Minnesota's Most Infamous Heiress: The Newest Chapter

5:40 PM, Jul 30, 2004   |    comments
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She's one of Minnesota's most notorious figures and at age 71, Marjorie Congdon Caldwell Hagen is starting her life all over again.

Marjorie gained notoriety after being accused of killing her mother, heiress Elizabeth Congdon and a nurse at her family's Duluth mansion in 1977.

The heiress to a mining fortune was acquitted in that case — but a life of legal scrapes and misfortune continued for Marjorie.

In Wednesday's Extra, Reporter Bernie Grace told the long story of Marjorie's legal scrapes — and looked at her plans now. The following is based on his report.

After being locked up for twelve years Marjorie Caldwell Hagen finally shed her prison clothes in January, leaving the women's prison outside of Phoenix, Arizona.

It was a fire in Ajo, Arizona that landed Marjorie behind bars in 1992. In the early Nineties there was a string of more than thirty suspicious fires around Ajo, a town of roughly 3,700 people that lies 167 miles west of Tucson.

One fire happened at a business where her RV was being repaired.

"Marge Hagen's coach exploded. Windows blew out," recalls Bud Klinefelter who owned the recreational vehicle sales and repair shop

Investigators would later determine Marjorie set the blaze. Motive? Prosecutors say she wanted money and lied when she made an insurance claim on the fire-gutted RV.

Marjorie grew up in big money on the shore of Lake Superior at Glensheen mansion. She the adopted daughter of Elizabeth Congdon, the heir to an Iron Range mining fortune. It was a life few could imagine.

"They didn't shop normally like you and I might, things were brought in big boxes with satin ribbons," recalls former Caldwell Attorney David Arnold. "When she was first allowed to walk to school the limousine followed her with body guards in it."

Despite an inheritance that left her a millionaire, there never seemed to be enough money.

Marjorie became a household name in Minnesota in 1977 when her adoptive mother and night nurse, Velma Pietila, were murdered at the mansion on June 27. Elizabeth Congdon was found smothered with a satin pillow. Pietila was beaten with a candlestick — and apparently had tried to protect her charge.

Marjorie's second husband, Roger Caldwell, was convicted, but the prosecutor was convinced Marjorie was the brains behind the killings. (Read Caldwell's courtroom confession.)

"(The plan) was to spend Marjorie's inheritance," says John DeSanto, the St. Louis County Prosecutor who brought both Marjorie and Roger to trial. "They were deeply in debt at the time. They had overspent their means, which (was something) she had done for years."

It was Minnesota's trial of the century, and Marjorie's behavior was anything but typical in a courtroom. While many defendants may curse prosecutors, Marjorie always wanted to chat with DeSanto. One day, she baked a birthday cake for her lawyer Ron Meshbesher and wanted everyone in the courtroom to eat her cake.

"I said 'No way am I having anything that's baked by Marjorie.' And she said outright 'John there's no marmalade in it.' That was kind of chilling in itself," DeSanto says.

Chilling because a couple of years before the murders, Elizabeth Congdon became severely ill following a visit from Marjorie. Elizabeth's nurses suspected that marmalade sandwiches Marjorie fed her mother were laced with poison. Her mother did recover, and fearing bad publicity, the family didn't report the incident to authorities.

The possibility of a poisoning attempt did not come to light until after the murders.

Following a four-month trial Marjorie was found not guilty of all charges. Some of the jurors befriended her for some years to come.

"It was disconcerting to see actual jurors come out of the jury box after the not guilty verdicts and actually hug her," DeSanto says.

Prosecutor DeSanto has co-authored a book called Will to Murder with Gary Waller, one of the Duluth detectives who investigated the case.

During Marjorie's murder trial, a couple she had known for years — Wally and Helen Hagen — were in court daily to support her. After the trial, with Marjorie's husband Roger locked up, she began seeing Wally. Wally's wife Helen ended up in a Mound, Minnesota nursing home.

