Lisa Peak – Julie Benning – Valerie Klossowsky is a guest post written for DCC by Jody Ewing, the blogger behind Iowa Cold Cases.
I was contacted a while ago by a reader, Tom, who alerted me to Lisa’s case.
After an Internet search, Jody and I decided to work on this together and see if we could get any updates.
Needless to say, Jody is a phenominal blogger, writer, and dear friend. This is the Case of the Month for November 2014.
The Waverly Three by Jody Ewing
Valerie Klossowsky. Julie Benning. Lisa Peak. Seldom is one name spoken without the two others following closely behind, and seldom has there been so many unanswered questions as to whether or not the three young women’s unsolved murders might be connected.
They all lived in the same northeast Iowa town of Waverly in Bremer County, Iowa, and their deaths had many similarities. They didn’t hang out together, but likely knew some of the same individuals.
All three flourished in creativity—everything from painting and music to clothing design and writing news reports, short stories and lyrics—and carried those gifts, one by one, to each of their graves.
Valerie Lynn Klossowsky, just 14 years old, was the first.
On Sunday, June 13, 1971, Valerie and her friend, LuAnn Hicks, had a noon picnic together in a Waverly park. They spent the afternoon strolling around town before going their separate ways, and Valerie returned to her 217 Fifth Street N.W. home where she lived with her father, Harold R. Klossowsky, her older sister Denise, 16, younger sister Michele, 12, and the girls’ paternal widowed grandmother, Mrs. Clarence (Mae) Klossowsky.
Early that evening, Valerie’s friend, Cindy Newgren of rural Waverly, stopped by the two-story white frame house to see if Valerie wanted to go to the city swimming pool, located a half-mile away. As they left, Mrs. Klossowsky told her granddaughter to be home by 9 p.m.
Valerie never came home. Her father reported her missing at 10 p.m. that night.
On Tuesday morning, two boys discovered Valerie’s nearly nude body on a creek bank under a bridge three miles west of Denver, Iowa, about 10 miles southeast of Waverly. Her only remaining garments—her upper clothing—had been pulled up around her shoulders.
Valerie had been strangled with such force it fractured her larynx.
Another Teen Goes Missing, Later Found Dead
Four years later, 18-year-old Julia “Julie” Ann Benning vanished without a trace from Waverly the day after Thanksgiving on November 28, 1975.
The eldest of five sisters, Julie had just graduated from Plainfield High School in the spring. Her creativity was reflected in every part of her life, and she showed promise in a number of artistic fields.
She painted landscapes and portraits, designed and sewed her own dresses, and, after devouring Nancy Drew mysteries over the years, already had begun writing her own stories with an eye toward investigative journalism.
The daughter of Lowell and JoAnn Benning, Julie grew up on a farm near Plainfield with sisters Lori, Kelly, Carol, and Linda, and while still pondering her career path, had taken a job waitressing at the Sir Lounge to start building a nest egg should college be part of those plans. She’d recently begun staying in Waverly with her grandmother, Mrs. Emil (Frieda) Benning, so she didn’t have to travel as far to work.
She reportedly was last seen alive on Bremer Street in Waverly walking to work, and though some reports indicated she was seen getting into a car there, authorities said they never substantiated that report.
On March 18, 1976, nearly four months after she went missing, a Butler County road maintenance worker discovered Julie’s nude and decomposed body in a roadside ditch along a quiet country road one mile north of Shell Rock, Iowa, less than a mile from the Bremer County line.
None of Julie’s clothing could be found at the scene.
In a news release dated Friday, March 19, 1976, the Butler and Bremer County sheriff’s offices, the Iowa State Patrol and the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation said the autopsy performed on Julie at Allen Memorial Hospital in Waterloo was “inconclusive.”
However, on Monday, April 12, 1976, Butler County Attorney Gene Shepard released a statement saying, “The autopsy report on the body of Julia Ann Benning established that her death was due to homicidal violence, caused by injury to the throat area.”
She, like Valerie, had been strangled.
Wartburg College Student Slain
Just over five months later, the nude body of 19-year-old Wartburg College student Marie “Lisa” Peak was found in a ditch a quarter-mile north of Waverly’s city limits – a mere six miles from where Julie Benning’s body had been dumped.
Lisa’s body was discovered around 11 a.m. on Tuesday, September 7, 1976—the day after Labor Day—under a lone cottonwood tree beside a gravel road near the John Anhalt farm. Lisa, like Julie, had four siblings: Peter, Marty, Meredith, and Carmen.
The daughter of Knoxville veterinarian and former city councilman Dr. Frank Peak and wife Mary, Lisa was majoring in journalism at Wartburg and had only returned to the campus two days earlier on Sunday, September 5. She was last seen Monday afternoon, September 6, wearing a pink blouse and jeans, walking to a strip mall near the college campus to pick up last minute school supplies before classes convened for her sophomore year.
