Dad Was Serial Killer, Woman says, as Cadaver Dogs Scour Field of Nightmares

For 45 years, Lucy Studey told anyone who would listen that her father had murdered scores of young women and buried them with the help of his children. No one believed her. Cadaver dogs have now pinpointed suspected human remains at the spots she identified in a remote stretch of western Iowa, investigators told Newsweek.

“I know where the bodies are buried,” Lucy Studey told Newsweek, whose reporters were at the scene of the investigation in the scrub outside Thurman, Iowa. She recalled how her father, Donald Dean Studey, would direct her and her siblings to help him as he transported bodies – using a wheelbarrow in the warmer months and a toboggan in winter.

“He would just tell us we had to go to the well, and I knew what that meant,” Studey said. “Every time I went to the well or into the hills, I didn’t think I was coming down. I thought he would kill me because I wouldn’t keep my mouth shut.”

As he dumped the bodies into the well, they would pile dirt and lye on top, she said.

If further investigation confirms the story, it could show that her father was one of the most prolific known serial killers in American history. Studey believes her father killed 50 to 70 women over three decades. He died in March 2013 at the age of 75.

Search for bodies in Iowa
Lucy Studey (center) together with cadaver dog handler Jim Peters and Fremont County Sheriff Kevin Aistrope look into the scrub where the dogs are searching for possible human remains. For 45 years, Studey said her father had been a serial killer, but nobody would listen. The dogs have now pinpointed suspected grave sites.
Photo by Naveed Jamali/Newsweek

She was joined at the scene of the investigation by Fremont County Sheriff Kevin Aistrope, two deputies, a dog handler and his two dogs.

“I believe her 100 percent that there’s bodies in there,” Aistrope told Newsweek.

With “love” tattooed across the knuckles of one hand and “hate” across the other, Donald Dean Studey is suspected by law enforcement authorities to have lured women — most of them sex workers or transients picked up in nearby Omaha, Nebraska — to his five acres of forested hills and farmland before killing them.

Studey said her father not only made sure his children knew what he was doing, but forced them to help with the burials.

She remembered him saying of one victim: “the b**** deserved it.”

Most of the women had dark or darkish hair, she said. All were white and she guessed that most, except for a 15-year-old runaway, were in their 20s or 30s. Studey now lives under her married name and Newsweek agreed to her request not to publish it.

“Dig, dig, dig,” Studey repeated again and again at the scene as the dogs moved from place to place through the dried undergrowth.

Odor of Decomposition

The cadaver dogs, trained to detect human remains, went directly to the spots where Studey had said since she was a child that bodies had been buried. They went without being led by their handler, Jim Peters, who runs Samaritan Detection Dogs and did Friday’s search pro bono.

One of the dogs signaled likely human remains by barking, the other by sitting still where remains were potentially located. The dogs, Australian cattle dogs – or Heelers – called Jojo and Jetti, scented remains at four locations, with the last getting multiple ‘hits’ where bodies might be buried.

“Today told me there is the odor of human decomposition in the area,” said Peters. “More work needs to be done to confirm that…I feel pretty good about what I saw from the dogs, but I’m not going to hang my hat on that.”

Cadaver dog handler Jim Peters
Cadaver dog handler Jim Peters at the scene of an investigation in Thurman, Iowa. The dogs found suspected grave sites where Lucy Studey alleges her father buried murder victims.
Photo by Naveed Jamali/Newsweek

The science on cadaver dogs raises doubts for some people in criminal justice and forensic science. Scientific studies have shown mixed results for their effectiveness and that their ability to detect remains can depend on time since death, soil composition and moisture levels as well as the individual dogs and their training and handling.

“I really think there’s bones there,” said Aistrope. “It’s hard for me to believe that two dogs would hit in the exact same places and be false. We don’t know what it is. The settlers were up there. There was Indian Country up there as well, but I tend to believe Lucy.” Aistrope said. “Right now, we don’t even have a bone. According to the dogs, this is a very large burial site.”

The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is expected on Monday at the hard-to-reach location, marked only by dirt roads, brush and livestock.

The next step would be to use sonar where the land allows it, then dig the sites to search for human remains, Peters and investigators said. Many of the victims were buried in the 90-to-100-foot well, clothed and wearing jewelry, Studey said. She said her father kept gold teeth as trophies.

“All I want is to get these sites dug up, and to bring closure for people and to give these women a proper burial,” said Studey. The lye with which the bodies had been buried can act as a preservative of remains instead of speeding decomposition, she and investigators told Newsweek. It also hides the smell.

Stoutly built and with close-cropped hair, Studey showed little emotion at the scene. She described herself as “a cold person, detached”.

Studey said her father, quick to anger and routinely drunk, would stab and shoot people, but his preferred method of killing was smashing or kicking in the heads of the women inside a trailer in which they lived on the property. It is unclear whether Lucy’s siblings have been cooperative with the authorities. Her brother died by suicide at 39.

Studey said over the years she told her story to teachers, priests and “law enforcement all over Iowa and Nebraska trying to get something done.” She said the trauma of an abusive upbringing and being forced to take part in covering the bodies won’t settle until the truth is told.

“No one would listen to me,” Studey said. “The teacher said family matters should be handled as a family, and law enforcement has said they couldn’t trust the memory of a child. I was just a kid then, but I remember it all.”

