Presumed killer in Maquoketa Caves triple shooting used a ghost gun, investigative sources say

Eric Ferkenhoff
Des Moines Register

© Copyright 2022, Des Moines Register and Tribune Co.

Information about what happened in Maquoketa Caves State Park on July 22 that left Tyler and Sarah Schmidt and their 6-year-old daughter, Lula, shot dead in their tent has been slow in coming.

No autopsy results on three members of the Schmidt family or their alleged shooter will be released over the weekend, according to Iowa authorities. They also said no update into the triple homicide was expected before Monday.

"Right now, there is nothing more that we've updated or released," said Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Assistant Director Mitch Mortvedt on Friday. "The autopsies, and everything that goes with that — we're not quite finished... So, we're hoping early next week that we'll be able to push something out."

Investigative sources, however, have told the Des Moines Register that the suspected killer, Anthony Orlando Sherwin, 23, of Nebraska, used a homemade weapon — known as a ghost gun — to commit the slayings before turning the gun on himself.

Ghost guns are untraceable weapons that can be constructed with parts bought at a store or purchased online. Some states have moved to outlaw them.

Law enforcement have not released any motive for the shooting. They, Sherwin's parents and the Schmidts' family have said they don't know of any connection between the Schmidts and their presumed killer.

The couple's 9-year-old son, Arlo, survived the shooting. A GoFundMe page has been set up to help Arlo, and as of Saturday morning, more than $264,000 had been raised.

This undated photo shows Tyler and Sarah Schmidt and their children, Lula and Arlo. Law enforcement say the couple and Lula, 6, were shot and killed in a triple homicide at Maquoketa Caves State Park on July 22, 2022.

Parents of presumed killer: Son had fascination with guns, but it passed

The Register has spoken with authorities across multiple states, including Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska, who are involved in aspects of the probe into the shootings at the state park.

Sherwin's parents — who said they have been fully cooperating with authorities and have their doubts about what law enforcement have said happened — said their son did have a fascination with guns at one point. But Joseph and Cecilia Sherwin, his parents, wrote in an email to the Register that the fascination had passed.

His parents, however, said their son constructed a homemade weapon before the camping trip to Iowa to protect the family from what they believe is a rising threat of violent crime.

Investigative sources said the family had multiple guns stored in their car, but that the homemade device was used in the shootings.

"Anthony was done with guns before we left," the parents wrote in an email. "He told us that all they wanted was his money and that he was tired of them. We wouldn't let him buy a gun but thought building one was OK." His parents did not explain who the people who wanted his money were. 

"He had to buy the tools and realized how difficult it was," they continued. "However, over months, one came together. We were amazed and as crime in our neighborhood rose, we felt it was a good idea. As we were planning our vacation, he told us that they kept trying to sell him parts and accessories."

His parents, who said their son was taking online college classes, wrote that he "needed tight security" because of his sophisticated computer and the business he was building using it. They did not say what the business was.

"He was a genius in every sense of the word. We miss him deeply," his parents said.

The parents also said that police have been unable to access their son's cellphone, which they said was heavily encrypted because of his business.

Investigators confirmed they could not access the phone as of Friday afternoon, a week after the Schmidts' bodies were found.

His parents said Anthony Sherwin kept his computer equipment in the family's La Vista, Nebraska, home — and that the system had broken down during the trip.

Their son, they said, was eager to get home and fix the computer setup.

La Vista, Nebraska, police report little contact with family of alleged killer

La Vista police have said that the family, who lived in the upper-middle class complex The Pointe Apartments, had little interaction with police since moving there from Omaha in 2015.

In 2017, Anthony Sherwin thought he was the victim of insurance fraud and filed a complaint with police. It turned out not to be the case.

And in 2020, the family mistakenly thought their rent had been stolen from their mail and they notified police. But it turned out, the check had already been received by the company running the complex, according to reports and La Vista Police Chief Robert S. Lausten.

Joseph Sherwin taught physics at the Metropolitan Community College in Omaha, Nebraska, where Anthony Sherwin had been a student from September 2017 until February of this year, college officials confirmed.

The parents wrote that they believe police have put out a false narrative of the shootings, and that their son was also a homicide victim.

"We believe there are many unanswered questions and that the police jumped to conclusions," they wrote.

"Anthony was taking classes online and was close to completing his degree," his parents wrote. "He was working on math problems all summer prior to our vacation in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and was looking forward to getting those classes out of the way. He was a straight A student and could do anything he put his mind to.”

Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest criminal justice reporter for USA Today Network. Find him on Twitter at @EricFerk