Exactly 50 years ago next Wednesday, this newspaper reported the unfortunate murder of Bellevue Police Chief Earl Berendes in April of 1969, and the community, as well as local law enforcement officers are paying their respect to a fallen officer five decades later.
“On Wednesday April 17, we will observe a very important and somber anniversary. It was a day that changed Bellevue forever and impacted many people in Jackson County,” said Bellevue Police Chief Lynn Schwager. “It will be 50 years since Bellevue Police Chief Earl Berendes was slain while performing his duties for the City of Bellevue. I believe it is our duty to remember his passing and to commemorate the sacrifice he made.”
Schwager noted that the community should never forget those who willingly put themselves in harms way for the betterment of all and who ultimately paid for that commitment with their lives.
“Chief Berendes will be honored by the Bellevue Police Department officers on that day by wearing our Shield sleeves on our badges and he is listed on the National Police Officers Memorial as well,” said Schwager. “There is little we can do to re-pay him and his family, but we must honor his memory and acknowledge that his murder helped to shape law enforcement as we know it in Bellevue from that day forward.”
According to reports in the April 22 Bellevue Herald-Leader, two Dubuque men were the prime suspects in the slaying of Berendes, age 60, who was found dead in the Achen Chevy-Olds garage on April 17, 1969.
William Patrick Sweeney, age 22; and Richard Schmitz, 27; who were eventually convicted for the crime, were arrested by FBI agents, charged with first-degree murder and taken to the Davenport jail for greater security than Maquoketa would have been able to provide at the time.
Bellevue Police Chief Berendes had died from a fractured skull in the early morning hours while on duty for the police department. He had apparently come upon burglars who had broken into the Achen Garage.
His body was found at 6:45 a.m. by garage mechanic Bob Yeager in the service area of the Achen building (now the location of Steve and Melissa Roeder’s On Track Fitness facility) when he arrived for work.
Yeager entered through the front door, and immediately discovered the south door standing open and the glass broke out. At that moment, Bellevue Patrolman Raymond McLean and Ed McCard, a part-time officer, drove into the Achen lot in search of the Berendes. The chief’s wife had called them when he failed to come home when his shift ended at 4 a.m.
Upon discovering the body of the slain police chief, the Bellevue Police immediately called Jackson County Sheriff Robert Lyons. The Sheriff, along with Dr. J.J. Tilton of Bellevue, who served as the county coroner were at the Achen garage before 7:30 a.m. to begin the official investigation.
The Iowa Bureau of Criminal Investigation was also contacted, and agents were in town by 10 a.m.
The investigation, as reported in the Herald-Leader by editor Tom Bates, indicated that the south door of the garage had been smashed with a concrete brick, pieces of which were later found inside the building.
Inside the building, to the left of the door and behind a pickup truck was Berendes’ uniform police cap standing on the visor end. Inside the truck were his glasses.
The chief’s body was lying in front of the pickup truck, face down. He had been felled by a massive head wound. To the east of the first pickup truck was a long-handled square-nosed shovel with blood on it.
There was indication from the dust on the back of the chief’s uniform that he had first been struck on his back. Then after a struggle, he was given the fatal blow.
Word of the murder spread quickly through Bellevue. Gary Sagers, a county employee who also tended bar at Steines Tavern part-time, learned of the killing prior to leaving for work in Maquoketa.
As he drove out of Bellevue, he remembered two strangers who had been in the tavern the night before. He went to the Sheriff’s office before reporting for work and notified Deputy Sheriff James Streets.
He said the strangers had made a few phone calls and had asked where north Second Street was. Sagers said he tried to assist the strangers in reaching whoever they were looking for, but the older stranger gave a surly answer, “No names buddy.”
Other people, who were used to seeing Berendes on his overnight shift, has thought that something was odd. Both bartender Sagers and Richard Norpel, Sr., who operated the Riverview restaurant and bar, remarked that Chief Berendes was not on Riverview Street when they closed up. Both said that the chief was almost always nearby at closing time and generally spoke to them each evening.
His wife said the chief almost always stopped at home for a 1:30 a.m. cup of coffee, but did not do so the night he was killed. Mrs. Berendes said she was worried, but did not become alarmed until it was after 6 a.m. and he still wasn’t home.
A memorial to Police Chief Berendes was erected in front of Bellevue City Hall in 2007, but has since been temporarily removed due to current construction of the fire station addition.