It wasn’t a courtroom; it was a theater stage, it was a circus ring, it was the geek tent at the carnival sideshow. It was the 1963 double murder trial of Iva Kroeger and since you couldn’t attend in person, you eagerly soaked up every news report describing her daily antics.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
This wasn’t intended to be a story about Iva Kroeger’s murders.
My original purpose was to write a tribute to Bony (Boniface) Saludes, who died May 21, 2023. He was a reporter for the Press Democrat and his colleague, Chris Smith, wrote a fine obituary which I ask you to please read.
Bony’s career began in the PD’s Golden Age, which was (in my opinion) the twenty years following WWII; I’ve written about that era and the paper’s stable of talented writers. As he was usually the crime/courthouse reporter the kind of news stories he covered sometimes stretched over weeks or months, and it takes a special talent to write and edit that kind of longform journalism. You have to presume subscribers remain familiar with the bones of the story so every article doesn’t have to rehash basic details, yet still provide enough context to make it clear why the latest developments are newsworthy. His coverage of the Iva and Ralph Kroeger murder trial was a masterpiece of this sort of narrative. What better way to salute him than highlighting excerpts from his coverage?
Problem was, Bony Saludes’ excellent court reportage won’t make much sense unless Gentle Reader understands why Iva was on trial. Normally I would offer a short summary of the backstory and offer a link to find more information elsewhere online. But there’s no Wikipedia page about her and while there are umpteen entries on the internet about her crimes, none are very thorough and all have errors, sometimes large. Thus to showcase Bony’s work it was necessary to first properly introduce Iva. Not that doing so was much of a sidetrack; comments on social media about this series shows there are many Santa Rosans who remember her story and the unpleasant attention she brought to town.
The trial lasted over two months. Bony’s articles totaled north of 25,000 words, which is about what you would expect an experienced journalist to produce in that period of time – except, of course, he wasn’t working from a desk in the newsroom, but spending his days in a San Francisco courtroom covering the proceedings. Essentially he was working two full-time jobs, which makes the quality of his work even more remarkable.
While this chapter mainly concerns the trial, kudos goes to all of the Press Democrat’s reporting on the Iva Kroeger story. If it wasn’t for the bulldog tenacity of reporter Neale Leslie, the Sonoma County sheriff and other agencies might never have suspected the sweet old grandma of cold-blood murder. Reliving the arc of events today through the paper’s 1962-63 coverage is captivating and sure to leave you with more than a few goosebumps.
Iva was captured by the FBI in September 1962 and the trial would not commence until the following January. She and husband Ralph would be put on trial together and they shared the same defense attorney, Emmet Hagerty of San Francisco.
After Iva had been in jail six weeks – interrupted only by court appearances for the Grand Jury indictments and attorney delays (including an effort to move proceedings to Santa Rosa per a theory the murders were committed here) – she pleaded innocent by reason of insanity and Ralph made a plea of simple innocence. The judge appointed three psychiatrists to interview her and a month later, all agreed she was sane at the time of the murders.
The trial potentially would have three phases. Should the jury find Ralph and Iva innocent, proceedings would be over. But if the verdict was guilty, the next phase would consider whether Iva was insane at the time of the murders. And if she was found sane, jurors would decide between the death penalty or another sentence. There were eight women and four men on the final jury.
In the interim before the trial there were several new developments. The Santa Rosa branch of Bank of America had already filed an attachment on the Santa Rosa Ave. motel and the San Francisco house for $5,000 plus attorney fees. She further had loans from Exchange Bank for $1,177 and a Bank of America branch in San Francisco for $3,100 – taken together, the equivalent to $92k today. Another lien on the property was made by John Mazurek of San Francisco, who had one of those Believe-it-or-Not! encounters with Iva the con artist. It seemed she answered his 1961 classified ad to sell a dining room set. Iva didn’t pay Mazurek for the furniture, of course, but also borrowed $975 from him (!!) – I swear, that woman’s powers of persuasion were supernatural. His lien was for $1275, covering the sale price of the dinette and the loan she didn’t pay back.
Gentle Reader might recall from part one that a couple of months after Mildred Arneson’s disappearance her family received a mysterious telegram and typewritten letter demanding all of them to “keep your nose out of my affairs.” It was so out of character they had no question someone else had written them, but the Sonoma County sheriff’s investigator only yawned. But when the department did bother to ask questions about the letter they discovered Iva had borrowed the typewriter from Inez, the Native American woman who lived in Santa Rosa and often acted as Iva’s chauffeur. As for it being postmarked from Tijuana, Inez told them Iva was in San Diego at that time (probably attending Rosicrucian Fellowship meetings).
There was also pre-trial chatter about whether Mildred was killed in Santa Rosa or San Francisco, much of the speculation centered on a large steamer trunk that was at the motel. What happened to it? Was it the same trunk that would hold Mildred’s body?
