Again and again across Iowa in 2016, a man in a silver car was on the prowl for young girls.
He would call out and ask them to get in. As enticement, he showed a $100 bill they could get for helping him with a task.
Before long he was gone, leaving no trace except for scared little girls with vague memories of the trauma they had just experienced.
“It was seriously less than a minute,” said Brandy Nelson, a mom whose 6-year-old daughter was preyed on. “It just happened too quick.”
It was the stuff of parents’ nightmares: a stranger swooping in without warning, trying to kidnap their children. Experts say it rarely happens — the vast majority of child kidnappings involve a family member or friend known to the child. But here were the rare cases, over and over in Iowa.
Police faced a difficult task. Physical descriptions and age estimates of the driver differed. Police noticed similarities in the reports but couldn’t identify a suspect.
While investigations stalled, the man in the silver car was becoming bolder, even trying to kidnap girls in Algona and nearby Humboldt with only about an hour between the attempts.
Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation officials now believe that the man’s enticement crimes extended to at least 19 girls in nine counties.
“To see this individual has tried to kidnap 19 children is astonishing,” said Callahan Walsh, a child safety expert with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
Ending the reign of terror would take Nelson’s daughter being brave enough and smart enough to say “no” and report what happened right away, and a quick-acting neighbor mad enough and stubborn enough to chase the man in the silver car and not let him go.
That man was Jeff Lee Altmayer, 58, of Ankeny, who is now appealing a life sentence.
The arrest: From ‘Where’s Paisley?’ to a 140-mph chase
It wasn’t a typical Wednesday for Brandy Nelson.
The mom of four kids normally waits outside her Onawa house and watches her 6- and 9-year-old girls get off the bus just a block away.
But on Nov. 16, 2016, she had company over and decided to stay inside.
Nevaeh, Nelson’s 9-year-old daughter, came running in without her younger sister, Paisley, who was taking her time.
“Where’s Paisley?” Nelson asked. Nelson told Nevaeh to go outside and get her.
Paisley was on the doorstep. She came inside and told her mother that a man stopped her while she was walking and asked her if she wanted $100, holding it between his fingertips, Nelson said. She told him no and went straight home.
“It was like she had seen a ghost,” said Austin Kirkpatrick, a 22-year-old neighbor who was at the Nelsons’. “She was terrified.”
Kirkpatrick asked Paisley what kind of car approached her.
She described a small, silver vehicle. Kirkpatrick went outside and saw a car matching Altmayer’s 2004 silver Ford Focus turning a corner, leaving the neighborhood.
On the news, Kirkpatrick had seen segments titled “What Would You Do?”
Now, a potential child predator was on the loose, and he had to make his own decision.
“I was put in the situation where I had to do something,” Kirkpatrick said.
With no shoes or socks, he rushed out of the home with two of Nelson’s older kids. One teen jumped into the front seat of the car, while the other teen sat in the back.
Altmayer was about three blocks away from them when they started driving, but they saw him turn east on Granite Street.
By the time they caught up to him, he was heading north on 10th Street.
“Go, go, go,” the teens said.
Kirkpatrick believes Altmayer knew Kirkpatrick was following in his car — a black Chrysler 300 that had been sitting in Nelson’s driveway, right by where Altmayer tried to pick up Paisley.
Altmayer turned west on Diamond Street and pulled his vehicle over by the U.S. Bank between 11th and 12th streets.
He waved Kirkpatrick around, sticking his left arm out the driver side window.
Instead, Kirkpatrick pulled up beside Altmayer on the left, so their vehicles were a little over a foot apart.
Kirkpatrick rolled down his passenger window.
“Are you trying to pick up children?” Kirkpatrick asked.
“I ain’t doing that,” Altmayer responded.
Kirkpatrick told him he planned to call the police. Altmayer responded by saying he was an undercover police officer.
“That’s good. My brother is an officer, so we’re going to find out the truth,” Kirkpatrick said.
Altmayer said he would beat Kirkpatrick up unless he left. Kirkpatrick dared him to do it.
The kids in the car were frightened, Kirkpatrick said, so he drove off. But as they drove away, he told them that someone would act that aggressively only if he had done something wrong.
“I was on edge,” Kirkpatrick said. “I didn’t know if the guy had a gun. He didn’t say nothing. Before it gets out of control, we’ll just pull away.”
