Television in the early 1980's was dominated by the “new” concept of what became known as a “mini series.” To qualify for that status a “movie” would span over the period of at least two nights. One of the biggest known was one called North & South. There eventually would be three separate installments of this series and while for the most part it is largely forgotten, those who do remember it generally do so because it was one of our earliest looks at actor Patrick Swayze. By the mid-1980s television was changing again and it became the true crime era. From time to time both concepts would merge and you may have a two night true crime story movie. I remember one called In a Child's Name about a dentist who was accused of murdering his wife and his sister in law made it her quest to bring him to justice. I think I remember this one so well because at the end of the first night the parents of the dentist were sleeping in the room in which he had allegedly killed his wife. Investigators had allegedly sprayed the room with luminal and as the first part ended the room lit up as the parents turned off the light. Today one thinks of true crime stories and think more Lifetime Movies and while there are a few scattered here and there that are decent, in my opinion it was the mid-1980's through the 1990's that really were the best of the best when it came to true crime movies. One of those aired in 1992 and was called A Child Lost Forever. It was the story of a woman who had been forced to give up the child she gave birth to as a teenager for adoption only to discover twenty years later he had not lived past the age of three. The woman, Jerry Sherwood, made it her quest to find justice for her son. I remember the movie well because of the vile things that happened to this child and the fact that the woman responsible would not be held accountable for many years. Some would likely argue, and I would have to agree that even when she was punished it was nothing compared to what her crimes had caused.
On December 6, 1961 Jerry Pollack gave birth to a baby boy named Dennis. Jerry was a teenager and a ward of the state of Minnesota at the time. She was living in a home for “troubled girls” as they called it. It was not the same kind of “troubled girls” as would be described in decades prior. In the early part of the century those places were where young girls would reside during their pregnancy and through their births, often to hide shame to the family. By the 1960's this term was used for things like orphanages and juvenile facilities. Authorities and those within power at the home had urged Jerry to give her baby up for adoption to give him a better life than she could provide for him. By most accounts this was not something Jerry wanted to do but she agreed under duress. Jerry would go on to have four more children. Some reports say that the father of her other children was also the father of Dennis.
Throughout the years Jerry discussed her “lost” child to her other children often and as time went on they encouraged her to look for him as he was approaching adulthood. Some say that Jerry first discovered that Dennis had died in 1980 but that it was not until 1986 that she went to the White Bear Lake Minnesota police department with her allegations and research. Regardless of the timeline of how things happened before 1986 it was late in that year that she contacted authorities with her story. After discovering Dennis' death Jerry had found her way to call Lois Jurgens who now lived in Stillwater Minnesota. Jerry's first impressions of Lois were apparently good. Dennis had been adopted by Lois and her husband Harold and had been living in their home at the time of his death. While it does not seem to be exactly clear what Lois told Jerry about Dennis' death the two women seemed to get along well on the phone. Lois promised to send Jerry some photographs and things of Dennis and the call seemingly ended. Jerry's suspicions grew when after nearly two months she had not received anything from Lois and when she went to contact the woman again the phone number had not only been changed but was now an unlisted number.
Lois Zerwas and Harold Jurgens were married in 1944. It was said that in the early 1950's Lois began experiencing issues that were only described as “bouts of depression and psychosis.” It seems she sought medical attention several times and at least one of those visits resulted in an extended stay in which she was given “electroconvulsive” (then known as “electro shock”) therapy. She was diagnosed with “mix psychoneurosis,” a term no longer used, that is described as “involving chronic distress.” While it was said that these treatments had left her unable to conceive I have my doubts that it was these treatments that had caused this, but the reality is that it was apparently the first time Lois had been told this.
Now, I do not claim to know everything about mental illness but I do know some and I also know how mental illness was often treated, as well as look at around this time period. Lois was one of seventeen children from a poverty stricken family. I highly doubt that it was not until the early 1950's that anything appeared “odd” or “wrong” with Lois. I just suspect it was the first time things had gotten so out of control that those around her could no longer manage it themselves. I suspect that any behaviors that she exhibited while growing up were likely thought to be either simply her personality or manifested for the need of attention. She may have been described as a “difficult” child but for the most part kept under control while she was young. The “goal” for women in that era was to find a “good” man who could take care of her, get married and have children. This was ingrained into women. If a woman reached her mid-twenties and had not married she was often already called a “spinster” or “old maid.” Parents in that era also had a belief that it was simply their goal to raise their children to adulthood and the girls would then be cared for by their husbands. It seems only those who suffered from severe bouts of mental illness were treated and for the most part those children were placed in institutions and largely forgotten. However, even then it often took a lot for a parent to seek any treatment they believed their child may need. I am sure some of that could have revolved around finances and the like, but a large part of it had to do with the “shame” that mental illness was thought to bring onto a family. I also do not believe it was these treatments that Lois received in the early 1950's that left her unable to conceive because she and Harold had been married for several years by that time and they had remained childless. Whether that had to do with the possibility of any prior treatments I cannot say as sometimes if treatment was received it was kept very quiet, she had another issue or she simply could not conceive is unknown. But by all accounts it was after these treatments that she was officially told she could not conceive and many believe that it made her issues even worse.
