There were 49 prisoners awaiting execution but only one was a woman. That woman was Iva Kroeger.
On May 1, 1963 she was sentenced to death for the murders of Mildred and Jay Arneson and sent to the California Institution for Women at Frontera (AKA Corona State Prison) to await a decision on her appeal to the California Supreme Court. And to the surprise of many, the justices ordered her sentence be reconsidered on a technicality.
The court agreed her trial was fair and did not dispute her first degree murder conviction. But when giving instructions to the jury during the penalty phase of the trial, the judge erred by telling them a sentence to life imprisonment would make Iva eligible for parole, so there was a chance – however microscopic – she could be back on the streets in as little as seven years. Iva soon found herself headed back to San Francisco for a new (partial) trial.
But first: More medical reports – and guess what? The new experts contradicted all the previous experts!
Doctors at the state prison declared Iva had “chronic brain syndrome and central nervous system syphilis.” Her history of syphilis came up during the trial. A quarter-century earlier she was treated at a hospital and the medic at the San Francisco jail infirmary thought she had signs of paresis, which is a kind of chronic brain inflammation often found in late neurosyphilis. A doctor at the trial testified he didn’t believe it because she didn’t display the typical symptoms: “I won’t mention them unless you make me,” he said, “because she might have them tomorrow if I do.”
Iva was also seen by two new court-ordered psychiatrists. The three who had examined her before the trial said in court she was a “pathological liar” and a criminal sociopath putting on a show in hopes of avoiding punishment. The new crop of experts diagnosed her as fully psychotic.
Now certifiably physically and psychologically impaired, Iva was once again before Judge Neubarth, who had sentenced her to death almost exactly a year prior. This time she had two lawyers, one of them being famed litigator Melvin Belli whose law firm had also represented her in the damage suit over the injury that caused her incurable limp, which seemed to come and go.
Neubarth and the prosecutor had already agreed it would be a bench trial, as she was such a “mental defect” it would be inhumane to risk a new jury condemning her to death because such a verdict would be easily overturned on appeal. With no objections from her lawyers, Judge Neubarth reduced her sentence to life without parole. “When I say life, I mean life,” Neubarth stated. “She should never be returned to society. I am going to file a special report in which I will urge that she never be released.”
The hearing was over in 25 minutes and the shortened proceedings deprived Iva of a stage where she could perform for her fan club in the gallery. Still, she “…trundled into court in a wheelchair with her left leg bandaged heavily (apparently her own idea and not that of Corona physicians),” according to the San Francisco Examiner.
Afterwards she spoke with reporters in the hallway. “I never had a trial…I don’t believe the judge knowed the truth. I have 108 witnesses to prove my innocence.”
(Curiously, the Press Democrat didn’t have Bony Saludes or any other reporter at the hearing, choosing to print only a 150-word wire service brief which appeared in many other papers.)
HOW GUILTY WAS RALPH?
Iva and Ralph Kroeger were tried together for the Arneson murders, shared the same lawyer and both received a death penalty, but their trial judge rejected the jury’s decision and commuted his sentence to life imprisonment. The couple also filed their appeals to the California Supreme Court together – although the reasons asking for a mistrial were quite different.
Iva’s appeal had eight arguments that a white shoe lawyer might call desperatis precibus – let’s throw everything against the wall and see if anything sticks. Some of them were that she was forced to testify against herself, she didn’t have her own attorney, Ralph testified although he was her spouse and she deserved a sanity hearing even though the experts said she was not crazy. Most of these pleas were rejected because she had not brought them up as objections during the trial.
Ralph’s appeal had a single point: He should have had a separate trial. As summed up by the Supreme Court, he argued “…it is reasonable to believe he would have received a different verdict had the case been tried in the usual tranquil atmosphere of the courtroom, but that Iva’s misconduct during the trial so inflamed the jury that it returned its verdict against him out of passion and bias.” Again the high court tossed the argument because there weren’t earlier objections.
