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Violent memories of Gitchie Manitou murders

On Nov. 13, Sandra Cheskey revisits the site where she and four friends were hanging out when the Fryer brothers began to shoot at them 40 years ago at Gitchie Manitou State Preserve near Granite, Iowa. (AP Photo/Argus Leader, Jay Pickthorn)

By Steve Young

Argus Leader

SIOUX FALLS (AP) — Forty years ago — on Nov. 17, 1973 — she was that girl from Gitchie Manitou.

The one who went out to the woods on the Iowa-South Dakota border east of Sioux Falls one Saturday evening with four teenage friends to sit around a campfire, smoke a few joints and play a little guitar.

The one who survived when the others — Roger Essem, 17; Stewart Baade, 18; Mike Hadrath, 15; and Dana Baade, 14 — did not.

The question never has been completely answered: Why Sandra Cheskey alone was spared after the nightmare that forever transformed Gitchie Manitou from a backwoods setting where people hiked and held underage beer parties to an unholy ground that many insist is haunted today.

But the horror story of that night doesn’t change, or the fact that she was only 13 when brothers Allen, James and David Fryer confronted the teens at the nature preserve, posing as policemen, blustering about confiscating their marijuana, ultimately gunning down her four friends before taking her away to be raped and then set free.

And that wasn’t the end of it. Afterward, Cheskey would walk with her head down to avoid the media glare. Then it just became easier to keep it down so she wouldn’t have to endure the judgmental eyes of those who questioned why a girl her age was even out with boys four or five years older that night. Or the people who wondered whether she survived because she was in on the murders. Or the parents who instructed their children to stay away from that girl from Gitchie Manitou.

“Horrible,” the soft-spoken 53-year-old wife, mother and grandmother told the Argus Leader when asked how her life was after the incident. “Ashamed, alone ... I felt all of that.”

But not anymore.

Today, a long-simmering inner strength bubbling to the surface has begun to convince Cheskey that she should tell her story, mainly for her family’s sake but also to remind people that she and the others were nothing more than victims that night.

She recently reunited with the former Lyon County sheriff, Craig Vinson, in his Rock Rapids, Iowa, home to reminisce about their time together during that ordeal. She also recently returned to Gitchie Manitou with her husband and several friends to retrace each terrifying moment and, if possible, to put the ghosts to rest.

She even has started talking about writing a book.

“My grandchildren are going to Google Gitchie Manitou, and they’re going to see my name and read horrific stuff that they don’t know about,” she softly explained. “I have nieces who are 12. They’re going to be 13 ... and they’re pretty smart these days. I just don’t want them to find it and be shocked and upset. I want them to know that it was a huge tragedy, and that Grandma wasn’t doing anything bad.”

In autumn 1973, “Grandma” was just a schoolgirl, having moved to the Tea area within the previous year from Minnesota and trying to find her way as a seventh-grader in the Harrisburg School District.

Earlier that summer, she had been returning to her car from the concession stand at a drive-in theater in Sioux Falls when, from a distance, “I saw the most handsome man I had ever seen in my life.”

Instead of walking by her, Roger Essem stopped, started talking to her and eventually asked her for her phone number.

“And that,” Cheskey said, “is how we met.”

There would be three, maybe four dates after that, she said, and almost always they included Essem’s buddy, Stewart Baade, who had a blue van and provided the transportation.

Their age differences — Baade and Essem both went to Washington High School — seemed inconsequential to Cheskey. Her mother had married a man who had little time for Cheskey and her brothers. In fact, he convinced his wife that foster care, and later a mission school in Marty, was the best way to deal with them. All of that meant Cheskey was used to being around older kids.

“I wasn’t a bad girl; I just think he made a mistake marrying a woman with four kids and didn’t know how to get rid of us,” she said of her mother’s husband. “I think I grew up faster because I had been in two foster homes ... and then to school at Marty Mission. That was a hard place to be.”

On the night of Nov. 17, Essem asked his girlfriend to go to Gitchie Manitou. They had couple of marijuana joints. They were going to build a campfire, and Stewart Baade was bringing his guitar. Baade’s little brother, Dana, was coming, too, as was their good Whittier neighborhood buddy, Mike Hadrath.

The four boys in particular were best of friends, said Leland Baade, who lives in Aberdeen and lost his two younger brothers that night.

“They were kids that pretty much kept to themselves,” Baade, 60, said.

“There were bullies back then, too, so it was the four of them that hung out by themselves, minded their own business. My brothers were into music. Stewart could play guitar pretty good, and Dana was learning to play the bass. Those two were real close.”

The elder Baade remembered that his mother was in McKennan Hospital at the time with bronchitis. He stopped by the house that day to ask his brothers what their plans were that night. They were going to this park, they told him, going to build a campfire and play their guitars.

Bill Hadrath doesn’t remember whether he knew that his brother Mike, two years younger, planned to go out to Gitchie Manitou with the others — not that it would have been that big of a deal.

“I was probably out there myself at one time or another when there probably were a hundred other kids out there,” Bill Hadrath, 57, said from his Sioux Falls home. “There were a lot of parties at that place, a lot of beer parties.”

Lynette Hadrath Dahl’s memory is that her brother Mike told his mother he was going to spend the night at the Essem house. Nothing unusual about that. Marilyn Hadrath slipped her son a little pocket change that evening and watched as he swung on the clothesline pole on his way through the backyard.

That became an enduring image for Marilyn Hadrath, who often wondered afterward about her son’s final moments, said Dahl, now 50 and living in Lake Park, Minn.

“It’s a natural thing; the first person you go to in life is your mother,” she said. “So she wondered, ‘Did he call out for me?’ ”