Susan Studey has been wanting to defend her father’s reputation since her sister Lucy Studey’s claims that he was a serial killer blew up in the news more than a month ago. “The entire time, I knew it wasn’t true,” Susan tells Rolling Stone.
In October, Lucy said in an explosive Newsweek interview that she believed her father, Donald Dean Studey, had murdered as many as 70 of people over three decades and buried them on the family property in the Green Hollow area of Southwest Iowa. Law enforcement had opened an investigation, lending credence to her claims, and an initial sweep of the property with cadaver dogs had indicated that human remains could be present.
At the time, members of the sheriff’s department told the press they believed human remains were buried where Lucy said they were. “I believe her 100 percent that there’s bodies in there,” Fremont County Sheriff Kevin Aistrope said in Newsweek. “It’s hard for me to believe that two dogs would hit in the exact same places and be false. We don’t know what it is. The settlers were up there. There was Indian Country up there as well, but I tend to believe Lucy.” Furthermore, Deputy Michael Wake told local news station KMTV that he’d grown up in the area hearing stories about “bodies in a well,” so he thought Lucy’s claims were “worth looking into.”
As law enforcement agencies prepared to dig for potential remains, the story took off. Donald Studey, who died in 2013, was suddenly all over the internet. On TikTok, #donalddeanstudey drew 3.2 million views on videos from true crime accounts sharing the story of the investigation and the cadaver dogs’ hits. Susan told Newsweek her sister had made it up, but the story was already spreading, bolstered by the sheriff department’s confidence in the investigation. Now, law enforcement has declared they’ve found no bodies, and Susan, 55, who asked to be identified with her maiden name Studey, has spoken exclusively with Rolling Stone, rebutting her sister’s allegations.
On Thursday, Iowa’s Division of Criminal Investigation released a statement saying that after three days of digging and testing soil on the Studeys’ former property, investigators found no evidence of remains. On Friday, Lucy stood her ground on the claims, telling the Des Moines Register, “One way or another, those bodies are coming up…. With or without help.” Early Monday morning, Susan sent Rolling Stone a post Lucy had published on her personal Facebook account thanking Newsweek for believing in her and telling law enforcement agencies, “Go fuck yourself,” adding, “You’ll have one more dead body in the morning. Mine.” When reached for comment about the post, Lucy responded, “Yes, I’m OK.”
Asked about the investigation, Lucy said to expect “something big” from the Division of Criminal Justice to be announced soon. Yet DCI assistant director Mitch Mortvedt told Rolling Stone on Monday the case is finished. “The investigation is closed since nothing was discovered on the property and locations that Lucy led law enforcement to on two separate occasions,” he said. Mortvedt reiterated on Tuesday that the investigation has concluded and said there is “nothing coming” from the agency.
Susan claims Lucy “made up” the accusation that Donald was a serial killer, and says it’s not the first time she’s told stories that aren’t true. In 2007, Donald told the sheriff Lucy had stolen $16,000 from him, and she in turn accused him of burying bodies on their property. In recent news coverage, a sheriff’s deputy said that was the first time the department heard allegations like that against Donald, although Lucy claimed she’d told the story to police, teachers, and priests since she was a child. Susan remembers her dad talking about the incident. “He goes, ‘Lucy called the sheriff and accused me of being a serial killer,” she says. “And I go ‘Yeah right,’ and me and him both giggled.” She says that soon after their dad reported the money stolen, Lucy pulled into Susan’s driveway, crying, and claimed she’d been falsely accused. “She was just bawling, and she goes, ‘I’ll strip down, you can search my car; I don’t have it,’” Susan says. Lucy admitted to Newsweek she took the money as a way to hurt her father and told Rolling Stone the same thing. Susan says she wasn’t sure it was true until she read about it in the news.
Recent reports characterized Donald as a known recluse who made people wary. Throughout his lifetime, Donald had multiple encounters with law enforcement. Iowa court records reviewed by Rolling Stone show he had a history of mostly minor arrests, and one charge in 1994 of assault with intent to cause serious injury. (He pleaded guilty to a reduced criminal mischief charge.) According to reporting by the Des Moines Register, sheriff’s records showed he had threatened multiple people over the years, including his live-in girlfriend, and that he had sometimes been suicidal; he once shot himself in the arm with deputies present. Newsweek reported he’d served prison time for petit larceny in the 1950s and was arrested in 1989 in Omaha for drunk driving.
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Susan admits her father could be intimidating — but she says this was only when he felt his family was threatened. One time in the Seventies, she says, a group of hippie kids in a car came barreling up the secluded dirt road past their house and almost hit her brother. Infuriated, her father laid out a board with nails sticking out of it. When the car passed through on the way back, the nails blew out all its tires. As the frightened teens looked toward the house, Susan says her dad stood on the porch, holding a spare wooden board in his hand. Other times, she says, he’d stand out there with his gun “like a soldier.” Still, she says their father was “sweet” and loved all his kids. “He was caring,” she says. “I’m not stating that he was an angel. But he loved all four of us, even Lucy. And he bent over backwards for all of us throughout our whole life.” (Her brother, Gary, died by suicide in 2004, and a third sister did not respond to a request for an interview.)
Despite their initial enthusiasm for the case, local law enforcement has gone mostly silent since the investigation concluded. The sheriff’s department has not released a statement, and a staffer who answered the phone Monday told Rolling Stone to direct inquiries to DCI. Susan says she would like a formal apology from the sheriff’s department. “They said they believed her 100 percent,” she says. “She destroyed my father’s image. I didn’t ask for this.”