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Des Moines Register and Tribune Company
By JEFF ECKHOFF and CYNTHIA REYNAUD • REGISTER STAFF WRITERS
April 27, 2008
Farragut, Ia. — Matthew Joseph Elliott seemed destined for the spotlight.
He was a star in speech contests and school plays at Farragut High School. He also pitched for the baseball team. He was charismatic, a talker, and when he discovered politics, he blossomed.
He was elected governor at the Iowa Boys State mock government convention in 1998 as a junior. He followed the accomplishment with a year as head of his high school student council. Later came a term as student body president at Drake University and a front-line job in legislative campaign battles for the Iowa Republican Party.
All before he turned 25.
“It was kind of obvious politics was going to be his life,” said Luther Thompson, Elliott’s uncle. “We all thought he was headed to be governor of Iowa.
“We all thought, ‘Here’s a kid who may someday amount to something.’ ”
Elliott, 26, sits instead in the Polk County Jail, accused in the murder of a 7-month-old West Des Moines girl who was the child of a teenage roommate. Authorities say Elliott killed the baby while on the run for escaping from a halfway house and violation of the state’s sex offender registry law.
His arrest has been followed by pointed silence and sealed court records. Few people in his hometown of 476 people will talk about Elliott, and a judge has allowed prosecutors to keep secret details of a search warrant that led to his arrest.
There is little information, official or otherwise, that helps explain how a well-connected political prodigy became a murder suspect.
“I have no clue what went wrong in this kid’s head,” said House Minority Leader Christopher Rants, who last spoke to Elliott sometime around January 2006. “To be honest … I’d rather not talk about him.”
Iowa court records and interviews with former associates show that was about the time Elliott’s career ascension began to sputter — roughly two years before the child, Alexis Gilbert, died from massive head injuries.
The turning point seems to coincide with Elliott’s own hometown legislative campaign in 2006. He moved back to Farragut to challenge an incumbent from his own party, which reportedly angered some Republican leaders.
Within a month, Des Moines police were called to investigate child pornography discovered on Elliott’s party-issued laptop. He avoided prison, but later pleaded guilty of drunken driving and an assault on his girlfriend.
Today, few of his former colleagues will talk about what happened to Elliott.
“This has been really puzzling,” said Dave Roederer, a Republican strategist who headed Iowa presidential campaigns for George W. Bush and John McCain. “Obviously, what has taken place has been just a horrible situation for everybody involved. Still, I am reminded of the Matt Elliott I knew, and this is like two separate people.”
Elliott grew up in a mix of turmoil and triumph.
Harriet Elliott was unmarried and in her mid-40s when she adopted Elliott shortly after he was born. Fremont County Sheriff Steven MacDonald described Harriet Elliott as “very strict,” and he confirmed that conflict between mother and son included a 1999 domestic abuse report that said Matthew Elliott and his mother came to blows after a dispute about a school event turned into a screaming match about his loyalty to his girlfriend over his mother.
Harriet Elliott did not respond to requests for an interview about her son.
Matthew Elliott moved out of his mother’s house during his senior year of high school and settled in with his aunt and uncle. He seldom discussed family problems, others say, and he enjoyed success in other aspects of his life.
He was an all-state competitor in speech and drama, and his senior high school classmates voted the popular Elliott “most likely to become a corrupt politician.”
“You always got the sense that he was several steps ahead of who he was talking to,” said Kelly Carey, the mother of one of Elliott’s high school girlfriends. “In a way, he was kind of manipulative. … He was always able to turn things to his advantage.”
Chris Little, two years behind Elliott at Drake University and a fellow Sigma Chi fraternity member, said Elliott “could sell you on whatever idea he had.”
“If we had a kid during rush that was kind of in between, we’d have Matt Elliott talk to him,” Little said.
Elliott was elected Drake’s student body president in 2001, then was named head of Iowa’s College Republicans. He was hired by the state party and rose to executive director of the Republican Legislative Majority Fund, an office designed to marshal ground-level workers for campaigns around the state.
Republican operatives view- ed Elliott as talented and saw no sign of trouble. But Elliott chafed after a few years in his legislative job. When statehouse Republicans lost ground in the 2004 elections, he talked about new challenges.
“Frankly, he was disappointed,” Roederer said. “He thought the Republicans were going to do better than they did. He was trying to decide whether he wanted to remain in politics.”
Elliott took a job in January 2006 with the political action committee that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney would use to build support for his presidential bid. Elliott already knew Iowa’s political landscape, and it was expected that he would help Romney’s operatives build goodwill in all the right places.
