Jennifer Hartley walks into the Creston district courtroum Thursday.
Jennifer Hartley walks into the Creston district courtroum Thursday.

May 26, 2017


A judge scolded a 44-year-old Thayer woman for her “ruthlessness, callousness and an utter disregard for life” when he sentenced her to up to 47 years in prison on Thursday.

Jennifer Jean Hartley admits that she conspired to kill the father of her grandchildren and also a woman who set fire to her house as part of an insurance fraud plot in 2015.

Yet in her telling of the events that led to two murders and two arsons — contained in a confidential court letter — Hartley insinuated she was a victim, too, of the man who shot and killed the two people.

Hartley provided the gun he used.

“When I began reading your version of the facts, I became confused,” District Judge Randy Hefner said Thursday morning.

“Ma’am, you are not a victim of these crimes. You are a perpetrator of these crimes. ... To cast yourself as a victim shows a complete lack of remorse.”

Hefner gave Hartley a chance to speak that morning before he decided her punishment for seven crimes to which she had pleaded guilty in March. Some people use the opportunity to publicly apologize for their bad deeds.

Did Hartley want to say anything?

“No, sir,” she replied.

Hartley had faced life in prison for murder but made a plea agreement with prosecutors that makes it possible for her to leave prison before she dies. Hartley must serve a minimum of five years before she is eligible for parole.

If a parole board never grants her early release, she’ll be in her mid- to late-60s before she is free. Iowa inmates typically serve a little less than half of their total possible sentence because they get credit for good behavior.

In August 2015, Hartley’s cohort, her brother Jerry Dillinger, 37, of Thayer, shot and killed a 26-year-old man who fathered two of Hartley’s grandchildren and was abusive to Hartley’s daughter, court records show. Dillinger burned the man’s body.

Dillinger also shot and killed his brother’s ex-wife whom he dated for a time. It was part of a scheme to burn two houses to collect insurance money for them. Dillinger and Hartley made it appear the woman set the fires and fled, but Dillinger shot her and dumped her body in a farm pond in September 2015. A hunter found her body two months later.

The woman, Loretta Dillinger, has five children. Three of them wrote notes that were read aloud in court on Thursday, and they alleged that Jerry Dillinger molested them.

Jerry Dillinger was arrested in December 2015 and abruptly pleaded guilty to two charges of first-degree murder the next month. He hanged himself in February 2016 in his prison cell.

Hartley was charged with murder the next month. She posted a $500,000 bond to get out of jail in August.

Her daughter was married early this month in Creston, court records show.

Hartley’s freedom ended Thursday morning at the conclusion of her sentencing hearing. She will be transferred to the women’s prison in Mitchellville, east of Des Moines.

“These crimes were planned,” judge Hefner said. “The cover-ups were planned. The cover-ups resulted in murders.

“Your conduct was cold and calculated.”