ST. CLOUD, Minn. (KMSP) - A mother from St. Cloud whose two daughters were mysteriously murdered in 1974 now believes she knows who killed them.
The two girls, 15-year-old Mary Reker and her 12-year-old sister Susie, disappeared while out shopping for school supplies on Labor Day in 1974, their bodies discovered riddled with stab wounds in a quarry outside St. Cloud.
Despite the efforts of law enforcement and intense media coverage over several decades, no one's ever been charged with the murders of the sisters.
"I felt my only hope was that there would be a death bed confession," said the girls' mother, Rita Reker. "That's honestly how I felt. That's where it was all going to end. I just hoped that I would live long enough to see that."
Then several months ago, her phone rang. It was a tip about a 58-year old man admitted to St. Cloud hospital. He was in room 549 south, dying from liver failure after years of heavy drinking. The name was a familiar one to the Reker family and law enforcement.
"I wanted to confront him," she said. "I knew I had to do that."
Over the years, Herb Notch was questioned, and even polygraphed on two occasions, about the deaths.
SIMILAR CASE TO REKERS
Cops zeroed in on Notch two years after the murders when he was arrested for a crime with striking similarities to the Reker case. He was 17.
"It makes him somebody that we really are interested in," said Lt. Victor Weiss from the Stearns County Sheriff's Department. "He's been on our radar since at least 1976."
Notch and another boy kidnapped 14-year old Sue Dukowitz while she was working at a St. Cloud convenience store, took her out to a gravel pit outside of town and sexually assaulted her.
Then, to the surprise of his accomplice, Notch pulled out a knife and stabbed Dukowitz. They left her for dead, but she survived.
"He had no remorse at all," Notch's accomplice said. "None. Like hitting a bug on your windshield."
He agreed to an audio-only interview with The Fox 9 Investigators as long as his voice was disguised, saying he'll never forget the last time he spoke with Notch.
It was in the 1980's, while they were both still in prison for the Dukowitz attack.
"The guy was hissing like a snake and talking about he wants to kill everybody," he said.
MAN WHO FOUND REKER BODIES TALKS TO THE FOX 9 INVESTIGATORS
Another man shared a similar "hissing" encounter with Notch. It happened years earlier, right after the Reker murders.
In 1974, Russ Platz attended an alternative high school with Notch. They also worked together bagging groceries at the Zayre discount store--the same store where the Reker girls went shopping the day they disappeared.
26 days after they went missing, it was Platz and another friend who discovered their bodies while rock climbing at the quarry. He described the crime scenes as "pretty gruesome".
Platz said that even early on he had suspicions Notch might have been involved.
He remembers Notch always playing with a knife. He'd sit in his car in the Zayre's parking lot on his days off and just stare at people. One day he said his gut told him to ask Notch about the Reker girls.
"I said, 'Herb did you know about this or have anything to do with that?'" Platz said. "I don't remember which way I worded it, but he went, 'hissssssss' and that was the only response I got out of him."
Platz said he contacted law enforcement about his bizarre encounter with Notch, with police confirming that they remembered the account as well.
In 2016, the Fox 9 Investigators tried to interview Notch for a story about the Reker case. When reached, all Notch said was "don't bother me any f***ing more." and hung up.
"Your program last fall just opened up a whole area," Reker said. "We found out a lot of new things we hadn't known before."
The Fox 9 Investigators sifted through old police and court records and found similarities between the Reker and Dukowitz cases not made public before. Notch was also accused of attacks on two other women in the 80's and 90's.
There was a psychiatric evaluation in the files which described him as having "a fearlessly savage quality about him. He was also described as "a very dangerous person …In the right situation a homicidal individual."
After the story aired something strange happened.
A woman who knew Notch through one of his relatives said he started to call her, asking for bathing suit pictures. He said he wanted them to go away on a trip together.
He also rambled, she said, about the Fox 9 story--never denying involvement in the Reker murders but insisting he passed a polygraph test.
She was so traumatized by his calls that she reached out to law enforcement. The Sheriff's Department confirmed her account of Notch's overtures.
"I would tell you the lie detector test was more inconclusive than anything," Weiss said.
So far, there's no physical evidence linking Notch to the Reker murders.
WIRED UP MOTHER CONFRONTS NOTCH
Reker decided to visit Notch in person after learning he had been admitted to the hospital, wearing a hidden microphone to record their conversation.
Deputies and her son waited nearby as she went into Notch's room by herself.
"I walked in and I told him I was the mother of Mary and Suzanne and that I had waited 42 years for this," she said. "I needed some answers."
She said it took a few moments for Notch to realize who was confronting him.
"He just pointed right at me and said 'I give you my word I didn't do it,'" she recalled. "He was totally in denial. I found him to be very angry, a very hard and very bitter person. There was no sense of remorse at all."
She continued to try and make conversation with him, hoping he might offer some clues about the murders.
"Another thing that he said to me that I thought was really strange: 'Why can't you just put it behind you?'" Reker said. 'I told him, 'Because they were my children, and as long as I was alive I was going to be searching for their killer."
And then he said something which might be interpreted as a hint of a confession.
"I'm going to hell."
She responded by telling Notch she's been praying for him over the past four decades.
"I said, 'You've got a few days left. You can make your peace with God before you die,'" Reker said. "He just said, 'I'm going to hell and I don't do church.' After that he got really angry with me and he said, 'You're starting to piss me off.'"
CONVINCED NOTCH IS THE KILLER
The confrontation between the 82-year old mother and the suspected killer of her two girls lasted all of 21 minutes.
"I came out of there just numb," she said. "For me, my search is over. I have no doubt that he was the person who killed them."
Notch died a week later, but the Reker case remains open as investigators try to find more evidence to connect him to the crime.
"It's not all done--it's getting closer, but if there isn't any more after this that would be okay," said Marty Reker, the brother of the murdered girls.
MOVING ON, NOT GIVING UP
Rita and her husband Fred, who has passed away, made the most of their lives after the deaths of Mary and Susie. They raised four other children, were active in their church and founded a support group for parents of murdered children.
Rita says a strong faith is the rudder that's guided her through a decades long storm of emotions.
But at last, after looking into Notch's eyes, she's found her peace.
"I guess I had to see who my children faced in the last moments of their life," she said. "There was nothing left of him to be fearful of."
You can find the Fox 9 Investigators story about Herb Notch from September 2016 here.