I have gotten to know author Tamara Shaffer over the years and especially when researching the deaths of sisters Barbara and Patricia Grimes. Both of us have an undying desire to see justice served and have written about unsolved murders in an effort to keep the victims' memories alive and to hopefully spark a memory or two within our readers in the hopes that new evidence will come forward. I recently had a meeting with Tamara and she was kind enough to write a guest blog for me with regard to the 1977 unsolved murder of Deborah Lynn Rosencrans.
In the 1950s, Chicago was stunned by three murder cases involving children ranging in age from eleven to fifteen. In October 1955, the bodies of brothers John and Anton Schuessler and their friend Robert Peterson were found dead and stacked like firewood in a forest preserve parking lot. Fifteen months later, the bodies of Barbara Grimes, fifteen, and her thirteen-year-old sister, Patricia, were found frozen on a country road near Willow Springs. It was only seven months later that the unthinkable happened again. In August 1957, an unwary fisherman reeled in two oil drums from the waters of Montrose Harbor and discovered the dismembered body of Judith Mae Andersen, which had been divided between the two containers. The 1955 case was ultimately solved, but it took forty years. Kenneth Hansen, associate of the late and notorious Silas Jayne, was convicted, in 1995, of killing the three boys and died while serving a 300-year sentence. The other two cases remain unsolved to this day.
Within six years of the murder of Judith Mae Andersen, Americans witnessed the assassination of a president, caught on tape, and his murderer shot to death on television. By the late 1960s there were riots in the streets of a number of major cities, including Chicago—still in shock over the 1966 slaughter of eight student nurses by Richard Speck.
In the early 1970s the Chicago area was marked by several cop killings and a rash of murders of teenage girls, an infant, and one twenty-four-year-old woman. Yet, until John Wayne Gacy killed thirty-three young men and boys in the late 1970s, there appeared to be progressively less fanfare with these cases.
Amy Alden, 15, appeared in the newspapers for one day after she was found strangled to death on September 22, 1972. The next day, Deborah Koslarek and Carolyn Vandermolen, two teens from the Southwest Side, became headline news when they were found shot—execution-style—in Washington Park. That case disappeared from the newspapers within a week, and neither case was solved.
Five years later, the photograph of an unidentified girl in a hospital bed appeared in newspapers with a plea for anyone who recognized her to come forward. The unconscious teenager had been bludgeoned and died twelve days after she was discovered in Schiller Park Woods. Her name was Deborah Lynn Rosencrans, and to date, no one has been arrested for her murder. Friends Debra Kundert and Charlene Catizone wish the case could be reopened and her killer brought to justice. They regret that her death appears to have been forgotten.
Be misty-eyed with each kiss goodbye,
And regret the return with a wave and a sigh.
Consider each night as you gaze above.
But prelude to another day with your love.
Rejoice at her or his voice.
Find delights when she or he writes.
Though around you people may call it square,
It’s a well-rounded world with someone to share.
Poem entitled Respect One Another
found among belongings of Deborah
Lynn Rosencrans, bludgeoned to death in
1977 at the age of sixteen
On September 6, 1977, a young man hitchhiking on Irving Park Road near Schiller Park Woods heard moans coming from the underbrush. Upon investigation, he discovered a young girl wrapped in a bloody blanket bound with a rope knotted like a hangman’s noose. He hailed a passing driver, who notified police.
The girl appeared to have been hit with a meat mallet. For nearly two weeks she lay unconscious and unidentified in Resurrection Hospital on Chicago’s far Northwest Side. Anxious parents with missing daughters called Chicago police from around the country; some joined local parents who visited the hospital and filed past her bed to rule out the possibility that she was theirs. When the comatose teenager died on September 18th, she was still without a name.
On October 3rd, Deborah Lynn Rosencrans, 16, was identified first by friends, then by her maternal grandmother, Dorothea Jaeger.
At the time of her disappearance, Debbie, as she was known, had been living temporarily at the home of Patricia Weinacker at 2027 North Honore Street. Mrs. Weinacker’s daughter Charlene and Debbie had known each other since the two girls attended Monroe Elementary School together at 3651 West Schubert Avenue.
“She was my best friend,” says Catizone, still feeling the loss after thirty-eight years. “She stood up at my wedding, and then I never saw her again. It was eerie, how she gave me her St. Christopher medal as a wedding present, and then in less than two weeks this awful thing happened to her.”
Debbie had lived with her divorced mother and two siblings at 6420 North Newgard Avenue until about September 1st. At the time of Debbie’s disappearance, her mother, Patricia Nash, had moved to Florida and was honeymooning with her new husband Albert.
“We all loved Debbie as though she was a member of our family,” Catizone’s older sister Debra Kundert says today.
“At first we weren’t worried when Debbie didn’t come home,” Kundert remembers. “We thought she probably spent the night with other friends.” After time passed and they became alarmed, she and another sister, Terri Weinacker, asked police to allow them to view photographs of the unconscious victim. However, due to a miscommunication about the times involved in Debbie’s disappearance—last time seen and when she was discovered—police insisted that the hospitalized girl found in Schiller Park Woods could not be Debbie. It was several days and Debbie had died before they acquiesced.
