Autopsies are interesting procedures. The bodies speak for the dead, telling the coroner exactly how, when, and what killed the once living person. A body is the last voice for a victim, whether by natural causes, accident or murder. Naturally, this case is about a murder. Do you remember the Boy in the Box case? The poor little boy was beaten to death in Philadelphia in 1957 by his caregivers. Probably nothing is more depressing to a coroner than to know that lying lifeless on a table in the morgue is the first time in a child’s life that he has known peace. With such children, horrible evidence of ongoing torture is easily found, as was the case with America’s Unknown Child. Multiple bruises and evidence of old fractures covered his little body and face. The picture on the left that was used on a police poster was retouched by artists before it could be displayed. Today however the case remains unsolved. I believe the boy`s brief life of terror and abuse was exactly the type experienced by the child in this blog. The Dennis Jurgens case is similar in that a little boy is murdered after years of heinous abuse, except in this case, there is closure, the killer is caught and most importantly, punished. Read on…
Lois and Harold Jurgens
The worst possible deaths are always that of children and this case is no different. Lois Jurgens was a pretty woman who lived in White Bear Lake, Minnesota. Lois had grown up in an impoverished family of sixteen siblings and married the middle-class Harold Jurgens to improve her social standing. For her own reasons she had a pathological need for control over her environment and she did so by obsessively cleaning and tending to her home and garden. It was possible she wanted to finally have something she could call her own; living in poverty might have made this virtually impossible. As far as appearances went, Lois was desperate to appear the picture of the perfect 1950s suburban housewife. This is more understandable from a political and social viewpoint. WWII had ended in 1945. Many women had been employed in ammunition factories and other jobs in order to sustain an income while their husbands fought overseas. However when the men returned from the war they needed these jobs and the government worked hard to encourage women to quite work and stay home. It used ad campaigns about the new suburbs, and made suburbia into a status all its own. There were no more signs advertising Victory Gardens and “We Can Do IT!” slogans. Lois obviously bought into that dream. Not only did she want to be a perfect suburban wife, she also wanted desperately to be a perfect suburban mother but alas, it wasn’t to be.
Lois suffered bouts of depression and psychosis for several years. This included an extended stay at a psychiatric institution where electro-convulsive therapy was administered. She was diagnosed as having mixed psychoneurosis, whatever that means. Her inability to conceive a child drove Lois further into madness although she wasn’t beyond comprehension or control over her actions. Mental illness is incurable. It can be controlled by medication and psychiatric counselling but there was no evidence that Lois pursued either of these options. Officially forbidden to adopt children owing to Lois’ history of mental illness, nonetheless the Jurgens` managed to adopt a baby named Robert privately. Robert fit in well at the Jurgens household, as he learned from a young age not to get in his mother’s way or cause an undue mess that would send his mother into a rage. The Jurgens` adoption of Robert seemed successful in the eyes of authorities, who began to consider the possibility that the Jurgens` might adopt additional children through more official channels. Of course the authorities had no idea what it was like to live with Lois Jurgens.
Sadly for Dennis Craig Puckett, he would become only too familiar with life as a Jurgens. For the first year of Dennis’ life he lived in foster care with an elderly woman who’d loved and looked after him. If only he’d stayed there. It would turn out the two boys weren’t the end of the Jurgens’ adoption frenzy. Going through various channels during the 1950s and 1970s, Robert and Dennis were followed by four more adopted children from Kentucky. By this time Dennis would be long dead. He met his untimely demise in 1965 at the age of 3 1/2. This came as no surprise to those who knew the Jurgens. By this point, Lois’ rage and mania had gone beyond her ability to maintain an appearance of normalcy, and they would move to escape disapproval and gossip from neighbours. The Jurgens’ had reason to leave. As the new adopted children grew older, there were many firsthand histories (recounted to the media during the 1987 trial of Lois Jurgens) describing the severe abuse they suffered at their adoptive mother’s hands. Beatings and displays of Lois’ explosive temper were daily events; especially bad days could include her slamming a child’s forehead into a nail protruding from a wall, forcing a child to stand barefoot in snow, and shoving a used sanitary napkin in a child’s face. During this period, Lois was once again placed in a psychiatric facility but it didn’t do much to improve her condition. Eventually, all four of the siblings from Kentucky and Robert escaped the home by running away and getting help from concerned neighbors.
