EARLY, Iowa --- The hot beef sandwiches at the Crossroads Restaurant and Lounge in Early tend to draw a crowd over the noon hour, when many other businesses in this tiny city of 552 shut down.
For Marjorie Madsen, now 82 and living in Omaha, the quiet, close-knit community tucked away in rural Sac County was a nice place to grow up. Certainly not the kind of place that expects to be thrust into the spotlight by two spectacular crimes.
But these days, residents are reeling from the aftershocks of a bizarre murder that went unsolved for nearly a decade and, just this month, the brutal killing of a woman whose son is accused of stabbing and choking her to death and hours later kidnapping a young woman he intended to rape.
"I can't imagine all these things happening in Early," said Madsen, who joined her sister-in-law and niece for lunch Tuesday at the Crossroads. "That's not the way the town should be or ever was."
Early became the focus of unwelcome attention in July 2011, when former resident Tracey Richter was arrested in Omaha and charged with killing a neighbor in 2001. Richter, now 46, shot Dustin Wehde, 20, to death in her house while her three young children were in another room.
Richter claimed she shot Wehde, a family friend, nine times with two guns after he and another man broke into the West South Street home and assaulted her. But police said the killing was part of a twisted plot to frame Richter's ex-husband, with whom she was locked in a child-custody dispute.
State and local media featured daily coverage of the explosive allegations during Richter's trial in November 2011. After her conviction for first-degree murder, the case was featured on two nationally televised crime shows.
Richter appealed the conviction. It was upheld Jan. 9.
By then, tragedy had struck Early again. On Jan. 3, Marilyn Schmitt, 45, of rural Early, was found dead in a bedroom in her home. Police say her son, Kirk Levin, 21 stabbed and strangled her. He's also accused of kidnapping a 21-year-old Storm Lake, Iowa, woman, an acquaintance he met online. Police say he lured her to his mother's property by saying his car had broken down and he needed a ride home.
Levin had returned to Early two days before, after serving about two years in prison for burglary. His mother brought him home from Mount Pleasant Correctional Facility. Police say he has confessed to killing her.
He is charged with multiple felonies: first-degree murder, two counts of third-degree kidnapping and one count each of assault with intent to commit sex abuse and assault while participating in a felony. His next court appearance is Jan. 29 in District Court in Sac City, Iowa.
Sac County Sheriff Ken McClure said the nature of the crimes and the publicity they've attracted have frightened some Early residents, 10 of whom recently applied for and were issued gun permits. In spite of the murders, McClure said residents don't need to fear for their lives.
"It's a safe community," McClure said. "We live in a safe county and sometimes bad things happen. I think for the most part, everybody just wants to be left alone and let things start to smooth over."
For one thing, some in Early perceive Richter and Levin as outsiders. Richter and her then-husband, who is from Australia, moved to town from another community, and Levin grew up in Wisconsin.
That aspect likely helps some people cope with the events, said Jacob Jantzer, assistant professor of rural sociology at South Dakota State University.
"We can still convince ourselves that we don't necessarily have to worry about our friends and neighbors being murderers because that was somebody else and that was a fluke, or that was an outsider," he said.
Cindy Garthoff, Early Public Library director, said Early is a church- and school-oriented community where everybody knows everybody else.
"I just hope people don't think bad things about Early, because we are a good community and I just think bad things happen to good people," she said.
In fact, one element of the Levin case highlights what residents say is good and right in Early and more accurately represents its citizens.
Gary Schramm, of rural Early, is credited with saving Levin's alleged captive, who they say was bound with rope when Levin drove away from his mother's house with the young woman in the back seat of her own car.
Stopping to Help
Schramm, 58, was being neighborly when he stopped to assist Levin after the car went into the ditch on ice-covered Ira Avenue that frigid morning.
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On his way home from getting a cup of coffee at the new Casey's General Store next to the equally new U.S. Highway 20 overpass that soars above the town, Schramm saw the stuck car on the gravel road about 50 feet south of the highway.
Fearing the young male driver, whom he didn't recognize, could be a high school student who'd crashed on the way to class, Schramm pulled over to help.
Levin said he didn't need help and would walk, but Schramm didn't move his truck. It was just too cold to leave somebody on the side of the road, he reasoned. Then a woman burst out of the car.
"This gal came out of the car yelling and screaming she'd been kidnapped, please help her, please don't leave her alone," Schramm said.
At first he thought it was a joke, but the woman's face told him otherwise. She climbed into his truck and, glancing in the rear-view mirror as he drove away, Schramm saw a length of rope lying on the ground.
"She was terrified," Schramm said.
Levin ran off, and Schramm drove the woman up the road to his house, where she called her family and police.
Even after learning what had happened that day and believing he may have prevented a second murder, Schramm doesn't think he did anything special by pulling over to help. It's just what people in Early do, he explained.
"I always hope that if I do it for somebody, some day if me or my wife is in trouble, that somebody would stop and do the same thing," he said.
Rallying After Crisis
The community is now focused on helping Marilyn Schmitt's family get through the tragedy, said Mayor Sharon Irwin.
"I would say we band behind the people involved, like Marilyn's parents and her family," said Irwin, 68, a lifelong resident of Early who knows the family. "(We) try to support them in any way we can."
Residents rally together in times of need, as they did when a tornado hit the town in April 2011, said Kurt McKenney, who works in the technology department at the city's middle school.
"Not one person went hungry," McKenney said, referring to the tornado's aftermath. "Nobody had any question about where they were going to sleep. This town sticks together."
When tragedy strikes in a town as small as Early, everyone is affected, said Tami Grace, owner of Shear Attractions hair salon, 209 South Main St.
"It touches a lot of people," she said.
'People are Friendly Here'
Randy Cantrell, a professor of rural sociology with the Rural Affairs Institute at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, said he doesn't believe Early will face any long-term negative impacts from the high-profile crimes or the media coverage.
"My guess is, the most likely thing that happens is nothing and within a couple years it's pretty much forgotten and nobody really holds it against the community," he said.
Indeed, real estate agent Debbie Moize said the city's real estate market does not seem to have suffered.
"Early's selling as well as Early sells, pretty consistently," said Moize, with Century 21 The Professional Group in Storm Lake. "I really don't hear anything negative toward the town as far as people buying there."
Irwin, the mayor, said Early has bounced back from adversity before and can do it again. Case in point: Ridge View Middle School.
On Nov. 13, 1982, what was then Crestland Community School was destroyed by a natural gas explosion. The massive blast threw debris 800 feet and was heard 17 miles away in Lytton, Iowa.
Students attended classes in two churches in Early while the school rebuilt on the same location, 310 W. Main St. Town residents contributed $10,000 toward construction of the new school, where 160 students from several communities now attend classes.
"I think for the most part people are friendly here and they're willing to step in and help when somebody has a problem," Irwin said. "I think in big cities people don't even know their neighbors and they're not willing to step out of their own safety zones to help others, but that's not the case here."