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At 1:50 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 26, 1996, a truck driver found 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 head and legs, and officials ruled her death as a homicide. Missouri Highway Patrol troopers initially thought Van Wyhe may have been hit by a car, but said whatever had happened to the young woman did not occur where she was found.
In a Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated December 14, 1996, Bruce Clemonds of the Missouri State Patrol said 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 system.
On Friday evening, Oct. 25, Van Wyhe and her 14-month-old son, Samson, had gone to Bonaparte, Iowa, to visit the family of Donald Knight — Van Wyhe’s boyfriend and Samson’s father — to celebrate Van Wyhe’s birthday. She’d just turned 21 years old on Wednesday, Oct. 23.
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, at 1026 E. Washington Street, 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.
“We’ve been told this was a friendly, amiable ride, that Laura went of her own free will,” Clemonds told the Gazette. He said the Bergmans told him they planned to drive Van Wyhe back to Bonaparte the next morning for a parade.
Van Wyhe would be dead before the parade began.
Just before 2 a.m. Saturday, the truck driver discovered her 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.
Clemonds said in the December 14, 1996 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.
Officials found a cocklebur branch lying next to Van Wyhe’s body, and cockleburs 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 wearing when found. It wasn’t scuffed or blood-soaked — as was the rest of her clothing — leading Clemonds to wonder if she’d been 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, Clemonds told the Gazette.
Tony and Sarah Bergman lawyered up and refused to speak to the media after the incident. Their attorney, Richard Roberts of Kahoka, declined to talk to a Gazette reporter at Roberts’ office on Friday, Dec. 13, 1996, and did not return a telephone call. Court officials in Clark County, Mo., also had refused to release (to the Gazette) results of a search warrant executed on the Bergmans’ mobile home.
Clemonds said he was frustrated that the Bergmans wouldn’t submit to lie-detector tests, and said that Rachel Smith — a sister to Sarah Bergman and Donald Knight and one of the last people to see Van Wyhe — also had refused to take a lie detector test.
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, Thomas was awarded permanent custody. Donald Knight was granted weekend visitation rights.
In late April 1997, Van Wyhe’s relatives started a reward fund hoping to elicit new information in her death.
In a Gazette article published April 27, 1997, Van Wyhe’s stepfather, John Thomas, said that in the weeks before her death, Laura had been teaching her son how to play hide-and-seek. After her death, he said, Samson continued to search their Iowa City home looking for her, believing she was playing a game with him.
“He’d go through the house, ripping back shower curtains and opening closet doors,” John Thomas told Gazette writer Lynn Tefft. “He wasn’t having fun anymore.”
Donald Knight’s family admitted to feeling similar strain.
“It’s a very difficult time, trying to adjust to the loss of a fantastic, dynamic member of our family,” Rep. Reynolds-Knight told Tefft.
Clemonds of the Missouri State Patrol again expressed frustration that Tony and Sarah Bergman wouldn’t submit to lie detector tests, but Reynolds-Knight disputed the notion that they were being uncooperative.
“We understand in a case like this, the authorities have to look at the family as suspects and have to push in ways that are often painful,” she told the Gazette. “But (the Bergmans) have been forthcoming on this.”
The Bergmans declined to comment for the article, citing an unpleasant experience with another newspaper.
When asked about problems with jurisdiction, Clemonds said the investigation was centered on southeast Iowa and that Iowa authorities were being cooperative.
Donald Knight later married and the couple had a daughter.
One of Knight’s family members told Iowa Cold Cases that when Samson was three years old, Leanne Thomas abruptly left the state with the child. Birthday cards and gifts, Christmas presents and other items Donald Knight sent his son were soon returned with the postmark “Return to Sender,” said the family member, who indicated the Knight family spent years trying to track down Samson without success.
Laura L. Van Wyhe was born Oct. 23, 1975 to William and Leanne Van Wyhe.
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 B. Van Wyhe of San Francisco.
Memorial services were held at 2 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 31, 1996, at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Iowa City, with the Rev. Mark Martin officiating. Arrangements were with Lensing Funeral Service in Iowa City.
Her murder remains unsolved.
If you have any information regarding Laura Van Wyhe’s unsolved murder, please contact the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at (515) 725-6010, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or contact the Missouri State Patrol, Troop B, at (660) 385-2132.