A Tale of Two Minnesota Mothers: One Seeks the Truth Behind Their Son's Death, the Other Stands Accused
By Dan Chu
Little Dennis' life was so tragically brief. He was born Dec. 6, 1961 in Sauk Centre, Minn, to a 17-year-old unwed mother named Jerry Puckett. When she reluctantly gave him up for adoption, the baby was placed with Lois and Harold Jurgens, who lived 100 miles away in White Bear Lake. Just two years later the child died from peritonitis caused—according to coroner and police reports—by an accidental fall.
Unaware of the tragedy, Dennis' natural mother nursed the hope that someday she and her firstborn would be reunited. "I always thought I'd see him again," says Jerry Puckett Sherwood, now 42 and the divorced mother of four grown children. "I knew he would come home." She began to search for Dennis in 1980, and the discovery that he had died years before left her devastated. Intuitively rejecting the explanation of a fatal mishap, Jerry pursued her own investigation. Eventually she became convinced that her son had been beaten to death. Last September she persuaded authorities to reopen the case.
Late last month Sherwood saw Dennis' adoptive mother for the first time. It was in the Ramsey County Courthouse where Lois Jurgens, 61, was charged with murdering Dennis Craig Jurgens on or about April 10,1965.
Jerry Puckett Sherwood, now a rental property manager in St. Paul, had had a troubled childhood. Her mother deserted the family before Jerry was old enough to remember anything about her. Reared by her stepmother and her father, a truck driver, Jerry was rebellious as a teenager. When she got pregnant at 17, she was sent to a reform school. "It was the very first time I even had sex with my boyfriend," says Jerry. "In those days if you skipped school or ran away from home or became pregnant they labeled you 'incorrigible' and locked you up."
She wanted to keep the child but welfare officials told her that was impossible. "They said I was underage and a ward of the state, and they could take him away whether I signed the papers or not," Jerry recalls. "They told me that if I gave him up he would have a good home, a good life, all the advantages that I could never give him."
So Jerry consented, though she would marry the boy's father, carpenter Dennis McIntyre, a year later. Before their divorce in 1970 the McIntyres had four more children, the first three of whom were girls (Misty Lorraine, now 24, Ronda Marie, 22, and Dawn Christine, 21). When the fourth child turned out to be a boy, Jerry bestowed on him the same name as her lost son. The second Dennis Craig is now 19.
After a second failed marriage (to Richard Sherwood, a maintenance company superintendent), Jerry set out to find her first son. "He would have been 19 and approaching legal age," she says. "I thought he might not want to see me, but if he found out that he had three real sisters and a real brother, he might want to see them." She was joyfully anticipating the reunion when an official at the welfare department of Ramsey County broke the news. It was three days before Jerry stopped crying, she says. Then, gathering up two of her children, she visited the boy's grave, stopping afterward at a nearby mortuary. With little Denny's records was a newspaper clip that said the child had been found dead in his home and that the body bore multiple injuries and bruises. "I thought, 'Oh my God, he was beaten to death,' " Jerry recalls.
Working through Dennis' adoptive name, Jerry located and phoned the Jurgenses. "A pleasant-sounding woman [who identified herself as Lois Jurgens] told me she thought I had been informed of the death long ago," Jerry says. "I asked her what kind of little boy he was, and she said he had been a good, happy little boy. She didn't say much else except that when he was found, he had black blotches all over his body, and they didn't know where the wounds had come from. I told her I dearly wanted a picture of him, and she promised to send me one, along with a baptismal sweater. I gave her my name, phone number and address, and I waited about six weeks and didn't get anything." When Sherwood called the Jurgenses again, an operator told her the number had been changed and was now unlisted.
At that point, says Sherwood, "I just kind of dropped it." Adoption records are confidential in Minnesota, and "everybody said I had given up my legal rights on this," she explains. Then last September she spoke with a friend who, visibly upset at Jerry's story, shouted, "To hell with your legal rights! What about your moral rights to know?"
Galvanized into action, Jerry dispatched daughter Ronda to get a copy of the death certificate and son Dennis to scour newspaper files for stories on his namesake brother. She also went to see Lieut. Clarence Harvey, chief of investigations of the White Bear Lake Police Department. "He pulled the file on Dennis," Jerry remembers, "and realized something was wrong, that something should have been done 21 years ago." Says daughter Ronda: "As he read from the file about the bruises and injuries and where they were on the body, Mom just got whiter and whiter and shook and shook." Lieutenant Harvey had the same reaction: "I began to wonder why there wasn't a prosecution," he has said.
