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Cedar Falls Mark murders to be featured on television crime show


CEDAR FALLS — The heartland Cain and Abel story of the Mark murders will be the focus of an upcoming episode of “A Crime to Remember” on the Investigation Discovery channel.

Titled “Black Sheep,” the episode airs at 9 p.m. Saturday and re-enacts the crime and investigation of the Nov. 1, 1975, slayings of Leslie and Jorjean Mark and their two young children in rural Cedar Falls. Leslie’s brother, Jerry Mark, was convicted of the murders and is serving four consecutive life sentences at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison.

'Brother's Blood' explores the local Mark murders, subsequent conviction

The show, known for bringing big-screen production values to the TV screen, also will feature interviews with “Brother’s Blood” author Scott Cawelti and prosecuting attorney Dave Dutton.

Cawelti hopes “it captures the essence of the story. The murders sent shock waves throughout Cedar Falls and Iowa, and it’s still talked about today.”

It was one of the most horrifying murders in Iowa history. Leslie and Jorjean were 25 at the time of their deaths, and their children, Julie and Jeff, were 5 and 21 months respectively.

Courier Page 1 on Mark Murders

The author is impressed the show does considerable in-depth research on a crime before dramatizing it in a screenplay, casting actors, locating a set and filming it like a movie. “I was surprised at how thorough and quite well done the research is,” said the Courier columnist and retired professor emeritus at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Cawelti’s book about the Mark murders was published in 2011, although he’d been

working on it in fits and starts since 1980. Cawelti attended school with  Jerry Mark at Cedar Falls High School and interviewed the convicted killer in prison four years after his conviction.

The TV show’s producer found a copy of “Brother’s Blood” at a New York book story. Cawelti was later contacted and flown to New York City along with Dutton to discuss the murders. Earlier Cawelti sent the show a box of his own research materials.

“My interview lasted about two hours. I’d been sent 30 or 35 questions about the story that had been gathered from the research I sent. I sort of knew what was going to be asked, so I’d prepared myself, and I was ready with some good answers, I think,” he says.


Mark murders photo by Jim Humphries from Courier microfilm.

Dutton’s interview lasted about as long. Questions were asked off-camera, but their responses will factor into the narrative during the episode. “Frankly, I’m a little worried. I have no idea how it came out. It’s such a complex and multilayered story about the horror of family murders and the investigation — really a crime to remember,” Cawelti said.

Jerry Mark was arrested nine days after the murders and was convicted in 1976. He continues to protest his innocence and has exhausted his appeals.

“Brother’s Blood” has been optioned for a big-screen movie by actor/director Michael Mosley, who attended Cedar Falls High School. He plans to star as Jerry Mark in the movie.

Mosley, who attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, has starred in such shows as “The Proposal” and “27 Dresses,” and on TV in “Scrubs,” “Castle” and “Longmire,” among many others.

The project is still evolving, with Mosley purchasing the rights every 18 months. The actor is well-versed in the story and has come to Cedar Falls on three occasions to interview the author.

Cawelti will discuss his book, the movie and Investigation Discovery TV show at 2 p.m. April 8 at the Cedar Falls Public Library. His presentation is part of the ongoing Cedar Falls history series.

Mental health overhaul OK’d

DES MOINES — The Iowa Senate on Wednesday unanimously backed legislation to improve mental health and substance abuse services for Iowans.

Also Wednesday, the House unanimously approved legislation requiring schools to develop emergency plans in the wake of recent school shootings.

The mental health bill now goes to Gov. Kim Reynolds for her expected signature.

The measure, passed on a 49-0 vote, has a broad scope. It builds on Iowa’s community-based regional mental health system and seeks to decrease fragmentation of services to improve care.

“This is a transformative piece of legislation,” said Sen. Mark Chelgren, R-Ottumwa, floor manager of legislation.

The bill establishes six new centers offering short-term assistance in crisis situations as a lower-cost option to psychiatric hospital units often already at capacity.

It also removes the state’s cap on sub-acute beds, expands treatment teams for Iowans with chronic mental illness, improves communication between mental-health professionals and law enforcement, allows providers rather than judges to make mental health care determinations and enhances crisis intervention to de-escalate problems in a proper treatment setting.

The biggest concern raised Wednesday was whether the state will adequately fund the plan. Mental health programs are financed by county property taxes and state and federal Medicaid money.

