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Her favorite color: red. Favorite car: the Chevy Camaro. Favorite television program: MASH.
Lisa Vander Esch, 19, had barely started building her list of life’s favorite things when she was killed by a bullet to the head on Tuesday, September 14, 1982, while playing with her 16-month-old son in her rural Ireton home’s back yard.
Her shooter’s identity was never in question.
Lisa’s husband, Darwin Vander Esch — a man well trained in gun safety who’d been hunting and trapping since age 5 — told investigators his rifle accidentally discharged.
According to an (Alton, IA) Democrat articled published Thursday, September 16, 1982, Vander Esch reported the incident to authorities shortly after shooting his wife. Officials from the Sioux County Sheriff’s Office and the Iowa State Patrol arrived at the Vander Esch residence 4-3/4 miles southwest of Ireton between 7:30 and 7:45 p.m.
Sioux County attorney Harold O. Postma, the Iowa Department of Criminal Investigation (now the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation) and Sioux County Sheriff Jim R. Schwiesow investigated the circumstances surrounding Vander Esch’s death.
Sheriff’s office personnel and the DCI stayed at the Vander Esch residence around the clock following the incident, and not all investigators believed the “accidental shooting” story; evidence suggested the homicide may have been a murder.
Postma noted the concerns.
An autopsy was scheduled for Wednesday, September 15, although a Sioux Center News article dated September 22, 1982 said the Sioux County Sheriff’s Office reported it would be “some time” before the autopsy results came back.
The DCI and county officials held a conference in the sheriff’s office Thursday morning, September 16, 1982, to discuss the incident.
Postma waited for reports from law enforcement officials — reports that by law must be provided to the county attorney — but they never arrived.
In a county fraught with one political party’s infighting, Vander Esch’s homicide laid the groundwork to thwart the incumbent county attorney’s run for reelection and sabotage the suspected murder investigation.
On September 22, 1982, Sheriff Schwiesow said it would be “some time” before they received Vander Esch’s final autopsy report.
The following day, September 23, the Alton Democrat reported that William Watkins Jr. and his wife, Brenda (both from Alcester, SD), had filed a suit in federal court seeking damages for Watkins Jr.’s March 3, 1982 wrongful arrest during his mother’s funeral in Hawarden.
Schwiesow denied Watkins charges, calling it “another frivolous lawsuit” and said he was considering filing a countersuit against Watkins.
In October 1982, Postma — after having lost the primary election to Sioux Center attorney Mark Schouten and then reentering the race as an Independent — began to subpoena witnesses and assembled a seven-person county grand jury.
In an (Alton) Democrat articled dated Thursday, October 28, 1982, Postma declined to comment on what the pending grand jury session might consider during its term, including whether or not the grand jury might be looking into Lisa Vander Esch’s death.
“I cannot divulge the nature of content of any possible pending grand jury probes,” Postma is quoted as saying.
The article said the State DCI and county sheriff’s office had not officially closed their investigation of the Ireton shooting incident. In fact, Darwin Vander Esch had taken a polygraph, which he clearly failed.
Many questions remained unanswered, including why Darwin Vander Esch would be holding a loaded rifle in such close proximity to where his wife played in the yard with the couple’s young son.
Darwin Vander Esch was already an excellent marksman, and in his April 1981 “Senior Interview” with the Hawarden Independent had cited his Uncle Henry (Vander Esch) as the person he most admired because the two loved to trap and hunt and his uncle had given him many useful tips.
Before Postma could take further action, the Grand Jury records disappeared from the courthouse in Orange City, Iowa.
Darwin Vander Esch moved west and set up two registered guide/outfitting companies, one in Idaho and one in Alaska, where he engaged in taking customers on big game hunts. He populated both websites with proud kill shots of slain brown bears, polar bears, gray wolves, and other magnificent animals caught unaware in their own natural habitat.
According to Alaska’s Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development Division of Corporations and Business and Professional Licensing for Big Game Commercial Services Board, Darwin Vander Esch obtained his 2010-2012 biennial license renewal through fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. He was convicted in 2013 for unsworn falsification in the second degree, and in April 2015 the Big Game Commercial Services Board permanently revoked his license under both state and federal statutes.
