Minnesota Murders of 1977

Glensheen Estate, 06.28.77
courtesy of Star Tribune

I've spent the last ten months reviewing thousands of news clips from the Minnesota Historical Society's KSTP-TV collection. Having made it through all of 1977, the most intriguing stories have been bizarre murders that took place around Minnesota at this time.

- Elisabeth Congdon & Velma Pietila -
Elisabeth Congdon was the daughter of mining entrepreneur Chester Adgate Congdon, famous for constructing the famous Glensheen Estate in Duluth, Minnesota. One of her two adopted daughters - Marjorie - was considered both a black sheep and sociopath, as she had been placed in numerous institutions throughout her life and was constantly borrowing money from her mother.
Elisabeth and her nurse Velma Pietila were found murdered in Glensheen Mansion on June 27, 1977. Elisabeth had been suffocated with a pillow, while Velma had been beaten with a candlestick. Both Marjorie and her second husband Roger Caldwell were considered suspects, as Marjorie was set to inherit $8 million dollars and had authorized Roger to receive $2.5 million of this only three days beforehand. Roger was convicted in 1978, though was released in 1983 after a plea deal that involved his confession to the murders. However, having never received his promised money from Marjorie, he committed suicide in 1988 and left a note claiming his innocence.
While never convicted for these particular murders, Marjorie is currently in prison for fraud. It was suspected that she had murdered her third husband and this man's first wife, though it was never proven. As for the Glensheen Manor, it is now a museum run by the University of Minnesota - Duluth. For years, tour guides were told not to mention the murders, but now can do so if asked.
- Susan Rosenthal -
Having recently married in the Fall of 1977, Susan Rosenthal and her husband Al moved into the neighborhood of New Hope, Minnesota. A mere three days later on October 3, Susan was stabbed ninety-seven times in her home while she was alone. Graffiti threats of 'maybe you' and 'you are next' were written on the exterior of neighbors' homes, sufficiently freaking out these people who had not even met this couple.
While this first led investigators to believe this was an anti-Semitic killing, it was soon discovered that the real culprit was June Mikulanec, an ex co-worker of Al Rosenthal. She had been delusionally in love with Al, going so far as to prepare dinners, waiting for him to appear, and buying an engagement ring and telling her friends it was from him. Once he married Susan, however, June blamed her for coming between them and murdered her out of jealousy.
Mikulanec went on to be defended by attorney Douglas Thomson (who, coincidentally, also represented Roger Caldwell), and in a particularly rare instance, was found not guilty by reasons of insanity. She can now be found as a subject in many law school thesis papers.
- Shirleen Howard -
On August 13, 1977, Shirleen Howard was shot in the back of the head while doing laundry in her basement. At the time, her husband Donald and their two daughters were shopping for wedding anniversary presents. Before this, there had not been a murder in Winona, Minnesota for almost twenty years.  
The next day, Charles Murphy called police and told them that his friend Donald had once attempted to pay him to kill his wife. Police also learned of Raymond Riniker, a former classmate of Donald whom he had also attempted to hire. Riniker testified that Donald had told him he had given a man named Bruce Webber two thousand dollars, an archery bow, and a gun to do the job. Police then monitored a phone conversation between Riniker and Howard where the latter revealed that Webber was supposed to make the death look like an accident and was "goddamn mad" it was so gruesome. Donald was arrested the next day. 
While awaiting trial, Howard busted a rusty lock on his jail window and escaped with the help of Nancy Brown, a former high school homecoming queen who had worked for him in his hardware store. Brown sent a letter to her husband declaring her belief in Donald's innocence, stating, "I know I love him and I need to be with him...the decision to go with Don is killing me but I feel I must go...I can't ever look back.'' Her husband and daughter quickly left town to avoid the press. Howard also wrote a letter to the Winona Daily News stating, "I am not guilty and I do mind taking someone else's punishment. The real killer is not even being pursued. I had hoped that the real villain would have come forward by now but I guess that's only in the movies.'' 
Howard and Brown were found in Louisiana two weeks later, with Brown serving six months for aiding in the escape. Howard maintained his innocence at the time, but finally admitted to his role in Shirleen's death in 1997.
Additional References:
Elisabeth Congdon (Wikipedia)
Twists, turns never end for Congdon murder case figure (Minnpost, 05.08.08)
Guardianship June Mikulanec (public records, 11.02.84)



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