David Burke

A controversial murder, perhaps a killing for hire, with a well-known suspect.

One that received nationwide media coverage.

And caused a split between the population.

It has nothing to do with O.J. Simpson, Robert Blake or Scott Peterson, and won't be showing up on "Dateline NBC" anytime soon.

But it did cause ripples in the town of Villisca in southwest Iowa in 1912, a divide that filmmaker Kelly Rundle says continues 92 years later.

After more than a decade of filming and research, East Moline native Rundle and his wife Tammy debuted their film "Villisca: Living With a Mystery" a week ago in Des Moines. The couple is taking it on tour for about 50 showings this summer, including three next weekend in the Quad-Cities.

Along with the film comes a display that includes the ax that killed hardware store owner Josiah Moore, his wife Sarah, their four children (ages 5 to 11) and two visiting neighbor children on an Iowa June night.

The prime suspect was Moore's former boss, state Sen. F.F. (Frank) Jones, who was angry that Moore had started a rival farm implement business, and at rumors that Moore was having an affiar with Jones' daughter-in-law.

A grand jury investigation found Jones not guilty of the crime. There was no conviction made, although the movie suggests that Jones hired a murderer. Several suspects are explored in the documentary, which runs for almost two hours.

"People took up sides for or against the state senator, and that lasted for years," Rundle said in a phone interview. "People, even two generations later, have strong feelings about it but they don't know why. If the senator was guilty, he must have been."

The Rundles put a criminal profiler to work on the case — "The suspect happens to fit that profile," Rundle said — and also were assisted by Edgar Epperly, a retired Luther College professor.

"He has studied that particular case as a hobby, you could say, for the past 50 years," Rundle said. "He's got all this archive material, and he's got sort of an encyclopedic recall of events."

With all the windows and mirrors covered in cloth, Epperly concluded "the killer spent a lot of time in the house" during the slayings.

"Villisca" was more than a decade in the making because of fund-raising and that the Rundles each had day jobs that kept them from working on the documentary full-time.

"In the beginning, we thought it was an interesting topic for the audience, and it would take a year or two," Rundle said. "I think we were a little naive about the reality of the cost involved. We decided to shoot on film, which was the right decision but a costly one."

Rundle said he was glad he and his wife took their time on the project.

"If we had finished it as quickly as we thought we were going to, the film would not have the depth or the quality that it does," he said. "We took a long time to get to know the people, get to know the story. That's the big difference."

Rundle, 45, is a United Township High School graduate who lived with his wife in Bettendorf for three years in the early 1980s, where he worked at Fox Photo and managed the first one-hour photo lab in Moline's SouthPark Mall.

The couple moved to Los Angeles, where Kelly Rundle worked for eight years in marketing and distribution for Columbia Pictures.

"Villisca" secured Iowa Public Television as its main fiscal sponsor, and Rundle is certain the movie will someday be shown on IPTV. That may lead to a national distribution deal, as well as home video production, which will be further determined next year.

The film will get its first full screening in Villisca this weekend, but preliminary versions shown over the past several years have brought thumbs-up from those on both sides of the controversy.

"The response was very positive," Rundle said. "Most people in Villisca don't know the history. They know the family and they know the folklore."

It was screened last week in Des Moines, with a discussion following.

"The response in Des Moines, we couldn't have asked for any better," Rundle said. "Listening to the audience, (you could tell) they were responding to the film."

In discussions after the film last week, former Villisca mayor Susie Enarson said the town "trusted the Rundles to do an accurate representation of what happened. They were not attempting to sensationalize the story.

"In true form, it is sensational enough," she said.

At the time of the trial, reports stretched from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times, Rundle said. Showings of the documentary have or will take place in sites from Barrow, Alaska, to Menomonie, Wis.

That's why Rundle says it translates to more than just a local case.

"A good story is just that, a good story," he said.

(The Associated Press contributed to this story.)

IF YOU GO

What: "Villisca: Living With a Mystery" showings and discussion with filmmakers Kelly and Tammy Rundle

In Moline: 6:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, June 24-25, at Black Hawk College Theatre, Building 1, Room 306. Admission is $10 per person.

In Davenport: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 26, Nighswander Theater, Annie Wittenmyer Complex. Admission is $10 per person.

Information: To reserve tickets online or learn more about the murder and the documentary, see www.villisca.com.

David Burke can be contacted at (563) 383-2400 or dburke@qctimes.com.

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