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50 American serial killers - Montana

A series of hubs chronicling a serial killer from each of the fifty states.

David Meirhofer

David Meirhofer

David Meirhofer

March 19, 1967 was cold.

Goddamn it’s cold, he thought.

Between the temperature holding at a stubborn 30 degrees and the broken heater in his car, the 18 year old was pissed. Another crap day in this tinshit town. He rolled down his window and flicked his cigarette out into the frigid air as he drove up onto the Nixon Bridge over the Gallatin River in Manhattan, Montana.

Two boys, (named Bernard and Logan, but he didn’t know that – nor did he care, really) were playing at the crest of the bridge. They threw chunks of ice from an old snowstorm at each other and off the bridge into the river. He stared at them as he drove by. They waved.

About 100 yards from the bridge, he stopped the car. He got out, opened his trunk, and took out the .22 caliber rifle. He hefted it, grinning at its weight. Slamming the trunk lid closed, he ran off and hid in some nearby bushes.

Bernard Poelman, one of the boys playing on the bridge, decided to climb on one of the pillars.

“Hey watch this,” he called to his friend Logan. Those were the last words he said.

David Meirhofer , the man hiding in the bushes, pulled the trigger. He watched the 13-year-old Bernard collapse and plunge into the river. He ran to his car, threw the rifle into the passenger seat and hit the gas. The police originally thought the boy had drowned but when Bernard’s body was discovered weeks later, the autopsy revealed he had been shot right through the heart

Today was the first murder for David Meirhofer. He would go on to kill three more until he was apprehended in 1974.

On May 5, 1968, at the Headwater State Park, Boy Scout Michael Raney, age 12, while sitting in his tent, was struck on the head and stabbed to death. Meirhofer, who later confessed that he intended to choke the boy but when that failed, instead stabbed him death, denied ever striking Raney on the head.

Susan Jaeger, a 7-year-old out on a camping trip with her family, was abducted from her tent in the pre-dawn hours of June 25, 1973. Meirhofer took the child to the Lockhart Ranch, an abandoned structure in the middle of farmland, where he undressed her and choked her to death. He then dismembered her and burned up all of the pieces, save her head. That he displayed in the homestead outhouse.

FBI agent Byron Dunbar (1927-2007)

FBI agent Byron Dunbar (1927-2007)

Meirhofer’s case stands out as it was the first case solved by a new FBI technique called “offender profiling.” Established in 1972, the Behavioral Science Unit (BSU) was called in to assist in the investigation of the kidnapping of Susan Jaeger. Led by Agent Byron Dunbar, the BSU determined that the suspect was a young, white male who lived in the vicinity of the camp. The fact that the suspect made off with Jaeger without alarming anyone else in the campsite showed that he was organized. The scene did not indicate it was a frenzied teenager but someone slightly older who was a loner with average to above average intelligence.

As requested by the Unit, Susan’s parents kept a tape recorder near their phone as suspects tend to want to insert themselves into an investigation, in part to know what the authorities know but also to play a part in the drama they themselves created.

On February 10, 1974, Meirhofer attacked 19 year old Sandra Dykman Smallegan as she slept in her apartment. Sandra, who once dated Meirhofer, died of suffocation as she could not breathe from the tape over her mouth. He took her body to the same ranch that he took Susan Jaeger. He also dismembered Sandra but put one of her hands and a couple of fingers in his freezer to save as souvenirs.

On the one year anniversary of Susan Jaeger’s disappearance, June 25, 1974, Meirhofer called the Jaeger home and stated that he was keeping Susan alive and that she was now in Europe. The phone call was recorded by Susan’s mother Marietta. The voice was identified as Meirhofer’s. Unfortunately it was not enough to issue a warrant to bring him in.

However he finally made his mistake on Sept 24, 1974. He again called Marietta and she recognized his voice. Upon her sworn affidavit, Agent Dunbar was able to obtain a search warrant for Meirhofer’s apartment. There he discovered the body parts of Sandra Smallegan.

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Meirhofer was arrested and confessed to all four murders. On the morning of Sept 29, using a jail-issue towel, 25 year old David Meirhofer hanged himself in his cell at the Gallatin County jail.


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Dee Jay 44 on June 21, 2018:

David killed Bernie Poleman as revenge on Bernie's brother (A fellow student who picked a fight with David). It was revealed on the FBI Files Dark Woods. They never mentioned the names of the 2 boys that got killed before the killing of Susie Jager. David's last name was changed to Masterson on that episode.

fuzzheads on October 20, 2015:

I grew up in Manhattan and knew all the people involved in this case, including Mr. Dunbar who lived in Bozeman but had a daughter who was a friend. It was such a terrible time in our tiny town. Everyone had an idea about who they thought did it.

David sat at the diner counter my mom was working at a few days before he was arrested and told my mom he was afraid he was going to get arrested for the Suzie murders. She told him to get a lawyer.

The shining star of this tragedy is Marietta. Her work for forgiveness has changed so many lives.

Tommy on October 15, 2015:

the craziest worst time of my life my family was very poor we had very little money and my mom found this run down ranch house where this all took place the rancher let us live there for very little money if any herd the stories and you could see all the investigation stuff that had gone on there me and my sister went back there like 15 years back and everything had been torn down we were glad to see it

Glady on October 08, 2015:

Bernie (as we called him) was my first cousin one week older than myself I remember that day very well my dad and brothers went to the river and help my uncle and his other sons look all day for Bernie cuz we did think he drowned

kn on February 01, 2015:

Rage he needed to die slowly

familiar on September 15, 2014:

My dad was born and raised in the area. Even though he was just a boy then, he remembers it all very well. He had a personal connection to 2 of the victims.

earl 05 on May 09, 2014:

He ate the flesh and served it to friends. Delicious!

JeremyBentham (author) from Missouri on March 28, 2013:

You're very welcome! You've done a little bit of everything.

Small world in Montana, too. I believe the agent who led the investigation was from Montana and actually knew the killer. I don't know if that's fate, divine intervention or just plain luck, but it certainly assisted in the investigation.

Ghost32 on March 28, 2013:

Wow. I'm very familiar with this area. In fact, I worked on the construction crew that built the freeway fence between Bozeman to about 25 miles west (I believe Manhattan is about 35 miles west). I was living in Montana when this guy made his first kill but had no clue. When he was arrested, I was living in Huron, South Dakota, running an intervention group home for teenagers...and never heard or read one word about this case. Ever, until now.


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