On December 16 1961 – the day after Mildred was supposedly murdered – Iva hired two local kids to empty out a trunk which fit the general description of the one found in Mildred’s grave. After the boy and girl burned the contents in the oil drums behind the motel, Iva paid them $1 each and bought a canary for the girl (Bony Saludes mentioned she named the bird “Pretty Girl,” which was a nice detail). Inez, who drove Iva between Santa Rosa and San Francisco several times, said the trips involved hauling furniture and other items but she did not recall a trunk being part of a load.
The day after Walter Hughes dug Jay Arneson’s grave in San Francisco (or a few days thereafter), Iva hired him to dig a hole at the motel in the carport of Unit Four. The owner of the neighboring motel, Nigel Dodge, saw it shortly afterward and told the PD it was big enough for a body, but not a trunk. He later noticed it had been further expanded and could now possibly fit a trunk. “Somebody else finished digging that hole,” he told the PD, “and I think it was Mrs. Kroeger.”
When the sheriff’s office did “clue digging” at the motel they found no trunk, but the soil was disturbed to a depth of four feet. The detective’s working theory at the time was that Iva killed Mildred in Santa Rosa, placed the remains in the zipper bag and buried it for a few days in the carport hole until she had the chance to sneak the body and trunk down to San Francisco. (Revealing the sheriff’s poor grasp of the timeline, note that the hole was actually dug a month after Mildred was killed.)
That brings us to the only unsolved mystery in the story: Who dug Mildred’s grave in the garage?
The police believed it was a man named Leo Minick, another of Iva’s handymen that were seemingly ever present. Minick, his wife and five kids showed up at the Santa Rosa motel two or three days after Mildred’s disappearance and he did odd jobs around the place as well as driving Iva somewhere on “side trips.” Iva refused to pay him (surprise!) so Minick forged an $80 check from “Eva Long” and cashed it at the A&B Market on Petaluma Hill Road before skipping town. When the check bounced and cops asked for her help in finding him, she refused to cooperate and declined to file a complaint against him. Minick was never found although his name significantly pops up later in our story.
While jury selection was underway in mid-January 1963, Iva set the tone by again insisting she was born in Germany and not as old as the press had reported. Then she pulled this stunt:
Mrs. Kroeger, [the] unpredictable 44-year-old grandmother who now claims she’s 41, got the trial off to a surprising start by going through the motions of casting a spell on one of the prosecuting lawyers. During the noon recess, she broke free from Deputy Sheriff Matron Anne Barrett, reached into her bosom and draped a string of Rosary beads over the shoulder of Assistant District Attorney Frank Shaw, and whispered something into his ear before scuttling away. Mr. Shaw, who said he did not understand her remarks, brushed the beads off his shoulder before realizing what they were. He picked them up and handed them to Defense Attorney Emmet Hagerty saying, “I think these belong to your client.”
Asked what her intended message was supposed to be, she said “I just wanted to remind him of the chains he put on me.” That wasn’t the only time she dabbled in courtroom voodoo. During jury selection a woman said she couldn’t serve because Iva was giving her the “evil eye.” She also threatened some sort of astrological curse on witnesses whose testimony she didn’t like. From the SF Examiner: “‘I want to make up some charts. I’m going to find out the birthdays of all the people in that trial…’ and her voice dropped, ‘and if any of them is lying maybe I’ll come up with some surprises.'”
THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF IVA KROEGER
From the first day of the trial all 125 seats in the courtroom gallery were filled and Iva played to her audience. “Iva made several sudden outbursts which brought rumbles and laughter from the spectators.” wrote Bony Saludes in the PD. As the week progressed, the line of people seeking to watch the trial kept growing and part of the corridor outside the courtroom was roped off to keep the crowd manageable.
Of all the reporters covering the trial, only Bony seemed to appreciate how important the gallery was to the proceedings. Other newspapers sensationalized Iva’s insanity stunts while casting court proceedings as her backdrop. But in the PD stories the spectators were highlighted for serving as a kind of Greek Chorus, cheering, laughing, booing and otherwise encouraging Iva’s performance. It was an important part of the courtroom scene.
The next day was even worse with Iva continuously interrupting proceedings, but the judge never threatened to eject her or hold her in contempt. He was so remarkably tolerant it likely further encouraged her to escalate her misbehavior:
|Judge Neubarth, a grey-haired jurist with a kind face and easygoing disposition, has sat practically unnoticed throughout the trial. He conducts his courtroom with a homey atmosphere, allowing reporters and photographers to roam at will and not once has he admonished spectators for their outbursts of laughter when Iva postures or when testimony is comical. Fact is, he has joined in the laughter on several occasions.|
It’s nigh impossible to overstate what a big deal the murder trial of Iva and Ralph was in the Bay Area. There were six reporters covering it full time, not counting star bloviators who sometimes parachuted into the courtroom to claim a trial byline.1 In their quest to win the day for their newspaper there were exaggerations and facts made up, sometimes making it difficult to interpret what really happened in court. On November 27, for example, the Oakland Tribune described Iva appearing “serene” with her face unlined with worry. Yet in the Press Democrat, “both look glum and showed the strain of 10 weeks of incarceration.”
