Donald Lester Milks “took more to the grave than he told anyone.” Milks’ son shared those words with the pastor who performed his father’s funeral service at the International Word Fellowship Church in Austin, Minnesota in the spring of 2011. The funeral marked the untimely end of 52 year old Donald Milks, who was found dead in his apartment a few days earlier, on April 10, 2011.
Pastor Raymond Tuck, longtime pastor of the International Word Fellowship Church, says he knew the man he called “Donny” for years. And though Milks struggled with drug demons and a host of other problems for a very long time, Milks apparently found some comfort and support in the company of faith-believers at the church, formerly known as Victory Christian Center. Milks reached out to his pastor numerous times for help, guidance, and support. Tuck says, “I knew him in good and in bad,” after Milks first came to see him in his office in 1993. For a year or two after that, Milks started to attend church pretty regularly, but slacked off in 1995, coming only occasionally after that. According to his pastor, Milks struggled mightily to get his life on track, but, as a former convicted felon on probation, with family problems and drug issues, he faced an uphill battle. For a while, Milks managed to keep a pretty low profile with his drug problems, especially around the pastor and his church friends, but he was known to deal with a lot of people on the “darker side” of life.
In his role as the head of a local church, Tuck is certainly no stranger to hearing some of his flock unburdening their souls. But in June 2007, Milks came to meet him in the church office, and said he believed his life was in danger because of something he knew. Tuck remembers trying to calm the agitated Milks, who he at first believed was under the influence of a drug-induced paranoia. Looking back, Tuck says he now understands that Milks probably knew a lot more than “I thought he knew” about the 1995 disappearance of Jodi Huisentruit.
On that day in 2007, Milks started talking about how he knew who killed Jodi and where she was buried. He said he had learned the information through one of his drug dealers, and hinted the police were involved, but he wouldn’t reveal the details to Tuck. Milks was urgent in wanting to get some people together from the church and go and “find her.” Tuck recalls telling him, “Donny, we can’t do that,” saying that information was best left to the police.
Tuck reveals Milks had a deep distrust of police in the area, both in Austin and Mason City. The pastor didn’t call police himself, he says, because he really didn’t have any information to share with anyone. All he had was a guy who was telling him stories – a guy who had “burned a lot of bridges with people in his life because of his craziness.”
So I asked Tuck how he found Shane Philpott, pastor of Christian Fellowship Church in Mason City, Iowa. I wondered aloud if he had previously known or met Philpott through their common Christian ties. No, Tuck said, he simply flipped through the phone book and reached out to someone, anyone, in whom he hoped Milks could feel comfortable enough to confide. Tuck just wanted to provide some help for his troubled church member. Meanwhile, the phone log at Philpott’s Christian Fellowship International in Mason City made note of the initial call from Austin that afternoon, a note that read that Milks wanted to talk with Philpott about “some scary stuff,” and that it was “very serious.”
Tuck didn’t know if Donny ever met with Philpott later in person, but they did connect on the telephone that day. Then Tuck left the room for the two to have a private conversation. Philpott assured Milks that he knew a trustworthy cop – his sister-in-law Maria Ohl – and that he would talk to her about the proper way to go through the appropriate channels to get the information to police.
Philpott’s phone records show he did get through to two officers at the Mason City Police Department shortly after his initial conversation with Milks, and both officers instructed him not to call Milks back. After another month went by, Philpott called the M.C.P.D. again, and this time talked to another officer, who claimed the information “wasn’t credible” and that they (the police) “get this stuff all the time.” Philpott tried to reason with that officer, who then ended the call. Though M.C.P.D. says it has “no record” of any such conversations, Philpott has retained copies of his own phone bills and other records, which do prove the calls were made.
In the two years before his death, Tuck says Milks went progressively downhill – he said Milks didn’t look well and said he didn’t think he’d live very long. Tuck saw Milks less in those final couple of years, when Donny had moved from his home into an apartment in Austin. Milks claimed he didn’t feel safe in his home, but family members tell a slightly different version of the story. They said they didn’t trust him to be on his own anymore because of his health and drug issues.
Because of those factors, Tuck was not terribly surprised by Milks’ death. But he said he was surprised to hear that there were questions about how Milks died: Some were vocal in saying Milks’ revelations about what he knew put him at risk. It is clear, though, that Milks’ chronic drug usage, hypertension and other health issues likely played a role in his death, and Milks’ son’s words at his father’s funeral probably hit a lot closer to the truth than many people think.
Tuck’s information doesn’t solve the mystery, of course. It doesn’t add much clarity to what happened to Jodi Huisentruit 17 years ago. But it does help in another way. It certainly corroborates information shared by Mason City’s Shane Philpott, who says he tried to channel Milks’ information to the proper authorities within the Mason City Police Department. Philpott maintains he had more than one phone conversation about the matter with Mason City cops, yet he says he repeatedly was rebuffed in his efforts and turned away. It’s a common thread we hear from many involved in this story.
Police officials in Mason City continue to maintain a “no record” and “no comment” stance regarding these sensitive conversations. And former Mason City Police officer Maria Ohl, who tried to aid her brother-in-law Shane Philpott in getting valid information to the proper channels, is out of a job.