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Background

Roger Atkison was a telephone installer and repairman who lived with his wife, Marcella Shat, in St. Joseph, Missouri. The two had a daughter, but all was not well in the marriage. Roger was flirtatious with female customers and had a tendency to deliberately perform faulty installations so that he would be invited back. One of those women was Rose Burkert, a single mother and nurse-in-training, who eventually became a regular girlfriend for Roger.

The two planned a romantic weekend together 270 miles away from home at the Amana Holiday Inn in Williamsburg, Iowa (today a Ramada Hotel), which would have constituted about a four-hour drive. They arrived on the evening on Friday, September 12, 1980.


Rose Burkert and Roger Atkison.

When they got to the hotel, the pair was informed that there were no rooms available due to a morticians’ conference taking place. But the clerk double-checked the records and discovered that there had been a cancellation, leaving room 260 unoccupied. Roger and Rose booked the room, checking in at 7:40 p.m.

That night, they received three phone calls. Two were from Rose’s babysitter, but it’s not known who the third was from. They were asked to move their car out of a handicapped parking spot and ordered room service at some point. Notably, several sources mention that Rose had an argument with a hotel bartender the night of the murders, though it’s unclear why, or what about.

None of the hotel guests or staff reported hearing or seeing anything strange that night.



The Crime

The following day, shortly after noon, a housekeeper approached room 260, only to find it locked with no response after she knocked several times. She obtained a key from the hotel manager and, upon seeing the interior, they called the police. Here’s a graphical layout of the crime scene based on police illustrations:


Click here to see a Google map of the area indicated on the graphic.

Rose and Roger were lying face down in bed, partially under the blankets. Rose was fully dressed, but Roger was in just his shorts. Both their heads had been obliterated by a weapon with a sharp blade, believed to be an axe or hatchet. Some of Roger’s fingers had been cut off, too – this might have happened if he’d raised his hands in self-defense.

There were two chairs set next to the bed; it’s been suggested that this could be an indication that the killer sat there and had a conversation with the couple, and there was also evidence that somebody had put his or her feet up on the nightstand. It’s undetermined whether that happened before or after the murders, though. If the perpetrator acted this casually around Rose and Roger, though, it may have been someone at least one of them knew – this is also supported by the fact that there were no signs of forced entry or struggle.

The were marks of the murderer’s presence in the bathroom: there was toothpaste around the tub and blood in the sink, suggesting that the killer washed his or her hands after committing the crime. As for the toothpaste, many sources state that it can be used to clean away blood, so that may have been what the killer was trying to do, although I didn’t find any information mentioning blood being seen in the tub.

The weirdest clue – and the one I personally find creepiest – was also found in the bathroom. On the mirror, written in soap, was the word “This.” There had originally been more words, probably a full message, but they were wiped off.


My interpretation of what it may have looked like.

As noted on the illustration of the crime scene, the detectives found fragments of soap on the floor underneath the chairs that had been pulled up beside the bed. That probably means the murderer sat there and carved the soap before using it to write the message. There’s no way to know whether that was done before or after Rose and Roger were killed, though.

The victims’ bags had been searched through and money was stolen. The television had been left on.


Suspects

Danny Burton


Rose’s ex-boyfriend. There isn’t much information about him or their relationship except that she apparently kicked him out of her house due to his drug use. Allegedly, he subsequently began stalking her, prompting Rose to file a report with the local sheriff’s office. She told them that if she turned up dead, it would be “because of her ex.” She subsequently got a dog for protection but later found it killed and hanging in front of her home. I didn’t find any sources stating that Danny was charged with that crime.

Danny was the prime suspect in the case, and for good reason, in my opinion. It’s not clear what his relationship with Rose was like, but she was clearly frightened of him. If he were indeed stalking her, he may have been able to follow her to the hotel. Seeing her with another man could have enraged him and provoked him to attack, especially if he were doing drugs.

Danny passed a polygraph test, but those are notoriously unreliable. He is also said to have an alibi, but unfortunately, the details have not been published.

Charles Hatcher


The uncle of Marcella, Roger’s wife. Most of the interest in him seems to come from the fact that he was already a convicted serial killer when this murder occurred. Additionally, around the time of Rose and Roger’s murders, he had recently escaped from a mental health facility.

In my view, there are few good reasons to believe Charles was responsible. All his prior victims had been young or teenaged boys, so killing two adults, one of them female, would hardly be in-character for him.

Also, it’s likely that Charles was in Nebraska at the time of the murders, because that is where he was found in October of 1980. The notion that he traveled to Iowa, happened to find the specific hotel where his niece’s husband was staying, killed both him and his girlfriend, and then returned to Nebraska seems far-fetched to me. Thus, I think Charles can be discounted as a suspect.

The Bartender


The hotel bartender whom Rose allegedly argued with could also be considered a compelling option. There isn’t a lot of information about this individual; his name and background are not mentioned in any source I could find. Because of that, it’s really hard to speculate as to what kind of person he was – violent or unstable enough to kill? And what did he and Rose have a disagreement about? Was it that serious? We’re unlikely to ever find out.

It is interesting to note, however, that the day after the murder, he left the hotel and didn’t even collect his paycheck. His pickup truck, which he had been living in, was found abandoned in Iowa City. Detectives discovered that he’d gone to join the army and was ultimately stationed in Germany.