No one considered Ralph had any role in planning or committing the murders, and two of the newspaper reporters who covered the entire trial expected him to be acquitted. But he did tell deliberate lies in court and during questioning. Some of his statements and actions were likely to appease his volatile wife (see “The Hapless Husband” section in chapter two) but others point to him covering up crimes or suggest he knew more than he was willing to admit. Some examples:
* In the summer of 1962 he claimed not to know the whereabouts of Iva, which he told authorities probably meant she was dead. In truth she was apparently hiding at the San Francisco house until she left on her cross-country bus trip in late June. Similarly Ralph said he never knew about or saw her two grandsons, even though a neighbor viewed Iva and Ralph with the kids through a window in August.
* He said he believed Iva when she told him she was managing the Santa Rosa motel for a physician who bought it from Mildred Arneson in February, 1962. The prosecutor confronted Ralph for having said the mysterious doctor was paying for motel equipment two months before his supposed involvement.
* Ralph denied cosigning bank loans from the Santa Rosa branch of Bank of America and the Exchange Bank. Handwriting experts testified it was indeed his signature under the name “Ralph Long,” the alias he and Iva used in Santa Rosa.
* He never noticed the two crude concrete patches in his garage/basement, he insisted. Yet when the cement contractor came to pour a new floor and “picked up a sledgehammer and began to break some of the old cement,” stated the Supreme Court case overview, “The Kroegers angrily stopped him and said they did not want the concrete broken.”
So Iva went back to prison where she was supposed to stay until she died. Not that she minded it much; also in her hallway interview she said, “…I’ll be happy when I go back [to Corona] because they treat people like human beings down there.” In that era it was described as being like a college campus and the cell blocks like dormitories. It’s not hard to find interviews with prisoners insisting that no, it wasn’t all lollipops and puppies and yes, taxpayers should be assured they were being adequately punished.
A 1966 profile quoted the superintendent as saying she “looks very well.” Iva was being her usual sociable self according to the Oakland Tribune, “acting as a runner for the other sixty inmates in her cottage, carrying notes or going on errands.” Ralph wrote to her weekly and tapped his small pension to send her pin money to get cosmetics and such at the prison canteen. Later that year Ralph died of cancer at Folsom State Prison; he is buried at the Lakeside Memorial Lawn Cemetery in Folsom.
The article didn’t mention Iva’s trademark limp, but the superintendent said she was using crutches. She also told the paper that Iva was going blind. “She can’t see from one eye at all. We’re getting her started learning Braille.”
Gentle Reader may recall Iva had a permanently blown out left pupil (a condition known as anisocoria) but neither eye reacted to light. There are several possible causes of the condition; most often it’s from some sort of traumatic brain injury. During her months in Santa Rosa Iva incessantly complained she had to have an operation to fix her gimpy leg, but immediately after being apprehended by the FBI she switched gears – now some sort of expensive eye surgery was needed to save her vision. Anisocoria does not cause blindness.
Time passed. Iva and her horrible deeds were still rehashed in tabloid crime magazines. When reporters and cops who worked on the case retired or died, new details or observations emerged from interviews and obits: “She had 97 different personae. She could be anything she wanted to be.” “Every day was something new. She turned out to be a class A psychopath.” “She even admitted in court, when her husband was sentenced with her, that she had done it all by herself. ‘I lowered them into the hole with wires,’ she screamed.” Were all of those things true? Yeah, maybe. Sure.
The San Francisco Examiner kept track of her for awhile, with little items noting her first parole hearing in 1972 and how she always sent a Christmas poem to Judge Neubarth and birthday greetings to prosecutor Frank Shaw. When Governor Pat Brown made an inspection tour she told him “I was convicted by the newspapers,” and he muttered something that encouraged her to start boasting she would “have a job in the Brown administration” once she got out of the joint.
But it was the Press Democrat and not the Examiner that turned up the real scoop. Gaye LeBaron made an idle query in 1977 to find out how the state might treat a geriatric psychopathic killer. She was surprised to hear “the strange, stumpy, gabby little woman” was paroled in August, 1975. She had served 12 years and three months.