On the surface Lois was described not unlike many housewives in that time period. It was all about image and what people on the outside thought of her family. Reality of life and home mattered much less than what others believed. But, to get the image of the “perfect family” to shine when they walked outside the walls of their home, there had to be conditioning done on the inside.
Because of her mental illness and the treatments she had received it appears it made the couple ineligible to adopt a child through what was considered to be “official channels.” So it seems that in early 1960 the couple completed a private adoption when they received a little boy named Robert. While I could find nothing specific as to just how old Robert was when he entered the Jurgens home I got the impression that he was not much older than an infant. Robert was described almost as a perfect child but many believe that was due to the fact that Robert learned very quickly what Lois expected of him and how to escape her ire. This is another reason in which I believe Robert was an infant when he was adopted. This gave Lois more of an opportunity to shape Robert the way she wanted and easier for him to comply. There were simply rules to follows and things not to do. Robert became very good about picking things up because he knew Lois did not like messes in the home. He knew that if someone offered him a cookie, or pretty much anything else, he should decline. Whether the latter was more about manners than an obsessive idea that her family not only had to appear perfect when it came to attitude but also appearance is unknown.
The fact that the Jurgens seemed to be doing so well in raising Robert seemingly caught the eye, or the attention, of those within the adoption community. By 1962 it appears that those with “official” means decided to change their minds in allowing Lois and Harold to adopt. In December of that year Dennis was placed in the home. Many reports say he was fourteen months old at the time but according to his birth date he would have just turned a year old. He was described as a normal, rambunctious and loving child but to those close to Lois and Harold it appeared that Lois took almost an immediate disliking to the child. It was said that even Harold had suggested that they not follow through with the adoption and look for another child, but despite her distaste for Dennis, Lois refused because she apparently believed if they sent this child back that the agency would not allow them to adopt anymore children.
It was the early 1960's and no matter what people saw, or even thought they saw, they minded their “own business.” I do not say that in the respect of how you may expect that in today's world, I mean in the aspect that they literally did not do anything that impeded on the way other people lived their lives. It was an entirely different world than we live in now and it is often hard to describe or have people understand but I have run into this issue before. Sylvia Likens was a sixteen year old girl who, while her parents literally worked for the carnival, lived with a woman who was providing room and board to Sylvia and her sister. In the course of several months Sylvia was tortured by the woman, her children and even neighborhood children. It would result in her death in the basement of the Indianapolis home in October of 1965. Today many people chastise the neighbors who obviously heard and saw things and apparently did nothing. I have often defended them on websites where this is mentioned due to the way people lived in that time period. We also have to remember that there was no such thing as “mandated reporting” in which people like doctors and social workers are now required to report any suspicions they may have. It is often difficult to describe the difference between an excuse and a reason and this is one of those situations. I do not necessarily excuse the neighbors for not intervening, but I do understand their reasons. However, I also believe that the big difference between the Sylvia Likens case and the Dennis Jurgens case is that by and large the only people that were not directly involved in the crime against Sylvia and yet saw things that were questionable were neighbors but in Dennis' case friends and family reportedly saw things too.
