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Iowa drug kingpin's execution today

IOWA CITY — A ruthless Iowa meth kingpin who killed five people, including two young girls, in 1993 to thwart his prosecution for drug trafficking is set to become the third federal inmate to be executed this week.

Dustin Honken, 52, would become the first defendant in an Iowa case to be put to death since 1963 if he is executed as scheduled Friday. Iowa abolished the death penalty in 1965, but federal prosecutors sought to execute Honken for killing government informants and children.

Honken is set to die by lethal injection at the prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where he’s been on death row since 2005 and two other men have been put to death since Tuesday after a 17-year hiatus in federal executions.

“He does deserve what he’s getting. I can tell you that. He deserved it a long time ago,” said Susan Torres, 54, who plans to attend the execution with other victims’ relatives.

His lawyers sought a last-minute reprieve, but chances of success seem remote after the Supreme Court reversed lower-court orders that sought to block the executions of two other men this week.

Torres, who lives in Des Moines, was Lori Duncan’s sister-in-law before her brother and Duncan split up, and she was an aunt to Duncan’s daughters, 10-year-old Kandi and 6-year-old Amber. Duncan, her new boyfriend, Greg Nicholson, and her daughters were kidnapped and killed by Honken and his girlfriend in 1993, which was seven years before their bodies were found.

Mark Bennett, the federal judge who oversaw Honken’s trial, said he generally opposes the death penalty, but that if anyone deserved to be executed, it was Honken. He said Honken’s crimes were reprehensible and that Honken had a fair legal process, including talented lawyers who “did an outstanding job with virtually nothing to work with.”

“I am not going to lose any sleep if he is executed,” said Bennett, who has since retired from the bench. “Normally I would, but the evidence was so overwhelming.”

Honken grew up in the northern Iowa town of Britt as the bright but devious son of an alcoholic father who was convicted of robbing banks.

Honken was dealing marijuana and cocaine by the early 1990s, and he began cooking meth after studying chemistry at a community college. He and a friend moved to Arizona to produce the drug in the hopes of getting rich, and they distributed their product through two dealers based in Mason City, Iowa.

Nicholson, who was one of the dealers, began cooperating with investigators in 1993 after coming under suspicion. Honken was arrested and indicted for conspiring to manufacture meth after Nicholson secretly recorded Honken and testified before a grand jury.

Honken informed the court that he would plead guilty. But days before his July 1993 plea hearing, he and his girlfriend, Angela Johnson, went searching for Nicholson. They found him at the home where he had moved in Duncan and her daughters.

Duncan didn’t know that Nicholson was an informant and she wasn’t involved in drugs, said Torres, whose daughters were playmates with Duncan’s girls.

“She was a very sweet innocent person that happened to be put in a bad situation,” she told The Associated Press on Wednesday by phone.

According to prosecutors, Johnson posed as a cosmetics saleswoman to get into the house. Honken forced Nicholson, 34, to record a statement declaring Honken innocent of the drug charges.

Nicholson and the Duncans were taken to a remote area, fatally shot and buried. Honken withdrew his guilty plea and gave his lawyer the videotape of Nicholson.

As the investigation into Honken continued, Honken’s other dealer, 32-year-old Terry DeGeus, disappeared months after Nicholson and the Duncans did. Johnson lured DeGeus, whom she dated before Honken, to a property where Honken beat him with a bat and shot him.

Investigators found the bodies of Nicholson and the Duncans in 2000 in a wooded area outside Mason City after Johnson was duped into giving a hand-drawn map showing where they were buried to a jailhouse informant. The adults had been bound and gagged and shot multiple times. The girls had each been shot once in the back of the head. DeGeus’ body was found a few miles away, his skull fractured.

Bennett said the girls were still in their swimsuits when they were kidnapped on the hot summer day. “It’s just horrific how they were massacred,” the judge said.

Honken was convicted of the killings in 2004 in a trial that featured extraordinary security measures, including an anonymous jury. Honken was bolted to the floor of the courtroom and wore a stun belt under his clothing to prevent escape attempts.

The jury recommended that Honken be put to death for the girls’ slayings, and Bennett agreed.

The girls’ father, John Duncan, who had pushed for years to have Honken executed, died in 2018 of stomach cancer.

“He was very sad when he knew he was passing because he wasn’t going to see this happen,” Torres said. “We assured him we would be there.”

Johnson was convicted in a separate trial and sentenced to death. Bennett later reduced her punishment to life behind bars, which she’s currently serving at a federal prison in Minnesota.

Honken did not respond to an interview request sent last year after the government announced its plans to execute him.

Honken has two children — one with Johnson and one with another woman — and was a father figure to a third. He wrote in a 2006 journal that he felt a “great crushing weight of despair” for failing them.

“When those people finally get around to killing me they’ll realize only the shell of me remains, the heart of me died long ago,” he wrote.

breaking featured
Iowan describes the toll COVID-19 took on his family

Here’s how this story ends.

