For years, the Lyon County sheriff tried to identify Wilma June Nissen, a young woman who was brutally murdered in 1978 and left to rot in a rural Rock Rapids, Iowa, ditch. Now, having affixed a name to Nissen’s pink granite headstone, Bloemendaal is on the trail of her killer.
Nissen was known only as “Jane Doe” until Jan. 31, 2006, when a Des Moines laboratory technician found a match between her left thumbprint and a print card from the Los Angeles Police Department. Bloemendaal believes clues to how the 23-year-old died may lie in her coffin, buried deep in the earth. He hopes that after Nissen’s remains are exhumed Tuesday they will speak to a forensic anthropologist and help him bring justice to a woman he never met but whose life and death he can’t dismiss.
“Wilma was a human being and deserves to be handled that way, not just in life but now in death. Wilma deserves an end to this, and I am going to give that to her.”
Lyon County Sheriff Blythe Bloemendaal examines photos from the Wilma Nissen case. Courtesy photo Sioux City Journal
Solving the nearly 29-year-old cold case has consumed Bloemendaal. Since he was elected sheriff in 2001, he has never closed the case file. Why does he care so much about a troubled young woman who may never have lived a day in his county?
The question brings a smile to Bloemendaal’s face. Chuckling, he pauses for a moment and looks down at the papers and empty coffee mugs strewn about his desk.
“It’s a homicide,” he says. “It happened in my county. This is my job, and I will not drop it.”
Bloemendaal admits there isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t think about the case. A paper timeline of Nissen’s life stretching across his office wall constantly reminds him of a murder unsolved.
“So many cases like this become difficult, and you feel like you’re beating your head against a wall,” he says. “You have a tendency to put it in a drawer and there it will sit for months and years and never get looked at. It’s on my wall. I can’t allow that to happen.”
There is no doubt this case is personal to Bloemendaal. From researching Nissen’s life, he feels as if he knew her.
“You just get to a point in time where you think you know them well enough that you can almost describe how they feel on a certain day,” he says. “You just get to a point where you think you actually know her.”
The details of Nissen’s life are sketchy, but some fragments have emerged. She was born Oct. 19, 1954, in San Francisco to Charles and June Nissen. When Nissen was 8 years old, her mother abandoned her and her sister Mona, who is unable to hear or speak.
While in their father’s custody, the girls were neglected. They did not attend school and were locked in a bedroom closet while their father worked. At age 10 Nissen could not read, write or eat with a fork.
When Nissen’s father lost his job the neglect escalated. The family moved into a car. While Nissen scoured the streets for food, Mona was confined to the car’s trunk.
“This girl, if it wasn’t for bad luck wouldn’t have any luck,” Bloemendaal says. “If Wilma was here today growing up as a child, you would feel so sorry for her. You’d want to just pick her up and take her home.”
In 1964, California authorities removed Nissen and her sister from their father’s care. Nissen traveled to a handful of foster homes in search of a loving family. She lived with her final foster family for several years.
As a young adult, Nissen, whose nickname was “Boots,” hitchhiked from place to place. She resorted to prostitution as a means of survival when she is believed to have been married to Donald Wellington. In the summer of 1977 Nissen married Robert Irvin and gave birth to a daughter, Crystal Joy Irvin. In February of 1978 Nissen left California and was living in another state, Georgia, for the first time. She traveled to Atlanta with a 54-year-old man named Charles Inman Belt. Belt, the last known person to have seen Nissen alive, told detectives Nissen left his mother’s apartment just a few days after arriving in Atlanta. On Oct. 4, 1978, Nissen’s body was found in Lyon County.
When discussing Nissen’s lifestyle, Bloemendaal presses his fingertips together. His words are firm. His gaze is intent. In Bloemendaal’s office, justice does not discriminate.
“A crime is a crime, regardless of who the victim is, regardless of who the bad guy is,” he says. “They all deserve your best effort. And this will get our best effort come hell or high water. And as far as I’m concerned, come hell or high water this will get solved, period. I accept nothing less.”
The crime scene
A woman lies face down in a grassy ditch approximately 20 feet from a rural gravel road. Tall browning weeds conceal her decaying body. She is wearing light green denim pants, bikini style underwear, white patent leather calf-length boots and a silver ring with gold indentation on her right ring finger. She is naked from the waist up. Her feet are tied together with a braided hemp rope.
A crime scene team searched the surrounding area for Nissen’s missing jaw and teeth and other belongings. Courtesy photo Lyon County Sheriff
On the morning of Oct. 4, 1978, a telephone company employee stumbled upon Wilma June Nissen’s body while laying cable near West Lyon School, on Highway 182. The body was found one mile south and one and a half miles west of the school on the north side of the gravel road.
Nissen’s body, which investigators believe was dumped between July and August of that year, was so severely decomposed that her face was unrecognizable. Her lower jaw was missing, and only two whole teeth remained in her skull.
A crime scene search team scoured the road and the surrounding area for Nissen’s clothing and belongings and sifted the dirt in the ditch for her missing jaw and teeth, but officers found nothing of an evidentiary nature.
“In every crime scene something is taken and something is left behind,” Bloemendaal says. “At this crime scene, everything left behind seems to be personal to Wilma, not personal to the killer.”
Today, Nissen’s remains will have to tell the story of how she died and who killed her. No evidence was present at the scene except for her body, her clothing and a rope, a fact Bloemendaal has not made public until now. Based on the position of Nissen’s body, he believes the rope was used to pull her into the ditch from a nearby area or a vehicle. Bloemendaal says she was not killed at that particular spot.
