A rafting trip for the Rothgeb family in the summer of 1984 ends with a mother and teenage daughter dead and the father, David, under investigation for their double murder. His hidden lifestyle seals his fate in court, but just like the rivers in the Ozarks, many people are split as to whether the father was framed or a predator remains lurking on the riverways.
- “Authorities Investigate Drownings” by Staff for The Springfield Leader and Press
- “Columbia Mother, Daughter Drown” by The Associated Press for The Kansas City Star
- “April Rothgeb, Windy Rothgeb” Obituary in The Springfield News-Leader
- “Grand Jury Investigates Deaths of Mother, Teen” by Greg Weisz for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Grand Jury Studies Drowning In Ozarks” by Larry Archer for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Husband Indicted On Murder Charges” by The Associated Press for St. Joseph News-Press
- “Jury Indicts Columbia Man In Drownings” by Larry Archer for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Man Accused of Drowning Wife; Daughter Expected to Surrender” by Staff for The Springfield News-Leader
- “Man Faces Charges In Murder of Family” by The Associated Press for St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Alleged Wife-Killer Surrenders” by The Associated Press
- “Trial Delayed For Man Accused in 2 Deaths” by Staff for The Springfield News-Leader
- “Rothgeb Says Death of Family Still Unsolved” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Trial Opens Today for Man in Death of Wife, Daughter” by Staff for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Jury Chosen For Rothgeb Trial; Opening Arguments Start Today” and “Rothgeb Has Friend’s Help Before Trial” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Prosecutor: Rothgeb Inconsistent” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Killings Tied to Money and Sex, Jurors Told” by H.B. Koplowitz for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Doctor: Rothgeb Women’s Bodies Cut, Bruised” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Expert Maintains Rothgeb Drowning May Have Been Accidental” and “Experts Testify On Drowning, Site of Deaths” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Rothgeb Trial Resumes Monday” and “Defense Suggests Accidental Death” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Cost Will Be Considerable for Rothgeb Murder Trial” and “Witnesses in Murder Case Endure Long, Costly Waits” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Rothgeb Testimony Focuses On Insurance” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Rothgeb’s Grand Jury Testimony Read Into Record” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Jury Hears of Romance With Suspect” by Staff at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Rothgeb’s Relationship With Eldridge Explored” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Rothgeb Trial Testimony Focuses On Tent Examination” and “Expert Questions Rothgeb Story” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Rothgeb To Take Witness Stand” and “Rothgeb Will Take Stand To Tell His Own Story” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Rothgeb Testimony At Odds With Charges” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Murder Defendant Gives Testimony” by Staff at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “RothgebCase Goes To the Jury” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Jury Begins Deliberations In Deaths of 2” by Staff for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Rothgeb Story Decided Verdict, Prosecutor says: Two Murder Convictions Bring Trial to Dramatic Conclusion” and “Rothgeb’s Mother Faints After Jury Returns Guilty Verdict” by Stacey Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Columbia, Mo., Man Convicted of Drowning Wife, Daughter” by H.B. Koplowitz for St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Man Found Guilty of Drowning Wife, Daughter In River” by Staff for The Springfield News-Leader
- “Rothgeb Prosecutor Born To Win, Hates To Lose” by Stacey Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Parting Is Painful For Eldridge” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Rothgeb’s Attorney Cites Errors, Calls For Mistrial” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Rothgeb Says Prison Is Anything But Soft: Complains of Weight Loss, No Pillow” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Judge Denies Rothgeb New Trial” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Killer of Wife, Daughter Gets Life Plus 210 Years” by William C. Lhotka for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- “Man Faces Prison Terms for Two Murders” by staff for The Kansas City Times
- “Piecing Together Daughter’s Death” and “Parents Grew Suspicious of Rothgeb’s Story” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Rothgeb Appeal Claims Lack of Evidence” by Michael WIld for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Convicted Killer’s Sentence Contested” by Stacy Wells for Columbia Missourian Newspaper
- “Court Upholds Conviction in 2 Drownings” by The Associated Press
- “Sentence Is Upheld In Family Slayings” by Staff for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
- David Lee Rothgeb, Appellant v. United States of America Appellee 789 F.2d 647 (8th Cir. 1986)
- United States Court of Appeals Brief via Law Resource
- David Lee Rothgeb Inmate Profile, Leavenworth United States Penitentiary
- Find an Inmate
- April Rothgeb – Find A Grave
- Windy Autumn Rothgeb – Find A Grave
- Ozark National Scenic Riverways Info
Hi park enthusiasts…
I’m your host Delia D’Ambra
The case I’m going to tell you about today takes place in the Ozark National Scenic Riverways on the Jack’s Fork River in Missouri.
