Iva Kroeger was headed to Santa Rosa, she told a friend after she arrived back in the Bay Area in mid-August, 1962. “I’m tired.”
She didn’t make it, but what she intended to do here was unknown. Did she expect to resume managing the fleabag motel on Santa Rosa Avenue? Was she not aware the Sonoma County sheriff and the FBI were looking for her? Didn’t she know the Press Democrat – and other Bay Area newspapers – were printing investigative stories linking her to the disappearance of the Arnesons?
Or maybe she wasn’t planning to return to Santa Rosa at all; the context was asking the friend for money to buy bus tickets. Iva was a fluent liar and adept at making up tales to grub cash out of everyone who was unfortunate enough to cross her path.
But she was likely telling the truth about feeling tired. She had just finished a 7,000+ mile trek across the nation and back again via trains, Greyhound buses and lifts from strangers, with her two grandsons (ages three and four) in tow for the cross-country return journey.
This article is in two parts; it begins with the story of that wild trip which can be told thoroughly for the first time, thanks to modern resources such as Ancestry and the availability of many regional newspapers on newspapers.com. The final section describes the three weeks between the discovery of the bodies and her arrest, when many developed a maniac obsession over the case and imagined they were seeing Iva everywhere. Before we begin all that, Gentle Reader will surely find her pre-Santa Rosa backstory illuminating:
The deepest secret of Iva Kroeger was the lie she told about her origins. In Santa Rosa she claimed to have been born in Munich Germany and sometimes added she was Jewish. She spoke in broken English and cocked her head to one side when reading or listening to someone, as if she struggled to understand the language.
In truth, she was born Lucille Cecilia Hooper at Louisville, Kentucky in September, 1918, which made her 43 when she murdered the couple and became a fugitive six months later. She married in November 1934 at age sixteen; she lied on the marriage license and said she was 19. Her husband was nearly twice as old and they had two sons while she was still a teenager.
(RIGHT: Iva Kroeger impersonating a Navy nurse in 1945. Image enhanced using HotPot AI)
Her first (known) brush with the law came in 1945, when she was arrested for impersonating a military member, complete with wearing the uniform of a Navy nurse. “Lt. Lucille Hooper” gave an interview to the Louisville Times where her lurid tales of herself and other nurses being tortured at a Japanese prison camp drew federal prosecutors to investigate. She was given a year’s probation which she promptly violated. In 1947 the FBI arrested her in El Paso but no charges were pressed.
When she was caught impersonating a Navy nurse Iva was working in Chicago as a skilled health care provider, which was a ruse she often used. (She had no education beyond seventh grade.) It was the basis for a scam she tried years later, as described by Bony Saludes in the Press Democrat:
|She was arrested in 1954 on a complaint by a San Francisco man who said she had stolen $2,000 from him. At the time, she was renting a home in San Francisco and advertised it for sale in the newspapers as a rest home. She obtained the money from the man, who wanted to buy the home, asked him to sit and wait for her until she got some papers, then disappeared.|
Unbelievably, she was able to talk her way out of that prosecution as well, knocking the charges down to misdemeanor petty theft. Yet later that same year she was hired to operate an actual rest home in San Francisco – and it was there she met her future husband Ralph, whose dying father was a resident at the facility.
Lucille Hooper made quite a splash when she returned to Louisville, her first visit home in nearly twenty years. “[She] seemed tickled to death to be visiting the family again,” her aunt told reporters. “She spent freely on gifts for us.” That was in early July, when the Press Democrat and other newspapers were just starting to investigate the Arneson case.
For a few days she stayed with her brother Stanley and his family, then spent the rest of the month living with the widow of her first husband.1 If that seems a bit odd, add in the fact their mutual hubby had died only a few days earlier, just before Lucille came to town. Please feel free to share your favorite conspiracy theory with me.
To the widow and her teenage kids Lucille posed as the fabulously wealthy relation, owner of a California restaurant and motel. After Louisville she would be off to Chicago – would the 18 year-old daughter like to tag along as her guest and see the big city? You bet!
But as they were about to find their train at Louisville’s Union Station, Lucille was suddenly confronted by Stanley’s wife. It seemed Lucille had promised to buy the family a trailer but there was a catch: They had to give her $300 cash as “good faith” before she would wire all the money needed. It finally dawned on the sister-in-law the deal seemed kinda fishy and wanted the family’s $300 back.
