Woman claims her dad was prolific serial killer who buried bodies on property; Iowa officials investigating

Daniel Lathrop
Des Moines Register
  • The daughter of the late Donald Dean Studey says her father killed and buried as many as 70 bodies on the rural tract where he lived.
  • Cadaver dogs on Oct. 21 indicated the possible presence of remains at the site, officials said.
  • Authorities are investigating for further evidence: "We've got to have more proof."

DES MOINES, Iowa – Sheriff's deputies and state officials are investigating an Iowa woman's claim her late father was one of American's most prolific serial killers.

According to his daughter, Donald Dean Studey murdered "five or six" women a year over several decades and buried them in and around an abandoned well on his property near Thurman, Fremont County Sheriff Kevin Aistrope told the Des Moines Register, part of the USA TODAY Network.

Thurman, population 167 as of the last U.S. Census, is a small city near the Iowa- Nebraska state line. Studey's property is about 40 miles from Omaha, Nebraska, officials said.

On Oct. 21, two cadaver dogs took to the site had "hits" indicating the possible existence of decomposing remains in the area of the well, Aistrope said Monday.

"She's got a hell of a story but we don't have any proof of anything other than we had a cadaver dog hit," Aistrope told the Register.  "We've got to have more proof than that."

He said he has asked the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) for assistance.

"I'll get with DCI and we'll get a game plan here together, and this just adds ... credibility to her story," Aistrope said.

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State investigators said they are joining the investigation but claimed it is too early for them to comment on the case. “We are assisting, but it is in the infancy stages,” said Mitch Mortvedt, assistant director of the DCI.

Omaha police officials said they are aware of the details and are offering assistance. “Our participation could get larger depending on what they find,” said Lt. Neal Bonacci, Omaha police public information officer.

Sheriff: Daughter says there were about 70 victims

The woman, identified at her request in a Newsweek article Monday by her maiden name, Lucy Studey, said her father killed roughly 70 women, mostly prostitutes and runaways, and buried them on the family's rural five acres, Aistrope said.

Aistrope said he and his deputies began looking into her claims in 2021 when she contacted the sheriff's office for at least the second time to report that there were "five or six" dead women buried on the land her father lived on until his death in 2013.

She told them the bodies had been buried in and around the old well in a wooded area that was later logged. Sheriff's investigators spent much of the last year attempting to find the well and get permission from the current owners of the property and neighboring properties to conduct searches, Aistrope said.

The well, since filled in, was 90 feet deep and excavating it would be a major undertaking, Aistrope said.

He said it's hard to believe that many women could have disappeared from the Omaha area – where Studey's daughter told Newsweek her father hunted for victims – without drawing attention. But if some of the women were from other cities, Aistrope said, he can imagine it was possible.

"If we had had 70 missing persons from Omaha-Council Bluffs we would have picked up on that. So if there is 70 people they're not all from here," said Aistrope.

With Donald Studey dead, finding the bodies and identifying the remains will be complicated, he said, but he vowed he will do "everything I can to get the next of kin notified, at least."

Donald Studey had history of arrests

Court records show Donald Studey had a history of arrests.

The USA TODAY Network was not immediately able to reach Lucy Studey.

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The most prolific known serial killers on record in the U.S. are Samuel Little, who has been definitively tied to 60 murders of women across the nation, and "Green River Killer" Gary Ridgway, who confessed to 60 murders when he was arrested in 2001 and is suspected to have killed more than 70 women.

Little, who died while serving a life sentence in California in 2020, was arrested in 2012 in connection with three previously unsolved killing in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. He eventually confessed to committing 93 murders.

Ridgway, 73, is serving multiple life sentence in Washington state in connection with 49 murders.

Thurman is known for being the site of a destructive 2012 tornado.

Contributing: Lee Rood, Des Moines Register

Follow reporter Daniel Lathrop on Twitter: @lathropd