Friday, August 21, 2020

Z—a Horrible Crime, Still Unsolved

Summer 1992 my family and I had packed up for a sabbatical year in Cambridge, England. We left green, corn-laden Iowa in June to settle in a semi-detached (as the English like to call it) house in Cambridge, where we gradually accustomed ourselves to driving on the wrong side of the road, counting money in pounds and pence, and learning new idioms in English.
Stone Memorializing Tammy Zywicki on Grinnell College campus
Into this new comfort-zone in late August crashed terrible news from Iowa—Tammy Zywicki, a Grinnell College student who was driving back to Grinnell at the start of a new semester, had disappeared from her automobile, which was found on the shoulder of I-80 in central Illinois. Some days later her body was discovered near I-44 in southwest Missouri. She had been stabbed to death, wrapped in a blanket, and discarded by the roadside. As I write these lines almost 28 years later, Tammy's killer remains unknown. Today's post looks back at the dreadful events of 1992, and how the campus and town dealt with the crime and its unresolved investigation.
Tammy Zywicki, ca. 1992
In late August 1992, Tammy Zywicki—a 21-year-old senior—departed Pennsylvania by car, heading to Evanston, Illinois where she left her younger brother, Daren, at Northwestern University. Early afternoon the next day, Sunday, August 23rd, Tammy set out alone for Grinnell where she intended to spend a few days before returning to Chicago for a semester-long internship at Chicago's Art Institute.
FBI photograph of Zywicki's car (
Tammy usually telephoned home when she reached Grinnell, but she had not telephoned her parents that Sunday, so on Monday her mother reported her missing. Sunday afternoon Illinois State police had already found her 1985 Pontiac hatchback on the shoulder of interstate 80 near LaSalle, Illinois. Passing motorists had reported that the car's hood, hatchback, and side door were open, but when police arrived they found everything closed, and the automobile locked without a key. Tammy Zywicki was missing.
Grinnell Herald-Register, August 27, 1992
Classes at the college had not yet begun, but, as returning students reached campus, they quickly sprang into action. Anxious evening meetings in dorm lounges resulted in organizing three teams of students that departed Grinnell Wednesday morning with hundreds of flyers they had prepared, each bearing Zywicki's photo and description. The plan was to travel interstate 80 and its interstate connections, posting and distributing flyers along the way, hoping to stir up news of the missing woman. Another group of students organized sixteen teams to spread out across Iowa, visiting truck stops and rest areas with more flyers. Several college offices contributed paper, labels, photocopying machines, and free use of fax machines. Meanwhile, students organized a fund, initially founded on a voluntary fast among students, their board portion being transferred to the fund. Wednesday evening, prior to the official beginning of classes on Thursday, a candle-light vigil convened on campus behind the college Forum.
Drawing of Truck Reported to have been parked near Zywicki's car (Illinois State Police)
Organizing on campus continued, but the first substantive clue came on Monday, August 31, when Illinois State Police announced that a witness had reported having seen a semi trailer truck parked by Zywicki's car. Police had a drawing prepared, and distributed to the news media. The witness, a LaSalle-area truck mechanic, told authorities that he had seen the trucker talking with Zywicki, and described him as a white male, 30 to 45 years old, six feet tall, with bushy, dark hair. Police regarded the witness's report as the best lead they had so far found.

But Zywicki was already missing for more than a week; family and friends grew increasingly alarmed. Then, Tuesday morning, September 1st, a trucker discovered a body in a ditch near the on-ramp of Interstate 44 near Sarcoxie, Missouri. Wrapped in a red blanket, the body had begun to decompose, but the coroner confirmed that the dead person had been a female in late teens or early twenties, about five feet, two inches tall and around 120 pounds. An autopsy revealed that the woman had been stabbed seven times in the chest and once in the arm. First reports indicated hair and eye color that did not match Zywicki's, but the woman wore a t-shirt with the name of Zywicki's high school soccer team across the front; moreover, the dead woman's shorts were imprinted with "GCRC Division Champs," which might have referred to the Greenville, South Carolina County Recreation Commission soccer teams for which Zywicki had played. These were not the clothes in which Zywicki had last been seen, but the links to her high school fueled speculation that the dead woman was in fact Zywicki.

