No matter how good forensic science gets, the truth at the core of our justice system hasn't changed: Prosecutions are about not what you think you know, or what everyone believes, or what you feel in your heart of hearts. Prosecutions are about what you can prove.
Which brings us to the murder of 46-year-old Hot Springs Village police dispatcher Dawna Natzke. So far, the only person investigators have called a "person of interest" in the case is Natzke's boyfriend at the time of her death, Kevin Duck. While Duck isn't considered a suspect — and Duck is, of course, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law — the lead investigator on the case said all the information collected so far points to no one else.
Attempts to reach Kevin Duck and his family members were unsuccessful.
By all known accounts, Duck was the last person to see Natzke alive on Dec. 21, 2011, the night the couple suddenly left a Village Christmas party under mysterious circumstances, leaving Natzke's purse, cigarettes and mother — who had ridden to the party with Natzke and Duck — behind. The next morning, Natzke's car was found burned down to the hubs in the Ouachita National Forest. It would take another nine days and a volunteer search — organized and conducted without the help of the Hot Springs Village Police Department — before Natzke's body was found, floating in a murky pond miles away.
Over a year and a half later, the case remains unsolved. At this point, even Dawna Natzke's mother has given up hope that anyone will ever be convicted of the crime. Behind the gates of Hot Springs Village, rumors still boil about the case. But with an investigation that some called botched from the start, will anyone ever be brought to justice?
Originally from St. John, Ind., Dawna Natzke and her husband, Todd, moved to Hot Springs Village — the 55-square mile gated town of around 13,000 residents, most of them retirees, which straddles the Garland/Saline County line — a few years after her mother and father, Homer and Doris Smith, retired there in 1989. Natzke worked as a waitress, then as a receptionist for a doctor's office in the Village. Her mother recalls that even long after she'd left the receptionist job, Natzke remembered the patients and their ailments.
"We would go shopping or go out to dinner or something," Doris said, "and she was always charging across the room hugging someone and asking, 'How's your arm?' or 'How are you?' or 'Did your husband ever get his new car?' Everyone remembered her." In 1999, after Homer Smith's health began to falter due to long-term dialysis treatments, Natzke volunteered to donate a kidney to him, an operation that meant cutting out at least one of her ribs, followed by a lengthy recovery. The new kidney allowed Homer Smith to live another 10 years.
Eventually, Natzke took a job at the Hot Springs Village Police Department, working as a dispatcher for the seven years preceding her death. Court records say she separated from her husband in January 2011, with Todd Natzke filing for divorce in April of that year.
After that, Natzke lived with two of her three sons in a house in the Village.
Doris Smith said her daughter's failed marriage left her depressed a lot of the time. One of the lone bright spots, she said, was that on Thursday nights, she and Natzke would go to Patsy's Bar, near the East Gate of Hot Springs Village, to watch football.
"Until the end of football season," Doris said, "we went all the time. Kevin started coming in there, and she met him there."
A mechanic who worked at a Shell store in the Village, Kevin Duck met Natzke in May 2011, and they almost immediately hit it off. Duck was 27 at the time, almost 20 years Natzke's junior. Natzke's friend Cheryl Ansell, who lived just across the cul-de-sac from the house Natzke and Duck would eventually share, said Natzke's friends didn't think much about the age difference because it was obvious how Duck's attention made Natzke feel.
"You know what attracted her to him?" Ansell said. "He made her laugh for the first time in years. She deserved it."
Both Smith and Ansell said the relationship between Natzke and Duck seemed like a good match.
"He was really good to me, and good to Dawna," Doris said. "She was very happy. He bought her the car that got burned — paid cash. ... It was an old car, but he was a mechanic and he went over it and fixed everything. He maintained all [Natzke's sons'] vehicles."
In hindsight, however, Doris said there are things about Duck's behavior that seem odd to her: "If we was sitting beside Dawna, he was rubbing her on the hand." She added, "His attention was always with her."
