BLOOMING PRAIRIE, MINN. — Most everyone in this southern Minnesota prairie town of 2,000 people is talking about Lois Riess. But nobody seems to know quite what to make of her.
Day-care provider or gambling addict? Loving wife, mother and grandmother or cold-blooded criminal who allegedly killed her husband and left his body to rot, then shot a woman in the heart half a continent away and stole her identity?
Riess, on the run from the law for more than three weeks, may well be all those things. But here in Blooming Prairie, a small town 90 miles south of the Twin Cities where Lois and David Riess had lived since 2005, people are trying to make sense of it all.
“This town wants answers,” said Nikki Ryks, who runs a scrapbooking business across the two-lane highway from the couple’s home. “We want answers to the person we’ve been living near.”
Everyone is shuffling through their memories, Ryks said, wondering whether they could have foreseen signs of the tragedy to come. “You don’t realize what you’re supposed to pay attention to — until now,” she said.
As the search for the 56-year-old Riess entered its fourth week and authorities offered a $6,000 reward for information leading to her arrest, residents of her hometown could only guess about why she’s suspected of killing not only once but twice and where she might be.
She’s headed for Mexico, some said. She’s already there, others countered.
She snapped because of gambling debts, some speculated. Loan sharks were after her.
And why, they wondered, hasn’t she been caught?
“We have coffee every morning, and that’s what we talk about,” said Bob Stocks, who lives in Dexter, Minn., a hamlet of 340 people about 15 miles southeast of Blooming Prairie. “This morning it was, ‘Well, she’s still on the loose.’
“It’s been the talk of the towns around here, that’s for sure.”
Lois Riess is suspected of killing her 54-year-old husband late last month, then fleeing to Florida.
There, police said, she befriended a woman who resembled her, killed her, stole her car and headed for Texas, where she was spotted near Corpus Christi.
Authorities say the same gun was used in both slayings.
The reward offered Tuesday by the U.S. Marshals Service came with a warning: Riess is “considered armed and dangerous, and should not be approached. Anyone who sees her should call 911.”
Authorities added that Riess could be driving the car of the woman she’s accused of killing, 59-year-old Pamela Hutchinson, of Bradenton, Fla. It is a white 2005 Acura TL with Florida license plate Y37TAA.
Police describe Riess as white, 5 feet 5 inches tall and 165 pounds with brown eyes and blond hair, which is now lighter than in the photo that authorities have circulated over social media and through news outlets.
Lee County (Fla.) Undersheriff Carmine Marceno said Monday night that Reiss “could look like anybody’s mother or grandmother. She smiles, yet she is a cold-blooded killer.”
Late last week, Florida authorities filed murder, grand theft of a motor vehicle, and grand theft and criminal use of personal identification charges against Riess. She also faces second-degree murder charges in Dodge County, where she transferred nearly $10,000 from her husband’s business account into his personal account and then forged his signature on three checks to herself for $11,000, according to theft charges recently filed in Minnesota.
While fleeing Minnesota in the family’s Cadillac Escalade, Riess is believed to have stopped at an Iowa casino on the way to Florida.
The Diamond Jo Casino is just over the Iowa border off Interstate 35, an easy 45-minute drive from Blooming Prairie.
Riess was a regular there, said one casino employee, and has been accused in Minnesota state court affidavits of stealing money from her disabled sister to spend at the casino, though she was never charged with a crime.
On Tuesday, a good midday crowd of mostly middle-aged or older people quietly played the banks of flashing video slot machines in the dimly lit casino.
By the front door was an engraved plaque displaying a toll-free number for customers who might need help for gambling addiction.
Lois Riess spent countless hours here in the gloom. Blackjack was her game, and she allegedly dropped thousands of dollars at the tables.
“Lois? She was a nice lady,” said a casino employee who knew Riess as a regular. “She liked to play blackjack.”
“You know, you’d look out for her, and she’d look out for you,” added the employee, who asked not to be identified for fear of being fired for speaking publicly about a customer. “She’d always ask you how you’re doing.”
“I can’t believe it,” the employee added, referring to Riess’ newfound notoriety. “Someone from our little casino. …”
Back in Blooming Prairie, the Riess home sits empty. The sand-colored, one-story ranch house still has Christmas lights up. Snow from recent storms has drifted over the walkways and against the double garage door.
“They have a lot of friends who are confused, wondering how she snapped,” said Jill Lindeman, a local insurance agent.
The lunch crowd at the Servicemen’s Club, where David Riess served on the board, sat googling on their phones Tuesday, looking for the latest updates on the case.
“We were on ‘Good Morning America’ today,” one man said, showing all the news stories on his phone’s screen.
“I think she’s nuts,” said Pam Farr, settling in to look at her menu. “This is not the way we wanted to be on the map.”