NATION

Alleged Iowa serial killer preyed on women 'who wouldn't be missed,' daughter says

Lee Rood
Des Moines Register
  • Daughter told investigators her father killed 5 to 15 people; Newsweek has reported she believes the number could be 50 to 70.
  • Families of missing relatives have reached out to her to see if her father could be connected to their loved ones' disappearances.
  • An Iowa Department of Public Safety spokesperson says there's nothing new to report on the investigation.

DES MOINES, Iowa — Most of the victims would have been women in their late 20s to early 30s, not skinny, not overweight. They would have had black, dark brown or dirty blond hair, mostly shoulder length. Plain dressers; not a lot of makeup or jewelry.

But not all, Lucy McKiddy says.

In her first interview with the Des Moines Register, a part of the USA TODAY Network, since her story became international news, the daughter of an alleged killer in Iowa says her father victimized women “who wouldn’t be missed” and found them on the Iowa-Nebraska border, away from his hometown of Thurman, Iowa.

“He was a gas station attendant, mechanic and tow-truck driver at many gas stations and truck stops,” she said. “He picked up down-and-out women with no place to stay the night or to live.  He picked up truck-stop prostitutes. He picked up lonely, drunk women at bars.”

Donald Dean Studey didn’t have a criminal record in Iowa when he died in 2013 at the age of 75. But McKiddy, 53, of Lakeland, Florida, said her father was a crook and a gambler.

“He stole from every job he ever had,” she said. “He ran drugs, guns and in stolen property. He got jobs only when he needed to.”

Watchdog contacted McKiddy while examining who — and how many — people might have been reported missing during the 30-year span when McKiddy alleges her dad was disposing of bodies behind his property in a hollow north of his hometown in far southwest Iowa. Since her story first appeared in Newsweek last month, and cadaver dogs "hit" on the scent of human remains in and near a disused well behind Studey's former home, she said, numerous families with missing relatives have reached out to her to see if there’s any connection between their loved ones’ disappearances and the alleged killer.

'We have to look into it':Was Donald Studey really a serial killer? Sheriff, townspeople don't count it out.

A photo of Anna Studey with her husband Donald Studey on her grave stone near Thurman, Iowa, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. According to his daughter, Donald Dean Studey murdered "five or six" women a year and buried them in and around an abandoned well on his property.

 

In an interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper in late October, Naveed Jamali, an editor at large working on the story with Newsweek, said the staff had established evidence that Studey was a gambler who lived a life of crime. That alone didn't make him a serial killer, he acknowledged. However, in "speaking to people," Jamali said, they also discovered "a pattern" suggesting Studey "may have been connected to a criminal ring and potentially organized crime."

Mitch Mortvedt, a spokesperson for Iowa’s Department of Public Safety, which has been handling a barrage of media requests tied to the alleged killings, said the agency had nothing new to report. The FBI also has had no comment, and officials with the Fremont County sheriff’s office didn’t return phone calls or emails.

So it's unclear what authorities will do next — or even whether they believe, as Jamali suggested, that more than one person could be tied to the alleged body dumping in a remote, concave area behind the Studey property in Green Hollow, Iowa, north of Thurman. McKiddy told investigators she knew of at least five, and perhaps as many as 15, bodies that could be buried in the area, some of which she says she saw herself. But Newsweek reported she believes there could be as many as 50 to 70.

Victims likely came from near Iowa-Nebraska border, daughter believes

According to a multidisciplinary team of experts assembled by the FBI, one common truism among most serial murderers is that the vast majority tend to do their killing within very defined geographic areas or “comfort zones,” such as their homes, homes of relatives, or places of employment. At times, serial murderers may spiral into activities outside that comfort zone, when their confidence has grown or to avoid detection. Very few serial murderers travel interstate to kill.

McKiddy, the youngest of Donald Studey’s four children from his third marriage, said her father was unlikely to kill people from the immediate area around tiny Thurman, a town of about 170, where his family went back more than 170 years.