Accused killer Donald Dean Studey
Donald Dean Studey, accused by his daughter or murdering people and ordering his children to bury them, is pictured in 2006. Studey said her late father had been a serial killer for 45 years. Cadaver dogs have now pinpointed suspected grave sites.
Photo by Lucy Studey

“Lifelong Criminal and Murderer”

“My father was a lifelong criminal and murderer,” Studey said. She said Donald Studey, who used multiple aliases and was born Donald Dean Study – without the ‘e’ – would run drugs and guns with others, hiding them in hollowed-out trees, then trucking them across state lines, with frequent visits to Arkansas. He passed through inspection sites with ease, she said, by having his children in the seat of the truck with him.

Records Newsweek was initially able to obtain showed that Donald Studey spent time in prison in Missouri in the 1950s for petty larceny and that he was jailed in Omaha in 1989 for a drunken driving offense. The sheriff said that he had routinely been in trouble with the police – who never went to the trailer the family lived in alone because they were wary of him. Newsweek has requested files from law enforcement agencies, including the FBI.

Donald Studey was a perpetually indebted gambler who “would pick the one bad horse or dog out of 100,” his daughter said. She said her father also stole from many of the mechanic, trucking and other jobs he held over the years. Studey said her father had two wives who had died, and he had tried on at least two occasions to take his own life. According to police records, one of his wives died by strangling herself with an electrical cord. The other shot herself in the head.

Asked whether he ever farmed the land, Lucy Studey said, “My dad was too lazy to farm.”

She recalled how her high school counselor had once asked her what she planned to do with her life. She laughed: she had never considered that she might be alive after high school. She spent as little time at home as she could, working extra hours at the nearby convenience store. Studey eventually escaped by joining the U.S. Army, though she said she had hated her service.

Studey remembers her father becoming violently angry after accusing her of stealing more than $16,000 from him – an accusation she denies. The Fremont County Sheriff’s Office took a report on it, but nothing was proven and no charges were ever filed.

Asked what she felt about her dad now, Studey said: “I don’t feel anything for my father. Nothing at all. I wanted justice when my father was alive, but he’s gone. I just want for the families some closure and a proper burial.”

Studey is being treated as a witness and not a suspect in any crime, the sheriff said.

Fremont Deputy Mike Wake said he grew up in the area, and the town was rife with rumors about Donald Studey.

“Coming up, we just always kind of heard that,” he said. “Well, then when (Lucy Studey) called me, I just went out there and looked. She kind of told me where she thought (the well) was at…Well, there was a well right there. It was just right where she said it was, no kidding. And her story never very changes.”

The landscape had changed since Lucy Studey was last on the site so she was invited up from her home in the South for the investigation to see if she could spot the location of the well. “She walked right to it,” Wake said. “She said, ‘It should be right here somewhere,’ and I went out and found it.”

The cadaver dogs picked up “multiple hits” at the fence with the neighboring property, where Studey said more bodies were buried. The sheriff said he would get a warrant to further search there, if needed.

Sean Smith, who with his father owns that abutting land and grew up with the Studey children, isn’t surprised by any of the allegations. He, too, had heard the stories and he remembers an odd call he got about a decade ago.

“Out of the blue, this guy asks me if I had seen cow bones or people bones in the well,” Smith, 55, told Newsweek. It was Donald Studey, the man said to Smith. Taken back, Smith still kept listening. “He told me ‘My daughter’s always hallucinating and making up stories, and she told the authorities that I’ve got a body back there.'”

Smith said at least two FBI agents inspected the well site more than a year ago and asked questions. The FBI Omaha office declined to speak to Newsweek or confirm that an investigation was taking place into Studey’s accusations.

Smith said the FBI had promised to return in August to dig up the site. Weeks ago, the FBI turned up and dug out part of the well, law enforcement sources told Newsweek. But what they found, if anything, is unclear. The Fremont County Sheriff’s Department said it had not been notified ahead of time.

The sheriff’s office, with a budget of $1.8 million, puts the cost of boring the well at about $25,000, with a full excavation running upward of $300,000.

“If I have to, I’m gonna break the county and do it,” the sheriff said of a full dig, adding that he would welcome FBI assistance.

In addition to the Iowa DCI coming out Monday to inspect the area and possibly help in the effort, Aistrope said the Omaha Police Department has offered its expertise since victims may have come from the Omaha area.

Meanwhile, multiple agencies are searching records on Donald Studey and missing persons to see whether any match Lucey Studey’s description of the women, as well as at least two male victims – one in his 40s and one in his 20s – whom she says were buried in the well. Many of the women, according to Studey, were slender, on the shorter side with cropped dark, dirty blonde or dark red hair.

Newsweek was not immediately able to establish whether there had matching disappearances in the area over the decades in question. Police said that if those murdered were transient or sex workers, it is possible that they were never reported missing.

If bodies are found in Thurman, advances in technology and recordkeeping could now at least give families closure.

“Today, DNA is so popular, and people are putting their DNA in systems trying to see their relatives,” Aistrope said. “Now, that could help…Just because we’re a podunk county of 8,500 people, we deserve just as much help as anyplace else.”

For Lucey Studey, the search by the cadaver dogs finally seemed to be bringing her nearer to having her story believed and to finding her own closure. As she stood on the ridge watching the dogs move from place to place, she said: “This is what I’ve been telling people for 45 years. I told you.”

Memorial site of alleged killer in Iowa
Lucy Studey looks at the memorial site for her late father Donald Dean Studey. She accused him for 45 years of being a serial killer, but nobody would listen. Now, cadaver dogs have found signs of possible human remains.
Photo by Naveed Jamali/Newsweek Dad Was Serial Killer, Woman says, as Cadaver Dogs Scour Field of Nightmares

Rick Schindler

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