There was further a nasty situation with Ed Montgomery, a San Francisco Examiner crime reporter who falsely claimed credit for breaking the case. Montgomery – who had won a 1951 Pulitzer for a series on tax fraud – went on Channel 2/KTVU and said he tracked down Walter Hughes and uncovered the snapshot of Iva and Ralph standing in front of the motel. He boasted he had an exclusive on the story until the bodies were found, which was too much for Sonoma County Undersheriff Joseph Cozzolino to bear. The officer was interviewed by the Press Democrat, where he correctly pointed out that PD reporter Neale Leslie did all the initial investigating and Montgomery was only rewriting what appeared in the Santa Rosa paper. “Tell me, how can he get away with something like that? Doesn’t the truth mean anything?” Worse, Newsweek repeated Montgomery’s claims. When contacted by the PD the magazine’s senior editor agreed they had been misled, but apparently did not print a retraction.
At times the courtroom had an air of normalcy; witnesses were called, testimony was given, there was no cause for the kindly judge to admonish anyone.
Employees of The Emporium in San Francisco were apparently the last to see Mildred alive on December 15, which was also the day that Mildred went to the Santa Rosa notary to sign over the motel’s deed to Iva (as noted in part one). A motel tenant told the jury he saw Iva and Mildred together at the motel between 5-6PM and the department store clerks testified the women were shopping there in the evening. The prosecution argued Iva and Mildred went from the store to Iva’s home where she committed the murder.
The FBI agent who arrested her in San Diego testified the first things she said when caught was, “I’m glad it’s over,” and “I don’t know anything about those people up there”
New details emerged about her custody of grandsons Charlie and Willie. A bus with the three of them arrived in San Francisco on Aug. 15 and the next day she tried to place them in a private foster home. Telling the home’s operator their names were Kenneth and Patrick (the names of her actual adult sons) and she had been sent by the welfare department, the place only had room for the older boy. Iva returned a day later and took him back, saying she would return him after the weekend. The operator testified she did not see Iva or the boys again. When the jury was shown photos of the children she began yelling. “These are my babies! They’re mine! They’re my babies!” Turning to reporters, she insisted, “They’re my babies! I’m not their grandmother. They’re my own!”
Her attorney made the startling claim that Iva was completely innocent – the real killers were Inez and handyman Leo Minick. It was such a bizarre Hail Mary defense the lawyer didn’t even try to prove motive or opportunity. Neither of them were around at the time of Mildred’s murder and they didn’t know each other, much less have any reason to kill the Arnesons.
Despite her regular outbursts, Iva had not seriously interrupted the trial during its first three weeks. All that changed as week four began.
On that February 4th sometimes she was cheery; she pointed to a juror and waved, calling out “That’s Domino! Hi, Domino!” Sometimes she cast herself as a victim, charging the prosecutor of stealing $20,000 from her safety deposit box and the police matron of beating her with wet towels. Often she repeated her demand for a mistrial. “Let’s go to San Jose. A million Rosicrucians in San Jose say I’m not getting a fair trial here!”
Bony Saludes wrote of that day: “Iva went on a rampage. She threw temper tantrums, hurled accusations at the prosecution, wrestled with the matron and for the first time in the trial, she shed real tears. Iva, her limp and her disposition growing progressively worse, also became embroiled in several heated arguments with Defense Lawyer Emmet Hagerty…at the end of the day, Mr. Hagerty, his face flushed, indicated he was just about fed up with Iva’s tactics. ‘She’s getting progressively worse,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if I can stop her from here on out.'”
That was also the day the prosecution said it was resting its case, which caught attorney Hagerty off guard. Saludes reported the lawyers met with the judge in chambers where Hagerty named several new witnesses he intended to call. Most intriguing were officers of the federal District Court in Chicago, where Iva was allegedly found to be “border-line mental deficient” for impersonating a Navy nurse in 1945. He also wanted to subpoena doctors from the Stealey Medical Clinic in San Diego, who found – again, allegedly – Iva was schizophrenic. Alas, none of those experts testified, and those potential witnesses were never mentioned again. The best Hagerty could do was have a San Francisco county jail physician testify he thought she was schizophrenic. But under cross examination, the PD reported the internist “conceded he was not an expert in psychiatry but said he felt qualified to diagnose a mental disorder.”
Later in the trial, one of the court-appointed psychiatrists said “She is cunning, cruelly vindictive, cool and calculated. She has evil conduct and is a devil.”
Her mind “works like a Swiss watch,” he said, and she was “a very, very good actor as good as or better than actors on stage or on television” leading Iva to pipe up, “I never watch television.” She was fully aware of what she was doing and did not actually have delusions, the doctor said. Asked what treatment he would give her as a patient, he answered “I’d pray. She’s not normal, she’s naughty.”
