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Traci Ann Evenson, 22, was beaten and suffocated in her Cedar Rapids, Iowa, apartment on Saturday night, June 21, 1997. Evenson’s sister, Jodi Lynn Jackson, discovered the body in Evenson’s 438-1/2 Ninth Ave. SW second-floor apartment the following morning about 9 a.m.
In a Cedar Rapids Gazette article dated June 23, 1997, Cedar Rapids police Lt. Ken Washburn of the Investigative Unit said Evenson died in the 36 hours before the discovery of her body, placing her death sometime after 9:30 Saturday night.
Neighbor Emma Turner told The Gazette Evenson had lived in the apartment over the small two-story house for about a month.
“She seemed to be a nice person,” said Turner, who had lived at 441 Ninth Ave. SW for more than 50 years.
Evenson, a 1994 Washington High School graduate, held down two jobs while also taking computer courses at Kirkwood Community College. She worked part-time at the Hy-Vee store at 279 Collins Rd. NE and also worked as a telemarketer for APAC Teleservices.
Evenson had lived with her sister Jodi and her family before moving to the Ninth Avenue apartment.
On Monday, Cedar Rapids police detectives called Evenson’s death a homicide. Dr. David Kresnicka, assistant county medical examiner, said they would continue to investigate the death.
“She worked and she didn’t bother anybody,” said Evenson’s mother, Norma Zillyette, in a Gazette article dated June 24, 1997.
Jim Lingo, the store director at the Collins Road NE Hy-Vee store, told The Gazette Evenson had bused tables in the store’s eatery and cleaned dishes in the kitchen since September 1995. She worked 8 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., four days a week, and, he thought, 30 hours more a week for APAC.
“She was working hard to make it on her own,” Lingo said.
Police detectives believed from the beginning Evenson was killed by someone she knew — someone she’d trust well enough to let into her apartment. And, the crime was personal in nature. Evenson had been beaten quite badly in the face, and longtime homicide detective Sam McClurg called the strangulation an “act of viciousness.”
Just weeks after Evenson’s murder, her sister Jodi and Jodi’s husband, Anthony Jackson, left Cedar Rapids and moved with their two young children to West St. Paul, Minnesota.
Three months after Evenson’s slaying, Cedar Rapids police announced a $7,000 reward fund for information leading to the apprehension of her killer.
“We’re hoping this will generate some more leads,” Lt. Washburn said in a Gazette article dated Wednesday, September 24, 1997.
The reward fund included $2,000 raised by Evenson’s family and friends, and $5,000 from APAC TeleServices, where Evenson had worked.
APAC spokesman Kevin Petschow said the company’s board approved the contribution as “an appropriate way to help support the Cedar Rapids police and community.”
Zillyette was skeptical about the reward producing any results. Her daughter had no enemies, she said.
The family, however, increased its contribution, and by October 8, the reward fund reached $16,500. According to Police Sgt. Mark Andries, the family increased their contribution to $11,000, and one of Evenson’s friends contributed another $500.
Ten days later, Cedar Rapids Police Capt. Glen Fox said the reward hadn’t yet brought in any credible tips in the hunt for Traci Evenson’s killer.
Detectives began casting a wider net, posting inquires with the state Division of Criminal Investigation and the Midstates Organized Crime Information Center seeking information on similar cases in and around Iowa. One person already had emerged as a principal suspect — Evenson’s 28-year-old brother-in-law, Anthony D. Jackson, who was married to the sister who found Evenson’s body.
The day before Thanksgiving, November 27, 1997, Zillyette would lose yet another daughter, as well as two grandchildren and a son-in-law. Jodi Jackson, 27, along with her husband Anthony and the couple’s children, Anthony Jr., 5, and Jazmine, 3, were killed in a two-vehicle accident in Howard County while driving to Waterloo to spend Thanksgiving with Anthony Jackson’s relatives.
Their deaths came just five months and six days after Evenson’s homicide.
“It’s unimaginable,” Evenson’s brother, Stephen Evenson, told the Gazette in a story published Friday, Nov. 28, 1997.
The Jacksons were killed in an 11:20 a.m. accident on Highway 63, three miles south of Lime Springs, after Jodi Jackson, who was driving, lost control of the family’s Ford Bronco when she attempted to pass a semi-trailer truck. According to The Gazette, the vehicle slid to the shoulder, veered back onto the road and was struck broadside by a semi driven by Gerald Lathrop of Boscobel, Wisconsin. Lathrop was not injured in the accident, but all the Jacksons died instantly.
In a Gazette article published Sunday, Dec. 28, 1997, police Capt. Fox said he didn’t expect Jodi’s death would affect the investigation into her sister’s murder.
“We had already talked to her several times, and I don’t know if there was much more there to learn,” Fox said. “It’s obviously a tremendous tragedy for the family.”
Nor was Fox surprised the reward fund had turned up nothing.
“I don’t think this is the type of crime that someone is going to talk too much about,” he said.
The headline asked a question frequently posed by many: “Can a detective count a murder solved when the suspect is dead?”
