Either the nation’s most prolific serial killer was burying dozens of bodies on his property for decades undetected, or police are on a wild goose chase. Either way, the case has captured the minds of true crime TikTok — and the people want answers.
In the southwestern corner of Iowa, authorities are investigating claims made by a woman who says her father murdered as many as 70 women over several decades and buried them on their family’s property. Lucy Studey, 53, has told police that her late father, Donald Dean Studey, who died in 2013, murdered “five or six” woman a year and forced her and her siblings to help him hide the bodies in and around a well on their five acres of rural land. She said in Newsweek she had told her story to teachers, priests, and law enforcement officers since childhood, but no one would listen.
That changed this week, when authorities brought cadaver dogs to the property, where they located potential human remains in multiple locations where Studey had said there were bodies buried. According to Newsweek, authorities are planning their next steps. Officers from the Fremont County Sheriff’s Department said this would include using sonar to search beneath the ground and potentially, — eventually — excavating the old 90-foot well, although it would be an expensive undertaking. The sheriff’s department did not respond to requests for further comment, although an employee said Wednesday that they were preparing a statement.
Sheriff Kevin Aistrope told the Des Moines Register they had spent about a year locating the well and getting permission from the current property owners to conduct an investigation. He also suggested they needed more evidence of the crimes to move forward. “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.”
Multiple agencies have joined the investigation. A public affairs representative for the Omaha FBI, just across the border in Nebraska, confirmed the office has been contacted by Iowa authorities and has offered its assistance. A public information officer with the Omaha Police Department confirmed that they are also “assisting” Iowa agencies, but declined to speculate if missing persons from the Omaha area could be among the alleged victims. “Since they haven’t actually found any bodies yet, there’s no way for us to know if any of them are related to Omaha cases,” Officer Michael Pecha tells Rolling Stone. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.” The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation is also reportedly involved, according to the Register, but the department did not respond to a request for comment.
On Tuesday, Studey’s older sister, Susan, rebutted Studey’s claims. She told Newsweek the first she’d heard of the alleged bodies was last year, from Studey. Their father was strict and protective, she said, but he loved his children and was not a murderer. “I would know if my dad was a serial killer,” she said. “He was not, and I want my father’s name restored.” Susan declined a request from Rolling Stone for further comment. Studey has another sister, who did not immediately reply to a request for comment, and a brother, who died in 2004.
In the meantime, Donald Dean Studey, who died in 2013, has become a hashtag on TikTok with nearly one million views. Videos began cropping up over the past day or two, with some quickly amassing hundreds of thousands of views, sharing the story of the investigation. “I don’t know what to call this case cause it’s still brand new” said Mikey of the account Makingatruecrimerer, which has 2.7 million followers, before taking viewers through the details that had come out so far. He spoke over a greenscreen of a Breaking News banner and imagery from news reports. The video amassed 845,000 views in 17 hours. Another true crime TikToker, Jenna Lynn, quoted sections of a New York Post article on the investigation, speaking in a fast-talking newscaster voice over a sound called “Breaking News.” “I’ll keep you guys updated when more develops. What do you think? Drop it in the comments,” she said at the end of the 38-second clip, which garnered 630,000 views in one day. Users’ interest isn’t unwarranted. If Studey’s claims are true, her father’s body count could surpass that of Samuel Little, the nation’s most prolific killer, who authorities confirmed had murdered 60 people before he died in prison in 2020.
Now, as the case begins to go viral, the social media frenzy quickly morphs real-life news into a mystery for web sleuths to solve. In comments, people speculate about which sister’s story is true. It also seems to be striking a nerve among some of the more conspiracy-minded users. “This is not as uncommon as you think. [There are] other stories about this,” commented one user on an NBC News video. Jamie Slife, who has built a TikTok presence sharing her suspicions that her father could have been involved in the 2018 murder of University of Iowa student Mollie Tibbetts, piped in to assure viewers Donald Studey was not her father, although she speculated about similarities between the two men. “He buried the bodies in wells,” Slife said of Donald Studey, although no bodies have yet been found. “It’s very eerie, similar, me and my mom have suspected my dad doing the same. There’s a well on his property. My dad digs basements.” Her video’s garnered around 7,000 views in less than a day. (Slife testified in the Tibbetts murder trial about her father’s alleged abusive behaviors, but he was cleared as a suspect in the case and Cristhian Bahena Rivera was convicted of the murder and sentenced to life in prison).
In interviews with Newsweek, Studey described the alleged crimes in gruesome detail, claiming her father kept victims’ gold teeth as trophies after beating women to death by smashing or kicking their heads inside the trailer where the family lived. She claimed most victims were runaways or sex workers, almost all women in twenties or thirties, although she claimed to recall two men. She said they’d use a wheelbarrow in the summer and a toboggan in the winter to move the bodies and she recalled her dad saying of one victim, “The bitch deserved it.”
Iowa court records show Donald Studey had a history of arrests for mostly minor crimes, including a 1994 charge of assault with intent to cause serious injury. He pleaded guilty to a reduced criminal mischief charge. Newsweek reported he’d served prison time for petit larceny in the 1950s and was arrested on drunk driving in Omaha in 1989. The sheriff said officers were wary of Donald Studey, telling the publication he’d routinely been in trouble with authorities, and that they never visited his trailer alone. Fremont Deputy Mike Wake told a local CBS affiliate Donald Studey had once threatened to harm himself, before officers talked him down. He also said he had grown up in the area hearing rumors about bodies in a well before Studey called him about a year ago. “I just thought it was worth looking into,” he said.