PICK CITY, N.D. — The Luther Gemeinde Cemetery west of here is like a lot of small cemeteries on the North Dakota prairie — windswept and weather-worn — so flat the grave markers jutting up from the earth provide the only change in the topography of the grassy land that seems to go on forever.
On a day in the late 1980s, a man named Larry Lee Kruckenberg walked through the gates of the cemetery with his elderly mother. Like they had done so many times, they came to visit the grave of Larry’s Aunt Alma — a teenage aunt who died 10 years before he was born.
Kruckenberg reflects on what happened next.
“I thought, this is a great opportunity to have an audience of one, to ask my mother some pretty pointed questions about Alma. But she just clammed up. Then she choked up, looked at me and said, ‘Larry, you would have loved her.’”
The death of 16-year-old Alma Kruckenberg in 1938 was traumatizing to this large German-Russian family — something they didn’t discuss, but endured with the help of faith, friends and family. But the next generation of Kruckenbergs who never knew Alma, like Larry and most of his siblings and cousins, had just one clue — the tombstone in that cemetery which read:
Alma Luise Kruckenberg, born 5th of March, 1922; Murdered on 16th of August, 1938 by Pastor H. Janssen.
A simple, yet shocking, declaration for a tombstone.
Of course, through the years, there would be the occasional story within the family about what happened to Alma, but Larry still had so many questions.
“I just had that nagging feeling for 50 years that there was more to this than I was being told, that my family was being told or that people understood,” Kruckenberg said.
Fast forward more than 30 years from that day in the cemetery to 2021 and Larry Kruckenberg is finally telling the story in his book, “No One Dare Call Her a Liar.”
After many years, thousands of hours of research and dozens of interviews, Kruckenberg hopes he has finally shed some light on the darkest moment in his family’s past — one of North Dakota’s most notorious murders that made headlines around the world.
“It’s a compelling story. It's a sad story, but it's a story I felt needed to be told,” he said.
Who was Alma?
As Kruckenberg set out to learn more about this sad chapter in his family’s history, he had one thought first and foremost.
“I wanted people to know who she was. I think that's important. She's not just a girl who got murdered, she was a human being who deserved far better than what she got,” he said.
Alma was born in Mannhaven, North Dakota, to John and Christina (Buchfink) Kruckenberg. She was the fifth of the 10 Kruckenberg children who grew up on the farmstead in the northeastern corner of Mercer County, about 70 miles north of Bismarck. According to Kruckenberg’s book, Alma was remembered as sweet and well-liked. She loved music and even sang in the church choir. She also loved the outdoors and looked forward to “picking wildflowers in the springtime and berries every summer.”
In January 1938, Alma took a job as a live-in housemaid for her family’s minister, the Rev. Heio Janssen. Janssen’s wife had health problems, so Alma, who was 15 at the time, would help cook, bake and clean for the family. She wasn’t excited about the job, perhaps because her older sister, Esther, had recently worked for the Janssens for just one week before coming home and saying she wasn’t going back. She gave no explanation.
John and Christina Kruckenberg didn’t want to leave their esteemed pastor in a bind, so they offered Alma’s services — something they no doubt would come to regret.
That horrible night
In the early morning hours of Tuesday, Aug. 16, the peace and quiet of the prairie was shattered by sounds of the Rev. Janssen yelling that the parsonage was on fire. As neighbors came to help put out the blaze, he explained that he feared Alma had perished in the flames. His wife, Gertrude, had gone to Bismarck the day before for medical appointments so was not home at the time.
As plumes of smoke covered the rising morning sun, a neighbor combing through the debris found Alma’s body. Almost immediately, suspicion fell upon Janssen, who was acting odd.
For one thing, he was seen with fully laced-up boots as the house burned despite claims that he ran away as soon as he was able. He also objected to volunteers searching for Alma’s body and when they found it, he objected to them taking it away to the coroner. But that is where the most damaging piece of evidence would be discovered.
By Wednesday, Kruckenberg said Janssen was “proving to be a tough nut to crack,” despite being pressed on his conflicting statements on what transpired the night of the fire.
