Iowa cold case waiting on technology to be solved

SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) – 23-year-old Wilma Nissen’s life was as unsettling as her death. Nissen was the “Jane Doe” who was found murdered in 1978 in a ditch in northwestern Iowa.

Nissen, who had worked as an escort and dancer in Sioux Falls, wasn’t identified until nearly 30 years after she was murdered.

Wilma Nissen and first husband Donald Wellington in 1973

As the years go down to 43, the case grows colder. But as we see in our latest KELOLAND investigation into cold cases, the solution to this case might depend on technology that isn’t even available here.

Not much happens on these highways in Lyon County, Iowa. But in 1978 the entire community was in shock.

“Someone went through the trenches, they buried cables. And he found the body here in the ditch west of us, ”said Jerry Birkey.

Wilma’s body was discovered by the worker only about 20 inches from the gravel road. But it was obscured by tall weeds that weren’t mowed at the time, so her body went undetected for several months.

The worker, Steve Hussong, was only 19 years old on October 4, 1978. He spoke to KELOLAND News about his gruesome discovery in 2006.

“At first I thought it was a mannequin. I really thought there was a mannequin in the ditch. I got a little closer and found it was a real body, “Steve Hussong said in 2006.

“(It was) badly decayed. She was wearing white leather boots. Her feet were tied together, ”said Birkey.

Original photo from 1978 of the scene of Wilma Nissen’s go-go boots and a rope tied around her legs

Lyon County Sheriff’s retired police detective Jerry Birkey worked on the case for nearly a decade.

Having found a Jane Doe in the middle of nowhere that isn’t even from here, where do you even start? ”Said Birch.

Finally, in 2006, a lab technician assigned her left thumbprint and a print card to the Los Angeles Police Department, where Wilma Nissen was arrested for prostitution. After “Jane Doe” was identified, the real work to catch her killer could begin.

Wilma Nissen’s fingerprints were matched in 2006 and solved Jane Doe’s mystery

“They lost all the years finding their family members; Find people they knew. I traveled a lot to work on this case and we found people six months after she died, ”said Birkey.

“She was a prostitute. I think she did it to get through. She was in the system. She was married a couple of times and I think she was just trying to get the love she never got growing up, said Krissi Atkisson.

At the age of 23, Wilma had also given birth three times. Their children were all placed in foster families.

“I was just told that she had just left the hospital when I was born,” said Atkisson.

Krissi Atkisson was adopted by her mother’s foster parents. She later learned that her birth mother had been severely neglected as a child and locked in a closet and eventually removed from her California home.

“She was basically wild when they caught her. She had never been to school before. She could neither read nor write. He couldn’t eat with a fork and she was 10 years old, ”said Atkisson.

Wilma Nissen as a child

Atkisson began looking for her birth parents at the age of 17. But it wasn’t until 2006 that she got an answer about what had happened to her mother.

To open: The mother of the same friend who found my biological father actually turned up at my house with a newspaper article that they had fingerprinted to indicate that they had identified my biological mother.

Kennecke: To hear that your birth mother was murdered?
To open: Yeah, that was crazy. That was a shock. It answered a lot of “Where was she?” ‘Why couldn’t I find her?’ ‘Why have I never heard of her?’ and brought a whole bunch of new ones

Wilma Nissen with one of her sons, whom she gave up for adoption

The biggest new question: Who murdered Wilma Nissen?

Detective Jerry Birkey: We have our ideas, who is responsible for it; but to prove will be impossible.
Kennecke: Impossible why?
Birch: We have no evidence.

In 2007, the Lyon County Sheriff posted a photo of this woman linked to the case. It was called “Sugar”. Investigators say “Sugar” and another dancer named “Peaches” robbed other dancers. Although Peaches has never been identified, they know who “Sugar” is.

Authorities only identified this woman as “Sugar” but believe she knows who killed Nissen / photo courtesy of Lyon Co. Sheriff

Birch: Yes, we have spoken to Sugar several times.
Kennecke: Did you talk to her?
Birch: Yes.
Kennecke: What did you get out of it?
Birch: Rejections.

Kennecke: Do you think she killed Wilma?
Birch: I don’t know who killed Wilma, but I do know that there are several people who know who killed Wilma or who were there and saw Wilma get killed. Whether she did it or not, I don’t know. If she knows about it, I think she knows.

Detective Birkey says a suspect failed a polygraph test three times. However, this was not enough to file a complaint. John VanGammeren, now 94 years old, was arrested in August 2009 and charged with perjury on six counts for lying to investigators about transporting strippers and prostitutes from Sioux Falls to his home in northwest Iowa. These charges were later dropped.

John VanGammeren 2009 / photo courtesy of the Lyon Co. Sheriff

Birch: At first he started telling us about the parties and then he even denied the parties.
Kennecke: And did you ever get good answers from him?
Birch: No.

VanGammeren is not a suspect in Wilma’s murder.

There was once a serial killer known as the “Truck Stop Killer”. Lyon County received federal funding to investigate whether Robert Ben Rhoades murdered Wilma. Rhoades had lived in Sioux Falls in 1978. Birkey interviewed Rhoades in Joliet, Illinois Prison.

“We have more or less excluded him. He hadn’t started until after that time … well, he called it stealing hubcaps, ”Birkey said.

Truck stop killer Robert Ben Rhoades is currently in prison in Illinois for murder. He lived in Sioux Falls in 1978 / Photo: IL DOC

In 2007, Wilma Nissen’s body was exhumed in the hopes of obtaining new DNA evidence. Unfortunately, time and water have washed away that hope. However, investigators were able to determine the cause of her death, but never made it public.

Birch: Because if we meet the suspect who did it, we have to hold on to something. Much of it is public. Nobody knows.
Kennecke: Except for you
Birch: Yes.

There’s one more piece of evidence that investigators are holding onto, just waiting for the technology to catch up. The Lyon County Sheriff’s office hired a Scandinavian company to develop a new technique.

“We hired her to go through our evidence, the rope, her clothes, and try to find as much DNA as possible. And they could find DNA, but they had to amplify it, ”Birkey said.

The FBI’s criminal DNA databases (CODIS) do not currently support amplified DNA, so evidence was of no use. Eventually, however, it could lead to her killer.

Kennecke: So was there DNA from one person or DNA from multiple people?
Birch: There was more than a person’s DNA.

Finding out the identity of the murderer or her mother’s murderer has become a mission for Atkisson.

“The more people hear their story, the more likely it is – they’re so close. It feels like they’re so close – just a little something could solve that. The more people hear it, the better the chances are. She deserves justice. Whoever did this to her deserves to face justice, ”said Atkisson.

Krissi Atkisson sits by her mother’s tombstone in Rock Rapids, IA

While Wilma Nissen’s remains were exhumed in 2007, the Lyon County Sheriff never reburied them. They say they will hold on to them in case new technology develops that could provide further clues if the worst comes to the worst.