This is the second of a two-part report on the investigation into the death of Ronald Butler in 1977.
WATERLOO | When Officer Jeff Duggan received the 1977 Ronald Butler homicide case in 2002, he didn’t think he’d make much progress.
“When I first got it, I did feel that the chances for solving it were probably pretty slim, because it had been well investigated back in ’77,” Duggan said.
Butler, a 23-year-old University of Northern Iowa student, had been found dead in a locked bathroom in the Sumner Street home he shared with his mother Oct. 18, 1977. After ruling out some 400 people, police began to focus on John Brannan, a 15-year-old who moved to Missouri after the slaying and had never been questioned. He died in 2006 and was never arrested or charged in Butler's death.
Duggan noticed throughout the police reports Brannan’s name had different spellings. It appeared as Brannon, Brennan and other variations.
“I started playing with the spelling of the name ‘John Brannan,’ our suspect,” Duggan said.
Checking the different possible spellings, Duggan discovered a John Dewey Brannan. He also learned Brannan had been arrested for intoxicated driving in November 1991 in Burlington, Kan., and he asked the FBI to compare fingerprints from the Kansas arrest to prints on a pornographic magazine found at the murder scene.
In January 2003, the FBI lab determined one latent print from a magazine page was identified as Brannan’s. Kansas Bureau of Investigation agents determined Brannan was living in Melvern, Kan., and Duggan made arrangements with KBI officers to pay Brannan a visit.
It would be the first time police had ever interviewed Brannan about Ronald Butler’s death. They showed up unannounced on May 15, 2003.
“I’ll never forget it. It was like the breath came out of him. He just lost his breath, and you could tell that he knew. … Twenty-six years later these law enforcement officials show up at your doorstep, and it was something he probably never ever thought would happen,” Duggan said.
Brannan, who was in a wheelchair from a 1992 accident where he fell from a balcony and broke his neck, began breathing heavy and handed them a card explaining he had a medical issue. He then excused himself to get a glass of water from the kitchen. They went to a police station in Ottawa, Kan., to talk.
Brannan said he had lived in Waterloo for about one or two months because of a job his father found. Duggan didn’t tell him about the fingerprint, and when Duggan showed him photos of the Sumner Street house and Butler, Brannan said he had never been to the house and didn’t know Butler.
“As questioning continued and it started to become more intense, he asked for an attorney, which at that time ended that interview,” Duggan said. Police searched his house and seized photos of Brannan from the 1980s and 1990s and took a fresh set of fingerprints.
Waterloo police talked to Brannan’s ex-wife about a month later. They had been married from 1981 to 1991, and she told police Brannan had once told her about an incident involving a stabbing.
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She also said Brannan had called her a few weeks earlier --- apparently after his police visit --- and again recounted the Iowa incident to her. He told her they had been smoking pot, and the man got undressed. Brannan said he told the man “no” and started to walk out, but the man grabbed him from behind and he stabbed him.
A few months later, in November 2003, employees at a water treatment plant about half a mile from Brannan’s Kansas home noticed a plastic bag wedged under rocks. They looked inside and found a collection of photocopies of Courier newspaper articles about the Butler homicide. There was also an invoice in the bag for the copies that showed they were sent to a man who turned out to be a friend of Brannan.
The friend told investigators Brannan told him about being questioned by police in May, and the friend was curious so he requested the newspaper clippings. He said Brannan had looked over the articles and returned them, but he denied Brannan had given any specific details about the crime. It wasn’t clear how the clippings ended up under the rocks double bagged in plastic.
The investigation continued. Lab reports show authorities checked the red trucker cap found at Butler’s home for hairs and the cut phone cord for DNA but found no evidence.
“It was kind of in limbo,” Duggan said. “We wanted to make a good decision on this.”
While the investigation was continuing, Brannan’s second wife left him in 2006, according to police reports. During the breakup, she noticed he appeared depressed and removed all of the firearms from the home.
But Brannan had another friend buy him a single-shot .410 shotgun for $135 on April 12, 2006, telling him it was for an acquaintance who had broken his shotgun.
Three days later, friends called Osage County, Kan., sheriff’s deputies after finding Brannan dead at his home. He was seated in his wheelchair with the shotgun propped up on his leg. A large note to his estranged wife on poster board in the living room bemoaned the breakup. Authorities determined he died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
The following week, Brannan’s friend who had ordered the newspaper clippings, phoned Duggan. He said after the police visits in 2003, Brannan had told him the full story of what happened the day Butler died.
In the account, Brannan said he had skipped school and was walking down the street when a man he didn’t know --- Butler --- asked him if he wanted to smoke marijuana. They picked up Butler’s check, went to a bank and then bought “nudie books” at a convenience store.
Back at Butler’s house, they took pills and smoked weed. He said Butler grabbed him from behind and started kissing him. Brannan used a Buck knife in his pocket to stab Butler. Butler ran to the bathroom. Brannan said he persuaded Butler to remove the knife from the wound and slide it under the door. Brannan fled the house, taking a kitchen knife and hiding it under a porch, according to the account Brannan gave his friend. He said the murder weapon was tossed into the Cedar River.
“I think there’s truth in his story, but I also think there’s probably some exaggeration, because some of it doesn’t make sense -- why he’d grab the knife and throw it under the porch,” Duggan said. “But I think that line of events follows our theory of what happened.”
Duggan said he had kept developments in the case from Butler’s mother because he didn’t want to get her hopes up until he was able to make an arrest. With Brannan dead, Duggan told his mother what he found.
She died in 2014.