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Review: New Glensheen book a riveting inside story

It's easy to see why the Glensheen murders captivate the imaginations of Duluthians and visitors alike decades after the killings took place. There's an exotic murder scene -- perhaps Duluth's most glamorous mansion. The victims were a wealthy heiress and a valiant night nurse who wasn't even supposed to be there.

The police investigation and ensuing courtroom dramas were the stuff of TV miniseries, complete with high-powered defense attorneys, allegations of conspiracies by the police and members of the wealthy family. There is the unsettled outcome of the trials. Even one of the murder weapons -- a candlestick -- was straight out of the game Clue.

And then there's the alleged mastermind behind the whole thing, Marjorie Congdon Caldwell (Hagen). Marjorie's life is itself one of the most bizarre stories in Northland history, surrounded by suspicious deaths, arson fires, spending sprees and bigamy. She is currently serving a sentence for a second arson conviction, after which most of her remaining family has argued against her receiving parole.

There is a small local genre of books dealing with the crime, and many of the books are very good in their own right. They focus on different aspects -- for instance, Marjorie's life or the actual locations of the murders for those touring the historic mansion, which guides won't reveal.

But the 2003 "Will to Murder," by Gail Feichtinger, John DeSanto and Gary Waller, has now surpassed them all and become the definitive work on the subject.

The most obvious reason is the authors. DeSanto was the prosecutor in the case, Waller the lead investigator and Feichtinger did some of the later coverage for the Duluth News Tribune and is now a lawyer for the state of Minnesota. This is the crew you would handpick.

The authors provide an inside story that has never been heard before and also offer fairly startling new evidence that made headlines last month, offering a much more definitive answer about who killed Elisabeth Congdon and Velma Pietila.

Let's start with the new evidence. After the bizarre series of trials, in which Congdon son-in-law Roger Caldwell was convicted, Marjorie acquitted and Caldwell's conviction later overturned, leading to an uneasy plea bargain, DeSanto decided to keep the evidence rather than see it destroyed.

With better forensic technology than was available to investigators in 1977, DeSanto and Feichtinger this year investigated DNA evidence. Coupled with other evidence, the authors conclude with 99.93 percent certainty that Roger Caldwell, who killed himself years ago still proclaiming his innocence, had a hand in the murders.

This evidence is compelling and no doubt one of the reasons people will pick up the book. The only funny part is that this is not worked into the manuscript in any way but is tucked in an epilogue, 400 tight pages into the book.

But this is a small thing. The inside story the authors tell is riveting. Some portions of the book read like an episode of CSI. The courtroom drama shows the inside processes clearly and dramatically.

And it's made all the more compelling by the often candid personal reflections of the authors. DeSanto and Waller both describe their mistakes and regrets, and each is candid about the personal toll the investigation and trial took, particularly as reputations were attacked in the courtroom.

Both men leave no doubt that the Glensheen case sticks with them all these years later, and it's a reasonable assumption this book is an attempt to exorcise some of those demons.

While it's important to remember that this is one side of the story, the book has all the credibility one could ask for. "Will to Murder" covers all the bases -- the crime scene, complete with diagrams and photos; the later saga of Marjorie's life and trials; Roger Caldwell's bizarre confession and attempts to sell his "true" story.

"Will to Murder" may not be the final word on the Congdon murders, but it's hard to imagine a more definitive, more thorough work, unless someone's got some new evidence out there.

For those curious: Barring bad behavior, Marjorie's arson sentence ends next year.


The book: "Will to Murder," Xcommunication (Duluth), 2003

Authors: Gail Feichtinger, John DeSanto and Gary Waller

ISBN: 1-887317-21-X

Cost: $17.95

Event: An author reception and book signing is set for 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble in Duluth.

Recommendation: The definitive work on Duluth's most famous murder saga.