Thomas Mather's gravestone

Who shot and killed Thomas Mather in his rural Springdale home on Sept. 30, 1991? Photo submitted

SPRINGDALE—The wife of a man who was shot to death remains among the suspects 25 years later in one of Iowa’s unsolved murder cases.

On Monday, Sept. 30, 1991, 32-year-old Thomas Stewart Mather was shot in the head and his body was slashed several times in his rural Springdale home one mile north of the West Liberty exit off Interstate 80.

His wife, 24-year-old Dawn Mather, said he was shot by a naked intruder and that she — also naked — escaped to a nearby farmhouse.

Dawn reportedly told Tom’s parents she and her husband were watching TV about 8:40 p.m. when a naked man appeared in the couple’s living room with a gun and two pieces of rope.

The intruder said he was there to rob them. The man tied up Tom and then ordered Dawn to remove her clothes before tying her up as well. She was able to free herself, and Tom told her to run. She initially said she was not there when the alleged intruder shot her husband.

Dawn described her husband’s alleged murderer as a white male, about 30 years old, around 6 feet tall, with a slender to medium build, and straight, bleached-blond hair darker toward the ends.

Immediately following Tom Mather’s murder, many questioned his wife’s involvement, and Cedar County sheriff Keith Whitlatch responded with a well-known fact investigators regularly acknowledge: Many murders are committed by a person close to the victim.

“Anytime you have a spouse killed, the public thinks it’s the surviving spouse who did it. And quite frankly, sometimes it is,” Whitlatch said. “At this point, we can’t say she is or isn’t [responsible].”

Insurance claim

Just four months after her husband’s brutal slaying, Dawn Mather took the Principal Financial Group to court on grounds that they had refused to pay her claim on her husband’s $50,000 life insurance policy.

The Principal Financial Group reportedly eventually paid out $42,500 on Tom Mather’s insurance policy. The company insisted it had never denied the claim, but was following procedures required in murder cases where a spouse is considered a suspect or person of interest.

The Mathers had been married just over a year at the time of the murder.

Dawn Woodard had been working as an arcade cashier at Sycamore Mall in Iowa City when she met Tom Mather, a night-shift custodian at the University of Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Tom lived at home on his family’s 160-acre farm near Springdale, and Dawn moved in with them in January 1990. Tom and Dawn married Aug. 4 that same year, and Tom’s parents moved out of the home to a new residence a few miles west of nearby West Branch.

Tom’s parents have repeatedly stated they believed Dawn’s story.

Sheriff determined

Whitlatch, the Cedar County sheriff, employed help from the news media in attempts to solve Tom Mather’s murder, including a crime re-enactment televised by KCRG-TV of Cedar Rapids on Nov. 18, 1992.

The re-enactment revealed several previously undisclosed facts about the case, including the focus on a late-model, blue Pontiac Grand Am that was seen near the Mathers’ home about 6:45 p.m. the night of the murder.

A couple were seen exiting a similar car in the Mathers’ driveway that night between 8 and 8:30.

Tracks found in a cornfield there also could match the dimensions of those of a Grand Am, according to authorities. A man dressed in tan coveralls was seen coming from the direction of the cornfield, carrying a pole or pipe about 8:45.

The re-enactment also revealed that a light-colored car was seen quickly leaving the Mathers’ driveway about 6:55. A light-colored car also was seen parked in the driveway about 8:45.

During the re-enactment, one witness described seeing a man standing near the blue Pontiac Grand Am talking to a woman wearing a light green dotted blouse and skirt.

The tip prompted investigators to serve a search warrant on Dawn Mather’s apartment, where they found green polka-dotted clothing items like those described by the witness.

Whitlatch held out hope, stating that officials never ruled out Dawn Mather as a suspect in her husband’s murder. Dawn Mather obtained a lawyer who advised her against speaking further with police, and she promptly moved out of state.

When Whitlatch officially retired as sheriff on Dec. 31, 1999, he described Tom Mather’s murder as the “most frustrating” case he had ever dealt with.


COLD CASE BREAKDOWN:

Who: Thomas Mather

What happened: The 32-year-old was found shot to death in his rural Springdale home on Sept. 30, 1991. His wife told authorities a naked intruder with a gun had tied them up, but she managed to escape.

How you can help: Contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at 515-725-6010 or dciinfo@dps.state.ia.us, or the Cedar County Sheriff’s Office at 563-886-6618.


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.

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