“Are the police looking for me?” she asked her friend on the phone.
It was mid-June 1962, and the Sonoma County sheriff’s office was indeed looking for her…sort of. An arrest warrant was issued even though they weren’t sure of the woman’s name (was it Eva Long or Iva Kroeger?) where she might be (she was last seen in a taxi headed for Cotati) or what she looked like (she had taken all known photos with her when she vanished).
The warrant was for an assault with a deadly weapon because she pulled a gun on a tradesman who was owed money, but there was a growing clamor for her to be investigated in the disappearance of Mildred and Jay Arneson. Six months had passed since they went missing and Eva/Iva was the prime suspect, having taken over the Arneson’s motel business and peddled lies or contradictory stories about what she knew. Yet while the sheriff still believed the elderly couple would turn up someday, the family and their lawyer kept gathering evidence which convinced them the Arnesons were dead. All that (and more!) was covered in the first chapter, “MURDER MOTEL ON SANTA ROSA AVE.”
When Eva fled Santa Rosa on May 23 she left her friend Mrs. Kelly in charge the motel. She had met the Kellys five years earlier in San Francisco, when their son was in Cub Scouts and Eva/Iva was the Den Mother. (Let’s pause for a moment to digest that unexpected factoid.) When deputies arrived the next day to make an arrest Mrs. Kelly told them her friend was then known as Iva Kroeger – which was indeed her legal name. Unsure which was an alias, the Press Democrat and other papers took to calling her Mrs. Eva Long-Kroeger.
As mentioned previously, the search for the Arnesons didn’t begin in earnest until the Press Democrat launched its investigative series on July 1. The paper found that after Iva left Santa Rosa she headed for the San Francisco home she shared with husband Ralph Kroeger. She stayed there with him for a day before taking off, supposedly returning to Santa Rosa.
The thread that weaved through each part of this story was Iva Kroeger’s astonishing Svengali-like powers to get others to do her bidding even when it was against their own best interests, and Ralph was no exception – see sidebar.
THE HAPLESS HUSBAND
Ralph lived with both parents until his mother died in 1939, then he and his father came to San Francisco, still living together. Dad died in 1954; afterwards he met and married Iva. “We were both tired of living alone,” he told the Oakland Tribune.
The press usually described him as a “Pa Kettle type” (meaning a lazy hick) with drawling speech, but throughout the case questions were raised whether he might actually be telling the truth in claiming he had no idea what Iva was doing. Some of the stories certainly painted him as being clueless:
After their marriage Iva insisted he mortgage the house so she could make improvements. That money disappeared. “I got mad, sure, but then I knew I couldn’t do anything about it, so I just signed another note,” Ralph said to a Tribune reporter.
He also turned his $100/week paycheck over to her and all but $20 of it was supposedly used for blood transfusions because of her leukemia. She did not have leukemia. “I never checked on it,” he told the Oakland newspaper. “What good would it do? As long as we ate okay, that’s all I cared about.”
Iva initially put Ralph to work cleaning up the motel although he hated being there. “It was a condemned joint,” he griped to authorities looking for his wife. “They were getting ready to close it up until I started painting it. It wasn’t fit for hogs to live in.” Working alongside Ralph in early 1962 was Inez W., a Native American woman who lived in Santa Rosa.
Inez also served as Iva’s chauffeur because she couldn’t drive – supposedly. That claim might have been part of her suit against an insurance company because Iva insisted she suffered permanent injuries from a taxi accident. (She also limped, sometimes used a cane or crutch, and begged for loans so she could get an unspecified “leg operation.”) Neighbors in Santa Rosa told the PD they saw her behind the wheel and knew she shared driving chores with Inez when they went to Washington state.
That trip to Washington was the first big clue linking Iva to the Arneson’s disappearance. Gentle Reader will recall from part one that in February Mildred’s motel in the summer resort town of Westport, WA was ransacked. As Mildred and Jay were already missing, her sisters notified the town marshal. According to the PD, witnesses told him “a large dark woman – possibly of Indian ancestry – accompanied by a small dark woman were active in the removal of this personal property. The report says they arrived in Mildred Arneson’s green Lincoln.”
The PD continued: “The Bekins Transfer Seattle office was contacted by the town marshal who was told that Eva Lange, 1385 Santa Rosa Ave., of Santa Rosa, had arranged for the moving of this personal property.” All the furniture and other contents from that nicer motel had been stored for months at a Bekins warehouse in San Rafael waiting for “Eva Lange” to pay the $600 storage bill before it could be delivered to the run-down place Iva Kroeger was operating in Santa Rosa.