"As God is my witness, I am innocent,” he said. Parishioners were starting to get angry that authorities suspected Janssen. But then the coroner’s inquest changed everything.
By Thursday, Aug. 18, it was discovered that Alma was pregnant and the police pressed the reverend harder.
Janssen confessed that he had a sexual relationship with the girl, and when she told him she was pregnant, he decided to poison her and disguise the murder by burning down the house. Janssen said as she lay dying, he resumed his pastoral role and sought to comfort her and prepare her for death by reading the Holy Scriptures.
Newspaper accounts from his confession paint a sickening portrait of Janssen who claimed Alma had pursued him and he couldn’t fight her off.
“The devil must have overwhelmed me,” he said.
But that was more than likely a far cry from the truth as it wasn’t the first time Janssen had been accused of inappropriate behavior with women during his time as a pastor. Kruckenberg details other instances in the book.
Justice moved swiftly, and by the end of the week, Janssen pleaded guilty, was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
“It's just insane,” Kruckenberg said, “She was murdered late on a Monday night near midnight, and by early Friday morning, the murderer, a Lutheran pastor, was sitting in the state penitentiary in Bismarck.”
"There's no question they got the right guy for killing her, but there is just so much more to this story than I ever knew before I really started digging into this."
- Larry Kruckenberg
At this point, you’d think the story would be over, but what Kruckenberg learned next shed light on an entirely new chapter in the tragic murder of Alma Kruckenberg and what happened to the pastor after he was sent to prison.
“There's no question they got the right guy for killing her, but there is just so much more to this story than I ever knew before I really started digging into this,” Kruckenberg said.
What happened before
Kruckenberg learned about a significant event that happened even before Janssen got involved. He says it was “illuminating.”
“As you read the book, you’ll see that so much happened before and so much happened after that has never, ever been reported before that really paints the entire picture and is pretty jaw-dropping,” he said.
Much of the story can be gleaned from what Janssen began telling authorities from the very first time he was questioned about Alma's death through the entirety of his imprisonment. He stated that while he took responsibility for his crime, investigators should look into the behavior of four young men toward Alma.
Alma, too, wrote about what happened in her diary, declaring that the boys “disregarded my pleas and my tears.” Kruckenberg said Alma told her older brother Edwin about what happened. Edwin eventually died by suicide, perhaps in part because of the heavy burden of carrying Alma’s secret.
“Alma was emphatic about what had happened. She names names, places, times, dates with such detail, that they could not have possibly been made up,” Kruckenberg said.
Instead of being a confidant and healer, the pastor further took advantage of the teenage girl. But as Kruckenberg details in the book, once in prison, he became the biggest advocate for righting the wrongs done to Alma, not just by him but by others.
“I’m not one to judge whether anyone else should have been sent to prison, but it certainly should have been investigated,” Kruckenberg said. "And if Alma’s writings, and the minister's assertions and the words of my deceased uncle are to be believed, there certainly should have been punishment.”
So does Larry Kruckenberg feel like he’s put the missing pieces together about Aunt Alma?
“Yeah, I feel like Alma’s story has been told in its entirety,” he said. “There is a sense of peace there.”
His only regret is that his parents, Alma’s siblings and her parents aren’t alive to learn the truth.
In 1999, Alma’s only living sibling decided to replace Alma’s original tombstone that spells out how her sister died.
“Enough already,” Hilda Kruckenberg Farstad declared. “Alma deserves a regular tombstone.”
And that’s what she got — a simple, asymmetrical piece of granite with a cross and the dates when she was born and died. It is that tombstone the nephew she never met, who now lives in Wyoming, planned to visit the day following this interview.
“I’m going back to North Dakota tomorrow, and as I always do, I’ll stop by Alma’s grave and have a conversation with her," he said. "I hope she’s proud of the work I did.”
For more information
Autographed copies of "No One Dare Call Her a Liar" are available through North Dakota State University's Germans from Russia Heritage Collection.
The book is also available on Amazon. For more information or to learn more about Kruckenberg's other book, "Big Bend Country," visit the author's website, www.larrykruckenberg.com..