Jack’s Fork is heralded as one of the best floating rivers in the United States and according to Life Magazine, it’s one of the world’s ten most scenic streams.
Its cold clear waters are fed by natural springs and make it an ideal spot for swimming, canoeing, and fishing.
While afloat you pass over more than a hundred species of fish and drift past roughly 1,000 species of plants.
For decades, millions of people have visited the Ozarks to camp along the shores of the Jacks Fork.
In the summer of 1984, the Rothgeb family settled in for a weekend camping trip of fun and Father’s Day celebration, but it would end with two family members dead and a mountain of lies, secrets, and suspicion for authorities in Missouri to climb.
This is Park Predators.
Late at night on Saturday, June 16th, 1984 Jack Clark was winding down after a long day of registering and checking in campers at the Bunker Hill Ranch, a camping facility he managed that was owned by a Shannon County teacher’s union.
As it got closer to midnight he leaned back in his chair and stared up at the night sky.
Suddenly, a man ran out of the woods in a panic. The stranger breathlessly explained to Jack that his wife and teenage daughter were missing from their campsite on the Jacks Fork River and he needed help finding them.
Jack tried to calm the man down and hollered for a nearby park ranger to come help.
The panicked man from the woods told Jack that his name was David Rothgeb and his 15-year-old daughter Windy and 34-year-old wife April who’d been camping with him less than a mile away had disappeared. He said he’d been searching all night and had found no sign of them.
Jack noticed David was so overcome with fear that he appeared to be having a heart attack and had to call an ambulance.
Jack tried to keep David calm and told him that they’d get him some help and start searching for April and Windy.
Thirty minutes later, around one o’clock in the morning, David had recovered from his cardiac distress, and deputies from Shannon County and more park service rangers responded to the scene.
They asked David to take them to his family’s campsite and explain exactly what his family’s previous movements were earlier that evening.
David explained that he and his family had left their home in the nearby town of Columbia around 9:30 in the morning on Saturday and parked their car upstream in Mountain View, Missouri. They’d spent most of the day Saturday rafting on the Jacks Fork River in their canoe.
Around three o’clock, they stopped to make a camp less than a mile downstream from Bunker Hill Ranch. According to David, the family set up their tent at a spot called Dark hollow Hole. When they got the canvas up and open they noticed there was a strong smell of cat urine inside of it.
So, while they waited for it to air out they went swimming, popped popcorn, and ate dinner. As the sun was setting, the air got chillier and April and Windy decided to change out of their bathing suits and back into some warmer clothes. David said because the tent still kind of smelled like cat urine, the women decided to change outside.
David told police that Windy was very modest and didn’t like to change clothes in front of him, so in order to give his wife and daughter some privacy he went for a walk to gather firewood. While he was gone it had gotten dark outside.
When he returned from his walk about a half-hour to an hour later, Windy and April were not at the campsite. He said he waited alone at the campsite for a while thinking they would come back but they never did.
David told police that after waiting alone, he’d searched both banks near the spot on the river where the family’s campsite was. He checked the waterline for half a mile in each direction yelling out for them but got no answer. After a few hours, he really started to worry and around midnight he began walking to the Bunker Hill Ranch camp to find someone who could help him.
