began to consider the possibility that they might adopt more children through official channels.
Dennis arrives at the Jurgens home
Just past one year of age, Dennis was placed in the Jurgens' home in anticipation of an adoption, after spending much of his first year in foster care where he was loved and well cared for by an elderly woman. Almost immediately, Lois felt a severe, obsessive dislike of the child, who was a normal, rambunctious, and spirited toddler—unlike Robert, who in Lois' eyes, was the "good son." Harold Jurgens suggested that perhaps they should not go forward with the adoption of Dennis, but Lois refused out of concern that it would discourage the authorities from allowing them to adopt further children. Within months of Dennis' arrival, he was rushed to the hospital with first and second-degree burns on his genitalia, which were reported and accepted as accidental. The process of adopting Dennis was completed.
Abuse at the hands of Lois Jurgens
Lois Jurgens had a reputation amongst her extended family and neighbors as an intense, angry woman with a short and volatile temper, but Dennis' arrival in her home provoked sadistic rages that targeted Dennis as he aged from one to three-and-a-half years of age. Throughout the years of frequent abuse, it has been reported that while Harold Jurgens made little effort to curb his wife's abuse of young Dennis, he personally never mistreated the boy.
In her effort to make Dennis "right" in her eyes, Lois embarked on a series of sadistic and corporal punishments:
Angered at Dennis for rejecting certain foods, she responded by placing horseradish on the food and then force-fed it to him. According to reports from family members who eventually testified at the murder trial, Dennis turned purple from being force-fed the bitter and spicy horseradish and also having his oxygen supply cut off when Jurgens covered his mouth and nose. This treatment, along with the exertion as he struggled, sickened Dennis to the point of vomiting, which further enraged Jurgens, who then forced him to eat his vomit.
Lois obsessed about Dennis' weight, which according to medical records was appropriate for a child of his age and build at the point of his adoption. He was frequently starved, to rid him of "sloppy fat," as Lois called it (she also called him "Sloppy Fat" as a nickname). Due to this frequent starvation, Dennis gained only three pounds in a two-and-a-half year period as he aged from one year old to three-and-a-half years old. The coroner noted in his report that Dennis had almost zero subcutaneous fat, at the level of a person who had died of starvation.
Aside from the incident when Dennis was hospitalized with burns on his genitals, there were many other incidents of abuse that fell under the category of sexual sadism. Lois' remedy for the toddler wetting his diaper too frequently was to place a spring-action clothespin upon the end of his penis. The coroner noted there was evidence of adult human bite marks on his penis, and scarring all over his scrotum; he was also found to be wearing two diapers and a pair of rubber pants at the age of three-and-a-half years.
Testimony from neighbors and family members told of young Dennis showing up to public events wearing sunglasses at the age of two to hide his frequent black eyes. In addition, Lois took to tying Dennis' limbs to the bedposts to keep him in bed, and tied him to the toilet to force a bowel movement.
By all accounts, Lois was obsessed with abusing Dennis, and she wanted the world to know he was a "bad child"; she made no apologies about the inappropriate way she was disciplining him. Lois considered herself a devout Catholic and believed she was doing "God's work" by making Dennis "perfect" in her eyes. To this end, she forced religious training on her young sons; reports had young Robert flawlessly reciting the Rosary at two. Dennis struggled with such training and was forced to pray and recite his Rosary kneeling on a broomstick for extended periods, until he did it correctly.
To the casual observer, the Jurgens seemed to be a normal, church-going family with a perfectly maintained house and yard. Certain neighbors and family members knew there were problems with Lois' treatment of Dennis but did nothing to prevent it. They attempted to mind their own business and feared retribution from Lois, who was not above threatening the lives of her family members. In the 1960s, the term child abuse had not yet been coined and no one, not even medical professionals and teachers, was required to report suspicions.
During the early morning hours of April 11, 1965, Dennis Jurgens died at the hands of Lois Jurgens. The official cause of death was peritonitis due to perforation of the small bowel. It is not known specifically what caused the fatal blow, though the injury was later found to have been, beyond a reasonable doubt, inflicted by Lois Jurgens owing to evidence of her constant physical abuse. Along with the aforementioned evidence of starvation and the scarring and bite-marks on his genitalia, the coroner discovered multiple lacerations and multiple generations of bruises covering most of his body.
The night of his death, a great flood had hit the Saint Paul area and the Mississippi River's waters were rising to record levels, causing flooding in the region and inside the Jurgens' home. Lois, who abused Dennis constantly, escalated to new levels of rage as the flood waters filled her basement.
The only witness to Lois's final abuse of Dennis was Robert, who was 5 years old at the time. Many years later, at his mother's trial, by then 27-year-old Robert recounted the events of that evening, testifying that his mother had beat Dennis extensively and had thrown him down the stairs.
After the murder
Though there was an investigation, society and law enforcement of the mid-1960s did not accept the concept that a child in a middle-class home could be the target of abuse. It would have been difficult at the time to prove that Lois Jurgens had committed murder. In spite of extensive physical evidence pointing towards severe abuse, the medical examiner did not classify the death under any of the standard classifications of accident, suicide or murder; he simply marked it "deferred".
There was also a great deal of suspicion surrounding Jerome Zerwas, the brother of Lois Jurgens, who was a police lieutenant in the city of White Bear Lake, Minnesota. A common belief amongst witnesses and neighbors at the time of the murder, and among the investigators who eventually re-opened the case, is that he interfered with the investigation and destroyed incriminating evidence.