Instead, she said authorities should look for victims who went missing from around 1970 to around 1982 from near the Iowa-Nebraska border — near Omaha, Council Bluffs, Plattsmouth, Nebraska City or towns north and south. Especially, she said, from 1976 to 1980, when he worked at a truck stop in Council Bluffs that also had a Greyhound bus stop.

'We've got to have more proof':Woman claims her dad was prolific serial killer who buried bodies on property; Iowa officials investigating

 

McKiddy says she knows by heart the story he told women: That he was a widower, that his kids’ mother died when the youngest was just 10 months old, that he needed someone to help watch them.

“A woman will let down her guard for that,” McKiddy said. “And he promised them money when they left.”

McKiddy said he had consensual sex with some women who came to live in their home. She also said he had at least 10 children that she is aware of with multiple wives and girlfriends, and he was abusive to most of the women he was with.

When asked if she could provide any names of Studey's potential victims, she said: “I can’t discuss that.”

In an Oct. 27 Watchdog column, townspeople in Thurman, about 40 minutes from Omaha, said they didn't doubt the possibility that Studey, a man with a history of violence and suicidal tendencies, could be a killer.

Locals said children were told for decades not to go up into Green Hollow, where Studey or his family members lived in a sparsely populated area. The sheriff's department logged more than 20 calls to the home dating back to the 1990s.

McKiddy said she’s been told an initial meeting between the FBI, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Fremont County Sheriff’s Department has been held to decide how to move forward with the investigation.

But since then, she says, she’s not been kept in the loop.

“I’m left in the dark," she said. "I think mostly they are covering their a---- for not doing anything for 40-some years.”

National database shows few missing people from region

A search of a national database of missing people maintained by the federal government, meanwhile, doesn't show any obvious connections in Iowa or Nebraska. Looking from 1970 to 1982 for people who disappeared about an hour’s drive in any direction from Thurman, as McKiddy suggested, shows only two in that time frame:

  • Colleen Simpson, a 14-year-old who went missing from her home in the middle of the night in October 1975 in Bedford, Iowa, about an hour east of Thurman.
  • Anna Ciaccio, 30, who disappeared in March 1981 from Papillion, Nebraska, about 40 minutes north from Thurman.

Two others went missing after that time period: Johnny Shields, 32, who left his house in December 1988 in Carter Lake and never returned, and Dennis Addlesberger, 46, who went missing in March 1999 from Council Bluffs, who was labeled by authorities as “physically endangered” at the time.

McKiddy said she didn’t think victims would be found that way, however.

“I've been told that in order to find out who these women are, it's going to come down to mainly DNA databases," she wrote in a text to Watchdog. "The women were types that wouldn't be missed. If they are missed and someone did file a report, it's going to take boots on the ground physically searching through small town uncomputerized police reports collecting dust in storage. There are already people that started doing that over a month ago.”

Solved cold case:Ohio authorities say DNA technology led them to a serial killer in Cincinnati — 37 years after his death

Her 2007 report to authorities was seen as her word against her father's

On a private Facebook page McKiddy manages with a cousin who is also dedicated to her cause, McKiddy has written of the trauma she experienced growing up in an abusive household, her own suicide attempts, about what she says is misinformation printed by some media outlets, and family members who have disputed her story.

McKiddy said growing up, her father often told people she was a liar, which wasn’t true.

“He said this because I wouldn't keep my mouth shut. I've been trying to tell people about my dad since 1973. I was about 4 or 5 years old. He used to beat me and/or threaten my life each time I told someone. He told me that it's better for people to believe that about me than him having to kill me,” she wrote.

Donald Dean Studey's grave near Thurman, Iowa, on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. According to his daughter, Donald Dean Studey murdered "five or six" women a year and buried them in and around an abandoned well on his property.

 

As a child, she tried to tell local school officials, ministers and others about her father, she said. Years later, she tried to tell the Fremont County Sheriff’s Department about bodies her father put in the well. But at that time, in 2007, she was in a dispute with her father over $16,000 he said she stole from him.

Fremont County Chief Deputy Timothy Bothwell told Watchdog he couldn’t locate the well at the time. But he also doubted McKiddy's credibility. “We thought she was just trying to get Dad in trouble or have us look at him because she stole his money," he said.

