Murder of Army vet at Iowa gas station one week before his wedding remains unsolved six decades later

Murder of Army vet at Iowa gas station one week before his wedding remains unsolved six decades later

He was a charming, well-liked fellow. Handsome. Women swooned over him like he was Elvis Presley.

His name was Melvin James Gallagher, but everyone called him Jimmy.

Melvin James “Jimmy” Gallagher

“Everyone just loved Jimmy,” his younger sister, Joann Heideman, told Dateline. “He was a good, sweet fella. Good looking. Like Elvis Presley. A real ladies man. And, well, he just had this way about him.”

Joann and Jimmy, only a year apart, were always close. Joann told Dateline she still remembers playing make-believe as children, like taking turns being a cashier while playing grocery store or cooking an elaborate meal at their pretend restaurant.

As they became teenagers and then young adults, Joann said Jimmy naturally stepped into the role of an older brother, protecting his sister at all costs.

“He always looked out for me,” she said. “And even though he’s not here now, I still feel him watching over me from Heaven. Protecting me.”

Jimmy pulling little sister, Joann, in the wagon.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Jimmy returned to his hometown of Waterloo, Iowa where he focused on finding a good job and settling down to have a family.

Joann told Dateline that her brother was popular among the women in their town and that he quickly fell in love and got engaged. But a short time later, he broke off the engagement to be with another woman.

After Jimmy and his first fiancée parted ways, she discovered she was pregnant with Jimmy’s child. A short time later, Jimmy’s new fiancée found out they were expecting twins.

With his family growing, Jimmy submitted an application for employment with the Waterloo Police Department, and also applied for entry to a chiropractic school. For months, he worked the night shift at the Clark Super 100 Service Station in Waterloo.

But on January 3, 1959 – just a week before Jimmy’s wedding – the 22-year-old’s life was brutally cut short. He never got the chance to marry his fiancée. Or meet his unborn children.

It was bitterly cold and snowy that morning in Waterloo, as Jimmy finished up his night shift at the station. Investigators believe it was around 5:15 a.m. when he was killed by a shotgun blast to the head, Waterloo Police Sergeant Michael L. Rasmussen told Dateline.

Sergeant Rasmussen added that $179 was taken from the station and, although there are still many theories about what happened that night, money could be a motive. Another theory is that Jimmy knew his killer because he was allegedly found with his left hand in his pocket.

According to The Waterloo Courier article published in 1960, Clark Company officials said their employees had been told never to resist hold-up attempts. When talking casually with customers or friends, Jimmy frequently stood with his left hand in his pocket, which led investigators to believe he had been talking with someone he knew.

Sergeant Rasmussen, who works with the department’s Investigations Division, told Dateline that while it’s possible Jimmy knew his killer because he was so well-known in town, he could not confirm that Jimmy’s hand was in his pocket or that it had anything to do with whether or not he knew his killer.

For years, Waterloo Police followed up on leads and tips, but none led to Jimmy’s killer.

In an article published in the Waterloo Courier in 1960, Chief Harry Krieg told reporters that scores of people were questioned, but they never found evidence to move forward.

Jimmy’s first fiancée gave birth to their son, Michael, on February 19, 1959. Later that year, the woman Jimmy was supposed to marry in January gave birth to the couple’s twin daughters.

Michael Rogers, who was given up for adoption as a baby and grew up in Oklahoma, was 36 years old when he found and reunited with his biological mother. It was also when he found out his biological father, Jimmy, had been murdered.

“When I called her on the phone, I asked, ‘does the date February 19, 1959 mean anything to you,’” he told Dateline, referring to his birthdate. “She dropped the phone. She knew who I was.”

Michael explained that his biological mother had moved on with her life and was married with four children. Her husband told Michael on the phone, “we wondered if you were ever going to find us.”

Michael told Dateline that he always knew he would try to find his biological parents at some point.

“I grew up in a loving home with wonderful parents,” Michael said. “But knowing I had other family out there, I wanted to get to know them.”

So in 1995, Michael drove to Iowa to meet his family.

