Iowa cold case waiting on technology to be solved

Cold Cases

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — 23-year-old Wilma Nissen’s life was as troubling as her death. Nissen was the “Jane Doe,” found murdered in a ditch in Northwest Iowa in 1978.

Nissen, who had been working as an escort and dancer out of Sioux Falls, wasn’t identified until nearly 30 years after she was killed.

Wilma Nissen and first husband, Donald Wellington in 1973


As the years pass, now adding up to 43… the case gets colder. But as we see in our latest KELOLAND Investigation into cold cases, cracking this case could hinge on technology that isn’t even available here yet.

Not much happens along these rural roads in Lyon County, Iowa. But in 1978, the entire community was in for a shock.

“Somebody was walking the ditches, they were burying cable. And he came across the body, just to the west of us here, in the ditch,” Jerry Birkey said.

Wilma’s body was discovered by the worker just about 20 inches from the gravel road. But it was hidden by high weeds that weren’t mowed at the time, allowing her body to be undiscovered for several months.

The worker, Steve Hussong, was just 19 on October 4th, 1978. He talked to KELOLAND News about his grisly discovery in 2006.

“First thing, I thought it was a mannequin. I really thought there was a mannequin lying in the ditch. I got a little closer and realized it was an actual body,’ Steve Hussong said in 2006.

“(She was) Badly decomposed. She had white leather boots on. Her feet were tied together,” Birkey said.

Original 1978 photo from the scene of Wilma Nissen’s go-go boots and a rope tied around her legs

Retired Lyon County Sheriff’s Office Detective, Jerry Birkey, worked the case for nearly a decade.

To have a Jane Doe found in the middle of nowhere who is not even from around here, where do you even start?” Birkey said.


Finally, in 2006, a lab technician matched her left thumbprint and a print card from the Los Angeles Police Department, where Wilma Nissen had been arrested for prostitution. With “Jane Doe” identified, the real work to catch her killer could begin.

Wilma Nissen’s fingerprints were matched in 2006, solving the mystery of Jane Doe

“They lost all those years of finding her family members; finding people who knew her. I traveled extensively working on this case and we’d find people six months after they died,” Birkey said.

“She was a prostitute. I think she did it to get by. She was in the system. She was married a bunch of times and I think she was just trying to get the love she never got, growing up, Krissi Atkisson said.

By the age of 23, Wilma had also given birth three times. Her children were all placed in foster care.

“I was just told she had just left the hospital when I was born,” Atkisson said.

Krissi Atkisson was adopted by her mother’s foster parents. She later learned that her biological mother had been severely neglected and locked in a closet as a child and eventually removed from her California home.

“She was basically wild when they got her. She’d never been to school. She couldn’t read or write. He couldn’t eat with a fork and she was 10-years-old,” Atkisson said.

Wilma Nissen as a child

At the age of 17, Atkisson began looking for her biological parents. But it wasn’t until 2006 that she got an answer about what happened to her mother.

Atkisson: The same friend’s mom who found my biological dad actually showed up at my house with a newspaper article that they had identified, through fingerprints, that they had identified my biological mom.

Kennecke: To hear that your biological mother had been murdered?
Atkisson: Yeah, that was crazy. That was a shock. It answered a lot of questions on, ‘where was she?’ ‘Why couldn’t I find her?’ ‘Why didn’t I ever hear from her?’ and brought up a whole bunch of new ones.

Wilma Nissen with one of her sons, whom she gave up for adoption

The biggest new question: Who murdered Wilma Nissen?

Detective Jerry Birkey: We have our ideas, who is responsible; but proving it is going to be impossible.
Kennecke: Impossible why?
Birkey: We don’t have the evidence.

In 2007, The Lyon County Sheriff released a photo of this woman connected to the case. She went by the name of “Sugar.” Investigators say “Sugar” and another dancer known as, ‘Peaches,” robbed other dancers. While Peaches has never been identified, they do know who “Sugar” is.

Authorities have only identified this woman as “Sugar,” but believe she knows who killed Nissen/Photo courtesy Lyon Co. Sheriff

Birkey: Yes, we have spoken with Sugar several times.
Kennecke: You’ve spoken with her?
Birkey: Yes.
Kennecke: What came out of that?
Birkey: Denials.

Kennecke: Do you believe she killed Wilma?
Birkey: I don’t know who I believe killed Wilma, but I know there are several people who know who killed Wilma, or that were there and saw Wilma get killed. Now whether she did it or not, I don’t know. Whether she knows about it, I do believe she knows about it.


Detective Birkey says one suspect has failed a lie detector test three separate times. However, that wasn’t enough to press charges. John VanGammeren, now 94-years-old, was arrested in August 2009 and charged with six counts of perjury for lying to investigators about transporting strippers and prostitutes from Sioux Falls to his northwest Iowa home. Those charges were later dismissed.

John VanGammeren in 2009/Photo courtesy Lyon Co. Sheriff

Birkey: Initially he started telling us about the parties and then he denied the parties even.
Kennecke: And did you ever get any good answers from him?
Birkey: No.

VanGammeren is not a suspect in Wilma’s murder.

A serial killer, known as the “Truck Stop Killer,” once was. Lyon County received federal funds to investigate whether Robert Ben Rhoades murdered Wilma. Rhoades had been living in Sioux Falls in 1978. Birkey interviewed Rhoades in the Joliet, Illinois, prison.

“We more or less ruled him out. He hadn’t started….well he called it stealing hubcaps, until after that time,” Birkey said.

The Truck Stop Killer, Robert Ben Rhoades is currently in an Illinois prison for murder. He lived in Sioux Falls in 1978/Photo: IL DOC


In 2007, Wilma Nissen’s body was exhumed in hopes of extracting new DNA evidence. Unfortunately time and water washed that hope away. However, investigators were able to determine her cause of death, but have never made it public.

Birkey: Because we’ve got to hold onto something in case we do come across the suspect who did it. A lot of this is out in the public. That’s something nobody knows.
Kennecke: Except for you?
Birkey: Yes.

There’s one other piece of evidence that investigators are holding onto, just waiting for technology to catch up. The Lyon County Sheriff’s office hired a Scandinavian-based company using a new technique.

“We hired them to go through our evidence, the rope, her clothing, and try to come up with as much DNA as they could. And they could find DNA, but they had to amplify it,” Birkey said.

The FBI’s criminal DNA databases, or CODIS, currently don’t support amplified DNA, so that evidence hasn’t been of any use. However, eventually it could lead to her killer.

Kennecke: So was there one person’s DNA, or more than one person’s DNA?
Birkey: There was more than one person’s DNA.

Discovering the identity of her mother’s killer or killers has now become a mission for Atkisson.

“The more people that hear her story, the more likely it is–they’re so close. It feels like they’re so close–just one little thing could solve this. The more people that hear it, the better the odds. She deserves to have justice. Whoever did this to her, deserves to face justice,” Atkisson said.

Krissi Atkisson sits at her mother’s gravestone in Rock Rapids, IA

While Wilma Nissen’s remains were exhumed in 2007, the Lyon County Sheriff has not reburied them. They say they are holding on to them in case new technology develops that could help yield more clues in the cold case.

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