The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

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July 29, 2012

Murder unsolved two decades after woman’s body dumped in area

JOPLIN, Mo. — It has been two decades since Tammy Zywicki was stabbed to death along an Illinois highway while headed back to college and her body was dumped along Interstate 44 near Joplin.

But for Cameo Carlson, a Joplin native who was a college friend of the murdered young woman, it almost seems as if it were yesterday.

“I do” remember it, Carlson said in a telephone interview Friday, “because it was very traumatizing to me, and it felt very personal. I can’t believe it has been 20 years.”

In August 1992, Zywicki dropped off her younger brother at Northwestern University in suburban Chicago and turned her 1985 Pontiac toward Iowa’s tiny Grinnell College, where she played soccer and would have been a senior. Then 21, from Marlton, N.J., Zywicki was considering graduate school, hoping to perhaps teach Spanish some day.

After her car broke down along Interstate 80 near LaSalle, Ill., a passer-by caught the last glimpses of Zywicki alive there on Aug. 23, 1992. Her body turned up nine days later in the grass near a westbound ramp on Interstate 44, about 11 miles west of Mount Vernon. The 5-foot-2-inch, 120-pound woman — wearing an “Eastside Eagles Soccer” T-shirt and cut-off sweatpants — had been stabbed seven times in the chest and once in an arm and had bled to death.

Her murder remains unsolved.

‘Somebody’s little girl’

“She was a nice-looking, well-groomed young lady,” Doug Seneker, then a lieutenant with the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department, told the Globe just before the body had been positively identified. “She was somebody’s little girl. Somebody’s missing her.”

Although she didn’t realize it until later, Carlson had been visiting Chicago in August 1992 at the same time as Zywicki. Both women left the city on the same day and took the same route toward Grinnell, where they were seniors. Carlson, who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., remembers later replaying her drive in her head, wondering if she had seen anything suspicious.

The murder changed the way Carlson traveled between Grinnell and Joplin, and her parents bought her a transportable bag phone for her safety. She couldn’t drive along I-44 without thinking of the “smart, healthy, vibrant” young woman she had met on the college campus through a shared interest in photography.

“The hardest thing for me would be coming home,” Carlson said. “I remember driving by that exit or right near that exit where they found her body. There was no way for me to not go past where she had been, and it was super personal. It just felt like I was walking on someone’s grave.”

After Zywicki’s body was found, Illinois State Police joined forces with the FBI and other agencies in a task force, but it disbanded the next year. While calling the investigation still active, FBI spokeswoman Joan Hyde in Chicago declined to be more specific.

“We remain optimistic that we’ll be able to locate and charge the people responsible for this,” she said.

‘Very, very tough’

But just two weeks after Zywicki’s body was discovered, one investigator involved in the case hinted to the Globe that he wasn’t hopeful the murderer would be found.

“There hasn’t been any real change since we started this investigation,” Bob Long, then an FBI agent based in Chicago, told the Globe on Sept. 16, 1992. “I don’t know if it’s solvable, and that’s very frustrating for the people out there who are working on this.”

During the same interview, Long dismissed tips generated from a story about the murder on the “America’s Most Wanted” television program as too generic and unable to offer a solid description of possible suspects or witnesses.

“Nothing has given us that piece of evidence that’s going to solve this case,” he told the Globe. “This one’s going to be very, very tough.”

Over the past two decades, investigators looked at truckers suspected in killings and sexual attacks elsewhere but eventually eliminated them from suspicion in Zywicki’s death.

At one point, authorities focused on Bruce Mendenhall, a southern Illinois trucker who was arrested in 2007 and suspected of fatally shooting women in Tennessee, Indiana and Alabama after their heads were wrapped in plastic wrap and duct tape. Authorities believe Mendenhall, who is serving a life sentence for killing a young woman at a Nashville truck stop, preyed on prostitutes. He had been a trucker for 20 years.

After his arrest, Nashville police fielded dozens of inquiries from law enforcement officials and families across the country hoping Mendenhall would be able to provide clues to unsolved murders going back as far as two decades. Detective Sgt. Pat Postiglione in Nashville said the trucker still hasn’t been ruled out as a suspect in the Zywicki case.

“Any time you have a (suspect) like Mendenhall, you never want to exclude them entirely,” Postiglione said. “He could have easily been where (Zywicki) was, and there’d be no paper trail linking him to that area.”

‘Helluva suspect’

Then there was Lonnie Bierbrodt, the late, ex-con trucker who former Illinois State Police investigator Marty McCarthy considers the case’s most promising lead.

Bierbrodt had done prison time for armed robberies and was paroled before taking a job with a small trucking company. He originally was from the Illinois area where Zywicki was last seen alive, and his Missouri trailer home wasn’t far from where her body was found.

A witness told McCarthy that she saw a man matching Bierbrodt’s description with Zywicki and her broken-down car as she passed by on the interstate. The Datsun pickup truck that the witness said she saw behind Zywicki’s vehicle matched one that Bierbrodt had before he steam-cleaned and sold it just days after the killing, McCarthy said.

Not long after the killing, Bierbrodt gave his then-wife a musical watch similar to one Zywicki was said to have taken with her on the trip back to college. Her body was found wrapped in a blanket with a Kenworth logo, and Bierbrodt drove a Kenworth-made truck.

Yet McCarthy said prosecutors resisted charging Bierbrodt, figuring there wasn’t enough evidence to take the case before a grand jury.

Bierbrodt was 41 when he died of AIDS in 2002.

“In 20 years, let’s face it, no other suspect has come forward other than Bierbrodt. He’s a helluva suspect,” said McCarthy, 65 and now retired in Wheaton, Ill. “I’m an old cop, and these kinds of things just bug the hell out of me. But I’ll keep fighting.”

So will JoAnn Zywicki, Tammy’s mother, who now lives in the central Florida town of Ocala. She long ago packed up her daughter’s bedroom and gave most of the stuff to charity, saving only soccer plaques, yearbooks and photographs to keep a bit of her daughter close.

“You kind of mourn what you lost, appreciate what you still have and just try to get through it whatever way you can,” she said. “If it means sleeping in until noon because you’re feeling down, that’s what you do. Then you get up the next day and start it all over again.”

Staff writer Emily Younker and Associated Press correspondent Jim Suhr, who covered the case when he worked for the Globe, contributed to this report.

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