WATERLOO — The family of a Waterloo toddler who was strangled to death in 1974 said their load is lighter now that the man who killed her has died in prison.
“I’m glad this part of it is over,” said Bill Day, father of 2-year-old of Michelle “Shelly” Day, whose body was found in a crawl space over Russell James Fitz’s bathroom at the Castle Apartments on Commercial Street on June 6, 1974.
Fitz died Sunday at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center at Oakdale after spending more than 44 years in prison. He was 71.
Fitz was serving a life sentence and had been suffering a chronic illness, according to the Iowa Department of Corrections, which confirmed his death on Monday. He had been moved to a hospice room over the weekend and died of natural causes at 11:23 p.m. Sunday.
His death came two days before the anniversary of the verdict that found him guilty of first-degree murder.
“I’m not rejoicing today. I’ve carried that around on my shoulders for most of my life. It’s God’s work now,” said Rodger Day, Shelly’s older brother, who was 4 years old when she disappeared and was later discovered dead. “Now he’s got to meet his true judgment.”
“It does relieve some pressure,” said Shelly’s mother, Aileen. She said she would have liked to face Fitz one more time so she could ask him why.
Shelly’s father agrees.
“We still don’t understand all the whys, why man who is 27 years old would mess with a 2-year-old girl,” Bill Day said. “
Shelly and her brother had been playing outside at their babysitter’s apartment, downstairs from Fitz's Commercial Street apartment. Aileen Day and the sitter shared some coffee, and they discovered Shelly was missing around 5 p.m. when the mother went to kiss her goodbye before heading to work, according to Courier archives.
The next five or six hours was whirlwind of searching that included police, cab drivers, CB radio club members, neighborhood children and random volunteers.
“All these people that we didn’t know came up out of the woodwork and flooded that area searching for her,” Bill Day said.
There was speculation that she tumbled into a window well and hit her head or that she got too close to the Cedar River, which was behind the apartment building and running high at the time. The father said he doubted the river theory because Shelly was barefoot, and there were burs between the river and the apartment building.
According to Bill Day, his mother had inquired about a third row of windows arranged above the two-story apartment building during the search. The windows led to a space.
Fitz, a construction worker, sat outside drinking a beer and watching the search, and he told a Courier reporter covering the disappearance that he felt bad that the girl missing.
“She was really cute,” he told the reporter. “I loved her probably as much as her parents did.”
The 1974 Courier article goes on to say that Fitz had joked with the father about abducting the girl. “She’s so cute; I’d like to kidnap her,” the article quotes Fitz as saying. He then went on to tell the reporter that he thought someone was trying to kill him by turning on the gas to his stove.
Fitz later walked to a squad car and began talking with officers, telling them that he though Shelly had a grown-up voice and that she had sat on his lap in the past, according to Courier archives. He told officers he was the last person to see her.
Officers said Fitz allowed them to search his apartment, and he began to leave when investigators took an interest in the crawlspace overhead. They found Shelly’s body with an electrical cord around her neck moments later, and there were signs she had been sexually abused, according to Courier articles from the time. Her diaper was found in Fitz’s dresser, and he was detained a few blocks away for public intoxication and then charged with murder.
Fitz was convicted on Halloween 1974 and began serving his life sentence on New Year’s Eve Day that same year, according to Courier archives and Department of Corrections records.
The slaying took its toll on the Day family in the years the followed.
Aileen Day said she felt guilt, as if she should have done something different that day. She quit eating and sleeping and lost a lot of weight.
“Bill saved me. He told me to get my (expletive deleted) together or we’d lose Rodger,” she said
Bill Day kept his emotions bottled up and began drinking heavily.
“I had that manly image of men don’t cry,” the father said. He said he and his wife grieved differently.
They moved out of Waterloo in 1984 when the father was laid off from John Deere and found work in Rockford, Illinois. People there didn’t know about Shelly, and on occasion the Days would hear acquaintances talk about their own daughters who were having graduations or getting married — milestones that the Days missed out on.
“It stung a little bit,” Bill Day said.
The two divorced and married other people but reunited after their other spouses died. They now live together as friends.
From what family members can tell, Fitz never admitted to the slaying.
Some 20 years ago, Rodger Day wrote to Fitz asking for an explanation, and Fitz wrote back in a lengthy letter, claiming he was innocent and that he knew who the real killer was. The brother cut off contact with him at that point.
The brother said he eventually decided not to worry about Fitz. It came a few years ago when he was traveling to Nashville for vacation. His phone rang with what he thought would be news of Fitz’s death, and he pulled over and started to cry.
It turned out just to be a notification that Fitz was being moved between different correctional facilities, and the expectation of closure and the dashed hopes ruined the vacation, Rodger Day said.
“I said I’m not going to waste my life away waiting for the day he passes away,” the brother decided that day. “It’s not up to me to carry that heavy load around.”
Rodger Day said that while he supports the death penalty, he was fine with Fitz lingering behind bars for decades.
“That’s got to be tough. I couldn’t survive in prison, in a cell for how many years? Forty-four years. That’s a long time,” Rodger Day said.
Family members said they believe Fitz’s death will bring some closure.
“Her death just started this grieving, but maybe now with Fitz passing we can put this behind us a little bit better,” Bill Day said.