According to autopsy findings, Lisa had been sexually assaulted and died of strangulation and a broken neck. Officials searched the area, but like with Julie, the killer had left none of the teen’s clothing behind. Investigators questioned more than 200 Wartburg College students in the case.
Earlier that year, Lisa had provided information to authorities regarding a sex and extortion scheme carried out by 40-year-old John Joseph Carmody Jr. of Mason City, Iowa, and had planned to write a book about it. The used car salesman had blackmailed more than a dozen women into having sex with him and threatened mafia retaliation—and harm to their loved ones—if they refused. Carmody pled guilty to rape and extortion in May 1976 and was sentenced to 40 years at the Fort Madison State Penitentiary.
Public speculation grew that Carmody may somehow have been involved with Lisa’s death, but what about the other two young women? Neither Valerie Klossowsky nor Julie Benning knew Carmody. Was it possible the same person committed all three murders, or were the connections limited to the Benning/Peak cases?
As early as September 7, 1976, Bremer County Attorney Paul W. Riffel acknowledged there were “striking similarities” in the Benning/Peak murders.
Consult FBI Criminologists
On Friday, September 10, 1976, Riffel announced that Bremer County authorities were consulting FBI criminologists to determine if the same person murdered Julie Benning and Lisa Peak. The county attorney said the evidence and data collected in both homicides had been taken to Washington, D.C., for examination by the FBI.
The objective, Riffel said, was to come up with a psychological criminal profile of the person or persons who may have committed the crimes.
As the one-year anniversary of Julie Benning’s murder approached, the Des Moines Register reported that authorities were convinced Julie and Lisa “were killed by the same person,” and said local authorities were taking some extra precautions during Thanksgiving week due to the “holiday killer” characteristic – one of several profiles the FBI had developed of the Waverly Slayer.
“The people here seem to be well aware of the holiday connection … no one knows for sure,” Riffel said of the Thanksgiving and Labor Day killings.
In the same story, Riffel said investigators had all but ruled out any connection between the sex scheme and Lisa Peak’s murder, and believed the killer lured both Julie and Lisa without force.
Lisa’s sister, Meredith Van Benthuysen, told Iowa Cold Cases in October 2014 that her family believes Lisa knew her murderer and voluntarily got into a vehicle with him, and that when Lisa walked to the strip mall wearing a pink shirt and jeans, she would have been noticed by someone.
“We believe that someone had to have seen what happened. She couldn’t have gone to the store, made purchases and headed back to school without anyone other than the clerk seeing her,” Meredith said. “There had to have been someone around outside who saw her get in a car or something. The lack of witnesses would support that she was not ‘abducted’ from the street.”
Killing by strangulation, Meredith acknowledged, also implies a level of familiarity between her and her murderer. “It is highly unlikely that she was murdered by a stranger or a hired assassin,” she said.
Lisa’s Body Exhumed
More than 30 years after Lisa Peak’s murder, officials disinterred her remains on Friday, May 7, 2010, and sent them to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Ankeny for re-examination in “an attempt to discover additional evidence for further examination and possible comparison,” Bremer County Attorney Kasey Wadding said in a press release.
The planned re-examination, Wadding said, was the latest step in an ongoing investigation that involved the Bremer County Sheriff’s Office, the Waverly Police Department, and the State Medical Examiner’s Office.
“The Marie Lisa Peak case has always been an open … investigation,” Wadding said. “It’s never been closed, of course.”
On July 22, 2010, media reported on the disappointing findings: the detectives who’d hoped to find DNA evidence said Lisa’s coffin was too broken down, her body too deteriorated to preserve her killer’s DNA.
Investigators said they weren’t giving up and still had hope they could find the killer.
Lisa’s sister reiterated that sentiment, and said the findings from the exhumation hadn’t changed her family’s views on the case.
“We believe there is always hope. Last year, we mourned the loss of our father, Frank, and I know that he had hoped for a resolution before his passing,” Meredith said. “We are still waiting for some kind of closure. We have always believed that someone had to have witnessed something the day [Lisa] disappeared and hope that they will come forward.”
Meredith said the family believes her sister’s killer is still alive and that there is still the possibility of a confession. And, although John Carmody was the perpetrator in Lisa’s rape and confinement a year before her murder, Meredith said the family tends to agree with most law enforcement officials that another individual, unrelated to Carmody, is responsible for her sister’s murder and that of Julie Benning. Lisa’s confinement and eventual escape was highly publicized in Iowa, she said, and the person who murdered her may have become obsessed with her as a “victim.”