According to a draft of meeting minutes dated April 21, 2015, the Big Game Commercial Services Board stated in AGENDA ITEM 4, OAH 0.14-1498-GUI:
Ms. Metz moved to adopt the Administrative Law Judge’s decision for OAH No. 14- 1498-GUI, Mr. Tiffany IV seconded.
Discussion: Mr. Tiffany IV read the decision: “there is no need for an evidentiary hearing in this case because Mr. Vanderesch’s licensing violation under AS 08.54.710(d) is conclusively established by his 2013 conviction for unsworn falsification in the second degree. Based on the facts established by his 2013 conviction, the Division proved that Mr. Vanderesch obtained his 2010-2012 biennial license renewal through fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation.
The Division also alleged, in Count II of its Accusation, that Mr. Vanderesch’s 2013 conviction is grounds for discipline under AS 08.54.710(a) (1) (imposing discipline for conviction of a violation of a state or federal statute or regulation related to hunting or the provision of big game hunting services). However, that allegation is now moot; since Mr. Vanderesch’s license must be revoked under AS 08.54.710(d), no additional sanction can be imposed under AS 08.54.710(a) (1).
Mr. Vanderesch obtained his 2010-2012 biennial license renewal though fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. Accordingly, effective on the thirtieth day after the Board adopts this decision, his license is permanently revoked pursuant to AS 08.54.710(d), and under AS 08.54.710(g) he may not engage in the provision of big game hunting services or transportation services during the period of license revocation.”
In a roll call vote, the Board voted unanimously to permanently revoke Mr. Vander Esch’s state and federal big game hunting services and transportation services license.
Approximately seven years before Vander Esch permanently lost his big game hunting license, he sold his Idaho outfitting business to another individual, who retained the company’s longstanding business name. The new business owner contacted Iowa Cold Cases in early 2015, asking that the company’s name not be mentioned in this case summary, as Vander Esch no longer held any interest in the new owner’s legitimate business. Iowa Cold Cases respectfully complied with that request.
While the Vander Esch family had plenty of publicity — largely ads by ‘Pizza Ranch’ owner Lawrence Vander Esch, who was Henry Vander Esch’s son and Darwin Vander Esch’s cousin — Postma’s press releases went unpublished. In his final months as county attorney, Postma fought an uphill battle with the county sheriff to bring about justice in Lisa Vander Esch’s homicide.
Schwiesow, who’d been elected as Sioux County sheriff in 1976 and took office in January 1977, was still “furious” over the September 1982 federal court lawsuit filed by Watkins Jr., and had publicly disputed most allegations made by Watkins.
The year already had presented many changes in Schwiesow’s political circle, including the July 1982 resignation of party chairman Lawrence Vander Esch of Hull, who’d stepped down as chair on July 20 and then was elected to serve as county finance chairman for an indefinite period.
After Postma’s defeat in the November 1982 election, it first appeared that questions about Lisa’s shooting would quietly fade into the background … just an unfortunate accident. The new county attorney, Schouten, wouldn’t have to worry about the missing Grand Jury records or the reports never delivered to his predecessor.
It didn’t turn out to be that easy.
Some law enforcement officials who’d examined the logistics and taken statements from Darwin Vander Esch still questioned the “accidental shooting” story based on crime scene evidence. They also, however, would have to work with Schwiesow if they wanted the new county attorney to file any charges.
Although many admired the county sheriff for his bullish accountable-to-no-one approach, it didn’t help quash his growing rage toward other officials who demanded answers and expected accountability.
“What we need is whistleblower protection and meaningful First Amendment protection,” the former official told Iowa Cold Cases. “Also, a way to get the DCI involved without going through the sheriff, county attorney or police, and an internal affairs unit that has statewide jurisdiction and authority.”
(* Note: In efforts to ensure the personal safety of our sources while still preserving the integrity of this case summary, names of all sources will be provided only to Iowa DCI and FBI officials.)
In March 1999, while still serving as Sioux County Sheriff, Jim Schwiesow was accused in an Americans United article, “Apocalypse Now? How Religious Right Fear Mongers Are Exploiting The Y2K Computer Problem For Cash and Political Gain,” as having taken it upon himself to warn the populace about Y2K-spawned chaos, “mixing Christian fundamentalism, Bible prophecy and Y2K hysteria into a “potent cocktail.”
“Americans United for Separation of Church and State” (AU) is an organization founded in 1947 with a nationwide focus of educating members of Congress, as well as state and local lawmakers, about the importance of maintaining church-state separation.