Lucille demurred. Mrs. Hooper told her son to find a policeman. “[Lucille] said she had $1,500 in her purse and would give it to me if she didn’t get mixed up with the police,” Mrs. Stanley Hooper said. When Lucille reached inside her handbag, the sister-in-law said she feared there might be a weapon in it and struck Lucille, who threw her purse at the woman and ran away. Later Mrs. Hooper found a tobacco pouch in the train station restroom with $235 inside, which she presumed was all that remained of their good-faith cash.
Without her purse and presumably little or no money, she and the girl arrived in Chicago. Lucille took the 18 year-old to a park and told her to wait. She waited. Lucille went to the bus depot and somehow bought a ticket to Florida. It was never mentioned how long the young woman sat in the park in the strange city before realizing she had been dumped.
Lucille’s next destination was a small town outside of Fort Meyers where her oldest son lived. Like her Louisville kin, he apparently had no contact with her for years and she again posed as a rich California motel magnate.
This family was extremely poor, with three children and a fourth on the way to the 19 year-old mother. So when Lucille offered to relocate them to Santa Rosa where they could help run the motel, get health insurance through her business as well as tuition money for the son, her daughter-in-law said it was like a “Godsend.”
To get the ball rolling, on July 31 she left on a bus for California with her two grandchildren: Charlie and Willie, ages four and three.2
The cross-country journey took two weeks, their chaotic itinerary set by how much money she could wheedle for the next hop westward. She begged for charity from local churches using the story that her husband had died of cancer in Florida and needed to reach family in California. Her name was no longer Lucille or Eva or Iva but now Maria.
And somewhere along the way she told the little boys they were now orphans because mommy and daddy were killed in a car crash. The only reason I can fathom why she invented such a wicked lie is that the children were begging to end their nightmare trip and go home.
The most revealing incident began in Cheyenne, where she bumped into an out-of-work machinist who was looking for a rider to help pay for gas. They pulled into a service station in Carlin, NV (a tiny town on I-80) and the driver went across the street, leaving Maria to pay for a full tank. To his horror, the machinist looked back to see she had opened the trunk and traded his tool chest to the attendant as payment. An argument ensued and when police were called she woke the boys in the back seat and the three of them ran off to hide in the bushes. The cop declared the tools had to be left at the station as security, so the poor man had to drive to San Francisco for the money and back again to retrieve his tools. Meanwhile, Maria (now apparently back to Iva) made a collect call to a woman she knew in the Bay Area asking her to wire her a “loan” so she and the kids could make it to Oakland via a bus.
Five days later, Jay Arneson’s body was discovered under the garage floor of Ralph and Iva’s San Francisco home and she became a celebrity fugitive. In the interim there can be little doubt she and the kids were there at least part of the time; she was seen by a neighbor with one of the boys and Charlie identified the house as where “grandpa slept.” She took the boys to the same nearby restaurant every day for breakfast and was spotted at a Mission St. department store with a small blonde child.
Iva and her grandsons were not home when the search warrant was served. Charlie, the four year-old, later told police “Grandma’s house is gone,” which presumably meant being told they couldn’t be there anymore. He also said Iva “got very mad” because she had lost a piece of paper, which police believed had an address where she intended to leave the children. She took them to Oakland, where they spent the night in a house where the boys recalled seeing a broken window, but no other details. Iva ordered them, “both of you sit down and stay down because if you stand up some big fat cop might see you.”
The next morning she told Charlie she was going to the store to buy doughnuts and chocolate milk, and police found a waitress at the Flaky Cream Do-Nut Shop who sold four doughnuts and a chocolate malt to a woman who looked “tired and sloppy…as though she hadn’t had any sleep for a couple of nights.” And that was the last verified sighting of Iva Kroeger in the area. As covered in the previous chapter, the abandoned boys were found wandering the streets and crying.
Immediately telephone lines at police stations and newspaper offices were flooded with tips, starting the same day Jay Arneson’s corpse was found – a couple were certain they saw her at a Ukiah motel. Because the San Francisco police suggested she might be working as a nanny or have a “live-in” babysitting job with an unsuspecting family, a number of tips involved babysitters. But mostly it was open season on short middle age women who had a limp and “squinty” eyes. Some typical and unlikely examples just from Northern California:
Someone in Fresno said they received a call in the middle of the night from Iva, who supposedly was “babysitting and fishing” in Eureka
A boy bicycling on Santa Rosa Ave. saw her in an auto and she looked directly at him
Visiting a man in a Nevada prison
Hiding in an abandoned Oakland house
Hitchhiking near Richmond
Hitchhiking to Sacramento from Stockton
Working at a cannery in the East Bay
The strangest claim was from a woman on Healdsburg’s Westside Road, who said a mysterious visitor came to her door and asked for a drink of water. When the woman went to the kitchen to fetch her a glass the stranger followed her in, uninvited. “She had three white, nylon knit purses with her,” the Healdsburg woman told the PD, “and she tried to sell me one of them for $10. I told her I didn’t have any money so she said she would give it to me for $8. She finally offered it to me for $2 just before she left…there’s no doubt in my mind. I’m positive Mrs. Kroeger is the woman who was at my house trying to sell me those purses.” Criminologists will recognize this as a familiar pattern: Psychopathic murders whose photos are splattered all over newspaper front pages and on TV are often tripped up by their weird need to hustle cheap plastic accessories.