After Carmody’s release from prison in 2001, he spent time in a civil commitment center for sex offenders in Cherokee, but was released from the facility in 2009. Classified as a lifetime sex offender, Carmody, now 75, must verify his current address every three months. He last reported to the Llano County Sheriff’s Office in Texas on September 10, 2014, where he provided a Kingsland, Texas, residence.
“Now is the time to come forward”
Meredith van Benthuysen said that becoming “graphically” aware of the randomness and harshness of the world as a child will certainly prepare a person to expect the unexpected.
The Peaks certainly got their share. Two months after Lisa’s death, her sister Carmen died after being thrown from a horse. Shortly after her death, the Peaks’ home caught fire.
“We collectively tend to prepare for the worst and still hope to be pleasantly surprised with anything better,” she told Iowa Cold Cases.
And, though Lisa died at only 19, she’d already lived a “remarkable and impactful life,” Meredith said.
“In addition to being talented and adventurous, she had a contagiously outgoing personality and had even saved three different people’s lives – two near-drownings and one attempted suicide,” said Meredith. “One of our mother Mary’s favorite memories of her, though, is of her return to Iowa after being an exchange student in Brazil. On the way home she stuck her head out the car window and yelled, ‘Hey Knoxville, I’m back!’ Her friends often recollect to us memories of her and remember her fondly. She had a strong personality and a determined will to live gloriously!”
Valerie Klossowsky’s grandmother, Mae, held strong for years to memories of a granddaughter who had a natural talent for music. Valerie had not only been a gifted guitarist, pianist and singer, but wrote many songs herself and also wrote poetry.
Thirty-five years after her granddaughter’s death, Mae (Mrs. Clarence) Klossowsky died two days before Christmas in 2006 at age 100.
Julie Benning’s sister, Carol Kean, described Julie as “bright, beautiful, spunky and ambitious, and always eager to get out and meet people and make things happen.”
While waiting for answers in her sister’s unsolved murder, Carol has channeled her energies into raising a family and writing, becoming one of the most sought-after “critiquers” on the Internet Writing Workshop. A February 15, 2013 blog post on Carol’s web site leads with a photo of the five young Benning sisters.
The three young Waverly women’s unsolved murders have not gone without valuable lessons learned.
“While we were raised with an unusual ‘awareness’ of danger, we were not taught to have fear,” said Meredith van Benthuysen. “Our parents empowered us to take risks, pursue dreams and challenge ourselves. We were never told to hide but to be transparent and to face reality. They taught us the value of being tenacious, loyal and grateful for the time we are given.
If Lisa’s murderer were to read this, I’d want him to know that he has only made us stronger and smarter. We live our lives well and appreciate what we have. While the ordeal of her murder impacts us, knowing that her murderer is still out there does not control us and certainly does not intimidate us.”
She closed with a plea to the killer or killers.
“As a family, we hope that Lisa’s murderer will contact us, law enforcement or any private investigator or reporter with more information and a confession,” Meredith said. “We believe that he would probably like us to know more about him and his motivations and we encourage that communication. Whether her murderer is seeking public notoriety or a private purging of guilt, now is the time to come forward.”
Anyone with any information regarding the unsolved murders of Valerie Klossowsky, Julie Benning or Lisa Peak is encouraged to contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation’s Special Agent in Charge Michael Motsinger at (515) 725-0030, or contact FBI Special Agent Jon Moeller at (712) 258-1920.
In the series “Case of the Month” I highlight old cold cases. These posts are not an in-depth analysis and of course, in some cases more information can be found online and in newspaper archives. The goal of these posts is to get the cases back in the spotlights, to get people talking again, and if anything to make sure that we do not forget the victims. Just because their cases are cold does not mean that we can forget about them.
If you have any thoughts about these cases I encourage you to post them on your own social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, etc. or in this case, on Jody’s Blog Iowa Cold Cases.
Every time we mention the names Lisa Peak, Julie Benning, and Valerie Klossowsky online we enhance their digital footprints.
We must make sure that they retains their web presence if we ever wish to find answers in these cases. You can help by linking to or sharing this post.
Thank you for helping Jody and I help Valerie, Julie, and Lisa.
Meredith (Peak) van Benthuysen
FBI Special Agent Jon Moeller
Iowa DCI Special Agent in Charge Michael Motsinger
The Des Moines Register, June 17, 1971
The Des Moines Register, Sept. 8, 1976
The Cedar Rapids Gazette, Sept. 9, 1976
The Des Moines Register, Sept. 11, 1976
The Des Moines Register, Nov. 24, 1976
Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier, May 8, 2010
KGAN CBS 2, July 22, 2010
Texas Department of Public Safety Sex Offender Registry, September 10, 2014