Cheryl Ansell's late husband, Jim, who worked at the Hot Springs Village Police Department with Natzke before his death from cancer, told Cheryl that he also found that aspect of Duck's behavior strange. "[Natzke] told Jim that Kevin was always touching her," Cheryl said. "He always had to be touching her. Jim told her: 'There's something wrong with somebody who always has to be touching you. There's something wrong with that.' She wouldn't believe it."
Doris Smith said Duck moved into Natzke's house around 10 days before she was murdered, but the relationship seemed to have to taken a turn. Smith and Ansell said that the night before the party at which Natzke was last seen, Natzke told her sister that when she went back to work on Friday of that week, she planned to get together with Jim Ansell to see about putting Duck out of her home.
Just after 6 p.m. on the evening of Dec. 21, 2011, Natzke and Duck picked up Doris Smith in the Ford Escort station wagon Duck had bought for Natzke, all of them headed to a Christmas party at the hilltop home of then-Hot Springs Village Property Owners Association general manager Scott Randall.
Smith said that when Natzke and Duck arrived at her house, she knew there was something on her daughter's mind. "There was something wrong with Dawna," Smith said. "There was something wrong, and she would not say a word. Kevin was fine."
They got to the party, and things seemed to be going fine. Just after 10 p.m., Doris said, Natzke went outside to smoke. When she came back in, she was crying. Coming up and hugging her, Smith said, Natzke told her that she was crying over a legal situation involving her estranged husband. Still crying, Smith said, Natzke went into the bathroom, followed closely by her friend, Patty Hathaway. Doris said that Hathaway misunderstood why Natzke was crying, and assumed it was about Kevin and Dawna's relationship.
"Patty Hathaway realized something was happening," Doris said, "so she went into the bathroom with Dawna. She didn't know Kevin was outside the bathroom listening. Patty was screaming for Dawna to throw that S.O.B. out, get rid of him."
Arkansas Times' attempts to contact Patty Hathaway were unsuccessful. At the time of the murder, however, Hathaway spoke to the Hot Springs Village Voice newspaper about the events leading up to Natzke's disappearance. In a Jan. 4, 2012, story, Hathaway told the HSV Voice that after Natzke came out of the bathroom, she saw Duck and Natzke heading toward the front door. "It looked to me like he wanted to walk out the door and she didn't," Hathaway said.
After Natzke and Duck went outside, a neighbor of Scott Randall happened to be walking back from another Christmas party down the street. The neighbor told the Hot Springs Village Voice that from the darkened yard in front of the Randall home, she heard "a man's voice uttering a single syllable over and over, approximately five times." The woman struggled to describe the sound she heard, though she reportedly called it "maniacal, anguishing, hysterical, indistinguishable." The woman said she didn't hear a woman's voice at any time. A few moments later, she heard a car squeal out of the Randall driveway and speed away into the dark.
Soon after her daughter went outside, Doris Smith realized that she'd been left behind, along with Natzke's glasses, cigarettes, and purse. Natzke's cell phone was gone. To Smith's knowledge, the phone has never been recovered.
After waiting for her daughter to return for over an hour, Doris caught a ride home with a friend, got ready for bed, then laid awake fretfully in the dark. Smith said that at 2:21 a.m. — she wrote the time down in a battered telephone book — the phone rang. It was Kevin Duck.
"He said: 'Miss Doris?' It was strange. He never called me Miss Doris, he called me Mom, just like all Dawna's friends," Smith said. "He said: 'Miss Doris, is Dawna there?' And I said: 'No, she's with you. She left me at the party with no way home' ... he hung up real quick there."
At 6:45 a.m., the phone rang again, and it was Kevin. "He said: 'I was sleeping on the couch and Dawna left. I figured she was going back to the party to get you,' " Smith said, adding that Kevin hung up quickly again. Doris said her daughter — whose eyesight was so bad that she wore the strongest available contact lenses and "pop bottle glasses" otherwise — was afraid to drive after dark.