With this information in hand, Shannon County deputies and park service rangers quickly began searching the woods and riverbanks near the family’s campsite for any signs of the missing mother and daughter.
The authorities’ first assumption was that the pair had fallen or become injured in some way. The Jacks Fork River wasn’t too rough and according to reports only 1 accidental drowning had occurred in the last 12 years on the river, but still, there were some areas where the terrain could slope sharply and where calm waters were hiding large slippery boulders beneath the surface.
After about three hours of searching, rescue crews found April and Wendy’s bodies floating in the river downstream from the Dark Hollow campsite. Both women were dead.
According to multiple news reports, April’s body had floated nearly a mile down the river from the family’s campsite and had become lodged in driftwood near the shoreline. Windy was found much closer to the family’s campsite, about 300 yards away and she was face down in less than three feet of water.
Investigators thought the distance between the women’s bodies in the river was kind of odd. Windy’s body being so far apart from her mother’s confirmed for police that the two women did not enter the river at the same time, but they figured that maybe April had slipped and Windy had gone in after her and been overtaken by the water.
Investigators also considered a scenario where Windy and her mother had both decided to go swimming again and gotten caught in a bad current and April was swept away first, then Windy second.
But according to news reports, both of the women were wearing long-sleeved shirts and jeans when their bodies were found. They’d clearly changed out of their bathing suits. So, authorities pretty quickly ruled out the theory that they’d gone swimming a second time.
Deputies questioned David about where the women’s suits were and what exactly he’d heard or seen. David again told the police that he didn’t know anything. He’d walked away from the family’s campsite to look for firewood and when he returned his wife and daughter were gone. He had no idea what happened to their suits.
The only thing he saw was that their canoe was still at the campsite and he figured April and Windy had just decided to go swimming again or get in the water without the canoe.
When deputies asked him why none of the family’s belongings or sleeping bags were inside the tent at the campsite, David again told them the story that their family cat had urinated on the tent while it was stored at home and it needed to air out.
Deputies weren’t immediately suspicious of David and there was no physical proof that he’d hurt Windy or April, but one park ranger did notice a gash on one of David’s knuckles. When authorities asked him where the cut came from David said he guessed it had happened while he was scouring the rocks along the river’s edge searching for his wife and daughter.
When the medical examiner conducted autopsies on both of the victim’s bodies he found that April had a two-inch cut on her forehead and a visible cut on her lip.
Detectives weren’t sure what to make of those injuries but they surmised that the wounds could have come from April’s body being carried downstream and hitting rocks or branches on the way, but they also entertained suspicions that perhaps she’d been attacked before going into the river.
At the time, the investigators just didn’t have enough information to know one way or the other.
Interestingly, a National Park Service ranger working the case at the time told the Saint Louis Dispatch that he believed, based on the location of the victims and April’s cuts and scrapes, that the deaths may not have been accidental. He said authorities had learned that both women were decent swimmers, so the fact that they’d been overtaken by the river seemed strange to him.
Because the National Scenic Riverways is technically federally owned land the FBI was brought in to lead up the investigation and was assisted by Shannon County deputies, Missouri State troopers, the National Park Service, and some local state water safety patrol specialists.
According to the Springfield Leader and Press, on Monday, June 18th, the Shannon County Sheriff’s office publicly released that the mother and daughter’s official cause of death was drowning. And then on Thursday, June 21st, April and Windy were laid to rest in a joint funeral service.
According to The Columbia Missourian Newspaper, it took two more months but in late August 1984, FBI agents and the US Attorney’s office in Saint Louis, Missouri made a huge announcement. They held a press conference officially announcing they were giving their case to a federal grand jury and they wanted the jury to bring back an indictment against David Rothgeb for the murders of his wife and daughter.
