Brother’s Blood Murder

from the Cedar Falls/Waterloo Courier, 9/11/11 by Melody Parker

CEDAR FALLS — In a corner of a rural pioneer cemetery in Black Hawk County, four grave markers sit in a perfect row. The markers all share the same last name, carved in relief into the granite stones, along with their birthdates. But it is the date of death that is striking. Each marker reads “November 1, 1975.”

This is where Leslie and Jorjean Mark, both 25, and their two young children, Julie, 5, and Jeff, 21 months, rest in peace 36 years after being brutally murdered, execution-style, in their farm home north of Cedar Falls. A tree planted in their memory, now gnarled and nearly bare of leaves, towers over the gravesites as if bearing silent witness to the unspeakable loss.

Leslie’s brother, Jerry Mark, was convicted of the slayings in 1976 and is serving four consecutive life sentences at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, still protesting his innocence and having exhausted his appeals.

In his new book, “Brother’s Blood,” Scott Cawelti takes readers inside this heartland Cain and Abel story. The book culminates a project that Cawelti, a Courier columnist and retired professor emeritus at the University of Northern Iowa, has worked on in fits and starts since 1980.

“It’s still a hot topic — people still talk about the Mark murders. It sent shock waves through the community and Iowa, and people were frightened. At first, everyone thought it was drifters, and they were shocked when Jerry was arrested nine days later,” Cawelti said.

Tom Ruxlow, who worked the case as an investigator for the Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation and prosecuting attorney David Dutton, who tried and won the case, agreed it seemed that “someone had murdered an entire family as if to saw off one limb from the Mark family tree.” Ruxlow wrote a foreword for Cawelti’s book, while Dutton wrote the preface.

Mark was one year older than Cawelti when they were classmates at Cedar Falls High School, and the author remembers him as charming, personable, polite and a member of a wealthy farm family, the last person anyone would suspect of such gruesome murders. Both Les and Jorjean were shot multiple times, and the children were each shot in their beds, once in the eye and once in the heart.

The crime is one of the worst in Iowa history and took place in the wee hours of the morning after Halloween in 1975. Mark, who lived in Berkeley, Calif., claimed he was on a motorcycle ride to “find himself,” but investigators built their case on Mark’s route from California to Iowa, his recorded purchase of unusual ammunition for a stolen gun, phone records that proved he wasn’t where he said he was when he spoke with his girlfriend multiple times and witness accounts.

“All these years later, Jerry still has friends who think he was railroaded because he was convicted on circumstantial evidence, but it was pretty powerful circumstantial evidence,” the author said.

Cawelti closely followed the trial, which took place in Sioux City on a change of venue, feeling in his bones that he should write about the case.

Four years after Mark’s conviction, Cawelti secured an interview with Mark in prison.

“He maintained his innocence. I think he did the interview because he thought I could somehow help to exonerate him. He blamed his father, he blamed the lawyers, everybody but himself. Then he lied to me. He said his lawyer, Lawrence Scalise, wouldn’t let him take the stand to refute the evidence. When I spoke to Scalise, he said he told Jerry that if he didn’t take the stand, he would be convicted, but Jerry was afraid of the cross-examination.”

He also interviewed Jerry’s mother, Dorothy, Jorjean’s parents George and Margaret Colthurst, Dutton, Ruxlow and others. Then Cawelti put the project on hold while Mark kept filing appeals. In 2006, a U.S. District Court Judge ordered that Mark receive a new trial or be released, but the decision was reversed in 2007.

Thirty years later, Cawelti decided it was time to tell the story. “It was so long ago that I thought the facts should finally be out there.”

Cawelti relates the story in two sections. In the first, he projects himself into Jerry Mark’s mind, fictionalizing conversations, thoughts and dreams that may be “close to the truth based on what I learned and heard, but the events, places, people and place names are based on facts and research into the case. I wanted to engage the reader in a narrative. There are two disclaimers in the book about that.”

The second half encompasses sources, including trial transcripts, police interviews, newspaper stories and interviews, and closes with a victim statement written by George Colthurst.

Gary Kelley illustrated the book cover.

Cawelti, with Scott Smith, has written a screenplay roughly based on the investigation called “Shadows in the Dark.”

“Brother’s Blood” is available at University Book & Supply and the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Barnes and Nobles and Waterloo Center for the Arts, and at Amazon.com.