She later told deputies she did steal the money as a means of getting back at him.

Phone call with Florida deputy stirs interest in daughter's account

In March 2021, McKiddy, speaking on the phone with another deputy from Florida, told her story again.

After that report, the sheriff’s department asked the FBI to help investigate McKiddy’s allegations. But, she contends, the FBI did not want to spend $23,000 on core drilling near the well, so the investigation stalled.

Frustrated, McKiddy said, she contacted the Omaha World-Herald and spoke directly to the editor. When the editor failed to get a reporter on the story quickly enough, she reached out to Eric Ferkenhoff, a reporter at the Des Moines Register at the time. After Ferkenhoff told her he had taken a new job at Newsweek, she said, she didn’t care who he worked for as long as the story would be reported.

A similar pattern:Suspect charged in three slayings in California serial killer case; more charges expected

McKiddy said Newsweek's calls to Omaha police helped prompt the search with the cadaver dogs.

McKiddy said she initially had difficulty trusting people after failing to be heard for so long, and, at first, she reported only about bodies being in the well. But she said she actually knew of four possible locations near the old county home for the poor in Green Hollow where bodies may be found.

Last month, McKiddy, with Ferkenhoff, Jamali and a photographer in tow, led deputies straight to the well, and the volunteer cadaver dogs “hit” on the decay of possible human remains at and near the well.

After Newsweek ran its story in October, Susan Studey was interviewed and said her father was strict but not a serial killer, and she wanted to restore his name. A brother, Gary Studey, died in 2004. The Register has reached out to a third Studey daughter, who left home in 1987 and now lives in Wisconsin, but she has not responded.

Of her sister's report, McKiddy would say only: "Childhood trauma can make siblings remember things differently as a matter of survival."

Daughter says she saw her father haul bodies in a wheelbarrow

On the private Facebook page, other relatives have supported McKiddy, whose 2021 account, summarized in a sheriff's report, was horrific.

She said in 1976 or 1977, she saw her father go outside with a .22 rifle and come back in the house and put the rifle up. Later, she said, she saw her dad and two other men take a body out of the trunk of a car and haul it by wheelbarrow to the 90-foot-deep well.

Not long after, in the late 1970s or 1980, McKiddy said, she was with her father in his car when he picked up a 15-year-old girl on an interstate exit. She said her father convinced the girl it was safe to go with them because he was a single dad with four kids, but McKiddy said she believed he raped and murdered her. The girl was gone the next morning, the incident report says.

 

McKiddy also said she awoke one night to the screaming of a homeless woman. She said her father was beating the woman and dragging her by her hair in the living room. The next morning, she said, her father told her the woman had left, “but she figured she was in the well.”

McKiddy said she saw a dead body by an old cellar on the family property one day around 1979, and her dad loaded it onto the wheelbarrow and took it to the well. Around the same time, she said, her father took two bags of lye to the well, where she saw that body and another of a man in his 20s lying facedown.

“She said that her dad told her they were putting the lye on the bodies to help deteriorate them faster,” the deputy wrote in the incident report. Afterward, McKiddy said, they went mushroom hunting.

Facts and myths about serial killers, from FBI guidance

About 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered each year in the U.S., where roughly 600,000 individuals go missing every year.

Many missing children and adults are quickly found alive. However, tens of thousands of individuals remain missing for more than one year — what many agencies consider “cold cases.”

According to investigative guidelines created for law enforcement by the FBI, a serial murderer is at work when two or more cases are linked by forensic or behavioral evidence.

There is no generic profile of a serial murderer. They may differ in many ways, including their motivations for killing and their behavior at the crime scene. However, they do share some traits, including sensation seeking, a lack of remorse or guilt, impulsivity, the need for control, and predatory behavior — common among those with psychopathic personality disorder.

Motive generally may be difficult to determine in a serial murder investigation, as the murderer may have multiple motives for committing his crimes.

It’s a myth that serial killers are dysfunctional loaners. The majority of serial killers are not reclusive, social misfits who live alone. Many serial killers hide in plain sight within their communities. Serial murderers often have families and homes, are gainfully employed and appear to be normal members of the community.