Harvey took Jerry's concern to Dr. Michael McGee, the medical examiner for Ramsey County and a forensic pathologist skilled in the scientific investigation of crimes of violence. In this case, according to McGee, he needed only a quick glance at the police and medical evidence, including telltale photos of the dead boy, to determine that his death was no accident. "It isn't some medical mystery," McGee has said. "I looked at the autopsy report and said 'child abuse.' " On his orders, Dennis Craig Jurgens' death certificate, on which the coroner's classification had been "deferred" for more than two decades, was reclassified a homicide.
Douglas Thomson, the attorney for Lois Jurgens, says his client—who has pleaded not guilty—will make no statement before her trial, which is tentatively scheduled to begin March 23. Ramsey County officials will neither discuss the case in detail nor openly criticize the actions, or lack of them, of their predecessors in office. Nonetheless it already is clear that for Dennis Jurgens, in the words of county attorney Tom Foley, "the system failed."
It was not only the legal system that somehow overlooked a child's alleged death by violence, but also the adoption system that accepted Lois Jurgens as a fit parent. According to social worker Carol Felix, whose investigation of their history as adoptive parents became part of court records, Lois and Harold Jurgens were "a childless couple who sorely wanted to be parents, although this was impossible because of infertility." Frustrated, Lois Jurgens "became emotionally disturbed and was given treatment, including shock therapy, in 1955." Five years later the Jurgenses bypassed state-licensed agencies and independently adopted an infant named Robert. Some time after that they were accepted by Ramsey County officials as potential adoptive parents. Even then, according to Felix, the caseworker had misgivings—she noted the mother's "rigid manner and need for perfection"—but was persuaded that Lois Jurgens "seemed desperate to make this adoption work." Dennis was given into the Jurgenses' care.
About a month after Dennis died, a juvenile court judge ordered that his older brother Robert be taken out of the Jurgens home (he is today a policeman in Crookston, Minn, and has declined to discuss his childhood). The juvenile court proceedings were sealed until 10 years later, when Felix was allowed to review the records. More than 50 witnesses had testified at the inquiry into Dennis' death, and several relatives of Lois Jurgens had reportedly accused her of mistreating her children. According to Felix, there were horrifying "details of sadistic behavior on the part of Mrs. Jurgens."
Felix was granted access to the old court files in 1976 because she was investigating an unrelated allegation of child abuse by Lois Jurgens. The couple had moved to Stillwater, Minn. soon after Dennis' death, and in 1972 were allowed to adopt four siblings from a Kentucky family. The two older children, teenagers at the time, ran away, claiming constant abuse, including hair pulling, slapping and beatings. The county juvenile court terminated the Jurgenses' parental rights over all four kids in 1976. The Jurgenses denied the charges of abuse but consented to the court order.
Retired from social work and living in Tucson, Ariz., Felix has said she tried to reinterest officials in the suspicious death of Dennis Jurgens, but "they all dropped the ball. They didn't want to admit, even to themselves, that this baby boy had been murdered."
The assistant police chief in White Bear Lake in 1965 was Jerome Zerwas, who is Lois Jurgens' brother and is now 59 and retired from the force. The current police chief, Phil Major, doubts that Zerwas had the authority to block an investigation and believes he removed himself from the case. Zerwas confirms that he bowed out immediately because of the family connection. "It wasn't right for me to get involved," he says. "No police officer would have."
More than 20 years later it is hard to determine why the apparent murder of a little boy was ignored. "The system was not as sensitive then to child abuse," suggests prosecutor Foley. "People were much more willing to accept a rationale for an incident, other than it being a criminal act."
Though Lois Jurgens is free on bail and awaiting trial, her husband, an electrician, is not charged with any crime. Indeed he was given immunity to compel him to testify to the grand jury. (According to two of the Kentucky kids, Renee Norton, now 26, and Grant Bol, 25, Harold Jurgens never harmed them but neither did he ever intervene to protect them against abuse.)
Meanwhile Jerry Sherwood must cope with a final irony: Her love and determination brought about this belated justice for her dead son, yet she will only be a spectator at the trial. "Under the law, she's not legally involved," explains prosecutor Foley, "but, as best we can, we try to accommodate her feelings and needs." That, it would seem to those aware of Jerry's heartache, is long overdue.