Thursday, January 26, 2023

Finished: Noel Hamiel's 'South Dakota's Mathis Murders'

 It's always neat when you can read a book that features characters you know personally or knew of. It's even neater when you also know the author.

So it was with Noel Hamiel's true-crime novel "South Dakota's Mathis Murders." I've known of Hamiel for many, many years, but never met him until this past year after he retired to the Black Hills. Since meeting him we've talked on the phone and messaged a few times. He's a wonderful man.

The Mathis murders took place in 1981, when I was a senior in high school, so I remember the incident being in the news but don't really recall following it. When you're 17 in the 1980s there were much more important things in your life and they generally had big hair and wore tight acid-washed blue jeans.

Back to the book:

It was perhaps the most infamous murder case in state history. Ladonna Mathis was shot twice in the head at point-blank range inside the family's metal shed serving as their makeshift home. Two of her three children, ages 2 and 4, were also shot in the head. The brutality of the killings shocked the state and set off a frenzy of law enforcement activity. Despite its intensity, the investigation never found the murderer or the murder weapon. Though charged with the crime, the husband was acquitted, leaving the door open for endless speculation about what really occurred on that late summer morning of Sept. 8, 1981.

With renewed insight from those involved, veteran South Dakota journalist Noel Hamiel explores this cold case of murder and mystery that still haunts the Mount Rushmore state.

I was surprised to learn that Jeff Masten testified on behalf of the defense in the case - in regard to ballistic tests run by the FBI for the prosecution. Not that Jeff wasn't a brilliant man but he also went on to be Lincoln County State's Attorney and the first to use DNA testing in the state and ultimately put a man on death row. I've always thought of him as a prosecutor. My mom worked for Jeff for many years in Canton, including during that time. A sign of how small our state is, Jeff's sister lives in Rapid City. Her son and my son went to school together in Rapid City, played baseball together and were good friends. Her son (Jeff's nephew) also interned in my office. Small world.

Back to the book. I really enjoyed it. It's only a hundred pages or so, easily readable over the weekend. Noel's life was spent in the newspaper industry and the book reads like a well-researched newspaper story. 

Famed South Dakota historian Jon Lauck (who I also work with on my day job) has a blurb on the book saying it rivals Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood." I think Jon is being considerate or never read the second-best selling true crime novel of all time, but I recommend both books.

Everybody who reads "South Dakota's Mathis Murders" is going to be asked: Did he do it?

I don't think the prosecution proved he did (especially going up against some of the societal mores of those days) but I think subsequent analysis and comments from his father suggest he did.

Read it and tell me what you think.

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