“Small Town Triple Homicide” scream the headlines, a momentary blip lost amidst the noise of 500 channels of infotainment, a blip likely erased by the next news cycle, eclipsed by another equally shocking story. The blip takes on greater significance when you know the victims, though.
My paternal grandparents were born and raised in Cole Camp, Missouri, a town with a steady population of about 1,000 located some two hours southeast of Kansas City. A small, rural town, Cole Camp had its moment of fame as the site of a small skirmish during the Civil War.
Cole Camp was also where I would go visit my great-grandmothers when I was very young. After they passed away, we would still go down and spend a week or so there every summer in one of their houses which my grandparents had kept.
Great-grandma Tess’ house was the oldest house in town (picture about half way down this web page), the only house on a city block’s worth of property that would have been large enough for another half-dozen houses, except for one other house. The other house belonged to Donnie and Sharon Luetjen, a couple about the age of my parents who had a son and a daughter, Terry a little older than me and Debbie about my age.
During my primary school years, during every visit my sister and I would spend hours playing with the Luetjen kids, especially Debbie. We’d play at the nearby park, sit on the porch playing Clue and other board games, and go explore the tall grasses out behind the house. One of our favorite games was a version of volleyball using an inflatable beachball and an old smokehouse for the net.
Debbie and I exchanged letters from time to time, drifting apart as my visits to Cole Camp became less frequent. Eventually, I heard she graduated from school the same year as me and then not too much later had married. Her older brother got married, too.
When Terry’s first born was just a month old, she was orphaned when her father was killed. Debbie and Terry’s parents took custody of their granddaughter, raising her as their own. They were good people, hard working and always looked out for my grandparents and their property, especially after my grandfather passed away in 1986 and my grandmother didn’t go down to Cole Camp nearly as often.
A few years ago, after my grandmother passed away, my family sold the entire property to Donnie and Sharon. Donnie, a collector and local history buffs, had long expressed interest in it, talking about turning the badly aging house into a museum of local history. As they had been so kind to my grandparents and so helpful over the years, selling the property to them felt like the right thing to do.
Over the years, I’ve heard about them on rare occasion, seeing Donnie once a few years ago on a day trip down to see the house.
Yesterday my mother sent an email to me and my sister: my uncle had heard on the news about a triple homicide in Cole Camp. Donnie and Sharon and their 15-year old granddaughter were reportedly stabbed to death. Police believe it was a robbery (Donnie’s collection of antique Indian arrowheads and other items was well-known about town) gone bad, as all of the artifacts and Donnie’s collection of guns were gone.
So now Debbie is the last member of the family. I don’t know how to get in touch with her, but would like her to know that my thoughts and prayers are with her. It is so sad that her family, kind and thoughtful people who never hesitated to lend a helping hand, would meet such a violent and untimely end.
I know that all the leaves fall from the tree, a few when they are still young and green and most when their color has faded to shades of rust and sunlight and dirt. But it seems like people who live their lives so generously deserve to die peacefully.
May they rest in peace.