Murder at Glensheen Mansion

Jun 12, 2015 - by Cal Schoonover

Glensheen Mansion

The murders of heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse were far from perfect. Though no direct evidence linked her son-in-law to the crime, circumstantial evidence -- the $8 million his wife would inherit -- made him the obvious suspect. 

by Cal Schoonover 

Elisabeth Congdon was the youngest daughter of Chester Congdon, who was an attorney and made millions in the mining industry. Elisabeth had out lived her brothers and sisters and therefore had control over the famous Congdon fortune. She also was the only one of the seven children to live in her family’s 39 room Duluth mansion, located on the shores of Lake Superior, her whole adult life.

 On that last Sunday of her life, June 26, 1977, Elisabeth Congdon, who had suffered a severe stroke 12 years prior and required around the clock care, arrived at her family’s estate known as Glensheen. Elisabeth had spent the weekend at her summer home on the Brule River in Wisconsin, just like she did every weekend. As usual, she returned on Sunday night to Duluth. It was 4:30 p.m. The nurse working that day was Mildred Klosowsky. After helping move Elisabeth into the house and laying her down on a sofa, she returned to the car to unload two suitcase wicker baskets. Nurse Klosowsky carried the suitcases upstairs to Elisabeth's bedroom.

Around 5 p.m. Elisabeth awoke from her short nap and asked her nurse to play a game of cards. She enjoyed card games and was difficult to beat at gin rummy and hearts.  Unable to hold the cards as a result of the stroke, Elisabeth used a special board that was made for her. About 6:30 p.m. the card game was stopped for a short break to eat dinner. Hazel Conger, the maid, served dinner in the library, where after consuming her meal, Elisabeth would either watch TV or play more cards.

Elisabeth Mannering Congdon
Elisabeth Mannering Congdon

Around 10 p.m. Nurse Klosowsky wheeled Elisabeth onto the elevator that took her to the second floor, where her bedroom was located. The bedroom was simply decorated, not something someone would expect of someone of Elisabeth Congdon’s means. Elisabeth herself was rather plain and did not flaunt her wealth. She was not known to have ever been considered stuck up or treated anyone like they were beneath her.

Nurse Klosowsky helped Elisabeth into bed, opened a window, then removed her hearing aid and unplugged the phone. As usual, Elisabeth slept with her gold watch on and her favorite ring -- a platinum strawberry dome ring that had 12 diamonds and 15 round sapphires.

By 10:45 Elisabeth was finally settled in bed and was exhausted. On many nights she would fall asleep watching TV, but that night she “needed a good night’s rest.” She said her goodbyes to Klosowsky and fell asleep. Klosowsky left Elisabeth’s bedroom and went to the nurse’s room to watch for the oncoming night nurse, Velma Pietila.

Velma Pietila had been a nurse since 1933 and had spent the last seven years working at Glensheen. She had actually retired the month before and was looking forward to playing golf, traveling and spending more time with her husband. That night she was asked to fill in for the night nurse, who needed the night off. Pietila agreed since she missed Elisabeth, despite her husband’s objections to her working that night.

Pietila arrived at Glensheen shortly before 11 p.m. and parked her car near the mansion's front door. She was a well-kept person for someone her age and she prided herself in her appearance.

After some small talk and discussing the day’s events, Nurse Klosowsky left for the night. Klosowsky recalled looking at her watch, it was 11:05 p.m. It was the last time she would see Elisabeth Congdon or Velma Pietila alive.

After settling in to the nurses room, Pietila propped open the window with her thermos and read her book I Didn’t Come Here to Argue by Peg Bracken. Sometime later, the quiet night was interrupted and Velma was in the fight for her life.

The next morning, just before 7 a.m. Hazel Conger began making her normal rounds. While making rounds, she was to unlock the front door so the arriving day nurse could enter and not have to ring the doorbell and disturb Elisabeth. Conger however, found the front door already unlocked. There was a strict routine followed by staff when it came time for locking and unlocking doors and windows. The third shift nurse was supposed to chain and bolt the front door and Conger would unlock it on her morning rounds. Thinking Pietila must have forgotten, Conger continued on.  

