Investigators Stumped Over 1972 Killings
- September 18, 2008
- by PInow Staff
His wrinkled hands grip a flier he had printed more than 30 years ago.
“I wish they were still alive,” Bob Allen says in a hushed voice as he stares at black-and-white photos on the page:
His sister, Bernice Peak, with her broad smile and a strand of pearls circling her neck.
Her husband, retired Col. Bill Peak, his brush cut hinting of his military service.
Their youngest, 14-year-old Barbara, her long hair styled with a middle part.
Above their pictures, bold-face letters scream:
This poster soliciting tips helped start Allen’s paper war to solve the startling triple slaying 36 years ago Sept. 9 near Grand Island.
In the decades since, Allen has accumulated a 6-inch stack of correspondence and clippings on the case and others like it in his office at his department store, Allen’s, in Hastings.
His office walls hold shrines to his achievements. Meeting Fidel Castro when he was Hastings’ mayor, serving as a University of Nebraska regent, being one of Nebraska’s longest-running retailers.
For everything Allen has accomplished in his 82 years, there is one thing he hasn’t.
He still doesn’t know who killed his sister.
Allen’s white, wavy hair is combed back and stark against his sharp black blazer, a monogrammed shirt pocket peeking out. Age has bent his tall frame.
His oversize, blond-stained desk is covered by stacks of papers and files. He backs up his stream-of-consciousness conversation style with instant footnotes, such as a 1956 Pasadena Playhouse brochure to show he considered acting.
In less than a minute, he can find a yellowed plat map to show why his sister, Bernice, and her family came to Nebraska.
Her husband was an Army colonel who served as a military attaché in Russia and Hungary.
Allen’s parents persuaded the Peaks to retire to Grand Island, where Bill Peak could run an Allen’s store they would build at 13th and Webb Streets. Bob Allen already had his store in Hastings, and his brother, Bruce, had one in North Platte.
The Grand Island building permit was on the City Council agenda for Sept. 11, 1972.
The Peaks wouldn’t see the day.
The weekend before was the first Husker game of the year. Allen and his wife had flown to the game at UCLA, the first since Nebraska won the 1971 national championship.
The day after the game, Bob Allen’s father, Ron, went to the Peaks’ lakeside home — just off Gunbarrel Road — to watch the Bob Devaney show with them.
Instead, he found their bodies in the master bedroom.
Bill, Bernice and Barbara all had been shot in the head with a .22-caliber gun.
Bernice, despite a shot to the face, still was alive.
The Allens flew home and rushed to Bernice’s bedside. “How many were there?” Allen remembers asking his sister.
Unable to talk or write, Bernice held up several fingers.
The family hoped for details as her condition improved.
Bernice took any answers to her grave, dying two months later of an infection.
Two days after her death, Allen sent a letter pleading for help. He criticized Hall County authorities, although other investigators later commended their work.
“Dear Governor Exon:” Allen wrote.
“The Pentagon was understandably upset over Col. Peak’s murder because of Bill having gone through so many dangerous wars and situations and then to be shot down and killed in his bedroom upon returning to supposedly safe Nebraska.
“The murders of the Peaks will not obviously help attract other people to select Nebraska to retire to. It will help the state if these murderers are found and brought to justice.”
Exon ordered the State Patrol to review the case.
The crime scene showed no sign of sexual assaults or even a struggle. In fact, Peak seemed to be lighting a cigarette — he had a lighter in one hand and a cigarette beneath his body.
Bill Peak’s wallet and credit cards were found in the street in Grand Island, but no fingerprints were found on them. Nothing else was missing.
Investigators ruled out two men arrested on drug charges. A mysterious car seen in the area turned out to belong to an amorous couple, not a killer.
Bill Peak’s Army travels spurred talk of Russian hit men, which Allen finds ridiculous — professional killers wouldn’t have left his sister alive.
Allen has collected tips from locals about a biker and a rumor that the Peaks were going to disclose information about a “wife-swapping routine.”
A resident of a Nebraska psychiatric center sent him a letter: “During a drug deal in Nogales, Arizona, a man asked me if I ever killed anyone. I said I brokered the hit on the Peak family. I did not do it. Alcohol and my twisted mind spoke it out. . . . I like you and hope you understand.”
In 1997, in a news article on the 25th anniversary of the slayings, one retired investigator said the deaths could have been a murder-suicide, with Allen’s father hiding the gun, contradicting public statements by other investigators and infuriating Allen. A patrol investigator and national FBI personnel later reconfirmed it was a triple homicide.
In the absence of answers, Allen and his wife have created their own theories.
Allen is convinced the Peaks were killed by a Peeping Tom sneaking looks at Barbara, who had an “adult torso,” as he puts it.
“I think Bill was trying to talk with him and reason with him, and he just shot him,” Allen says. “I’m sure that Bernice fell apart. She just adored him.
“And Barbara? No-o-o,” he says, seeming newly astonished that someone could shoot the girl.
His wife, Georgene, scoffs at her husband’s idea. “Peeping Toms — would they be armed?”
She was suspicious of several “long-haired” boys, college friends of another daughter, who had stayed at the Peak house.
Allen twice has hired private investigators to work the case and kept sending letters pressing state officials for help, working every angle that came to mind.
He pressured: To Gov. Kay Orr, 1987: “We have no choice but to use legal means and public notice through the news media.”
He schmoozed: To Gov. Ben Nelson, 1993: “We did not receive the support from the State Patrol when the Republicans were in charge of the governor’s mansion.”
He cozied up: To Gov. Mike Johanns, 2001: “We agree with you in so many areas such as your desire to see speedier execution, also your defense of tax breaks for big businesses.”
He personalized the victims. A 1998 letter to the State Patrol chief included a news article with a trooper’s picture: “When I look at his picture, it reminds me of Bill Peak. Bill was a brilliant Army officer. . . .”
Allen has a simple reason for his three decades of persistence.
“I don’t think people who murder should get away with it,” he says.
State Patrol Lt. Dennis Leonard reviewed the case after one of Allen’s letters.
“He’s been in contact with, I think, every governor, asking not to let this thing just fade away, please do what you can,” he said. “I admire his devotion.”
Even though the file is fat, evidence doesn’t point toward any suspect or the chance of DNA tests, making it lower priority than other cases, Leonard said.
“We’re going to spend more time and more dollars on those cases that have a high probability of solvability,” he said.
“But it doesn’t mean we’re going to forget the others.”
Allen’s commitment has outlasted his parents and only brother; Gov. Exon; the original patrol investigator; and both private investigators.
His letter writing waned about five years ago, after the cold-case investigator got involved. Allen was surprised to learn the investigator juggled dozens of cases.
“The Peak murder is just one. In the movies, it’s just one case at a time,” he says.
“After several years, you just get discouraged.”