What interested me in this case was that the murderer had been very close to his victim for most of their lives. And he was not a criminal, a deviant, or known to be in any way a problem in his community. There are people who still insist he isn’t a monster but a man “who just snapped.” I’m not sure I agree with this summation. I leave that decision to you.
Cedar Falls – Iowa – 1960 – This agricultural county produces a large part of the world’s corn. Impressive. (I love corn). The Mark family was one of the most prominent and wealthiest in Cedar Falls. Wayne and Dorothy Mark, Methodist and active people in the community, were the proud parents of three boys: Richard, Jerry, Tom and Lesley, the youngest. Good-looking Jerry, the second oldest, was the “heir-apparent” to the farm. Richard wanted to become a Minister and Tom was a loner with obvious mental health problems. Tom was often heard in his room, pacing and talking out loud to himself. Rather than getting help for poor Tom, The Marks tried to hide him from the community as best they could. The Marks were a tight-knit group and didn’t want anyone tormenting Tom or thinking poorly of them. That’s a good background for a murder, don’t you think?
The Marks owned a 700-acre farm of corn and soy beans. Jerry enjoyed learning about farming then teaching it to Les. At the same time, Les continually heard that his brother was favored by his parents and was destined to own the farm. Les felt he had some big shoes to fill. Jerry was also academically gifted and very popular at his high school. Jerry was the school’s baseball team star. He had loads of girlfriends. He worked hard on the farm with Wayne and managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA. When he graduated high school, Jerry joined the Peace Corps. After 12 months of working with the Corps in Brazil, Jerry became disillusioned about the poverty and injustice around him. No matter how much he tried to right some of the world’s wrongs, his efforts made no difference in the world.
Jerry returned to Iowa a very different young man. He shunned his old friends but he met an Iowa woman named Rebecca, the woman of his dreams. The Marks approved. Jerry enrolled in law school and little Les, who was now a grown man, took over the farm. Although Jerry joined Les on the farm, it was obvious he was no longer the son in charge. Wayne and Jerry clashed over many issues and he clearly viewed Les as his favorite son. Worse, Jerry discovered that Wayne’s lawyers misrepresented what other farms were worth and offered to buy land for far less than what the seller was owed. Finally, unhappy with his father’s business and wanting to make the world a better place, Jerry took his wife and two girls, and left Iowa for Berkeley, California.
It was the mid-60s and Jerry and Rebecca quickly became part of the hippie rebellion. The Marks were ashamed of their former golden boy. Happily, Les carried on the Mark tradition of successful farming. He became the farm manager. Les met a girl named Jorjean and they married in 1969, with Jerry as Best Man. Despite the family’s differences, they were successful and still quite tight.
Rebecca, however, wearied of Jerry’s habit of starting and stopping projects and lifestyles. She divorced Jerry, returning to California without the children. No matter. Some months later, Jerry met a woman named Mimi who was also separated, but not divorced, from her spouse. The two hit it off and shacked up together. The Marks didn’t approve especially since their hippie son used Mimi’s salary to pay the rent. He didn’t have a job.
Tom also continued to struggle in life. He was an alcoholic by now and he was a homeless man in Waterloo. He couldn’t seem to keep a job. He smoked marijuana, used LSD and was a loner. Tom was the family’s “bad seed“. Les had to manage Tom’s money for him and help him out financially by paying his food and rent. Tom often drove around in his old Chevy and when it ran out of gas, he’d leave the keys in it and walk away to sit somewhere on the side of a road. When police found the car, they’d call Les to come and get the car and Tom. Jerry wanted Wayne to fork over a good amount of money and put Tom into a mental clinic. Nothing doing. Les and Wayne both felt there was nothing that could be done for poor Tom. They were farm boys, after all. They couldn’t be blamed for misunderstanding the nature of mental illness.
In 1975, Wayne revealed to his family he was dying of cancer. Jerry, the girls and Mimi flew out to see him. Mimi wasn’t welcome in the house but they allowed her in anyway. When Jerry returned to Iowa he told Wayne he intended to take over the farm after all. He expected Wayne to be thrilled and was aghast when his father rejected him completely. He told Jerry he “[didn’t] know what [he] wanted. [He was] floating around out there, you’re not doing law. What are you doing?” Jerry had spent all of the money Wayne had set aside for him. Wayne made it clear to Jerry that Les would be taking over the farm. For the first time in the family history, Jerry wasn’t getting what he wanted. Jerry threatened his father that when Wayne was dead he “will return and piss on” his father’s grave. Wayne threw out his son and his two grandchildren, telling Jerry “you are not welcome here.” Jerry believed Les had “screwed [him] out of the farm.”
After Jerry returned to California, Les, the good-hearted son that he was, wrote to Jerry, asking for forgiveness. Jerry responded in kind. He tried to return to Rebecca but she refused to take him back. Jerry cut his hair, and promised Wayne that he would find steady work. Although it seemed as though Jerry was getting his life together, in reality, he believed the changes he was making would bring his father to his senses, and he would return the farm to Jerry.
