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Dead Woman's Float: How a Man Landed Behind Bars After His Wife's Mysterious Death

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A bespectacled man with a long face and hair tinged red took the stand inside the Kandiyohi County Courthouse in Willmar.

Everyone in the courtroom knew who he was. Dr. Michael McGee represented the prosecution's big gun in the murder trial of Thomas Daniel Rhodes.

The prosecutor asked the witness to come forward. McGee exited the stand and walked toward a mannequin bust prominently positioned at the center of the courtroom. The prop had been doctored to resemble the victim, Jane Rhodes, Tom's wife, on the day her body washed ashore on Green Lake near Spicer.

The forehead was painted a sick shade of burgundy. Red and purple splotches girdled the eyes and stained the high cheekbones. Black bruises ran down both sides of the nose. The lip was split open.

McGee, Ramsey County's longtime medical examiner, had been contacted by Dr. Lyle Munneke, Kandiyohi County's medical examiner. On August 3, 1996, two local fishermen had found Jane's body smacking up against an embankment facedown in choppy, shallow waters. Munneke, with no formal training in forensic pathology, conducted the original exam and noticed injuries he felt weren't consistent with drowning. Recognizing he was more than likely in over his head, he'd called McGee.

Three days later, McGee was autopsying the body of the 36-year-old wife and mother of two, who'd gone into the water during a late-night boat ride with her husband.

Jane Rhodes circa 1993 on a shopping trip with friends to the Mall of America

Jane Rhodes circa 1993 on a shopping trip with friends to the Mall of America

Based on his exam, McGee concluded that Jane had suffered many of her injuries prior to drowning. Various facial bruises and the gash next to her mouth, likely stretched to the point of tearing, suggested that she had been run over by a boat, he said.

As for her other injuries, McGee testified there were parallel "dark burgundy" hemorrhages on both forearms, indicating "defensive wounds" consistent with what "a victim may receive when trying to ward off blows from someone."

Jane's neck also showed signs of trauma.

"Could that have been done by the hull of a boat?" the prosecutor asked.

"I think not," said McGee.

"Could it have been caused by a hand clamped around the neck in a 'V' position?" said the prosecutor, holding his hand out to illustrate the grip.

"I believe that's possible, yes," McGee answered.

Tom's trial lasted less than two weeks. The jury reached its verdict almost two years to the day after Jane's body was found on Green Lake's western shore.

Newlywed Bliss

Tom Rhodes and Jane Hoger were both children of the Iowa countryside. She grew up in Paullina, a town of 1,000 people southeast of Sioux Falls. Tom, one year older, was raised near Duncombe, a farming community sandwiched between the Des Moines and Boone Rivers.

College wrestling led Tom to the now-shuttered Westmar University in Le Mars, Iowa, "Ice Cream Capital of the World." It's home to the Wells Blue Bunny.

It's also where he met Jane.

Tom would soon be introduced to Jane's parents, Betty and Julius. The bride wasn't yet 20 years old when she took Rhodes's name in October 1980 at a ceremony in her hometown.

The Rhodeses eventually crossed state lines, moving north to Mankato where they bought a single-story house. Jane soon gave birth to two sons.

Tom pounded the pavement as a seed corn salesman. Jane cared for their boys and worked full-time as a receptionist at a local medical clinic.

Tom Rhodes was charged with murder well over a year after his wife's death

Tom Rhodes was charged with murder well over a year after his wife's death

Ten-plus years of marriage would wear on the couple. The days when they were smitten newlyweds were gone.

Jane had outgrown partying and nights out as a college girl. She was grounded to her simple roots. The three men in her life were everything now. School. Family dinners. Home.

She bought modest clothes and wore little to no makeup. She had yet to forsake glasses for contacts, and her weight had become an ongoing struggle.

This didn't bode well for her relationship with Tom. His brand of spousal support was proving large on aesthetics, skimpy on gentleness and vulnerability.

"She, unfortunately, worshiped Tom," says Jane's friend and former co-worker Amber, who asked that only her first name be used because she's fearful of Tom. "She was enamored by him because in her mind, he was good-looking, he made some money — not that Jane was materialistic, but he was probably her first boyfriend, probably her first everything. And this was a woman desperate to keep her husband happy."