Over the three weeks before Iva was caught, the Oakland police were receiving tips on the average of one every ten minutes – then multiply that by the numbers which were probably coming into police in Santa Rosa, San Francisco and elsewhere. As the Oakland Tribune explained, Iva was seen “on several buses at the same time, hitchhiking on several highways simultaneously, eating in a half dozen restaurants in the same lunch hour.”
NATIONWIDE HUNT FOR A KILLER GRANNY
The following day at least three hundred newspapers nationwide printed a wire service story about the crime and the FBI hunt for Kroeger. Articles usually appeared on the front page and were accompanied by a photo or two. Most warned police should use “extreme caution in attempting arrest.”
Outside of California, media interest faded after a few days then resumed full steam September 10-13 after Iva was captured, again mostly on front pages with the 1954 mug shot photo. In the clip of the Press Democrat front page shown below, note that editors gave her arrest higher news value that the start of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a preference found in most coverage that day.
Coverage almost always included mention of the Santa Rosa connection to the case.
All of that media coverage actually did provide tips that led to her arrest. The day after Mildred Arneson’s body was found, a San Francisco contractor came forward to reveal Iva hired him back in April to pour a two-inch layer of concrete over the entire basement followed by wood flooring. He noticed two spots where the existing concrete seemed to have amateurish patch jobs.
Per her usual habit, Iva revealed she didn’t have any money to pay him when the work was done – but said she had $30,000 tucked away in bonds down in Oceanside, and she would give him the $1,000 due if he would give her a ride. Long story short: There were no bonds, he was never paid a cent, and during the trip she stole his .22 automatic from the glovebox. It was that gun she would pull on another workman a month later at the Santa Rosa motel – which was the cause of the sheriff’s arrest warrant that began her summer on the lam.
That the fictitious bonds were supposed to be in Oceanside should have raised alarm bells at the FBI field office. There was a growing number of links tying Iva to places near San Diego.
Iva was an enthusiast for things related to the occult and mystical and boasted that she was an astrologer of great skill, who could read someone’s past and future aided by a lock of their hair. Her two-week hopscotch across the country with the boys was said to be partially financed with donations from the network of other astrologers along the way.3 It was known a particular interest of hers was the “Rosicrucian Fellowship” Christian sect which was based in Oceanside (VIDEO). In fact, it was at a 1961 San Francisco lecture on their beliefs where Iva first met Mildred and Jay Arneson.
About eleven miles away was Encinitas and the FBI was first informed about an important connection with Iva and the little beach town in July, when the search for her was just beginning.
The Arnesons or Iva never really owned the Santa Rosa motel; the mortgages were held by a Forestville couple and a man named Harry Florian in Encinitas. Once she had documents to show she had purchased the Arneson’s interest in the property, Iva hit the owners up for loans so she could have “leg surgery.” The people in Forestville refused to give her money, but Florian sent her $1,000. As the Press Democrat began its investigative reporting in July tying Iva to the Arneson’s disappearance, the Forestville couple phoned the FBI because they couldn’t contact Mr. Florian and were “really scared” for him, according to the PD. It turned out he had been moved to a longterm care hospital in Los Angeles.
Iva abandoned the boys on August 21 and by early September the FBI and police were receiving multiple reports of her being seen in the seashore towns just north of San Diego: Oceanside, Del Mar, Solana Beach. She was attending Rosicrucian services and a church member recognized her, called authorities, but “like a phantom, she disappeared again as 12 FBI agents, highway patrolmen, sheriff’s deputies and police converged on the area,” the PD reported.
Later she admitted being in Encinitas on Sept. 7 to see the man who “holds the second mortgage on my motel.” Two days later he died at that LA hospice. A suspicious Oakland Tribune reporter contacted the facility and was told Mr. Florian had no visitors that day, but Gentle Reader might recall Iva spent years impersonating health care workers. Once more: Please feel free to share your favorite conspiracy theory.
