At the beginning of the summer of 1962 nobody much cared about the story except for a Press Democrat staff writer. By midsummer it was the top news in the Bay Area. As the season came to an end, a mania over the case had gripped all of California, with tips and false leads flooding police telephone lines.
THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF IVA KROEGER
The pressing question everyone wanted answered: Where were the Arnesons? Mildred and Jay had been missing over six months when the first PD article appeared. They had no close friends in Santa Rosa so there was no one to raise an alarm over their unusual disappearances, but her family in Washington state was convinced something terrible had happened.
They presented the Sonoma County Sheriff with their suspicions and even evidence of crimes. Yet the office stubbornly refused to investigate and treated it like a routine missing-persons case, which is to say they did nothing as the months passed. “It’s primarily a matter of waiting for leads,” the sheriff’s investigator said. The PD slammed the department for what it called “official indifference.” In a headline, no less.
And then there was Eva Anna Long, who had also vanished. She was supposedly a friend of the Arnesons – were they all together somewhere? The inspector in charge of the case believed so (while leaving open “possible foul play”) even though the woman had an incredibly sketchy history. She was already wanted by the sheriff for recently pulling a gun on someone and her name was actually an alias.
At its core this is a true crime story which any competent writer could sum up in 2,500 words or so – as several have in years since. (Monte Schulz, son of Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, wrote a novelized version called “Naughty.”) Sure, it can be framed as a straight-forward “Motive, Means and Opportunity” crime, but only by going back to the original sources can we grasp what made this tale so remarkably compelling; it sucked everyone in because each new detail was wilder and crazier than the last. It was like receiving a piece of a jigsaw puzzle nearly every day which changed the emerging picture from what you expected.
Another overlooked aspect of the story was the fierce competition for the latest nugget between newspapers, radio and TV reporters. There were accusations that some were plagiarizing news from the Press Democrat, and those charges were not completely unfounded.
Sadly, we can’t go back 60+ years via my Wayback Machine (I really should have sprung for the rust-proof undercoating) but we do have most of those newspapers online, so it’s easy to follow the story as it unfolded. And although I’ll have more to say about this later, the Press Democrat deserves highest praise for its coverage. It would have been easy for the newsroom to accept the sheriff’s position there was no reason for concern and wave off the family’s plea for help. Instead, editors took the initiative and assigned Neale Leslie and Bony (Boniface) Saludes to dig into the story – and primarily thanks to them all was revealed.
The essence of our story began when the PD’s first article appeared on July 1, 1962 – two hundred days since Mildred Maude Arneson vanished. Almost all of the background details covered below trace back to those first investigative reports that summer.
(RIGHT: Mildred Arneson c. 1950. Photo enhanced using HotPot AI)
Mildred and Jay’s only year in Santa Rosa was unhappy. Early in 1961 the 58 year-old woman purchased the Rose City Motel at 1385 Santa Rosa Avenue (today it’s a Starbucks drive-thru). Built in the 1920s, it was typical of the little motels that dotted the American West after highways became ubiquitous – it was first called the Rose City Auto Camp and later the Rose City Motor Court. There were twenty 2-3 room cabins and what few classified ads that can be found mention they were heated and had furniture. The Arnesons lived there and Mildred ran it, but business was poor. The place was a dump.
Mildred had some property in Washington state, and shortly before she disappeared told a realtor she was planning to sell it and use the money to retire somewhere in South America or Mexico. She wrote her mother on December 14 she was about to make a six week trip down there with her new friend Eva Long, who was lending her $10,000 for the junket. A day later Mildred signed over a grant deed for the motel to Mrs. Long as collateral. The notary who certified that was the last person to speak with Mildred.
Eva and her husband Ralph had passing acquaintance with the Arnesons and were staying at the Blue Bonnet, a nearly identical motor court next door. They were in Santa Rosa because Eva said she was being harassed by insurance investigators because of her $100,000 suit for supposedly permanent injuries. She was a passenger in a San Francisco taxi when it hit another car and she was left with a bad limp.
Then one mid-December day the couple who owned the Blue Bonnet learned Mildred had supposedly left for a South American trip and Eva had purchased the Rose City Motel “sight unseen.”
The woman who called herself Eva moved in to the motel with Ralph and announced it was now named the El Sombrero. With Jay still living there, it fell to Ralph to feed and bathe him. Jay Thomas Arneson was suffering the final stages of Parkinson’s disease with a paralyzed lower lip that made him difficult to understand. The 70 year-old WWI vet and major in the Army Reserve had been on a disability pension for a quarter century.
It was apparent to Blue Bonnet owners Joan and Nigel Dodge that Eva knew nothing about running a motel as she pestered them constantly with questions. At first the Dodges were pleased to assist her, as people always were. Eva had an air of helplessness which made you instantly trust and want to make her feel better. She was a diminutive woman at a little over five feet tall and 43 years old; besides her limp she had a blown-out pupil that might be mistaken for a glass eye. She still spoke somewhat broken English and would cock her head while reading or listening to someone – presumably because this was her second language, having come from Munich.