He looked in his mirror and saw Altmayer turn on 12th Street heading north. He told the kids they couldn’t let him go. They turned to catch up.
At a stop sign, he saw Altmayer pass by him and head west toward I-29.
So Kirkpatrick had to decide again. He and the children sat for a minute — a long time to wait, since Altmayer was speeding away.
“We’ve got to follow him. I don’t care,” Kirkpatrick finally said.
There wasn’t a lot of traffic leaving town, so Kirkpatrick started speeding, at 110 to 120 miles per hour, he said. As he drove over the interstate overpass, he saw Altmayer underneath, getting on the ramp for I-29 south.
But a semi truck was in front of Kirkpatrick, and the shoulders were too narrow to allow passing.
By the time he got around the semi, Kirkpatrick couldn’t see Altmayer anymore. He went even faster, pushing his speed to 152 miles per hour, he said. He caught up to Altmayer, who he believes was driving 90 to 100 miles per hour.
Then Kirkpatrick sped past him and called the police using one teen’s smartphone. Police asked if he could get Altmayer’s license plate.
Kirkpatrick pulled over at the rest stop at Horseshoe Lake by Mondamin until Altmayer passed. Then he pulled up behind Altmayer, and he and the kids tried six different times to note the license plate number to share with the dispatcher. Altmayer kept slowing down and speeding back up. Finally they got the number to the dispatcher.
Between Mondamin and Modale, multiple Iowa State Patrol vehicles were “flying” on I-29 with their lights on. Kirkpatrick was a few vehicles ahead and pulled over. So did Altmayer. The troopers took him into custody.
“He wasn’t going to get away,” Kirkpatrick said. “I would have done it again.”
During an interview later, Altmayer admitted to speaking with Paisley and pretending he was an undercover officer, according to court records.
How did one man access so many kids?
A little girl in Dike remembered a man with dark hair and a silver car.
A 7-year-old girl remembered a man with light hair in his 40s or 50s, or maybe even his 30s.
An 11-year-old girl remembered a man with tan skin and dark, curly hair.
Law enforcement offices received the string of child enticement or sexual abuse reports over the course of five months, according to the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.
But investigators faced hurdles in finding a suspect, said DCI Special Agent Mike Krapfl.
“Kids are always a little more difficult to interview, and getting information from them is a little more challenging,” Krapfl said. “Even three kids who viewed the same incident, you might get different descriptions.”
Between May 31, 2016, and Nov. 16, 2016, Altmayer is suspected of trying to entice at least 19 children; he sexually abused two of them, police say. His victims were all girls, with an average age of 10. But he went after kids as young as 6 and as old as 13.
Over time, state and local agencies saw a common denominator: An older man with dark hair who was driving a silver car kept offering kids $100 to get inside.
Agencies put the reports on the Iowa Law Enforcement Intelligence Network, Krapfl said. The program, which started in 1984, allows agencies to share information with one another so they can better solve crimes.
Altmayer’s lack of connection to each community made this string of crimes especially difficult to piece together. Authorities investigating child enticement cases usually start by interviewing people who know the victim, said Walsh, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children expert.
“It’s difficult to find a place to start when it’s a stranger,” Walsh said.
But kids who got inside his car were able to remember certain things. An abundance of air fresheners. A black folding chair in the back.
Authorities put out information after Altmayer’s arrest to see if more children would come forward. Charges were filed in the two strongest cases.
“Responsive citizens is what we count on,” Krapfl said. “There were parents on the ball there, and it certainly helped. Law enforcement there helped. It was critical for all of this.”
Altmayer is appealing a sentence of life in prison for crimes he committed in Jasper County. In that case, he pulled up to two 11-year-old girls who were walking near the elementary school in Colfax and introduced himself as “Jimmy.” He showed them a $100 bill and invited them into the car. He said one girl would get the cash if she went with him to Des Moines to do some yard work.
One girl said no. The other said yes.
While driving a few blocks, Altmayer started squeezing the girl’s breasts and rubbing her genital area over her clothes. He grabbed her arm and forced her to touch his genitals over his clothing.
She repeatedly said she wanted to get out of the car, and Altmayer dropped her off a block away from the library and drove away.