She was now living in a San Diego one-room apartment under the name June Schmidt, her kindly landlady deferring rent for a few days to help out the poor, poor woman. While window shopping downtown she met Joseph Bonamo, a Jehovah’s Witness handing out pamphlets. They fell into a conversation about religion and, of course, her terribly tragic state of affairs. June said she was wearing dark glasses because she just had cataract surgery at the county hospital, which was so expensive she and her nine year-old daughter couldn’t afford to eat. Bonamo and his wife took her home for supper (no mention of what became of the supposed child). June kept the sunglasses on the entire time.
It was agreed June and the girl would stay with the Bonamos “until she could get back on her feet.” The next morning, September 9, Joseph went to her apartment to pick them up. To his surprise, she told him they had made other plans and no longer needed help.
And this brings us to the next Alfred Hitchcock scene in our story.
Back home, Joseph and his wife puzzled over their strange interlude with the desperate woman who begged for help one day and pushed them away the next. As they chatted, Mrs. Bonamo doodled on a San Diego newspaper. There was an article about that skeevy Iva Kroeger person along with a photo. She drew a pair of sunglasses on the picture. And behold: June Schmidt.
Joseph immediately called the San Diego Police Department to inform them he not only saw Kroeger, but had spent hours with her and knew exactly where she lived.
He was told to call back the next day – Sept. 9 was a state holiday (Admission Day) and no one was available to take his report. To repeat for emphasis: The San Diego Police blew off the arrest of the most wanted fugitive in the United States. (While researching this story I have rolled my eyes so many times I have worn a notch up by my eyebrows.)
“Well, I didn’t know what to do,” Bonamo later said. “I thought they wanted this woman. So I called the FBI and they took it from there.”
The Bureau sent a large team to the address where they found a note on the door that she would be back in a few days. They knocked anyway. Oakland Tribune: “Seconds later Mrs. Kroeger, a blanket and overnight case clutched in her hands, burst through a side door into the arms of waiting agents.”
She told the officers, “I’m glad it’s over” and then, “I didn’t even know anyone was looking for me.”
Being the well-honed liar she was, Iva naturally had a fine story ready to tell. From the Press Democrat:
During questioning in San Diego Mrs. Kroeger yesterday continued to deny all knowledge of the slayings.
She attributed the crime to “blackmailers,” and indignantly denied that she had murdered the Arnesons.
Said she: “I certainly wouldn’t have taken my grandchildren into that house if I’d known there were bodies in the basement.”
Then she came up with the tale of an unidentified blackmailer, who might have killed her at any time. “There is a man in the background who has been blackmailing me for years,” she explained. “He probably committed the murders. I have paid him thousands of dollars. That is where my husband’s bank account went.”
She said that she was glad that she’d been arrested by the FBI because “I could have been killed by them (the blackmailers) anytime. I’m glad the FBI found me. It saved my life.”
She paid the blackmail, she said because the man threatened to tell her husband, Ralph, about the time she had been arrested in Chicago for impersonating a Navy nurse.
“I didn’t know the man – he was tall, reddish blond, maybe 40 or 50,” she said.
Iva added she had paid her mysterious blackmailer about $45,000, money she needed to pay for surgery – except this time it wasn’t supposedly needed to fix her leg; “I was going to use it for an operation on my eyes, but now I’ll go blind.”
With Iva’s fugitive days over, there were still some pieces of this jigsaw puzzle it would be good to put into place, starting with what happened to Charlie and Willie.
To his discredit, Ralph Kroeger denied knowing Iva had grandkids and insisted he never saw them, contrary to the children insisting he was their “granddaddy.” A neighbor also saw him through a window with the boys.
Now seven months pregnant, their mother flew to California to reclaim them. Before she could take custody, however, she had to go before an Oakland judge to determine her fitness as a parent. The court’s primary concern was that she have plane tickets for them; the family was so poor the Salvation Army in Fort Meyers gave her $100 towards tickets and donors in Oakland made up the rest, and more. She had enough left over to buy them new clothes and some toys. The eldest, Charlie, thoroughly enjoyed his three weeks in foster care and had become somewhat spoiled, she said. “All this attention is going to his head. I’ll have to straighten him out when I get him home.”
Besides telling the boys their parents were dead, their mother disclosed the creepy detail that Iva called them Pat and Kenny instead of their real names. “I’d like someone to ask her why she took our children and what she was going to do with them.” If the Arneson’s bodies had not been found, she told reporters, she despaired of ever seeing them again.
