Guy Gilbert was probably a little surprised when his son Gene showed up on the doorstep of his Yale, South Dakota home.
While far from unwelcome, Gene hadn’t said anything about coming for a visit. Still, while surprising, it was far from unusual for Gene to just show up like this out of the blue.
Guy took a glance outside, but didn’t see Gene’s wife and kids. That also wasn’t anything surprising. Most of the time when he showed up like this, Gene was by himself. They lived about eight hours away in Eastern Iowa, and that kind of trip can be hard enough by yourself, let alone with a bunch of cramped, uncomfortable kids.
Guy welcomed Gene inside. Guy Jr., Gene’s brother, was also there, and the three of them sat down to talk.
Overall, it was a pleasant visit. While they talked, Gene mentioned that he hadn’t been feeling well. He also said that he had stopped to see his mother, Evelyn Bacon, before coming over there. Guy Sr. and Evelyn had divorced several years before, but Gene kept on good terms with them both.
The next morning, the two men left Gene sleeping on a cot while they went to a doctor’s appointment. When they returned that afternoon, they found Gene, dead. He had committed suicide by shooting himself with a revolver. The gun was lying on his chest, and a suicide note addressed to Guy Sr. was laying on the floor nearby.
Guy and his son immediately called the police.
As Gene’s body was collected and an investigation begun, thoughts quickly turned to Gene’s family back in Iowa. His wife, Bonnie, and his five children had to be told. Law enforcement in South Dakota called the Clinton County, Iowa, Sheriff’s Department and asked them to contact the family.
Michael Galusha, who had only been on the job for a few days, was among a group of deputies sent to the Gilbert home to deliver the bad news.
When they arrived at about 5 p.m., there wasn’t anyone home. It was their understanding that Bonnie was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and they thought that maybe the family was attending services in nearby Maquoketa.
The Sheriff’s Department called Maquoketa police to see if they couldn’t locate the family at the Kingdom Hall. One officer, Curt Gruver, knew some of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the area and was aware that they didn’t hold any church services on Saturday nights. He called some of his contacts in that community, asking them if they had seen Bonnie and the kids.
After some more searching, Gruver was able to find someone with the Gilbert’s phone number. He called the house, hoping that someone would answer. No one did.
None of this seemed right. They had one individual, Gene Gilbert, confirmed dead in South Dakota. According to everything that they knew, Bonnie and all of the children mostly kept to themselves at the family home. It started to seem awfully strange that a group that was always home suddenly wasn’t answering their door.
After four hours of searching everywhere they could, all of the officers started to get a very bad feeling about everything that was happening. With mounting concerns, Officer Galusha, along with another Sheriff’s Deputy and an Iowa State Trooper, went to the Gilbert’s and forced their way inside.
They were met only with silence. They announced themselves, calling out to anyone who might be home. No answer.
The three officers entered the house, going from room to room, searching for the family. They kept calling out, only to be met with a thick, almost oppressive stillness. Finally, they climbed the stairs to where the bedrooms were. There, to their horror, they found Bonnie and all five children.
Everyone was dead, apparently shot to death.
Whatever the officers had prepared themselves for, it surely wasn’t this. Feeling hollow, the men went back outside and called the police dispatch. On just his fourth day on duty, Michael Galusha had helped to discover what would become one of the worst mass homicides in Iowa history.
An investigation was started immediately.
The Clinton County coroner, Salvador Borja, arrived and the bodies of all six family members: Bonnie, 34; Dawn,13; Michelle,10; Jason,8; Gene,2; and Rachelle, only 10 months old, were removed by ambulance.
Delmar was a small town, and several locals gathered on the front lawn of the Gilbert home. They watched in disbelief as the family was taken away, shocked at what had happened in their very midst. A large crowd of reporters, cameramen, and photographers intermingled with them.
Members of the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation spent the entire day at the house, collecting evidence and determining what exactly had happened in the home. All the family members had been killed upstairs, almost all of them where they slept. None of them had put up any kind of struggle, with the exception of Dawn, the Gilbert’s oldest daughter. She must have woken up during the murders and struggled with her attacker. Sadly, she was overpowered, restrained with a length of nylon cord, and then executed.
Coroner Borja would later determine that all the victims had been killed by being shot in the head at least once with a .38 caliber handgun.