None of the previous night's drama was known to Cheryl Ansell when she went out to walk her dog around 5:30 a.m. on Thursday, Dec. 22. Looking across the cul-de-sac to Nazke's house, Ansell said she saw Natzke's turquoise station wagon sitting in the driveway, adding that she noticed the dome light to the car had been left on.
Ansell said she went back inside, and told her husband that if he wanted to ride to the police station with Natzke for his shift that started at 6 a.m., he'd better hurry. When they went out just before 6 a.m., however, the car was gone. When he got to work, Jim Ansell found out that Natzke was not scheduled to work that day.
As dawn turned to morning, Patty Hathaway was concerned about her friend as well. At 8 a.m., Hathaway later told the Associated Press, she texted Natzke, saying that she was concerned about how Duck had "pushed" her out the door the night before. Around two hours later, Hathaway said, she got a text from Dawna's number in reply: "He didn't push me i fell and he caught me. I had taken a pain pill and was tour [sic] up." Smith said her daughter never used the slang "tore up," and her daughter's texts were always heavily abbreviated, using "u" for "you" and so forth.
According to an investigative timeline later distributed by the Hot Springs Village Police, Duck told investigators that after leaving the party, he and Natzke had gone home and he had gone to bed, leaving Natzke awake watching television. At 7:30 a.m. the morning after the party, according to the timeline, Duck said he woke up and found that Natzke and her car were gone, and assumed that she'd gone to work.
At 11:15 a.m. Dec. 22, a U.S. Forest Service worker found Dawna Natzke's station wagon torched to a smoldering hull in the woods eight miles from the intersection of Highway 298 and Highway 7, the fire having burned so hot that parts of the aluminum engine block had melted into slag. According to the Hot Springs Village police timeline, the Forest Service didn't notify them of their discovery until the morning of Dec. 24.
On Friday, Dec. 23, Natzke's son reported her missing, and the Hot Springs Village police began conducting interviews. On Christmas Eve, after the car was reported as found, Hot Springs Village PD conducted a search around the site where the car was burned, then a detective sent a flatbed truck to the scene, picked up Natzke's car, and reportedly hauled it uncovered to the Hot Springs Village Police Department, where it wasn't processed by technicians with the Arkansas State Crime Lab until four days later.
Frustrated with the pace of the search for Natzke, Patty Hathaway and other friends organized a volunteer search on Dec. 31. After a call was put out on social media, several hundred people showed up at the Jessieville High School gymnasium. No officers with the Hot Springs Village Police Department or the Garland County Sheriff's Office attended.
The highest ranking law enforcement officer there that day was Garland County Constable Bill Carpenter. Entering the gym at Jessieville, Carpenter said he was "blown away" by the number of volunteers, and their silence. "There were over 500 people there," Carpenter said. "The whole side was loaded up and they were loading up the second side, and I could have went out there and thrown down a quarter and you could have heard it hit the floor. It was that quiet. It was eerie." Asked if he was surprised that representatives of the Hot Springs Village Police Department weren't there that day, Anderson said he wasn't. "I just took it that everybody had been searching every day, day and night, and they were exhausted," Anderson said. "They were saying, you know, 'Knock yourself out. We're going to take the day off and regroup.' "
Also in attendance was Jeff Meek, a reporter with the Hot Springs Village Voice. A former basketball coach from the town of Minooka, Ill., Meek had never reported anything other than scores when he started with the Voice seven years ago. He's covered the Natzke murder like the dew since it happened. The Village, he said, is a place where lots of people wind up living "a second life." He's one of them.
As Carpenter and a trained search and rescue volunteer from Saline County busted the searchers up into teams and gave them a crash course in how to look for a missing person, Meek said he overheard a man nearby say "Shell store." Knowing that was where Kevin Duck worked, Meek eventually followed the man outside and asked if he could interview him. When the man identified himself, Meek was stunned. It was Luther Duck, Kevin Duck's father.