One morning in October, a neighbor went to Les’ house and discovered it was pitch dark. This made no sense during the harvest season. He managed to enter the house and found a horrid sight: Les and Jorjean were both dead and covered in blood. 5-year-old Julie was dead in her bed. 21-month-old Jeff was dead in his crib. Both children were victims of an execution-style shooting. They had been shot twice at close range. Initially the police thought the whole awful scene was a murder-suicide, with Les being the culprit. Friends told the police that Les and Jorjean had been fighting the night before the murders. There was one problem with this theory: no gun. Tom was locked up the following day while police continued their investigation. They were right about a Mark brother being the killer. They were wrong about it being Tom.
Richard was a pastor in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He had no idea who would want Les and Jorjean dead. He most certainly didn’t and he had no interest in the Mark farm. Jerry had been in southern California, so far as anyone knew. Or had he? A few weeks before the murders, Jerry had stolen a .38 Colt from his girlfriend’s father in California. A few days before he left for a trip to Iowa, Jerry purchased ammunition for the gun. Police tracked his motorcycle route during the days before he reached Iowa to various motels and states. Witnesses confirmed Jerry’s stops on his way to California. He was now picked up by police and charged for the first degree murders of the entire family. No one believed it. The police were mistaken and Jerry swore he was innocent. over time however, sympathy for Jerry Mark curdled into something darker. People went to Dorothy Mark’s door with ugly messages, stating that vigilantes would shoot Jerry if he showed himself in public.
The DA were convinced they had the right man. Their theory was that Jerry was driven by rage against Les and Wayne. He fell from grace as the family’s golden boy to that of the prodigal son, and he hadn’t landed on his feet. Prosecutors attested that the murders were akin to a Cain and Abel situation, with Jerry being the murderous Cain and Les the innocent Abel. The prosecution claimed that the night of the murders, Jerry entered Les’ home and confronted Les, shooting him first. Jorjean, who stood at the top of the stairs, was next, then finally the children. In 1976, after only 5 hours of hearing final testimony, the jury convicted Jerry Mark.
Before sentencing, Jerry proclaimed, “I am innocent. I did not shoot my brother, Les, and his family, and I come before the court claiming actual innocence.” Unmoved by Jerry’s plea, the judge sentenced him to four consecutive life terms in prison for four counts of murder. After years of appeals and 3 decades in prison, 69-year-old Jerry’s fight for release from prison received a strong boost when the state crime lab reported DNA test results that excluded him from saliva found on cigarette butts at the crime scene (they belonged to the Deputy Sheriff). And the FBI disclosed that bullet-lead analysis, a major piece of circumstantial evidence in the murders, was so flawed that it has stopped using it in other cases. Further, prosecution failed to disclose a report that cast doubt about a shoeprint found at the crime scene that had supposedly been left by Jerry. The case against Mark rested on forensic evidence that has since been overturned or otherwise cast in significant doubt. So if the case is ever retried, prosecutors have less forensic evidence.
However, there is also evidence that maintains Jerry’s guilt. In the days before the murders, Jerry left his apartment for a road trip on his Honda motorcycle. He and prosecution witnesses disagreed on how close to Cedar Falls he ventured, but the timing of his long-distance trip east remains suspicious. When a police officer questioned him after the murders, he lied about his route.
Scott Cawelti, a former high school friend of Jerry Mark, believes firmly in Jerry’s guilt. After the murders, Cawelti immediately began research into the case. He read all 3,000 pages of the trial transcripts, interviewed a family, Jerry’s mother Dorothy, the lawyers for both sides, and Jerry himself, in Fort Madison. Cawelti was more convinced than ever that Jerry was guilty, and he stated in his book, Brother’s Blood, that the state made a compelling case even without physical evidence. These are his words:
Though no weapon was found, a .38 caliber revolver was stolen from Jerry’s girlfriend’s father some weeks before the crime. It was never recovered. Then Jerry bought a box of bullets from a sporting goods store that fired the same .38 caliber Long Colt bullets as the stolen pistol. These are the same caliber bullets that were used to kill Les Mark and his family. And get this: Investigators found that Jerry signed his name for those bullets, so there’s no doubt he purchased them.
Why did he buy those bullets? He says he bought them to “ingratiate himself with a man who was associated with the Weather underground.” Unfortunate coincidence, he says.Jerry Mark lied before, during, and after the trial, and he’s still lying. He lied to his fiancé about where he was going on his motorcycle the week before the murders, he lied to prosecutors about what he was doing on that trip, he lied about the location of the phone calls he made to his fiancé while on that trip, and when I interviewed him in Fort Madison, he lied to me.
I asked why he didn’t take the witness stand in his own defense. That stood out as a real problem when I read the transcripts. He insisted that he begged his lawyer to let him testify, but his lawyer didn’t think it was a good idea, and didn’t let him take the stand. I was shocked. So I interviewed his lawyer in Des Moines shortly thereafter. He just sighed and said “I told Jerry that if he didn’t take the stand, he would be convicted, and he still refused.” When I asked flat out if he thought Jerry was guilty, he said, “Let’s just say there were a lot of questions he couldn’t answer.”
There are people in Cedar Falls who refuse to believe Jerry committed the crimes. That wasn’t the Jerry Mark they remembered from his years in high school and college. However, Jerry’s believers hadn’t witnessed the many complex changes he had gone through during his adult life, and the terrible argument that had emotionally shattered the family on his second last trip to Iowa. The final trip shattered the family into their graves.