Danielle Duggan: Investigating a mystery in Campustown
By: Danielle Duggan/The Tribune
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As the police and courts reporter for The Tribune, I have come to accept the fact that there is no such thing as a "typical" day at work. I never know what will happen when I walk through those doors or who will be on the other end of the phone when I pick it up. So, I didn't bat an eye when I got a message last week from a man with a thick New York accent.
"Hello, Ms. Duggan, this is Kevin Gannon with the NYPD, could you give me a call back at ..."
No problem, I thought, but at the time I was on deadline, so the phone call was going to have to wait. I'd call him back after our 11:30 a.m. meeting.
It was shortly before 11 a.m. when I got a call from Dr. Lee Gilbertson, of Saint Cloud State University, telling me he was in town and wondering if it would be OK to meet at his hotel in Ames, even though he wasn't quite sure which one it was.
Sure, I'd love to meet him, and I left right after we figured out he was staying at the Grandstay Hotel by the Old Chicago Restaurant.
Gilbertson is an expert in the field of spatial analysis applications in criminal justice. I had contacted him about some research he was doing with two of his graduate students regarding the mysterious drowning deaths of college men throughout the Midwest and a possible connection to a serial killer.
I was working on an article about Abel Bolanos, an Iowa State University student who drowned March 31 in Lake LaVerne. His death was ruled an accidental drowning and foul play wasn't suspected, but I was wondering if he fit the profile of the other victims Gilbertson had researched.
Since May of 2006, along with his graduate students, Gilbertson had collected and analyzed data from more than 60 drowning deaths from Wisconsin to New York.
According to him, the victims have been characteristically light-skinned men in their early 20s, 5-feet, 8-inches tall with an athletic or good build, weighing an average of 165 pounds with brown hair and brown eyes. No victims were women.
This fit the description of Bolanos, and Gilbertson came to town with his "crew," including Adam Carlson, an undergraduate academic adviser and graduate student they called "Jimmy Neutron, Boy Genius," and two retired New York Police Department detectives, Kevin Gannon and Anthony "Tony" Duarte.
There in the parking lot was the "ah ha" moment and the awkward "I was just about to call you back..." conversation I had when I met Gannon.
"No problem," he insisted.
The crew just wanted to know if I would show them around Ames, particularly everywhere Bolanos had been the night he went missing in March.
"Of course," I said.
Even though I am nine-months pregnant and it was a warm Iowa day at the end of May, I volunteered to walk them around starting from the site of the party he was at on North Hyland Avenue to his dorm room a mile away to where he was found in Lake LaVerne.
Gilbertson rode with me as we headed toward the campus to start our journey. The others rode in a rented minivan they had brought from Minnesota the day before to collect and analyze data at the scene of another Iowa drowning - that of Grinnell College student Paul Schuman Moore.
After we illegally parked in a nearby apartment complex, Neutron got out a duffle bag with a video camera, digital camera, GPS navigation equipment and a notebook from the van. Gilbertson told me he had gotten the video camera when he was in graduate school and wanted to know if I would mind getting taped while we walked around, which was no problem to me.
Gilbertson, Gannon, Neutron and I were going to walk the route while Duarte followed in the van. A couple of weeks prior, Duarte was injured in a head-on collision in New York and had to use a cane, which would make the more than 3-mile walk difficult.
We went to the first stop and stood across the street from 208 North Hyland Ave. where a highly intoxicated Bolanos was reportedly last seen leaving a party at 4 a.m.
Neutron taped while Gilbertson and I watched Gannon start knocking on doors to see if anyone knew anything about what had happened that night. With ISU letting out a couple of weeks ago, there wasn't much going on, and I didn't know if he would run into anyone at all.
So we waited outside chit-chatting about Monty's Barber Shop and Gilbertson's time in the military while Duarte waited in the van. Ten minutes later, Gannon resurfaced and wrote down the name of a boy he met inside who wasn't there the night Bolanos went missing and didn't know anything about what had happened but was listening to some "great music."
We moved south on Hyland Avenue, and I gave them little tidbits of knowledge I had learned from an 83-year-old woman I interviewed the week before who had lived on Hyland her entire life. Duarte slowly followed in the van.
Even though we could only speculate the specific route Bolanos took, we headed toward Bolanos' dorm room at the Wallace-Wilson complex area and stopped at the intersection of Knapp Street and Hayward Avenue.