“That’s why her arms come forward, her hands are forward and her hair is forward,” he says. “The body is being drug by the feet into the ditch. To me it’s an obvious sign that the body is deceased, being drug face down.”
In the 1978 autopsy report, a medical examiner noted a dislocation of Nissen’s right elbow and a “suggestion” of a dislocation of her cervical vertebra, which could have occurred after death. This information is significant to Bloemendaal because he believes it shows Nissen may have struggled with her killer.
“I think that the possibility is high by the dislocation, by the fact that her hands are free,” he says. “If this is a person capable of fighting back, there may be DNA under (her fingernails).”
The fact that Nissen’s pants and underwear were wrapped around her left leg indicts that a sex act may have occurred before she died, according to Bloemendaal. Taking Nissen’s life into account, as well as the crime scene, he contends the sex act may have been willing in the beginning but then turned violent. If such an event did occur, investigators also have a chance of collecting DNA when Nissen’s body is exhumed.
“This has a sexual assault or rape atmosphere to it, which means, if in fact that rape did occur, the deposit of DNA was made,” Bloemendaal says. “Now it’s a matter of, did the elements in the length of time of her being there prevent us from finding it now?”
Nissen’s body was exhumed in September 2007 with hopes that DNA testing would reveal more about her death. Courtesy photo Lyon County Sheriff
If a forensic anthropologist can determine a cause of death, a nationwide data information center called VICAP, or Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, could aid investigators in finding Nissen’s killer.
After Nissen was identified in January 2006, Bloemendaal submitted information about her murder to VICAP, which collects, collates and analyzes violent crimes for similarities. With a cause of death, Bloemendaal says, VICAP could narrow or grow his list of eight suspects.
“It will open up the field for us for how many people committed crimes that have similar consistencies, so how she was killed is now very important so that we can open that database for other people for us to look at,” he says.
The VICAP submission also led Bloemendaal to seek the assistance of an FBI profiler. The case file is currently in the hands of a profiler who is working to identify characteristics of the killer based on the crime scene and the manner of death. Bloemendaal says discussions with the profiler pushed him to exhume Nissen’s body. He also asked the profiler to have the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va., conduct DNA testing on Nissen’s clothing and the rope tied around her feet.
“I think that you and I have a better chance at winning the lotto than us getting DNA, but I also know that I had to do it,” he says. “You can’t just not do it.”
Traces of a killer
In the basement of the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office, Bloemendaal slides a pair of blue latex gloves over his hands. He opens a freezer door and removes a package wrapped in crinkled white paper. His footsteps echo as he walks to a makeshift table and gently unfolds the stained, tattered and torn pants Nissen was wearing when her body was found lying in the ditch. A musty odor fills the air. It is the smell of death.
Although evidence personal to the killer was washed away from the crime scene by rain or blown away by wind, Bloemendaal continues the search for traces of Nissen’s killer on her clothing and her body.
“I think DNA may become a larger factor here in the near future if we’re capable of pulling off some DNA tests that we’ve asked to have conducted,” he says. “It may play a huge role in this case.”
Nissen’s daughter, Crystal Haas, arranges flowers at her mother’s gravesite. Courtesy photo Sioux City Journal
The odds of finding a biological blueprint of the killer will depend upon the condition of Nissen’s remains, according to Deputy Iowa State Medical Examiner Dennis Klein.
“It would really depend on what you’re looking for and, say, in an exhumation, what the condition of the remains are when it is recovered,” he says. “If it’s dry, versus being wet, it would make a huge difference.”
Klein says samples of DNA from Nissen’s remains will be collected just like trace evidence is collected from a crime scene. The material will be swabbed, preserved and processed at the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) Criminalistics Laboratory in Ankeny. If the DNA is viable, the laboratory will then create a profile.
That DNA profile can be entered into the FBI laboratory’s Combined DNA Index System, CODIS, which generates leads from biological evidence collected at crime scenes. A DNA match in the CODIS offender index, which contains the DNA profiles of convicted sex offenders, could identify Nissen’s killer.
Nissen’s pants and underwear were previously tested for blood and semen, and DCI laboratory technicians were unable to identify either. Her fingernails were recently removed from her preserved hands and sent to the DCI laboratory for testing, which has not been completed.
“The DNA under her fingernails would be gigantic, and would take us so much closer,” Bloemendaal says. “We’ll probably need just a little more to be making an arrest, but it will have taken us miles versus inches.”
No matter what, Bloemendaal will go forward.
Who killed Wilma June Nissen?
John VanGammeren, 82, of Inwood, Iowa was arrested in August 2009 and charged with six counts of perjury for lying to investigators about transporting strippers and prostitutes from Sioux Falls to his home. Nissen’s body was found in the ditch near 190th and Cherry streets near Inwood. The charges were later dismissed after VanGammeren provided truthful statements under oath. Courtesy photo Lyon County Sheriff
Sheriff Bloemendaal holds a suspect list containing eight names. All eight suspects are alive; several are incarcerated. Of the suspects not currently incarcerated, all but two have a criminal background. Bloemendaal said the list was compiled over the years in a number of ways.
Throughout the investigation, Bloemendaal said, the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office has been in contact with other law enforcement agencies working on similar crimes.
“Those (suspects), if they were in this region, were looked at because of the proximity to where their crime was in relationship to could they have been in this area,” he said.
Bloemendaal said investigators also studied associates of Nissen, as well as anyone who could have come into contact with her on the road from Atlanta to Lyon County.
He hopes determining a cause of death or finding the killer’s DNA will help him narrow or add to his suspect list.