As suspicious details like that piled up, the Sonoma County sheriff kept looking the other way – and to such a degree it’s a wonder he didn’t sprain his neck. The PD learned no deputies had searched the Arneson’s rooms at the Santa Rosa Ave. motel to look for possible clues as to the missing couple’s whereabouts. An essential prescription to treat Jay’s advanced case of Parkinson’s Disease had not been refilled for months. PD reporter Neale Leslie found Iva was getting rid of Mildred’s things, including her piano; Iva tried to give Mildred’s Lincoln to Inez, which she wouldn’t accept because Iva didn’t have a pink slip. (Later the PD reported Iva never paid Inez or her two teenage sons, who also did driving and worked around the motel.)
To that point, only twice had the sheriff’s office actually done any Sherlocking of its own, and both concerned messages Mildred allegedly sent to her family. A typed letter wasn’t made using Mildred’s typewriter – although Sheriff’s Inspector John Coffman said he still believed Mildred wrote it because it included a family anecdote. Also questionable was the telegram to Mildred’s sister with the snippy remark to “keep your nose out of my affairs.” None in the family believed she wrote it, and it was sent from Salinas when Mildred and Jay were supposedly on their South American roadtrip. Coffman contacted Salinas and was told the telegram had been called in from a payphone. “He conceded it could have been telephoned from anywhere by an unknown person impersonating Mrs. Arneson, but didn’t think it to be likely,” the PD said. The investigator seemed to be invested in proving there was nothing to investigate.
But as the month of July 1962 wore on, Bay Area papers introduced readers to the Arneson mystery via rehashing details from the Press Democrat series and doing investigation on their own. The story was becoming harder for Sheriff John A. Ellis to ignore and he announced he was now personally heading the high-profile case – although surely that had nothing to do with him being up for reelection that year.
THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF IVA KROEGER
Following leads from the PD articles he wrote to American Express to inquire about $1,500 in traveler’s checks Mildred bought from Exchange Bank two days before she disappeared. He wrote to the VA to see if Jay’s disability checks were being cashed. Some items were sent to the state Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation (CII), such as a car floor mat which had a rust-colored stain that might have been blood.
At the end of July answers started trickling in. The stain wasn’t blood. The VA checks were being returned to sender by the post office. But the traveler’s checks…oh, my. They had been cashed in Santa Rosa and San Francisco days after Mildred’s disappearance. Sheriff Ellis sent them to the FBI to compare signatures and while he was waiting, it was learned almost $900 of them were cashed at the Santa Rosa Sears. Shown the newly-acquired snapshot of Iva, Sears employees identified her as the woman who said she was Mildred Arneson.
Ellis and others finally did a thorough search of the motel including Cabin No. 4, a room Iva blocked anyone from entering. They did “routine digging” around the place which proved fruitless. At the request of District Attorney Maddux the FBI was also alerted Iva was spotted in Reno, which meant she could be prosecuted for crossing state lines to avoid arrest on the weapons charge.
The breakthrough in the case happened shortly after the search and was a twist worthy of Alfred Hitchcock. Joan and Nigel Dodge owned the Blue Bonnet motel next door and had become close with Mildred’s family since she vanished; on Aug. 17 one of the sisters was in town, presumably because of the search.
Also at the Blue Bonnet happened to be construction worker Walter Hughes, who was taking the day off because of illness. As Joan made up his room they chatted. The Press Democrat reported what happened next:
“I knew Mrs. Arneson,” said Mr. Hughes, “I lived at the Sombrero Motel when she was there.” Mrs. Dodge, who with her husband was long convinced foul play was involved in the Arneson disappearance, sensed Mr. Hughes had some vital information and talked to him further. “He told me he was acquainted with Mrs. Long, too, and said he once worked a day for her in San Francisco.”
Specifically: Hughes was hired to dig a hole four feet square in the Kroeger’s garage.
Joan Dodge immediately called the sheriff’s office and Hughes was questioned here, then taken to San Francisco to be interviewed further. The PD article continued:
He said Mrs. Long-Kroeger gave him $15 to drive her and Mr. Arneson to San Francisco in Mrs. Arneson’s Lincoln sedan on Jan. 15. He said Mrs. Long-Kroeger asked him to dig a hole, presumably for plumbing repair, while she and Mr. Arneson looked on. After completing the hole, he said, he drove Mrs. Long-Kroeger and the old man to Mt. Zion Hospital, where Mrs. Long-Kroeger told him to leave her and Mr. Arneson and return to Santa Rosa.
With a search warrant and a sketch drawn by Hughes, San Francisco police and the Sonoma County sheriff’s office arrived at the Kroeger house on Ellington Ave. There was a new wood floor in the garage, as it was being converted into a studio apartment. Following the diagram they cut through the wood to find a recent layer of concrete that wasn’t very thick. Underneath was loose dirt and under that was Jay Arneson, with a thick belt still wrapped around his neck. Jay had watched his own grave being dug by Walter Hughes.