The main hope of Iva’s lawyer was the jury not find her guilty of first degree murder, which could mean the gas chamber. “Her mental capacity is such that she could not form and hold premeditation and the specific intent necessary to commit first degree murder,” he said. She had a “supercharged mother impulse” and was prone to hallucinations. When he began to mention the situation with her grandsons she interrupted him: “Oh, no, they’re my own babies, I’m no grandma, they’re my babies.”
The three court-ordered psychiatrists were clear: She wasn’t crazy. One stated the main thing wrong with her was that she was a “pathological liar.” During their four sessions she couldn’t keep any story straight, even concerning trivial details about her past. He did concede “she has emotional disturbances and is on the borderline of psychosis” which caused Iva to blurt out, “I’m the mother of God!”
The trial was not without its big reveals. Recall from the previous chapter that a few months after Jay Arneson was killed, Iva hired a contractor to pour concrete in the San Francisco garage. When he finished she told him she couldn’t pay unless he gave her a ride down to Oceanside, where she could retrieve bonds stored in a safety deposit box. There were no bonds (of course) and the poor man was never paid. It came out in court she pulled the same stunt with another workman the same month, this time convincing a guy to drive her to Cheyenne, Wyoming. That fellow was Herbert Willsmore, who had installed a water softener system at the motel and was the man who Iva threatened with a gun – a weapon she had stolen from the concrete flooring contractor during his futile roadtrip with Iva. More about this very strange trip to Wyoming in a moment.
Willsmore was asked by the defense attorney whether he knew Ralph and Iva. “I have good cause to be acquainted with them,” he answered. “They tried to kill me.” At that point Iva began shouting. From the PD:
|“He’s an FBI man, he said he was an FBI man. You’re lying. Let’s see you get your FBI card out.” Mr. Willsmore said his financial dealings with Iva were “real strange” and that she “set me up” to obtain money. “I laid the ground work so that she could embezzle the Bank of America in Santa Rosa,” Mr. Willsmore said. “Everything she done was diabolic. She set up everything in advance.”|
To the sage legal advice of absolutely no one, Iva’s attorney wanted her to testify in her own defense. When called to the stand she refused and began screaming she needed her “papers” stored in a safety deposit box at the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco.
Bony Saludes wrote: “Iva jumped from her chair and banged her hand on the table, shouting ‘Not until I get my papers.’ From here on out the dignity of the court was completely shattered – everyone was talking at once, the prosecution objecting, the defense counter-objecting, Iva continuing to scream at everyone, and the spectators hooting and laughing…she took off her right shoe, waved it around and then banged it on the table before her husband reached out to restrain her. Later when asked what she intended to do with the shoe, Iva said, ‘I had a nail in it. See?'”
Spoiler alert: It took a couple of days for the lawyers to gain access to the bank box. Inside they only found “old receipts, insurance papers and a notebook with nine black pages.” [Ed: Typo? “nine BLANK pages”?]
When she did limp to the witness stand the next day – without those important “papers” – Iva declared she was completely innocent and never had much to do with the Arnesons, whom she presumed were living happily in Brazil. “Iva, hardly stopping to take a breath, rambled for an hour about injustices and indignities she said she suffered for many years…” wrote Saludes. She said “I was born with syphilis and have a 20-year [astrological] chart that Nicodemus [prosecutor Mayer] here didn’t get hold of. I’ve been psychiatric all my life. It’s no shame to be born that way.”
“Iva’s testimony was confusing,” reporter Saludes remarked. “At times she was incoherent, jumping from one story to another. She would begin one sentence, then trail off on another subject as a new thought flashed through her mind.”
But what she really wanted the jury to know concerned the man who supposedly had been blackmailing her for years, threatening to expose her impersonation of a Navy nurse after WWII. Although she told investigators after her arrest she didn’t know his name (but described him as “tall, reddish blond, maybe 40 or 50”) she now could reveal it was a Santa Rosa businessman: Herbert Willsmore, the water softener guy.
Iva had obviously worked up a sweat developing her lunatic storyline. The tale had her first meeting Willsmore in a San Francisco bowling alley in the late 1950s, then running into him by chance at a Santa Rosa dime store in 1961. (Wait, wasn’t she supposedly paying her blackmailer for five years? Oh, well…) Herb introduced her to the Arnesons and told her to purchase their interest in the motel. He was always present when she was with Mildred. Herb and the cement contractor formed a conspiracy to murder and bury the Arnesons.
Then there was the trip to Wyoming. No, the purpose wasn’t to fetch bonds from a safety deposit box so she could pay him; it was Willsmore’s plan to find Mildred’s ex-husband because. She put an extra horrible twist on her lie by telling the jury that Herb stopped the car in the Nevada desert, pulled out a gun and “took improper liberties with her.”
