Maquoketa Caves State Park camper heard a scream and a loud noise near site of triple homicide
MAQUOKETA — Felicia Coe awoke with optimism.
Coe, 35, checked her phone in her family’s pop-up camper at Maquoketa Caves State Park around 6:15 a.m. Friday. Her weather app told her that previous forecasts of all-day rain were overblown. She, her boyfriend and her 11-year-old and 16-year-old sons planned to hike through the park and explore the Rainy Day Cave, the Ice Cave and the Barbell.
She made coffee. Her 11-year-old pulled out a book. Her boyfriend stirred in his sleep. Her 16-year-old left for a morning run.
They heard a scream. Then they heard a second sound.
Her boyfriend thought he heard a firework. Coe told him no one would light an explosive so early in the morning. She believed someone slammed something — maybe a car door, maybe a trash can lid.
Later, they would learn the police account.
Law enforcement said Tyler Schmidt, 42, Sarah Schmidt, 42, and Lula Schmidt, 6, of Cedar Falls, died Friday morning, their bodies found in a tent about 100 yards from Coe's camper. Cedar Falls Mayor Rob Green would later say in a Facebook post that another member of the family — 9-year-old Arlo — survived. State law enforcement did not say whether Arlo Schmidt was with his family at the time of the attack.
After a search of the park, investigators discovered the body of Anthony Orlando Sherwin, 23. They say he died from a self-inflicted gunshot. Though they didn't know a connection or motive as of Friday, investigators said they believe he killed the Schmidts.
The shooting unsettled many connected to the park, from locals to visitors like Coe. A day later, several told the Des Moines Register that such an attack doesn't fit anywhere — but especially not here.
Maquoketa Caves is one of eastern Iowa's great gems, they say, a rare spot that proves Iowa isn't all corn, soybeans and silos. Visitors come to hike, to explore caverns, to forget their jobs. They say they feel peace here.
Bob Sheets, whose kitchen overlooks the wooded valley and Raccoon Creek south of Maquoketa Caves, said he’s never heard of a violent crime at the park in his 45 years here.
“People who like the outdoors are pretty doggone happy, healthy people,” said Sheets, a retired Iowa Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist.
But, he added, something like this was bound to happen eventually. Still, he isn’t worried about more violence around the caves.
“That’s the evolution of humankind,” he said. “You get these outliers who get involved in these episodes, and you move on. You feel really sad for the people involved.”
Peaceful Iowa park becomes the site of violence
Dave and Judy Koon, who live about 5 miles southeast of the park and are members of the nonprofit support group Friends of the Maquoketa Caves State Park, weren’t so sure if normal would return to the park anytime soon.
“We just didn’t think about anything happening up there,” Judy Koon said Saturday.
“It’s always so peaceful and quiet,” David Koon said.
“I hope we get that back,” Judy Koon said. “You stop and think, ‘This is a small community. Nobody is going to do that.’ Then it dawns on you: The caves themselves are their own community. And people come from all over. You just don’t know.”
The Koons, who work at the park’s visitor center a couple of days a week, said guests visit from across the country. Social media posts showing the rare Iowa caves have drawn some of the visitors. A USA Today 10Best Reader’s Choice for Best Iowa Attraction honor in 2017 didn’t hurt, either.
Sheets moved to the area with his family in 1977. A native of northern Minnesota, he moved to Boone when he took a job with the DNR. He fell in love with eastern Iowa’s bluffs when the agency assigned him to stock turkeys in the area.
He transferred to a DNR post that brought him to Maquoketa, where he, his wife and children rode up the Raccoon Creek, looking for the prettiest locations. They stopped and asked where they could buy land until he found a farmer willing to sell him an empty lot.
Sheets said the park had deteriorated over the years. Visitors complained about the bathrooms, where the sinks and showers occasionally stopped working.
In 2004, to improve the park, Sheets and about nine other locals formed Friends of the Maquoketa Caves State Park, a nonprofit that solicits donations, applies for grants and operates concessions at the park. They fixed the steps leading to one of the caves, installed LED lights inside another cave and made a habit of cutting firewood for the campers.
