A little girl named Valerie also came to harm

I don’t know about you, but I’m more than ready to kick last week to the curb.

It was a bad week all around, but it was a particularly bad week for Iowa.

It was the week when we were reminded that going for a simple run alone in our state can end in devastating results.

I’m talking about the death of Mollie Tibbetts.

While she wasn’t from our neck of the woods, she was an Iowan, and as Iowans we feel the ripple of horror and sadness for the way this young woman’s life ended.

Here in our Iowa, where the corn is starting to fire and gold is creeping into verdant soybean fields set in precise rows that promise an abundant crop, the view is of a utopia to which we Iowans are accustomed.

We expect the corn to reach into the azure sky, turning crisp as the weather cools.

We don’t expect that someone so young will come to everlasting harm.

But it happens.

Long before Mollie Tibbetts was born, a little girl from Manson also came to everlasting harm.

Her name was Elna Maria Peterson, but everyone, it seems, called her Valerie.

She was 8 when a pickup truck apparently swerved with the intention of hitting her as she rode her bicycle near the Manson Augustana Lutheran Church.

It was on a Thursday — May 6, 1971 — according to Iowa Cold Cases. She was hit around 4 p.m. while riding her bicycle on the side of the road in front of the church.

Another girl — a friend with whom Valerie was riding bikes — was riding up ahead. Later she said she saw a blue-green pickup truck with two or three men inside traveling north at a high rate of speed.

“Tire tracks in the dirt showed the truck had actually swerved off to the side of the road before hitting Valerie, but the driver did not stop. The girl riding with Valerie said she’d heard a vehicle coming and had specifically told Valerie they needed to get over to the side of the road, and that she’d seen Valerie do so,” according to Iowa Cold Cases.

The autopsy concluded Valerie likely flew up into the air when she was struck and then hit the truck again on the way down. She probably died instantly.

What followed can perhaps best be interpreted this way: Someone valued another life more than hers.

Authorities, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Criminal Bureau of Investigation, which pre-existed today’s Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, thought they found the pickup. And they thought they knew who was driving it.

But none of that mattered.

Manson, population a little under 2,000 at the time, circled the wagons and left Valerie out.

Her death became the skeleton in that town’s closet.

Forty-seven years have passed since Valerie’s death.

Since then, her sister, Eileen, and her brother, Cal, created a scholarship — the Valerie Peterson Memorial Justice Scholarship — at Manson Northwest Webster.

“And then there was silence,” according to Iowa Cold Cases. “The Petersons waited, let time pass, waited some more. No applications arrived.”

It was eventually withdrawn.

Rewards went unclaimed.

And mouths stayed publicly closed.

“I think the thing that almost hurts the most for victims and in cold cases is the silence, along with a feeling of powerlessness,” Eileen Peterson Meier told a media outlet in 2010, according to Iowa Cold Cases.

“My sister was not powerful or influential, but a human being who deserves justice,” she wrote later.

Today, here in Iowa, we are greeting seasonal changes with reasons to look forward.

Some people cannot do that.

The people who loved Mollie Tibbetts are among them.

So, too, are the people who loved Valerie Peterson.

Born in 1962, the third child of Roland E. and Edna H. Peterson, she is buried in the Union Cemetery in Pomeroy in Calhoun County.

Her parents died, never having seen justice, because the driver of that blue-green pickup has never been charged.

Jane Curtis is editor of The Messenger.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $2.99/week.

Subscribe Today