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Three decades after double homicide, man walks into Iowa police station and confesses, police say

Jack Wendell Pursel confessed three decades later to killing an Iowa couple.
Jack Wendell Pursel confessed three decades later to killing an Iowa couple.Courtesy of the Black Hawk County Sheriff's Office

Three decades have passed since Robert and Goldie Huntbach were found tied up and shot to death in their Waterloo, Iowa, home, and no suspects were ever arrested in the elderly couple's murders -- until this week, when one of them voluntarily walked into police headquarters and confessed.

"There were a lot of suspects at the time that we looked into," Waterloo police captain Tim Pillack, who was working for the department when the Jan. 12, 1981 double homicide happened, told msnbc.com. "We just were never able to get enough probable cause against somebody to make an arrest."

The case eventually went cold. Then, on Tuesday, Jack Wendell Pursel showed up at the police station in this city of nearly 70,000 with something to say.

"Basically, he just wanted to talk to someone about it," Pillack said. "We had one of our investigators interview him, and he confessed to killing them."

Pursel, 66, told the investigator he had planned to rob and murder Robert Huntbach, 85, and Goldie Huntbach, 75. He gave details that only a person involved in the crime would have known, but Waterloo police didn't release what those were.

The homicide was grisly: Robert had been found in the couple's dining room, blindfolded, with a dish towel in his mouth, according to Waterloo Daily Courier archives. He had been hit with a blunt object. Goldie was in a hallway, blindfolded, with a clothespin on her nose, The Daily Courier said. An electric cattle prod had been discovered in the master bedroom, and Robert had injuries on his chest and wrists that may have come from the device.

It's unclear whether Pursel knew the Huntbachs, who were retired at the time of the killings. But he had been one of the suspects that Waterloo police interviewed early on in the case.

"From what we were able to find, he knew one of the victims' children or grandchildren -- I believe their grandchildren," Pillack told msnbc.com. "He was one of the suspects way back when that we looked into at the time."

Police have no idea what prompted Pursel, who is being held in the Black Hawk County Jail on two counts of murder in the first degree, to turn himself in now.

Pursel has not had a perfect record during the 31 years since he was first interviewed for the double homicide. He lived in the Waterloo area at the time of the murder, Pillack said, but for the last 15 or 20 years, he was living in South Gate, Calif.

"Before that, he was in prison [in California] for some type of sexual contact with an underage person," Pillack said.

The Huntbachs had two daughters and a son. Only one, daughter Barbara Beck, is still alive. A call from msnbc.com to Beck went unanswered on Friday. But Pillack said when he spoke with her on Thursday to share news of the confession, she was in a state of disbelief.

"She just wanted to make sure that we had the right person in jail," he said. "She wanted assurance that this wasn't going to continue on."

Pursel had an initial court appearance on Thursday, in which his $500,000 bond was increased to $1 million.

Pillack, who has worked for the Waterloo police department since 1979, said the 1981 double homicide was "a shock to community," and having Pursel turn himself in this many years later was totally unexpected.

"It's very unusual to have somebody confess to any crime, let alone a double homicide that happened 30 years ago," he said. "But we were happy to be able to say we solved the crime."

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