March 26, 2008 -- A desperate Iowa banker facing federal embezzlement and money laundering charges murdered his wife and four young children in their home before killing himself yesterday by slamming the family minivan into a concrete highway abutment, Iowa City police announced Tuesday evening.
Steven Sueppel, 42, who was accused of stealing more than a half million dollars, left apologetic messages for his former employer, brother and father, as well as on his own family's answering machine late Sunday night and early Monday morning. He used the same phone from which he called police to direct them to his Iowa City home just minutes before crashing the family's minivan, police said at a Tuesday press conference.
Inside the Sueppel home, police discovered five bodies scattered throughout the residence, including Sueppel's wife, Sheryl, and their four adopted children, Ethan, 10; Seth, 7; Mirra, 5; and Eleanor, 3.
Police released preliminary autopsy results this morning finding that all five Sueppel family members died from "multiple blunt force trauma injuries to each of their upper torsos and heads," according to a statement.
Lt. Jim Steffen, an Iowa City investigator, said Tuesday that Sheryl Sueppel likely was killed first. Police recovered two baseball bats from the crime scene.
Sueppel called 911 at 6:31 a.m. Monday and hung up after asking a dispatcher to "respond immediately" to the family home. At 6:46 a.m., police responded to a car wreck along Interstate 80 involving a minivan similar to the one that was missing from the Sueppel home.
Police confirmed Monday night that the car belonged to Sueppel, and dental records Tuesday conclusively identified the charred remains of the driver as Steven Sueppel. Witnesses reported to police seeing the minivan travel at a high rate of speed before the crash in and out of traffic. Police said they do not believe any accelerant was used to trigger an explosion.
Timing of Deaths Unclear
The exact timeline of Sunday night and Monday morning, including exactly when and how the four children were killed, remains under investigation, but authorities said Sueppel tried to commit suicide — and failed — twice before fatally crashing the car.
Sueppel left voice mails late Sunday night for his father and brother. At 3:45 a.m. Monday, he left a message at his former employer, Hills Bank & Trust in Iowa City, according to police. At 3:52 a.m. and again at 4:01 a.m., he left voice mail messages on the family's machine.
Steffen said that Sueppel first attempted to kill himself by carbon monoxide poisoning inside the family's garage. He may have had the four children in the car with him during the failed suicide attempt.
Steffen also said Tuesday night that Steven Sueppel may have tried to kill the children by asphyxiation -- a scenario ruled out with the autopsy results. The bodies of the children were scattered in bedrooms and a basement toy room.
Neither the children nor Sheryl Sueppel was bound, police said, but there was also no sign of an extended struggle.
Sueppel indicated in one of the messages that he then tried to drown himself in a local river, but also failed in that suicide attempt, Steffen said. Sueppel did not explicitly take responsibility for the killings in his message and notes, but "he indicated in the voice mail messages that he believed his family was in heaven.
"There was not a specific reason why he did this," Steffen said. "The message and the notes basically contained apologies for his actions and his feeling of despair over what had happened."
The former bank executive was indicted in federal court last month for allegedly stealing $560,000 over a seven-year period in his position as bank vice president. He pleaded not guilty to the charge and was scheduled to go to trial in April, according to his attorney, Leon Spies.
Sueppel was released on $250,000 bond and ordered to submit to drug testing and restricted from keeping a firearm, according to federal court documents. He also could not hold a job that involved the handling of money or financial information.
The murder-suicide has ripped open the small Iowa city, where Sueppel's family is well known in the business and education communities.
Sueppel's family released a statement Monday evening seeking privacy and thanking members of the community whose offers of help poured in throughout the day.
"These families provided love and emotional support to Steven, Sheryl and their children throughout their lives, and particularly during the past few difficult months," the family statement reads.
"They have all tried to remain alert for signs of particular stress, and observed none."