Laura Van Wyhe (Courtesy Cedar Rapids Gazette)

Laura Van Wyhe (Courtesy Cedar Rapids Gazette)

Laura L. Van Wyhe

Homicide

Laura L. Van Wyhe
21 YOA
From Iowa City, IA
Johnson County
Found along NE Missouri highway
Near Kahoka, MO
October 26, 1996

Case summary compiled by Jody Ewing

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.

12-14-1996-crg-laura-van-wyheCourtesy Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dec. 14, 1996
A coroner’s jury concluded 21-year-old Laura Van Wyhe died of brain trauma, massive blood loss, and “blunt force trauma” to the head and legs. The lead detective in the case, Bruce Clemonds, called Van Wyhe’s death a homicide and said he hoped DNA tests on hair, fibers and blood found on Van Wyhe’s clothing would bring investigators closer to an arrest. Download PDF document, Page One and Page 7A

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.

A Birthday Celebration

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.

Bonaparte in Van Buren County, Iowa

Bonaparte in Van Buren County, Iowa

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.

Kahoka in Clark County, MO

Kahoka in Clark County, Missouri

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.

Forced to “leave in a hurry”

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.

12-14-1996-crg-p2-laura-van-wyheCourtesy Cedar Rapids Gazette, Dec. 14, 1996
In a Gazette article dated Dec. 14, 1996, Trooper Bruce Clemonds expressed his frustration about the Bergmans’ refusal to submit to lie-detector tests. Download PDF document, Page One and Page 7A

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.

“No” to Lie Detector Tests

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.

About Laura Van Wyhe

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.

Information Needed

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 dciinfo@dps.state.ia.us, or contact the Missouri State Patrol, Troop B, at (660) 385-2132.

Sources:

 

Copyright © 2017 Iowa Cold Cases, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

19 Responses to Laura Van Wyhe

  1. Ann C. says:

    I was a friend of Laura and her mother. Laura was a beautiful, young woman and a natural mother. Laura babysat my children and her mother became a close friend of mine after Laura’s death.

    I have no doubt the the Knight family know very well what happened to Laura. The Iowa family court does not grant custody to a grandmother over a parent without a very good reason. The decision was not made lightly. It serves nobody to go into the details, but there were very good reasons why Leanne was granted custody and Donny lost custody. Leanne was legally allowed to relocate to another state to be with her husband who had moved for his job. They deserve their privacy.
    I have always hoped that someday her case would be re-examined and solved. Sam should have had the love and care of his mother and thank God his grandmother had the guts and energy to take on the courts and Donny to gain custody and raise him in a loving, safe and normal home.

    • heyro says:

      Ann, I am guessing that you don’t want to “go into details”, because you don’t know any. If you do, they are probably either common knowledge, or don’t come off as dramatically as saying, “it serves no one to go into details..” Someone in Donny’s family may or may not know what happened, but I assure you, Donny doesn’t. He was a kind and loving father and was crushed when he lost his son, and Laura. He made mistakes as a teenager, like many of us do. He was not violent, and doesn’t deserve your innuendos. If you actually know why Donny didn’t get primary custody of Samson (he was awarded visitations), you know that the reasons weren’t that good. Just because you knew Laura (many of us did) and her mother doesn’t make it okay to demonize Donny. He was never under suspicion and he loves his son. Laura’s mom had no right to disappear with Samson. No matter how much she wanted to be the person to raise him in her daughter’s absence. Very, very wrong of her to do.

      • Charmed says:

        I would have to ask either of you two attackers: If this woman was a member of your family and was staying with someone’s sister. She goes missing withOUT her child, with baby food, no shoes, clothes strewn about, and nobody in that family has a clue why, what would you think? Would you think politics has taken over common sense? Where was sister and family if they drove her there? Huge pieces are missing and this family knows more than they are saying. I don’t blame grandma for getting out of Dodge. You must be family or you’d also wonder what happened.

  2. seam says:

    Ann C you couldn’t be more wrong. You might want to watch your words, they boarder on slander. You have no more info then anyone else about this case. You probably have a lot less. And to put yourself out there as “someone who knows” is very irresponsible. If you are implying that Leanne told you that she believes what you said, well I would find that very interesting. Didn’t she sue a trucking co. for the wrongful death of her daughter?? Am I wrong? There is very incriminating evidence that the detectives have. It just needs to be matched to the right person. Thus far they have not found that match. What will you do when someone is convicted and you were wrong? Will you be able to sleep at night? I also find it strange that you are so quick to demonize Donnie, and you let Laura babysit your children. I knew Laura, Laura was a fantastic mother and she was great with children, but she also had the same if not worse past as Donald did. Maybe that is why they fell in love?? Sam did not deserve to be taken away from his father that loves him. The courts did not award Leanne full parental rights. Donald was granted the right to see, spend time with, talk to, and guide his son. What Leanne did was wrong. She will have to live with that.

  3. Charmed says:

    Not responding to Ann. She seems to think like I do and also lots of people who are not related to this family.

  4. Our world lost a brilliant, beautiful young woman the day Laura died. It is a tragedy our family relives over and over again.

