On July 30, 1993, 37-year-old Dale Helmig reported that his mother, Norma Helmig, 55, was missing from her home in Linn, Missouri.
On August 1, 1993, her body, clad in a nightgown and weighed down by a concrete block tied to her torso, was found in the Osage River in Osage County, Missouri. She was last seen alive leaving a Jefferson City, Missouri restaurant about 12:30 a.m. on July 29.
Dale Helmig lived with his mother, but because of severe flooding on the Missouri River, had been unable to get home from a painting job in Fulton, Missouri, about 50 miles away. He became a suspect because authorities believed he knew information that only the killer would know.
Helmig told police that his mother would be wearing a nightgown and that a set of her keys that was missing was probably in her purse. Both statements proved to be true, which led the authorities to conclude that he had driven from Fulton to Linn, smothered his mother with a pillow, dumped her in the river and returned to Fulton.
On the night of July 28-29, Dale Helmig checked into a motel in Fulton. He ordered a pizza that was delivered about 10:30 p.m. At the time, rivers in that area of Missouri were at record high flood stage. To reach Linn from Fulton requires traveling on Highway 54 and crossing the Missouri River in Jefferson City. On the morning of July 28, a propane tank had washed into the river and struck the bridge, closing it for much of the day. Although Dale Helmig said he was at the motel all night, police said that the bridge had re-opened at 8 p.m. on the 28th. Police believed that the bridge was open long enough for him to leave the motel, drive to Linn, kill his mother and return to the motel.
In February 1994, after the flood water receded, Norma Helmig’s purse was found with the missing keys inside. On February 25, 1994, Dale Helmig was charged with his mother’s murder. Police contended that Dale killed his mother following an argument over a $200 telephone bill.
Helmig went on trial on March 5, 1996. Osage County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Schollmeyer was joined by Kenny Hulshof, a special prosecutor in the Missouri Attorney General’s office who handled high-profile prosecutions. At the time, Hulshof was campaigning for the Republican nomination for Congress—a seat he later won.
Missouri State Highway Trooper Robert Westfall testified that he interrogated Helmig while holding a Bible and discussing the death of his own mother (which was not true).
Westfall said when he asked Helmig what he would say if he could speak to his mother, Helmig said, “I’m sorry. I’m just sorry.”
Hulshof asked if Helmig had ever denied killing his mother.
“No, sir, he did not,” Westfall said.
Helmig’s attorney attempted to show that Norma Helmig had not been murdered and possibly had died of a drug overdose—a defense later characterized as by Helmig’s appellate lawyers as “hare-brained” and “idiotic.”
In his rebuttal argument to the jury, Hulshof clutched a pillow—although it was not in evidence—as he described how he said Helmig had smothered his mother.
Helmig was convicted on March 9, 1996. He was sentenced to life in prison.
The Missouri Court of Appeals affirmed the conviction in July 1997, noting: “Victim weighed approximately 100 pounds. It would be unreasonable to say that she left her car at home, walked several miles to the river, carried or somehow obtained a concrete block, tied herself with a rope, attached the concrete block, and jumped into the river.”
Over the years, questions about Helmig’s guilt were raised in a documentary produced by the Illinois State University Innocence Project and a television program on TNT television.
A state post-conviction petition alleging ineffective legal assistance was filed and was denied in 2001.
In 2002, a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed. On September 26, 2005, a federal judge overturned the conviction, ruling that jurors had improperly consulted a map during deliberations.
Two jurors said that a map that was not in evidence was consulted to help a juror reluctant to vote to convict. The map “provided jurors with specific facts by which to adjudge relative locations, distances, travel routes and terrain,” the judge wrote. “When the evidence presented at trial did not convince one juror of (Helmig’s) guilt, that juror’s vote changed after viewing the map.”
That decision, however, was overruled in September 2006 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The appeals court ruled that the use of the map was not prejudicial.
In June 2009, another petition was filed on Helmig’s behalf, alleging that Hulshof and Schollmeyer, who had since become an Osage County Associate Circuit Court judge, had withheld evidence and knowingly allowed a witness to lie.
The previous year, an Associated Press investigation found five cases where Hulshof was accused of prosecutorial misconduct, primarily withholding exculpatory evidence. In 2009, Joshua Kezer was declared innocent of a 1992 murder for which he had been convicted and Hulshof was criticized for withholding evidence and overstating the evidence in closing argument.
On November 3, 2010, DeKalb County Senior Judge Warren McElwain set aside Helmig’s conviction and sentence. The judge ruled that the prosecution had withheld a report of Trooper Westfall stating that Helmig had denied killing his mother, that Westfall’s testimony that Helmig had never denied committing the murder was perjury, and the that prosecutor knew it.
The judge also found that Helmig’s trial attorney provided an ineffective legal defense.
The lawyer had failed to bring in any evidence that at the time of the murder, Norma Helmig was involved in a contentious divorce proceeding with her husband, Ted. She had sought a restraining order against him in March, 1993 to keep him off her property and a witness would later say that Norma began keeping a pistol close at hand in her home during that time.
On July 11, 1993, Ted allegedly tossed hot coffee on her during an argument in Jefferson City, Missouri restaurant and said, “I’m going to put an end to this.”
At the trial, the prosecution raised the coffee incident, but suggested that it was Dale Helmig who tossed the coffee—a misrepresentation cited by Judge McElwain in his decision.
Helmig was released on bond on December 13, 2010, pending a retrial.
In March, 2011, the Missouri Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s decision.
On August 13, 2011, the Osage County Prosecutor’s Office dismissed the charges.
– Maurice Possley