Curtis Eriksmoen, Published December 01 2012
Eriksmoen: Acclaimed journalist born, raised in North Dakota
After graduating with a master’s degree, Jana Bommersbach began writing for the Arizona Republic newspaper in Phoenix. While there, she learned about the killing of “Sammy” Samuelson, who was from White Earth, N.D., and her roommate Anne LeRoi. A close friend and one-time roommate of the two dead women, Winnie Ruth Judd, was convicted and sentenced to life for the murder of LeRoi.
The killings took place in Phoenix, but the bodies were discovered inside trunks in Los Angeles on Oct. 18, 1931, two days after the slayings. Samuelson’s body was cut into three pieces so it would fit in a trunk.
Judd spent nearly 40 years in prison and the state mental institution before she was freed.
Bommersbach discovered new evidence suggesting Judd did not dispose of the bodies and likely did not kill the women. Because the chief suspect had high political connections, Bommersbach was warned she should stop her investigation, which was nearly 60 years after the crime.
Bommersbach was born Dec 5, 1945, in Hankinson to Rudy and Willetta “Willie” (Peterschick) Bommersbach. Rudy worked for the railroad and moved his family in 1952 to Gwinner, where he and Willie purchased a bar. He began selling farm equipment in the mid-1960s for Melroe Manufacturing and was named “Melroe Man of the Year” in 1974.
While attending elementary school in Gwinner, Jana was bullied by another student because a “fire-breathing pastor delivered a sermon denouncing (her) father, who owned the local liquor store and bar.” Although Jana believes bullying is wrong and has destroyed many people’s lives, she claimed it “helped make me the woman I am today.”
After graduating from North Sargent High School in 1963, Bommersbach enrolled at the University of North Dakota. She majored in journalism, played saxophone for the UND band, acted with the Dakota Playmakers and edited the school’s literary magazine, Tyro. She graduated with honors in three years in 1966.
Bommersbach landed a job with the Flint Journal in Michigan shortly after graduating. While there, she won the first of her many national journalism awards. In 1969, she began her master’s program at the University of Michigan and was elected graduate student body president.
When Bommersbach received her degree in 1971, she accepted an offer to work at the Arizona Republic in 1972.
During her time at the Republic, Bommersbach ran across information that made her question the verdict in the Judd murder case.
One of her friends was Peggy Goldwater, daughter of long-time U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater. Peggy relayed Bommersbach’s request to her father for an interview about the Judd case. The senator fired back, “You tell that girl to leave that alone.” This signaled to Bommersbach that there were hidden facts people in high places wanted to remain hidden.
In 1978, Bommersbach left the Republic to work for the Phoenix New Times, a weekly newspaper. Through this paper, she had an opportunity to venture into television. In 1984, she was a founding member of the public affairs show “Horizons” on the local PBS station. From 1988 to 1990, she was also editor of the New Times.
During her 12 years with the paper, Bommersbach continued to pursue the Judd case. Her big break came when she entered the office of Phoenix attorney Larry Debus. On his wall he had a plaque with the name “Winnie Ruth Judd” on it. Debus was the attorney who got Judd released in 1971. Judd found that Debus believed Judd was innocent. Debus kept in contact with Judd. Bommersbach asked Debus agreed to ask Judd if Bommersbach could interview her. As she amassed more material, Bommersbach resigned as New Times editor to devote full time to her book.
“The Trunk Murderess” was published in 1992 and became a best-seller. In the book, Bommersbach pointed out that the murderer was most likely Jack Halloran, Judd’s married lover. Halloran, a wealthy lumber yard owner, had important legal, political and police department connections.
In 1991, Bommersbach began to freelance as a writer and, until 2010, had a regular column for Phoenix magazine. In 1997, Bommersbach published another true murder mystery titled “Bones in the Desert.” In January 2002, she became a regular columnist for True West Magazine.
Among Bommersbach’s numerous awards are the Don Bolles Award for Investigative Reporting (several times), the Arizona Distinguished Award, and the Toastmaster International Communication and Leadership Award. She has been named the Arizona Journalist of the Year, The Nation’s Top City Magazine Columnist (twice), and has received public television awards for her commentaries (twice). Jana was inducted into the Order of the Silver Key by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Arizona Press Club has recognized her for her “lifetime of achievement.”
In 2010, “The Trunk Murderess” was selected as the top book by an Arizona association of public and school libraries, colleges, and museums.
She will release two new books in 2013: a historical novel titled “They Called Me Cattle Kate” and a children’s book about a squirrel in her parents’ backyard in Hankinson.
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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: email@example.com.