Lois and Dennis
Dennis was the one child who wouldn’t escape Lois Jurgens with his life. Almost immediately upon seeing Dennis, Lois took a severe, obsessive dislike to the child, who was a normal, rambunctious, and spirited toddler, completely unlike Robert, who in Lois’ eyes, was the “good son”. Ironically, being the “good son“ didn`t mean Lois spared the rod with Robert or any of her young. Harold Jurgens suggested that perhaps they should not go forward with the adoption of Dennis at this time, but Lois refused out of concern that it would discourage the authorities from allowing them to adopt further children. That makes about as much sense as abusing the child for no reason whatsoever. Lois had numerous complaints about Dennis. Lois decided Robert and Dennis wouldn’t fit well together at all. Dennis’ aggressiveness
and “wild behavior” were completely unlike Robert. She was afraid Dennis would “man-handle” him. She didn’t like Dennis’ looks and weight. His “nationality” was wrong (he seemed to be a white American, like Lois). His eyes didn’t match Robert’s. He really needed to lose weight.
The passive Harold ignored Lois` continual criticisms of the little boy and within months of Dennis’ arrival in the Jurgens’ household, he was rushed to the hospital with first and second-degree burns on his genitalia, which were reported and accepted as accidental. Accidental? How does a person get burns on their privates by accident? Whatever. The authorities didn’t look too closely and the process of adopting of Dennis was completed. After being asked if she was going to actually keep Dennis, “she didn’t know“ was her laughing reply. Robert was so much better than Dennis. As an example, when he was put somewhere – he stayed as told; but Dennis was always running around and never one to sit still. In spite of this unfortunate occurrence, passive Harold signed the official placement papers and Lois was pleased and happy. Suddenly others saw an amazing change in her. Lois was more relaxed. She no longer complained about Dennis. It seemed that now that she’d made up her mind to keep the child, he was not so bad after all.
However Lois had a reputation among extended family and neighbors as an intense, angry woman with a volatile temper. Somehow Dennis provoked sadistic rages that resulted in horrible torture. Not much of a man or a father, Harold made little effort to curb his wife’s abuse of young Dennis. As for her part, in her effort to make Dennis “right” Lois embarked on a series of sadistic punishments. Angered at Dennis for rejecting certain foods, she responded by placing horse-radish on the food and then force-feeding it to him. Dennis turned purple and had his oxygen supply cut off when Lois covered his mouth and nose with her hands. This treatment, along with the exertion as he struggled, sickened Dennis to the point of vomiting, which further enraged Jurgens. She then forced the little boy to eat his vomit. When she wasn’t force-feeding Dennis, Lois frequently starved the child to rid him of “sloppy fat.” The monstrous woman even made Sloppy Fat into his nickname. Dennis gained only three pounds in a two-and-a-half year period as he aged from one year old to three-and-a-half years old. Lois believed she was doing “God’s work” by making Dennis “perfect” in her eyes. The coroner noted in his report that Dennis had almost zero subcutaneous fat, or the type of fat just below the surface of the skin. It was recorded as being at the level of a person who had died of starvation. Aside from the incident when Dennis was hospitalized with burns on his genitals, there were many other incidents of abuse demonstrating sexual sadism. Lois’ remedy for the toddler wetting his diaper too frequently was to place a spring-action clothes pin upon the end of his penis. The coroner noted there was evidence of adult human bite marks on his penis and scarring all over his scrotum. Lois took to tying Dennis’ limbs to the bedposts to keep him in bed, and tied him to the toilet to force a bowel movement. So horrific was his toilet-training, that little Dennis couldn’t be trained and was found to be wearing two diapers and a pair of rubber pants at the age of three-and-a-half years.
At family gatherings, Robert was quiet. Everyone offered him candy & cookies, but he refused. Dennis ate them and was punished at home for it. Whenever Dennis showed
an interest in having fun he would get yelled at. At a funeral for Lois’ sister, Barbara, Dennis and Robert recited the rosary for 20 minutes, without error. Relatives watched and were astonished. They’d never seen such intelligent boys at the ages of 3 and 5. What relatives didn’t know was that Dennis struggled when learning the rosary and was forced to pray and recite his rosary kneeling on a broomstick for extended periods, until he did it correctly. At the service, those present wondered why Dennis wore sunglasses inside the mortuary but they didn’t bother to ask. Had they known it wouldn’t be long before little Dennis would be back at the mortuary inside the coffin rather than beside it, perhaps one of these half-wits would have taken action to save him from Lois although that was unlikely. They decided to mind their own business and feared retribution from Lois, who was not above threatening the lives of her family members. In the 1960s, the term child abuse had not yet been coined and no one, not even medical professionals and teachers, were required to report suspicions.
