Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016, was a dreary day in Iowa. Cloudy and rainy. That was appropriate. The weather matched the mood of law-abiding Iowans who were filled with shock and sadness after learning that two police officers, one from Des Moines and one from Urbandale, had been shot to death overnight in their squad cars.
The shock and sadness I felt that day reminded me of similar feelings I experienced in the summer of 1958 when a Davenport police detective was shot and killed in his squad car.
I was only 9 at the time, but to this day I remember many of the details. Some research of news accounts has provided more information.
It happened Wednesday, July 16, 1958. Witnesses said Marilyn Sullivan, 27, of Cedar Rapids, an organist at the Fort Armstrong Hotel’s cocktail lounge in Rock Island, had been forced into a car as she left the hotel. Police broadcast word of Sullivan’s abduction shortly after 2 a.m.
Davenport Patrolman Ernest Lester later spotted a car on West Locust Street that answered the description of the one being sought. He gave chase, stopped the motorist for questioning and returned to his squad car to radio for help.
The motorist, Laverne Lewis Zaehringer, 29, Davenport, then got out of his car and walked to the squad car.
As Lester sat in the front seat and reached for the microphone, Zaehringer slammed the door shut on Lester’s left leg and reached through the open car window.
Zaehringer began to choke Lester and, Lester said later, told the officer to “call the others off or I’ll cut you to pieces.”
Zaehringer grappled with the officer, then grabbed Lester’s pistol and fired a shot. But as he fired, the patrolman dropped to the seat, and the bullet struck the car door just above Lester’s head.
In the meantime, Lester had spotted another patrol car a block away and had turned on his siren to pinpoint his location. Lester said he was reaching for a shotgun when he heard two quick shots ring out.
As Detective William H. Jurgens, 47, a 17-year police veteran, drove up to assist Lester, two bullets Zaehringer had fired went through the windshield of Jurgen’s car. Both bullets hit Jurgens in the head, killing him outright.
As Zaehringer attempted to leave, two other patrolmen, Arthur Gatton and Carl Prevatril, arrived and took him to custody. Gatton said Zaehringer told him he didn’t know why he had fired the shots.
Sullivan, who was in the front seat of Zaehringer’s car, was in a state of shock after the ordeal but was otherwise unhurt. She later said she had been forced into Zaehringer’s car at knifepoint.
In October of 1958, District Judge M.L. Sutton sentenced Zaehringer to life imprisonment at hard labor on a charge of first-degree murder and 30 years on a count of assault with intent to commit murder.
July 16, 1958, was a sad day. And Nov. 2, 2016, was a sad day.
But police officers put their lives on the line every day, with no guarantee they’ll come home at night. Please pray for them, their families and their friends.
Copyright 2017 by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises, Walcott, Iowa. It appeared as a column in November 2016 in the North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.