Still, the Lawrence County, Missouri coroner said that positive identification proved impossible; decomposition indicated that death had occurred at least three days—and perhaps as many as ten days—previously. Authorities therefore requested Zywicki's dental records to see if they matched the person found in the red blanket.

Meanwhile, back on campus, students organized another candle-light vigil early Wednesday morning; more than 200 students were present at 6 AM, and more volunteers agreed to undertake new efforts to spread word about Zywicki.
Grinnell College students assemble in North Lounge of College Forum, Thursday, September 3rd
(Grinnell Herald-Register, September 7, 1992)
By midday Thursday the Missouri coroner had positively identified the victim as Tammy Zywicki. The college campus fell silent. Many had suspected that the body found in Missouri was Zywicki—the names on her clothing, her size and weight all matched. But the hope, of course, was that Tammy Zywicki was still alive. Early Thursday afternoon students jammed the College Forum to hear the Dean of Student Affairs, Tom Crady, formally relay the news of Tammy's death. College president, Pamela Ferguson, then spoke.
After days of praying and hoping that Tammy Zywicki would be found alive and well, I cannot adequately express how devastated I am to learn of her death and the circumstances of it.... Society itself must deeply mourn her and have the most intense concern over the fact that such things can happen in America (Grinnell Herald-Register, September 7, 1992).
Headline from Scarlet and Black, September 4, 1992
Nyasha Spears, a student friend of Zywicki's and one of the chief organizers of the campus effort to find Zywicki, then took the microphone. Addressing students with a determination that inspired subsequent efforts on campus, Spears said,
I want you to know, we're not done...We live in a generation that's growing up with the norm that young women especially cannot walk down a street by themselves at night. We have the job to make sure that it's not the norm that we cannot drive on a Sunday afternoon on the interstate from Chicago to Grinnell (ibid.).
That afternoon a silent service convened in the college's Herrick Chapel. According to press reports, students held and comforted one another, quietly struggling to make sense of the violent end to Tammy's life. One student carried a lighted candle down the chapel aisle and placed it on the steps before the platform. Soon others in attendance passed the candle, leaving behind a pile of yellow daisies that two college seniors had distributed earlier to mourners.
Perhaps because of Spears's challenge, the campus response to Zywicki's death centered upon improving women's safety and the safety of drivers along the nation's highways.
Des Moines Register, October 16, 1992
In late September Spears announced formation of "Fearless," a group organized around Zywicki's murder and investigation. A half-dozen task forces were already busy; one group was pursuing legislation that would require a telephone at every mile marker on the interstate highway system—this at a time when cell phones were still uncommon. Another group developed talking points that students might use over the coming break to help advocate for greater highway safety. Spears also announced plans for a Zywicki memorial, originally imagined as a set of trees by the Physical Education Complex, but later replaced by the rock memorial now standing north of Eighth Avenue (Grinnell Herald-Register, October 1, 1992).
Photograph of a Fearless t-shirt (courtesy of Amy Fort)
Zywicki's death also gave new impetus to campus efforts to address violence against women. A gathering in the College Forum included numerous accounts of personal experience of sexual assault and violence, culminating in a "Take Back the Night" march from campus through downtown.
Take Back the Night March, October 29, 1992 (Scarlet and Black, November 6, 1992)
Mr. and Mrs. Zywicki visited campus in early November. At a general reception at Grinnell House on a Sunday evening, the Zywickis met more than 100 Grinnell students. Returning to Grinnell had "been hard," they told a reporter for the Scarlet and Black. But they wanted to thank the college administration and especially the college students whose efforts "kept our spirits up." The Zywickis also announced that a $100,000 reward had been posted for information leading to the arrest and conviction of their daughter's killer, and urged media to maintain the focus upon Tammy's case (Scarlet and Black, November13, 1992).
