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The Last Walk Home

Lt. Naomi Kathleen Cheney looked at the solider standing guard at Gate No. 3 of the Technical School, AAF (Army Air Forces) Training Command. She had just transferred to Sioux Falls, South Dakota after receiving her officer’s commission a few months earlier.

It was early October 1943, and World War II was raging across Europe and the Pacific. Cheney, a recent graduate of a Florida college, had wanted to do her part for her country. She had joined the army, entering into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which was usually abbreviated to WAAC or WAC.

wac-women-s-army-corps-it-s-your-war-too-1944-us-army-world-war-ii-9min
A World War II advertisement for the WAC. Courtesy of Google Images

When her father had served as a captain in World War I, women serving in the army overseas and on the home front often had no official status. They played a vital support role for the American war effort, but were often not provided room and board or any other benefits. Usually, they had to procure these things for themselves.

By the 1940’s, a Massachusetts Congresswoman named Edith Nourse Rogers began a campaign to help rectify this situation for women serving in any future wars. Working with Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshal, Rogers was able to negotiate a bill that, while being far from equal, would get women serving in the army far more than their counterparts had in World War I.

Although originally introduced in early 1941, the bill didn’t gain any real legislative traction until after the attack on Pearl Harbor later that year.

The idea behind the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was to use women for support tasks to free up men for fighting. By this point, women all over the nation had been doing clerical work and communications jobs. They were trained, experienced, and wanted to help the war effort.

While sexism was definitely present in the army during this period, in this particular case the motivation here had a practical side. General Marshall felt that fighting a war in both the Pacific and the European fronts would eventually cause a shortage of available manpower for the Americans. Men relegated to these support roles would more than likely have to be trained to do them and wouldn’t have the experience of a woman who had done it for years.

By using women in jobs that they were already doing, the American military would gain an experienced and capable support force while freeing up more men for combat. For their part, women felt that they were contributing to the war effort. Many felt that through their support, it would help the Allies win the war faster and allow their loved ones to return home sooner. Thousands of women turned up to enlist in the WAC.

Naomi Kathleen Cheney was one of them.

   An Alabama native, Cheney was a college graduate who had briefly taught high school before she enlisted. The petite brunette was sent to Fort Des Moines in Iowa, where she earned an officer’s commission in the summer of 1943. In September, the now Lieutenant Cheney transferred to the Technical School, AAF Training Command in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

Naomi Cheney
Lt. Naomi Cheney in uniform.  Courtesy of the Argus-Leader. 

The AAF treated their WAC personnel extremely well, and assigned them to a variety of diverse jobs. With a large percentage of their numbers performing roles in the Army Air Forces, women were used in specialized communications jobs ranging anywhere from cryptography and control tower operation to rigging parachutes and weather forecasting.

On the night of October 5, 1943, Lt. Cheney had visited her roommate at the hospital. After she was done, Cheney decided to head for home. It was 9 p.m. and darkness had settled over the dark road home.

As she approached Gate No. 3, the station entrance closest to her route home, Cheney found herself growing a little apprehensive. Although the road was good, she was still alone after dark in an area that she was unfamiliar with. The last thing that Cheney wanted was to place herself into a bad situation.  Approaching the gate guard, she asked him if he thought it would be alright for her to walk the road by herself.

The guard advised that she should use her own best judgement. After deliberating for a few moments, Lt. Cheney decided that she would be alright, and began walking toward her home.

The next morning, she didn’t show up for duty. The military police were sent on a routine search for her, and stopped by her home to see if she was there. Receiving no answer and seeing nothing suspicious, they left. Later that afternoon, Cheney still hadn’t been seen.

No one had seen a trace of Lt. Cheney since the guard had talked to her the night before.

   10-year-old Val Rae Hill walked confidently through the woods near her home in Sioux Falls. The sky was clear and all was right with the world. It was a beautiful day, and there probably seemed to be little that could ruin it as she scouted the foliage for sumac leaves.