Back in Santa Rosa, a pall hung over the motel on Santa Rosa Avenue. There were no tenants. The electricity was turned off. Unpaid contractors had scavenged what they could, including the El Sombrero sign. All that remained of the Kroeger’s presence, the Oakland Tribune said, was “faded lettering on the motel awning.”
The final vignette was best told by Bony Saludes in the Press Democrat. On arrival from Southern California, Iva was taken directly to her San Francisco house where the graves were discovered. A large crowd had gathered in anticipation and the handcuffed woman was mobbed by the spectators, pausing sometimes to smile for a photographer like a real life Norma Desmond:
Iva Kroeger, radiant in the face of overwhelming notoriety, made her grand entrance at her modest 490 Ellington ave. home just before noon yesterday.
The 44-year-old mystery woman rode in the back seat of a patrol car, flanked by a matron and a plainclothesman, and was greeted by a throng of some 300 persons, including about 40 members of the press, radio and TV.
The scene was reminiscent to the appearance of a Hollywood great attending a sure box office hit on opening night.
Newsmen rushed to the car and the spectators pushed against a taut rope which set off the area, straining to get a glimpse.
A murmur flashed through the crowd as Mrs. Kroeger, her hands manacled securely, stepped out.
“Oh, how small she is!” a woman exclaimed.
Flashbulbs popped from all corners as Mrs. Kroeger was escorted from the car to her house, where a month before police unearthed the bodies of Mildred and Jay Arneson…
…The limp, cocked head and squinting left eye, which had been highly publicized in the press, were not evident.
Mrs. Kroeger wore a light purple jumper skirt with a polka dot blouse. She had on a light green sweater and grey shoes. The picture of a hard-looking, unkempt woman which had been built up in most people’s minds quickly evaporated.
She did indeed look like a kindly grandmother.
TOP: Iva Kroeger in 1962 and 1954. Images enhanced using HotPot AI
1 Lucille and Patrick Carl Allen apparently divorced between 1942-1944, but no records can be found online. During the nurse impersonation row, the same aunt said Lucille’s name at the time was “Cecelia Huffman”. Louisville Courier-Journal, October 26, 1945
|2 An August 23 UPI item stated the parents reported “about a week ago” the boys had been kidnapped by their grandmother, although it’s unclear if this referred to the July 31 departure from Florida or Iva failing to check in with them in mid August once she arrived in the Bay Area.|
|3 The last leg of the journey from Nevada to Oakland was paid for with money wired from San Francisco bookstore owner Fritzi Armstrong, who was an astrology teacher.|
(1962 Press Democrat articles related to this chapter only)
CORONER SAYS BODY WAS MRS. ARNESON (August 23, Bony Saludes byline)
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)
MRS. KROEGER HIRED HUGHES TO DIG HOLE AT SR MOTEL (August 24, no byline)
KROEGER’S TRAIL COLDER AND DIMMER (August 26, Bony Saludes byline)
SF POLICE TURNED DOWN THE CASE LAST MONTH (August 26, no byline)
COUNTY WOMAN SURE SHE SAW IVA (August 27, Bony Saludes byline)
ALL LEADS FALL THROUGH ON UBIQUITOUS IVA (August 28, no byline)
NATIONAL SEARCH FOR IVA (August 29, no byline)
KEY WITNESS SOUGHT IN ARNESON CASE (August 30, no byline)
KROEGER’S RELEASE SOUGHT (August 31, no byline)
SF GRAND JURY WILL REVIEW KROEGER CASE (Sept 2, no byline)
KROEGERS BOTH INDICTED FOR MURDER BY SF JURY (Sept 5, no byline)
‘ELUSIVE IVA’ SIGHTED, ESCAPES IN SAN DIEGO (Sept 9, no byline)
HUNT FOR IVA SHIFTS TO DEL MAR (Sept 10, no byline)
IVA SEEN NORTH, SOUTH (Sept 10, no byline)
HUNTED WOMAN ‘GLAD IT’S OVER’ (Sept 11, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA WON’T BE TRIED IN SONOMA (Sept 11, no byline)
GLIB GRANDMOTHER DENIES MURDERS (Sept 12, Neale Leslie/Bony Saludes byline)
IVA KROEGER WAS STAR IN SF POLICE ‘CIRCUS’ (Sept 13, Bony Saludes byline)
IVA AND RALPH KROEGER EMBRACE IN SF COURT (Sept 14, UPI)
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)