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A Mismatched Couple

As Jane's self-worth withered, her husband had hit his stride. Family and friends interviewed for this story all say he never outgrew the big-man-on-campus mindset, and he carried it with him well beyond his college years.

"Tom had a strong personality — confident, even arrogant," says Amber, who frequented the Rhodes family dinner table. "He was funny and charming, and a little flirter."

In addition to being a good breadwinner, Tom had an appetite for spending. He liked to live large, never hesitating to drop money on toys like Ski-Doos.

"I remember her talking to me after a prolonged spending spree, where Tom had maxed out their credit cards and had bought some new fancy camera," says Kim, who worked at the clinic with Jane and for the same reason as Amber asked to be identified by first name only. "Jane said, 'He doesn't get it and just keeps spending money that we don't have.'"

Tom treated himself to manicures and pedicures. Haircuts were never a day late. He sported a Crest-white smile, tanned year-round, and hit the gym with such regularity that he built disproportionately sized guns onto his five-foot, nine-inch frame.

"There was one day when Jane had gone home for lunch," says Kim. "She was in the kitchen eating an ice cream bar when Tom walked in and said to her, 'You don't really care how big you get, do you?'" That kind of verbal abuse made Jane feel unsafe with her husband, her friends say. And it fed into other worries as well: At work and in the neighborhood, rumors circulated that Tom was unfaithful.

Months before the couple was to celebrate their 15th wedding anniversary, Jane's fears were confirmed. In the back of Tom's vehicle, she found a plastic rose and a black-and-red negligee many sizes too small for her.

Sometime early in 1995, Tom had caught the attention of Kathy Kay Mason at the gym where they both worked out. Dark-haired with beguiling eyes, Mason was also married with children.

The two were soon meeting three times a week, at bars and restaurants where they would play darts and shoot pool. Their rendezvous culminated with a meeting at a downtown Mankato hotel.

Mason would later characterize their relationship at that moment as purely emotional, not sexual — two checked-out spouses who'd found connection through empathy.

When called to task about it years later, Mason said the physicality never graduated beyond heavy petting.

"A little bit of caressing and hugging," she said at Tom's trial.

But Jane would bust Tom again. She recovered a tape from his van with recorded voicemails from Mason.

"When she called him out about Kathy," says Amber, "Tom turned it around and said he was going to divorce her. Jane was devastated. Up until Kathy, she'd either bought his stories or didn't want to admit that's who he was. But she finally agreed they would go to a lawyer and she would grant him his divorce."

Tom scheduled the meeting with a lawyer. Jane resigned herself to divorcée status and told family and friends she intended to move back to Iowa with the boys.

Inside a North Mankato law office, the financial consequences of a split were spelled out. Tom would lose about a third of his $2,500 monthly earnings to Jane in child support. With his boys out of state, living with their mother, he'd be relegated to a weekend warrior dad at best.

"Then wouldn't you know it," says Amber, "he wants to work on the marriage. I remember Jane saying how she couldn't believe it. She was excited like, 'Oh, my God!' But there were stipulations, things she had to do for him to stay and work on the marriage.

"I'll never forget them. Jane had to color her hair, lose weight, have more sex with him, and she had to lose her glasses."

Jane also reportedly imposed a condition: Tom had to be faithful.

They gave it a go. Jane became almost unrecognizable. She lost weight, grew out her hair, dyed it blond. She resigned from the clinic and scored a new job with Blue Earth County. It paid about the same as its predecessor, but the benefits were better, including a life insurance program she signed up for that paid out $80,000.

The couple made other changes too. They sold their home and used most of the proceeds as a down payment on new digs, upgrading to a three-bedroom, three-bath house with a big gabled window that hung above a wrap-around porch.

To protect their investment, Tom and Jane together signed off on a life insurance policy that paid the balance of the mortgage if either one of them passed on.

The following summer, after the season of new house, new hair, new job, and new commitment, Amber bumped into her old co-worker, who had come to the clinic for a doctor's appointment. Jane broke down. She'd seen Kathy driving in the alley behind her new home.

"I think it hit her then," says Kim, "that Tom had never stopped seeing Kathy."

