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Trappist Caskets: The Dubuque Grabber

Author’s note: In September 1967, I headed with two suitcases to Stanford University in the San Francisco Bay area. There I met students from all over the US who loved to play one-ups-man with folklore of their communities. My story of the “Dubuque Grabber,” about a series of incidents that had occurred in Dubuque the winter of my senior year at Dubuque Senior High, always captivated the crowd. Researching this story fifty years later, and having raised two daughters, I confess to finding it less amusing than I did as an 18-year-old high school graduate. Nevertheless, it is a unique bit of Dubuque history worthy of recalling on its 50th anniversary.

I would like to acknowledge and thank the Telegraph Herald. Research for this article relied on their archives, which can now be accessed online through the Dubuque Library.

February 1967 arrived inauspiciously in Dubuque. Snow from a minor storm on Wednesday the 1st was quickly plowed into snowbanks along streets and sidewalks. Saturday saw a brief warming from the 20s into the 30s, but by early evening, temperatures were dropping back to the 20s. All in all, it was the start of a typical dull gray February. But Dubuquers were about to have a little terror injected into their lives.

Around 6:30 p.m. on Saturday the 4th, a 16-year-old girl was walking along Loras Blvd. from Alta Vista to Booth St. when a young man, whom she later described to police as around 18 and wearing a green coat and stocking cap, jumped onto her back, put his hands over her mouth, and threw her into the snow. She managed to scream. He ran and disappeared down Loras. About 45 minutes later, a 17-year-old girl was similarly accosted by a similarly described man at Lincoln and Fengler Streets. This time he slapped her and tried to take her purse. She screamed. He ran.

Elsewhere in the world, US B52s bombed the Viet Cong in Hanoi. Lunar Orbiter 3 was approaching the moon to photograph potential sites for a first astronaut landing, in spite of the tragic Apollo 1 fire eight days earlier, in which three astronauts were killed. Locally, A.Y. McDonald announced it was naming its water pumps the Little Old Ladies of Dubuque because they were “reliable, steady, and old.” Stampfers was offering three racks of ladies’ better dresses from $8 to $12, and Van Kamps Pork and Beans could be had at Eagles at five cans for 89 cents.

Three more “grabbings” occurred the second weekend of February. On Friday the 11th, a 23-year-old woman was grabbed from behind in a laundromat on Loras, a hand was cupped over her mouth and she was wrestled to the floor. She managed to scream and the attacker ran out the door. A young girl and a 19-year-old woman were assaulted the evening of Saturday the 12th; the first at around 7:20 on Cox St. and the second around 7:45 in the 1200 block of Rhomberg Ave. In each case the assailant caught them from behind and clapped a hand over their mouth. They struggled; he ran away. Events then quieted down until March.

February continued to be an active month in other arenas. Mao Tse Tung and his Red Guards battled to assert control over China. The US reported major wins over Viet Cong in Vietnam even as student war protesters were arrested at UW Madison and on other campuses. On February 27, the Dubuque City Council, against considerable resistance, approved a plan to demolish major areas of downtown Dubuque under Urban Renewal.

In March, the grabbing incidents started up again. On Wednesday, March 1st, a 16-year-old girl was followed by a man in a trench coat from Prairie and Chestnut Streets. As she approached her home on Walnut he rushed at her. She screamed; he ran. On Monday the 6th, a 20-year-old woman had a gloved hand put over her mouth in the 1200 block of Bluff St. She was pulled to the ground, managed to scream, and the man ran away. On Tuesday the 7th, a 12-year-old girl had a hand clapped over her mouth and was pulled to the ground in a backyard on Hale St. She managed to bite the hand and scream. The man fled. On Wednesday the 8th, an 18-year-old girl was walking from her job at a hospital to her home on Mt. Pleasant St. When she saw a man approaching, she cut through her yard but was slowed by ice. At her doorstep she turned. He had caught up and he slapped her. She ran back across her yard, but he grabbed her and they both slipped on the ice and fell to the ground. He punched her on the mouth and then ran. In all cases the victims described their assailant as a young man (estimates ranged from 16 to 26) of medium height and build with brown or black hair.