Iowa City Press-Citizen, November 7, 1992
The larger Grinnell community also responded to Zywicki's death. Much of the activity came from the Jeanne Burkle Women's Center, 822 1/2 Commercial Street. On October 1st, for example, the Center hosted Doug Meeker, service manager for Wes Finch Chevrolet, who discussed basic automobile maintenance. "Most breakdowns can be prevented," Meeker said, urging those in attendance to regularly check tires, hoses, windshield wipers, and other relatively inexpensive items. Subsequent Burkle Center programs addressed "What Everyone Should Know About Violence Against Women" and women's self-defense (Scarlet and Black, October 9, 1992).
1991 photo of Jeanne Burkle Women's Center, 822 1/2 Commercial (Digital Grinnell)
As autumn wore down and the fields of Iowa gave up their corn and soybeans, Fearless continued its campaign in behalf of women's safety. Among other initiatives, the group published a small handbook to help drivers deal with emergencies on the highway. At public sessions aimed especially at women drivers the group distributed brightly-colored emergency notices for drivers to place in their automobile windows, urging passers-by to contact police, this in preference to dealing directly with motorists who stopped and offered to help.
Cover of Fearless handbook, A Guide to Handling Emergencies (1992; photo courtesy of Amy Fort)
In early December on Capitol Hill U.S. Representative Chuck Schumer convened hearings on safety along the nation's highways. Portia Sabin, a Grinnell College senior, who did not know Zywicki but who had been active in campus efforts to improve women's safety, testified before Schumer's committee. Sabin related the story of Zywicki's abduction and death, and encouraged legislators to adopt measures that would mandate emergency telephones at every mile of American interstate highways. She also caucused with Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, but no legislation like this ever emerged from Congress; cell phone popularity outpaced legislation, mooting the idea of installing highway telephones.
Des Moines Register, December 7, 1992
Winter bore down on Grinnell, and another semester—the final semester for the class of 1993—began. Occasionally a news story promised progress in the Zywicki investigation, but all these leads petered out.
Philadelphia Daily News, May 24, 1993
When graduation weekend for the Grinnell College class of 1993 rolled around, Hank and Joann Zywicki returned to Grinnell for the occasion. Coming to Grinnell meant missing the graduation from law school of their oldest son, Todd, but he encouraged his parents to attend this graduation for Tammy. Mrs. Zywicki brought homemade cookies and various other sweets to hand out to students as tokens of appreciation for what students had done and in solidarity with the young men and women with whom Tammy should have received her degree. At baccalaureate the day before commencement, the Zywickis heard students memorialize Tammy, whose murderer had not yet been found. Everyone hoped—perhaps even expected—that the killer would soon be brought to justice.

Twenty-eight years later that resolution has not yet arrived. Supporters have tried several times to inject new energy into the criminal investigation, and occasionally a news item—most recently, this spring when authorities arrested Clark Perry Baldwin, a cross-country trucker accused of having murdered several young women—stimulates hopes, but so far authorities have reported no progress. There was no Facebook when Tammy fell victim to her murderer, but now a Facebook group (Who Killed Tammy Zywicki?) with over 1000 members regularly circulates news about the killing and advocates action in the investigation. At the anniversaries–5th, 10th, 15th, 20th, 25th—of Tammy's murder a newspaper may publish a reminder, but for some years now the investigation seems to have come to a standstill, and hopes that Tammy's killer will ever be brought to justice hang by a thread.

As I prepared this post I made contact with a number of people who lived through the trauma that accompanied Tammy's death. Some declined to go back to that hurtful time, while others opened trunks full of memories and mementoes, hopeful that a new initiative might somehow overcome the sense that Tammy Zywicki's murderer has escaped punishment. No doubt both continue to nurse the pain that that 1992 crime brought to Grinnell.

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