"We Weren't Going to Find Her"

Tom flew into the lobby of the Northern Inn in Spicer. His clothes were soaked. His face was ghostly white.

"It's my wife! My wife!" said Tom, trying to catch his breath. "I can't find her! I couldn't save her!"

It was pushing one in the morning, and the lobby was deserted except for Norm Westby, who was working the swing shift at the front desk.

"At first, I couldn't understand what he was saying," says Westby. "Initially, I thought he couldn't find his wife somewhere outside of the hotel. I could tell he was visibly upset, riled up. When he was finally able to tell me, that's when he laid this all on me. His wife had fallen off their boat and he couldn't find her in the lake."

Earlier that night, the Rhodes boys swam in the Northern Inn pool before the family gathered to watch the Olympics. After putting the boys to bed around 11:30 p.m., Tom and Jane decided to take the boat out.

According to those who knew her, Jane had a serious aversion to water. On this night, the last of their vacation, her fears were somehow placated.

Tom and Jane launched their 15-foot Baja Blast jet boat from a nearby dock they'd been using that week. They motored out, stopped, and idled beneath the stars. When another boat full of people drove nearby, Tom says he and Jane decided to seek out a more private spot.

He pushed the throttle forward, heading farther north, Tom would later tell investigators. The jet boat cleaved the placid water at a 40-mile-per-hour clip. Tom thought he heard Jane say something. He glanced back and saw her standing as if she was about to take a step back to sit down.

Tom turned forward. When he looked back again, all he saw was a glimpse of Jane's shoes going over the side and heard what sounded like a muffled scream.

He panicked. Tom missed catching the throttle, but succeeded slowing the boat down on his second attempt. He then circled back, he said.

He zigzagged over the area where he thought Jane had gone overboard, while calling out her name. With no luck, he headed for shore and hurried into the Northern Inn.

When officers arrived, Tom led two first responders out onto the water. Hours earlier, Green Lake lay damn near flat. Now the wind was starting to pick up. A chop would develop as the night rolled forward, and it wouldn't be long before winds out of the southeast reached 12 to 15 knots.

Confusion reigned in the first minutes of the search, according to court records.

Initially, Tom told Kandiyohi County Sheriff's Deputy Randy Kveene that Jane had gone overboard about 1,000 yards north of where they launched. But then he directed Kveene to search an area about 500 yards northeast from the dock.

Kveene asked Tom if the location was correct. Tom responded by saying they should direct efforts farther north. The searchers scanned the enlivening waters with flashlights. Crucial minutes passed.

About 25 minutes later, Mike Roe, the county's water safety officer at the time, pulled his boat alongside the first responders' boat.

"It was dark, but at that point, it was still pretty nice out there," says Roe, who's now retired after working for the sheriff's department for 26 years. "I'm trying to get information from Mr. Rhodes. We asked him specifically for reference points... and he said he was pretty positive this was close to the area."

Roe cast a buoy into the water to mark the spot.

He saw Kveene looking over at him. Since they hadn't located Jane by then, both men believed the odds she had survived were close to nil.

"At that point," says Kveene, "we both knew we weren't going to find her."

The search was suspended until first light. Authorities took Tom back to the hotel lobby to be interviewed.

Before morning, a command post had been established between the Northern Inn and downtown Spicer. The sheriff's department took the lead.

A handful of boats equipped with sonar returned to the search area, but under the flag of recovery, not rescue. Winds tore across Green Lake. Curious onlookers gathered on the sand. News spread that there was a body somewhere out there in the water.

A witness reported seeing a light-colored boat around midnight driving erratically off the western shore to the north of Spicer.

Others reported hearing voices belonging to a man and a woman coming from what appeared to be some kind of modestly sized watercraft traveling low in the water.

Some heard screams, like people partying, followed by a woman's laughter.

One person reported hearing a woman say, "Stop. No. It hurts," although it was never corroborated.

Dale DeRung was on vacation with his family and was smoking outside their rental cabin with his wife, Karen.

"Look at this guy," DeRung said to his wife, "he's just circling, he's going around in circles. He acts like he's looking for something."

