Mathis murders: 30 years later some authorities remain convinced of John Mathis' guilt
MOUNT VERNON -- Lyle Swenson easily recalled the date.
"September 8 is coming pretty fast," Swenson, the former longtime Davison County sheriff, said last week.
He was referring to Sept. 8, 1981, 30 years ago today, when a rural Mount Vernon family was torn apart by a triple murder.
LaDonna Mathis, 30, and two of her three sons, Brian, 4, and Patrick, 2, were shot in their beds. They were dead.
John Mathis, LaDonna's husband and Brian's and Patrick's father, had been shot in the left arm. He was alive -- and was soon the sole suspect in the triple murder.
A third son, Duane, who was an infant, had been staying at his maternal grandparents' home and was uninjured.
It was, according to then-Attorney General Mark Meierhenry, who prosecuted the case, the "most-covered, watched and listened-to case in the recent history of the state."
Today, John Wayne Mathis, who turned 60 on July 25, continues to live on a farm eight miles north of Mount Vernon. A Yankton County jury found him not guilty in May 1982, but some people, including many of those involved in the investigation, believe a guilty man walked free.
Swenson is 76 years old and several years retired after four decades in law enforcement, including more than 30 years as Davison County's sheriff. He still feels the right man was charged with murder.
He felt it from the moment he was alerted to the triple murder by his chief deputy, Doug Kirkus, at about 4 a.m. Sept. 8, 1981.
Swenson said he a strange feeling came over him when he hung up the phone after he was notified of the murders.
" 'That damn Mathis shot his family,' " Swenson recalled telling his wife.
Kirkus, who lived in Mount Vernon, had been called by Mathis, a former Mount Vernon High School classmate.
Kirkus, who considered Mathis a friend, said he called Mitchell dispatch and headed to the farm. It was a chilling scene, he said.
"That was the first time I had ever seen anything of that magnitude," he said.
Kirkus said he quickly determined the three people in their beds were dead. He provided basic first aid to Mathis, who was quiet and in pain.
Kirkus said he spoke with Mathis at the hospital. Swenson said Mathis' father ordered the investigators out of the room, saying his son had already been through too much.
Investigators' suspicions gradually centered on John Mathis.
"During the course of the investigation, I can't tell you how long, some things just weren't adding up," Kirkus said.
Kirkus said he and the other investigators did their best. He said Swenson provided strong leadership and the DCI's most veteran investigators assisted, and the FBI was involved.
He said the missing rifle may never turn up.
"That rifle could have gone anywhere," he said. "Someone could have assisted him in disposing of it."
Kirkus later served six and a half years as Mitchell's chief of police, leaving law enforcement in 1994. The Mathis murders have lingered in his mind.
"Stuff like that just didn't happen in the county when I was involved with it," he said.
Masked man blamed
The Mathis family was living in a metal machine shed at the time of the murders. There had been a pair of fires at the farm earlier in the year, and the family home had been destroyed.
When Kirkus arrived at the farm 30 years ago this morning, John Mathis was sitting on a bed in the metal building, bleeding from a gunshot wound to his left arm. Three bodies were in adjacent beds, lined up in a row in the crowded shed.
LaDonna Mathis had been shot twice in the head while she slept.
Brian Lee Mathis had been shot once in the right ear.
Patrick John Mathis had been shot in the back of the neck and then in the left eye. A re-port indicated he was kneeling in bed before the second bullet ended his life.
All three had been shot with a .22-caliber semiautomatic Marlin rifle using Winchester Western Super X bullets. The bodies lay on blood-soaked pillows and bedding.
John Mathis was wounded but able to speak with investigators at a Mitchell hospital. He told them a man wearing a dark stocking mask had killed his wife and sons.
Mathis said he had been awakened at about 2 a.m. by Patrick, who needed to go the bathroom. There were no facilities in the shed, so Mathis said he took his son to an outdoor toilet.
While he was outside, he heard a hog in discomfort. After taking his son back to bed, he returned to the hog confinement unit to tend to the animal, he said.
He was tying up the family dog, which was barking, when he heard a car. There were lights on in the shed where he'd left his family, Mathis told investigators, and then the man in the mask emerged.
Mathis told investigators he wrestled with the man and was shot in the left arm near the elbow during the tussle. He passed out, and when he awoke, the man was gone and he saw blood on Patrick's bed.
Mathis called Kirkus at 3:54 a.m. and said someone had shot his family. Send an ambulance, he said.
The killer hadn't escaped immediately, however, Mathis said. He had taken the time to write the words "Mathus sucks" on the sliding door of the shed, which still stands at the farm, although the words have long since been removed.