Spectators surely anticipated Iva’s testimony would be prime entertainment, but she was nothing if not unpredictable. From the PD: “Some who were delighted at first became somewhat disgusted over the manner in which Iva was answering questions. She was argumentative, demanding, stubborn, evasive and repetitious. She went into long, disjointed dissertations on irrelevent matters and continuously insisted, she was insane.”
The trial had now been going on for four weeks and the courthouse scene was growing rowdy, the PD reported.
|The crowd, meanwhile, has become larger and more unruly as the trial progresses. Extra police were on hand last week attempting to keep order. Minor fights and arguments developed both outside and inside the courtroom by spectators trying to get in and trying to get a seat once they got inside. The inner-rail area was about as jammed as the spectator section. So many “friends of the court” decided to take in the trial, that some members of the press found themselves without a place to sit except the floor. Easy-going Superior Judge Harry J. Neubarth for the first time Friday admonished spectators to refrain from laughing or he would have to clear the courtroom.|
On her fourth day on the stand, “Iva staged one of the most spectacular courtroom dramas in San Francisco’s court history,” wrote Bony Saludes. Aside from calling Ralph her father, she claimed not to know anyone in court, why she was there, or where she lived. She sang “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” because “That’s what I used to sing to my babies – the ones they took away from me, you know.” She shouted, “My name’s the Mother of God!”
Her lawyer insisted Iva was “emotionally unhinged…her bizarre behavior shows a mind that is out of touch with reality. She is completely spent and her mind is without power to react.” The prosecutor wearily answered, “She’s done just what the court-appointed psychiatrists predicted. She put on the same act in front of them.” As she wrapped up her non-testimony, the PD described how she stunned the court:
|…she grabbed for documents at the prosecution table and started rummaging through them, shouting, “Where’s my papers?” The matron and the bailiff took her by the arms. She screamed and fought to break loose, then the bailiff picked her up and carried her out of the courtroom and put her into a holding cell adjacent to the courtroom. Her hysteria continued for 10 minutes, her screams resounding through the corridors in the third floor of the Hall of Justice. She was still screaming when a matron put her on an elevator to take her to her jail cell. When she was brought down for the afternoon session, Iva was crying and her eyes contained a far-away look.|
Unbelievably, the next day was even crazier:
|Iva Kroeger threw a fit in court today, passing out and going into a convulsion just before her trial started. The latest wild episode erupted as the accused trunk murderess entered the courtroom, walked briskly to her attorney’s table and pushed his briefcase on the floor. She then turned to the prosecutor’s table, scattered his papers on the floor and yelled, “Free papers for everyone.” When a matron tried to restrain her, Iva fought, fell to the floor, went into a convulsion and appeared to froth at the mouth.|
She was taken to the county jail infirmary and sedated. The attending physician said “it apparently was a hysterical attack.” The prosecutor told the Oakland Tribune: “Of course she’s upset; Ralph is testifying against her.” That wasn’t exactly the case, but his testimony certainly left the impression she was more conniving than crazy.
Yep, on the day Mildred was supposedly murdered, Iva was gone until the following morning. Nope, Jay Arneson couldn’t lift his hands to fight someone from strangling him because he was so weak from Parkinson’s Disease. Yep, Iva hired Santa Rosa handyman Walter Hughes to dig the hole that became Jay’s grave.
What likely shocked jurors was how complaisant Ralph was about her siphoning off what very little money they had, to be used for purposes unknown. When he was working they lived on $35-40/week because she supposedly needed expensive blood transfusions. After he quit his manual labor job to do Iva’s bidding in fixing up the Santa Rosa motel, he tapped a savings account to cover weekly expenses (including those imaginary blood transfusions). And after she took off on her cross-country getaway to avoid arrest for threatening to shoot Herb Willsmore, one of her first stops was Pine Bluff Colorado, where Ralph happily lived for many years and still maintained a savings account with $6,000 in it. She forged a check and took every cent without mentioning it to him.
By the time week six of the trial began, Iva dialed down her crazy act – she still was loud and obnoxious but there was no more writhing on the floor or snatching things away from lawyers. Sometimes the mood in the courtroom was downright chummy, as if Iva were simply an eccentric doyenne at a big dinner party.
“Iva babbled on so much that Judge Neubarth finally told her to be quiet. ‘If you stopped talking my headache would go away,’ the judge said. ‘You got a headache?’ she asked. ‘Yes.’ the judge said. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘put a cold cloth on your forehead. That helps me when I have a headache.'” When another court session finished, spectators clustered together at the gallery rail to be as close to her as possible. “Goodbye, everyone!” She called to them. “Goodbye, Iva,” they chirped in reply.