The boat then escaped DeRung's vantage point, swallowed by darkness "going toward the Spicer area... just real slowly."

Approximately 13 hours after Tom said Jane had fallen in, her body was spotted by two trolling fisherman. She was still wearing everything she had on from the night before: blue jeans, long sleeves, Nikes.

Jane's body washed up almost a mile from where Tom said his wife had accidentally gone in. Roe remembers getting the call.

"Until that moment," he says, "I had presumed it was an accidental drowning. At that point, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. If she'd drowned in 40 feet of water, there's no way she could have made it up there."

By the time sheriff's deputy Tony Cruze arrived at the scene, the body had been pulled from the water and was lying on a nearby dock wrapped in a white cover.

Cruze would later say how her injuries gave him pause.

"It was massive bruises and her eyes were swollen," he said. "She had a cut on the right corner of her mouth. She looked pretty rough."

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Three Strikes

Tom's murder trial lasted 12 days.

A three-front offensive produced a guilty verdict.

Tom had motive, the prosecution explained. He wanted to be with another woman. A divorce would have made him a part-time father, and a much poorer one at that. Jane's death made him the beneficiary of life insurance policies totaling $233,000.

The state punctured holes in Tom's story about the night of Jane's death, positing that based on where Jane's body was recovered, there's no way she went into the lake where Tom said she did. According to testimony from Patrol Captain William Chandler of the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office, it was improbable that Jane's body sank in deep water only to re-emerge 13 hours later at a location nine-tenths of a mile away. And given the slim chance that Jane was one of few drowning victims who floated without the aid of buoyant clothing or a life jacket, Chandler found it unlikely that rescue personnel wouldn't have located her sooner.

But it was McGee's autopsy that proved to be the final nail.

Jane suffered multiple blunt force injuries to the head and face, most likely coming from a boat hull, McGee said. Parallel bruising on both arms suggested defensive wounds. Hemorrhages beneath the skin in her neck tissues, McGee testified, pointed to external pressure from something such as a hand wrapped around her throat.

McGee's testimony painted the picture that Jane had been assaulted before going into the water. And that she'd then been run over by a boat more than once.

Tom was convicted of first-degree murder. He received a life sentence.

Tom never testified in his own defense at the trial. He's still not talking. A written interview request from City Pages mailed to him at the Oak Park Heights Correctional Facility went unanswered.

In the meantime, lawyers for the Innocence Project of Minnesota (IPM) are preparing to mount a new defense on behalf of a man they believe is no murderer.

Late last year, Kandiyohi County Judge Don Spilseth denied Tom's appeal for a new trial. The motion was based on the argument that Tom received ineffective counsel and that false evidence was presented during his original trial.

IPM lawyers are preparing to challenge Spilseth's ruling. Testimony from Chandler and McGee was wrong, the Innocence Project attorneys argue, and they believe they've got the ammo to prove it.

Tom wasn't on trial for being a bad husband, says IPM Director Julie Jonas, and it doesn't make him guilty of killing his wife.

No Degree of Certainty

Green Lake is about 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. It's fed by a Crow River tributary that flows eastward. The lake, known for its clear waters, is an imperfect circle that measures 12 miles around. Its large surface area makes it susceptible to nature's furies.

Chandler, the state's water expert, testified there was virtually no current in the lake the night Jane drowned.

But according to the Minnesota DNR's Dave Coahran, who works out of the Spicer office, wind and wave energies can change in minutes, especially in the summertime. It's not unusual at Green Lake for waters of varying temperatures to intermingle, he says. This creates potential for unpredictably moving water.

Chandler also testified that Jane's body couldn't have traveled from where Tom said she fell in to where she washed ashore 13 hours later because nearly every drowned body sinks. The decomposition process, which would ultimately bring her to the surface, would be slowed by the chilly water, since Minnesota lakes at 40 feet have a water temperature around 39 degrees. If Jane drowned, then sank 40 feet, it would have taken at least a month for her body to resurface, said Chandler.

Paul Doherty disagrees. He's worked water rescue and recovery for 28 years. A captain for Anne Arundel County Fire Department in Maryland, Doherty says what he's learned through experience conflicts with Chandler's testimony.