This announcement completely blindsided David who told newspaper reporters that no one involved in the investigation had contacted him at all since his wife and daughter drowned.
Since June, he’d been living his life working his nine to five job at UPS in the family’s hometown of Columbia having no idea he was even suspected of being involved. And really, having no idea that this whole time authorities were even considering foul play in his wife and daughters case.
Bryce and Dorothy Fogle, April’s parents, were also shocked to learn that the government suspected David of murdering April and Windy.
They’d known him for almost two decades and never thought he could be capable of something like this.
According to the Columbia Missourian in the early 1960’s David first met the Fogle’s when they bought $2 worth of gas from a Shell station that his stepfather owned. At that time, the Fogle’s three daughters were in the back seat of the family’s car and David started flirting with them.
Later, David came to the family’s farm and asked to date April’s sister Jackie but Jackie wasn’t old enough to date yet so David decided to go out with April instead.
Throughout high school, the couple grew close and in February of 1968, when April was a senior, they got married. Shortly after that David and April settled down and lived in a trailer behind the gas station David’s stepdad owned. Eight months later, Windy was born.
Bryce and Dorothy told reporters that David spent a lot of time visiting with April’s family, and hardly ever saw his own. He became like one of their own and spent a lot of time with Bryce hunting and fishing in the Ozarks.
Despite a lot of people’s disbelief, the grand jury weighed the government’s case and according to Larry Archer’s reporting documents presented in those proceedings detailed that David was not a suspect early on but a few weeks after the drowning authorities had discovered he’d made an all-too-common move.
He’d attempted to collect on a $100,000 life insurance policy he’d taken out on himself and April seven weeks before her death.
According to their interviews with the Columbia Missourian, April’s family knew about the life insurance policy but never thought it was suspicious.
On November 28th, five months after the drownings, the grand jury indicted David for the first-degree murder of his wife and second-degree murder of his daughter.
The reason those two charges are different is because the government believed April’s murder was premeditated, meaning David had planned in advance to kill April on the rafting trip. BUT they theorize that while committing the crime Windy had seen him and then he killed her as well in order to not leave a witness.
Larry Archer reported that after the indictment was filed, prosecutors in Saint Louis announced they expected David to turn himself in to face the charges. According to the Associated Press, David agreed to that and at 9:15 am on Friday, November 30th he surrendered himself to the court instead of being sought out and arrested. He maintained his innocence, hired a lawyer, and was released to await trial.
For a brief period of time, he moved to North Carolina to stay with friends claiming he needed to get away from the memories of his loss in Missouri.
From the get-go, David’s defense attorney told reporters that the government’s entire case lacked any hard evidence that a crime had even been committed, let alone that David was the person responsible. The defense argued April and Windy had died from a terrible drowning accident and that was all.
At the time the penalty David was facing for both Windy and April’s death was life in prison.
The federal trial was expected to get underway in February of 1985, but delays in the court kept pushing it further and further down the docket.
On March 5th, 1985, things finally got underway and more than 70 witnesses were expected to testify for the prosecution. The newspapers at the time reported that, in total, the trial would cost the government anywhere from $250,000 to half a million dollars.
During opening arguments, the lead prosecutor explained that David’s motive to kill his wife and daughter was crystal clear.
He dropped a bombshell, saying that David had planned to murder April not only to claim $100,000 in life insurance money but to start a new life with another woman.
That’s right. David Rothgeb had a mistress, a mistress who was going to testify for the prosecution.
After April and Windy Rothgeb drowned, the FBI began investigating and scrutinizing every aspect of David’s life.
They’d uncovered he’d been carrying on a secret affair for almost a year with a 39-year-old woman in Charlotte, North Carolina named Kitty Eldredge.
David had moved to Charlotte not long after being indicted for April and Windy’s murders. He claimed he’d made the move to get away from the sad memories at home in Missouri and to be with good friends but in reality, he’d moved there to be with his mistress.
