Scott Cawelti was a year ahead of Jerry Mark in high school and knew him as a smart, upper middle-class kid that went on to serve in the Peace Corps and attend law school.
He was shocked, like many in Iowa, when Mark was convicted of the 1975 slayings of his brother Leslie Mark and his entire family — wife Jorjean, and their two preschool children — in their Cedar Falls farmhouse.
The murders stuck with Cawelti. For years, he sat on information he had gathered in the time immediately following the murders, interviews with Mark in prison, with defense and prosecuting attorneys and trial transcripts that clearly showed him that Mark was the murderer, despite his decades-long insistence of innocence and numerous appeals that stretched through 2009.
Mark, 69, is still serving four life sentences at the Iowa State Penitentiary in Mount Pleasant. And 36 years later, Cawelti has penned a book on one of Iowa’s most notorious and gruesome mass murders, “Brother’s Blood: A Heartland Cain and Abel” ($19.95, Ice Cube Press), which sold out a small first printing in its first month.
An odd twist: Cawelti, a retired University of Northern Iowa English professor, today lives minutes from the graves of the four family members and the Mark homestead, where the brutal execution-style murders occurred just hours after Halloween, 1975.
Mark, who had become a picture of lost potential while living jobless in California, watched his younger brother begin to take a leading role in the family’s agriculture and real estate business as father Wayne Mark was treated for cancer. Jerry Mark began to feel frozen out of future riches, mounted a motorcycle and elaborately planned a cross-country trip, sure that poky and simple Iowa authorities wouldn’t be able to figure out his planted alibis — that he was actually on a trip in another direction to find himself.
Soon, the lies were uncovered. Bullets he purchased for a gun that his girlfriend reported missing were linked to him. The calls he supposedly made to her from other locations were in fact made along a perfect line to Iowa, where he methodically pumped four bullets into his brother, then shot his wife before shooting the children Julie, 5, and Jeff, 21 months.
Many couldn’t believe this bright young man could do such a thing.
“To this day,” former Register reporter Jack Hovelson, who covered the murder and trials, wrote the book’s foreword, “Jerry Mark has loyal friends who have defended him from the beginning of this horrible crime.”
Years ago, Cawelti had studied the brilliant rhetoric of attorneys during the trial for a research paper. He gave community talks on his findings and was taken aback when 300 people would show up, not as much for a lesson on rhetoric but out of interest in the murders.
“It’s part of Iowa mythology. Practically everyone knows about it. This book finally resolves what really happened,” he said. “What makes it unusual is the Cain and Abel angle. It is one of those horrible things that have happened for thousands of years.”
A jealous brother takes the life of another.
“(Jerry Mark) had this borderline sociopathic personality,” said Cawelti, of Cedar Falls. “They get along fine with people. Nothing they do bothers them. They can get by with anything and aren’t driven by guilt. What he really regrets is getting caught. Those people are scary.”
Cawelti visited Mark once in jail and found him persuasive, articulate and polite, just as he had in high school. In the archives of both the Des Moines Register and the Tribune, features were written a decade before the murders on Mark’s work in the Peace Corps.
“I have no idea if he knows about this book. But a prisoner in the cell next to him wanted to buy a copy. He wants to compare my facts with his facts,” Cawelti said. “Mark insists he is innocent and was framed. I’m convinced he is in his own psychological bubble.”
To make the book a gripping, tight narrative, Cawelti took the creative non-fiction approach of writers such as Truman Capote (“In Cold Blood”). He created fictional thoughts and conversations from real people, with no way of knowing if they occurred. But he insists they are probable, based on the facts, and has supplied 51 pages of source notes in the afterward.
“It is a problematic form,” he said. “But I was trying to get at what the characters were experiencing. ”
Cawelti’s book is successful in casting little doubt that the right man is in prison, a conviction the author held years ago after reading 3,000 pages of court transcripts. He simply wanted to explore what so many wondered 36 years ago, and some still do today: How could he do it?
Today, Mark’s parents who supported him through it all and funded his many appeals, are dead. The parents of Mark’s slain wife, George and Margaret Colthurst, are still living in their senior years and will attend Cawelti’s first public reading tonight in Cedar Falls.