As she made her way along, she noticed something lying in the path. As Val came closer, she saw that it was a young woman. She wasn’t moving. Not sure what to do, she ran back to her neighborhood and told a few friends what she had seen. Their numbers bolstering their courage, the group returned to the woods together to see what Val had found.

It was almost exactly what had been described – a young woman, dressed in an army uniform, lying in the path. Something definitely wasn’t right, and they all knew it. The woman still hadn’t moved, and it looked like she was bleeding. It quickly became obvious that she was dead.

The children knew that this was beyond them, and immediately went back and told their parents what they had found. Shocked, the adults promptly called the police.

Because the individual was believed to be a member of the military, both army and local police officials came to the crime scene. The body was soon identified as that of the missing Naomi Cheney.

She was lying on her back, and part of her face and head was bruised and bloody. It seemed that she had been killed by some kind of blunt force trauma. Her uniform was in near-perfect condition. Her visor cap had either fallen off or been knocked off in the apparent attack. There were no signs of a struggle, and no indications of robbery. Lt. Cheney’s purse, found near the body, still had plenty of money inside and appeared to be completely untouched.

Searls
Sioux Falls Police Chief Fred J. Searles examines Naomi Cheney’s visor cap. Courtesy of the Argus-Leader

An autopsy, conducted later that day, indicated that she had been killed by a massive trauma which had caused multiple skull fractures and brain injury. There was absolutely no indication of actual or even attempted sexual assault.

Obvious motives for the crime were quickly being ruled out. There was no apparent robbery or rape. Cheney didn’t have a boyfriend, nor had she dated anyone since arriving in South Dakota.

A few days after the murder, police found blood and hair at a tourist cabin a short distance from where Cheney was found. The 31-year old man living there was taken into custody for questioning. He was handsome with an average build, and had a wife and children in Iowa. The man had just finished working as a farm hand in Minnesota, and was looking to move on again when the police talked to him.

The former farm hand had blood on the top of his shoes. The suspect claimed that he had stepped in the blood that morning, and had thought it was jam that had somehow gotten on the ground. However, the top of his shoes were bloody, while the bottoms were clear. Besides his strange explanation, neighbors had seen him vomiting outside of the cabin shortly after hearing a woman scream.

Blood and hair from the crime scene and the cabin were sent to the FBI, along with comparison samples from the suspect. Police also sent Cheney’s uniform, including her visor cap, to them for processing as well.

There was an explanation for her death, but it wasn’t going to make itself easy to find. Police kept looking, following every available lead.

   A coroner’s jury was held to determine the official cause of death. Two doctors presented their expert opinion on Lt. Cheney’s death.

The first, Dr. M. Gerundo, worked at the University of South Dakota as an assistant professor of pathology. He believed that her head trauma was consistent with that caused by a car tire running over her skull.

He claimed that an examination of her vocal cords indicated that she hadn’t screamed before her death. Gerundo was of the opinion that Cheney would have had she been attacked. He concluded that there was no sign of physical restraint or struggle, making it likely, when combined with the other evidence, that Lt. Cheney hadn’t been murdered.

Dr. O. Charles Ericksen, a surgeon who practiced in Sioux Falls and had assisted with the autopsy, almost completely disagreed.

He claimed that Cheney’s wounds were consistent with an attack from a blunt instrument while the lieutenant was lying in a prone position. Ericksen also said that the trauma could have also been caused by someone stomping on or kicking her head. Either way, she had definitely been murdered.

Ericksen and Gerundo debated back and forth, each arguing their position. When it was pointed out that Cheney’s body had been found in an area that was inaccessible by car, Gerundo argued that there are some cases where someone is run over by an automobile but are still able to get up and walk for some distance before succumbing to their injuries.

Ericksen believed that if Cheney had been run over, then there would probably would have been more damage to her body and her uniform. He also argued that the wounds she had sustained would have rendered her unable to walk away from the accident.

The jury ruled  in favor of Dr. Ericksen’s argument, and Cheney’s death was officially ruled a homicide.

