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A mother and 2 sons shot dead in their beds: South Dakota's gruesome Mathis killings examined in new book

The Mathis case, the trial and the questions that remain to this day are the subject of a new book, "South Dakota's Mathis Murders: Horror in the Heartland" by long-time South Dakota journalist Noel Hamiel. The book is available to purchase on Monday.

Mathis Escort
John Mathis, right, is escorted by then-sheriff's deputy Doug Kirkus in this photo from 1981, when Mathis was arrested and charged with the killing of his wife and two sons at their farmstead outside Mount Vernon, South Dakota. A jury later found Mathis not guilty of the crime.
Contributed / Lyle Swenson
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It was a blood-soaked night that rocked South Dakota and reverberated around the nation: A mother and two of her children shot dead in their beds on a farmstead near Mount Vernon, South Dakota, in the early morning hours of Sept. 8, 1981.

Her husband, shot through the arm but alive, called law enforcement to the scene. He reported that a masked intruder, who must have killed his wife and boys, had also surprised and shot him, then left, leaving him unconscious.

"Someone has shot my family," Mathis told law enforcement.

But from the very beginning, the questions piled up.

Months after that fateful night, John Mathis was charged with killing his wife, LaDonna Ann Mathis, and two of their children, 4-year-old Brian and 2-year-old Patrick.

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After a tempestuous trial involving some of the state's top lawyers, riveting testimony and .22-caliber rifle bullets meant for jury members to find — a potential plant that may have played a key role in deliberations — John Mathis was found not guilty.

The Mathis case, the trial and the questions that remain to this day are the subject of a new book, "South Dakota's Mathis Murders: Horror in the Heartland" by long-time South Dakota journalist Noel Hamiel.

At 116 pages (the publisher had a word count limit for the book, Hamiel says), "South Dakota's Mathis Murders" is a slim but replete account of the 1981 crime, the murder trial and its aftermath.

Noel HAMIEL mug 04-11-2022.jpg
Noel Hamiel
Submitted photo

Hamiel, a native South Dakotan, was an editor at a Kansas newspaper at the time of the murders, but recalled how news of the killings spread nationwide. Now, after a full journalism career, he says he was compelled to write a book about the case due to its nature, the lack of a conviction and ongoing questions.

"It just struck me ... the diabolical nature of the crime. Two little kids. Farm wife. Nobody's ever punished for it. Technically, nobody's ever found guilty of it," he said. "After I retired, I thought, 'you know, I think that would be worthy of a more in-depth look.'"

The matter is regularly recounted in South Dakota newspapers, including the Mitchell Republic , where Hamiel retired from journalism as publisher in 2007.

But Hamiel had new access to the case, being granted rare access to investigative files from both the Davison County Sheriff's Office and the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation.

"One of the enduring questions that almost everybody associated with the case has is why the prosecution was unsuccessful. And I did reach some conclusions on that," he said.

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Hamiel could have produced an interesting true-crime read by simply rehashing the already extensive reporting on the case. Instead, true to his extensive journalism career, he performed a public service by spending two years synthesizing old reporting, scouring case files and interviewing family members and many of those involved in the case and trial.

"Most of the principals, by virtue of what I did for a living, I had at least met them, perhaps interviewed them, certainly knew who they were, and that was advantageous for me," he said.

Hamiel's new book extensively covers the crime and trial, but transcends the "whodunit" genre by respectfully memorializing those who were killed that night (LaDonna Mathis gets her own chapter), and charting the aftershocks of the acquittal that resonate to this day. Of special note, ostensibly due to the case, South Dakota was one of the first states with mandatory child abuse reporting requirements.

"I also wanted those two children and the mom to be remembered," he said. "They were cheated out of life, their lives were cut short, nobody was ever held responsible or accountable for their deaths. They deserve to be remembered."

And Hamiel reveals what happened to John Mathis and his last remaining son, Duane, all these years later.

Hamiel's book is the most definitive single accounting of the Mathis case to date. It will be of great interest to true crime aficionados and those interested in a disturbing piece of history in South Dakota, where Hamiel still resides.

"We're a big wide-open state and we don't have a high crime rate," he said. "But it is kind of a dark chapter in our history, and we have to watch out for each other."

"South Dakota's Mathis Murders: Horror in the Heartland" is published by The History Press, and is available beginning April 25. Interested readers can order a copy on Amazon.com .

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Mathis Home
The home of John Mathis, eight miles north of Mount Vernon, is pictured in this Republic file photo. The farm was the site of a triple homicide nearly 40 years ago. (Chris Huber/Republic)
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Jeremy Fugleberg is editor of The Vault, Forum Communications Co.'s home for Midwest history, mysteries, crime and culture. He is also a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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