IOWA CITY, Iowa – Police said a van involved in a fiery, fatal crash Monday morning belonged to a man who was being sought in connection with the killings of his wife and four children.
Iowa City police said the van was owned by Steven Sueppel, who was being sought after the five bodies were found in his home at 629 Barrington Road.
Sgt. Troy Kelsay wouldn't release the names of the victims, but he confirmed they were Sueppel's wife and children, ages 3, 5, 7 and 10.
The matter began when dispatchers received a call at 6:31 a.m. saying officers needed to respond to the Barrington Road home immediately. The caller then hung up.
Officers arrived to the unlocked house, then entered and found the five bodies inside, according to a news release from the Iowa City Police Department.
Authorities said they were not able to locate Sueppel, and that the family's van was missing.
Court records show that Sueppel was indicted by a grand jury last month on charges of stealing about $560,000 from the bank where he worked.
"Given the nature of the call, and the fact that Steven Sueppel was recently charged with embezzlement ... there was some concern for the safety of the occupants," Kelsay told The Associated Press, when asked why they entered the house.
Police didn't specify how the family was killed. Initial alerts said there had been a shooting at the home, but Kelsay said further investigation shows the deaths could be the result of some other trauma.
"I'm not certain that a firearm was ever involved. Nobody reported hearing any shots fired," he said.
Police said the fatal vehicle crash about nine miles from the home involved the family's van. The vehicle caught fire and officers were having a difficult time identifying it and the person inside.
"It fits, but as far as an ID, it's not possible to do an ID short of an autopsy. The fire was that intense," Kelsay said.
Autopsies on the body found in the van and the bodies at the home were expected to be performed Tuesday, according to a police news release.
The scene at the home was wrapped in crime tape, and an ambulance was in the home's driveway. The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the FBI were assisting in the investigation.
Kelsay said that the slayings do not appear to be a random crime, and the investigation was focusing on Steven Sueppel.
"It's certainly a tragedy, whoever is responsible for it," he said. "... This does not appear to be a random crime. It appears that possibly it is the work of Steven Sueppel."
One of the Sueppel's neighbors, 63-year-old Linda Berryhill, said she hadn't met the family but had seen the kids playing outside.
"It's unbelievable. It's the day after Easter," she said. "This is a nice neighborhood, nice people helping each other."
Three young girls who live in the suburban development and knew the family wrote chalk messages on the sidewalk in the area that said, "We are going to miss you guys," and "I wish that this day never came."
Students and faculty at the University of Iowa received text and telephone messages early Monday warning that there was an active shooter in the Iowa City area. The message said police were looking for a white man in his 40s, driving a 1998 tan Toyota Sienna minivan with Iowa license plate number 501 BLO.
Iowa City schools were under lockdown as a precaution, but the district resumed normal operation later Monday morning. A spokesman for the school system said a critical instance management team was in place in the district, but he declined to provide more details where the children may have attended school.
According to court records, Sueppel was charged with one count of embezzlement of bank funds and six counts of money laundering while serving as the vice president and controller of Hills Bank and Trust in Johnson County.
Authorities said the alleged thefts occurred between July 2000 and September 2007.
Sueppel, 42, pleaded not guilty to the charges in U.S. District Court and was released on a $250,000 personal bond. The government was also seeking the forfeiture of the money he was accused of stealing.
His trial was scheduled for April 21.
Sueppel's attorney in that case, Leon Spies, said he had heard of the deaths.
"I had great affection for Steve and his family. This is an unimaginable professional and personal tragedy for a lot of people," he said.
The bank where Sueppel worked was the site of killing in December 1985 when a 63-year-old farmer, Dale Burr, shot bank president John Hughes, 46.
Burr, who was deeply in debt, walked into the bank with a shotgun and shot Hughes in the head after killing his wife. He also shot a neighboring farmer, then killed himself.
Burr had left a note saying, "I'm sorry. I can't take the problems anymore."