She’s 56 now [Ed: she was actually 59] and totally blind, perhaps from the same disease that killed her husband. Her parole officer says she uses her middle name, Lucille, makes no trouble, “she’s just a bit of a nuisance.” She rides all over Riverside on the city buses with her white cane and likes to tell people how she “served 13 years for a crime she didn’t commit.” She’s going to college, taking sociology classes at UC Riverside and UCLA both, and writing a book about her life which ought to be some story. She has become an active Scientologist and holds much hope for the future…
LeBaron remarked the terms of Iva’s parole (supposedly) legally enjoined her from returning to Northern California, but news that “Grandma” Kroeger was loose still caused “some sweaty palms in town.” The widow of Herbert Willsmore, the tradesman Iva threatened to shoot, said he believed to his dying day he was going to be her next murder victim. The Forestville couple who held the actual mortgage on the Santa Rosa Ave. motel likewise feared she was going to come after them.
In a subsequent column Gaye explained she tried to find out why the parole board released Iva despite her lack of contrition for the gruesome crimes and Judge Neubarth’s plea to toss away the cell door key after locking her up forever. Alas, LeBaron was told details of those prison records were lost in a fire. All we know is the board’s decision was “based on her behavior while she was incarcerated.”
Yet it’s très facile to picture the scene at the parole hearing – after all, she had rehearsed for this performance all of her adult life. Iva walks in – sorry, LIMPS in – with her white cane, probably leaning on the arm of an officer. She is so darn sweet and lovable and has suffered such a difficult life the most hard-hearted member of the parole board wants to reach out to give her a big hug and promise everything will be better. She is the kindest kind of grandmother and arises each dewy morn with a prayer that she will find new ways to inspire everyone to be their better selves. If such a saint doesn’t deserve clemency, then who?
(RIGHT: Iva Kroeger shortly after her 1962 arrest in San Diego. Photo enhanced using HotPot AI)
The most interesting question to debate is how much her near total blindness weighed in the board’s decision. It surely was impossible for her to offend again (not that she would!) and releasing a severely handicapped prisoner would save the Dept. of Corrections more than a few bucks – Gov. Brown was warning there was a need for “public sacrifice” in 1975 because of a very tight budget, even as the California prison population was growing year over year. On the flip side, she had no close family to help care for her and might require even more support from the state once freed.1
As Gaye LeBaron revealed, it turned out Iva was able to get along just fine. After her column appeared the Examiner followed with more details in its own Iva update. Her parole officer told the paper she lived alone in a small apartment in Riverside with an income of $334/mo. from Social Security and disability. “She has extremely limited vision, but she has gone to the Braille Institute and reads Braille very well.” Nonetheless, she had a B+ average at UC/Riverside and was majoring in sociology. And, of course, “she maintains her innocence to everyone.”
The saga of Iva Kroeger might have ended with her continuing on that path for the remainder of her life – content to be out of jail with no worries of being destitute, which seemed to be her driving fear. Free to pursue her offbeat metaphysical beliefs and pestering strangers for attention by wailing about her unjust fate.
But there’s a final chapter to her story that’s on par with many of the other outrageous stunts she pulled. Only this time there was an underlying question about herself that dwarfed the actual crime: Was Iva actually blind – or even visually impaired at all? Had she fooled prison officials, doctors and even the Braille Institute, she was unquestionably one of the greatest confidence artists of all time.
She disappeared after her parole ended in the early 1980s. Her former parole agent told LeBaron she was then living in Long Beach and a religious group in Hawaii offered a permanent administrative job (clue #1 she might not be totally blind). But she instead reverted to her original scam which was impersonating a nurse. She traveled around the country by bus, picking up convalescent jobs.
On one of those bus rides she met a real nurse from San Diego named Edna Weitzel and claimed to be a wealthy landlord who needed a trustworthy assistant to help manage her extensive real estate portfolio. Edna agreed to work for her and they spent a couple of days together gambling in Las Vegas before Iva disappeared. At the time Edna was unaware Iva had swiped her credentials until months later when she was notified by police looking for Iva.2
THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF IVA KROEGER
By 1983 she was mainly working in Florida, where she had relatives. Gentle Reader might recall when Iva was on the lam in 1962 she visited her son who lived near Fort Meyers, taking his young sons back to California with her, where she promptly abandoned them. Whether by coincidence or no, her brother and his extended family also had a home in a different Ft. Meyers suburb. That two branches of her family happened to be near each other would later confuse investigators and newspapers who assumed they must be the same.3
A crisis began in July 1986 when the 18 month-old daughter of Iva’s nephew drowned in a swimming pool. Her father was co-owner of a grocery in Cape Coral and was at work on the day of the child’s death. The nephew and his family didn’t believe his long hours played a role in the accident but Iva took the notion the toddler wouldn’t have died had he been home. Specifically, she blamed his partner Andy Pitcher for scheduling her nephew to be at the store at the time.