Within a few months of going to the Jurgens' home Dennis had his first hospital visit. He had suffered first and second degree burns on his genitalia. Lois reported to doctors that she had been giving Dennis a bath in the sink when she turned her head for just a moment and he had turned on the hot water. The report was listed as being accidental. It is not clear as if there were any other visits to the hospital, or even the doctor, prior to his death on April 11, 1965. That does not mean that Dennis did not suffer from physical and emotional abuse prior to his death. It is not clear what may or may not have been reported either prior to or just after his death, or what did not come out until the late 1980's. However, it was alleged that even by the age of two Dennis was seen wearing glasses to public events to hide black eyes. It was said that Lois often “starved” Dennis to get rid of what she called his “sloppy fat.” In fact, she had allegedly taken to giving him the nickname “Sloppy Fat” despite the fact that at the time of his adoption he was of appropriate size and weight for his age. And yet she was also accused of of placing horseradish on foods he refused to eat and then force feed him. Family later stated that he would turn purple from the spiciness of the food and the lack of oxygen as she held her hand over his nose and mouth forcing him to swallow. She was also accused of forcing him to eat his own vomit after these incidents ended in a struggle and he would vomit. Now, again, I have little idea as to when these incidents were reported. If it was before his death one has to wonder why nothing was done and if it was after his death in fairness you have to not only ask if they were true but why the person did not report them sooner. While the idea of “battered child” or “child abuse” was not really terms used, there was still a standard of care for children expected. There were allegations that if Dennis wet his diaper too much Lois would put a pin on his penis. Not long before his death it was said he was still not potty trained and was often found wearing two diapers and a pair of rubber pants. For those who do not know rubber pants was a “thing” in those days as diapers were not what we think of them now, and disposable. They were generally cloth diapers that when wet or soiled seeped through the material, hence needing the rubber pants. Lois would allegedly tie Dennis to the bed posts at night to keep him in bed or tie him to the toilet if she felt he had not had a bowel movement recently.
Part of Lois' idea of the perfect family included being a devout Catholic. In fact, it was said she only wanted children of this faith. At the time of his birth it was said that Jerry was considering converting to the Catholic faith and that seemed to be enough for Lois, it has also been said that Jerry changed her mind and that may have also made a difference to Lois. Robert, the perfect child, had learned to recite prayer very quickly but Dennis had more issues. It was said he was often forced to pray by kneeling on a broomstick for extended periods of time.
Then Sunday, April 11, 1965 came. Harold, who worked as an electrician was working in Wisconsin that weekend and in Minnesota they were having what was considered to be a historic flood. The town of White Bear Lake was also preparing to receive a National award proclaiming they were “An All-American City.” It is alleged that all three of these events may have played a role in what happened to Dennis Jurgens the day before. The official story given in 1965 by Lois was that Dennis had fallen down the stairs and had ultimately died as a result. But, despite it appearing that few people believed that to be the story, including the coroner and even the funeral director, it seems no real investigation was conducted and no one was ever charged criminally in his death.
It has often been alleged that no criminal investigation was conducted because Lois had a brother who worked on the White Bear Lake police department. Although Jerome Zerwas denied interfering with any investigation, hiding or destroying evidence other officers have said differently. It was not clear exactly what rank Jerome held at the time of Dennis' death to in essence determine what kind of “pull” he may have had to do this. It was also said that few wanted to accept that a child from a middle class home had been the target of abuse.
Dennis' official cause of death was listed as peritonitis due to perforation of the small bowel. Basically what this means is that the lining of his abdomen had inflammation that had been cause by the fact that there had been a tear in his small bowel that had allowed fecal matter to leak into his abdomen. The coroner also reported “discovered multiple lacerations and multiple generations of bruises covering most of his body. There were even reports of what was alleged to look like human bite marks on his penis and scarring all over his scrotum. When a coroner lists a cause of death they also list a manner of death. This is where you see things like “natural causes,” “suicide,” “accident,” and “homicide.” Sometimes you will see “undetermined” but in this case the coroner wrote the word “deferred.” He would later say that he did this because he had informed the police that he suspected child abuse and awaited more information obtained from an investigation before listing an official manner of death. Decades later he would also tell investigators that if they looked a little deeper they would find three or four more cases in which he had done the same. The coroner did not believe that a fall down the stairs, as was described by Lois Jurgens could have caused the injuries in which Dennis' abdomen sustained and alleges that he was vocal about that. It was also said that the mortician that had prepared Dennis' body for his funeral also believed that his death was due to abuse and took extra precautions to try to insure his body was preserved expecting that one day there would be an exhumation. But again, no criminal investigation was launched and no charges were filed.
The only real ramification that either of the Jurgens suffered came from those who could allow them to officially adopt any more children and the fact that Robert was removed from their care. Robert went to live with relatives for a period of time while Lois and Harold fought for his return. In 1965 Robert was living with Harold's parents. In November of that year he was in the hospital as he suffered with pneumonia. While there the family home had caught fire and Harold's mother died in the fire. There were always rumors that Lois had been instrumental in starting that fire because she never truly got along with her mother in law and it was an effort to have Robert returned to her home but nothing was ever proven. For the next nearly five years Harold and Lois attempted to have Robert returned apparently social workers investigating the couple and their home life. Allegedly a few people talked during that time about Lois and her behaviors but those who did would claim that they were met with threats of harm and stalking from Lois. It is said this is the reason more people did not talk to investigators as they feared Lois and what she would do.