Independent Sen. David Johnson of Ocheyedan wondered if legislators would “belly up to the bar, so to speak.”

Sen. Matt McCoy, D-Des Moines, said he heard concerns from county supervisors that the Legislature appears to be “walking away” from a 2013 commitment to “backfill” property tax revenue after commercial rates were reduced by 10 percent.

“There’s a great deal in this bill that there is to like,” McCoy said. “... The devil is in the detail of how we’re going to honor our commitment as a state.”

School safety bill

The school safety bill that passed the House 100-0 was already unanimously approved by the Senate. It requires schools to develop secret safety plans for each classroom building no later than June 30, 2019.

It returns to the Senate, where a House-added amendment will be considered.

Plans must include responses to active-shooter situations as well as natural disasters. The bill requires school personnel to conduct at least one emergency drill in each building. The drills could include students.

According to the Iowa Department of Education, 88 percent of Iowa school districts report having security plans, but less than 10 percent are high-quality plans with “walk-through” drills for school staff.

Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has convened her own working group of state department heads to review school safety, called the bill “a good step in the right direction.”

Lawmakers said there have been 13 “copycat” threats in Iowa since the Feb. 14 shooting at a Parkland, Fla., school that left 17 dead.

Despite the unanimous vote, Democrats spent hours criticizing the bill for its lack of oversight, funding and guidance.

They offered a series of amendments, most of which were ruled not germane.

In other action

Also Wednesday:

  • Senators voted 49-0 to direct the state Board of Educational Examiners to require anyone seeking a teaching license to undergo at least one hour of training on suicide awareness and prevention. The requirement would begin in July 2019.
  • The Senate voted 44-5 to approve House File 2383 to lower the standard for alcohol impairment in a private workplace from .04 to .02 blood alcohol content, the accepted federal level for truck drivers.

Employers may require alcohol testing if they have a written policy. Iowa law includes rules for workplace alcohol testing as well as safeguards for the employee, including up to two tests to confirm the original results.

  • Following the House’s lead earlier this week, the Senate voted to take the first step toward giving Iowans an opportunity in the 2020 general election to amend the state Constitution to add protections for gun ownership.
  • The Senate approved a bill to keep the state budget balanced through June 30 and sent it to Reynolds for her expected signature. The de-appropriations measure would cut $25 million in funding to state agencies and repurpose $10 million in gaming revenues earmarked for economic development incentives for the general fund.

Bremer County agrees to pay for deputy personal attorney bill


WAVERLY — Bremer County will foot the bill for the personal attorney of a deputy involved in a fatal shooting in January.

Bremer County Sheriff’s Deputy Glenn Beenblossom was not charged or indicted in the shooting death of Jihad Merrick, who had attempted to run over officers with his car during a Jan. 17 traffic stop near Plainfield, according to the county attorney’s office.

But as Beenblossom was being questioned in the investigation, he retained his own personal lawyer, who charged him $400.

Bremer County Sheriff Dan Pickett presented the bill to the Bremer County Board of Supervisors this week, asking for reimbursement. He noted neither Beenblossom nor any of his deputies were union represented, meaning they didn’t have a union attorney available to them like other law enforcement organizations.

“He came to me and said, “I don’t know, I got a bill from the attorney. I was just doing my job,’” Pickett said.

It’s unprecedented, said Pickett. Since 1984, there’s been no other officer-involved shooting involving his department, let alone a fatal shooting.

The bill amount was reasonable, Pickett thought, as Beenblossom was retaining a lawyer in a situation where he was being questioned.

“I don’t think we want to get into a deal where every time somebody gets into a problem we have to pay an attorney,” Pickett said. “But in this case, when somebody’s doing his job, he shouldn’t be responsible for paying it. If he did something out of line, sure he should.”

A county paying a private lawyer retained by a law enforcement official is neither mandated by law nor illegal. A February 2008 Iowa Supreme Court decision, Richter and Falk-Goss vs. Shelby County, leaves it up to the county’s discretion as to whether to pay private legal bills.

The supervisors unanimously approved paying the bill, Pickett said. He said he also met with a private citizen who came in with $400 cash, noting the community has supported Beenblossom’s actions.

“We’ve never been in this situation before, and hopefully we are never again — but the way things are these days, who knows,” Pickett said.