According to multiple news reports, David and Kitty started their heated affair about eight months before April and Windy’s deaths.
In one of her initial interviews with the FBI, Kitty told investigators that the last time she’d seen David, before June 1984, he told her that he was planning to get divorced from April and that the canoeing trip on the river was quote — “going to be the last trip together as a family before the divorce”– end quote.
David himself had told the grand jury back in fall of 1984 that he and April had at one point discussed getting a divorce during their 16 years of marriage but had never set a date.
The prosecution argued that David had felt mounting pressure from Kitty to end his marriage with April. By June 1984, he’d made the choice to eliminate his wife and start anew.
The government claimed that April would never have given David custody of 15-year-old Windy in a divorce, so in order to get Windy and be free to marry Kitty, he had to kill April. His plan had unraveled though when Windy likely witnessed her mother’s murder on the river.
The state had evidence that David’s secret affair with Kitty was in full bloom in June 1984.
According to the Columbia Missourian, during trial, the prosecution showed jurors that 150 long-distance phone calls had been placed between David and Kitty dating as far back as December of 1983 and continued after Windy and April died.
David made four calls to Kitty on the Saturday morning the Rothgeb’s left for their camping trip. Even more callous, the state could prove that David had called Kitty twice on the day of April and Windy’s funeral.
Obviously, the affair with Kitty was something the defense couldn’t hide from and had to address. In his opening statement, David’s lawyer admitted to jurors that David was an unfaithful husband but that didn’t mean he was a murderer.
The defense wanted jurors to focus more on the fact that police incompetence at the initial campsite on the river left a lot of room for reasonable doubt.
Reporter Stacy Wells wrote that David was optimistic about his chances at trial because in his eyes deputies with Shannon County had completely botched the investigation. David claimed that several months after his wife and daughter drowned, he’d tried multiple times to work with the FBI to get answers, but agents did not fill him in on anything.
He referred to himself as a quote — “a dissatisfied customer”– end quote and complained that the initial investigators with Shannon County had lost evidence and mishandled the case before the FBI even showed up. Therefore, the feds’ investigation was flawed from the start.
His defense attorneys argued that serious mistakes with forensic evidence occurred just days into the investigation. They claimed that after April and Windy’s bodies were found, samples of their blood that had been sent to the Missouri State Crime Lab weren’t tested until 22 hours after being collected. The defense claimed the samples sat in the trunk of a police car for nearly a whole day because when the vials arrived at the lab facility, it was closed.
When the prosecution addressed these concerns about April and Windy’s blood samples they admitted that the park rangers who’d transported the blood had not realized the vials needed to be kept on ice while being stored.
But the state told jurors the blood sample evidence wasn’t even that relevant. Everyone knew who the victims were in the case and what was in their blood wasn’t important.
For what it’s worth though, I can see the defense’s point here.
For example, if April and Windy had something in their systems that could have caused them to be inebriated and fall, that would be significant to the defense’s argument. In fact, in court, David’s lawyer said because the samples had been mishandled it made it impossible to test for signs of alcohol or drugs.
David also claimed that he offered his clothing to police, twice, back in June of 1984, but they wouldn’t accept it.
The sheriff of Shannon County’s response to these allegations didn’t really help things. He told reporters that he thought his deputies took David’s clothing in June 1984 but when prosecutors went back and checked, they only found a pair of sunglasses from the case, nothing else.
The defense also successfully proved that police never collected April and Windy’s clothing from the funeral home after their deaths. Deputies had left the articles of clothing there and the items were later destroyed.
That hurt the prosecution big time and obviously only fed more into the defense’s sloppy police work narrative.
Still, the government felt what was more compelling was that David had two strong motives to kill his wife and daughter and those two things were money and a mistress.
When the government called David’s girlfriend, Kitty to testify for the prosecution the court was on pins and needles.