Seymour Ellison, her attorney in the lawsuit over the auto injury that (supposedly) gave her the limp, was called to testify and submitted to the court an odd suicide note Iva had sent to his office several months earlier.2 In a comic moment described in the PD, Ellison, the prosecutor, the defense attorney and the judge all got lost in the weeds, giving Iva the final word:
|His testimony was punctuated by verbal skirmishes among him, Mr. Mayer, Mr. Hagerty, the judge, and of course, Iva. At one point, Judge Neubarth commented to the jury, “See what happens when three lawyers get together?” During a pause Mr. Ellison was thumbing through some documents at the conclusion of one of the heated arguments, Judge Neubarth asked, “What are we looking for?” “I don’t know,” Mr. Mayer said. “I don’t know,” Mr. Ellison said. “I don’t think none of them know anything,” Iva shouted. drawing chuckles from the spectators.|
The prosecutor’s closing arguments spanned two days, the first one a marathon of three hours and 15 minutes. A reason it took so long was because he was “under a severe handicap – the constant heckling and outbursts by Iva Kroeger,” wrote Bony Saludes, who kept track of 150 times Iva interrupted him. “It was necessary for Mr. Mayer to speak loudly to drown out the 44-year-old accused murderess’s comments. Sometimes he just gave up and rested his head on his fists, waiting for Iva to stop ranting. Her husband, Ralph Kroeger, meanwhile, sat quietly and tried to restrain his wife by poking her in the elbow.”
But Iva was even more disruptive on day two: She fell asleep in court. “Your honor,” said her defense attorney, “I think she’s either asleep or drugged.”
Unable to rouse her, she was carried out in her chair to the county jail infirmary. The press speculated this incident was related to the muscle relaxant pills a physician had prescribed following her seizure-like event two weeks earlier. (The jail physician later diagnosed it was probably hyperventilation.) She was back for the afternoon court session and made a show of her drowsiness, yawning, closing her eyes and announcing how sleepy she was. Saludes suggested the jurors found this off-putting: “Most members of the four-man, eight-woman jury ignored Iva’s comments. Some deliberately looked up to the ceiling and others gazed at Iva with a disgusted look.”
The only small surprise in the prosecutor’s long-winded summation was insisting Ralph was as guilty of first degree murder as Iva – by not keeping a tight rein on his “missus” he became part of conspiracy. Reread that sentence again and then take a walk around the block to cool off.
He did bring up a salient point almost never mentioned in the mountain of news coverage – that the reason Iva came to Santa Rosa was because she had already targeted the Arnesons as prey. (He overlooked, however, that it was reported Iva first met Mildred and Jay Arneson at a September, 1961 Rosicrucian lecture in San Francisco.)
|Mr. Mayer also made an issue of how the Kroegers happened to pick Santa Rosa as a place to live. “Did they really go to Santa Rosa to avoid creditors?” Mr. Mayer asked. “And did they just happen to register at the Blue Bonnet Motel? Or was it that somewhere along the line they had met (the Arnesons)… Mr. Mayer read a letter which Mrs. Arneson wrote on Dec. 14, 1961 in which she said she had met a rich woman who was going to lend her $10,000 and that she was going to go to Brazil. It was Mildred’s life-long dream to leave the country and go to Brazil,” Mr. Mayer said. “She had problems at the motel and she had a problem with Jay. “It wasn’t difficult for someone with a clever, conniving mind to work on Mildred. She was a cinch for someone like Mrs. Kroeger.”|
Given that there were 189 exhibits, everyone expected the jury to be out several days. Bony Saludes polled the five other reporters who had covered the trial daily. All thought Iva would be found sane and guilty; four thought Ralph would be convicted of first or second degree murder and a couple thought he might even be acquitted. The jury deliberated only 5 hours and 12 minutes and found both Iva and Ralph guilty of murder, first degree.
|When it came, Iva reacted with relative composure. It was Ralph Kroeger, usually impassive who seemed moved to violence. Some observers read frank fury on his face. His face drained of its color. He clenched and unclenched his massive, calloused hands. “They is dead wrong,” he muttered, bitterly. She moaned slightly. Then her breath rate began to increase and she repeated between gasps, “I don’t know nothing about nothing.” She had shouted the phrase before during the trial, but now she whispered huskily. She was silent as she got to her feet to begin her limping exit. Suddenly she blurted, “I’ve got a clean clear conscience.” Then she said savagely, “Them jury people must have got paid off.”|
Iva’s sanity trial began after the jury had a break of a couple weeks. The same psychiatrists came back and said the same things: Yes, she was sane and yes, she knew what she was doing at the time of the killings. Iva was a criminal sociopath who was putting on a show in hopes of avoiding punishment. “She’s in a jam, she knows she’s in a jam and there’s nothing deluded about that.”
New information came out about her medical history – she was treated for syphilis at the Louisville General Hospital in 1938, four years after her marriage. Yet “the fact that a person has had syphilis does not give that person a permit to kill someone and throw them in a basement,” Chief Prosecutor Francis Mayer remarked.
The jury agreed with the psychiatrists: She wasn’t insane and knew right from wrong. Asked if he expected that decision, Ralph said “Yep, I guess so, but I think she’s nuts.”
With that over, the trial moved to its third phase: deciding how Ralph and Iva should be punished. By now the jury had been in session for ten weeks.