Wrote Rob Boston in the “Apocalypse Now?” piece:
Schwiesow believes Y2K has been sent by God to punish America for its wicked ways. “Our persistent unfaithfulness,” he wrote, “includes decades of idolatry, Sabbath-breaking, abortion, a Messianic view of government, broken marriages, rampant immorality, and sad to say, much of the Christian church losing its savor, saying precious little about many of these things, and neglecting to bring the light of God’s word to these matters.”
Schwiesow recommended that the entire county “repent of our sins and rest our hopes for salvation fully and only upon [Jesus], and then live in obedience to his law.” He also suggested that local residents and Christian churches store up extra food, wood and coal to help out neighbors and added that the sheriff’s office might need “able-bodied young men, as special deputies, to help keep order in a potential time of great disorder.”
— Rob Boston, Americans United, March 1999
Loren Bouma, chairman of the Sioux County Board of Supervisors, said he planned to ask the county attorney to determine whether the sheriff had illegally used county supplies to further a religious agenda, Boston said.
Harold Postma, who more than 16 years earlier doggedly fought Schwiesow for records in Lisa Vander Esch’s case — records to which Postma legally was entitled but never received — said he learned firsthand what can happen when one questions those who believe they’re above the law.
The former county attorney, who initially felt reluctant to go on record with Iowa Cold Cases out of fear for his family’s safety, said his Iowa driving records were repeatedly altered by county officials after he left the state, landing him in court. And though he still worries for his loved ones’ safety, he feels it’s important that those with knowledge about any crime not be intimidated into silence by the very officials who’ve taken an oath to protect and serve.
He also can’t forget how intimidation methods broke down a legal system and let an innocent young mother’s murder slip through the cracks.
Two decades after Lisa Vander Esch’s homicide, the Vander Esch name would still be splashed in news headlines across the state, garnering far more attention than Lisa’s death ever received. Schwiesow’s name would also resurface, as would that of Sioux County Attorney Mark Schouten.
Sexual abuse charges, political party revenge tactics and public name-calling would nearly eclipse news of the county’s other homicide victims.
The following short historical timeline (from dated news articles, available for download in ‘Sources’ section at bottom) details one county’s struggle to fight injustice and restore dignity to local law enforcement.
No charges were ever filed against Darwin Vander Esch in his wife’s shooting death.
In a 2008 customer testimonial published at gunwerks.com, Vander Esch talks about taking out game from several hundred yards away and the confidence needed to make the perfect shot. The testimonial page’s top photo shows a smiling Vander Esch, rifle in hand, kneeling behind a majestic polar bear, its mammoth right leg tucked behind the extended left leg and paw, its fur and the brilliantly white snow-covered landscape starkly juxtaposed with blood.
Vander Esch begins his testament with one powerful statement:
“There is no second guessing, range the game and set the scope, get a good rest, relax, and make the shot.”
Lisa Ann (Hamstra) Vander Esch was born June 23, 1963, in Cherokee, Iowa, to John and Gertrude Hamstra.
She attended Ireton schools, and graduated from West Sioux High School in 1981.
She married Darwin Vander Esch on Nov. 1, 1980, in Ireton. The couple lived near Ireton, where Lisa was a member of the Lebanon Christian Reformed Church.
Lisa died Tuesday, September 14, 1982, from a gunshot wound to the head.
Services were held at 1:30 p.m. Friday, September 17, 1982, at the Lebanon Christian Reformed Church, with the Revs. Kenneth Eiten and Paul Siebeking officiating. The Memorial Funeral Home of Sioux Center was in charge of arrangements.
Lisa was buried in the Lebanon Cemetery in Lebanon, Iowa.
Survivors included her husband; one son, 16-month-old Jason Michael Vander Esch; her father, John Hamstra; her mother and stepfather, Gertrude and Eugene Vander Hamm of Ireton; one brother, Lyle of Sioux City; two sisters, Lana and Lori, both at home; and her grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. Gerrit J. Vermeer of Boyden and Mr. and Mrs. William Hamstra of Merrill.
Lisa’s sister, Lori Lynn Hamstra, died Nov. 2, 1994 at age 23.
Anyone with information about Lisa Vander Esch’s unsolved homicide is urged to contact Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent in Charge Darrell Simmons at (712) 322-1585.