When Nurse Mildred Garvue arrived shortly before 7 a.m., she went to the pantry’s refrigerator to get Elisabeth’s insulin. She encountered the cook, Prudence Rennquist, getting Elisabeth’s tray ready. Some small talk was passed between the two and Nurse Garvue then went to go upstairs to check on her patient.

As she made her way up the stairs, Garvue saw two bare legs dangling on the landing between the first and second floors. To her horror, she saw the lifeless body of Velma Pietila laying on the bench seat beneath the landing window. At first she thought Pietila had fallen down the steps, but upon a closer look she could see things were much worse. There was a large pool of blood beneath Pietila’s head, but Garvue checked for signs of life anyway. When she touched Pietila’s arm she could feel it was cold and stiff.

Garvue was able to see Pietila’s face was covered in dried blood, her jaw also appeared broken. There was also blood on her uniform and a large pool of blood on the polished floor. A few feet away stood a bloodied brass candlestick.

Concerned for Congdon, Nurse Garvue was worried, but continued upstairs to Elisabeth’s bedroom. The room was a mess. Dresser drawers had been pulled out and empty jewelry boxes lay on the floor.

Elisabeth Congdon laid face up with her bare legs exposed and the sheets pulled back. Her left arm appeared bruised and her gold watch and diamond-sapphire ring were gone. Covering Elisabeth’s face was a pink blood-flecked satin pillow.

Garvue, terrified, ran down the stairs to the first floor where Conger was waiting to bring the tray.

“Velma’s dead; Miss Elisabeth’s been murdered,” Garvue said in a panic. Conger, shocked by what she just heard, leaned on Garvue for support. Fearing the killer could still be in the house, the two women, side by side, walked toward the phone. They called police and reported the murders.

Police Officer Chris Kucera was the first to reach the Congdon estate at 7:03 a.m.  Upon arrival he made contact with Glensheen’s gardener, Robert Wyness, who was outside working by the garage. Officer Kucera asked if he was the one who called for help. Wyness told him no. Wyness at this time had no idea what had taken place inside Glensheen.

Kucera then went to the mansion’s front door where he was met by Conger and Garvue. The two women told the officer about the homicides and he went in to check for himself. Conger and Garvue also made known their fears about the possibility of the killer or killers still being in the house.

Kucera entered the house. Not knowing what to expect, he made his way up the stairs and when he saw Pietila, he checked for signs of life. Finding no pulse, he continued up the stairs to Elisabeth’s room. Finding her body on the bed and seeing no sign of life, there was nothing more he could do.

Kucera left Elisabeth’s room and went back down the stairs. By then another police officer had arrived. Kucera told him there was no need for paramedics and it was a double homicide.

Detective Gary Waller arrived at Glensheen just after 8 a.m. and after parking his car he proceeded to the mansion’s front door. One of the first things Waller found strange was the lack of security. Glensheen had no electronic security system nor was there any security living on the estate.

Inspector Grams, who was the officer-in-charge, met Waller near the staircase. Grams gave Waller a quick rundown of what has been found and a description of the two bodies. Taking over the case as the lead detective, Waller then made his way up the stairs.

When he came across the body of Velma Pietila, he could see she had been beaten to death. He noticed the pooled blood under her head. Making note of the bloody brass candlestick, Waller, being careful where he stepped, walked up to Elisabeth Congdon’s bedroom. Making note of the small drops of blood on the carpet and wall, Waller figured it looked like the nurse had put up a fight.

When Detective Waller and Inspector Gram entered Congdon’s room, they noticed the lamp next to her bed was on. Waller observed her room was disorganized and Congdon herself had bloodstains on her sheets, nightgown and on the pillow that covered her face. Not seeing any kind of puncture wounds on Congdon, Detective Waller figured the nurse had been killed first and it was her blood that was on Congdon. The blood being wiped from the killer to Elisabeth Congdon as she fought her murderer.