After deliberating 7¼ hours over two days, the verdict for both of them was death.
Ralph stood up and addressed the jury. “I request you to be present at the execution. And I want [the prosecutors] to drop the [gas chamber cyanide pellets] in person. I want them to finish the job. They seem to want it. Let them have it. I’d rather have death than prison.”
The unpredictable Iva pulled out all stops. She confessed to being in the garage and watching Mildred Arneson die. “I was there, sure. Sure. Where else. But I was doped.” The riveting scene was described in the PD: “[She] talked rapidly and the more she talked the louder her voice resounded in the courtroom. She shouted and gestured wildly as the huge crowd of spectators closed in, some pushing and others merely staring blandly.”
|“We didn’t do nothing!” she screamed at the jurors. Then she whirled around, pointed at her husband and said, “He wasn’t even there.” She turned to reporters, protesting the jury had been “dead wrong” about Ralph, whom she had stubbornly tried to protect during the trial although he gave damaging testimony against her. “I’m not afraid to die, but I can take you out there to the house and show you exactly what happened. They had a whole keg of nails and long pipes and little white pills. They held a gun in my face,” she ranted on. “What could I do? They said they were going to shoot her to the moon.” Asked who she meant by “they,” she said, “Wildegard (the name she has given to Mr. Willsmore) and Inez Willits. They did it.”|
The final court hearing in the Arneson murder case came May 1, when Ralph and Iva appeared for sentencing. A wire service story about this ruling appeared in newspapers of every state except for Alaska and Mississippi.
Judge Neubarth said that “after countless, sleepless nights and prayerful contemplation” he came to view Ralph as another “victim of her evil doing.” His death sentence was commuted to life imprisonment.
As for Iva, he offered no leniency: She was to die in the gas chamber at San Quentin. Neubarth predicted “she would kill again” if the opportunity arose because she could not be rehabilitated. “She will always be a menace to society. For her, life has never had any meaning.”
Iva began shouting the prosecutor would never leave the courtroom alive. “Do something!” she ordered the public spectators.
And so it was over, apparently. Ralph shuffled off to the California State Prison at Vacaville, Iva to the California Institution for Women at Frontera. His lawyer filed for a new trial and as she had been sentenced to death, under the law an appeal was automatically made to spare her from the gas chamber.
Some who were involved with the investigation or trial fondly viewed those times as a career highpoint. In FaceBook comments on this series, relatives of Santa Rosa and San Francisco law enforcement members recall dad’s man-cave had keepsakes such as framed photos showing exhumations in the Kroeger basement and scrapbooks of newspaper stories mentioning his role in the case.
The murders quickly became a mainstay of the tabloids and pulp magazines; I’m told it wasn’t unusual to regularly spot a story on newstands concerning the crime or her personally into the 1980s. This has continued into the internet era, where the true crime genre has flourished; a search for “Iva Kroeger” will turn up multitudes of podcasts, videos, social media posts and books with chapters on famous murderers. Warning: The misinformation is deep, young Skywalker.
But the Saga of Iva did not end with her trial. What happened afterwards is lesser known, although it’s really the most astonishing part of the whole story. And, of course, involves a con job.
1 The daily trial reporters were Charles Cruttenden, San Francisco Examiner; Charles Raudebaugh, San Francisco Chronicle; Hadley Roth, San Francisco News-Call Bulletin; Herb Mickelson, Oakland Tribune; William Howard, UPI and Boniface Saludes. (Press Democrat, March 11, 1963)
2 Seymour L. Ellison worked at the law firm of Belli, Ashe & Gerry, which was headed by famed personal injury lawyer Melvin Belli. When Iva was on the run from the Sonoma County sheriff for threatening Willsmore, the law office received this letter dated June 14, 1962: “Dear Mr. Belli, I am going to the Golden Gate Bridge You see I am sick and owe bills and on top of it acuesed (sic) of sumthing (sic) I don’t even know about. And my husband has left me. Mr. Belli, I love my husband very much. When you settle the case, please see that my husband gets the money from the case when it’s settled also my motel in Santa Rosa … By the time you read this I’ll be in the Golden Gate Bay … All I ask is light a candell (sic) every birthday, May 16, and always remember me. Love from Iva Maria Kroeger.”
