Murder of Cedar Rapids Veteran Remains a 39-Year-Old Mystery
Dennis W. Chaffee served his country in Vietnam and was later found shot to death in the basement of his Cedar Rapids home. The alleged murder took place on July 17, 1983; to this day, no one knows what happened or who did it.
According to Iowa Cold Cases, Chaffee was spending the weekend with his daughters, and the plan was to return them to their mother, Mary Hernandez, on Monday, July 18. They were reunited with their mother, but apparently not by him.
He didn't show up for work that Monday at his employer of 15 years and had not answered his phone. Hernandez eventually called Chaffee's parents, concerned, who went to find him, and at 8:30 p.m. found the toddlers, "dirty and thirsty, but unharmed. Their son, however, lay at the bottom of the basement steps, dead from several gunshot wounds."
The Chaffees then took the children to the neighbor across the street. Judy Ryan cared for them when they were picked back up and taken to the hospital for examination.
33-year-old Dennis Chaffee had been shot once in the arm and twice in the head with a small caliber weapon. The gun was not located at the scene. Police would not release further information about the case when a verbal autopsy report was released Wednesday, July 20, 1983.
Chaffee was an avid antique collector and had some valuable pieces in his collection. Much of his collection was auctioned off in 1983, including several musical instruments, such as 3 cornets with cases, 3 clarinets with cases, an alto saxophone with the case, a Cleveland trombone with the case, a baritone with the case, 4 string banjos, a ukelele, 2 Fiddle-ettes, 3 guitars and 2 electric guitars, a drum set, and bongo drums.
While possible burglary for access to these items was initially floated as a motive for his murder, it was later ruled out. That was all the information police would release.
Meanwhile, Chaffee's parents have since passed away, but his children, found that day alone and in disarray, are working tirelessly to find answers to this unsolved case of their father's death.
As reported in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, when Cedar Rapids police began a new review of cold cases in 2011 using what at that time, were new technologies and DNA, Chaffee's murder was in the same group of cold cases that eventually saw the murder of Michelle Martinko of Cedar Rapids come to be solved. Jerry Burns of Manchester was convicted in that case in 2020, but unfortunately, charges have yet to be filed against anyone in the Chaffee murder, nearly 40 years later.