“At 36 years old, I finally met my mom for the first time,” Michael said. “It was very bizarre, but I was elated.”

Michael said it was at that time he heard of his father’s murder.

Jimmy, his sister Joann, and their mother, Mary.

“She told me that my father was murdered in January and that’s why she gave me up for adoption when I was born just a month later,” Michael explained. “She went to stay with a friend in Tulsa and that’s how I came to grow up in Oklahoma.”

After Michael reunited with his biological mother in Iowa, he met other family members he never knew he had, including one of his half-sisters, from the twins born to his father’s fiancée, just months after Jimmy was murdered.

Michael, who now lives in Texas, told Dateline that years after finding out about his father’s murder, he became more obsessed with finding out what happened. He asked questions. Conducted his own research. And he stayed in touch with investigators.

“I kept hitting dead ends,” Michael said. “It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. And I didn’t know where to turn next. I had to step away for a little bit.”

Michael said he hopes that with advancements in DNA technology, there might be a way to possibly exhume his father’s body and find out what happened.

Sergeant Rasmussen told Dateline that “it’s possible that new technology could aid in solving this murder. However in 1959, the focus for crime scene investigators wasn’t on preserving potential evidence involving DNA as that technology had not been developed.”

He added that there haven’t been any current updates or persons of interest in years, but stresses that they are always willing to look into new information or tips that come in.

Michael told Dateline he hopes greater exposure of his father’s story will bring forward new pieces of information that could solve the case and bring their family some closure.

“The last day I was in Waterloo, I remember going to my dad’s grave and telling him that long as I’m living, I would never give up looking for his killer,” Michael said.

Michael told Dateline he’s fully aware of how many lives were affected by Jimmy’s murder, including his own.

“Who knows what my life would’ve been like – good or bad – but it changed my life forever,” Michael said. “And of course, I want to know what happened, but I want to know more so for Joann.”

Michael met his father’s sister Joann not long after meeting his biological mother.

“I don’t look much like him, but she always tells me how much I sound just like her Jimmy,” Michael said. “This has just broken her. So more than anything, I just want her to find peace.”

Joann told Dateline that she prayed for years to meet Jimmy’s son, Michael. And when she finally did, she was shocked but overjoyed.

“I just about fell out of my chair,” Joann told Dateline with a small laugh. “It was a small miracle after losing my brother. And Michael, he has Jimmy’s personality, he’s just like him.”

Jimmy and Joann

Joann, who turned 83 years old on December 31, 2020, said this time of year is hard on her. While she’s expected to celebrate the holidays, her birthday and the new year, she’s mostly just reminded of the tragedy that unfolded just a few days into the new year in 1959.

“He bought my last birthday cake before he was killed,” Joann said, tearfully. “My birthdays have never been the same since.”

Joann told Dateline she last saw her brother earlier in the evening on January 2, just hours before he was killed. She was eating a hamburger and fries while visiting with Jimmy at the station.

“He looked at my fries and said, ‘Boy, those look good’ and ate my fries – just like a brother does,’” Joann said with a laugh. “But I let him. He was my best friend.”

Joann said she doesn’t know if she’ll ever know what happened to her brother, but told Dateline she believes Jimmy knew his killer.

“I think the person who did this, who took his life, was jealous of him,” she said. “And that person is free while we all suffer. And Jimmy never got a chance to get married or have children or live his life.”

Six decades have passed since Jimmy died, but Joann still tears up when talking about her brother.

“What happened to my brother is with me every day,” Joann said. “I would like to find out what happened to him, before I die. But I’m 83… so I don’t think that’s going to happen. So I just think of the good times – and that’s what keeps me going. I know I’ll see him one day, in Heaven.”

In 2014, Cedar Valley Crime Stoppers announced a $1,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest in Jimmy’s case.

Anyone with information about Melvin James Gallagher’s case is asked to call the Waterloo Police Department at 319-291-4340 or Cedar Valley Crime Stoppers, 855-300-TIPS (8477). Tips may also be sent with TipSoft or by texting the word CEDAR plus the information to CRIMES (274637).

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