Police detectives began to question everyone even remotely related to the case, from family to Bonnie’s fellow church members. They soon realized that there had been much more going on with Gene Gilbert and his family than it would seem.
Gene Gilbert was born in South Dakota in 1952. He enlisted in the army when he was seventeen years old. He spent the majority of his enlistment stationed in the Pacific Northwest and Germany. Also during that time, he married for the first time.
In what was thought by some to be a way to keep himself from being sent to Vietnam, Gilbert disappeared for nearly two months. The army officially listed him as AWOL, or absent without leave.
While he was gone, Gilbert stayed in contact with his mother in South Dakota, whom he was close to. She convinced him to turn himself in, which he did. Army officials immediately sent him to a military jail in Kansas.
For the next six months, Gilbert had time to re-evaluate his life and make some serious decisions about his life. When he was released, he decided to re-enlist for another three years.
Although Gilbert and his wife stayed married through that time, they divorced shortly after his official discharge. By the time it was over, Gene was left virtually penniless, a motorcycle his only major possession. With that chapter of his life over, he headed back to South Dakota.
Gilbert seemed to have a hard time settling down into one job. He spent the next several months doing everything from selling mobile homes to painting houses.
In the mid-1970’s, Gilbert’s mother introduced him to her friend Bonnie. Bonnie was a single mother with three children, and was a devoted Jehovah’s Witness. One thing led to another and Bonnie and Gene were married at the end of 1976.
In 1979, they moved to Delmar, Iowa, not far away from where Bonnie’s mother lived. They rented a modest two-story house, large enough to accommodate their growing family. By that time, Bonnie and Gene had a son. That would soon be followed by a daughter, Rachelle.
Gene found a job working for Seven Hills Pavement Maintenance. Eventually, however, he lost that job due to physical problems and began to collect disability checks.
His marriage didn’t seem to be going well, either.
According to some of her friends, Bonnie seemed unhappy with her situation, and some claimed that she even seemed to be afraid of Gene.
Outwardly, the children were well-mannered kids who were liked and did well enough in school. Those who knew them, however, suspected more was going on under the surface.
According to Ethel Wentworth, a woman who lived nearby the Gilbert home, the children used to enjoy coming to play with her children at her house. She later said that they didn’t seem to like being at their own home too much.
The children’s teachers noticed that the girls seemed sad a lot of the time. Dawn even gave one a gift. Attached to it was a note, saying simply, “Thank you for loving me.”
Most of the town thought that Gene was, as they described it, “weird.”
He was very reclusive, hardly interacting with any of his neighbors. On one occasion, one neighbor tried to introduce herself when he was getting into his mailbox. Instead of acknowledging her, Gene simply turned his back on her and walked away.
At home, he was a strict disciplinarian.
In the Gilbert household, all of the children were responsible for doing the housework. They were compensated with $2 a month for their efforts. However, Gene was an unrelenting critic of their work.
If he found anything that didn’t meet his standards, including just a piece of lint or a small streak of dust, then he would ground his children. This punishment could last upwards of a few months at a time.
Perhaps his biggest pet peeve was talking on the telephone.
Gene didn’t believe in anyone talking more than a few minutes at a time. If he thought any of the children were taking too long, he would grab the receiver out of their hands and slam it down on the cradle. Even Bonnie was afraid of being caught talking on the phone for too long.
When he got angry, Gene would leave and go to the movie theatre in Maquoketa by himself. He especially loved horror films. Other times, he would leave the area altogether, driving all the way back to South Dakota to spend time with his family, a leaving a brief note to tell Bonnie where he had gone.
This was a regular enough occurrence that Gene’s family didn’t think anything of it when he turned up out of the blue the previous day. It was just another personality quirk that they had learned to accept.
Now, however, with his family dead and his subsequent suicide, police began to suspect much more sinister motives behind his last trip home. Those suspicions were compounded by a growing amount of evidence that Gene may have been mentally disturbed.
According to his former boss at Seven Hills Pavement Maintenance, Darryl Ross, Gene had experienced severe mental trauma while serving in the Vietnam War.
Ross related that Gene used to tell him war stories while driving on longer trips about the killing that he had both seen and done in the war. These experiences had left him damaged, and it was little wonder to Ross and any others that he had told these stories to why he exhibited odd behavior and stayed anti-social.
Of course, the problem was that Gene had never served in Vietnam, although no one in Delmar or Maquoketa were aware of that fact.