According to the Saint Louis Dispatch, Kitty said that she and David had met at a hypnosis conference in Chicago in October of 1983 and began talking a lot on the phone. They were both very into learning how to be hypnotists and how to use hypnotherapy on other people.
She said she knew he was married and their relationship was mostly through letters and phone calls. She said that David had visited her in person in January and May of 1984 and during one of those visits she said he’d lied to his family and coworkers about where he was. She said he’d told his wife and her parents that he was attending another hypnosis conference but instead stayed with her for a week.
She also said that David had rented a private post office box in Missouri specifically to receive and send their love letters.
She said they grew closer and closer as the months passed and even discussed marriage at one point. She told the court that she would have felt more comfortable with their relationship if they were married.
When prosecutors asked Kitty how she felt about being the quote — “other woman”…she responded by saying that she never considered herself “the other woman” in David’s life, she was the ONLY woman. She claimed they shared a bond and friendship that David did not have with his wife April and that was what made them special.
The Columbia Missourian reported that Kitty was a mother of two daughters herself and after first meeting David in October 1983 she separated from her husband and carried on the affair.
At first, she said she was unaware that David and April were having marriage problems but she later learned that David was unhappy in his marriage. Kitty said he never fully explained the specifics of what was going on between him and April or why he and his wife had grown apart, just that they had.
Kitty claimed to have no knowledge of what happened to April or Windy.
Another pivotal moment during the trial was when a forensic pathologist who’d reviewed the case testified and provided more details about the cuts and bruises on April’s body. He said that April had a cut on her lip and a tear in her scalp more than an inch long. She also had several bruises on her forehead, abdomen, stomach, right calf, and left knee.
The prosecution claimed those injuries were a result of April being held beneath the river water between rocks and gravel and purposefully drowned, not from her slipping and falling and floating down the river.
The pathologist said that it was possible the cut on April’s lip came from being punched in the mouth and that it was also possible the cuts detectives had noticed on one of David’s hands after the drownings matched a typical wound someone would get if they punched another person in the teeth or jaw.
The pathologist testified that Windy’s injuries weren’t as severe as her mother’s. The only things he noted as unusual were a few scraped on her skin and a small bruise on her left eyelid.
When he was cross-examined by the defense, the pathologist could not be 100 percent certain about the circumstances that led up to either of the victims’ deaths. He wasn’t willing to go as far as saying they were murdered and emphasized that there were no outright marks or indications that someone had held them against their will.
Another win for the defense was that at the time the pathologist initially examined the bodies before the victims’ clothing was destroyed, he noted that neither April nor Windy’s clothing was torn or stained with blood.
The prosecution’s next tactic was trying to prove David’s story, that there was cat urine in the family’s tent, was a lie. Prosecutors put a Missouri State Crime Lab tech on the stand who testified that after conducting tests on the tent he found no signs of cat urine on or in it.
David’s defense lawyers countered this tech’s methods though and was able to prove that the tent had not been tested until four months after the drownings AND the chemicals the lab used weren’t really the best. On top of that, one of David’s friends had used the tent after April and Windy’s drownings and David being indicted for their murders, so it was potentially inadmissible evidence anyways.
To combat their lack of physical evidence tying David to the murders, the state called a parade of witnesses to support a circumstantial case against him.
And David himself took the stand in his own defense.
Among the first witnesses, prosecutors called to testify were April’s father and mother, Bryce and Dorothy Fogle. When they took the stand they talked about how leading up to the camping trip both Windy and April had said they didn’t want to go. Bryce told the court quote– “They said it all along. Every chance they got they said they didn’t want to go”– end quote.
Dorothy told jurors that no one in April’s family knew David was having an affair. She said that before the murders she’d asked David why he’d go to North Carolina and stay with another woman. He told her that he’d stay with Kitty because they were just good friends.
Dorothy also testified that after the drownings David was adamant with her that he and April never had plans to get divorced. Dorothy said David told her quote — “No way. Two years ago it could have happened. We were having problems, but the last six months were very good.” — end quote.
