In April 1965, three-year-old Dennis died as a result of abuse in the Minnesota home of his adoptive parents, Harold and...


A DEATH IN WHITE BEAR LAKE: The True Chronicle of an All-American Town

In April 1965, three-year-old Dennis died as a result of abuse in the Minnesota home of his adoptive parents, Harold and Lois Jurgens. In 1986, his natural mother learned of his death and its suspicious circumstances; the case was reopened, ending in Lois' conviction for third-degree murder. Here, Siegel (a Los Angeles Times reporter) retells the events of the case clearly--avoiding sensationalism as he wades through a morass of documents and people involved in 22 years of bureaucratic bungling, dissembling, confusion, and possible subterfuge. Adoption caseworkers had doubts, Siegel notes, particularly about the intensely Catholic, fastidious Lois, who had a history of psychiatric problems. But one-year-old Dennis was placed with the Jurgenses anyway, in 1962. During his first year with the family (which included another adopted boy, Robert), Dennis was observed with numerous bruises and was treated once for a severely burned penis. Relatives noted the strict discipline and fearful temper with which Lois ruled her children, but, in those days, as a witness would later state, ""nice, middle-class white people"" didn't abuse or beat their children. When Dennis died, his body was covered with nicks and bruises, visible even as he lay in his coffin. Robert was placed with a foster home, but won back through the courts, and homicide charges were not fried. Perhaps, according to Siegel, with the help of Lois' brother, Lt. Jerome Zerwas of the White Bear Lake Police Dept., witnesses changed their minds and reports were obscured, altered, or not filed. The coroner ""deferred"" ruling due to sketchy, inconclusive reports--the attending physician had failed to examine the body at the scene, and no one had taken photographs. In the meantime, Lois' ""long-standing psychoneurosis"" required increasing treatment, but, amazingly, the Jurgenses were able to adopt four more children in 1972. A painful, sickening story; Siegel doesn't spare the reader. He goes into ugly, horrible detail, thus even more emphatically indicting a society that looks the other way.

Pub Date: July 1, 1990

ISBN: 0345487176

Page Count: -

Publisher: Bantam

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1990