Finally in late 1969, when he was ten years old Robert was returned to the Jurgens' home. By then they had moved out of White Bear Lake and to Stillwater and although it was a “new” county the old social workers were still involved. The social worker involved in Roberts case claims she disagreed with allowing Robert back in the home she was discouraged by her supervisors and the local prosecutor from “probing into the past.” She would later say that she was told that the file on Dennis' death was “missing” and that she was given the impression that she was not to look into why Robert had been removed from the home but whether things were sufficient for his return.
Sometime around 1972, after using only what I found as described as “going through new channels” Lois and Harold adopted four siblings from Kentucky, known as “the Howton kids.” Social workers allegedly objected to this but were overruled by their supervisors. Lois and Harold hired an attorney to push the case and it seems that Kentucky “wanted the children off the welfare system” and kept together in a Catholic home. It has been said that by this point or soon after Lois' “rage and mania had gone beyond her ability to maintain an appearance of normalcy.” It is not clear how long the siblings remained in the home but they would later recount that they were abused nearly daily by Lois. Some of those allegations including slamming one child's forehead into a nail that was protruding from the wall or making them stand barefoot in the snow. At one point Lois once again was placed in a psychiatric hospital.
I should point out that none of the children ever accused Harold of abusing them but noted he did nothing to stop the abuse that Lois enacted onto the children. It was also alleged that there were times in which Lois would “order” Harold to beat the children and on those occasions he would take the child to the basement of the home where he would tell the child to scream while he would slap himself to give Lois the impression he was complying with her demands.
The Howton children lived in the home for about three years until 1975 when the two older children ran away from home and later told police what life was like in the Jurgens home. Since Stillwater was a different county than White Bear Lake they had no issue looking back at the 1965 juvenile reports. While there still seemed to be little information in the death of Dennis, it was mentioned in the reports since that was the initial reasoning for Roberts removal from the home. The social worker claims she encouraged the other county to re-open Dennis' case but that did not happen. For whatever reason while the Howton children were removed from the home, Robert remained. At some point the children went to live with a woman named June Bol. June was married to a cousin of Lois'.
At this point life just seemed to move on. By this time Lois was about forty-nine years old and even if an adoption agency would have allowed the couple to adopt again, their age would likely come into play against them. But, like when Robert had been removed in 1965 it would have been an uphill battle and it is unlikely any fight they offered would have done them any good in having more children placed in their home. For his part it was said that Robert ran away from home several times after the Howton children were removed. He was now a teenager.
Robert would grow to be an adult marry and have a child of his own by the mid 1980's. He would have a career as a police officer. He would say that he maintained a relationship with Harold and Lois and surprisingly it was said that he had allowed his own young son to live with them for a period of time while he and his wife prepared the family for a move. Some believe that Robert likely blocked out the abuse he had for the most part witnessed against the other children. He was only five when Dennis had died and another theory is that he may have felt that what he thought he saw was not necessarily accurate to the point of not being abuse since nothing ever happened to Lois.
Then Jerry Sherwood entered the picture looking for her son. Jerry became overly suspicious when she discovered that after speaking to Lois the phone number had been changed and started digging some more. She obtained Dennis' birth certificate and saw where the coroner had placed the word “deferred” on the line for manner of death. It was this word that would allow investigators an easier time in looking into the case. Had the case been ruled an accident before anything could have really been done that would have had to be officially changed. But, the “deferred” comment allowed them to dig deeper without too much standing in their way. So, when Jerry Sherwood contacted authorities in White Bear Lake in September of 1986 it appears they dug right in. While there seemed there was little found from any investigation that may or may have taken place in 1965 official were able to obtain pictures of Dennis at the time of his death as well as the autopsy and coroner report. It seemed apparent very quickly that this was a case of child abuse, not a simple fall down the stairs and an investigation was launched.
This time, as opposed to 1965, investigators not only talked to anyone and everyone they could, whether they had been interviewed in 1965 or not, but more people were willing to talk. By October of 1986 the newspaper in St. Paul ran an article about the case without naming Lois or Harold Jurgens but it was said that friends and family, even those yet to be contacted, already knew who they were talking about. The most important person in the case would end up being Robert Jurgens.
When investigators contacted Robert he already heard about the case being re-opened... Lois had called him. He would tell them what he could remember about that time period. When he was shown a picture of Dennis' battered body, unlike nearly everyone else, including investigators, who saw the pictures Robert did not seemed shocked. He told investigators that Dennis had always looked that way. He claimed that he remembered being in the basement of the White Bear Lake home playing and seeing Dennis fall down the stairs. He stated he saw Lois come down the stairs after him, shaking and hitting him. Later that night Harold had come home and in the early morning he remembered hearing a scream (although I cannot say just who he claimed to have heard) and the next thing he knew there were police officers and others all over the home. He would claim that since the investigation had been re-opened that both Lois and Harold seems to be trying to convince him that the fall he claimed to witness had happened the week before his death and not just the night prior.
