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Maquoketa murders: 911 call reveals new information about morning four were killed

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The lone 911 call that was made on the morning of a triple homicide at Maquoketa Caves State Park came from the mother of the man police say was the killer.

As the sun rose on the popular park in Jackson County, Iowa, on July 22, two gunshots rang out. A little boy screamed and ran for help. His parents were shot, he said; there was blood.

A nearby camper took the boy by the hand, hurried toward the campground entrance and called 911. The contents of that call reveal more about what happened at the park than what investigators have been willing to disclose over the past six months, despite having concluded the case.

'He saw his parents were shot'

Cecilia Sherwin struggled with the pronunciation of Maquoketa.

After several attempts at describing her location, it clicked for the Jackson County 911 dispatcher: She was talking about Maquoketa Caves.

"Shooting, shooting," Sherwin said. "We heard it this morning and this kid screaming. He said his parents were shot and there's blood."

The 911 call, obtained by the Quad-City Times/Dispatch-Argus through an Open Records request to Jackson County, lasts for 23 minutes. The dispatcher is heard asking questions of Sherwin and trying to call law enforcement. As he called the park ranger and the phone continued to ring, the dispatcher said, "Come on," just before the ranger's phone went to voice mail.

The connection between the dispatcher and Sherwin was briefly lost at one point, but she called back. The dispatcher again put her on hold as he tried to contact help.

Nearly 10 minutes after her initial call, the dispatcher asked more questions, including where she was in the park, exactly.

"At the entrance ... with the little boy," she replied. "He was screaming in the tent. We heard the shots."

The dispatcher had questions for the boy, too, so Sherwin handed him her phone.

"Who am I talking to?" the dispatcher asked.

"Me," the boy replied.

Then came some detail: The boy's name was Arlo. He was 9 years old. He was camping in a tent with his mom, his sister and his dad.

"I woke up and there was someone, like, someone in, like, black clothes and they had a weapon and my sister was screaming," Arlo said.

The dispatcher asked where his dad was. The boy paused, then replied, "I think they were hurt."

He repeated to the dispatcher that the man had a "small gun" and was wearing "black clothes." He then handed the phone back to Sherwin. A few seconds later, she could be heard asking the boy, "Honey, are you OK? What's wrong?"

The dispatcher assured them help was coming. A trooper and park ranger "aren't too far away," he said. An ambulance was standing by at the park's visitor center.

After 23 minutes, the 911 call concluded with the arrival of a park ranger.

Asked last week why she took the boy to the entrance of the park to call 911, Sherwin said, "We were running to safety, thinking someone in black was going to shoot us."

The discovery of bodies

Inside a tent near the entrance to the upper campground at Maquoketa Caves State Park, police found the bodies of Sarah and Tyler Schmidt, both 42, and their daughter, 6-year-old Lula.

Two weeks later, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, DCI, publicly disclosed the causes of the Schmidts' deaths: Tyler was shot and stabbed. Sarah was stabbed. Lula was shot and strangled. Arlo was the only member of the family from Cedar Falls to escape injury.

Anthony Sherwin, 23, had been traveling and camping with his parents, Cecilia and Joe. He was in his own tent. The campground had a total of about a dozen campers, Cecilia Sherwin had told the 911 dispatcher.

Anthony Sherwin's body was found "near the campground — a short distance away" but still inside the park, according to an investigator's remarks at a news conference on the day of the killings.

In addition to revealing the causes of death on Aug. 4, the Iowa DCI declared that Sherwin had been the killer: "... all evidence collected to this point substantiate Sherwin was the perpetrator of the homicides and acted alone."

His parents don't believe it. Neither his character nor the bit of evidence shared with them proves he did it, they said.

Cecilia Sherwin said her son sustained two gunshot wounds. She thinks the first would have been "debilitating" and wonders how he managed to shoot himself again.

Police have declined to answer any questions and have not publicly released any additional information since Aug. 4.

Public Records requests denied

The list of unanswered questions is long, but one in particular bothers Cecilia Sherwin because it seems simple to answer: Was the gun police say was used by her son to commit suicide the same gun that was used in the shootings of Tyler and Lula Schmidt?

She and her husband specifically asked one of the lead investigators whether a ballistics match was made. They didn't get an answer, she said.

The Quad-City Times/Dispatch-Argus also filed requests for public records under Iowa's Open Records law and the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. The request sought incident reports, investigative documents, crime-scene summaries and autopsy reports.

"The records you seek are not public," replied Debbie McClung, strategic communications bureau chief, office of the commissioner, Iowa Department of Public Safety. "We can share immediate facts and circumstances of this case, which are contained in the press release links which I’ve provided for you ..."

McClung was asked in an email on Jan. 11 whether the gun used in the suicide matched the one used in the slayings. She did not respond.

The Sherwins' requests for information also have either been denied or ignored, Cecilia Sherwin said. She was able to independently obtain her son's autopsy report, she said, but it only added to her confusion. She knew Anthony was wearing green shorts because she had given them to him the day before the shooting as she handed out the last of the clean clothes from the family's camping trip.

The autopsy listed the clothing Anthony was wearing, which included the green shorts. To the Sherwins, the clothing distinction is important because Arlo had been insistent the person who killed his family was wearing black. 

"The reason we want the final report is that we want an independent review of what they say has happened because we believe Anthony was murdered and did not commit that crime," Cecilia Sherwin said.

The people who likely knew Anthony best — his parents — say he wasn't capable of killing and he had no connection whatsoever to the Schmidts. Why would he violently attack them at sunrise?

"We were told there was no motive and it was random," she said.

Investigative matters aren't the only details that remain under wraps. Police won't even tell the Sherwins where in the park their son's body was found, Cecilia Sherwin said.

"Why can't we know where our son's last moments on earth were, so we can put a small cross and flowers there?” she asked.

Arlo Schmidt is being raised by extended family, according to reports from his hometown. Cecilia Sherwin regularly thinks of the boy, she said.

Pat Gill, Woodbury County Auditor, speaks at a press conference held Friday, Jan. 13, 2023, at the Woodbury County Courthouse in Sioux City, Iowa. Gill was addressing his office's role in uncovering alleged election fraud in recent elections. Kim Phuong Taylor, 49, was arrested Thursday and pleaded not guilty to 26 counts of providing false information in registering and voting, three counts of fraudulent registration and 23 counts of fraudulent voting. She is the wife of Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor.

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