Who is Jeff Altmayer?
The publicly available information about Altmayer is sparse and unremarkable.
Before 2016, Altmayer’s prior criminal record in Iowa is nonexistent, other than for a few speeding tickets.
The 58-year-old stands nearly 6 feet tall, weighing about 235 pounds. He’s said that he has high blood pressure, anxiety, a panic disorder and depression.
Altmayer graduated from Baldwin High School in Baldwin, New York, according to his LinkedIn page. He is a military veteran and was honorably discharged from the National Guard after serving between 1977 and 1983, according to property records.
He and Ginger Altmayer were married in Campbell, California, in June 1985, and they have two sons who were adults by the time the crimes were committed. He and his wife had lived in Ankeny since 2000.
Ginger Altmayer filed for divorce in January 2017, not long after Altmayer’s arrest, and in court documents said she had lost her job because of her husband’s crimes.
Altmayer’s family did not respond to multiple requests to comment.
Altmayer has not been charged with any crimes in Polk County. But Ankeny police received a report about his interactions with a 15-year-old girl on June 7, 2015, said Lt. Brian Kroska, spokesman for Ankeny police.
He said the teen’s parents contacted the police because they were concerned about their daughter and Altmayer texting each other. They asked the police department to tell Altmayer to cease communication but did not want to pursue charges.
Kroska said the texts between the teen and Altmayer did not appear explicit.
The majority of Altmayer’s professional career involved work for security companies. He worked in management at such companies as Per Mar Security and Security Equipment Inc.
In 2008, he started working for Strauss Security Solutions, before leaving to be an independent consultant and professional photographer, according to his LinkedIn page.
In his free time, he did competition shooting and had an interest in firearms.
In 2014, he took a $15-an-hour job as a vehicle inspector for Alliance Inspection Management. That led him to travel across the state, according to law enforcement. Alliance Inspection Management did not respond to a request for comment.
Throughout court case, a flood of emotions
After Altmayer was detained, Brandy Nelson realized the seriousness of what unfolded a few feet outside the safety of her home.
“That night is when I sat there and thought, ‘Oh my God, what could have happened?’” Nelson said. “It sets in and it just freaks you out. You do anything to protect your kids, and then you have a sicko come into your town and prey on your kids.”
Nelson researched information about Altmayer on the internet. She said it was like a security blanket — if she could help investigators in any way to keep Altmayer in jail, she would do it.
“It made up for me feeling so crappy about it happening to her,” Nelson said, with tears in her eyes.
When Altmayer was released on bond a week later, Nelson feared he would come after their family. (She declined to have her picture taken for this story.) She was angry, too. How could a man who tried to kidnap her daughter be allowed out of jail?
“Does he know that Paisley was the one who told on him?” Nelson said.
His bond was revoked after the charges in Jasper County were filed.
Another ordeal lay ahead: Paisley was asked to testify at Altmayer’s trial. Her youngest daughter was scared of seeing Altmayer, but a child advocate helped her through the process.
Despite her fear, she spoke well, Nelson said.
Nelson tells Paisley that she’s a hero who helped prevent bad things from happening to more kids.
Knowing that Altmayer received a life sentence has offered Nelson a measure of relief.
“I’m really not a violent, evil or mean person, but I really hope he suffers. He deserves to,” Nelson said. “These are little kids. They’re scared.”
Altmayer did not respond to a letter from a reporter requesting an interview. During his sentencing in Newton this year, he repeatedly held up a manila folder to shield his face from a photographer.
Judge Terry Rickers told him to make eye contact and put the folder down, but Altmayer declined and accused Rickers of being biased in his sentencing and decisions.
“You had me guilty from the time you met me,” Altmayer said. “You disallowed all the evidence that was helpful to my case and for that you should have recused yourself.”
Rickers responded by saying that there was no one Altmayer could blame but himself:
“You can blame the rest of the world for the problem that you’ve imposed on yourself by your horrendous actions in this case, but you can’t hide; you can’t run from the accountability that you’re facing today, sir.”
Increasing rarity: Fewer strangers are targeting children in person
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children 2016 report found that out of the 20,500 children reported missing that year, only 1 percent of incidents didn’t involve family members.