And then the death threats began. Instead of her usual M.O. of using an alias, she started calling the Pitcher home and making sure they knew it was Iva Kroeger on the line. “I’m an old woman and I’ve already served 16 years [sic] and the only thing I haven’t decided is how I’m going to kill you.” She had nothing to lose and “if you don’t believe me, check the records. I’ve killed before,” she reportedly said, before describing exactly how she murdered the Arnesons.
Iva told the family she knew “who took the kids to and from day care” and even “where he sat at church.” Pitcher bought a gun and told the kids not to play outside. Their housekeeper took their youngest children, age four and six, to stay with someone on the other side of the state.
Those harassing calls went on for weeks until there was a knock on the door at 12:30 AM. Andy Pitcher opened the door to see an elderly woman. When she asked if Andy lived there, he knew it was Iva. He noticed she was carrying a plastic bag with what appeared to be the barrel of a handgun sticking out the top.
“Hey, you’ve got the wrong house,” he told her.
Incredibly, the bluff worked. Iva wandered away and began waking up neighbors, claiming to be an aunt trying to find Andy’s house. He immediately called the police.
“This lady’s Iva Kroeger and she’s here to kill me!” Pitcher told the policeman answering the call, just as Iva was returning to his house.
Iva – always the most adroit of liars when cornered – gave the officer a fake name, said she was from out of town and lost, trying to find her nephew. She didn’t know anything about this Andy Pitcher fellow or why he was saying bad things about her.
The rookie cop believed the sweet old lady completely. He didn’t look in her bag and gave her a lift to a downtown Holiday Inn. And true to form, she disappeared. That was the last contact law enforcement would ever have with the infamous Iva Kroeger.
It took several weeks for word to reach California that Iva had resurfaced and was again threatening to kill someone. Both the Examiner and Press Democrat refreshed reader’s memories of the 25 year old Iva murder saga, while Gaye LeBaron tied up a crucial loose end: “Police in Cape Coral, Fla., said yesterday there was nothing to indicate she had difficulty seeing when she went to the home of a man she had declared responsible for the death of her grandnephew [sic] and threatened him with a gun.”
We know about her Florida escapades thanks to Cape Coral police detective David Stadelman. After Pitcher’s complaint reached his desk, Stadelman tumbled down the Iva Kroeger rabbit hole, spending a month looking into the history of the killer grandma before seeking a warrant for felony aggravated assault.
Detective Stadelman was a thorough investigator, although delving into Iva-ology from Florida couldn’t have been easy in 1987, sans internet and the ability to read all the old newspaper coverage of her life and crimes. He presumably contacted the San Francisco police and likely the FBI and Sonoma County sheriff as well. He soaked up all he could from the Pitchers and the family of Iva’s nephew. He studied her diaries and mementos left behind when she fled. And one of the things he found revealed she had been back to Santa Rosa.
She may have been (supposedly) prohibited from returning to Northern California but that was just while on parole. So although there was no legal prohibition from her being here afterward, it raises the question why she would want to do so – it’s a strain to imagine she had any friends in the area dating back to her crime spree a couple of decades earlier. And how was she supporting herself? Was she working here in nursing homes under an alias, as she did elsewhere?
Let’s jump now to 1989, over two years since she was last seen in Florida. Charlie Raudebaugh, the San Francisco Chronicle reporter who had covered all of Iva’s 1963 murder trial was now retired and living in Oakmont. One February morning he was at Montgomery Village where “he spotted two women about 10 feet away, obviously killing time waiting for a shop to open,” as he said to Gaye LeBaron. Here’s what else he told her:
… One was tall and white haired, quite well dressed. He said he thought, “There’s a dignified-looking middle-aged lady taking her mother out,” and then he realized the “mother” was Iva Kroeger. “Her gestures were the same. She had the same gimp (Kroeger was lame). She moves her hands in an unmistakable scoop-like fashion.” He is absolutely certain it is the same woman who led police on a nationwide chase and made horrifying headlines so many years ago. She realized she was being watched and looked at Raudebaugh. “There was a light of recognition,” Charlie said. “Her gaze intensified and then she turned away”…The woman Raudebaugh saw Monday had no white cane.
