Laura Van Wyhe
Laura Van Wyhe
Laura Van Wyhe
From Iowa City, IA
Found along NE Missouri highway
Near Kahoka, MO
October 26, 1996
Case summary compiled by Jody Ewing
On Oct. 26, 1996, a truck driver discovered Laura Van Wyhe, 21, alive but incoherent, alongside Highway 136 near Kahoka, Missouri. Van Wyhe died three hours later in a Quincy, Ill., hospital.
A coroner’s inquest determined Van Wyhe died of brain trauma, massive blood loss and blunt force trauma to the legs, and officials ruled her death as a homicide. Missouri Highway Patrol troopers said Van Wyhe may have been hit by a car, but the accident likely did not occur where she was found.
Kahoka in Clark County, MO
In a Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated December 14, 1996, Bruce Clemonds of the Missouri State Patrol stated that very little blood was found at the scene, though Van Wyhe had suffered massive blood loss. There were no marks in the gravel to indicate she’d pulled herself to the edge of the highway, and Clemonds said there was no vehicle debris, such as headlight pieces or chrome fragments, to indicate Van Wyhe had been struck there. Nor had paint chips found embedded in Van Wyhe’s clothing been matched to a vehicle, he said.
An autopsy showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in Van Wyhe’s body.
A Birthday Celebration
Iowa City in Johnson County, IA
The night before she was found in Kahoka, Van Wyhe and her 14-month-old son, Samson, had gone to Bonaparte, Ia., to visit the family of Donald Knight, Van Wyhe’s boyfriend and Samson’s father, to celebrate Van Wyhe’s birthday. Knight had family members living in both Kahoka and in Bonaparte, which is about a half-hour drive from Kahoka.
Van Wyhe, a licensed child-care provider in Iowa City who lived with her mother, Leanne Jonker Thomas, celebrated her birthday at the home of Knight’s mother, Rebecca Reynolds-Knight of Bonaparte, an Iowa House Representative who at the time represented Jefferson County and parts of Van Buren and Wapello counties. Reynolds-Knight said Van Wyhe went to spend the night with Tony and Sarah Bergman in nearby Kahoka because there weren’t enough beds for everyone in Bonaparte. Sarah Bergman is Reynolds-Knight’s daughter and Donald Knight’s sister.
Clemonds said his investigation revealed that Van Wyhe and her son rode with the Bergmans from Bonaparte to the Bergman home in Kahoka. At around 2 a.m., a truck driver discovered Van Wyhe’s body on the shoulder along Highway 136 just west of Kahoka.
Van Wyhe’s belongings were found in trees and in a cornfield near the highway where her body was discovered. Her young son was found naked at the Bergman residence in Kahoka.
Intended to “leave in a hurry”
Bruce Clemonds (courtesy The Gazette)
Clemonds said in the Dec. 14 Gazette article that when Van Wyhe was found, she had several items with her including baby food on a paper plate, a baby bottle and a blanket, and that the number of items suggested she’d had to leave in a hurry. Her purse and the diaper bag, however, had been left behind in Bonaparte.
A cocklebur branch was found lying next to Van Wyhe’s body, and cockleburs were stuck to her body. Clemonds said there was a cocklebur bush in the cornfield across the highway from where she was found, indicating a struggle may have occurred there. The Bergmans lived about one-tenth of a mile east and two-tenths of a mile north of the cornfield. One footprint found in the cornfield matched Van Wyhe’s shoes, though she was not wearing any shoes when found.
Clemonds detailed “suspicious” and bizarre elements surrounding Van Wyhe’s death, including his theory that she was in the process of fleeing; that she was found barefoot carrying baby items, with cockleburs stuck to her body; and that her tote bag was discovered in a nearby tree.
Also puzzling, he said, was the black jacket Van Wyhe was found wearing. It wasn’t scuffed or blood-soaked, as was the rest of her clothing, leading Clemonds to wonder if she was wearing it when injured.
Clemonds said he confirmed the black jacket belonged to Tony Bergman. A pocket knife, found open in the jacket pocket, also belonged to Tony Bergman, he told the Gazette.
“No” to Lie Detector Tests
“It’s a very difficult time, trying to adjust to the loss of a fantastic, dynamic member of our family,” Rep. Reynolds-Knight told the Gazette in an article published April 27, 1997.
In that same article, Clemonds expressed frustration that Tony and Sarah Bergman had not submitted to lie detector tests. The Bergmans declined to comment for the article, citing an unpleasant experience with another newspaper.
In December 1996, a judge awarded temporary custody of Laura Van Wyhe’s and Donald Knight’s son to Van Wyhe’s mother, Leanne Thomas of Iowa City, and in January 1997 she was awarded permanent custody with weekly visitation rights granted to Knight.
When Samson was three years old, Leanne Thomas abruptly left the state with him. Birthday cards and gifts, Christmas presents and other items Knight sent his son were soon returned with the postmark “Return to Sender.”
Knight — who is now married with a 9-year-old daughter — has spent years trying to track down his son without success.
Laura Van Wyhe’s survivors included her son, Samson Knight of Iowa City; her mother, Leanne Thomas and husband John of Iowa City; her father, William of Tacoma, Wash.; and her sister, Sarah of San Francisco.
Her murder remains unsolved.
If you have any information regarding Laura Van Wyhe’s unsolved murder, please contact the Iowa City Police Department at (319) 356-5280.
- “JonBenet arrest fills East Iowans with new hope,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Aug. 19, 2006
- “Cold Cases: Technology, tips help clear old homicides, but time takes toll on investigations,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Sept. 21, 2003
- “Death of 21-year-old still an unsolved case,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Feb. 1, 1999
- “Coping with the pain 1 year later,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Aug. 10, 1997
- “Relatives of Iowa City woman start reward fund,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, April 27, 1997
- “Officials await lab tests for leads on murder of Iowa City woman,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, March 13, 1997
- “Custody transfer delay nixed,” Iowa Journal, Jan. 11, 1997
- “Custody of slain mother’s son appealed in Johnson County by dad,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Jan. 4, 1997
- “Temporary custody awarded to grandmother,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dec. 31, 1996
- “Seeking answers,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dec. 24, 1996
- “Detectives say Van Wyhe’s death treated as a homicide,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dec. 14, 1996
- “Inquest to reveal circumstances of death,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dec. 13, 1996
- “Coroner: Iowa City woman died of multiple injuries,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Oct. 31, 1996
- “Iowa City woman’s death suspicious,” Cedar Rapids Gazette, Oct. 29, 1996
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