The one corner of the pillow that covered Elisabeth Congdon’s face was still crumpled from where the killer held it in place. Waller lifted the pillow carefully, he noticed there was what appeared to be a raw patch of skin on her nose. Bruises on her left arm from where her attacker held her down were also noticed.

Turing his attention to the bedroom, Detective Waller looked around for clues. He made note of the dresser in the room having all its drawers pulled out the same length. There were also empty jewelry boxes scattered on the floor. Finding this strange, Waller made note the scene looked more staged rather than an actual robbery.

Leaving Congdon’s room, Waller and the Inspector went across the hall to the nurse’s room. Pietila’s purse was on the bed, looking as though it had been gone through. Attached to the nurse’s room was a bathroom. Detective Waller found bloodstains on the door jamb and many faint spots of blood in the sink and on the tiled floor. To police, it was obvious the killer had used the sink to wash up before leaving.

A police German Shepard was brought in and upon searching the mansion, police discovered what they suspected to be the intruder's point of entry. A pane of glass in a basement window was broken, and a mark that appeared to have been caused by a foot impression was found on a sofa underneath the broken window. Another police dog that was on-scene picked up a scent trail from the back porch with the broken window and followed it down to the lake. Police found fresh tracks along the lakes edge and some trash.

While the dogs and some police were searching the grounds, Detective Waller began the difficult task of photographing the bodies and processing evidence. The crime scene detectives processed the staircase and Congdon’s room before they finished in the nurse's room. There were many small pieces of evidence scattered about the stairs that included hair, blood stains and broken teeth. Police had to work at a slow pace to make sure they did not miss the slightest clue that could lead to the killer.

The county medical examiner, Dr. Goldschmidt, arrived around 8:45 a.m. and examined Velma Pietila’s body first. He noted she was beaten almost beyond recognition. He made note of the dark nylon stocking tied tightly around Pietila’s left wrist. Also noted was a tattoo-like pattern of wounds to her face, forearm and finger. At this point, there was not even the slightest guess as to what the small injuries could have been. During the time of her autopsy, police learned the small puncture wounds on Pietila’s face, forearm and finger most likely was caused by nails. On the stair case police found Pietila’s broken shoe that had nails sticking out. Police concluded she had been beaten with her own shoe.

Dr. Goldschmidt went to examine the body of Elisabeth Congdon. Making note of the small abrasion on her nose. Goldschmidt also made note of some hemorrhaging in Congdon’s eyes. He also observed the bruise on her left forearm and concluded she must have put up a fight with the killer.

When Goldschmidt finished making examinations of the bodies, they were removed and taken to a local hospital for autopsy. Before the body of Velma Pietila was removed, next to her body police found what appeared to be hair next to her hand.

Loren Pietila, Velma Pietila’s husband, arrived at Glensheen and wanted to know what happened to his wife. Fearing the worst, he had to wait until Inspector Grams broke the news to him. Loren told Grams he “pleaded with her not to go,” but her mind was made up and she left at 10:45 p.m. He never saw her again.

 One of the first people to be interviewed was Loren Pietila. When asked if he knew of any enemies his wife may have had, he said he was not sure. He recalled an argument his wife had had with Elisabeth Congdon’s adopted daughter Marjorie. He remembered his wife telling him that during the argument, Marjorie had grabbed Velma by the wrist and would not let go. The fight had been over treatment of Elisabeth Congdon.

Other family members and household staff all shared the same opinion as to who they felt had the biggest gain in the death of Elisabeth Congdon. Marjorie and her husband Roger Caldwell were at the top of the list.

Police learned of the serious money problems the couple had. It was Marjorie, who stood to inherit $8 million after her mother died. Hearing this information got Detective Waller’s attention and he began to investigate further. The more he dug, the more interested he became in Marjorie and Roger Caldwell.