Next, the prosecutors called several campers to testify who’d been staying near the family’s campsite on June 16th of 84’. All of these people told detectives that during the time that David said he’d been walking the banks of the river searching and calling out for April and Windy, they had not seen him or heard him but they also admitted that they had not seen or heard police yelling during their later search either. So, their testimony wasn’t all that effective.
Another hiker who was staying at the Bunker Hill Teacher’s camp testified that he did hear someone yelling for help around midnight. He said he heard a man’s voice close to the retreat screaming “I’ve got to find my baby” and “Somebody help me”
Jack Clark, the man who first saw David and called for help testified as well. He and the park ranger who’d been at the teacher’s camp both said they thought it was strange that despite trying to calm David down and convince him otherwise, he kept saying that his wife and daughter were dead. He’d stated that he thought they were dead even before search and rescue crews began looking for the women.
After the state got its turn, the defense called its own forensic expert with 31-years of experience who said the drownings were definitely accidents. He said the fact that there were no signs of scratches, severe bruising or clawing marks on either the victims or David meant that he did not attack them.
This expert claimed that April and Windy died of what’s called dry drownings. Which is where a person gets so worked up in the water that their muscles spasm and cause their airway to essentially become paralyzed and they asphyxiate themselves.
In those cases, this expert said that victims have small amounts of water in their lungs and usually float on the surface of water versus sink to the bottom of it. He claimed that’s why April and Windy’s bodies were both found on top of the river’s surface.
He said he was certain that April had gone into the river first and become overwhelmed by the current and began to drown. When Windy saw what was happening to her mother she tried to save her and was overcome too.
To support this theory the defense also had a search and rescue expert testify who conducted experiments in the Jacks Fork River several months after the drownings. He claimed that the river’s four to six-mile-per-hour current is hard to swim against and could overtake a smaller person.
To further make their point, the defense called a group of campers who’d been on the Jacks Fork river the same day as the Rothgebs. These campers said that they’d tipped over their canoe on that Saturday and were sucked under the river’s surface almost immediately. They’d only managed to survive by grabbing on to some roots sticking up on the river bed.
For most of the trial, the defense seemed to keep getting win after win. On top of that, every day nearly 20 people showed up in court supporting David’s innocence.
Most of them were his coworkers from UPS in his hometown of Columbia who didn’t think he could be guilty of murder. These fellow drivers rallied around David after he was indicted and eventually fired by UPS. They even raised money to pay for his defense.
Every day these friends would attend the trial alongside David’s mother Lee, sister Rachel and brother Joe. The Rothgeb family was able to wrangle dozens of other friends and family to fill up the courtroom.
Several people who claimed to be David’s friends from North Carolina also showed up to support him throughout the trial. These people had hired David to work for them when he left Missouri and moved to Charlotte to be with Kitty. None of them believed he was guilty but did tell reporters with the Columbia Missourian that most of his friends in North Carolina had no idea about the murder charges in Missouri.
During the last days of trial, David took the stand and testified in his own defense. A rarity when it comes to murder trials.
On the stand, he explained that seven weeks before his wife and daughter had drowned an insurance salesman came to the family’s home and persuaded him to purchase life insurance.
According to the Saint Louis Dispatch, during their entire 16-year marriage David and April had never had life insurance policies on each other.
Throughout the trial, it had been difficult for the defense to explain why, after not having life insurance their entire marriage, David randomly purchased a policy, and then coincidentally April died.
Calmly, David explained that when the salesman came to the home, he’d signed up for a prize drawing sponsored by the insurance company. He claimed the salesman was persistent and eventually won him over.
He claimed that after starting his affair with Kitty he could not remember the last time he and April had had sex. This threw everyone at trial off because at that point it had been revealed that during April’s autopsy, the medical examiner had found semen in her body. At the time, they could not confirm who it belonged to.