The Murder of Dennis Jurgens
Then one night on April 11, 1965, 5-year-old Robert awoke to loud screams. He found Lois screaming Dennis’ name but the tot was as limp as a rag-doll. His head flopped uncontrollably. Harold contacted Dr. Roy Peterson and stated he feared his son was dying. Peterson attended the home, took one look at Dennis and called police. Lois seemed distraught, but wasn’t crying. Harold and Lois told Peterson the same story: Dennis had been suffering from a bad cold and had slipped on the bathroom floor near the basement, striking his head on the tile. After calling the doctor, Lois and Harold kept going over the same developments. Only once did the story vary. Dennis had also fallen down the basement stairs during the past week and struck the back of his head. He also slipped near the bathroom and fell down the stairs. The child seemed remarkably clumsy. The coroner’s investigator and the ambulance driver arrived together at the Jurgens’ residence. Dennis was lying on his back in the crib with his arms stretched alongside his body. His hands and forearms reached 8″ off the mattress. Bed covers were pulled below to his armpits that obscured the lower parts of his body. Black and blue bruises covered his face, head & arms. Police found it odd that within a supposed two-hour period, Dennis developed rigor mortis. It was very premature for that process. How long had the Jurgens`waited to call police was the question no one bothered to ask.
The doctor couldn’t comprehend anyone torturing a child to death. The following day, word spread from home-to-home there had been a death. They said it was from a fall down the basement stairs. Neighbors began to question what they seen. What gets me is the neighbours surely must have seen Dennis outside the house at least now and then. Why hadn’t they contacted police at the sight of the boy? There is always a morbid sense of detachment among people, a conspiratorial silence if you will, in the face of obvious child abuse. As far as I’m concerned if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. In the most ridiculous manner possible, weird Harold attempted to explain to the police how it was possible that Dennis could have died the way he did. He explained that Dennis was the sort of individual who was insensitive to pain (you’re heard all about children like that, of course) and didn’t complain or tell others he was hurt. Naturally they couldn’t see it themselves. Harold stated that Dennis always has constipation problems and that he didn’t seem to know how to force bowels from his rectum. Perhaps this explained the damage to his bowel? Harold’s explanation for the bruises and marks on Dennis’ penis were from standing in the bath and turning on the hot water which scalded him. Dennis was treated for the injuries, but the wounds opened up again. He stated that “Dennis ate good. He just didn’t know how to eat properly and didn’t know how to chew. Sometimes swallowing food without chewing“ The strange man stated that he was out-of-town when the fall down the stairs to Dennis’ death occurred. It seemed that a lot of said accidents occurred when Harold was out-of-town, yet Harold never seemed concerned when Dennis was alone with Lois.
Dr. Peterson, it would seem, was part of the problem, like Harold. He became and refused to speak to authorities. He lied to authorities about the bruises, stating he didn’t remember any. The Monday following the murder, homicide detectives began a series of interviews in the Jurgens’ neighbourhood. Of course no one, including family, saw the Jurgens’ very much and when they saw little Dennis, they didn’t observe any bruises. Even the talkative neighbors proved to be no help. Mid-morning the Tuesday after Dennis`death, there was a funeral held for Dennis Jurgens. The days following newspaper, “The St. Paul Dispatch” featured a story of Dennis’ death and some realized that the story and the facts didn’t match. No one of course, reacted.Why it was that even the Jurgens’ doctor kept Lois’ sadistic secret stymies me. I mean, what`s she going to do. Kill the doctor. Not a bad idea at that.
At the mortuary, everyone gathered and whispered that “Lois killed him“. Oblivious, Lois was exciting and happy, welcoming everyone and working her way around the crowd. The body had bruises that the mortician couldn’t hide, including a big one on his forehead, another on his right temple, one on his cheek, one on the side of his nose. A crown of white roses sat on Dennis’ head, more so to cover those bruises. Lois’ explanation at the funeral was that the police had abused him after taking him away. Harold turned to officers at the funeral and stated “They must have beat him up at the morgue. Dennis sure didn’t have all those bruises when he left here“. An inquest was held into Dennis’ death but strangely, even after testimony from family and neighbours about the treatment Dennis received from Lois, the judge declared that the Jurgens were “very honorable people of very good intentions.” No one in authority, it seemed, wanted to acknowledge that here was a small child who had been beaten to death by his own mother. In spite of extensive physical evidence pointing towards severe abuse, the medical examiner did not classify the death under any of standard classifications of accident or murder. He simply marked it “deferred.” There was also a great deal of suspicion surrounding Jerome Zerwas, the brother of Lois Jurgens, and a police lieutenant in White Bear Lake. A common belief among witnesses, investigators and neighbors at the time of the murder was that he interfered with the investigation and destroyed incriminating evidence. He never attended Lois’ eventual trial. No one will ever know.
Although Lois was not charged with Dennis’s murder, the death caused sufficient suspicion for the authorities to remove Robert from the home. A court order ruled that Robert was to be removed from the home and as he was handed to detectives, Lois was stoic and passive. Robert was placed with his paternal grandmother for a period of just over five years, during which the Jurgens spent a great deal of effort and money attempting to regain custody. Finally, at a time when Robert was hospitalized with pneumonia, his grandmother burned to death in a house fire. There is some suspicion that Lois herself set the fire, given that it occurred while Robert was hospitalized, and that Lois had been known to threaten burning down the homes of several neighbors and family members who had spoken to authorities. Truly, this woman belongs in the annals of sadistic pathological criminals.
