A Slow Death

The Mad Dog Killers claimed Jim Peterson's life 45 years ago. But he only recently got around to dying.

Kelley and Brown, accompanied by Brown's mistress, fled the state. Over the next few days, they killed a liquor-store owner in Omaha and shot two other men—one fatally—while stealing cars in Council Bluffs, Iowa. The spree ended when Pottawattamie County sheriff's deputies caught Kelley and Brown at a roadblock outside of Council Bluffs.

In his confession, Brown said he and Kelley shot their victims because they didn't want to risk being identified. He claimed he was too drunk to recall precise details of the crimes. But Kelley told investigators he shot Peterson while Brown was in another room.

The following June, Brown was hanged at Fort Madison, Iowa, becoming the first person executed in that state in more than a decade. On September 6, 1962, Kelley followed him to the gallows. According to the Minneapolis Tribune, he faced death calmly and, as the hood was placed over his head, murmured, "I'm sorry for what I did."

Jim Peterson and his mom, Verna
Courtesy of the Peterson Family
Jim Peterson and his mom, Verna

As it turned out, Kelley was the last person executed by the state of Iowa, which abolished capital punishment in 1965.

For Jim Peterson and his family, the effects of the shooting never really faded. The young man who had prided himself on his dancing found his new physical limitations to be a lifelong source of pain and bitterness. To his parents and siblings, Peterson's struggles were hard to watch.

"Unless you were there, you can't know how much he suffered," says older brother Ron Peterson, a Twin Cities boxing promoter. "His whole left side was paralyzed and atrophied. He was like half a person. Sometimes I think it would be a blessing if he'd passed when he was shot."

Although Jim Peterson graduated from high school (and later got a degree in business), he never managed to find regular work. But he prided himself on his independence, refusing to ask for physical assistance. Sometimes, he got "help" he didn't want. Because his leg brace was cumbersome—and he couldn't really sense cold—Peterson usually wore shorts. When Peterson walked bare-legged in the wintertime, people worried.

"He had the cops called on him more times than we could count," says Deb Olesen. "People would think he was a vulnerable adult or a flasher."

Over the years, Peterson married three times; he was divorced when he died. Still, his two children and five grandchildren were an enduring source of pride. "He always carried a little plastic bag, and in the bag would be pictures of the grandkids. He was just so proud of them," says the Rev. Darrin Vick of Brooklyn Park Lutheran.

Despite his physical limitations, Peterson worked hard to remain in shape. When Vick first shook hands with Peterson, he recalls, "I thought, man, this guy is gonna crush my hand."

Over time, Peterson's bad luck persisted. A few years back, he was struck by a car while crossing a street in Brooklyn Park. Naturally, the driver was uninsured. Peterson struggled with persistent seizures and headaches. Mostly, he was lonesome.

"After he was shot, I don't think he was ever really happy again," Bob Peterson says. "Maybe twice. Once when his son was born, and once when his daughter was born." Financial woes didn't help his spirits. At Christmas, Bob says, Jim would sometimes cry inconsolably because he couldn't afford to buy gifts.

"He just wanted to be like everyone else, but he wasn't," says Olesen. "He was frustrated because he couldn't do what everyone else could. He was a very loving and compassionate person, and he just wanted to be loved back. Yeah, he really had a wonderful life."

As Olesen cruises down Highway 81, she points out the old Holiday station, now a used-car dealership, where Peterson was working the night he was shot. Not far up the road, she pulls into the Mound Cemetery. Stepping out of the car, she scans the rows of headstones for his gravesite. There's no monument yet, just a temporary marker. It's located a few yards from the family plot where Petersen's beloved maternal grandmother rests.

"It's a nice little cemetery," Olesen says, casting an approving eye across the grounds. "I wouldn't mind being buried here." Standing near the marker, Olesen squints into the summer sun, searching the graveyard for something else. She methodically paces off the distance to a flat marker. It's about 30 feet. She bends down and wipes aside some grass to reveal the inscription: "Charles Edwin Kelley."

Having died 45 years and almost 400 miles apart, Jim Peterson and his killer now rest side by side.

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