July 1, 2007
Gary Waller looks back at the Glensheen
By Jana Peterson
It’s 8:45 a.m. Wednesday morning and things
are pretty quiet at the Blue Bear Cafe in Moose Lake. Former Duluth
police detective Gary Waller pours the coffee and starts talking.
“About a half hour ago, I got there,”
he says, referring to the double murder at the Glensheen mansion
in Duluth 30 years before.
On June 27, 1977, staff at Glensheen discovered
the dead bodies of elderly heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her nurse,
Velma Pietila. Congdon, who was physically handicapped from a stroke
years before, had been smothered. Pietila’s skull had been
beaten in with a candlestick after a mighty struggle.
Waller would become the lead investigator. He
had started with the Duluth Police Department in 1966, was a crime
scene investigator from 1970 to 1976 and, by the time of the Glensheen
killings, had risen to detective sergeant specializing in criminal
investigation. He’d been jogging that morning when he got
the call from Sergeant Richard Yagoda, to go to the Congdon estate
because there had been a double homicide.
Very quickly, the investigation zeroed in on Congdon’s
adopted daughter, Marjorie Caldwell, and her then-husband, Roger
“In June of 1977, Marjorie and her husband
are living a day-to-day existence in Colorado,” he said. “They
were under investigation for two felonies: forging a check and insurance
fraud. Marjorie had gone through something like $3 million eight
years during the late ’60s and early ’70s.
“How? She was psychopath. Rather than buying
one pair of boots for riding, she’d buy 100. Rather than renting
a skating rink for an hour, she’d rent it for the whole day.”
By this time, however, the couple and their children
were destitute and living in a hotel, Waller said. A request in
May for money from her mother to buy a horse ranch had been denied.
“Sometime prior to the 24th of June, she
and Roger had hatched a conspiracy to get rid of Elisabeth —
I guess she wasn’t dying fast enough. She was 83, had a stroke,
was wheel-chair-bound and diabetic ... Anyway, Marjorie would get
$8 million when she died, her sister too.
“On the 24th, Marjorie and Roger ... pawned
some expensive turquoise jewelry they had ... that same day, Marjorie
wrote out a will, and she gives Roger $2.5 million of her inheritance
upon the death of her mother. It was in Roger’s safe deposit
box, signed by Marjorie and Roger, notarized on that day.”
In the days following the murders, the investigation
went from Duluth, to Colorado and then to the Twin Cities, where
police found the jewelry that was stolen the night of the murders
in the hotel room where Marjorie and Roger were staying. The date
was July 4.
“We find one of those blue cylinders that
originally contained panty hose. All the missing jewelry was in
there except a grandmother’s bracelet,” Waller said.
“Then we hear noise at the door; it’s Marjorie trying
to get in. I tell her she can’t come in, and say, Let’s
go talk. We go to another room we’re using as a command post.
“She and I sit down on a couch, I advise
her of her rights because I’m not sure if we’re going
to toss her in jail or let her go. I had told the investigator to
come in a few minutes later and dump the jewelry between us. He
does that; she hardly has a reaction.”
Later, Waller and St. Louis County Prosecutor
John DeSanto join with former Duluth News Tribune crime reporter
Gail Feichtinger to write the definitive story of the case, “Will
to Murder.” A third edition of the book — which was
first published in 2003 — is due out this fall. The three
authors dedicated the book to the nurse, Velma Pietila, who had
fought so hard the night of the murders.
“Velma was 65; she’d just retired,”
he said. “She comes in so another nurse can be let off and
ends up the ultimate victim, not even supposed to be there,”
he said. “And she was so often forgotten, media accounts would
say ‘Congdon heiress and her unnamed nurse.’ Velma had
fought like you wouldn’t believe. She had 32 crushing blows
to her head — that’s what killed her, ... but the battle
had started at the head of the staircase on the second floor then
gone down to the landing between the two floors where she was finally
Ultimately, Roger Caldwell was convicted and sentenced
to two life sentences. In a separate trial, Marjorie Caldwell was
acquitted. In hindsight, Caldwell says, they probably should have
tried the two together.
“His sentence gets reversed (after different
expert testimony on a fingerprint and a waitress’s changed
testimony — she later admitted she perjured herself), so we
plea negotiate to murder two and he confesses,” Waller said.
“It was probably the most significant event
in my life,” he said. “... It was six years from the
time of the discovery of the murders on the 27th to the time that
Roger (Caldwell) confessed, but it’s always been part of our
But Roger never implicated Marjorie, who was in
Colorado at the time of the murders, shopping for real estate.
Now a consultant for the Justice Department part-time,
Caldwell still keeps track of Marjorie’s exploits: arrests
for fraud and arson, forgeries, prison time. Right now she’s
out on bail, he said, awaitingtrial.
“She’s 75 years old now,” he
said. “She’s still a predator.
“John and I always said, ‘You couldn’t
make up stuff like that for a book.’”