Although Lois was not charged with Dennis's murder, the death caused sufficient suspicion for the authorities to remove Robert from the home; he was placed with various relatives and one foster family for a period of just over five years, during which the Jurgens spent a great deal of effort and money attempting to regain custody. Initial placement was with a licensed, unrelated foster family, but Robert was then moved to his paternal grandparents at his parents' request. Placement with the paternal grandparents ended due to a house fire that occurred at a time when Robert was hospitalized with pneumonia, and his grandmother burned to death. There is some suspicion that Lois Jurgens herself set the fire, given that it occurred while Robert was hospitalized, and that Lois had been known to threaten burning down the homes of several neighbors and family members who had spoken to authorities. Robert lived with other relatives, ultimately settling for two years with a distant cousin before he returned home.
Robert was returned to the Jurgens home and, going through new channels, the couple was eventually able to adopt four school-aged siblings from Kentucky. By this point, Lois' rage and mania had gone beyond her ability to maintain an appearance of normalcy, and she and Harold had relocated to rural Stillwater, Minnesota, possibly to escape the gossip of their former neighborhood where Dennis was killed.
As the new adopted children were older, there were many first-hand histories (recounted to the media during the 1987 trial of Lois Jurgens) describing the severe abuse they suffered at their adoptive mother's hands. Beatings and displays of Lois' explosive temper were daily events; especially bad days could include her slamming a child's forehead into a nail protruding from a wall, forcing a child to stand barefoot in snow, and shoving a used sanitary napkin in a child's face. During this period, Lois was once again placed in a psychiatric facility.
Eventually, all four of the siblings from Kentucky and Robert escaped the home by running away and getting help from concerned neighbors. Their flight, coupled with the lingering suspicions surrounding Dennis' death, resulted in the termination of Lois and Harold Jurgens' parental rights. They were informed they would not be allowed to foster or adopt any additional children.
Then in her late thirties, Dennis's birth mother Jerry Sherwood sought out Dennis in the early 1980s, assuming that he would be a young adult and—as she had given birth to four more children with Dennis's birth father—might want to meet his siblings. Her search led her eventually to his grave, and her continued investigation led to a phone call to Lois Jurgens to inquire about what had happened. Lois was cordial on the phone, and even offered to mail some mementos. When these mementos failed to arrive, Sherwood called again, only to discover that the Jurgens had switched to an unlisted telephone number, further fueling her suspicions.
Sherwood eventually located Dennis's death certificate; because the death was categorized as "deferred", the case was still technically open. This, coupled with the lack of a statute of limitations for a murder charge, could lead the way to a prosecution of Lois Jurgens. Jerry took her case to the White Bear Lake police department and then to the local media.
Murder conviction and sentence
The St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a cover story about the investigation on Sunday, October 12, 1986. Though the name of the adoptive family was not given, many suspected that the story was about Lois Jurgens. Sherwood's tenacity, along with the tragedy of her personal loss, kept the story in the public eye. Eventually Lois Jurgens was arraigned, and her identity released by the media.
The investigation, trial, and conviction are considered landmarks in the history of child abuse law.
Lois Jurgens served only eight years of her sentence, released early for good behavior, and lived a secluded life in Stillwater, Minnesota, until her death in 2013. She always proclaimed her innocence. Harold Jurgens died in 2000; at the time of his death, there was suspicion that Lois had poisoned him, but this was investigated and ruled out.
A Death in White Bear Lake
Claims in the book
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 that 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 that 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 that 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 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".
In popular culture
- Barry Siegel's true crime book A Death in White Bear Lake details the murder of Dennis Jurgens.
- The 1992 NBC television film A Child Lost Forever told the story from the perspective of Jerry Sherwood (played by Beverly D'Angelo).
- A play, The Jurgens File, by Brian Vinero, examined the story from the perspective of the community.
- Lanning, Kenneth V. (1992). "Archived copy". Archived from the original Check
|url=value (help) (PDF) on October 25, 2003. Retrieved 2017-12-17.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link);
- "The Murder Of Dennis Jurgens". The Odyssey Online. 2017-07-19. Retrieved 2019-04-23.
- "Child abuse". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-04-23.
- "Child Abuse and Neglect in the Home | Center for Problem-Oriented Policing". popcenter.asu.edu. Retrieved 2019-04-23.
- "A woman was convicted Friday of third-degree murder in..." UPI. Retrieved 2019-04-23.
- A Death in White Bear Lake by Barry Siegel. Published by Bantam Books, 1990.
- Star Tribune article "Jurgens Seeks Seclusion After Release From Prison," published June 7, 1995, Metro Section Page 1B.
- Various other articles from the Star Tribune running between May and June 1987, including "Jurgens Found Sane, Sent to Prison," "Brother Tells of Dennis Jurgens' Beatings," "Jurgens Trial Inspires Birth Mother's Mission" and "Jurgens Relatives Testify She Abused Adopted Son"
- Twin Cities Magazine article "A Mother's Love, Jerry Sherwood in Her Own Words" February 1988 edition.
- Los Angeles Times article "Child Murder: A Town Confronts Its Past," part of a series entitled "Death of a Child, Justice Delayed" by Barry Siegel.
- 60 Minutes piece "No One Saved Dennis" reported by Diane Sawyer, 1988.