Gazette staff writer Rick Smith, in an article published July 9, 2000, addressed the issue and other questions people continue to ask even today. What happens in cases in which there can be no judge or jury? What if the principal suspect dies before detectives have a chance to make their case? Can police detectives ever close the case file? Can or will the victim’s family ever know the truth?
Or, as R. Dean Wright, professor of sociology at Drake University, put it to Smith: How does a detective walk the precipice between his own career need to have an investigative victory and a community’s need to have some kind of credible verdict?
Cedar Rapids Det. McClurg, who’d long wrestled with those concerns, opened up to Smith and laid out factors in Evenson’s murder that put the case — as well as another previously unsolved crime — into perspective.
Traci Evenson’s brother-in-law had known her well, McClurg said, but had not appeared upset at the murder scene. He’d lawyered up as soon as McClurg asked to question him, and for good reason; detectives had discovered hairs from a black male at the crime scene, and Anthony Jackson was black. The scene had been staged to look like a rape and assault, but Evenson had not been raped. No semen was ever recovered from the crime scene or her body.
Jackson had in the past been convicted of assaulting a woman, and police also had a troubling unsolved case of intruder rape at knifepoint from just a year earlier; Jackson not only knew the rape victim, but she was the girlfriend of one of Jackson’s relatives.
Following Anthony Jackson’s death, McClurg traveled to Howard County to obtain tissue and fluid samples from the body. The DNA sample confirmed Jackson was responsible for the rape of his relative’s girlfriend but was inconclusive in Evenson’s murder.
Stephen Evenson, who’d once given his brother-in-law the benefit of the doubt, told The Gazette the DNA evidence in the earlier rape case helped convince him Anthony Jackson was responsible for his sister Traci’s death. And, there was more.
Stephen suspected Traci caught Jackson — whom he said was possessive of Jodi — cheating on his wife and that Traci was about to tell her.
“He didn’t want to lose Jodi,” Stephen, of West St. Paul, Minn., told The Gazette. “That might have been the motive (for killing Traci).”
McClurg suggested the murder happened when Evenson rebuffed a sexual advance by Jackson.
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI) did not have available to them the same testing techniques used by the FBI, and in May 2000 the FBI agreed to perform a more sophisticated DNA test on the hair samples found at the Evenson murder scene. Still, McClurg said the Evenson murder probe had other complications, including:
Drake University’s Wright said there is always a danger in letting police departments set the standard for deciding when a crime is solved because it lets them become enforcer, judge, and jury. At the same time, he told The Gazette, police departments have a duty in this day of victim’s rights to make public the details of investigations into their community’s most heinous crimes.
“The police have a moral obligation to ensure the public that they are safe and that (investigators) have solved the crime ‘beyond a reasonable doubt,'” Prof. Wright said.
The concept of reasonable doubt, Wright told The Gazette, can be the standard for investigators even when, because of a suspect’s death, the case never can make it into a courtroom.
In Evenson’s case, with no access to arrest or trial, McClurg said he is left with one standard to meet: That he knows so certainly of a suspect’s guilt that he one day can walk into the Evenson living room and tell the family this is who killed young Traci Evenson in 1997 and why.
Traci Ann Evenson was born Jan. 20, 1975, in St. Paul, Minn. She graduated from Washington High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1994.
On Saturday night, June 21, 1997, Traci was beaten and suffocated in her Cedar Rapids apartment located at 438-1/2 Ninth Ave. SW. Her sister, Jodi Lynn Jackson, discovered Traci’s body the following day.
Traci had been attending computer classes at Kirkwood Community College. She was employed as a telemarketer at APAC and worked part-time at the Collins Road Hy-Vee.
Public prayer services were held at the Brosh Chapel at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24, 1997, with friends calling after 5 p.m. The Rev. Wendell Beets, senior pastor of Word of Faith Pentecostal Church of God in Christ, officiated. Funeral services were scheduled for a later date at Southern Funeral Home, South St. Paul, Minn.
Traci was buried at the General Lutheran Cemetery in South St. Paul near the homes of her parents.
Survivors included her mother, Norma Bierbrauer Zillyette of West St. Paul, Minn.; her father, Philip O. Evenson and his wife Carol of Brooklyn Park, Minn.; a sister, Jodi L. Jackson and her husband Anthony of Cedar Rapids; two brothers, Robert Evenson of West St. Paul, Minn., and Stephen Evenson of Waterloo; her grandmother, Gladys Bierbrauer of Siren, Wis.; a niece and nephew, Anthony Jackson Jr. and Jazmine Jackson; her aunt, Betty Nyberg of Parkers Prairie, Minn.; and four uncles, James, Donald, David and Leroy Bierbrauer.
Traci was preceded in death by her grandfather, Roy Bierbrauer; and an aunt, Rose Saver.
If you have any information about Traci Evenson’s unsolved murder please contact Cedar Rapids Police Department Investigator Matt Denlinger at (319) 286-5442 or email M.Denlinger@cedar-rapids.org, or contact the Linn County Crime Stoppers Anonymous Tip Line at 1-800-CR-CRIME.