SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — On March 6, 1974, a 25-year-old Sioux Falls woman vanished from her home without a trace.
For nearly 50 years, Ellabeth Lodermeier’s disappearance has remained a mystery. Both investigators and her family believe she was murdered by her estranged husband who is no longer alive. In this edition of KELOLAND Investigates: Cold Cases, we look into what led up to her vanishing and the ongoing search for Ellabeth’s remains.
Augustana graduate Ellabeth Lodermeier had just started her career as a social worker before disappearing into thin air.
“She had a hell of a future in front of her. She was just an unbelievable lady,” Jerry Thomas said.
Jerry Thomas met Ellabeth some 49 years ago.
“I was working down here in Sioux Falls, selling insurance and met Ellabeth at the Pomp Room one night. This was an automatic like, I mean in a heartbeat. We just hit it off,” Jerry Thomas said.
It was the very same day that Ellabeth had filed for divorce from her husband, Gene.
Thomas: He pushed the envelope on a lot of different things and she shared some of them with me at the time.
Kennecke: Kind of creepy things.
According to court filings, Gene had mentally and physically abused her, even beating her with her own shoe.
Kennecke: Was she afraid of Gene?
Thomas: I would say right close.
Kennecke: As her new boyfriend, what position did that put you in?
Thomas: Protective mode.
Ellabeth was ready to move on with Jerry.
“We talked about a future. The divorce was supposed to have been final shortly. We were looking at a house right here in Sioux Falls. And then, everything went to hell in a hand basket,” Jerry Thomas said.
Something Ellabeth told Jerry always stuck with him.
“She had commented more than once, ‘You’re not going to take anything away from him that’s his.’ So when she wanted to leave, he felt that was his. ‘You’re not going to take that away from me,'” Jerry Thomas said.
Jerry was in his hometown of Redfield, on that day in 1974, when the Lodermeier’s divorce was to be final. Police were called to Ellabeth’s house on North Indiana Avenue.
“There was a loaf of bread that hadn’t been cooked, so it had risen and fallen. There was a half-eaten pizza that was there. There was some flour spilled on the floor,” Detective Pat Mertes said.
Ellabeth was nowhere to be found. Detective Pat Mertes picked up this cold case 6 years ago. He says Gene was the main suspect in her disappearance.
Kennecke: Why was he never charged?
Det. Mertes: Investigators and the state’s attorneys office at the time didn’t feel it was strong enough to do that.
There was no body and no murder weapon. However, Gene was given a lie detector test.
Kennecke: Did he fail the lie detector test?
Det. Mertes: My understanding from that is that results were an indication of deception.
Kennecke: He lied?
Det. Mertes: Yes.
Kennecke: But that wasn’t enough to charge him with anything?
Det. Mertes: No.
Gene Lodermeier sued the City of Sioux Falls for harassment by police during their investigation into Ellabeth’s disappearance. He lost.
Gene racked up criminal charges following Ellabeth’s disappearance, from shoplifting to vandalism, eventually getting a 45-year prison sentence for grand theft. During that 1989 case he was accused of trying to hire a hit man to kill several people involved, including two police officers and the judge. Those charges were eventually dropped.
Gene was paroled in 2002 and died at home in 2013.
Seven months following her disappearance Ellabeth’s credit cards turned up at a train station in Manitoba, Canada.
“It seems they were planted there on purpose, with the intention to throw the investigation off,” Det. Pat Mertes said.
Then in 1992, 18 years after she vanished, Ellabeth’s wallet and checkbook turned up along the Big Sioux River just east of Sioux Falls.
In 2019, new leads in the case led investigators back to that area.
KELOLAND Investigates has learned that Gene Lodermeier used to visit that site with his girlfriend and leave her in the car while he disappeared out of site for quite some time.
Det. Mertes: The reason we’re looking up the river is that there are several indicators that something may be out there.
Kennecke: Her body?
Det. Mertes: That’s what we believe.
Dogs trained to find decomposed bodies indicated two areas of interest near the river.
You can see those areas marked in red in these photos. However, they still did not locate Ellabeth’s remains.
“The problem is a dog isn’t like a pinpoint on GPS. We could be a foot off from where we are digging, so we’re still looking at other options and haven’t closed out on that site yet,” Mertes said.
A crew returned to this site last fall and began digging in several spots and sifting through the dirt for bone fragments here. Ellabeth’s family was invited to observe the search.
“I really believe she is out there. We just need to find the right spot. Over the years, things have changed out there and who knows where she’s at,” Ellabeth’s Niece, Elizabeth Crow, said.
“We will obviously explore that site some more; hopefully do some more exploratory digging–hopefully bring in some more resources. It’s a very rough terrain, so things such as ground penetrating radar aren’t really an option, Det. Mertes said.
Investigators say they are looking into other locations as well.
“I feel like somebody knows something and I just want them to come forward so we can have closure. That’s the biggest thing. We want to know where she is at, so we can take her and put her where she belongs,” Crow said.
Ellabeth’s niece, Elizabeth Crow, holds onto all of the memorabilia of her aunt since the death of her mother, Ellabeth’s sister. There is one memento she holds the most dear.
“This was a gift she had received from Jerry. It’s special. It’s a part of Ellabeth and I get to wear it. It meant a lot to me that she wanted me to have it; especially because I was so young when she disappeared,” Crow said.
Kennecke: Do you think you’ll ever have all the answers in this case?
Det. Mertes: I sure hope so. I think if we find her, a lot of stuff will fall into place.We’ll have a lot of answers, just through finding her. But at the end of the day, finding her is kind of that big answer that we want.
Kennecke: You have never given this up?
Thomas: No, no,
Kennecke: Why not?
Thomas: Her parents. Bottom line.
Kennecke: You do this for her parents?
Thomas: Yep, and myself, but also mom and dad.
Jerry made sure that even though they haven’t found her body, Ellabeth has a gravestone in Aberdeen next to her parents’ and hopes to eventually bury her remains there if they are ever found.
Investigators say as recently as the last couple of months, tips have come in on the cold case.