15 years earlier, Dennis’ biological mother, Jerry Sherwood, had lived in a home for delinquent teenage girls. Her own biological family hadn`t been a haven and eventually Jerry began running away. As a child she had endured abused from two different stepmothers. By her early teens, she was openly rebellious, defying her parents and skipping school. When she was 13, after shoplifting and running away one weekend, her parents hauled her into court and declared her incorrigible. She was placed into a foster home. Jerry was in and out of various homes until the court committed her to the girls school, Sauk Centre. After she was sent to a foster family in St. Cloud, she met Dennis McIntyre. She was soon punished by her foster parents for having sex with McIntyre, so Jerry fled again and was returned to Sauk Centre. This time she was 2 months pregnant with a precious little boy. Being a ward of the state, she was forced to give up her son after his birth. Eventually Jerry married and became the mother of four more children, but she never forgot the baby she’d had to give up years before. When she was a grown woman, she wrote to the local welfare office, asking what had become of her son. After her inquiry, she received a sad letter informing her that Dennis was dead. Jerri attended his grave in White Bear Lake to say her good-byes. She searched through his funeral records and as she did so, she found old newspaper clippings about Dennis. Tellingly, one of them indicated the child had been found covered in multiple bruises the day he died. Right away, Jerry knew her little boy had been beaten to death. For the first time in his life, Dennis got a lucky break (pun). Jerry was determined to have her son’s killers brought to justice. Little did she know it was the beginning of a 6-year struggle with the county and an arduous journey to find witnesses who were willing to confess what they knew about Dennis` upbringing.
Jerry contacted Ramsey County medical examiner Dr. Michael B. McGee, informing him of her concerns. It was her inquiry that began the inquest into little Dennis’ death. Dennis’s file contained dreadful photographs of his body and face covered in bruises, his abdomen distended. McGee ordered that the mummified child be exhumed from his grave. Somehow the body was remarkably well-preserved. Fingernail marks behind his ears and a bite-mark on his genitals were still visible. The perforation to the bowel however was a truly disturbing injury. The bowel is an organ that is very deep inside the human body. An injured bowel couldn’t be from an accident. The injury required “tremendous energy“, somewhat akin to a “train wreck“; certainly not something a child could generate simply from a fall. It was determined that Lois either punched him in the stomach very hard while holding him up against a wall or she kicked him while he was on a flat surface. That force was what killed Dennis Jurgens.
Even with Jerry working tirelessly to bring Lois to justice, it took an 6 years for authorities to arrest Lois for Dennis’ murder. However 1987 was a new age and child abuse had become a household expression and public concern. In the late 1980’s people were more educated about the signs of abuse. Commercials on television implored people to report suspicions to Children’s Services. Public sympathy for abused children grew and people were less hesitant to come forward when witnessing abuse of children. For their part, Lois’ family members, including her stepchildren, were older and no longer afraid of her and finally at the age of 62, Lois was brought to the trial she should have had 21 years earlier. 27-year-old Robert testified against his stepmother. He stated “she’d pull your ears, she’d whip you with a belt or a cedar board, on one occasion I recall her grabbing Dennis by the ears and forcefully submerged his head under the water (of a laundry room sink) and gasping as he would come up for air and crying.” The terrifying morgue photographs weren’t a surprise. “That is how I remember seeing Dennis all the time. So it wasn’t a real shock to me. That’s how I saw Dennis.” The night of his murder, Robert witnessed Lois beat Dennis extensively and throw him down the stairs.
It didn’t take the jury long to deliberate over this one. Lois Jurgens was found guilty of murder in the third degree. For whatever reason Lois had in her twisted mind, she only abused little Dennis to this extreme; for some reason Lois vented her full rage on Dennis. What little Robert didn’t know was that he and Dennis were the unfortunate victims of Lois’ ritual abuse. For Jerry Sherwood, her search for justice for her little boy had finally ended. Lois Jurgens trial for the boy’s murder made national headlines and was the top news story for the state of Minnesota in 1987. If only someone had spoken that loudly for Dennis Jurgens when he was still alive.
**Update** Lois Jurgens served only eight years of her sentence (she was released early for good behavior) and is living a quiet life as a widow in Stillwater, Minnesota. Incredibly Harold Jurgens was still waiting for his pathological wife and they reunited after her release. To this day, Lois maintains her innocence in the abuse of her five children and the beating death of Dennis Craig Jurgens. Harold died in 2000; at the time of his death, there was suspicion that Lois had poisoned him, but this was investigated and ruled out. This time at least, authorities weren’t looking the other way.