By now a crowd of looky-loos had gathered outside the house and as the exhumation continued, reporters and photographers from Bay Area newspapers, radio and TV were allowed to watch. In the PD photo below, John LeBaron captured the SF coroner examining dirt next to Jay’s upturned foot.
As this was going on, Ralph Kroeger was upstairs being questioned. They brought him down to see the grave before the body was removed and as soon as he appeared, photographers pressed close and fired off a blinding array of flashbulbs. “What is this?” he complained. “Get them out of here! Get them out of here!”
It was getting close to midnight before the body was taken to the morgue, but a stalwart fifty spectators lingered outside, shivering in San Francisco’s foggy August gloom as Ralph was arrested for “suspicion of murder” and booked at the Hall of Justice.
While in the garage Ralph pointed to a spot and remarked, “If I remember right, the barrel is right around here somewhere.” Only the PD reporter followed up and learned the significance of what he meant. While being questioned by authorities he told them a large hole was dug in the concrete foundation during Prohibition to hide wine barrels. Forty men crowded into the garage the next day to resume searching and police went directly to that location, about ten feet away from Jay Arneson’s shallow grave.
In the hole they found a wooden steamer trunk. “There’s no doubt about it,” the PD reported Sheriff Ellis said ominously. “She’s in there.” Work paused as a call was made for Coroner Henry Turkel to return to the house, along with Ralph. Bony Saludes eavesdropped as Ralph stared at the trunk:
“It might sound nuts to you, but I’ve never seen that trunk before,” he told Dan McClem, chief of inspectors.
“You realize you’re in a bind, don’t you?” the officer said.
“Yeah,” Mr. Kroeger said and turned away.
The Press Democrat was fortunate to have a reporter with Bony Saludes’ talents; if his description of the scene were part of a movie script, theater audiences would be white-knuckled:
Instructed by Dr. Turkel, workmen unearthed a wide area around the trunk, which was resting on end, inserted boards on the bottom to prevent it from bursting, tied a heavy rope around it and lifted it out.
“I’m going to open the trunk now,” Dr. Turkel said as the multitude of men, kept in unbearable suspense for almost three hours, waited.
Dr. Turkel pulled out an object and said, “A woman’s comb.”
Carefully he unwrapped a zippered plastic clothes container.
“I have a body here,” he said. “Can’t tell if it’s a man or a woman. It’s very badly decomposed.”
For a full minute there was complete silence among the men. Flashbulbs began to pop and five minutes later, the drama ended.
Meanwhile, as the trunk with Mildred’s body was being lifted out of the grave in San Francisco, another sort of drama was playing out across the Bay in Oakland.
A woman doing yardwork noticed two small, blonde-haired boys walking back and forth on the street past her home; they were crying and said they were alone and didn’t know where they were supposed to be. Charlie was four and his brother Willie was three. She walked around the neighborhood with them and then flagged down a police car.
For five hours the kids drove with the officer as he announced on a loudspeaker they had found two lost boys. But no one came forward for them and there were no phone calls to the police about missing children. At the end of the day they took the boys to a local hospital that cared for children in such a situation.
All day Charlie was telling people a crazy story – both parents were recently killed in a car crash so their grandmother had whisked them away on a bus ride. Following supper and getting ready for bed a policeman played a hunch and showed them a copy of that day’s Oakland Tribune. At the top of the front page was a photo of Ralph Kroeger from the day before, caught cringing from the cameras as he was taken into the garage to see Jay Arneson’s body. Next to that was a snapshot of Iva.
Charlie did not hesitate: “That’s grandma!”
(1962 Press Democrat articles related to this chapter only)
‘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)
ARNESON CAR MAT NOT BLOOD-STAINED (July 22, no byline)
ARNESON TRAVELERS CHECKS CASHED IN SR (July 27, Bony Saludes byline)
FBI ENTERS HUNT FOR MRS. EVA LONG (July 31, no byline)
DEPUTY ‘CLUE DIGGING’AT ARNESON MOTEL FAILS (August 9, no byline)
MRS. LONG ACCUSED OF CASHING CHECKS (August 17, Bony Saludes byline)
BASEMENT GRAVE OPENED BY OFFICERS (August 21, Bony Saludes byline)
CHANCE REMARK CLUE TO MISSING ARNESONS (August 21, no byline)
HAVE YOU SEEN THIS WOMAN? (August 21, no byline)
KROEGER GRANDSONS FOUND (August 22, no byline)
BODY BELIEVED THAT OF MRS. ARNESON (August 22, Bony Saludes byline)