"He didn't have a lot of flattering things to say about his son," Meek said. "He said he had a history of violence, and there still may be some family matters there concerning his grandson." As he was talking to Duck, Meek heard a gasp, and when he turned, he saw that the women who'd been handing out maps were sobbing.
In less than 45 minutes, the searchers had found Dawna Natzke's body floating in the edge of George Spiers Curve Pond, a muddy, cattail-and-briar-ringed hole of water on West Main Haul Road, around six miles from where her car was found. At the scene, Constable Bill Carpenter said, you could see where someone had backed a vehicle down into the woods near the spot where the body was found.
"All of a sudden," Meek said, "there's a lot of chatter about 'they found her near a pond.' Luther Duck leaned over in my ear and said: 'I told the police to search that pond days ago.' I said: 'Hot Springs Village Police?' And I remember he paused, and I thought he didn't want to say, and then he said: 'Yes.' "
Meanwhile, in Hot Springs Village, Doris Smith soon learned that her daughter's body had been found from the Internet. Though the chief of police and the pastor of her church came racing into the driveway with sirens blaring a few minutes later, it was too late.
"It was already on Facebook," Smith said. "I was laying in the middle of the floor, screaming... I thought she might be alive. That was no way to find out. They were trying to get to me, to tell me the proper way, to be with me."
On Jan. 4, 2012, Kevin Duck's probation officer Courtney Thomas later testified, she found that the contact numbers that Duck had left with her office were inoperative. A State Police investigator working on the Natzke case located Duck in South Louisiana, and interviewed him there on Jan. 13. On Jan. 25, Hot Spring County Circuit Judge Chris Williams issued a warrant for Duck's arrest on an alleged parole violation. Duck — who had previously worked on offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico — was arrested at a hotel in Lake Charles, La., on Feb. 1 and extradited back to Arkansas the following week. Duck paid a $15,000 bond and was released on Feb. 28. During a March 27 hearing on the probation violation, Judge Williams found that Duck had committed three violations of the terms of his probation, and extended Duck's probation by two years.
Once Dawna Natzke's body was found, the investigation was handed over to the Garland County Sheriff's Department. After that, Doris Smith said, it's been hard to get any information from investigators about the case. She still doesn't know how her daughter died. She never saw the body, though she heard Natzke was found wearing the same clothes, including a red sweater, that she was wearing at the Christmas Party.
Though some have questioned the way the search for Dawna Natzke was handled, Doris Smith has nothing but good things to say about the Hot Springs Village Police Department and its search for her daughter. Officers were always at the house to fill her in on how the search for her daughter was progressing, Smith said. The FBI and Arkansas State Police were eventually brought in to assist with the investigation, but since Garland County took over, Smith said her phone calls to investigators are almost never returned.
Jeff Meek, however, is not so sure the Hot Springs Village Police Department did all they could after Natzke's disappearance. For a story marking the first anniversary of the murder, Meek interviewed former Hot Springs Village Police Officer Dale Anderson about the Natzke case. A retired law enforcement officer from Illinois, Anderson had been at the HSVPD at the time of the Natzke murder.
Arkansas Times spoke to Anderson, but he refused to comment much, saying he'd talked to Meek in the hopes that it would change things, but had been disappointed in the response. "The only thing that might have changed things [in Hot Springs Village]," Anderson said, "was if her body had been found on a golf course or in a golf course pond. Maybe people would have wanted some more answers. As long as we don't interrupt anybody's golf game, it's not that big a deal."
Previously, Anderson had told the Hot Springs Village Voice: "The Hot Springs Village PD never did organize a full search. [Then-Chief Laroy] Cornett could have put 20 to 25 volunteers from the Village police and fire departments out there on any given day. Why did it take citizens to find her? Some of the officers that were working that weekend were not given information as to where Dawna was last seen or where to look."
