WATERLOO -- He was a regular at the Embassy Lounge during the last few years of his life -- a peculiar man who dressed shabbily and spoke little. But if you walk in there and mention his name, you're likely to get blank stares.
Until his home was robbed and he was injured badly enough to go to the hospital, he came in all the time.
It's not that they don't remember the old man who would occasionally bring a huge load of coins into the bar. They just never knew him as Jacob Biretz.
To them he was Old Jake.
Jeanie Dotzler remembers the retired mechanic well, and smiles when she speaking about him. She recalls how he trusted her, but few others.
And she remembers how Jake was afraid of a cab driver.
It was nothing at first. They would call Jake a cab when he was tipsy. There was one driver, though, with whom Jake would not ride. The way he would sit and tell it around the bar, Dotzler remembered, was that the cabby was stealing his money, taking more than the fare was worth.
In his last days, Jake would flat-out refuse to get into a cab with the man.
She thought it was just talk.
Perhaps it was, but Syril Milota remembers Jake Biretz too. He remembers twice finding the poor man on his couch in bad shape at his apartment at 311 Lafayette St.
The first time was the night before Thanksgiving in 1993.
Milota, Biretz's neighbor, heard noise coming from downstairs. He went to Jake's room and found him bleeding, sprayed in the face with something that could have been Mace or pepper spray, saying he'd been robbed.
A man wearing all black clothing reportedly kicked in the back door of his home. Biretz survived, but with black eyes, bruised ribs, and a five-inch wound on his neck.
No one was ever apprehended. Milota said Jake claimed the cabby he loathed so much had done it. But police have no record of him identifying a suspect.
Two weeks later, Milota saw a man walking around the apartment complex, peering into windows. Soon after, he heard a huge disturbance downstairs.
The next morning, Dec. 10, 1993, joined by the landlady, Milota made his way to Jake's room. They found him lying with arms crossed over his chest on the couch. He'd been suffocated with a pillow. His death certificate stated it had taken several minutes for him to die. He was 87.
Gladys Held was 83 when she was killed a day earlier. She lived on the third floor of Walnut Court Apartments, a home for senior citizens. Like Biretz, she lived a quiet life. A retired personal secretary, she mostly kept to herself, said her son, Don Newberry.
She was found by her senior home companion, who became concerned when Held didn't show up to the in-house church service. She was lying the wrong way around in bed, and her room had been tossed. Her arms were black and blue up to the shoulders. She'd been hit on the head with the telephone three times and strangled.
The cases were never solved. No suspects were ever arrested. Leads dried up, and even blood recovered from the scene has yet to produce anything substantial enough to take before a judge.
Now police police believe what relatives of Gladys Held and Jacob Biretz have long suspected: The murders may have been committed by the same person.
Lack of leads
Those close to Held and Biretz still wonder why their loved ones were killed, who would have the malice to do it, and why they are still free.
"It was someone who knew him," said Merlin Biretz, Jacob's nephew. "He kept a lot of change around. It was someone who knew him well enough to know he had a lot on hand at that time of the month."
Newberry was once so desperate for information about the murder of his mother he offered a $1,000 reward for leads in the case. No one ever called.
"I never got a thing," he said. "Not a word, not a hint. It was like he just disappeared."
At times, Newberry finds himself thinking about the man who forced his way into his mother's apartment and strangled her.
"It bothers you that someone out there figures he's gotten away with murder, and no one's done anything about it," he said.
Dotzler fondly remembers Jake as eccentric but genuinely nice.
"He was just a great guy," she said. "Most people might not have thought so, but I did."
She remembers being in shock when she saw him in his casket wearing a suit. He'd always dressed so shabbily, she said.
"I couldn't believe it was him," she said. "He was so handsome."
The day that word came around that Old Jake would never again resume his usual seat at the far end of the bar, the mood among the regulars at the Embassy darkened.
"It was very sad," Dotzler said. "They were so used to seeing that old guy."
Biretz and Held probably never knew each other. But police now say there is a chance the two cases are connected.
The age of the victims, the proximity of the murder scenes, the date of the crimes and the pattern of forced entry in both cases point to that.
Held's murder occurred first, but the killer may not have gotten anything there. Newberry said his mother had just moved her money from her top dresser drawer to another location, and the intruder may have killed her out of frustration.
His mother, he said, might not have recalled where it was.
Merlin Biretz believes between $700 and $1,000 was taken from his uncle's apartment the night of the murder. Jacob Biretz had just gotten paid at the beginning of the month, which Merlin believes the killer knew.
A retiree who saved coins, Biretz would often carry large amounts of quarters with him to the bar in a cart, where he would cash them in. His money was counted right there at the bar, usually by a patron he trusted.
After he was robbed, Waterloo Police Capt. Bruce Arends said, Biretz was unable to provide a description of his attacker -- not uncommon in such cases. Biretz was apparently Maced by his assailant, which may account for that.
Arends said several cab drivers were investigated by police in connection with the murder. Nothing ever came of it.
Police have never been able to determine with any certainty whether the Nov. 24, 1993, robbery of Biretz was connected to his December murder.
Two other people in Held's building reported an intruder the night of her murder. One actually came face-to-face with a man Newberry believes later killed his mother.
A woman living on the first floor of the Walnut Court Apartments said someone had come in through her open door and demanded money. She said she didn't have any and he left.
A retired minister on the second floor saw an arm reach through the space between the door and the jamb. He asked who was there and the arm disappeared.
Although the woman saw the face of the intruder, Arends said, police were never able to find the man or link that incident to Held's murder.
Although no fingerprints were found at either murder scene, police gathered trace evidence and blood from both scenes. Arends said blood had been drawn from a few suspects during the investigations to compare to the trace blood, but no charges were filed as a result. Arends would not say the blood was that of the murderer, but did say it was entered into the DCI database to check it against known criminals.
So far, there have been no matches.
Someone knows something
In the early days of the investigation, said former Chief Bernal Koersen, Waterloo police spared no effort.
"We used all the human and technological resources at hand for many days," he said.
But a strange silence surrounded the proceedings, said Clare Reed, lead investigator on the Biretz murder.
"Basically," he said, "on normal homicides, you get leads phoned in. We received no leads in this case. We also got zero on Held. We just had nothing to go on."
The information is out there somewhere, Koersen said.
"Somebody knows something," he said. "In murder cases, nothing occurs in a vacuum. People, for whatever reason -- apathy, fear of retaliation -- are not coming forward."
Now, with the forensic angles long since exhausted, Koersen said, any breaks in the case are likely to come from people who are no longer afraid or a jailhouse confession from a convict.
Waterloo police are continually reviewing the case. A new investigator is assigned to it about once a year, to go over the file with fresh eyes and see if any angle has been left unexplored or if any new information has been unveiled.
But as time passes, the case becomes more difficult to solve, Arends said.
Meanwhile, those who knew and loved Gladys Held and Jacob Biretz hope for the arrest of the perpetrator.