During the trial, the defense made the case that Mathis wasn't clever enough to have misspelled his own name to throw off investigators.
Weapon never found
Mathis was never in danger of dying from the gunshot wound, and he was soon the primary suspect in the killings.
There was one major stumbling block, however. The murder weapon could not be located.
Swenson led the effort to find the rifle. The entire farm was searched, including draining and sending deputies into a manure storage pit. Several .22-caliber rifles were sent to Pierre for testing by the state firearms lab.
None exactly matched the rifle that had killed LaDonna Mathis and her two sons.
Swenson said he thought perhaps Mathis had driven to the edge of Lake Mitchell and thrown the weapon away after shooting himself. He noted that if someone held the rifle in his right arm, a bullet would pass through his left arm at precisely the place where Mathis was shot.
Another theory that investigators pursued was that someone helped in the murder and/or hid the rifle.
A great deal of suspicion fell on John Mathis' father, Vern Mathis Sr. The elder Mathis always maintained he and his son were innocent.
When Kirkus arrived at the farm the night of the shootings, he was startled by another set of headlights heading toward the Mathis farm. It was Vern Mathis, who said his son had called him after notifying authorities.
Swenson said Vern Mathis doted on his son.
"John was kind of his dad's pride and joy," Swenson said. "His wonder boy, could do no wrong."
John Mathis was known as a hard worker, capable of putting in extremely long days. In fact, the first time the Mathis farm caught fire -- at 2:30 a.m. on July 9, 1981, the same time as the murders two months later -- LaDonna was able to get outside with her three sons when she saw her husband, who said he had been working outside.
A second fire on July 22 burned the house to the ground. It was determined an electrical fire had destroyed the house, and there was a report that lightning had struck the house's electrical system.
Swenson said he heard from numerous people with theories about the murders, including psychics. Dorothy Allison, a celebrated psychic from New Jersey, seemed to know things about the case that caused the sheriff to wonder if she had some insight.
He said Allison knew he was calling from a place with a horrific smell when he called her from the Mathis' hog unit. She also smelled smoke, although she didn't know of the two fires at the place.
And Allison said she saw a series of numbers that made no sense to her but were tied to the case, Swenson said. He said after he hung up the phone he was startled to see that the numbers she recited matched the license plate on Mathis' pickup.
In the fall of 1981, a Davison County grand jury indicted Mathis on three counts of murder. The trial was moved to Yankton in an effort to seat an unbiased jury, and when it began in April 1982, virtually the entire state of South Dakota was following media reports about it.
It was a heated trial, with then-Attorney General Mark Meierhenry prosecuting.
Rick Johnson and Wally Eklund, a pair of lawyers from Gregory, mounted a spirited defense. Johnson, who led the defense, died in 2004. He always maintained he was convinced his client was innocent.
The case went on for a month. Many of the figures in the trial stayed at the same Yankton hotel and saw each other after the trial concluded for the day, when people from both sides would gather in the bar.
A pair of .22 bullets played major roles in the trial.
Investigators found an unfired bullet in the pants Mathis was wearing the night of the killings. He told investigators he didn't own a .22 rifle, so the fact that he had a Winchester Western Super X shell, which matched the bullets used to kill his wife and sons, seemed suspicious.
But at the trial, Mathis maintained one of his sons had picked it up and he had taken it from his son and then forgotten about it. He said similar shells were scattered all over, and finding one was a mere coincidence.
Jeff Masten, at the time the Lincoln County state's attorney, testified as an expert witness that there wasn't enough proof the bullet matched the slugs in the three bodies.
Then, as the trial reached its conclusion, members of the jury found a spent Winchester Western Super X shell on the sidewalk.
That helped the defense argument that such bullets were scattered all over the place.
The prosecution claimed the bullet was planted. Swenson said he still believes that's what happened.
'Myth overwhelms reason'
In the end, the jury voted to acquit Mathis. The prosecution had no witnesses, no murder weapon and little physical evidence.
Jury foreman Gary Honomichl has said he has never doubted the jury reached the proper verdict.
Meierhenry said the prosecution could not overcome a deep-set belief among people that a man would not harm or kill his own children.
"As I look back, I would have recognized that at that time there was a myth, a myth that parents could not harm their children, No. 1," Meierhenry said. "No 2., that sometimes myth overwhelms reason. Because it's what we all want to believe."
Meierhenry said there is a bright side to the conclusion of the trial. More efforts were made to protect children in the state, he said. Bills were passed to guard children and more people became aware of the reality of child abuse.
"We became one of the pioneers as far as professionals reporting child abuse," he said.
