Come Quick, He Promised He’d Kill Me!

High School graduation picture
Mom, Jean, Dad, Brian
This is my happy family, before our world changed forever: Mom, Jean, Dad, Brian

"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.

Jean's graduation announcement
Doug & Cindy's wedding announcement

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.

Des Moines Register, Saturday 2 Jun 1979

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.

Foster, Doug & Cindy Selensky Weddingsmall

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.

6 Comments

  1. Sara Ryan on June 6, 2023 at 5:22 PM

    I vividly remember seeing the front page of the newspaper and going to the funeral feeling very sad for your family and not really knowing what to say. So sorry for your loss and thinking of what could have been. I am sure Jean would have been a great companion through life. I am thankful for my siblings and the fact that we get along so well. Thinking of you and your family

  2. Darlene Piche on June 6, 2023 at 9:55 PM

    Speechless. I’m just speechless. Thank you for sharing such an intimate part of your life, Cindy. You are brave. You are wise. .And I’m glad we share a familial connection. Love always, Darlene

  3. Sharon Knudsen on June 8, 2023 at 6:23 PM

    Courageous writing, Cindy. None of us will forget that day, hearing the unbelievable news about Jean and your family. The reference in Jane Smiley’s “1000 Acres”” has to be about Jean. Your story honors her memory.

    • Cindy Foster on June 8, 2023 at 6:26 PM

      I had forgotten about Jane Smiley’s book, and the memory of the reference is very vague. Can you help me?

      • Kim Wetter on May 31, 2024 at 8:39 AM

        Cindy, I remember this every day, every year on May 31st, I put flowers pink flowers 🌸 on Jean’s grave. I will do so today, too.
        I miss Jean, she was kind, thoughtful and a great friend. 💜 I often drive by the house you once lived in and ask myself why did this have to happen. Jean asked for help so many times before. Police just didn’t know what they know now.
        I pray for your family. I have recently met Brian and Rhonda’s daughter, Sami reminds me of Jean in a lot of ways.
        Your Dad, I used to talk to when he would come in to where I work at and we would reminisce about Jean. Both of us would have tears in our eyes. Sometimes he would come in on her birthday.
        Today marks 45 years ago, I still miss her! 💔

        Thinking of you, and the rest of family today.
        God Bless you all!

        Sincerely,
        Kim Wetter

        • Cindy Foster on June 16, 2024 at 12:13 PM

          Thanks Kim for the kind words and keeping Jean’s memory alive. I’m so grateful for visiting her grave. Living 1000 miles away make that visit rare for us. Glad you got to meet my niece, she’s a keeper. I’m surprised that Dad talked about her to you. I don’t know that we’ve ever had a conversation about what happened that night or how we felt. I miss my mom, we would always check in on each other on June 1st, “that day” was still so emotionally charged. Kim, did I know you? What’s your maiden name? I’m working on a new book, which features many of the Wetters from Sherrill.

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