“Everyone is well. We’re all healthy. Obviously, we have changed our life habits, our way of eating, the way we see life, a different view.”

Those comments are from Omar Martinez, who turns 30 in August. He’s an auto body shop worker in Muscatine who lives in the nearby West Liberty, population 3,800.

“So, we have been very supportive to each other. At least three times a week we sit down and talk about our emotions – what are we thinking, what are we feeling? We talk about memories. And I think that’s really helped us get though these last two months as a family together.”

Martinez, who serves on West Liberty’s volunteer fire department, credits his father, Jose Gabriel Martinez, for his family’s togetherness when COVID-19 ripped through the family in April.

“Growing up my dad was, he always taught us family was, like, everything. So, having us close and being respectful to each other, help each other out, that was kind of his way of teaching us what family was all about.”

COVID-19 was surging in the United States when Aurelia Martinez became ill in early April. The mother of Omar, Gabriel, Evelyn and Leslie Martinez, Aurelia was fatigued and lost taste but had no fever. She went into self-isolation and eventually tested positive for the coronavirus.

“Just hearing everything on the news, we obviously knew it was a serious situation. But, as the days went by, we figured mainly East Coast, West Coast. You know: We’re in rural Iowa, by the time it gets here maybe it won’t be as bad. That was my train of thought.”

Aurelia and Jose Gabriel and their children lived in the same house in West Liberty. The family’s main goal: stay out of the hospital. The nearest one was about 20 miles away in Iowa City.

Aurelia never had to leave home. But Evelyn, 22, wasn’t as lucky. She had to go to Mercy Iowa City and soon was put on a respirator.

“When my sister got sick, it was totally, totally a different view. It caught me off guard. ... So, I started doing a lot of research, a lot of reading, and I started reaching out to a lot of people.”

One of every four people in the U.S. dying of COVID-19 is Latinx, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show. The rate in Iowa is lower, at 7%. But one of every four Iowans testing positive for COVID-19 is Latinx, state data show.

What Evelyn Martinez didn’t know while she lay unconscious, fighting for her life, was that her father, Jose Gabriel, became ill with COVID-19 a week after she did.

“I took my dad just because he wasn’t really bad at home, and I didn’t want him to get worse at home and, then, it being too late.”

Omar Martinez kept close track with his father’s nurses. They told him it was his sister that worried them, and his father’s case seemed not as serious.

“She was on a roller-coaster ride. She had good days, she had bad days. Then, she would hit, like, this plateau of just bad days.”

But Jose Gabriel also deteriorated and needed to be put on a ventilator.

“I got to talk to my dad when he was in the hospital, through FaceTime. So, I felt really confident that my dad was going to make it out.”

On April 21, Jose Gabriel’s doctor was happy with his recovery and even talked about extubating him within the next few days. But that night, Jose Gabriel took a turn for the worse.

“The doctor called me back and said he’s having irregular heartbeats. And, what he thinks is that, obviously, the virus doesn’t just attack your lungs. It attacks every organ in your body. And, he thinks that the virus has transferred, somehow, from his lungs to his heart, and it was attacking his heart,” Omar Martinez said.

The doctor called Martinez nearly every hour. At one point it seemed the virus was under control. Then it wasn’t.

“He called me back the next hour and said, ‘Hey, he’s starting to act up a little more.’ … And, then from there, it just kind of escalated. And, you know, that last phone call they pretty much said, you know, if he makes it through the night it’s going to be a miracle, but we don’t really see him making it through the night tonight.”

At the age of 58, Jose Gabriel Martinez died.

“I kind of sat down and I thought about it, and I was, like, how’s that even possible? How, if he was just doing fine and everything was going great, everything seemed, like, perfect, like the perfect recovery? And, it was hard for me to process. And I think, even after he passed, it took me almost a month to actually process the whole passing of my dad.”

Evelyn Martinez, mother of a 2-year-old girl, still was unconscious on a respirator. She didn’t even know her father was sick.

“So, after she came off the ventilator, I waited about a week. I waited about a week to prepare myself mentally and emotionally on how to tell her. And, you know, the doctor helped me out. He walked in with me and he backed me up. And, he was the one that explained to her how he (Jose Gabriel) passed and what happened. ...

“She was, like, shocked, and she couldn’t believe it because the last thing she remembered was seeing Dad when we dropped her off at the hospital.”

The surviving Martinezes quarantined until mid-May. No other family members in the house became sick. Aurelia and Evelyn are back at work.

People who have heard the Martinezes’ story have contacted Omar, asking his advice for handling COVID-19 in their families. He says he’s glad to talk with them.

“The thing that really gets to me is when people say it’s a hoax. It’s not a hoax. You know, this is real. And a lot of people wait until it’s too late. ...

“It’s not easy. But, at that point, I guess I think love takes over you and you just gotta do what you gotta do for the people you love.

“And that’s what I did. I really fought for them.”

The Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch is a nonprofit, online news website that collaborates with news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.

AP breaking top story
White House Task Force: Half of Iowa needs masks

DES MOINES — Face masks should be required in public for everyone in 47 Iowa counties according to a White House Coronavirus Task Force document that was prepared but never published.

