Glensheen Murders Draw a Crowd on 40th Anniversary

Nurse Velma Pietila was fatally beaten on the main staircase at Glensheen in 1977. Her struggle with an intruder began at the top of staircase and ended on the landing where her body was found placed on the window seat. 2008 file / News Tribune
By Lisa Kaczke, Duluth News Tribune

The murder of Elisabeth Congdon at Glensheen was “the most notorious murder in Minnesota history,” explained book publisher Tony Dierckins.

Forty years later, interest is still prevalent in the June 27, 1977 murders of the 83-year-old heiress and her night nurse Velma Pietila. A presentation on the murders drew such a large crowd on Tuesday night that people filled the seats and aisles and sat on the stage of the Spirit of the North Theater in the Fitger’s Complex and those who couldn’t fit in the theater flowed into a standing-room-only reception room next door to watch the presentation on closed-circuit TV.

The crowd was captivated for two hours while Dierckins, retired St. Louis County prosecutor John DeSanto and former News Tribune reporter Gail Feichtinger recounted the police investigation and the court cases against Congdon’s adopted daughter Marjorie Caldwell and her husband Roger Caldwell — who were living in a hotel room in Golden, Colo., at the time of the murders — as well as recounting Marjorie’s life since the murder of her mother.

Marjorie, who stood to inherit $8.2 million when her mother died, was found not guilty of murder conspiracy and aiding and abetting murder, while Roger was found guilty of two counts of first-degree murder. However, Roger was freed five years later due to a 1983 plea bargain after his initial conviction was thrown out.

“Who wouldn’t want to come to this?” Patti Ridel said.

When she moved to Duluth in 1998, Ridel decided to volunteer as a docent at Glensheen because she didn’t know anyone in Duluth yet, and she now feels a connection to the mansion. At the time she was volunteering, guides didn’t talk about the murders during mansion tours, but she has since twice read the book “Will to Murder,” published by Dierckins’ Zenith City Press and written by DeSanto, Feichtinger and Gary Waller, who led the Duluth police investigation in the case. She said she decided to attend Tuesday’s presentation to hear from those who were involved in the case.

There are still aspects of the case that intrigue Ridel and it wasn’t until she read the book that she really understood a lot of the facts. She said she thinks the case continues to captivate people in Duluth because, although the murders weren’t a secret, they weren’t talked about openly at the mansion until recently.

“Forty years. You just can’t get enough of it. You just want more and more and more,” she said.

Julia Dayton Klein, a Minneapolis lawyer, was in town on business Tuesday night when she heard about the presentation. She said she didn’t know about the 1977 double homicide or Glensheen before Tuesday, but as a lawyer, it sounded intriguing.

“I’m fascinated to hear what this is all about,” she said, adding that she now wants to visit Glensheen. “They gave me a brochure. It looks beautiful. I want to hear about the intrigue and the murders and the whys and how they got caught.”

As DeSanto took the podium, some in the crowd took photos of him. They laughed as he joked about his experience and looks as a 30-year-old prosecutor in 1977, but also groaned as he described the details of Pietila’s fatal injuries.

Even though 40 years have passed, DeSanto became choked up when talking about Congdon and Pietila on Tuesday.

“We are not here to celebrate. We are here to commemorate the tragedies at Glensheen 40 years ago today. I still get emotional when I talk about the fact that two beautiful, wonderful citizens of Duluth, Elisabeth Congdon, 83, and Velma Pietila, 66, died 40 years ago today,” he said. “These women, despite somewhat elderly in age, died prematurely, as all murder victims do. They died before they were supposed to die, at the hands of a murderer.”

Jennifer Congdon Johnson, daughter of Elisabeth Congdon, dies at 81

Jennifer Congdon Johnson, one of the two adopted daughters of Elisabeth Congdon, died earlier this year at the age of 81.

Johnson, who spent part of her childhood at Glensheen in Duluth and later was a longtime resident of Racine, Wis., died in Arizona on May 15; her death was reported Tuesday by Joe Kimball of MinnPost.com.

Johnson’s obituary said she died “peacefully with her loved ones at her side.” She was survived by six children and six grandchildren.

Johnson’s adopted sister was Marjorie Congdon Caldwell Hagen, who was charged with but acquitted of conspiring to kill their mother 40 years ago. Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse Velma Pietila were found murdered at Glensheen on June 27, 1977.

Kimball reported that Johnson had told him over the years that she believed Marjorie, who turns 85 next month, was involved in the crime; the two were estranged after their mother’s death.

Johnson, who married Charles W. Johnson at Glensheen in 1955 (they remained married for 57 years, until his death in 2012), co-founded a company with her husband that was a pioneer in computerized numerical analysis. She also owned several needlepoint and gift shops, according to her obituary.

The couple were donors to a number of causes, including major gifts to Mayo Clinic and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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