They were two women from two seemingly different worlds. One woman was a young nursing student, found raped and murdered in her dorm room. The other woman was an art student, forced to flee her home country of Cuba as a child. In life, the two had never met, but art and mystery would eventually bring them together.
While all of her friends were in Florida for spring break, 20-year-old Sarah Ottens decided to stay on campus and earn a little extra money waitressing at a cafeteria for the University of Iowa Hospital School. It was a little before midnight on March 13, 1973, that another co-ed would find her dead in Rienow Hall’s room 429.
Sarah’s partially nude body was discovered underneath a sheet and it was clear that she had been beaten and strangled to death. Inside the bathroom sink, blood and bits of Sarah’s hair were found. The killer had sexually assaulted her, killed her, washed her, and then placed her under the sheet for someone else to stumble upon.
Across from Sarah’s dorm lived part-time University of Iowa student and former football player James Wendall Hall. He was arrested for Sarah’s murder in September of 1973.
In 1974 Hall stood trial. Prosecutors showed the jury hairs from Hall that matched hairs found on Sarah’s body. A bloody fingerprint found on the sink faucet also appeared to be a match for Hall’s. No one had any doubt that Hall had been behind the heinous murder.
Hall’s defense claimed that Sarah had been seen with a “mystery man” on the night of her murder and claimed that there were remarks made about Hall’s race by the jury prior to reaching a verdict. Iowa’s supreme court refused to grant Hall a retrial. It wouldn’t be until 1983 that Hall would appeal his case on grounds that another man, who had been convicted of several other rapes around the University of Iowa campus, had confessed to the murder of Sarah Ottens. His conviction was overturned and no one else was charged in her death.
Ten years later Hall would be charged in another murder case where a young woman was strangled. Investigators on the Sarah Ottens case still maintain that they had the right man.
Attending the school at the same time as Sarah Ottens was Ana Mendieta, an undergrad intermedia art student. Investigators were reluctant to release details about Sarah’s death, but word traveled quickly around the University of Iowa campus about the nursing student found raped and murdered over spring break. The news put many women on campus on edge, and ultimately would go on to inspire Mendieta’s most powerful art pieces.
Mendieta began experimenting with 8mm film and photos to capture her performance art. The first of this series would be titled Sweating Blood. Only Mendieta’s neck and head are visible in the shot. Her eyes are closed as if she could possibly be sleeping when suddenly blood starts pouring down her face. The piece is meant to make the viewer uncomfortable as she explores the nature of violence.
She would follow Sweating Blood with several more pieces including Untitled (Rape Scene) where she places herself semi-nude and covered in blood around her apartment and takes photos. Untitled (Rape Performance) was similar to Rape Scene, only in an outdoor setting. Mendieta photographs herself appearing as a rape and murder victim left in the woods.
Using hidden cameras, Mendieta would make her most famous work, Moffitt Building Piece. Mendieta attempted to recreate a possible scene of violence in front of her own apartment building by pouring animal blood on the sidewalk, then recorded the reactions of people walking by. Some stop to stare for a moment, while others pretend not to see the blood and gore on the ground. Eventually, a maintenance man steps out to clean up the mess.
Mendieta’s life would take a strange twist after finishing her undergrad work with the University of Iowa. She would eventually move to New York and marry another artist named Carl Andre. There had been rumors that, even though the couple had been married only a short time, there were already troubles in the relationship and Mendieta suspected Andre of being unfaithful to her.
On September 8, 1985, Mendieta would take a fatal fall through her 34th floor window. Police questioned Carl Andre and he provided them with conflicting accounts on what had caused Ana’s death.
It would take another two years for prosecutors to build a case against Andre. In an unprecedented move, Andre’s defense wanted to forgo a jury at the trial and only have the case heard by a judge. Their reason for making this unusual decision was based on Mendieta’s involvement in the second-wave feminist movement and the possibility that women in the jury may have an unfair bias against Andre.
Andre was acquitted of all charges when prosecutors failed to prove that Mendieta’s death could have been anything other than a tragic accident or a suicide. The ruling sent shockwaves throughout the art community and protests were staged outside Andre’s exhibitions. At one event protesters poured chicken blood and gore outside of the Dia Art Foundation, a grim tribute to Ana’s contributions to the art world. It would seem that the story had come full circle.
Two women, one murdered and another inspired by her story, would eventually be bound together for eternity by the violence that has plagued women around the world and the mystery that remains behind both of their deaths.