"It's not unusual for a body to refloat a mile," he says, because various forces, such as wind, waves, and currents can affect it.

Dave Smith, Ph.D., a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander who's worked as an expert witness in swimming and boating litigation for 30 years, is also skeptical of the state's claims.

Since Jane went into the water unexpectedly, Smith says it's likely she suffered laryngospasm, an uncontrolled contraction of the vocal cords, which brings up the possibility she didn't sink to the bottom.

According to Smith, Jane fits the profile of a drowning victim who exerts so much panicked energy in those first crucial seconds that she might not have inhaled a bunch of water right away.

"Based on the knowledge she's averse to water," says Smith, "she's terrified when she goes in. Then, it becomes a situation where she involuntarily gasps, swallows some water, and then her trachea goes into seizure. This is what we call 'a dry drowning.' About 15 percent of all drownings are dry drownings.

"At this point, she's no use to him because she can't call out, and it's only a matter of seconds before she passes out."

Smith posits that instead of taking on a lot of water and sinking, Jane passed out and died from asphyxiation.

Facts contained within McGee's autopsy report appear to support this.

Jane's right lung weighed 570 grams and the left 510 grams when she was autopsied. Smith says if Jane had drowned, as the prosecution submitted, her lungs should have each weighed double because they would have been filled with lake water.

On the other hand, Jane's spleen weighed almost double the organ's average weight; her liver was nearly a third heavier than the mean. A 2003 study by the National Study Center for Trauma and Emergency Medical Services in Baltimore comparing the organ weights of dry drowning victims versus typical drowning deaths found "elevated spleen and liver weights... are associated with only the effects of asphyxiation."

"[Tom's] traveling at 40 miles per hour. That's [roughly] 60 feet per second when she falls over," says Smith. "It takes him a few seconds to turn the boat around. She can't call out. It's the middle of the night. He's going to have no idea where she is. Add to that women, because of their body fat composition, are much more prone not to sink, and in this case, her body fat is high. It's not a far stretch to believe her body was floating all night."

Wherein Lies the Truth

Norm Westby, who was working the front desk at Northern Inn, has never believed the narrative sold in court.

When Tom walked through the hotel doors, according to Westby, "I saw a panicked man in a tragic situation."

In the days before Jane drowned, Westby watched the Rhodeses admiringly. "This family was as good as any that had walked through that hotel," he says. "They were a good-looking couple with real nice kids. I remember seeing them laughing. They looked like they were having a good time and enjoyed being around one another. Him and her, they were sweet, seeing them holding hands."

A neighbor back home recalled seeing the two together on the night before the family left for the vacation to Green Lake.

Michelle Folk testified at Tom's trial that she saw the couple outside on their driveway; each had an arm around the other's waist and they couldn't have looked happier, she said.

Mary Eckhardt lived next door to the family at their first house in Mankato. As the boys were growing up, Eckhardt remembers Tom digging a hole and cementing in a basketball hoop on the driveway. She often saw Tom and the boys dribbling and shooting for hours.

"It seemed like he was a real good father," Eckhardt says.

One memory from that cataclysmic night in Spicer still haunts Westby. It was after the initial search had been called off. Tom was seated in a corner of the lobby talking to investigators.

"They were going at him hard, and it didn't seem right to me," he says. "How can you go so hard on this man, asking him accusatory questions and saying things like he did this to his wife, he'd caused this, he had meant to do it. I was just amazed, how quickly they circled him and took him down mentally."

Westby is well aware of the case against Tom.

"All I know is they were good people that week," he says. "I've always felt it was an accident. I think it's all the details that makes cases and I'm not sure it's always correct."

There's a line of medical experts who would agree.

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Dead Man's Float

No fewer than nine forensic pathologists have reviewed McGee's autopsy report on behalf of the IPM. There are minor differences of opinion about some of the details. Yet they all agree McGee got it wrong.

"We want the judge to hear all of the experts we have that disagree with Dr. McGee," says IPM's Jonas. "We believe once he hears that, he will vacate Mr. Rhodes's conviction and that the prosecutor will not retry him."