My question is, if it was David’s semen why didn’t he just say he’d been intimate with his wife that weekend. Admitting to that would have helped him look more like a loving husband to jurors.
But because he didn’t admit to having sex with April that weekend, it left the door open for everyone to wonder if the semen perhaps belonged to another unknown perpetrator.
That idea also worked in the defense’s favor. It suggested that perhaps a random attacker had gone after April or that April herself was unfaithful to David. All that mattered to the defense was that the detail pointed the finger away from David and toward reasonable doubt that he was guilty.
There just aren’t enough reports out there to know why the semen information wasn’t explored more.
While answering his defense attorney’s questions David was collected and coherent and denied any involvement in April or Windy’s deaths. He told the court that he had no regrets of how he searched for his wife and daughter but the only thing he said he did regret was being on that river with them in the first place.
He said that while the family set up their tent and went swimming, April told him Windy was excited to be on the trip and make a Father’s Day breakfast for him the following day June 17th.
David denied that his affair with Kitty or the insurance money had anything to do with his wife and daughter’s death. He told the court that despite being infatuated with Kitty, he never really had any plans to marry her. He loved his wife and daughter too much.
Under cross-examination though, David’s confidence fell apart. His demeanor became cold as prosecutors peppered him with specific questions about the night April and Windy died.
Most of his responses to the government’s questions about what he remembered from the evening and night June 16th were “I don’t recall.” According to the Columbia Missourian David responded more than 250 times with the words “I don’t recall”.
The prosecution saw that as a win, because jurors who’d been waiting the entire trial to hear from the defendant about specific details of where he was, what he was doing, and so forth, were left disappointed.
On March 19th, 1985 the case went to the jury and five and a half hours later the verdict came in.
Jurors found David guilty on all counts and sentenced him to life in prison plus 210 years,
The news came as such a shock to the defense and David’s family that his mother, Lee, fainted in the courtroom.
Dorothy and Bryce Fogle, April’s parents, were glad to see justice served. By that point, they’d learned that David had lied about a lot of things regarding his relationship with April and what he did the night his wife and daughter disappeared.
Bryce told reporters that David had told him back when April and Windy first vanished that it had taken him three hours to hike from the family’s campsite to the Bunker Hill Ranch to get help but when Bryce walked that same distance, it only took him 28 minutes.
Bryce also grew suspicious of David when he learned at the funeral that David had purchased a three-space family burial plot before the drownings but paid for Windy and April’s spaces upfront.
According to Stacy Wells reporting, Kitty Eldredge did not attend David’s sentencing in April of 1985 but continued to carry on a phone and letter relationship with him in prison. She told the newspaper that she would always be convinced he was innocent.
Throughout 1985 and 1986 David and his lawyers fought to get his conviction overturned and claimed several errors during the trial resulted in an unfair process, but in April of 1986, a federal judge denied the appeal.
According to the federal bureau of prisons, today David Lee Rothgeb is 71 years old and still serving his life sentence at Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas.
In an interview with the Columbia Missourian, April’s mother and father told the reporter that on the day the family left for their camping trip they wish they would have stopped them.
Dorothy and Bryce say they will forever be haunted by the fact that April and Windy both said they did not want to go canoeing but David insisted the family spend time together.
After the trial was over and the appeals exhausted, Dorothy quoted a poem to the newspaper that she said makes her think of her daughter.
“Do not stand at my grave and weep. I am not there. I do not sleep. I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on the snow. I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain. When you awaken in the morning’s hush, I am the swift uplifting rush of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night. Do stand at my grave and cry.”
Park Predators is an audiochuck Original Podcast.
Research and writing by Delia D’Ambra with writing assistance from executive producer Ashley Flowers.
Sound design by David Flowers.
You can find all of the source material for this episode on our website, Parkpredators.com.
So what do you think, Chuck? Do you approve? *howl*