  5. I just wish we had a better photo to display on Laura’s page.

  6. Lori says:

    STOP IT! Dammit! A mother was murdered. Are we not here for the same purpose?

    I have never heard anything about this case before tonight but I can infer certain things from what I just read. The way she was found with those specific things is very strange.
    If Laura left to spend the night in Kahoka WHY were her PURSE AND DIAPER BAG

  7. Lori says:

    sorry – laptop issue here.

    Now, why would Laura leave her purse and diaper bag in Bonaparte? She wouldn’t! This case is ripe with clues and I have to believe the cops know a whole lot more then any of us.

    The Bergman and Knight families have information that could help put a cold blooded killer away…too bad their cowardice won’t allow one of them to do the right thing.

    But they are the ones who have to live with the fact that there is a murderer among them. They are the ones that wake in the middle of the night in a cold sweat. They are the ones that have to stand before God at a point in the near future and beg for forgiveness…

    It is then, through divine retribution, that ALL of them will feel the pain Laura felt, feel the fear Laura felt, feel a mother dying on the side of the road… That is what Hell is like…was it worth it?

  8. andrea says:

    The following case can be viewed on the Iowa courts’ website:

    *CSC* GUARDIANSHIP/CONSERVATORSHIP: SAMSON S. KNIGHT
    Case: 06521 GCPR024332 (JOHNSON)

    There are annual guardian reports, and child support paid until August 12, 2013.

  9. Kris Starks says:

    Hmm, wonder if there could be any ties to the Tammy Zywicki case?? I’m sure they’ve already looked at this…??

  10. Sue Williams says:

    Have you thought of sending this to the show ‘Cold Justice’? It seem like one that they could do a lot with…. http://www.tntdrama.com/series/cold-justice/tips/

  11. Sue Williams, yes, I think ‘Cold Justice’ could do a lot with this case, but they’ll only review cases submitted by the local law enforcement agency handling the case. Bruce Clemonds, the lead investigator in Laura’s case, is now an administrator with the Missouri Office of Homeland Security. I’ll touch base with him to see what he thinks.

  12. Brea Alexander we were just in Bonaparte!

  13. tmcarroll00001@msn.com says:

    If you go to Google News Archive and search under Laura’s name, there are several articles on the case from the Cedar Rapids – Iowa City Gazette. The results said they were pay-for-view – but when I clicked on the links the articles showed up freely.

    Some interesting information from these articles…

    Dec. 31/96 – “A judge has awarded temporary custody of Laura Van Wyhe’s 16-month-old son to Van Wyhe’s mother, rather than the child’s father. In his ruling released Monday, Judge David Remley stated that long-term alcohol and drug abuse, among other factors, prevents Donald Knight III from being a suitable guardian for his son, Samson.” According to the article, Donald and Laura’s relationship ended in July ’96, after Donald had been physically abusive toward her. However, Donald continued to work for Laura’s mother’s catering business until Nov. ’96.
    “After Van Wyhe’s death, Knight helped care for Samson at Thomas’ residence. When Thomas confronted Knight on Nov. 11 about a bag of marijuana she’d found in the baby’s room, Knight took Samson to Bonaparte. Samson has been living in Bonaparte since that time.”

    Jan. 4/97 – Donald appealed the above ruling.

    Apr. 27/97 – “Van Wyhe had visited Reynolds-Knight’s home for a birthday party Oct. 25, the night before she died. She 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.
    ‘It was a family affair – Molly (Tony and Sarah Bergman’s daughter), Laura and Sam were camping out in the living room,” she said. “That’s the last time anyone saw her.'”
    According to the article, a Missouri State Police detective “expressed frustration” that the Bergmans had refused to submit to polygraph tests.

    Feb. 1/99 – “Sgt. Randy King of the Missouri Highway Patrol’s Division of Drug and Crime Control reports that the people who were with Van Wyhe the night she died have retained lawyers and are no longer talking with the police.”

    Police have said they did not believe Laura was struck by a vehicle in the spot where where she was found, and do not know whether she was struck intentionally or accidentally.

    She could have decided to flee from the house for some reason like an argument (is the house fairly close to town?), and taken the baby and some important items (but yes, why baby food on a paper plate?). I believe that in one of the articles someone speculated whether someone could have brought the baby back to the house. Or had Laura ever made it to the Bergmans’ house at all?

    Interestingly, according to this page, Rebecca Reynolds-Knight served as State Representative from Jan. ’97 to Jan ’03, so presumably she would have been campaigning for office at the time of Laura’s death.

  14. tmcarroll00001@msn.com says:

    Other Order CONMEY LARRY J 07/23/1999 07/23/1999 07/23/1999
    Comments: LEANNE THOMAS IS TO BE PERMANENT GUARDIAN
    AND CONSERVATOR OF SAMSON KNIGHT AND PERMITTED
    TO MOVE FROM THE STATE OF IOWA TO CALIFORNIA
    WITH SAMSON KNIGHT. DONALD KNIGHT’S
    VISITATIONS SHALL BE SUPERVISED UNITL FURTHER
    COURT ORDER.

  15. Tina Carroll says:

    sad… that family knows something… hope they can’t sleep at night

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