"My mom had Alzheimer's. She was bedridden, that's why she was in the nursing home," the couple's son Tom Hagen says.

While described as being in good physical condition, Helen suddenly slipped into a coma hours after a surprise visit from Marjorie. Helen died four days later.

It would later be learned that Marjorie brought food to the nursing home in baby jars and fed Helen during that visit. But, since no one knew about the marmalade incident toxicology tests were never done. The official cause of Helen's death was listed as pneumonia brought on by dehydration.

Just four months later Wally and Marjorie married in North Dakota, although Marjorie hadn't been divorced from Roger. She was charged with bigamy.

At the time, Marjorie was about to inherit more than $3 million, some of her children sued so money was tight again.

Within a year the Hagen's Mound, Minnesota home burned.

After collecting insurance money, she was arrested for arson and fraud and was convicted. She went off to the Shakopee Women's Prison for two years. There she was well liked, even sent flowers weekly to the warden.

"She could charm the socks off a snake I guess," David Arnold says.

But while she came off to many as sweet and caring, others saw another side.

"She just goes off," Tom Hagen says. "And when she goes off she's totally out of control. I mean it's like a maniac. You cannot imagine this kind of rage."

From the mid-Eighties on Tom Hagen and his siblings were isolated from their father Wally. They say Marjorie manipulated him into marriage and then into moving to Arizona.

They landed in Ajo, a town with history for the Congdon family. Marjorie's grand father Chester Congdon, began mining copper here in the early 1900's. Marge, as she was known to most in Ajo, became involved in several churches and clubs. She left a good impression on many.

"She's a good friend of mine," says Ajo resident Pat Moreno.

But businessman Bud Klinefelter has a different opinion and says Marge bounced tens of thousands of dollars in checks all across this desert town.

"When I met Marge the hair on the back of my neck stood up," Klinefelter says.

In 1990 the fire department was busy with a string of blazes in Ajo. The last of the suspicious fires occurred not at Marjorie's, but next door. The occupant came home and saw Marge in the back yard. Kerosene-soaked rags were found on the windowsill.

The man called police, who slipped into the home and waited with flash cameras. Then came Marge.

Marge was arrested and convicted. But before serving her time, a judge gave Marjorie 24 hours to get her affairs in order. She returned home and the next day she called Tom Hagen in Minneapolis to say his father Wally had died.

At first, Marjorie was charged with Wally's murder, but the charge was later dropped. The two wrote a suicide pact so investigators couldn't discount the theory that Wally himself had taken overdose of drugs that claimed his life.

Marjorie says at the last minute she backed out of killing herself.

So now twelve years later her begins over again. When she left prison her personal effects could be carried in just a couple of boxes. But she was believed to have nearly $1.5 million in inheritance from the Congdon fortune waiting for her.

While she may have money again, she apparently has few friends or relatives ready to help. It was a hired limo driver who met her outside the prison gates.

Two years ago she told parole board members she planned to move into an adult gated community on the outskirts of Tucson. Her attorney claimed she had a lot and was putting a home here. The lot is still vacant and it appears she's settling elsewhere in Tucson.

She likely chose Tucson, because it is where she had fond memories as a child... Schooling here in winter months, enjoying Sabino Canyon, where she waded in the brooks and hiked the hilly terrain.

Marjorie refused to talk to KARE 11 for this report.

So Tucson, a place retirees come to winter, is the same place Marjorie Caldwell Hagen has come to start a new life. And while at 71 years old she's well into her retirement years — a grown child of her last husband says she could be 91 and be an evil woman. And he expects it's only a matter of time before Marge and the law meet again.

Roger Caldwell committed suicide in 1988. Many believe he took the 'real' story of the Glensheen mansion murders to his grave.

The Duluth mansion has been open to the public for years — but the murders have been a forbidden topic on tours. Just this week, a committee looking for ways to raise restoration money for the University-of-Minnesota owned estate said it is considering a plan to allow tour guides to talk about the murders.

(Copyright 2004 by KARE. All Rights Reserved.)

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