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The Murdered Family: A Novel

By Vernon Keel

Wanamaker Press, Denver, Colorado, 2010, 347 pages, Softcover.


When seven members of a North Dakota farm family and their hired boy are brutally murdered in April of 1920 during an intense statewide election campaign, eager investigators encouraged by nervous politicians get a signed confession from a man who argues immediately that he was forced to sign it.

Exactly three weeks after Jacob Wolf, a German Russian immigrant, is found murdered along with his wife, Beata, five of their six daughters and the hired boy, one of the prime suspects in the case signs a confession to all eight murders and is immediately sentenced to life in prison.

From the very beginning, though, he denies his guilt and says that his confession was obtained "under duress, intimidation and fear." He argues that he had been beaten by the officers who interrogated him, that he had been forced to stare at pictures of the victims, and that the investigating officers had told him that an angry mob outside the jailhouse was waiting to lynch him if he was released. He claims that he was told then that the safest place for him until this thing died down was in the state penitentiary where he could file a change of plea in order to receive a jury trial.

In November of that year his lawyers file a motion in district court in Bismarck asking that his plea of guilty be withdrawn and in lieu thereof a plea of not guilty be entered, and for a trial upon the merits. Their motion is strengthened when some new evidence is discovered on the Wolf family farm only days before the motion is filed.

Some ninety years later, people in the area still recall the words that the convicted man was supposed to have said: “My eyes have seen, but my hands are clean.”

About the Author:

Vernon Keel began a long career in journalism on his hometown newspaper just three miles from where the Wolf family was murdered twenty years before he was born. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota where he developed skills in legal and historical research. For more than thirty years, he taught media law and headed journalism and communication schools at South Dakota State University, The University of North Dakota, and Wichita State University.

Keel was active in the Society of Professional Journalists throughout his career, and was the first president of the Kansas Sunshine Coalition for Open Government.  He was elected president of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication in 1990 after serving for six years on the national accrediting council in journalism and mass communication.

In addition, he served on several national association committees and was on the William Randolph Hearst Foundation Steering Committee for many years.  He spent two sabbatical leaves at the University of Montreal, first in the communication department and then in the law school’s Center for Research on Public Law.  Most recently, he has taught at Regis University in Denver and in Colorado State University’s masters degree program in communication management at the Downtown Denver Center.

He and his wife, Bernadette, live in Denver.

Related Articles:

Review of the book by Paulette Tobin


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