It also advises bars and gyms should be closed and social gatherings limited to 10 people or fewer in five counties where the virus is spreading fastest.

The document was first reported Thursday by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit newsroom based in Washington, D.C.

The news Thursday came as Iowa for the second time in a week set a new record for the number of coronavirus cases in a 24-hour span — 830 — according to the Iowa Department of Public Health.

According to the White House Task Force document, Sioux, Osceola, Webster, Franklin, and Clarke counties are in what the task force calls the “red zone,” which means new cases in those counties have risen above 100 per 100,000 population and positive test results are above 10%.

In “red zone” areas, the task force recommends bars and gyms be closed and social gatherings limited to 10 people or fewer, while all businesses require masks and practice social distancing.

The task force also recommends for “red zone” areas that individuals use takeout or eat outdoors when dining out, and reduce public interactions and activities to 25% of normal.

The task force document lists 42 counties in the “yellow zone,” with new cases between 10 and 100 per 100,000 population, and positive test results between 5% and 10%. The top 12 counties on the list: Polk, Johnson, Black Hawk, Scott, Dubuque, Story, Dallas, Woodbury, Pottawattamie, Cerro Gordo, Plymouth, and Marshall counties.

It was not clear how the task force arrived at its conclusions. The report said it used data provided by the counties — not the state.

In “yellow zones” the task force recommends limiting gyms to 25% capacity and closing bars until the positive test rate is under 3%, limiting social gatherings to 25 or fewer, and reducing public interactions and activities to 50% of normal.

In both red and yellow zones, the task force recommends requiring people wear face coverings at all times and social distancing while in public.

Gov. Kim Reynolds has recommended Iowans wear masks in public, but has not required it and has not permitted local governments to create their own mask requirements. Iowa bars and gyms statewide are allowed to be open at full capacity with social distancing measures put in place, and there is no limit on social gatherings.

State officials did not respond Thursday when asked if they are considering the stricter rules recommended in the document.

During an interview Wednesday on WHO-AM radio, Reynolds said she does not plan to issue a mask requirement.

“No, I’m not going to mandate masks. I trust Iowans. I believe in Iowans,” Reynolds said. “There’s no way to enforce it. Most of the states or entities that have done that, they’ve actually gone as far as to say we’re not going to enforce it, so it’s just kind of a feel-good.”

Iowa’s positive test rate for Wednesday was 6.9%, according to state public health data.

On Thursday, the IDPH reported 830 new cases in the 24-hour period from 11 a.m. Wednesday to 11 a.m. Thursday. That surpassed the previous one-day high of 769 newly reported cases established Saturday.

Before that, the previous high-water mark was 757 reported cases May 2.

Black Hawk County on Thursday reported 22 news cases for a total of 3,204, and one new death, for a total of 60.

The 830 new cases were not necessarily confirmed in that 24-hour span, just reported by the state in that window. Those cases likely were confirmed by local officials over a span of multiple days before being reported to the state.

Also, 18 new virus-related deaths were reported Thursday by the state public health department. That is the largest one-day total since June 2.

The 18 deaths also did not necessarily occur in the past 24 hours.

Overall, the average of new cases continues to trend upward to a second peak, nearly matching the previous peak in early May.

The rolling average of new deaths also has been slowly increasing over the past three weeks, as has the number of Iowans hospitalized with the virus.

Rod Boshart of the Cedar Rapids Gazette contributed.

breaking top story
Waterloo Schools release updated return-to-learn plan

WATERLOO — The Waterloo Community School District sent an updated return-to-learn plan to families Thursday afternoon.

The district is planning to begin in-person instruction the week of Aug. 24, but it may involve a staggered start for various grade levels throughout the first week. High schools may use a combination of in-person and remote learning. Exact start dates for each grade level will be announced in August.

Every student will automatically be enrolled for in-person instruction, but families can opt for virtual instruction by completing an application in August. The statement noted virtual learning is not the recommended method for the district.

“We know many families are ready for their child(ren) to return to our buildings for in-person instruction for the educational and social benefits. However, some families do not feel comfortable with their child(ren) returning for in-person instruction at this time,” the statement said.

The district will implement the following health and safety standards with more updates to come:

  • Face masks and/or shields will be required for staff and students.
  • Plastic desk shields will be used as an additional protective measure, especially for younger learners.
  • Social distancing as much as feasibly possible.
  • Increased cleaning and sanitation procedures.
  • Ventilation system modifications to improve air quality.

Some meals will be eaten in classrooms, hand washing, altered arrival/dismissal

  • procedures, staggered bell schedules.
  • Daily screenings and temperature checks to help ensure staff stay healthy and safe. The district will provide each staff member with protective gear.

Families who are able to transport their own students will be asked to do so temporarily, but busing will still be provided for eligible students as needed. Masks and other safety procedures will be required.

Modifications are being considered, but specific guidelines are still being finalized. More updates will be coming in early August.