How the O.J. Simpson verdict swayed justice in a Minnesota murder case
No one still has been convicted in the 1979 death of Denise Daly in Minnesota or the 1983 arson homicide of her sister, Mary Daly, and infant nephew, Christopher Daly, in Wisconsin.
CARLTON, Minn. — The 1979 death of a young woman, Denise Daly, who fell from a moving grain truck in Carlton County, Minnesota, was initially thought to be a suicide or an accident. That was until an anonymous tip nearly 15 years later connected the incident to the 1983 fire that claimed the life of her sister, Mary Daly, and infant nephew, Christopher Daly, in Superior, Wisconsin.
Eventually, two people were indicted for the murder of Denise Daly, but the case was thrown out in 1996. No one was ever held accountable for the murders of the three Dalys. Their cases remain open and unsolved.
Duluth News Tribune and Superior Telegram archives were used to help piece together a timeline of events surrounding the murders that occurred roughly three decades ago.
Death of Denise Daly
Denise Daly, 20, died around 3:41 a.m. Oct. 16, 1979, after tumbling from the cab of a grain truck traveling westbound on Minnesota Highway 210. Her death was initially investigated by the Carlton County Sheriff's Office.
The driver, who was from Bemidji, according to police, said Denise had been in the truck's passenger seat before she fell out.
A funeral was held at Lenroot-Maetzold Funeral Home in Superior and Denise was buried in the family lot in Port Wing.
Victims of arson
In the early morning of Sept. 23, 1983, a duplex fire at 1708 N. 17th St. in Superior claimed the life of Mary Daly, 19, and her 8-month-old son, Christopher Daly.
Both died of asphyxiation. Mary's body was found on the floor near her bed with Christopher about 4 feet from her. He died hours later at Superior Memorial Hospital.
Total damages to the duplex, owned by Terry Priem, were estimated at about $10,000.
Police determined the fire was arson. The small amount of evidence found indicated Mary was the arsonist's intended target, according to Inspector of Detectives William Germond.
Mary Daly was described as very likable, and there were no recent disputes between Mary and her friends and family, Germond said.
Germond said the arsonist may have been familiar with Mary's apartment unit. The back door leading to a balcony was caulked and blocked off by a dresser. Only the front door of her apartment was accessible. There was no smoke detector in her apartment. Police said Mary was getting dressed at the time of the fire and attempted to exit the building.
Two men living downstairs escaped out the back door of their apartment unit after one of them heard the smoke alarm go off. Jim Spencer said he and his roommate heard Mary's screams, but the fire spread too quickly for them to enter the apartment. They heard Mary break the window open in her bedroom and then smoke poured out. He ran to a nearby 7-Eleven store to call the fire department.
Fire inspectors found traces of what they believed to be gasoline spread on the outside porch, the hallway inside the door and all the way up and inside the stairway to Mary's apartment. Superior Fire Marshal Art Morgan said the material from the fire was sent to the Wisconsin Crime Laboratory in Madison to determine if the fuel was gasoline.
Police spoke several times to a man walking past the duplex just as the fire started around 2:40 a.m. The man said he heard a loud "woosh" before he was knocked to the ground by a man running down the porch steps of the house, headed north in an alley between 16th and 17th streets. The witness described a 6-foot-tall man wearing faded blue jeans and a faded denim jacket, with dark hair, not quite shoulder length.
The key piece of evidence was a 5-gallon gas can found in the yard near Mary's home. It was sent to the FBI's crime lab in Washington for fingerprint analysis.
Superior police ruled the deaths of Mary and Christopher Daly as homicides, but never had enough evidence to charge anyone. Thirty people were interviewed, some multiple times. A $5,000 reward was offered by the state for information leading to the conviction of the arsonist. There were a handful of suspects, but none were confirmed to be linked to the fire.
Man confesses to arson
On March 23, 1985, Superior police booked Charles William Flugge, 29, into the Douglas County Jail on two counts of murder in the case of Mary and Christopher Daly. Superior police said Flugge confessed to killing two people in a fire when he was called into questioning for unrelated forgery charges. Flugge stated he knew Mary and offered a couple motives for killing her.
