Unsolved Crime in Iowa: Who Murdered This Cedar Rapids Woman?
Two months after her graduation from Cedar Rapids Washington High School, she disappeared. More than four months later, her body was found. Authorities have never been able to solve her murder case.
Paula Jean Oberbroeckling was last seen leaving her home in the 100 block of 10th Street NW in Cedar Rapids in the early morning hours of Saturday, July 11, 1970. She was just 18 at the time.
Oberbroeckling shared the home with her friend Debbie Kellogg who told authorities that Paula had been on a date with her boyfriend Lonnie Bell Friday night. When they returned, they argued at the home and Bell left. Afterward, Paula told Debbie she also needed to go out, borrowing Debbie's car. The next day, Debbie's car was found about 2 miles away, near an Eagle grocery store on 14th Street S.E.
According to Iowa Cold Cases, Paula's grandmother Vera went door to door in the neighborhood looking for her granddaughter. Searches were also done by police.
Four days after her disappearance, Officer Smith from the Cedar Rapids Police Department talked to Paula's mom Carol, who had filed her daughter's missing person report. Carol Oberbroeckling told the officer her daughter was upset because she thought she was approximately 1 1/2 months pregnant and that Bell was trying to end the relationship.
On that summer day in 1970, Carol also shared with the officer that Paula had previously dated a black man but the relationship had ended "some time ago," according to Iowa Cold Cases.
In what may have been the best lead of all, Carol said a friend had seen Paula a little after 1 a.m. the morning she disappeared in "the loop" area of Cedar Rapids. A man was reportedly helping her with a car problem at the time.
Paula's boyfriend, Lonnie, was with Carol during the police interview. He told the officer that Paula had been writing letters to a black man named John Strayhorn. The officer visited Hawthorne Hill Apartments, where Bell said the letters were sent and found out no one named John Strayhorn lived there.
Hundreds of leads were checked into by Cedar Rapids Police, but they had no answers for what happened to Paula. Then, came an awful discovery.
It was November 29, 1970, when a man and two sons found Paula's remains as they walked along the Otis Road railroad tracks across from the city's sewage treatment plant.
Iowa Cold Cases says,
Police said the body was found draped around a steel pin in the ground, which in the past probably had been used for a power pole guy wire. Had the body not been draped around the pin, it could have washed down to the road and been discovered sooner.
The teen’s remains were found almost intact, her ankles tied and her wrists found tied behind her back with two separate types of flexible material — one a plastic clothesline and another kind of cord.
Her pelvic bones remained intact with no injury, and officials found no visual evidence to indicate a traumatic injury nor any fetal remains.
An autopsy was conducted at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City by Dr. Earl F. Rose. In his findings, he wrote,
Death due to (1) soft tissue injury, (2) poisoning, (3) asphyxiation, or (4) a combination of these, cannot be excluded from the examination of the remains of the body.
Iowa Cold Cases also reports that "if the deceased was not dead when placed in this position, death would have resulted from: respiratory embarrassment, exposure, or a combination of respiratory embarrassment developing as exposure continued and she tired."
Paula Jean Oberbroeckling's funeral was held on December 7, 1970. She's buried at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Cedar Rapids. Her mother, Carol, passed away in 2010, still seeking answers to who killed her daughter.
Paula Oberbroeckling's case hasn't been forgotten. Author Susan Taylor Chehak went to high school with Paula. She did intensive research on the case and her daughter-in-law, Katherine Dykstra, who is also an author, wrote a book about Paula's murder. It's called What Happened to Paula: On the Death of an American Girl, and was released in June of 2021. You can read an interview with Dykstra and Chehak, discussing what led to the book, HERE. The book can be purchased HERE.
Anyone with information on this case should contact Investigator Matt Denlinger of the Cedar Rapids Police Department at (319) 286-5442.