Iva Kroeger had an obsession with nursing. Her first arrest, in 1945, was for impersonating a nurse, and she often worked in nursing homes. Perhaps opposites attract. Nurses heal, Kroeger killed.
Kroeger first came to Santa Rosa detective John Coffman’s attention in December 1961, when he was asked to investigate the disappearance of a Santa Rosa motel owner named Mildred Arneson. Arneson was a nurse who had became a successful real estate investor. She lived with her husband, Jay, a retired Army Major, disabled with Parkinson’s disease.
A believer in spiritualism, Arneson had told her family she was going to South America with a fellow spiritualist named Iva Long. When Coffman went to the motel, he found that Long was now running it. Long confirmed that Arneson was somewhere in South America, but denied that she had ever planned to accompany Arneson on her trip. Long said she was taking care of Arneson’s husband until she returned.
Long claimed she was a psychic and astrologer and offered to foretell Coffman’s future if he gave her a lock of his hair. Although Long’s wild stories made Coffman suspicious, the deed transferring the motel to Ida Long appeared to be genuine, and the investigation stalled.
In February 1962, Jay Arneson disappeared. Long said he had been picked up by two Mexicans in a Cadillac and taken to a nursing home somewhere in Southern California.
The investigation picked up steam in May of that year, when Long pulled a gun on a repairman who was trying to collect an overdue bill. As police arrived, Long slipped into a cab and disappeared. Further investigation revealed that her real name was Iva Kroeger, and that she had a police record going back to 1945.
Kroeger had stolen $1,400 from a nursing home in San Jose in 1954, and had used aliases in various scams over the years. She was the master of the sob story: She faked a limp, told people she had cancer, claimed she was crippled in a streetcar accident, and said she was going blind. Kroeger once even received a purebred puppy after telling the dog’s owner it was for a crippled 7-year old orphan. Then she sold the puppy for $50.
Her stories were consistent in one respect: They were all lies.
Police tracked down Kroeger’s son, who lived in Fort Myers, Fla. It was there he told them an alarming story.
Posing as Paula Shoemaker, a wealthy widow and motel owner from San Diego, Kroeger offered her son a job in her motel and volunteered to take his small boys, ages 3 and 4, to California. She and the boys then disappeared. A nationwide search for the trio began.
Kroeger’s husband, Ralph, who was living in their San Francisco house at 490 Ellington St., seemed unaware of his wife’s whereabouts. He was surprised to learn Kroeger had stolen $8,000 from their joint account. Police learned she had hired a handyman to dig a hole in the basement of her Ellington Street home.
Suspicious, police obtained a search warrant and began excavating the basement. After hours of digging, police uncovered the body of Jay Arneson. Beneath him, in a trunk, was body of Mildred Arneson.
“I didn’t know there was any body down here,” Ralph protested. But he was arrested on suspicion of murder.
The case became even stranger when Kroeger’s grandchildren were found wandering the streets in Oakland, where she had abandoned them. The boys looked at photos of Ralph and Iva and identified them as “grandma and grandpa.” The boys had been told their parents were killed in a car accident, and their grandma was taking care of them. After this, Kroeger had a new nickname: “The Grandma from Hell.”
Kroeger next appeared in San Diego, where she told a couple she was a poor widow taking care of her 12-year-old daughter. They were taken in at first, but when the couple noticed her resemblance to the photos in the newspapers, they contacted the FBI, and Kroeger was arrested.
When Kroeger was questioned about the bodies in the Ellington Street house, she claimed a blackmailer was responsible. “I’ve paid him $40,000 over the years so he wouldn’t tell my husband about my police record.” Both she and her husband were charged with murder.
Kroeger once told someone, “If you act crazy, you can get away with anything because people will think you are eccentric.” This became her courtroom strategy. During the trial, she claimed to be the mother of God, she sang, threw things and constantly interrupted the witnesses and judge. The psychiatrists didn’t buy her act. They testified that she was sane, but deceitful and manipulative.
Kroeger was convicted and sentenced to death, a sentence that was later changed to life imprisonment. She was paroled in 1974. Upon her release, Kroeger told people she planned to go to nursing school and dropped out of sight.
In 1985, she was up to her old tricks and was arrested in Florida after threatening a man with a gun. When arrested, she was found with two stolen nurses IDs. She posted bail and left before police realized her real identity. Kroeger was last seen in 1987 while shopping in a Santa Rosa department store. She would be 95 years old today — if she is still alive.
So, if a very old lady comes up to you and asks for a lock of your hair, watch out.
Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco, www.crookstour.com.