The evidence doesn't prove Jane was assaulted, according to IPM's experts. Nor were there multiple blows. It shows she suffered a trauma to the top of her head, which could have been caused either when she glanced off the boat falling overboard or from hitting the water at a high rate of speed.

Nor do they believe Jane's other facial bruising was caused by hand or hull. Blood from the wound along her hairline could have seeped down her forehead and into her face after she drowned, once she assumed the dead-man's float position.

A body in a lake for 13 hours gets beat up. Waves toss it around. Currents drag it over rocks and sand. Aquatic animals, like crayfish, feed.

The forensic experts also say there's no evidence that Jane was strangled by a hand using the "V" grip as McGee had testified.

The soft tissues showing hemorrhaging beneath the skin of Jane's neck can be explained by any number of factors. Her neck hyperextended going overboard or as she struggled in a panic trying to survive. It could also have been caused by floating facedown for an extended time.

In a copy of a report written by Dr. Ronald Wright and obtained by City Pages, the former Broward County, Florida, chief medical examiner and associate pathology professor at the University of Miami, wrote after studying Jane's autopsy report, "There's nothing which causes me to conclude that this is anything other than an unfortunate drowning accident."

The Innocence Project points to one other crucial fact: McGee has gotten a key autopsy wrong in a murder case before.

In the 2006 murder trial of Michael Hansen, an Alexandria man charged in the death of his four-month-old daughter, McGee testified that the child died as a result of a skull fracture likely caused when she was tossed against the wall or floor where she was sleeping with her dad and three-year-old sibling.

In reaching this conclusion, McGee ignored an accident report from six days prior that had the infant falling out of a shopping cart in a parking lot.

Hansen was convicted, in large part, because of McGee's testimony. He received a 14-and-a-half-year sentence.

Five doctors working on behalf of IPM challenged McGee's findings. They all concluded the child's skull fracture showed signs of healing. Moreover, they said she died of accidental suffocation in her sleep, not from parental mistreatment.

Five years after Hansen's conviction, a judge overturned it, finding McGee had given "false or incorrect" testimony at the original trial.

Joseph Margulies, a Cornell University law professor, has challenged McGee's forensic work before. He's even accused him of lying under oath.

Around the same time Hansen was being set free, Margulies appealed the death sentence of Alfonso Rodriguez Jr., who'd been convicted of kidnapping and killing University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin in 2003.

In the appeal, Margulies called McGee out for "junk science and false forensics," citing a portion of McGee's trial testimony, which said Rodriguez had stabbed Sjodin in the neck.

Four forensic pathologists, who later reviewed the case, all found that the wounds came from animal bites.

McGee declined comment for this story: "When it comes to cases under judicial review, we've found that it's best to keep your mouth shut."

All That You Can't Leave Behind

Nineteen years later, Jane's mother, Betty Hoger, can still remember that hot August day when they got the call about Jane.

On bad days, when the memory is overwhelming, Betty tries her damndest to direct her thoughts to an image of Jane she prefers to remember.

In Paullina a year before Jane was gone, both Rhodes boys raced around with the rest of the kids at a country wedding numbering 200 people. Tom and Jane were on the dance floor trading whispers.

"She had lost weight. Her hair was kinda long. She was just beautiful. I'll never forget the white dress she was wearing. Just so beau-" says Betty before her voice trails off.

Betty still sees the Rhodes boys three to four times a year. Both are grown up and living in South Dakota, where they were raised by Tom's sister and brother-in-law. Most recently, Betty saw Jason and Eric at a great-grandchild's baby shower.

As for the rest of the Rhodeses, says Betty, "We don't keep much in contact with them. We were close before. But it's hard and it doesn't get any easier."

Betty has seen Tom's mom, Lois, once since her daughter's death. It was at another baby shower celebrated a year ago.

Both women put up a good front for the sake of the families, according to Betty.

"We tried to get along. It's not like you might think it would be."

Still, she's never attempted to have a face-to-face with Lois. The thought has crossed her mind. She does have her opinion.

"We've talked to a lot of people," she says. "People would come up to us and tell us stuff."

And with Tom's impending appeal, the reminders of August 1996 are not going away any time soon.

"You can't believe how hard it is," says Betty, sniffles replacing words. "How hard it still is. Things come back."