WATERLOO — The family of a Waterloo toddler who was strangled to death in 1974 said their load is lighter now that the man who killed her has died in prison.
“I’m glad this part of it is over,” said Bill Day, father of 2-year-old of Michelle “Shelly” Day, whose body was found in a crawl space over Russell James Fitz’s bathroom at the Castle Apartments on Commercial Street on June 6, 1974.
Fitz died Sunday at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center at Oakdale after spending more than 44 years in prison. He was 71.
Fitz was serving a life sentence and had been suffering a chronic illness, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections, which confirmed his death Monday. He had been moved to a hospice room over the weekend and died of natural causes at 11:23 p.m. Sunday.
His death came just two days short of the anniversary of the verdict that found him guilty of first-degree murder.
“I’m not rejoicing today. I’ve carried that around on my shoulders for most of my life. It’s God’s work now,” said Rodger Day, Shelly’s older brother. He was 4 years old when she disappeared. “Now he’s got to meet his true judgment.”
“It does relieve some pressure,” said Shelly’s mother, Aileen. She said she would have liked to face Fitz one more time so she could ask him why.
Shelly’s father agrees.
“We still don’t understand all the whys, why a man who is 27 years old would mess with a 2-year-old girl,” Bill Day said.
Shelly and her brother had been playing outside at their babysitter’s, who lived at the Commercial Street apartment building downstairs from Fitz. Aileen Day and the sitter shared some coffee, and they discovered Shelly was missing around 5 p.m. when the mother went to kiss her goodbye before heading to work, according to Courier archives.
The next five or six hours were a whirlwind of searching that included police, cab drivers, CB radio club members, neighborhood children and volunteers.
“All these people that we didn’t know came up out of the woodwork and flooded that area searching for her,” Bill Day said.
There was speculation she tumbled into a window well or that she got too close to the Cedar River, which was behind the apartment building and running high at the time. The father said he doubted the river theory because Shelly was barefoot, and there were burs between the river and the apartment building.
According to Bill Day, his mother had inquired about a third row of windows arranged above the two-story apartment building during the search. The windows led to a space.
Fitz, a construction worker, sat outside drinking beer and watching the search. He told a Courier reporter covering the disappearance he felt bad the girl missing.
“She was really cute,” he told the reporter. “I loved her probably as much as her parents did.”
The 1974 Courier article goes on to say Fitz had joked with the father about abducting the girl. “She’s so cute; I’d like to kidnap her,” the article quotes Fitz as saying. He then went on to tell the reporter he thought someone was trying to kill him by turning on the gas to his stove.
Fitz later walked to a squad car and began talking with police, telling them he though Shelly had a grown-up voice and that she had sat on his lap in the past, according to Courier archives. He told officers he was the last person to see her.
Officers said Fitz allowed them to search his apartment, and he began to leave when investigators took an interest in the crawlspace overhead. They found Shelly’s body with an electrical cord around her neck moments later, and there were signs she had been sexually abused, according to Courier articles from the time. Her diaper was found in Fitz’s dresser. He was detained a few blocks away for public intoxication and then charged with murder.
Fitz was convicted on Halloween 1974 and began serving his life sentence on New Year’s Eve that same year.
The slaying took its toll on the Day family in the years the followed.
Aileen Day said she felt guilty, as if she should have done something different that day. She quit eating and sleeping and lost a lot of weight.
“Bill saved me. He told me to get my (expletive deleted) together or we’d lose Rodger,” she said
Bill Day kept his emotions bottled up and began drinking heavily.
“I had that manly image of men don’t cry,” the father said. He said he and his wife grieved differently.
They moved out of Waterloo in 1984 when the father was laid off from John Deere and found work in Rockford, Ill. People there didn’t know about Shelly. On occasion the Days would hear acquaintances talk about their own daughters who were having graduations or getting married — milestones the Days missed out on.
“It stung a little bit,” Bill Day said.
The two divorced and married other people but reunited after their other spouses died. They now live together as friends.
From what family members can tell, Fitz never admitted to the slaying.
Some 20 years ago, Rodger Day wrote to Fitz asking for an explanation, and Fitz wrote back in a lengthy letter claiming he was innocent and knew who the real killer was. The brother cut off contact with him at that point.
The brother eventually decided not to worry about Fitz. It came a few years ago when he was traveling to Nashville for vacation. His phone rang with what he thought would be news of Fitz’s death, and he pulled over and started to cry.
It turned out just to be a notification Fitz was being moved between different correctional facilities. The expectation of closure and the dashed hopes ruined the vacation, Rodger Day said.
“I said I’m not going to waste my life away waiting for the day he passes away,” the brother decided that day. “It’s not up to me to carry that heavy load around.”
Rodger Day said while he supports the death penalty, he was fine with Fitz lingering behind bars for decades.
“That’s got to be tough. I couldn’t survive in prison, in a cell for how many years? Forty-four years. That’s a long time,” Rodger Day said.
Family members believe Fitz’s death will bring some closure.
“Her death just stared this grieving, but maybe now with Fitz passing we can put this behind us a little bit better,” Bill Day said.
CEDAR FALLS — A skeleton scales the hanging tree that towers above the makeshift cemetery. Leaves cover lumpy graves beneath leaning tombstones. Vampires glare at passersby with bloodthirsty eyes, and the Grim Reaper glides silently over the roof of the house where a giant tombstone spells out R.I.P.