It was a couple of weeks after Eva and Ralph took over when the first police car arrived at the El Sombrero. One of Mildred’s sisters tried to phone the motel on New Year’s Day and discovered the number was disconnected. She contacted the sheriff’s office and asked for someone to check on the situation. The deputy encountered Eva and asked her to call the sister. Eva told the woman she had “just received a card from Mildred in Mexico City” and all was well. Then the sister asked to speak with Jay. He said hello and in a voice the PD described as a sob, added “I don’t think I’ll ever see Mildred again.” Eva came back on the line and explained he was upset by his wife’s hasty departure.
Jay disappeared near the
end middle of January. Eva first told the Dodges a couple of “sinister looking” men showed up in the middle of the night and put him in a white Cadillac with Mexican license plates. Then just three days later, Eva told them she escorted him to Letterman Hospital in a taxi.
It was shortly after that when the Dodges began to suspect the Arnesons had been murdered. Eva began doing a suspicious amount of “garbage burning” behind the motel, with a pile she kept burning continuously for weeks. It seemed like she was getting rid of everything inside – mattresses, furniture, curtains. The stench was awful. Joan wondered if it was to cover up the cremation of human remains.
Mildred’s family grew increasingly anxious as more weeks passed without hearing from her, with her mother saying she believed “the woman who bought the motel did her in.”
Clues were rapidly accumulating. Her December letter to mom said she would be first driving Jay to a nursing home in San Diego. Such a reservation was indeed made, but Mildred and Jay never showed up. The Arneson’s car remained parked in Santa Rosa.
By now the family had made their concerns known to the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office and Inspector John Coffman was assigned to the case. He considered those details, yet not a single red flag was raised for the remarkably incurious investigator. He also visited Eva at the El Sombrero and came away convinced there was nothing to investigate – the Arnesons must be enjoying a vacation somewhere. Too bad he didn’t go next door and ask the Dodges what they thought.
Fed up with Coffman’s shortcomings, two of her sisters drove here in February to meet with the sheriff and file a missing persons report – but first they made a side trip to check on another of Mildred’s cabin motels in Westport, Washington, a summer resort town where lodging shut down for the winter. They found the place had been ransacked; most furniture was gone along with doors and wall paneling in the office. It undoubtedly left them shaken, but all they could do was notify the town marshal before leaving for California.
As Coffman seated himself comfortably and waited for leads to roll in, the missing person report certainly ruffled someone’s feathers. Immediately after the sisters returned home, a telegram to one of them arrived on February 28 sent from Salinas:
Dear Bea: I would like for you to keep your nose out of my affairs. Jay and I are all right. If you keep this up everyone will be upset. Tell mother not to worry. I’m all right. I was within 100 miles of you a couple of weeks ago, after I heard what I heard I stayed away. Would you please accept Jay’s check at this address. I will write in two weeks so don’t be upset. And please stay out of my affairs. Love. Mildred Jay and John.
As promised, a typewritten letter to their mother arrived a couple of weeks later, postmarked from Tijuana:
Dear Mother: Hope your feeling fine. Jay, John and I are alright. John said not to worry. I bought a new car a Cadillac. I been in a little trouble but I always work out my own troubles and affairs all my life. I am fifty-seven now and its about time my family keeps their nose out of my affairs. If anyone ask you where I am you don’t know and if anyone ask you any questions you don’t know. And I am writing to you under a different name thats if you want to hear from me.
Now mother don’t worry about me and take good care of yourself. Tell the children not to worry also. I’ve sold most of my property outright. You know Bea’s always been jealous of me even when I had the Turkey Farm she said I should knit sweaters for them I never did forget that. I’m sending Jay’s pension checks to you to hold on to them until we get settled. I’m also if you meddle I’m having my utility bill sent also. Well, nevermind I’ll write to Westport and them send them. As I sold the cabins. The ground couldn’t be sold.
I have a habit and it’s very costly and don’t ask me to explain that’s half of my trouble Jay wants to write to Jack and tell him we are alright. This all for now. Love to all from
Mildred, Jay and John.
There were red flags galore in those messages. First, no one in the family knew “John,” who they were apparently supposed to recognize. Mildred’s grammar and spelling were far better and she wrote letters in longhand, not typed; her age was 58, not 57; she called her mother as “Mom” and signed herself “Mil.” And the telegram to her sister was addressed to “Beatrice Brown” instead of “Brunn.”
None of these points raised the good inspector’s eyebrows because he was sure the messages came from Mildred – after all, she owned a portable typewriter. Plus there was the turkey farm shoutout which absolutely no one else could have known because no person has ever shared a family anecdote with a friend. “If you take the negative approach,” Coffman later told the PD, “you come to one conclusion. If you take the affirmative approach, you come to a different conclusion.” John Coffman: Zen detective.
