Come Quick, He Promised He’d Kill Me!
"Come quick, he promised he'd kill me" are the last words I remember my baby sister saying to the person on the other end of the line. A minute or so earlier, I pulled out the phone book, picked up the receiver, and was attempting to call the emergency number for the police. She took the handset from me, dialed the seven-digit number she had memorized, and explained that the police needed to come quickly and arrest her former boyfriend and soon-to-be murderer.
Funny, with wedding planning, you choose a date a year in advance and everything would be perfect. June 2, 1979, was "our" date. There would be a wedding, a melding of families and old friends meeting new friends. Then Hempstead High School announced the Class of '79 would graduate the evening of June 1, 1979. Yikes! We figured it out. We'd omit Friday's rehearsal dinner, proudly applaud Jean for receiving her diploma, get married on Saturday, and Sunday there would be a party to celebrate Jean's milestone.
This is not the turn the weekend was supposed to take.
The best-laid plan shattered. It was the early morning of May 31, 1979. The emergency 911 number was not a thing, domestic abuse was not recognized as it is now and a protection order request needed to be made before a judge. Tragically, the police arrived in time, but they did not stop her prophetic statement from coming true.
Today is the 44th anniversary of the tragedy that destroyed my family. I few weeks ago, while doing some genealogy research I found a website called "Dieowa." This morning I found the courage to listen to the retelling of that night an episode of their podcast., The series, with the tagline, "99 Counties and a murder in every one," invited listeners to join Alli and Beth—native Iowans—as they share stories of murders and cold cases across the state of Iowa, one county at a time.
Episode 3, is Dubuque County and Jean Selensky, my 18-year-old sister is the topic. The hosts did a good job reporting the facts based on Telegraph Herald newspaper reports from May 31st and the following days. I learned from their interview with Bill Tindell that his mom told my brother Brian and Jean's friend Donna that Jean's dozen or more stab wounds were fatal.
My discovery of her death was in the ER after seeing a tag hanging from her toe where she lay on a gurney in the darkened room across the hall from where I was taken. Confirmation came when I locked eyes with my fiancé, Doug, who just looked down and shook his head. Mom was in the room next door and I heard her moan and cry when she was told her daughter was dead, a few minutes later.
Thirty-seven stitches in the back of my arm, a half dozen in my stomach, and a couple in my temple and I would survive. Dad's arm would heal, and Mom's abdominal bruising from being kicked numerous times by the boot of the perpetrator would mend but with some permanent damage. What wouldn't recover is the emotional damage handed out in that night's darkness.
There was no graduation prep, instead, Mom and I spent the night in the hospital. The graduation ceremony was replaced by a visitation at the funeral home. I couldn't bear to meet the eyes of the people that came to pay their respects. Shame filled my soul, why couldn't I have stopped this? What could I have done differently? Would-a, could-a, should-a plagued me for a very long time.
Jean wore her graduation dress, modified with sleeves to cover her wounds. She wore the necklace I bought her as a gift for being my maid of honor. For some reason I don't want to know, her naturally blonde hair had been dyed a light brown.
On Saturday, at 11 AM, standing in the cemetery on the bluff overlooking the city, I heard church bells ringing. It was a reminder that this day was supposed to be the happiest of my life. Doug and I were to be married at 11 AM, not saying a final goodbye to my sister.
The following day, in the backyard of some dear friends of my parents, we did get married. It was an outdoor event, with a small group of friends and family. In Jean's place, my childhood best friend Kathy served as matron of honor. Dad and I made the traditional walk down the pathway. There was a celebration but the weight of the previous days played heavy in everyone's hearts. The tuxedo rentals were canceled. The wedding cake was downsized and the alter we stood before had been borrowed from a Catholic church.
The Dieowa show hosts mention a lawsuit - that's the part of the podcast where they needed more research. There was a settlement, the case was not dismissed. The award was very small, but we knew mom was not emotionally prepared for the grueling testimony that was expected, and to what end? Nothing we said was going to change what happened that night.
I wondered often in the first decade afterward, what had become of the officer that fired the fatal four shots. He was sitting on our sofa in the living room with his head in his hands as I was carried out of the house on a stretcher. I heard he had given up law enforcement and life had not treated him kindly.
Who was the person who answered the emergency police phone call that night? How did they cope in the aftermath of Jean's murder? What information were the officers given? Did Jean's plea for them to hurry to the scene get passed on with the urgency it had been delivered? Did the person share the additional information given - that all the garage windows had already been broken out and that she was scheduled to testify against him in the morning due to the assault that had been committed upon her a few days earlier?
Today, like every year, I reflect on what should have been. We were supposed to "adult" together, raise our kids together, and boost each other up when things got tough. Jean would be 62 now. Would she be a grandparent? Would she have stayed in Dubuque or found someplace else to call home? Could we be family history researchers together? What would she think of my genealogy musings? I hope that we would have laughed a lot together if only we'd had the chance.