One April morning in 1920, as John Kraft drove past the farmstead of the Jacob Wolf family, he noticed something strange. The same white and colored garments were still hanging on the clothes lines, whipping in the brisk wind, even though it had been a full day and night since he had last seen them. This oddity prompted him to investigate.
As he approached the house, the sound of rooting pigs in a nearby barn caught his attention. He entered the barn and was horrified by what he saw. Half-covered by dirt and hay layed Jacob Wolf, his neighbor, and his daughters, Maria and Edna.
Kraft's shocked gasp echoed through the barn as he stood frozen, unable to process the grisly scene before him. The washing left flapping in the windy, soggy April weather had been a sign of something far more sinister.
Frank Sturken covered the story of one of the most sensational manhunts in the country's history for The Tribune. The manhunt began after five mutilated bodies were found in the basement of Jacob Wolf's farmhouse. Jacob was a popular and prosperous farmer in the Turtle Lake community, havinga wife daughters, 6 in total, ranging in age from 13 years to 8 months. Although there was some friction between Jacob and one of his neighbors, he was not known to have any real enemies.
However, it was remembered that Jacob had once expressed fear for his life to a friend on the street in Turtle Lake, saying that it may have been a vengeful neighbor.. The friend didn't take the comment seriously, but it was later recalled when the crime was discovered and reported.
Sheriff Ole Stefferud and John E. Williams, the McLean County state's attorney, were en route to Bismarck when they received the news of the crime. They immediately rushed to Turtle Lake, where Sheriff Stefferud spent the night in the farmhouse with three neighbors of the Wolf family.
As there is an old axiom that a murderer will always return to the scene of the crime, Sheriff Stefferud was hoping for the killer to return. His wait was rewarded when, in the pre-dawn half-light, he saw a car chugging across the prairie. The man who stepped out of the car, Henry Layer, was confronted by the sheriff and identified himself as a neighbor living nearby.
The sheriff had a suspicion in his mind as he talked with Layer and waited for Hofer and the others to return. Layer kept his right hand in his pocket the whole time. Hofer brought breakfast for Stefferud and the sheriff called Hofer aside to ask if he had driven past Layer's farm. Stefferud observed that Layer would have known Hofer and the Bosserts were at the Wolf farm after hearing their car go by.
Layer was eager to help with the investigation but kept his hand in his pocket the whole time. He suggested searching for eggs in the barn, where he claimed to have found empty shotgun shells in the hay. The investigation was underway with hundreds of people, including investigators and law enforcement officers, gathering at the scene. The killer was believed to be a maniac and the countryside was on edge.
The finger pointed more and more towards Layer as the investigation continued. He had a history of ill-feelings with Wolf, including trouble over livestock and gossiping about Wolf's private life.
Funeral services were held for the eight victims, and Layer was in attendance. While Layer was paying his last respects, investigators were at his farm questioning his daughter. Layer was eventually arrested and taken to jail, where he was interrogated for hours. Layer broke down and confessed after being shown photographs of the crime scene.
He admitted to having an argument with Wolf over damages for an injury done to his cow by Wolf's dog. The argument turned into a struggle for a double-barreled shotgun that was accidentally discharged twice, killing two people. Layer pursued and killed the rest of the family, except for the surviving infant. He claimed that the double-barreled shotgun blast was discharged by accident and that he didn't know what he was doing after that.
Layer confessed just after midnight and was arraigned in court the following day, where he pleaded guilty and was sentenced to life in prison. His only request was to see his family, but it was deemed too risky. Layer died in prison less than five years later following an operation for appendicitis.