Frankenstein, Jack Skellington, the ghoulish couple from “Beetlejuice,” a Martian from “Mars Attacks” and the rest of a gruesome gang await visitors. A dozen or so fiendish-looking Jack-o-Lanterns line the sidewalk for Fright Night at Steve Citta’s Cedar Falls home.
The vignettes have been up for several weeks, but this afternoon, the retired Waterloo Community Schools band director will be busy setting up an animatronic display in anticipation of tonight’s trick-or-treaters.
When the neighborhood’s porch lights flick on, Citta will be in his front yard, doling out candy to kids brave enough to venture into the yard.
“I don’t wear costumes anymore, but I used to dress up as Alice Cooper for Halloween. I outgrew that when I outgrew my hair,” he says, laughing.
He decorates for the neighborhood — and himself too.
“I’ve loved Halloween since I was a kid. I grew up watching all the majors — Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman — on TV creature features. I built haunted houses in my basement and invited all my friends over to scare them,” Citta recalls, smiling.
About 35 years ago, he began decorating outdoors for Halloween. His first display was Wolfman hidden in a bush. “I made it out of a Lon Chaney-as-Wolfman mask that has long since rotted away. But that got me started, and it just grew from there.”
Now neighborhood kids look forward to seeing what hair-raising decorations Citta has cooked up for each Halloween.
“I really aim for spooky, scary and creepy,” Citta says. “Parents tell me their kids always want to drive by the ‘Halloween house.’ The kids just love it, and I’ve been doing it long enough that some of the parents who come with their kids can remember visiting when they themselves were kids.”
It takes about 2 1/2 weeks to set up the main display, and another few hours on Halloween to get animatronic characters, lights and music ready to go. “When the leaves drop, that’s when I start making the graves and setting up the cemetery. If it gets windy, I have to rake up the graves again,” he says, laughing.
“When I was teaching, the whole thing would take four weeks to set up.”
Citta retired in January after teaching eight years at Bunger Middle School and 20 years at West High School. He continues to judge marching band, concert and jazz band competitions around the region.
The newest addition is a pair of creepy-looking children on a see-saw. “The kids like to see what’s new, and I love to see the kids’ costumes,” he says.
And after the last Captain America and ballerina has gone home to empty their treat bags and count goodies, Citta will work into the night storing his displays and dreaming up fresh horrors for next year.
EVANSDALE — There’s a contest in the race for Evansdale mayor, though only one candidate’s name will appear on the ballot.
City Council member Steve Seible has started a write-in campaign for mayor, challenging two-term incumbent Mayor Doug Faas in the Nov. 7 city election. Seible, a first-term councilman and Evansdale resident of more than 30 years, also served several years on the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission and its elected Park Board. He said he’s running not to attack Faas but to offer voters a choice.
“I’m remaining positive. I don’t want to run the incumbent down,” Seible said. “People want another name. People asked me to run. I’m about progress and economic development.”
While he noted he has been on the short end of some council votes, “I’m really about fiscal responsibility and doing the right thing.”
Seible has held regular town hall meetings the second Monday of each month from 7 to 9 p.m. at City Hall to listen to citizens’ concerns.
Seible, 66, who’s worked in retail 30 years, points to his success in writing grants for new play equipment in Deerwood Park and improvements to Meyers Lake and Angels Park as some of his accomplishments.
“Evansdale has a history of the ‘good old boy’ system, and that isn’t always the right thing,” Seible said.
Seible said the city needs to rejuvenate downtown and has acquired some properties toward that end but added, ‘My slogan is ‘If you fail to plan then you’re planning to fail.’”
He said he would reach out to developers and people in business for input. He also noted the city faces major long-term issues with its sewer plant and in other areas.
Seible began posting campaign signs around town last week. He intended to run but missed a deadline for filing nomination papers and is trying to inform residents how to cast a write-in vote.
Faas, 63, a former council member and Waterloo school board member, was first elected mayor in 2013, unseating incumbent Chad Deutsch.
“I’m the opposite of the ‘good old boy’ network,” Faas said. “I didn’t have anyone whispering in my ear. I’ve made it clear that it doesn’t make any difference what your last name is. If you have something to discuss, come down and talk. Sometimes you’re going to hear ‘no,’ but I will do my best that if there’s anything the city can do to help, we’ll certainly take a look at it.”
Regarding economic development and the downtown properties on Lafayette Road, Faas said, “I initiated the conversation with the owners. There were two properties that were eyesores,” that citizens told him “repeatedly” needed to be addressed. He negotiated a price, the city acquired the properties with council approval. He hopes to bring a developer forward to address their future re-use.
“Our other pressing issue is infrastructure,” Faas said. “I don’t want to say it was neglected; it’s been ignored several years.”
He noted he took the lead on the reconstruction of River Forest Road in the face of some opposition.
“Its a vast improvement,” he said.
Work also was done on Lafayette and Evans roads, two main thoroughfares through the city. Some flood control work also has been initiated.
A major long-term concern is the future of the sewer plant. Faas has been exploring options with Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart as well as the cities of Elk Run Heights and Raymond. Options include connecting with Waterloo, building a shared plant among Evansdale, Elk Run and Raymond and improving the existing plant. State regulatory requirements are adding some “urgency” to the issue, he said.
Faas noted, at the council’s direction he proposed and the council adopted, more stringent nuisance ordinance provisions. Some of the council members started to “backpedal” once they were enforced, Faas said, but he supports fair and uniform enforcement.
Faas also said he has been able to restore the city’s relations with its neighboring communities.