Another person investigators spoke to was June Bol. She had taken the four Howton children into her home when they were removed from the Jurgens. She claimed not only when she had asked for the kids things that Lois had sent her dirty socks and a led pipe but she claimed she had a conversation with Harold Jurgens seven or eight years after Dennis' death concerning him. Bol's would claim that Harold told her that while working in Wisconsin he had received a call from Lois in which she told him that she and Dennis “had been at it” and he should come home. He told June Bol that he knew what that phrase meant. He claimed he went home and was up most of the night with Dennis. At some point he alleged that he had taken Dennis to use the bathroom but when he had awoke that morning Dennis was dead.
Other people told investigators about witnessing the force feeding, the black eyes and even the clothes pin attached to Dennis' penis. There were also claims that Lois would pull Dennis by his ears or even lift him by them.
The county coroner in 1986, Dr. McGee changed the manner of death on the death certificate to “homicide” before he ever exhumed Dennis' body. He made his decision based on the pictures and the autopsy report. He, along with seemingly every other expert, even those from 1965, would claim there was no way that the injuries to Dennis' abdomen and small bowel were made by a fall down the stairs. When the body was exhumed many were amazed at how well preserved it was and there were claims that many of the marks from abuse were still visible on the body.
On January 30, 1987 a grand jury indicted Lois Jurgens on one count of second degree murder and two counts of third degree murder. Minnesota is one of only three states that have third degree murder, something I had not heard of. It appears that basically third degree murder in Minnesota, at least in this case, means that Lois did not necessarily intend for Dennis to die but her indifference to his well being and what she did to him caused his death. Her trial began in May of 1987. When asked by the media why charges were not filed in 1965 the prosecutor stated, “In 1965, people didn't think white, middle-class families on a nice tree-lined street in White Bear Lake would murder their children. That's the bottom line.” It was also said that the idea that White Bear Lake was set to receive an award for being an All-American City may have played a role politically in the fact that no one wanted to now tarnish their “squeaky clean image.”
Prosecutors would argue that while they could not say exactly what happened to Dennis that caused his death, that it was evident by all of the evidence that more than a fall down the stairs had caused his injuries. They set out to prove that it was even possible that more than one long term injury had caused his death and that Lois had been seen to abuse him on a regular basis. They argued that Dennis had died from “battered child syndrome.” Using this argument the prosecution did not have to prove when the specific blow that caused the laceration to Dennis' abdomen occurred, they only had to prove the probability that it was Lois who had delivered that blow. It is unclear what exactly the defense argued at trial other than the fact that Lois proclaimed her innocence in Dennis' death.
There seemed to be little information about the conclusion of the trial other than the fact that after four hours of deliberation the jury returned a verdict of guilty on at least one of the counts of third degree murder. She was sentenced to “up to ten years” in prison. In a 1988 appeal that was filed, and ultimately denied it was said defense counsel had admitted that Dennis was an abused child but contested as to the extent of the abuse. It seemed to me the way this appeal read that this claim was actually made during the trial. They argued that the people who testified against Lois at her trial and not reported these things earlier or had even testified in the hearings involving the placement of Robert back into their home. They claimed that the witnesses, particularly June Bol, were biased against Lois.
I found it quite interesting that the defense seemed to concede that Dennis was an abused child but wanted to argue just how bad that abuse was and if it had caused his death. I never found anything in which it seems that anyone else was ever accused of abusing Dennis, even from the defense. So, as I read this it appeared as if the defense was saying “Yeah, she abused him, but really... it was not all that bad.” The fact of the matter is that even if you wipe away all of the witnesses, including both Robert Jurgens and June Bol you are still left with an autopsy and coroner report showing not just injuries inflicted at the time of his death, but seemingly over a long period of time. But, to be fair, I will admit that I agree that all the information that the witnesses were testifying to in 1987, except that of Robert considering his age at the time of the crime, should have been reported decades before. Fear of Lois and her behaviors should not have been an excuse that put more than one child in harms way.
Lois would serve eight years in prison and was released in 1995 for “good behavior.” Harold apparently stuck by her the entire time as he visited her regularly while she was incarcerated. The couple returned to their home in Stillwater and lived pretty much in seclusion. Harodl died in January of 2000 and at the time of his death there were rumors and suspicions that Lois may have poisoned him but it was said that it was investigated and proven not to be true. Lois would die in 2013 still proclaiming her innocence.