In the afternoon of June 27, Detective Waller received a call from Loren Pietila again. This time he told police that his wife’s car had been stolen. He had received a call from someone at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport saying the car keys were found by a maintenance worker in a garbage can. Pietila’s name and phone number were on the key chain luckily. Police were sent to the airport and after a brief search, the abandon car was found in the parking lot.

Police searched the car and some blood was found on the floor near the gas pedal. The blood type turned out to be type O; the same blood type of Velma Pietila and Roger Caldwell.

 Elisabeth Congdon’s funeral was to be held at Glensheen on Thursday June, 30. Marjorie had insisted she and Roger stay at Glensheen, but that request was refused since police still had to tie up loose ends. There were well over 100 people interviewed in connection with the Congdon case, but this number was easily thinned. After police learned of the Caldwell's financial troubles and the constant begging for money by the two, Marjorie and Roger became prime suspects.

The Caldwell’s remained in Minnesota for several days following Elisabeth’s funeral, waiting for the reading of Elisabeth’s will. In the mean time they stayed in the Twin Cities at a Holiday Inn. With help of Twin City authorities, Waller was able to get a search warrant to search the Caldwell’s room. In the room police found a jewelry box and a wicker basket. They were the same items taken from Elisabeth Congdon’s bedroom the night of the murders.

Police in Golden, Colorado found a missing gold coin in an envelope in Caldwell's mailbox. The letter was sent from Duluth on June 27, in Roger’s own handwriting. Evidence was also found in Caldwell's Duluth hotel room. They found a receipt from the day of the murders from the Twin Cities Airport gift shop for a suede suit bag. The same bag that was found in Roger and Marjorie’s Holiday Inn room.

On July 5, 1977, Roger Caldwell had become ill after eating and having a few drinks with his wife. He became shaky and almost passed out before finally going to the hospital. The treating doctor found high levels of valium in Roger’s blood stream.

Just after midnight on Wednesday, July 6, Detective Waller arrived at the hospital. Waller entered Caldwell’s room and read Roger his rights. Roger, still out of it when he was told, just rolled his eyes, shook his head and went back to sleep.

The police had circumstantial evidence against the Caldwell’s, however they lacked hard evidence. Roger’s fingerprints were nowhere to be found in Glensheen. A latent fingerprint was removed from the envelope containing the gold coin and was later compared to Roger’s prints taken at the time of his arrest. Detective Waller didn’t think the prints were a clear enough match, but they were introduced at trial anyway. At the time of questioning, Waller also observed Roger Caldwell’s right hand was swollen and he had a cut on his lip. This was presented as evidence as well.

 Roger’s trial began on May, 9, 1978.  By July 6, jurors began deliberations. All 12 jurors found Roger Caldwell guilty, and sentenced him to two consecutive life sentences.

Marjorie’s case began right after her husband's conviction. Marjorie was found not guilty of murder. On receiving this news, Roger Caldwell appealed his conviction due to the lack of evidence presented at his wife’s trial.  The Minnesota Supreme Court ordered a new trial for August 7, 1982.

Duluth officials were outraged by the Minnesota Supreme Court's decision, but knew they lacked hard evidence. Rather than risk an acquittal or a hung jury, officials struck a deal with Caldwell, allowing him to plead guilty to two  counts of second degree murder. For this he was able to evade life imprisonment and be eligible for parole.

Caldwell was paroled on July 5, 1983, after serving five years in prison. Penniless, he was forced to move to his hometown in Pennsylvania, and collect welfare. While he was in prison, Marjorie divorced him and he had no access to the money promised by his ex-wife. Less than five years later, he committed suicide on May 17, 1988 by slitting his wrists with a steak knife in his apartment.

Marjorie later was indicted on a variety of other strange but unrelated crimes in the southwestern United States. As of September 1, 1998 she was serving time for arson in New Mexico. Marjorie was released from prison in 2004.


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