The center gets reports of about 150 abductions by strangers in the United States each year — a severe reduction from the past, Walsh said. Advances in technology, such as cameras and Amber Alerts, have helped law enforcement prevent and solve such crimes. Increased education has assisted as well.
“We’re seeing less and less of the stranger abduction,” Walsh said. “What we’re seeing more is the exploitation of children online.”
State investigators in Iowa have said that Altmayer was examined for potential involvement in the kidnapping and killing of two cousins from Evansdale in 2012.
It would be surprising if Altmayer never preyed on children until 2016, Walsh said. But he also said that successfully committing a crime could embolden a person to pick up the pace.
To protect kids, it’s important to empower them and have continuing conversations about safety, Walsh said. Teach kids what strangers they can approach if they’re in danger — a police officer, security guard or a mother with kids.
Children also need to feel like they have the power and tools to make a decision, rather than keeping them in a bubble, Walsh said. Advise them to walk with other people and be wary when a stranger approaches them.
“So many parents think, ‘I’ll always be there’ for the child, but you need to prepare them for any path that child will find themselves on,” Walsh said. “You won’t always be on that path with them.”
After Altmayer tried to take Paisley, Nelson at first never wanted her children out of her sight.
She continues to talk to them about safety, but knows they’ll make the right decisions, just like Paisley did that November day.
“I don’t think anyone’s any more paranoid than they were before. They still go do stuff,” Nelson said. “I need to let them live and trust they know what to do.”
Similar incidents throughout Iowa
State investigators say they believe these reports to police could be connected to Jeff Altmayer; authorities have also learned of other incidents that were not initially reported to police. People with additional information can contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at 515-725-6010 or email email@example.com.
- May 31, 2016, Earlville: A man with dark, curly hair driving a silver four-door car attempted to abduct an 11-year-old girl who just left the pool on her bike. He offered her $100 to get in the car and help him with something.
- June 14, 2016, Fort Madison: A child was headed home when someone in a four-door car approached and tried to persuade her to get in, police told the Fort Madison Daily Democrat. She refused.
- June 21, 2016, DIke: A tan man with dark hair offered an elementary-aged girl $100 to get in his car over by Dike City Park around 11 a.m.
- Aug. 2, 2016, Cedar Falls: A man approached a 13-year-girl and two of her friends and offered them $100 to get into a vehicle by Clay Street Park.
- Aug. 11, 2016, Marshalltown: A man tried to entice a 10-year-old girl into his car in the 200 block of West Main Street. The driver of the vehicle started talking to the girl, and, though he did not get out of his car, he offered the girl money to get into his car and tried to get her to tell him her name, police said.
- Aug. 17, 2016, Colfax: Jeff Altmayer approached two girls in Colfax and offered them $100 bills if one of them would get in his car and come to his home in Des Moines to do yard work. One girl declined and the other 11-year-old girl agreed to go with him. Altmayer was later convicted of sexual abuse, kidnapping and enticing.
- Oct. 27, 2016, Algona: A man attempted to entice a girl into his vehicle. He was described as a white male, with light-colored hair, believed to be in his 40s or 50s.
- Oct. 27, 2016, Humboldt: Only about an hour after the report in Algona, a girl near Bicknell Park said a man attempted to pull her into his vehicle by grabbing her arm. She escaped and notified police. He was described as a man in his 50s, about 5 feet, 10 inches in height, clean-shaven, with curly hair and sunglasses.
- Nov. 16, 2016, Onawa: Altmayer was arrested after trying to lure a 6-year-old girl into his car for $100 and falsely claiming to be a police officer.
Tips for parents
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children says these are some of the most important safety principles to tell your children:
- It’s OK to be rude if someone is making you uncomfortable. Say “no,” walk away and tell a trusted adult.
- Always go places with a friend and stay with the group. If a friend walks away from the group, tell a trusted adult right away.
- You should never approach a vehicle or get inside it without my permission. If someone is following you in a vehicle, turn and run in the other direction. Tell me or another trusted adult what happened right away.
- When you are home alone, do not open the door for anyone.
- You can always tell me about anything that makes you feel sad, scared or confused.
- It’s important for me to know where you are and where you are going. If you want to change plans, check with me first.
- If we are separated and you need help, ask a police officer, a store clerk or a parent with children.
- If someone grabs you, kick, yell and pull away.