Christmas Eve Cold Case: The Killing Of Ron Novak, 30 Years Later
NEAR CENTER POINT, Iowa - Walking along a stretch of Rolling Acres Road, north of Center Point, the setting of the final hours of Ron Novak's life start to make sense.
Within a farmhouse on the hill, someone killed Novak, 24, in a most brutal and deliberate fashion, using multiple weapons. Novak's body was found in an unheated room of his house, his hands tied behind his back.
Novak was the youngest of seven children. One of his older sisters, Mary Whitehead of Center Point, heard the news from another sibling on December 24, 1983.
"It pretty much took Christmas away," said Whitehead.
In the thirty years since Novak's killing, Whitehead has been active with the Iowa Cold Cases organization as well as serving as a victim's advocate, to support the family members of murder victims during trials and other stressful situations after the loss.
Investigators and detectives from the Linn County Sheriff's Office began work immediately on the crime scene, amid the bitter cold of that stretch of winter.
"It was so cold that night," said Col. John Stuelke of the Linn County Sheriff's Office. "It was 30 or 40 below with the wind chill. Any footprints were obliterated."
Stuelke joined the department in 1982, more than a year before investigators were called out to a horrific crime scene in Novak's house.
The official autopsy on the 24-year-old listed that he had been shot once with a .22 caliber gun but had also been beaten throughout his body with a golf club and two hammers. Whitehead said her baby brother was also beaten with firewood.
Yet another layer soon developed in the investigation. Someone had taken Novak's life in a horrible fashion but had not taken everything tangible in the house.
Inside a suitcase, about $32,000 in cash and, according to IowaColdCases.org, about $7,650 worth of marijuana was stored in a duffel bag.
A 1992 article in the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported investigators thinking the motive, initially, was a robbery but the drugs and money opened more questions.
Questions that Whitehead was convinced led to a delay in finding Novak's killer.
"I think from day one, it was just something they didn't care about," said Whitehead about the pace of the investigation. "He was another drug dealer gone and that's all he meant to them."
Stuelke disagreed with this.
"We investigate every crime the same," said Stuelke. "It doesn't matter who the crime involved or who the victim was. The program we kept running into with this case is that we keep running into dead ends."
To show the latest layer in the investigation, Stuelke said his department has taken steps to try and pinpoint a suspect.
"In the last ten years, the biggest development in investigating crimes has been DNA," said Stuelke. "Two years ago, we sent the evidence we had back to the (State Crime Lab) and request they check for any DNA evidence they could find. They did find a DNA match to an unknown individual that didn't match the victim. It was on the victim's clothing and it most likely was the suspect that we're looking for."
With so many years passing since the murder, the suspect may not even be alive and Stuelke said they have not found a DNA match to this point.
Whitehead appeared encouraged when informed of the recent DNA testing. In her long quest to find answers for who killed her youngest brother, she hopes his connections and contacts from 1983 will step forward.
"They've got nothing to lose now," said Whitehead. "They can't face any drug charges and that was severe then. Now there's just nothing to lose."
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