Meierhenry said he has never directly answered the question if he believes Mathis was guilty, and he once again declined. He said he took the job as attorney general to handle tough cases like that.
"That's the way the system works," he said. "It does not haunt me at all in the sense that everyone participating in the state's side did their job, did not screw up. I respect what the verdict was ... but we all have views on that verdict."
He also said there is no use in trying to understand what happened that night.
"Some man or woman did an unreasonable act, so trying to put calm reason to it 30 years later is just impossible," Meierhenry said.
Current Davison County State's Attorney Pat Smith, who was only a teenager at the time of the murders, said even if John Mathis would suddenly change his stance and admit guilt, not much could happen to him legally.
"Double jeopardy would prevent him from being charged, unless there was another related charge," Smith said.
Mathis testified at the murder trial and said he did not shoot his wife and sons. If he admitted to the crimes now, even a perjury charge would be unlikely, Smith said, since the statute of limitations has long since expired.
Smith still recalls the crime, the trial and the intensive coverage.
"This isn't one that's been set aside and forgot about," Smith said. "The community is keenly aware of the case. Let's face it, there aren't a lot of family-type murders in the Mitchell area, thank heavens."
Mark Salter, an assistant U.S. attorney based in Sioux Falls, said he didn't want to dis-cuss the chances of federal charges in the case.
"I don't want to get into speculating on that too much," Salter said.
Davison County Sheriff David Miles said while he wasn't working in law enforcement 30 years ago and wasn't involved in the case, he's well aware of it and shares the same view as Swenson: A guilty man walked free.
"There's probably a good probability of that," Miles said.
But he said it remains on the books as an open case.
"That one's unsolved," Miles said. "But there's not a whole lot we can do right now. Some people have passed away who were talked to and involved."
Mathis' father is dead, as are Lorenz and Evelyn Gerlach, the parents of LaDonna Mathis. They died believing their son-in-law had killed his wife and their grandchildren.
The Gerlachs were caring for their third grandson, Duane, the night of the murders. They never saw him again.
Duane Mathis, now 30 years old, reportedly lives with his father on the same farm where the killing occurred. The steel shed is still there, a few dozen feet from the house that was built to replace the one that burned to the ground.
John Mathis now works for a neighboring family.
People who live in and around Mount Vernon said this week that Mathis keeps to himself, but they said many believe he killed his family. The Daily Republic made unsuccessful attempts recently to contact Mathis at his home and by phone.
Some in Mount Vernon talked of making sure their doors are locked tight at night -- "Wouldn't you?" said one man, who asked not to be identified -- and keeping guns at the ready, especially in the first few years after the murders.
Mathis is described as a moody, sullen man who has shot his neighbor's dogs and keeps his distance from the people who live near him.
Miles said his office had a couple of boxes of evidence in the case that were turned over the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation's Cold Case Unit.
"They picked it up a year, two years ago," he said. "They've got everything."
Sara Rabern, a spokeswoman for the DCI, said investigators are not actively looking at the case.
Rabern said a database is being collected and they are waiting for more information be-fore moving ahead with cold cases. The Mathis murders are just one of the cold cases the DCI has gathered information on, she said.
'Innocence was lost'
Miles said Mathis has kept a very low profile and has had little contact with law enforcement since the murder trial.
A check of South Dakota Unified Judicial System records bears that out. Mathis has received five speeding tickets since 1996 and pleaded guilty all five times.
Despite his low profile, Mathis is sometimes spotted around the area. A decade after the murders, he told a reporter he and his son sometimes went to Mitchell to go to Burger King or to see a movie.
Swenson said Mathis is known to hang out at the Kongo Klub, a strip club on the northern edge of Mitchell. An employee said Tuesday night that Mathis is known at the club.
During the trial, Mathis admitted to kissing a teenage girl who worked at his farm. Mathis said the relationship was insignificant and the kisses meant nothing.
Swenson said he has talked with Mathis since the trial. He said Mathis used to stop by his office and ask about any suspects in the murders. Once, Mathis asked if a serial killer who had been arrested elsewhere in the country may have killed his wife and sons.
Swenson said he checked into it and told Mathis there was no way the man was in South Dakota on that date.
Meierhenry said the case exposed to South Dakotans how close to animals people still are, how savage they could be to one another, and how even small children are not safe from a killer.
"Our innocence was lost," he said.
Swenson said he doesn't worry that an innocent man was arrested and accused of murdering his wife and two sons, nor is he concerned that Mathis has been hounded for three decades by people who believe he is a killer.
"I'll go to my grave knowing we arrested the right man," he said.