It was at an undisclosed location on Hayward Avenue where university police reported an anonymous man found Bolanos' credit and debit cards and then turned them into a local Ames bank on Monday, April 2. Neutron taped me standing at the intersection explaining this. Gilbertson took photos and GPS coordinates while Gannon went back to the van to see how Duarte was doing.
According to Gilbertson, personal items like wallets, cell phones and keys, were often not found on the bodies of the drowning victims but in other areas of the community.
As a side note, Neutron continued to tape me while I told the crew about Jacob Hobson, an ISU student who university police said died sometime after 1:45 a.m. July 21, 2005, as a result of blunt-force trauma to the head and drowning in College Creek, which runs under Hayward Avenue. Hobson's death has been ruled an accidental drowning, and no foul play was suspected at the time.
Gilbertson and Gannon were intrigued by this and walked down to College Creek while Neutron and I stood on the sidewalk watching some city of Ames employees eat their lunch and Duarte waited in the van.
"Keep in mind that this process is a lot like rounding up a bunch of cats," Neutron said. "This may take a while."
By the time they resurfaced 20 minutes later, the city employees had finished their lunch and were back at work while Neutron and I were sweating and talking about the lighter aspects of the police and courts beat, like an entry in a recent blotter ending up on the David Letterman Show and the llama that was reported in the middle of Ontario Street the week before.
I didn't think to ask Gilbertson or Gannon what had taken so long and was just happy to be moving onto the dorms when Duarte started yelling from the van.
Frantically, Duarte said the National Weather Service had just reported a storm was headed northeast of Nevada with large hail and the possibility of tornados.
No need to worry, I told them, Nevada was east of Ames. They were still worried, though, because apparently New York doesn't get as many tornados as the Midwest does. But I kept reassuring them because at this point we had only walked approximately a mile in an hour and a half and I was still nine-months pregnant and sweating.
When we finally made it to Bolanos' dorm, they asked if I knew which window was Bolanos', and I said I hadn't thought to ask. So we just stood in the lawn while Neutron taped the building and Gilbertson took more photos and GPS coordinates.
A half an hour later, it was on to Lake LaVerne. Because Duarte is Catholic, he decided to park in the St. Thomas Aquinas Church parking lot, and we all walked over to the south section of the lake where university police and divers recovered Bolanos' body.
We walked around the lake while I told the crew about the number of reports the Ames Police Department received the morning Bolanos went missing about geese in the middle of the road. This time, Duarte walked with us while Neutron taped me, and Gilbertson took more photos and GPS coordinates.
Gannon then saw a tunnel in the spillway next to the lake and asked me where it went. I said I didn't know. I didn't even know it was there until he pointed it out. Before I knew it, he was sitting on the ground taking off his shoes and socks then heading into the tunnel with Neutron and his video camera right behind him.
Gilbertson, Duarte and I sat there to Gannon and Neutron mumble to each other in the tunnel.
Ten minutes later, they came out and were happy to report they didn't find any hypodermic needles but asked if someone wouldn't mind walking back to the van to get Neutron's red backpack. They needed headlamps and another battery for the camera.
So while Gilbertson and Duarte slowly walked back to the van, Neutron, Gannon and I sat in the grass watching potential ISU students with their parents walk around the lake pointing at the Memorial Union and feeding the geese.
When Gilbertson returned with their supplies, Neutron and Gannon headed back into the tunnel.
Throughout the entire process, I didn't ask the crew very many questions because, as I said, I have come to accept the fact that nothing at work will ever be "typical." But after they had been in the tunnel for another half an hour, I had to ask Gilbertson what they were doing.
According to Gilbertson, who also is an expert in gang activity, two unusual marks or "tags" have been found near the scene where a number of the drowning victims were found.
"Do you think they found it in the tunnel?" I asked.
"I don't think they would be in there this long if they didn't," Gilbertson said.
Gilbertson doesn't claim there is a serial killer drowning college students around the country. Along with his graduate students, he attempts to remain as scientifically objective as possible by not letting his judgment be influenced by empathy for victims and sympathy for their families. He tries not to get caught up in the mass hysteria of an urban legend. He does point out, however, that several cases exist wherein sufficient evidence suggests beyond a preponderance of the evidence that something was not right and that they could possibly be linked.
No one knows for sure whether Abel Bolanos was the victim of a serial killer. More answers may come in September when Gilbertson said he hopes to hold a press conference releasing all the information from his research.
Danielle Duggan can be reached at 232-2161, Ext. 342 or email@example.com
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