“She looked different because she was so battered,” Kundert says about the police photos, “and I couldn’t see her scar.” She explains. “When Debbie was little, her brother accidentally shot her with a bow and arrow, and it left a mark on her head. Her grandmother told us to be sure to look for that mark when we viewed the pictures.” Kundert says she knew in her heart that it was Debbie in the photos, but she just didn’t want to face it by making a definite statement.
Kundert’s brother Patrick Weinacker and family friend Irv Lorenz took on the horrific task of viewing the body to be sure—and sure they were. To everyone’s dismay, the dead girl was their dear friend Debbie. Once the positive identification was made, they broke the news to Debbie’s grandmother, who also viewed the body.
“Fortunately,” recalls Kundert, “she was somewhat braced for the news, since we’d believed it was Debbie for so long.”
Debbie’s mother was another matter. She traveled by train from Orlando and arrived at Union Station, only to discover to her horror that her daughter, whom she thought had been in an accident, had been brutally murdered.
“Debbie really loved her mother,” Kundert says, “but she felt left out, not being included in the move to Florida and her mother’s plans. Her mother was ‘getting things ready’ for Debbie in their new home down there, but that seemed to be dragging out, and every time they talked on the phone, Debbie would be upset.” Kundert explains that Debbie, like any teenager, hated to leave her friends, but she ultimately missed her mother and was looking forward to joining her once the honeymoon was over. On September 5th, her plan was gruesomely aborted when someone bludgeoned her and left her for dead in the woods.
While the investigation of her murder was free of the jurisdictional conflicts such as those present in the murders of Barbara and Patricia Grimes two decades earlier, it was not free of dramatic twists, and ultimately, it, too, defied resolution.
Police administered fourteen lie detector tests, according to newspaper accounts, to Jerry Then, the twenty-two-year-old man who had found Deborah in Schiller Park Woods, and he failed all of them.
Then claimed that police harassment had been so relentless and so traumatic he was forced to give up his apartment in Franklin Park and move back into his mother’s house in Elk Grove Village. Elaine Then defended her son: “No wonder people are afraid to get involved,’ she lamented to a Chicago Tribune reporter. “[Jerry] was only trying to do good and look where it’s gotten him.” Mrs. Then complained further that her attempt to engage an attorney to represent her son had resulted in a request for a $1,400.00 retainer and a suggestion that she mortgage her home to pay his fees.
Then stuck to his story that he’d been walking at Irving Park and River roads and heard moans coming from the woods. “It looked like something wrapped in some kind of cloth and a blanket…I went to touch the front of it, and my hands were all wet with blood.” Then said he splashed water from a puddle into the girl’s face, trying to revive her, to no avail. At that point he flagged a car going west and told the driver to get the cops.
Leads were scarce. Police sought information about a new boyfriend Debbie had mentioned to her friends. That his name was “Michael” was all anyone seemed to know. Debra Kundert points out that Debbie, who was prone to adopting orphaned creatures, was terribly worried about the fate of her three cats, whom she was boarding during her transition. Left to pay for the boarding herself, she’d been babysitting for another friend, Sandra Diorka, to earn money to cover the fees.
Debbie was to visit a friend the evening she disappeared. She never arrived. The next morning, September 6th, according to Kundert, Diorka woke up early with a pounding headache. She’d heard the phone, but thought she’d also heard someone—a female—calling to her, possibly from outside the Diorka home. Was it a dream? she wondered. Perhaps, she thought later, it was Debbie crying out for help.
When detectives questioned Debra Kundert, she remembers, they seemed suspicious of her because of her abundant knowledge about Debbie and the people in her life. “They were anxious to solve the case,” she says today. She and her sister are fairly certain that someone Debbie knew was responsible for her death, that she would not have gotten into a car with a stranger. “She had a naïve quality about her,” Kundert says, “and she was so concerned about her cats, she might have trusted someone who offered to take her somewhere to facilitate helping her find them homes or deliver them to a shelter in Hinsdale where she was thinking of taking them.”
Kundert believes that the person responsible had an accomplice or at least a sympathizer. A detective told her that during Debbie’s stay in the hospital, prior to her death, a nurse received a call from someone who asked, “How is Debbie?”
“That was before she was identified,” Kundert says, “and it was a female voice. It was probably someone involved with the killer.”
Catizone and Kundert both describe Deborah Rosencrans as a beautiful girl with striking green eyes and a sweet personality. Despite their close friendship with Debbie, they were excluded from her private, family-only funeral and graveside service. As the thirty-eighth anniversary of her death draws near, they both maintain hope that someone will come forward and provide information that will spark interest in the case and lead to Debbie’s killer.
The Guest Author
Tamara Shaffer has had articles and stories published in newspapers, magazines, and literary journals. She is author of Murder Gone Cold: The Mystery of the Grimes Sisters. She is retired and lives in Chicago.
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