Eva (and probably Ralph) moved back to the Blue Bonnet for six weeks as workmen made repairs at the El Sombrero – she told the Dodges she could not “stand filth,” presumably meaning construction debris. During that interlude and before, the Dodges came to know Eva better than anyone besides Ralph. They recognized her lies and fabulations for what they were, keeping Mildred’s sisters abreast of her doings and what was (not) happening in the sheriff’s investigation. Mildred’s family credited them – along with the Press Democrat – for cracking the case.
Later after Eva became a murder suspect, the Dodges readily gave interviews to the PD and other media. Remarks to the Oakland Tribune described how Eva was rarely alone because she used her wiles to build an entourage “promising fabulous rewards to transients and down-and-outers to do her bidding.” Sometimes she paid them generously – but more often they were just gratified by being able to help the poor, sweet lady who had suffered so much. Two months before the missing Arnesons became big news, an item in the PD illustrated how the world turned in Eva’s universe.
She hired a tradesman named Herbert Willsmore to install an expensive water softener as part of the motel renovations and also borrowed money from him, said to be around $2,500. (What, you don’t hit up plumbers and other contractors for loans?) Asked why he gave her money, Willsmore explained Eva had an “ability to draw you in, to engender trust.” But when it came time to repay the loan and make good on his bill which came to a total $4,900, she claimed to lack the ability to do either.
In late May she finally agreed to pay him if he came by the motel. When he arrived, he found her with a Mrs. Harrington and a Mr. Phelps. He also found her holding a .22 automatic pistol. Mrs. Harrington told the PD she was with Eva all day and she “kept repeating that she was going to get a gun and use it on Herb.”
Eva demanded he sit at her dining room table and write a statement that she owed him nothing. Then per the PD story, “the episode was interrupted and Mr. Willsmore was allowed to leave unharmed when Mrs. Willsmore got tired of waiting outside for her husband and knocked on the door to find out what was keeping him.”
Willsmore immediately reported this bizarre incident to the sheriff’s office. Meanwhile, Eva handed the gun to Mr. Phelps and told him to hide it in the attic – and I am gobsmacked to reveal he did exactly that. Admitted it to the PD reporter, even.
Deputy sheriffs arrived the following day with a search warrant and found the gun in the attic (fully loaded) but no Eva. She had skipped town just ahead of their arrival, taking along all photos of herself and leaving behind a doleful Ralph. An arrest warrant was issued charging assault with a deadly weapon.
Boldly committing a crime in front of two witnesses – plus roping one of them into hiding the weapon – says much about Eva’s incredible power of persuasion. Or how crazy she was, or deeply evil. Or maybe all of these things.
But maybe the most remarkable aspect of that incident was the lack of any mention in the paper about the recent disappearance of the Arnesons from the same motel, or that the now-fugitive Eva Long was the prime suspect. We probably shouldn’t really be surprised – the PD reporter was getting all his information from clue-blind Inspector Coffman.
The situation was about to change quickly, however. A lawyer for Mildred’s family came here and tried to explain to Coffman why the letter and telegram supposedly written by Mildred were so suspicious. He presumably also met the Dodges and heard the remarkable bits of information they had collected.
And then her sisters returned to Santa Rosa at the end of June, meeting with the Press Democrat. Within days, the game was afoot. Where were the Arnesons? Where was the suspicious woman with all the secrets? It was all anybody could talk about as the mystery unfurled. The Big Show was about to begin.
(1962 Press Democrat articles related to this chapter only)
WOMAN IS SOUGHT FOR ‘PAYING DEBT WITH GUN’ (May 28, no byline)
MISSING COUPLE SOUGHT IN AREA (July 1, no byline)
STILL NO NEW CLUES IN ARNESON MYSTERY (July 4, no byline)
ARNESON MYSTERY DEEPENS; FINANCIAL RECORDS TRACED (July 9, Neale Leslie byline)
TWO SANTA ROSA BANKS ALSO INTERESTED IN DISAPPEARANCE (July 11, Neale Leslie byline)
ARNESON MYSTERY TRAIL DIMS WITH EACH DAY (July 12, Neale Leslie byline)
‘OFFICIAL INDIFFERENCE’ SEEN IN ARNESON MYSTERY (July 13, Neale Leslie byline)
ARNESON CAR MAT CHECKED FOR BLOOD (July 17, no byline)
MRS. ARNESON’S LETTER MAY ‘BREAK OPEN’ CASE (July 18, Bony Saludes byline)
TRAVELER CHECKS REVEALED (July 19, no byline)
DISPUTED ARNESON CASE LETTER CHECKED BY OFFICERS (July 20, Bony Saludes byline)
SISTERS LAUD P.D. IN OPENING CASE (August 22, Bony Saludes byline)