Eight “grabbings” in just over a month had put Dubuquers on edge. In March, 1967, Americans had not yet armed themselves to the teeth with handguns and semi-automatics. The Sunday, March 12 headline of the Telegraph Herald reported that college women were carrying less deadly, but hopefully still effective, weapons – hatpins. Hatpins are long sharp pins with decorated heads, usually used in pairs to anchor a hat to the wearer’s hair. They are generally around eight inches long – their length was limited by law in the US in 1910 because they might be used as weapons by suffragettes.

Dubuque police also suggested that women carry police type whistles with them and blow them loudly if attacked. Other police suggestions included a slash across the throat with a comb or a sharp knee to the groin. Police Chief Percy Lewis commented that many women had called his office saying they’d take care of the guy if they were attacked; police would just have to take him to the hospital. “Many women in Dubuque have taken classes in judo, you know.” He also noted that police had eight unmarked cars patrolling neighborhoods. Fulton School parents were stepping up to the plate – through their “helping hand” project they had placed black paper hands mounted on yellow backgrounds in the front windows of over 100 homes.

On Wednesday, March 15, the attacks took on an even more ominous tone. In the 500 block of W. Locust, the grabber attacked a pregnant woman. He placed a hand over her mouth from behind, said “Shut up, baby,” and pulled her to the sidewalk. They wrestled, she screamed, and he ran away. She described him as short, medium build, dark hair. Her injuries included a cut mouth and bruises on her elbow.

On Thursday, March 16, a 16-year-old girl got off a bus on the 100 block of Algona St. around 6:30 in the evening. As she walked along the sidewalk, she heard footsteps behind her, then felt a hand over her mouth and was thrown to the sidewalk. She struggled free, ran into a house and called police. She later recalled that the man had followed her onto and then off of the bus.

Later that evening, a 20-year-old woman finished folding her clothes at the Mid-Town Laundromat, 464 W. Locust St., shortly after 8:00 p.m. Suddenly she felt a hand over her mouth and was pulled to the floor of the laundromat. She struggled with her attacker, was able to free her mouth and started screaming.

At that moment, a young man entered the laundromat. Jerry Newman, 22, 444 Angela St., had been born without a right hand. From Haywarden, IA, he had been living in Dubuque since December. When he had first looked into the window of the laundromat and seen thrashing on the floor, he thought he saw a man having a seizure. He rushed inside, saw a woman screaming, and immediately recalled the attacks he had been reading about. He dropped his laundry on the floor to distract the attacker, at which point the attacker scrambled for the door. Newman managed to get his arm around the attacker’s neck and the woman hit him from behind, but the man pushed out the door and the three spilled onto the sidewalk outside.

At that point, Newman and the woman shouted for help from passersby, but no one jumped in. The attacker was calling out that he was a UD student looking for a restaurant and that Newman and the woman had attacked him. Meanwhile both Newman and the woman struggled to restrain the attacker. The woman had the presence of mind to try to get the attacker’s wallet so they could identify him in case he escaped. Occupants of a passing car noticed the melee on the sidewalk. Judy Woerdehoff, 2155 Gold St., a student at Dubuque Senior, jumped out of the car, ran to a nearby house, and called the police. Newman later said he couldn’t tell if it took the police three minutes or a half hour to arrive, but he was determined to hold on.

Lee Francis Samek, 19, of Waukon, IA, was arrested at 8:30 that Thursday evening. He was a student of Christian Education at the University of Dubuque. He was released from Dubuque City Jail on Friday, on $3000 bail. On October 12, he was sentenced to 20 days in jail for the attack on the pregnant woman. He testified that after eating and studying at the university, he observed the woman on his way to attend Lenten services at First Presbyterian Church. He waited as the woman bought groceries at a neighborhood store, followed her to near her home, where he attacked her, then left and attended Lenten service. On November 21, Samek was sentenced to 30 days in jail for the attack in the laundromat. Jerry Newman received a recognition plaque from the Dubuque Chamber of Commerce. He had literally captured the Dubuque Grabber singlehandedly.

This article is part of the Shades of Dubuque series, sponsored by Trappist Caskets, hand-made and blessed by the monks at New Melleray Abbey.


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