As with the Press Democrat’s Bony Saludes, the trial was arguably the biggest and most memorable story of his career. Counting the court hearings before and after, Raudebaugh spent about three months within a few feet of Iva. Sure, he possibly could have mistaken someone else for her – goddesses know so many people did when she was a fugitive – but there were few who could be considered a more reliable witness to identify her. But again, why in the world would she be comfortable being back in Santa Rosa?
Whether or not he really spotted Iva here in 1989, she was then 71 years old and a woman with few options left. It’s impossible to imagine the family would have anything more to do with her. She probably couldn’t get anyone to hire her; even with a stolen or fake ID stating she was younger (and you just know she would have had one) she was a petite and frail-looking old lady who hardly seemed capable of the long hours and physical rigors of convalescent nursing. Perhaps that “dignified-looking middle-aged lady” was someone she conned into supporting her, at least for the moment.
Hard times were on the horizon. We know that in Oct. 1991 she was in contact with Social Security, probably to update records on where her checks should be sent. She was then living in Boston at the Pine St. Inn. It was a homeless shelter.
The charity had a “Women in Transition” program, funded by HUD and the Massachusetts welfare dept. where indigent women could stay up to two years until permanent housing could be found. Iva had reverted to using her birth name Lucille and had also reverted to using a white cane. A May 20, 1993 article in the Boston Globe mentioned her: “Lucille Kroeger, 69, and a Women in Transition guest, is blind and listens to tapes from the Perkins School for the Blind in her cheerfully-decorated room. She has written 418 poems, many at the inn.”
Shortly after that she was moved to St. Helena’s House, a 73 apartment building for the elderly owned by the Boston Archdiocese. Iva lived there the rest of her life.
Iva Lucille Kroeger died June 26, 2000 at the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, which was Harvard’s teaching hospital. She had cervical cancer but her cause of death was a heart attack. Her remains were cremated.
True to form, her death certificate contained multiple lies. She was 81 (not 77). She had taken a couple of years of college classes but had not completed two years towards a specific degree. She wasn’t a homemaker. She didn’t own a house. And her name was never legally Iva. In death as in life, she wrapped herself in fog.
|1 A 1974 paper in Stanford Law Review stated paroled inmates in California were required to participate in a work or training furlough program on release. That article, however, was specifically about men and does not say what conditions were imposed on those who were disabled and/or elderly.|
2 Curiously, no articles about the 1986 incidents can be found in any Florida newspapers currently online. Besides the Press Democrat items cited below, the main source of information came from the Feb. 15 1987 San Francisco Examiner.
3 “The Florida police say she isn’t a Grandma at all, that the children she traveled with in 1962 and abandoned in Oakland weren’t her grandsons but her nephews. One of them may be the father of the drowned child which set her off on her latest rampage.” Gaye LeBaron, Feb. 18 1987
(Press Democrat articles related to this chapter only)
LAWYER HAGERTY TO APPEAL LIFE SENTENCE FOR RALPH (May 2 1963, no byline)
HIGH COURT REVERSES IVA’S DEATH SENTENCE (March 31 1964, UPI byline)
KROEGER RETRIAL TO START (May 13 1964, no byline)
IVA ESCAPES GAS CHAMBER (July 3 1964, no byline)
IVA KROEGER GOING BLIND IN PRISON (February 27 1966, Oakland Tribune reprint)
SR KILLER DIES IN PRISON (August 26 1966, no byline)
GAYE LEBARON (October 16 1977)
GAYE LEBARON (October 28 1977)
GAYE LEBARON (October 14 1984)
GAYE LEBARON (October 24 1984)
KILLER GRANDMA HUNTED IN FLORIDA (February 16 1987, Robert Digitale byline)
GAYE LEBARON (February 18 1987)
‘SWEET’ IVA KROEGER’S GRIM CAREER (February 22 1987, Bony Saludes byline)
FLORIDA POLICE STILL PURSUE ELUSIVE LITTLE OLD LADY (February 22 1987, no byline)
GAYE LEBARON (March 2 1987)
GAYE LEBARON (February 15 1989)