CEDAR RAPIDS—A mysterious fire that resulted in the death of a Cedar Rapids man and his young daughter is among the unsolved homicides in Iowa.
Jay Grahlman, 38, and his 6-year-old daughter, Jaymie, died from injuries suffered in a late-night fire set at their Cedar Rapids home on Saturday, April 5, 2003.
Also in the home at the time of the fire were Jay’s girlfriend, Vickie Reed, 32, Reed’s daughters, Kylie Reed, 9, Nicole Reed, 7, and Grahlman’s youngest daughter, Ida Mae Grahlman, 3.
Reed stated that she pulled Jay and three of the daughters to safety but could not find Jaymie.
Once Jay realized Jaymie still remained inside, he ran back into the burning home to search for her. While searching, he sustained second- and third-degree burns over 37 percent of his body on his face, scalp, neck and shoulders.
Firefighters found Jaymie alive but unconscious early Sunday morning in the home’s bathtub. She lay stretched out on her back, face up, almost as if she had peacefully gone to sleep in the bathtub and not heard the screams all around.
Jaymie died later that day, April 6, after being removed from life support.
Jay died Wednesday, April 9, from complications due to burns he sustained in the fire.
Friend initially charged
Family friend and neighbor Brian Zirtzman — a 39-year-old man with an IQ of just 67 — later was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and one count of first-degree arson but acquitted by a Linn County District Court jury. Testimony inferred Zirtzman likely had been coached before going to police with a memorized confession “too complex” to be made by a man with an IQ that falls in the bottom 1 percent of adults.
Zirtzman became a suspect when officials discovered he had set two fires in his early teen years. His juvenile record came as no surprise to Reed; she had known about the two arson charges long before her own home went up in flames.
During Zirtzman’s trial, his juvenile record was not given to the jury; the court ruled the two-and-a-half-decades-old arson convictions far too distant to even be considered relevant. Also, neither fire had been set with anyone present in the home.
Prosecutors said Zirtzman set the fire so he could save the family, whom he visited frequently. That plan went awry when the flames spread too quickly, they told the court.
The details did not add up for jurors. If the flames had spread so quickly and kept Zirtzman from making any of the planned rescues, how did Vickie Reed later manage to make several trips back into the home to rescue the others and emerge with no burns of any kind and only minor smoke inhalation?
Jaymie Grahlman’s official autopsy report revealed other disturbing evidence in addition to the second- and third-degree burns. The autopsy report included the following diagnoses: thermal injuries; brain swelling consistent with anoxic encephalopathy (loss of oxygen to the brain); hydrothoraces (defined as an accumulation of fluid in one or both pleural cavities, often resulting from disease of the heart or kidneys); chronic liver inflammation; hydroperitoneum (defined as an accumulation of fluid in the peritoneum, often associated with cirrhosis of the liver); bronchoalveolar pneumonia (scarring on bronchial tissues and acute, chronic inflammation in the trachea); and soot present in mucus in the upper airways.
The family had spent the day socializing and barbecuing with Jay Grahlman’s brother and the developmentally disabled Zirtzman.
The unemployed Zirtzman lived with his parents across the street and two houses up from Jay Grahlman.
Reed stated the family had went to bed about 11 p.m. and about an hour later, she was wakened by the sound of a crash and smelled smoke.
The fire was reported at 11:55 p.m.
Fire officials have never come to an agreement on where the fire started. An investigation by an insurance agency maintained the fire began in the home’s kitchen, while two other fire investigators stated it began in a utility/laundry room and spread to the kitchen and the rest of the home.
How the fire started also has never been determined.
COLD CASE BREAKDOWN:
Who: Jay Grahlman, 38, and his 6-year-old daughter, Jaymie
What happened: The two died following a fire in their Cedar Rapids home on April 5, 2003.
How you can help: Contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at 515-725-6010, the Division of the State Fire Marshal at 515-725-6145 or Linn County Crime Stoppers at 319-272-7463.
ABOUT THIS SERIES:
“Gone Cold: Exploring Iowa’s unsolved murders” is an ongoing collaborative effort by Iowa news organizations to revisit some of the most brutal and mystifying homicides in the state’s history. The N’West Iowa REVIEW is presenting some of the unsolved homicides in the hope that they will lead to new tips and potentially help solve cases.