Sheets said the caves have become a source of pride for the community.
“There’s no other state park in Iowa that has what we have,” he said. “We’re spoiled.”
The Koons were supposed to report to the park Friday afternoon to operate the concessions and haul firewood. As they worked in their yard before their shift, they noticed a Department of Criminal Investigations van drive by.
When the Koons reached the park’s entrance, they found it blocked off. Judy Koon saw the news on Facebook. She felt sick.
“Your mind just races,” she said.
'He was just standing there in his pajamas'
After Coe heard the loud bang on Friday morning, she walked out of her camper. She found a co-worker, who happened to be staying a couple of lots away.
They began to chat, but Coe spotted two state park employees walking toward the woods in helmets and body armor, with what looked like rifles in their hands.
An employee told her, “Leave.” She mentioned that her teenager was out somewhere, jogging. The employee continued to walk past. He didn’t look at her. He told her to find the boy.
Coe’s boyfriend and younger son stayed behind as she walked to the front of the park, about 15 minutes away.
When she saw a law enforcement officer driving into the park, she asked him if he had seen her son. The officer told her he had spotted a teenager running along the nearby state highway.
On a hill, next to a house on the state park grounds, Coe spotted two ambulances. She found her son there. She also spotted a young boy with floppy, strawberry blond hair. She said he wore a matching pajama set, with cotton shorts and shirt. He wore only one blue shoe.
After returning to Des Moines Friday evening, Coe and her boyfriend sat on the porch, discussing the events of Friday morning, piecing together the few details that the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigations and other authorities had released. They cried. Unable to sleep, Coe checked Facebook around midnight. She found a post from a woman identifying herself as a sister of the mother killed Friday morning.
The post included photos of the Schmidts. Coe looked at the boy.
“His hair,” she later told the Register, “is really memorable.”
She thought back to Friday morning, to the boy waiting by the ambulances.
“He wasn’t reacting,” she said. “Nothing was happening. He wasn’t crying. Nobody was holding him. … He was just standing there in his pajamas.”
At the time, before she knew all that had happened, she said state park employees allowed them to return to their lot. She said her 16-year-old son told her about what he heard as he left for his jog that morning. An older couple had been walking the grounds, she said, calling for their son, Anthony.
Coe and her family poured cereal. But within 30 minutes, she said, an officer told them they had to leave the grounds. The officer said they didn’t have time to hook up their camper to their car or pack. They needed to head out, and an officer would call them when it was safe to return.
As they left, Coe said, they spotted the older couple that her son had seen earlier in the morning. An officer was talking to them, she said, and the older man was sobbing.
Family plans to return to parks, but won't feel as safe
Her family loves their outdoors vacations, Coe said. They have trekked to Devils Tower in Syoming, the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and the mountain biking trails of Bentonville, Arkansas.
The family visited Yellowstone National Park last month, managing to get inside for two days after flooding had shut out visitors. Coe counted herself lucky to get in at all. During the trip, they surprised her boyfriend with a Father’s Day gift — a reservation to Maquoketa Caves State Park. Coe said the caves are the prettiest part of Iowa.
“You’re either park people, or you’re not,” she said. “And we’re just park people.”
Coe enjoys hikes. She likes seeing insects and flowers. She likes learning about the history of a territory, about how Native Americans used to come to the caves here to cool off on a hot day, just as she and her family do.
Most of all, she said, she likes the conversations in a place like this. Families sit together for hours. No Internet. No TV. No pumped-in consumerism. Eventually, a person starts to reveal themselves.
“You’re just sitting around with nothing to do but talk,” she said. “It’s not a created stimulation. It’s not a theme park designed to make you feel a certain way. It’s just you.”
She said Friday’s events won’t stop the family from returning to parks, Maquoketa Caves included. Her boys seem OK, she said. But she and her boyfriend will never feel as safe as they once did in places like this.
“It just broke us,” she said. “(The boys) know what happened. But they don’t appear to know all that we know. And we’re not telling them. This could have been so much worse.”
Coe paused, as she recounted what happened. It didn’t seem right, feeling relieved amid another family’s tragedy.
“But God,” she said. “How do you not feel that way?”