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Crime News Sleeping With Death

Pair Who Preyed On Gay Men Stabbed Iowa Teacher As His Daughter Slept In Next Room

A 17-year-old girl, Jennifer Eaton, awoke to a double nightmare: Her father had been killed, and she was a suspect.

By Joe Dziemianowicz

On February 13, 1988, 17-year-old Jennifer Eaton woke up and found her home in Des Moines, Iowa in a disarray, which was unusual. Her father, Franklin “Ken” Eaton, a 41-year-old public school teacher, kept their apartment spotless. 

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But not today. Plants were knocked over, cassette tapes were in disorder, garbage bags were thrown around the kitchen. She went to his room to wake him up.

“His face was all beaten up. He had a really big stab wound in his heart,” Jennifer told “Sleeping with Death,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen. 

In shock, Jennifer called her mother, Lynn, who lived 20 minutes away with her younger sister. (Jennifer’s parents had divorced seven years earlier.) Her mom came and told Jennifer to call the police. The 911 call was received at 7:10 a.m.

When police arrived, they observed signs that a struggle occurred in the apartment, but no indications of forced entry. To John Quinn, former special agent, Iowa DCI, the evidence indicated “that something had gone wrong, that there was a sexual encounter that was going to transpire. And he ended up dead."

The crime scene team collected evidence and fingerprints. A missing knife from a kitchen block was believed to be the murder weapon. They also canvassed the apartment complex for witnesses as well as the weapon. One neighbor reported hearing Ken’s apartment door open around 3:30 a.m.

Investigators admittedly wondered how Jennifer could have slept through what happened in the apartment. They also questioned why she called her mother first and not 911. 

Jennifer and Lynn were taken the police station. Jennifer was strip searched to determine if she had had injuries or bruises indicating she’d been in a struggle. She had none.

She then told investigators about her relationship with her father, who’d come out to her about his sexuality years earlier.

“I was in seventh grade when my dad told me that he was gay,” she told "Sleeping With Death." “I kind of struggled with it. Then I realized one day he is who he is, and he's happy.”

Ken Eaton with Jennifer Eaton-Bertagnolli featured in Sleeping with Death

Because of his job as a public school teacher, Ken was not able to be completely out, friends told producers. 

Investigators eventually become more certain she was not involved in the murder. With her help, they traced Ken’s movements on February 12. He had plans to see a show with his friend Bernard and then go out to local bars.

Jennifer was gone that night with her boyfriend and got home before Ken. She locked the door when she arrived. Around 3:30 a.m. Jennifer heard Ken come home as well as other voices.  He came to her room and told her he had people with him.

“He said, ‘I love you, I’ll see you in the morning,’” Jennifer said.

Investigators had Jennifer take stock of anything missing from the apartment. The list included a VCR and tapes as well as clothes, including her dad’s collection of Hard Rock Café T-shirts. 

Jennifer also shared information about Ken’s longtime boyfriend, Ed: “He was the love of my dad’s life,” she said.

After six years, however, the relationship abruptly ended on a bad note. That was just a few weeks before the murder.

Detectives spoke with Ed, who said that he had seen Ken around midnight at a local bar called the Brass Guard. They had a brief conversation, he told police. Had that talk stirred up bad feelings?

Bernard, meanwhile, told police that Ken took him home when the bar closed at 2 a.m. He also shared that Ken planned to drive to the “gay loop,” a downtown area where gay men gathered in the late ’80s.

Despite having few legal protections in place for the LGBTQ community, other men and women provided investigators with tips, according to “Sleeping with Death.”

One person shared that Ken arrived at the gay loop around 2:30 a.m. in his car. The witness saw two men in a black vintage Camaro pull up behind him. The passenger got out of the car, walked up to Ken’s vehicle, and got in. They spoke for awhile, then the man got out and climbed back into the Camaro. Ken drove away, with the Camaro following, according to court documents.  

Descriptions of the men in the car didn't remotely match Ed, ruling him out as a suspect. Police then considered the possibility that two people were preying upon gay men in Des Moines

Then, on February 15, investigators learned that, by a stroke of  luck, evidence linked to the crime had been found in a dumpster about eight miles from the crime scene.

While someone was removing garbage bags from the dumpster, one had ripped open. Clothes, VCR tapes, a mobile phone, and a bloody knife had tumbled out. The items, along with the trash bags containing them, were confirmed to belong to Ken. 

Detectives focused on searching for the black Camaro in the area where the items were found. On February 16, a black 1968 Camaro was observed by police by a storage facility. They took down the license plate and found that it was registered to James Michael “Billy” Green, 20, who’d pleaded guilty to a burglary in 1985. 

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Investigators spoke with Green’s probation officer, who shared that Green’s associate was 18-year-old Gary Titus. Police tracked down Titus’ address to the same area where the black Camaro was seen parked.

They decided to stake out their two primary suspects. On the third day of surveillance, Green was photographed in a Hard Rock Cafe from Houston T-shirt. Jennifer confirmed that her father had one in his collection that was missing after his murder.

But for an airtight case, authorities needed something that tied the men to the murder, not just Ken. They turned to fingerprint evidence: They had Green’s from his criminal history, Titus’ from his military background.

Green’s print matched evidence in Ken’s apartment, while Titus’ print matched one found in Ken’s car. Both men were arrested on February 21 and were questioned separately.

They told the same story: They posed as gay men to snare Ken into a sexual encounter, and then beat him up and robbed him. 

At Ken’s apartment, as Titus distracted their victim, Green searched for valuables. He grabbed a knife from the kitchen, and the situation escalated into violence. 

In a police recording, Green said, “I picked up a knife and said, ‘Where’s your money?’”

Ken fought back.

“He’s getting up outta bed, pushing me off,” Green continued. “I stabbed him."

Detectives learned that Ken’s wallet held just $3.

Both men were convicted of first-degree murder, which carried a mandatory life sentence.

To learn more about the case and what Jennifer told Green when she visited him in prison in 2005, watch “Sleeping with Death,” airing Sundays at 7/6c on Oxygen, or  stream episodes here.

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