‘Haunting Villisca’ explores famed Iowa ax slayings

BY KATIE HANSON | MARCH 26, 2009 7:40 AM

Let’s play some word association.

Detroit = Economic ruin.

Palm Beach = Old people.

It’s simple enough, but some towns can’t escape what they’re connected to, even 100 years after the acts.

For Villisca, Iowa, the million-dollar phrase is “ax slayings.”

Filmmaker and Iowa native Kimberly Busbee, a 1974 UI graduate and owner of Des Moines-based AriesWorks Entertainment, grew up vaguely familiar with the crimes but never knew the specifics. Though she is not a Villisca native, Busbee said she has known about the town her whole life.

“But we weren’t allowed to talk about it,” she said.

James Serpento, her filmmaking partner at the time, read about Villisca in a chat room and suggested making a feature about it. But Busbee, who has worked as producer and casting director for the films A Quiet Evening Home and The Yoofo Club, never imagined it would lead to a decade of work and the critically acclaimed feature Haunting Villisca.

“[Initially], I didn’t really want to do movies about murders; it’s not my usual genre,” Busbee said. “But the more you read about the crime you just go, ‘What a story.’ ”

The Crime

Villisca is a small town in southwestern Iowa, and in 1912, it was a quiet community in which nobody locked her or his doors at night. But everything changed one June morning. J.B. Moore, his wife, children, and two young girls spending the night were found dead, their skulls crushed, presumably by someone using an ax left at the crime scene.

All of the house’s curtains were drawn, and the mirrors were covered. The victims were all laid out peacefully in their beds underneath bedclothes.

That is all anyone knows for certain.

Numerous suspects were fingered during investigations by both professional and novice detectives, but three individuals remain prominent today.

F.F. Jones was a state senator, businessman, and Iowa gubernatorial hopeful. But he had a sour relationship with Moore because of a business rivalry and Moore’s alleged affair with Jones’ daughter-in-law. Busbee said many people think Jones or his son, Albert, hired ex-convict William “Blackie” Mansfield to kill the Moore family. Mansfield was almost put on trial, but a work stub placed him many miles from Villisca at the time of the murder.

The only person tried for the crime was local Rev. L.G. Jacklin Kelly in 1917. Busbee said he was known as a “deranged window-peeper” and pervert, and he confessed to the homicides before recanting.

After two trials, Kelly was acquitted, and the killings remain unsolved.

The Movie

Retired farmer Darwin Linn, who grew up near Villisca and who eventually purchased the white two-story Moore house, was the butt of questions and taunts when he wore Villisca apparel to track and field events and Future Farmer of America events in the area.

Darwin said he had no ambitious goals when he bought the Moore house in 1994 — in fact, it took him almost half a month to tell his wife, Martha, about the purchase — but something he cannot quite explain attracted him to the property.

“I was drawn to the thing,” Darwin said.

That is the same sensation Busbee and Serpento had when they first visited the house with Darwin in the winter of 2000, though Busbee said she also felt something else.

“James and Darwin had gone upstairs, but I stayed downstairs,” Busbee said. “I started to feel some weird stuff going on. I stepped into the pantry and felt incredibly dizzy, but when I stepped out, I was fine. I did it four times with the same result.”

Busbee also said she heard children’s voices in the parlor and when she went upstairs, she could not walk into the attic.

“I couldn’t get through the doorway,” she said. “I was physically shoved back. I thought, ‘What is going on?’ ”

That is when Serpento and Busbee started doing research for a screenplay.


The production of Haunting Villisca kicked off in the spring of 2005. In the film, college Professor David Salt travels to Villisca to return his wife’s belongings after his affair prompted her suicide. In the Moore home, Salt discovers paranormal spirits but also finds his redemption. Busbee said Haunting Villisca incorporates the past and present, with modern scenes as well as the slayings and the trial.

To get the movie off the ground, Busbee took on numerous jobs, serving as the film’s producer, casting director, costumer, and key makeup artist, and she also appeared in a minor role.
“It’s a low-budget film,” Busbee said, noting they made the film for under $100,000. “You wear a lot of hats.”

Even Darwin and Martha Linn were drawn into the action when Busbee asked if they would like to play themselves. Under the impression they would only speak a few lines, they agreed, but Darwin said they were shocked when they saw the final script.

“My gosh, I was on 60 pages,” Darwin said. “I thought, ‘What on earth is this going into?’ ”

Busbee’s daughter, UI sophomore Kaitlyn Busbee, also did numerous tasks for the film. A high-school sophomore at the time, she played the character Beulah, who was molested by Kelly and testified during his trial. On top of that, Kaitlyn Busbee helped shoot the award-winning documentary A Ghost of a Chance: The Making of Haunting Villisca.

After interviewing paranormal investigation groups, historians, the cast, and the crew, she said the documentary crew wound up with more than 1,000 hours of footage.

“It was a huge puzzle that could have been put together in so many different ways,” she said.

Both the movie and the documentary were shot on the weekends in the Moore home or in the city’s center.

Kimberly Busbee said while the killing scenes aren’t excessively gory, it was certainly surreal to put blood splatters on a wall and know actual blood had spotted it a century before.

The film screened in 2008 at the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival, as well as the Iowa Independent Film Festival, were it won Best Feature Film. In January, the movie made its European première with Sneak Eye Pictures in Vienna, Austria, where Kimberly Busbee said it opened to a packed house, positive reviews, and got an excellent response from the audience.

The Haunting

Darwin said he started to restore the house to its original condition not long after he bought it, but before he was even finished, a paranormal investigation group requested to examine the premises.

Darwin now leads sightseers on house tours, and because interest in paranormal occurrences has picked up in the past five years, he said, the house gets an average of 20 visitors a day. Groups can even sign up to spend a night in the house, but Darwin said weekends are full until November.

“I didn’t grow up with paranormal things, but things happen in that house you just can’t explain,” he said, noting when the first paranormal group approached him, he didn’t even know what the word “paranormal” meant.

Children in particular have a connection to the house, he said, and they will talk to and play with kids who aren’t there.

Kaitlyn Busbee said lights would often break or go out in the house and charged batteries would die.

The incidents were compelling enough to make some people question their beliefs, such as Alex Scott, a UI junior who was the film’s still photographer.

“Before I went to Villisca, I didn’t believe in paranormal things,” he said. “But now, I’m more open to the idea.”

Production wasn’t derailed, Kimberly Busbee said, in part because the crew was always respectful to the house and whatever spirits may live in it.

“When you go to the places where these things happen, you don’t just stomp through and gawk,” she said.


The company Digital Shadow Films Distribution picked up the movie for DVD, cable, and Internet in the United States, Kimberly Busbee said, and it plan to release it in the next few months. She would like to show the film in Iowa City once it is ready to sell, she said.

“So many people are clamoring for it,” she said, and she gets numerous inquiries about the film every day.

Both Darwin and Kimberly Busbee think the Villisca crime will continue to draw interest in subsequent years as it gains exposure not only in movies but on cable shows and documentaries.

“It’s such an intriguing story,” Kimberly Busbee said. “I defy anyone to go [to Villisca] and say, ‘Oh, that was interesting,’ and leave it at that.”

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