To make matters worse, one of Dawn’s friends claimed that the previous summer, Gene had threated to kill his family. Soon after, Bonnie had found a bag of knives and axes at the home. She took the cache to the owner of a nearby gas station to dispose of them.
While any mental trauma that Gene might have had obviously hadn’t come from service in Vietnam, he was under a severe strain.
Around the same time that Gene had lost his job at the Seven Hills Pavement Company, Michelle got sick. This required them to make several trips to the University of Iowa Hospitals in Iowa City, Iowa for her treatment.
Gene struggled to make ends meet with his unemployment checks, and it caused significant strain on the family. He managed, though, even keeping the rent on their house up to date. Still, the strain was still there, and only getting worse.
Was that why he was lying to people about serving in Vietnam? Why he had made up stories about awful things he had seen? Was it some kind of release for him, allowing him to continue to function? Did the trips to the movie theatre serve the same function, allowing Gene to decompress by escaping into the fantasy world of the horror films he enjoyed so much? There were a lot of questions, but no great answers.
Still, it was clear to investigators that Gene Gilbert was a man under severe stress, and it was possible that constant pressure had turned him into a time bomb. More and more, he became their number one suspect.
One major clue that they had was a .38 handgun found in Gilbert’s car in South Dakota. Police were able to determine that Gene had bought it at a K-Mart in Clinton, Iowa a few weeks before the murders.
Ballistics tests conducted by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation determined conclusively that it was the weapon used to murder Bonnie and the kids. There was now no doubt that they had been murdered by Gene Gilbert.
While the murderer had been found, the discovery was bittersweet at best. Bonnie, Jason, Michelle, Dawn, Rachelle, and little Gene were all dead. The man who should have been their provider and protector had committed suicide after killing them while they slept.
Ultimately, there was no definitive reason for the killings that anyone could determine. Not even the suicide note gave a motive. It didn’t mention the family at all.
The only thing that was known was that Gene Gilbert murdered his family as they slept, then travelled to his father’s home in South Dakota and committed suicide.
Gene was buried in South Dakota, while Bonnie and the children were buried in Bellevue, Iowa, close to where Bonnie’s mother was living.
There wasn’t anything more to be done. There was little more to do than to try and take some kind of solace in that the truth was now known, and to hope that Gene would face the judgement of a higher power for his crimes. There were no more answers to be had, no justice to serve. There was only time, and the desire to heal.
While life moves on, the wounds caused by these tragic murders never really heal. Bringing the killers to justice may provide closure, but it doesn’t bring the dead back to life.
And, contrary to the popular saying, time definitely does not heal all wounds. Sometimes, it dulls or completely numbs the pain, but sometimes it doesn’t do anything at all. The loss remains, as hollow and as fresh as it was when it first happened.
Bonnie was cut down in the prime of her life. Dawn, Michelle, Jason, Gene, and Rachelle had their lives cruelly ended before their journey had even really begun. While there is nothing that can be done to change their tragic end, we can remember them.
We can remember them not for being the victims in a mass homicide, but rather for being full of life, of hope, of dreams for the future that was stolen from them.
We can remember them for being human beings.
Friend says Gilbert threatened to kill family. The Dispatch, 1/6/1981
Gilbert death ruled suicide; family shootings being investigated. Rapid City Journal, 1/6/1981 p. 7
Officers probe Delmar man’s previous threats to family. Des Moines Tribune, 1/5/1981 p.1
Iowa town rocked by suicide, murders. Lead Daily Call, 1/5/1981 p. 1
Pupils at Delmar talk about schoolmates’ tragic deaths. Des Moines Register, 1/6/1981
There was no one to answer call about suicide. Rapid City Journal, 1/5/1981 p. 5
Tests identify Gilbert’s gun as murder weapon. Sioux City Journal, 1/8/1981
Murder suspect ‘kept to himself.’ Argus-Leader, 1/6/1981
Delmar killings ‘murder-suicide.’ Iowa City Press-Citizen, 1/7/1981
A family’s grisly tragedy. Quad City Times, 1/5/1981
Eulogy: Don’t ask for reason. Quad City Times, 1/8/1981
Maquoketa church mourns 6 members. Quad City Times, 1/9/1981
Tests find same handgun killed 7 in Delmar family. Des Moines Register, 1/7/1981