Duis murder suspect's death ruled accidental

Friday, August 5, 2016

SPIRIT LAKE -- The death of a high-profile Dickinson County murder suspect has been ruled accidental by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner.

The agencies were looking into the March 31 death of Jesse Wendelsdorf. He was taken into custody after 2-year-old Shelby Duis was found dead in her Spirit Lake home on Jan. 4, 2000. He went to trial in the summer of 2000 on charges of first-degree murder, first-degree sexual assault and child endangerment.

Iowa DCI agent Darrell Simmons says Wendelsdorf died of ethylene glycol poisoning four months ago -- antifreeze was found near the 41-year-old Cherokee man when emergency crews tried to assist him on March 29.

Simmons told The Sioux City Journal it's nearly impossible to determine whether Wendelsdorf wanted to kill himself -- he left no note. The DCI agent said some people drink antifreeze to get drunk.

Wendelsdorf was acquitted of the most serious charges in the Duis case because defense evidence suggested the pattern of abuse began before Wendelsdorf moved in with Shelby's mother, Heidi Watkins. No one witnessed the final blows that ended Shelby's life and Watkins was portrayed at trial as someone who parented under the haze of drug and alcohol abuse. She served almost 13 years in prison for inflicting -- or not preventing -- the ongoing and fatal injuries sustained by her daughter.

The case drew statewide attention more than a decade ago because day care workers spotted and reported concerns about Shelby's well-being at least two months before the child's death. Shelby remained in the Watkins home despite a Department of Human Services investigation. The case brought then-Gov. Tom Vilsack to the Iowa Great Lakes for a town hall forum about child abuse. The governor returned to Des Moines pledging to make sweeping changes in the child welfare system.

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