Although he signed a confession, authorities were suspicious of Flugge's involvement due to the unsolicited confession, according to Detective Capt. Thomas Meronek. Superior police suggested a lie detector test was needed, and Flugge was interviewed by a psychologist. He was not formally charged due to inconsistencies in his statement surrounding facts of the crime scene.
Flugge's statements were proven false, and he was not considered a suspect in the reopened investigation following an anonymous tip given to authorities.
On Jan. 28, 1995, the News Tribune reported Carlton County authorities received an anonymous tip from a confidential male informant that Denise Daly was shoved from the grain truck traveling at 50 mph along Minnesota Highway 210 west of Sawyer. He also said that Mary and Christopher Daly were probably killed because Mary knew too much about her sister's death.
Police said they didn't know who else was in the truck with Denise because the sheriff's office didn't keep records when the Minnesota State Patrol handled an investigation. The patrol destroyed incident reports after 10 years unless there was a reason to keep them. The files were destroyed as the death was originally ruled a suicide.
When Carlton County officials called Superior police for help in checking the information, the Wisconsin officers quickly linked the tip to the arson-murder case of Mary and Christopher Daly. Police believed the deaths of the Daly sisters were connected, according to Superior Capt. Richard Pukema.
The Carlton County Sheriff's Office, in conjunction with the Superior Police Department, reopened the investigation into the deaths of the three Dalys in October 1994. Nine investigators, including five from Superior, worked on the case full time.
The lists of suspects and others questioned in each case had similarities, according to Carlton County Sheriff David Seboe. According to Superior Police Chief Doyle Barker, the cases had little in common except the "names and the fact that they're sisters who turned out to be murder victims."
Additional information from two witnesses led the Carlton County Sheriff's Office to develop an artist's sketch of a man sought by investigators. In 1979, the man was described as being in his early 20s, 5 feet, 9 inches to 6 feet tall, with brown shoulder-length hair. He possibly wore glasses and was wearing a belt made from motorcycle chains.
Murder charges filed
Denise Daly's body was exhumed from its Port Wing burial site in early 1995 and taken to the University of Wisconsin-Madison for an autopsy. A forensic pathologist found Denise died from an intentional blow to the base of her skull, not from a fall from a truck.
The Carlton County grand jury convened Sept. 18, 1995, to review evidence in the case of Denise's death 16 years prior. On Oct. 3, 1995, a grand jury returned a first-degree murder indictment against Emilio Mendoza Jr., 40. Also indicted was Vinette Hallgren Crowley, 34, for first-degree aiding and abetting the murder of Denise.
At the time, Mendoza was already incarcerated at Oak Park Heights Minnesota State Prison for an unrelated 1987 second-degree murder conviction for the fatal stabbing of his 19-year-old wife. Crowley was arrested in Superior and was in custody at the Douglas County Jail until she made bail.
Denise had been with Mendoza at her home in Superior the night she died. According to authorities, he was the first suspect. The state alleged Mendoza inflicted head injuries on Denise in Superior and with possible help from Crowley, transported the injured woman to Minnesota and dumped her on the roadside.
Crowley's attorney Rick Gondik said: "She wasn't where they say she was and she wasn't a party to any crime. She knew nothing of it."
First-degree murder charges against Mendoza and Crowley were dismissed in 1996 because of irregularities in the grand jury proceedings, Sixth Judicial District Judge Donovan Frank ruled. The grand jury returned the indictments about five hours after they watched the O.J. Simpson verdict on TV at the Carlton County Courthouse.
"Both cases involved a male member of a racial minority allegedly killing a Caucasian woman with whom he was intimately involved in a brutal fit of rage," Frank wrote in his decision. "The court agrees with the defendants that O.J. Simpson verdict —and the emotions it incited —injected prejudice or the appearance of prejudice into the grand jury deliberations. As a result, this event compromised the integrity of this grand jury process."
The State of Minnesota unsuccessfully appealed the trial court's decision Jan. 21, 1997. Mendoza died June 30, 2015, in Goliad, Texas.
The arson investigation continued regardless of the decision to drop the incitements in Denise's murder case. New evidence in the arson case surfaced in fall 1995 that eliminated some suspects and raised questions about others, but it remains unsolved.