The police continued the investigation, but had exhausted almost all available leads. The FBI reported back that the blood found at the cabin was definitely human and matched Cheney’s blood type, but there was no way that they could make a definitive match to the suspect.

Without any evidence or a confession, the police had no choice but to release their prime suspect. The Sioux Falls Police Chief, Fred  J. Searles, never released his name. He didn’t want to disclose it until he could prove the man was the murderer. Because that never happened, the name was never given

In a last ditch attempt to find new clues, detectives were sent to Des Moines, Georgia, and Alabama to talk to people who had known Cheney. They theorized that someone might have had a grudge against her. The police interviewed everyone they thought might know something. They even talked to members of the psychic and Spiritualist communities after discovering that Cheney had used their services in the hope that she might have told them about someone she was having trouble with.

Unfortunately, the search revealed nothing. No new leads presented themselves, and the case went cold.

   Fifty years later, in 1993, Captain Mark Thorstenson of the Sioux Falls Police Department told a local newspaper that he believed he knew who had killed Naomi Cheney. In 1973, Thorstenson began to read the case file because he was curious about it. That lead to conversations with the detectives assigned to the case.

   Over time, he developed his own theories, concluding that the original suspect was to blame. Thorstenson was absolutely confident that if the man had been arrested in 1993, then more advanced forensics would have enabled them to convict him. Unfortunately, it was 1943 and, while the motivation  and desire to bring justice was there, the scientific developments were not there.

If Capt. Thorstenson’s theory is correct, then justice might have been served decades ago. After being released from custody, the handsome farm hand joined the military and died overseas during World War II.

Seventy-six years later, the murder of Lt. Naomi Cheney is Sioux Fall’s oldest unsolved murder. It is very likely to stay that way. 

In 1943, a young woman named Naomi Kathleen Cheney joined the army to do her part in winning World War II. It can probably be said with certainty that she never intended to be murdered in the South Dakota woods. Cheney was smart and she was cautious, but a cruel murderer made sure that when she left her station that cool October night, it would be her last walk home.

   You have been reading John Brassard Jr., the Kitchen Table Historian. Please stop over and have a seat at the table every week or so to hear new stories of true crime, disasters, the paranormal, and other weird and dark stories from America’s Heartland. 

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Sources

Body of Brunette Lieutenant Found Near Viaduct Here. Argus-Leader, 10/6/1943

Death Probe Goes Slowly in WAC Case. Argus-Leader, 10/7/1943

Suspect Held in Sioux Falls WAC Murder. Rapid City Journal, 10/8/1943

Blood, Hair Examined As Likely Clues. Argus-Leader, 10/8/1943

Cabin Probed For Clues in WAC Slaying. Argus-Leader, 10/9/1943

Same Store Brand Found On WAC’s Tie. Argus-Leader, 10/10/1943

Coroner Probe Of WAC Death Opens Tuesday. Argus-Leader, 10/11/1943

Jury Retires to Make Study of Testimony. Argus-Leader, 10/12/1943

Bellafaire, Judith A. The Women’s Army Corps: A Commemoration of World War II Service. CMH Publication 72-15. https://history.army.mil

Theory Offered in WAC Mystery. Rapid City Journal, 10/12/1943

Coroner’s Jury Finds WAC Met Death By Murder. The Daily Plainsman, 10/13/1943

Man Freed As Suspect In WAC Case. The Daily Argus-Leader, 10/27/1943

Grudge Viewed Likely Motive in WAC’s Death. The Daily Argus-Leader, 11/19/1943

Soothsayers Quizzed in WAC Murder. The Daily Argus-Leader, 11/23/1943

Seers Sought in  WAC Murder. Rapid City Daily Journal, 11/24/1943

Officers End Probe on WAC. The Daily Argus-Leader, 11/27/1943

Trautmann, Mike. Officer believes he knows 1943 murderer. Argus-Leader, 10/4/1993

Nelson, Katie. South Dakota’s unsolved mysteries: 5 to remember. Sioux Falls Argus Leader, 12/13/2018

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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