“He took the job on Jan. 2, and he informed me on Jan. 17 that he would be leaving at the end of the month to run for state representative” from the district that includes Farragut, said David Kochel, former Iowa head for Romney’s Commonwealth PAC. “He helped through the end of the month on a few projects he had worked on … but he really only spent those two weeks with us before deciding to run for the Legislature.”
It was a major sin for a young man who was supposed to get others elected.
“I saw him as a wannabe,” said Rep. Richard Anderson, the Clarinda Republican that Elliott challenged. “He was a young man that maybe got impatient at that point in time.”
State records show Elliott’s political campaign raised $1,690 in the first week of February 2006 — $1,500 was from Maurene Failor, a Muscatine woman whose husband and son serve on the board of directors for Iowans for Tax Relief, a conservative group that has occasionally been at odds with Republicans it sees as soft on taxes. Members of the group did not return telephone calls for this article.
Within two weeks after collecting Failor’s campaign money, Elliott spent nearly $1,200 on preparation for an apparent TV ad campaign and a serious assault on Anderson’s seat.
Meanwhile, a Republican Party worker contacted police and arranged to turn over the laptop Elliott used for work.
Court records show police studied images and video on the computer for two months before they arrested Elliott in April 2006 for sexual exploitation of a minor.
He admitted that he downloaded pornographic images of minors and pleaded guilty three months later.
By then, Elliott already had stopped showing up at southwest Iowa political meetings.
“I think as far as he was concerned, he had screwed up in a way that erased any potential that he had to move forward in this business,” Kochel said. “I think most people who follow politics would draw that conclusion, that it’s hard to come back from that.”
Elliott could have walked away from the porn charge with no jail time and, eventually, a clean criminal record, court papers show. Instead, Elliott lied.
He signed a lease with his girlfriend, Jennifer Husen, on half of a Des Moines duplex and registered as a sex offender at the Adel address of her parents. A Dallas County sheriff’s deputy who checked on Elliott in October 2006 was told by Husen’s mother “that Elliott dates her daughter but that he has never lived at this location nor has he slept at this location.”
Elliott was arrested on Nov. 2, 2006, for violating the state’s sex offender registry law.
Des Moines police officers arrested him only a week later on a host of assault and traffic charges after he attacked Husen. A police complaint said Elliott “slammed the front door on Jennifer’s back, pushed her two or three times, tried punching her in the head, slammed his vehicle into the victim’s vehicle with her in it. She sustained several injuries from it.”
The charges were reduced to drunken driving and assault, and Elliott pleaded guilty in March 2007.
Elliott was taking two antidepressant medications by the time his sentencing hearing rolled around the following month. He was sent to the Fort Des Moines halfway house on Des Moines’ south side.
Court records show Elliott, who moved to Fort Des Moines in May 2007, was pressured repeatedly by corrections officials over the next few months to find a job. He was still unemployed when he signed out on the morning of Aug. 14 to look for work. According to documents, a satellite monitoring system lost track of Elliott shortly after 10:30 a.m.
Two probation officers tracked him to the downtown Des Moines transit mall, but were unable to find him. Court papers say Elliott simply cut the strap on an electronic transmitter and disappeared.
He remained at large until Jan. 21, when police were called to 513 Eighth St. in West Des Moines. Alexis Gilbert, the 7-month-old daughter of 17-year-old Kristina Gilbert, was not breathing.
Elliott apparently lived at the house but was not there when emergency workers arrived. He was arrested later that day on a probation violation and was already in jail when authorities charged him later with the infant’s murder.
Court papers allege that Elliott either intended to kill the baby or did accidentally as part of an assault “under circumstances manifesting an extreme indifference to human life.”
West Des Moines police so far have refused to disclose what they know about Elliott’s connection to the child, other than that he was not her father. Jean Christensen, the baby’s 44-year-old grandmother, and two of her sons also lived there.
All have moved out, neighbors say. It could not be determined where they live now.
Kristina Gilbert is enrolled at Walnut Creek Campus, an alternative high school in West Des Moines. She has not attended classes for several weeks.
Elliott, meanwhile, has ignored requests for interviews. He pleaded not guilty. A trial is set for June 23.
Until then, his relatives and others are left with unanswered questions.
“Who was this family he was living with? Why was he there?” an aunt, Pat Elliott, wondered.
Thompson, Elliott’s uncle, said: “We knew a lot about Matthew, but still there’s so much we didn’t know. I just don’t believe he’s capable of it.
“I just can’t believe it.”
Reporter Jeff Eckhoff can be reached at (515) 284-8271 or firstname.lastname@example.org