Coming June 27: Glensheen murders on tap at live event in Duluth

Roger Caldwell’s 1977 mug shot, taken after he was arrested for the murders of Velma Pietila and Elisabeth Congdon. (Image: John DeSanto)

This June 27, 2017, marks the fortieth anniversary of the killings at Glensheen—when Elisabeth Congdon and Velma Pietila were brutally murdered at Duluth’s historic Congdon Estate on the shore of Lake Superior. That evening the foremost experts on the crimes, the trials that followed, and suspect and sociopath Marjorie Congdon Caldwell will gather to discuss the events and their aftermath at Duluth’s Spirit of the North Theatre within the Fitger’s Complex.

The crime is considered Minnesota’s most notorious killings—called “the murders Minnesota can’t forget”—and the investigation and trials that followed regularly made national news. Today Glensheen is Minnesota’s most visited historic attraction and three books have been published on the subject, including Zenith City Press’s Will to Murder: The True Story Behind the Crimes and Trials Surrounding the Glensheen Killings.

Will to Murder, according to critics, is the “most informed account” of the murders and “provide[s] an inside story that has never been heard.” The book, described as “riveting,” “compelling,” and “fascinating,” is considered “the definitive book, the story behind the story of the Congdon-Pietila murders.” It is the bestselling book in Glensheen’s gift shop—and, due to its accuracy and integrity—the only book about the murders allowed for sale at the estate.

The June 27 event will feature the book’s authors—Gary Waller, John DeSanto, and Gail Feichtinger—providing three expanded “TED-Talk”-like presentations after Zenith City’s publisher Tony Dierckins introduces the audience to Elisabeth Congdon and Velma Pietila, the victims of the murders whose stories are often lost in the tales of their assailant and his conspirator.

Waller, who was just 32-years-old when he led the 1977 murder investigation, will discuss the events and evidence that led to the arrests of Roger Caldwell and his wife Marjorie Congdon Caldwell—victim Elisabeth Congdon’s adopted daughter. After serving 21 years with the Duluth Police Department, Waller acted as St. Louis County Sheriff from 1986 to 1999, when he retired.

Following Waller, DeSanto will cover the trials of Roger Caldwell and Marjorie Congdon Caldwell. DeSanto was the most experienced prosecutor St. Louis County had in 1977, having won three previous murder cases—yet he was even younger than Waller, just 28 years old, when the case was assigned to him. DeSanto retired as a prosector in 2009 after winning all of his murder cases except one: Marjorie Congdon Caldwell was the only suspect he tried who was acquitted. He served as a district court judge until 2016.

DeSanto will then hand the stage over to Feichtinger, the lead author of Will to Murder. Feichtinger’s portion of the evening will focus on Marjorie Congdon Caldwell, tracing her sociopathic behaviors and career as an arsonist and inmate while explaining how she likely got away with at least five murders. Feichtinger, who covered Roger Caldwell’s trial as a reporter for the Duluth News Tribune, later worked as a producer for PBS’s “McNeil-Lehrer Report” before becoming an assistant attorney general for the Minnesota Attorney General’s office.

The event, at the Spirit of the North Theatre within the Fitger’s Complex at 600 East Superior Street, is sponsored by the Bookstore @ Fitgers and is free and open to the public. Doors open at 6:15 on Tuesday, June 27, with speakers starting at 7 p.m. The Boat Club Restaurant will provide appetizers and beer and wine will be available for sale. The authors will be on hand to sign copies of Will to Murder both before and after the event.

6 Comments

  1. Scott Messer on June 5, 2017 at 1:40 pm

    A quick glance at the first paragraph made it sound like Marjorie would be there the discuss the events and aftermath! Wouldn’t that be interesting?

    • Tony Dierckins on June 5, 2017 at 1:52 pm

      Indeed!

    • B Carpenter on June 9, 2017 at 7:30 am

      That certainly caught my attention to read on further. Seemed to odd to be true, and of course it was.

      • Tony Dierckins on June 9, 2017 at 8:26 am

        If she was part of the presentation, I think that would be a much bigger story than the 40th anniversary itself!

  2. Chris on June 23, 2017 at 3:54 pm

    A little crass to mark or celebrate the anniversary of a murder.

    • Tony Dierckins on June 25, 2017 at 10:51 am

      Hi Chris. Thanks for your note as it gives me an opportunity to address this for others who may be thinking the same thing. I would say your choice of the word “celebrate” is inaccurate. We are not celebrating a murder but marking the anniversary of a historic event that has intrigued Minnesotans for decades. Forty years later, the story of what happened at Glensheen that night is more than just Congdon family history—it now lives as part of Minnesota lore. In fact, Minnesota History Theatre has produced a musical about the tragedy and is reprising the show for another run next month. The authors and myself, the publisher, are very proud of the book, which tells the entire true story of the crimes, investigations, and trials (other accounts are fictionalized and sensationalized). The book even including accounts of the mistakes two of the authors themselves—the chief investigator and prosecutor—made while handling the cases. Further, we were able to conduct DNA analysis in 2003 that, as newspapers reported, “all but sealed” the Congdon case, providing closure to a mystery that had lingered for 26 years at that point. When the book was published members of the Pietila and Congdon families expressed their gratitude to the authors and Zenith City Press for publishing the true account (at the authors’ insistence the book itself is dedicated to Velma Pietila, “Glensheen’s forgotten victim and unsung hero”). The book also helps fund Glensheen and allows the staff to provide information on the crimes without having to focus on that one incident during tours, allowing Glensheen to better tell the story of Glensheen: the Congdon family’s history, Chester’s perseverance and shrewd business acumen, the Congdon’s endless generosity for those less fortunate, and of course the remarkable estate itself.

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