When he returned, the investigators gave him a polygraph test and interviewed him. He said he was afraid that his lifestyle would make people think he was involved in the crime. I would tend to think that immediately running away after a murder took place would implicate you more than living in a pickup truck. 

As an employee of the hotel, the bartender would obviously know that Rose and Roger were present there, and nobody would see anything suspicious in him walking around. It could potentially be easy for him to sneak into their room, kill them, and then return to his post without ever leaving the building.

Without more information about his argument with Rose, though, it’s impossible to say whether this was enough of a motive.

Raymundo Esparza


This man had been accused of a similar murder in Galesburg, Illinois. He allegedly killed a man named William Kyle in a hotel room using an axe, and there were some similarities between the crime scenes: neither showed signs of forced entry; money was taken in both; and toothpaste was splattered in the tub in both. There were some differences, too – in the Kyle case, there were “homosexual overtones” and no soap message.

To me, the toothpaste is strange enough that it’s notable as a commonality. Furthermore, the sergeant of detectives in Galesburg, Bob Horton, was confident that Raymundo was responsible for killing Rose and Roger as well as William. Bob interviewed him for a long time, but no confession resulted for either of the two crimes.

Most other investigators who worked on Rose and Roger’s case felt strongly that the perpetrator was someone at least one of them knew well, which would make Raymundo an unlikely candidate by that measure.

Marcella Shat


Unsurprisingly, some suspicion fell on Marcella, Roger’s wife, and there was speculation that her family had committed or arranged the killings. Marcella denied even knowing that Roger was having an affair despite others claiming that his infidelities were common knowledge in St. Joseph. She herself believed that the killer was rather a former lover of Rose’s.

There’s no definite evidence that Marcella had any knowledge of where Roger was going to be. If she were being dishonest, and she did, in fact, suspect or know of his cheating, she could have hired somebody to tail him for the weekend and then report back to her. This is entirely hypothetical, though, and there isn’t any proof that it happened. It’s also possible that someone in her family was somehow in the know of Roger’s activities and acted without Marcella’s awareness.

Roger’s brother, Larry, and his wife, Elizabeth, believed Marcella or her family were involved. They said that the day before the murders, Marcella visited them and began crying, which was unlike her, so perhaps she knew something tragic would soon be taking place.

Theories

Aside from Bob Horton, the majority of other investigators in the case believed it was a personal crime. Both the county sheriff and one of the lead investigators, Detective Jim Wright, believed the motivation was revenge. Jim also said he thought the perpetrator “was someone who knew one or both of them.”

I tend to agree. The evidence does seem to support that the killer was allowed into the room. It’s hard to know for sure, but I think most people would be hesitant to let a total stranger into their hotel room. On the other hand, considering the two were carrying on an affair, they’d have to be careful of anyone they allowed inside.

This gives a bit of weight to the bartender theory: he was a person who wasn’t a complete stranger, but also presumably wouldn’t have had the slightest idea they were anything other than a typical couple. He could’ve used the pretense that he wanted to apologize to Rose for their argument and thus be invited in. This might also explain why there would have been chairs set up for a chat. But the motive is a bit weak, in my opinion.

If it were Danny, perhaps Rose thought that Roger would be able to protect her and thus decided to let him in? I wish there were more details available about Danny’s alibi. If he were indeed responsible for killing that dog, it would show he was skilled at evading law enforcement.

Like Larry and Elizabeth, I also couldn’t help but wonder if Marcella or her family were responsible. Much like the bartender, someone acting on her behalf could enter on the premise of them simply having a conversation, which they may have initially done before the attacks began. She had an uncle who was a serial killer, so I can’t help but wonder what other family members might have been capable of, especially if they felt particularly protective of her. Perhaps the message on the mirror was intended to be “This is for Marcella”?

I’m not sure why Roger was in his shorts while Rose was fully clothed. Maybe he was asleep. Maybe they had just been intimate and she redressed before he did. Either way, Roger clearly felt comfortable enough around this person to remain in that state of dress. I don’t think he’d be act that way with Danny or the bartender. And the killer felt comfortable, too, given the evidence of feet being rested on the desk – though, again, we don’t know if this happened before or after the murders.

I am also extremely curious about that soap message. What was it going to say, and why did the perpetrator decide not to leave it? He or she had spent the time carving the soap and then essentially nullified that effort by erasing the written text. Was the word “this” left inadvertently or intentionally? I don’t know why, but somehow I feel that whatever that message originally was could have been the key to identifying the culprit.


Aftermath

After Rose’s death, one of her best friends, Tammy Burkman, followed the case obsessively. She has collected a large amount of information and maintains a Facebook page dedicated to Rose, “Justice for Rosie.”

Roger’s former wife, Marcella Shat, has also remained interested in the case.

An article from September 2016 said that detectives are still working on the case, and have begun the process of obtaining and testing DNA samples. As of today, there have been no further updates on that development, and they remain unsolved murders.

Sources

“Keeping cold cases alive: For a 1980 murder, Iowa investigators reach out to retired officers” by Lee Hermiston, Globe Gazette, September 2015

“Motel ‘fling’ deadly” by Rick Smith, The Gazette, March 1992

“Rose Z. Burkert and Roger E. Atkison” by Jody Ewing, Iowa Cold Cases

“Widow hopes to defrost cold case after 36 years” by Eppie Pallangyo, News-Press Now, September 2016


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