Anderson told the Voice that when officers offered to organize their own search party to look for Natzke the day she was reported missing, they were "told to drive around the dead-end cul-de-sacs and look for Dawna's car."
Meek told Arkansas Times he later learned that the pond where Natzke's body was found was, in fact, given at least a cursory search once and possibly twice by the Hot Springs Village Police. Still, he calls the question of why it took a week and a half and a volunteer search to find the body "unexplainable." He said he also doesn't understand why the car was brought back to the Village for processing. "Maybe there was nothing there anyway because of the heat of the fire," Meek said, "but to put it on a flatbed and drive it 50 miles an hour for 10 miles down the road? If there was anything on there, it's going to blow away."
Even with those seemingly unexplainable lapses, Meek said he doesn't believe there was any kind of cover-up by Hot Springs Village or the HSVPD. "I'm convinced that the people who work in the Hot Springs Village Police Department loved Dawna Natzke," Meek said. "She was truly one of their own. Which makes it all the more puzzling why the search seems to be slow in developing and why more wasn't done. ... why a better job didn't get done."
Hot Springs Village Interim Chief Ricky Middleton refused to comment on the search for Natzke, and referred all questions about the investigation to the Garland County Sheriff's Office.
Investigator Mike Wright with the Garland County Sheriff Office has been the lead detective on the case since Natzke's body was found. When we spoke in early June, he said the investigation was drawing to a close. Just before press time, a spokesman for the Garland County Sherrif's Office said the investigative file had been forwarded to the Garland County prosecutor's office.
"We feel like we've investigated everything there is to investigate, and we've been in contact throughout the ordeal with the prosecutor's office," Wright said. "That's what I'm working on as we speak. We're getting the final, formal file ready to send over."
Asked whether Kevin Duck is considered a suspect in the case, Wright said: "I can tell you that our investigation has led us to no other persons of interest." Of his interviews with Duck, Wright said Duck was "cooperative," but refused to say more.
Wright said he couldn't disclose how Natzke died, whether she was killed where she was found, or whether the evidence in the case leads investigators to believe that the killer had an accomplice. He said that the area where the car was burned was searched more than once, but nothing of evidentiary value was located there. At the pond, however, Wright said that investigators did locate "items of evidence," but he couldn't get into specifics.
As for how long the investigation phase has taken, Wright said they have taken their time because they didn't want to "jump the gun."
"We didn't want to go off half-cocked and rush out and do something that later on would come back to bite us," he said. "We wanted to make sure we did a thorough investigation and exhausted all the leads possible. Unfortunately, that takes a little time. You have witnesses who were once here who are not here, you try to track them down to do your interviews, and so forth."
Wright said he feels confident that the sheriff's office has done the best investigation it can do in the case, and has done a thorough job. Asked what have been the biggest difficulties in solving the murder, Wright said: "The lack of actual witnesses and the lack of physical evidence."
Still, Wright is optimistic. "From my personal standpoint, I think there is enough there to move forward with a charge," he said. "But then again, I look at it from the investigative side. I'm not in the position to have to actually prosecute it. In my years of doing this, I've walked over there with a case that I thought was a slam dunk, and it just fell to pieces. Conversely, I've walked over there with a case I didn't feel very comfortable with at all and ended up getting a conviction on it. It's hard to say, especially with a jury trial. You never know what 12 men and women are going to think."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Just after press time for this story, we received a call from Garland County Prosecutor Steve Oliver. Oliver said he is in receipt of the investigative file in the case and is in the process of reviewing it. Asked if it looks like he has enough information to charge someone in the Natzke murder, Oliver said: "I haven't decided yet, but we're going to charge somebody, it looks like." Oliver couldn't say more, but encouraged the reporter to check back with him at two week intervals.
CORRECTION: a previous version of this story said that a week and a half after Natzke and Kevin Duck met, Duck moved into Natzke's house. Doris Smith called to clarify that Duck actually moved into Natzke's house around 10 days before she was murdered. The error was due to a confused transcription. We regret this error.