(1962 Press Democrat articles related to this chapter only)
WAS SANTA ROSA TRUNK USED IN THE MURDER? (August 23, no byline)
WAS MRS. ARNESON SLAIN AT SANTA ROSA MOTEL? (August 24, Bony Saludes byline)
SHERIFF STILL HAS MYSTERY TYPEWRITER (Sept 17, no byline)
ONLY EMPTY ENVELOPE IN IVA’S SR BANK BOX (Sept 18, Bony Saludes byline)
KROEGER WITNESS HUNTED (Sept 18, no byline)
SF REPORTER’S VERSION OF ARNESON CASE HIT (Sept 18, no byline)
IVA KROEGER PLEADS INNOCENT (Oct 25, UPI)
IVA TURNS SHY IN COURTROOM (Nov 27, no byline)
IVA KROEGER RULED SANE BY DOCTORS (Nov 30, no byline)
(1963 Press Democrat articles related to this chapter only)
IVA OPENS ARNESON TRIAL WITH A ‘HEX’ (Jan 15, no byline)
IVA, MRS. ARNESON SEEN TOGETHER IN SF (Jan 15, no byline)
THOSE KROEGER JURY SEATS ARE DIFFICULT TO FILL (Jan 18, no byline)
KROEGERS MONDAY FACE MOUNTAIN OF EVIDENCE (Jan 20, Bony Saludes byline)
PROSECUTION ASSAILS KROEGERS (Jan 21, Bony Saludes byline)
PROSECUTION STARTS WEB AROUND IVA (Jan 22, Bony Saludes byline)
SEVEN WITNESSES POINT FINGER AT IVA KROEGER (Jan 23, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA KROEGER HECKLES SANTA ROSA WITNESS (Jan 23, Bony Saludes byline)
COURT’S DECORUM SHATTERED BY IVA (Jan 24, Bony Saludes byline)
HOLE IN IVA’S BASEMENT UNDER PROSECUTION SCRUTINY THIS WEEK (Jan 27, Bony Saludes byline)
INEZ WILLITS ACCUSED OF ARNESON MURDERS (Jan 29, Bony Saludes byline)
BANKERS TELL FINANCIAL WOES IN DEALS WITH IVA (Jan 30, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA’S LAWYER SUGGESTS SHE’S ‘SCHIZOPHRENIC’ (Jan 31, Bony Saludes byline)
WE MAY NOT KNOW IT BUT GRANDMA’S A POET (Feb 3, Bony Saludes byline)
HECTIC DAY IN COURT WITH RAMPAGING IVA (Feb 5, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA’S LAWYER ALMOST SAYS SHE’S GUILTY (Feb 7, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA’S DEFENSE WITNESS DOESN’T HELP HER MUCH (Feb 8, Bony Saludes byline)
WILLSMORE TELLS OF TRIP WITH IVA (Feb 11, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA SCHEDULED TO TAKE WITNESS STAND TOMORROW (Feb 12, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA YELLS, RANTS; WON’T TAKE STAND (Feb 13, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA PICTURE OF INNOCENCE ON STAND (Feb 14, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA QUIZZED ON MURDERS, BUT ANSWERS ARE EVASIVE (Feb 15, Bony Saludes byline)
KROEGER TRIAL MAY GO TO JURY THIS WEEK (Feb 17, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA’S ATTORNEY TO SEEK MISTRIAL (Feb 19, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA THROWS A FIT, COLLAPSES IN COURTROOM (Feb 20, Bony Saludes byline)
A PEACEFUL DAY IN COURT FOR A CHANGE (Feb 21, Bony Saludes byline)
RALPH KROEGER TRIPS IN CROSS EXAMINATION (Feb 22, Bony Saludes byline)
TESTIMONY OF S.R. MAN CHALLENGED AT SF TRIAL (Feb 25, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA KROEGER GIVES FREE ADVICE TO ALL (Feb 26, Bony Saludes byline)
PSYCHIATRIST DESCRIBES IVA AS ‘ACTOR’ AND ‘DEVIL’ (Feb 27, William Fowler/UPI byline)
IVA CAN’T LIFT SACK; MURDER TRIAL RECESSED (Feb 28, UPI byline)
MAYER CONCLUDES AS IVA HECKLES (March 4, Bony Saludes byline)
CONTINUING CONSPIRACY BY KROEGERS CHARGED (March 5, Bony Saludes byline)
SLUMBERING IVA TAKEN FROM COURT (March 5, Bony Saludes byline)
DEFENSE OPENS FINAL PLEA TO SPARE KROEGERS (March 6, Bony Saludes byline)
HAGERTY CONCENTRATES ON DEFENDING RALPH (March 7, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA IN FINAL OUTBURST AS TRIAL GOES TO JURY (March 8, Bony Saludes byline)
KROEGERS GUILTY, BUT IT’S NOT OVER YET (March 10, Bony Saludes byline)
RESERVED FOR BONY SALUDES (March 11 column)
IVA’S BEHAVIOR IS ONLY A PLOT (March 21, Bony Saludes byline)
JURY TO BECOME JUDGE OF IVA’S MENTAL STATUS (March 22, Bony Saludes byline)
‘MYSTIC’ IVA FEELS JURY WILL METE DEATH PENALTY (March 24, no byline)
RALPH INVITES JUDGE AND JURY TO EXECUTION (March 27, no byline)
ARNESON FAMILY AGREES THE JURY’S DECISION JUST (March 27, no byline)
DEATH FOR IVA, LIFE FOR RALPH! (May 1, no byline)
LAWYER HAGERTY TO APPEAL LIFE SENTENCE FOR RALPH (May 2, no byline)