2nd Update: 1974 Labor Day Murders Sept 5, 2016 17:35:03 GMT -5
Post by Graveyardbride on Sept 5, 2016 17:35:03 GMT -5
Diary Entry Best Clue to 42-Year-Old Labor Day Murders
ST. CLOUD, Minn. – On Labor Day in 1974, Mary (above right) and Susanne “Sue” Reker walked to a nearby store to purchase school supplies and never came home. It has now been 42 years since the morning that has haunted a St. Cloud family ever since. The bodies of the two girls were discovered almost a month after they went missing and their killer has never been identified. Now, investigators are taking another look at a diary entry that could be the most important clue in the case.
It had been a full weekend for the Rekers with a big family reunion and the last-minute rush the start of a new school year brings. Mary was 15 and Susanne, 12. When they were preparing to leave on their shopping trip, Mary, a sophomore at St. Francis High School in Little Falls, told her mother she also wanted to look for a winter coat. On that warm, sunny day, she was wearing blue jeans, brown oxford shoes, a short-sleeved white sweater and an Army fatigue shirt with “REKER” stitched above the left pocket. Susanne was dressed in navy-blue corduroy pants, a white cotton jacket and low-cut boots. Both girls were wearing wire-rimmed glasses.
The manager at Shopko saw the girls shortly before noon and around 1 p.m., Jacob Yunger, a neighbor, chatted briefly with them at Zayre. In a 1977 interview with the Minneapolis Star, Yunger claimed he heard Sue tell Mary: “I don’t want to go with that man. I don’t like him. Let’s not.” According to Yunger, the girls then walked toward the store’s grocery section, which was closed for Labor Day, but in the same general direction as the women’s coat department. Later, Yunger told police he recalled seeing a large, nervous-looking man outside the store about the time he last saw the girls. Another witness reported seeing the sisters at a tavern on the other side of St. Cloud in the company of two men and about a dozen teenagers. He particularly remembered the word REKER on Mary’s shirt. A number of people near the abandoned Meridian Aggregates Quarry southwest of St. Cloud indicated they saw two girls matching the description of the Reker siblings walking toward the popular swimming spot that afternoon.
“They left about 11:15 from what I recall that morning,” Rita Reker, their mother, related. “They said they would be back early.” Mary had just started at an all-girls school the week before about 45 minutes away and she was expecting to meet friends for a ride home that afternoon. “When it got to be 6:30, 7 p.m., my husband went to the police department to report that they were missing,” she added. For 26 days, the agonizing wait continued. “We just knew whatever had happened, it was going to change our entire lives. We knew that.”
It was on Sept. 28, 1974, that two teenagers discovered Susanne’s body at a rock quarry west of Waite Park. She had been stabbed 13 times with a smallish knife and her fully-clothed corpse was partially concealed by a bush. Mary’s body was located by divers on a ledge 40 feet underwater. She had been stabbed six times. Her jeans and panties were strewn on the cliff as if someone had attempted to toss them into the water. Her bra had been cut into four pieces, her panties were cut and her white sweater had been slit in an unusual manner, but what was left of the garment remained on her body.
Mary was afraid. There were indications Mary Reker had been acting strangely before the murders. Her mother, now 80-years-old, confirmed: “I knew something wasn’t right, but she wasn’t saying what it was.” The biggest mystery concerning what might have been troubling Mary was a note discovered after the girls disappeared:
Should I die, I ask that my stuffed animals be given to [my sister] and if I am murdered find my killer. See that justice wins over. I have a few reasons to fear for my life and what I ask is important.
What could a 15-year-old teenager have done to make someone want to kill her? “It’s troubling why she wrote that. Why she had that thought,” Rita admitted.
Suspects. Two years later, on September 25, 1976, Herbert D. Notch Jr., 18, an employee in the Zayre grocery section, and James A. Wagner, 17, abducted a 14-year-old St. Cloud girl from a grocery store where she was working, raped and stabbed her and left her for dead. Both were arrested and charged with attempted murder, rape, robbery and kidnaping. In the 1976 case, a relatively small knife was used, the girl’s sweater was slit up the middle, but wasn’t removed, and her bra and panties were cut from her body and the garments thrown into a lake.
Some in and around St. Cloud suspect Michael J. Bartowsheski, a man who lived six blocks from the Reker family and was sentenced to life in prison in 1979 for the stabbing death of an 8-year-old girl in Colorado.
A fourth suspect in the Reker murders was the Rev. Richard Eckroth, a monk at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville. The Reker sisters were with a group of church youths Eckroth took to a lakeshore cabin in Beltrami County two years before their deaths. Later, the priest was fingered by numerous men and teenagers and accused of more than 360 counts of sexual molestation of boys under his care. However, all Eckroth’s known victims were male and he insisted he had nothing to do with the murders of Mary and Susanne. Finally, in the 1990s, at the insistence of Fred and Rita Reker, he submitted to, and passed, a polygraph test. Eckroth died in May 2015.
There also have been suggestions that serial killer Harvey Carignan, currently serving a 400-year sentence in Minnesota, killed the sisters because he was actively abducting, raping and killing women and girls in the region at the time. The body of one of his victims, who disappeared August 10, 1974, was discovered 29 miles from St. Cloud, and on September 8, 1974, he lured June Lynch and Lisa King, both 16, into his car in Minneapolis and raped and bludgeoned them to death. Less than a week later, he abducted Gwen Burton from a Sears parking lot and left her for dead. Though she survived, Burton suffered permanent disabilities. Two females he assaulted September 18 managed to escape. Two days later, he abducted and killed Kathy Schultz. But even though Carignan was definitely in the area at the right time, all his victims were bludgeoned and his weapon of choice was a hammer, not a knife.
Case still active. Eleven years ago, the Reker case was presented to the Vidocq Society, a nonprofit organization, the members of which are experts in various fields of criminal investigation. Following review, Stearns County Sheriff John Sanner announced the Society “supported and confirmed that the person(s) of interest identified by local investigators ... were, in fact, the trail to follow.”
Chief Deputy Bruce Bechtold still considers the Reker murders a top priority in Stearns County and a new investigator took over the case this summer. Profilers have maintained a young man in the area at that time is likely behind the murders and may have had an accomplice. While Bechtold indicated he would not discuss any names, there is a sense they could be close. “The people we have looked at, or are currently looking at, are all alive,” Bechtold disclosed.
“I’m convinced there are people around him that would know and it’s time to tell,” Rita added.
Rita and Fred Reker went on to bring up four children, determined the killer wasn’t going to take their lives, too. Fred died three years ago, but with so many cold cases back in the spotlight, Rita is confident there will be closure in her lifetime. “I’m wondering is this the year it’s going to be solved? I still keep hoping,” she said.
If you have any information on the Reker case, call the Stearns County Sheriff’s office at 320-251-4240. There is a $50,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case.
Sources: WCCO, August 31, 2016; David Unzine, The Saint Cloud Times, September 1, 2004; Behind the Pine Curtain; Minnesota Department of Corrections; and BadlandsColdCase.