The Laura Van Wyhe case

Laura Van Wyhe

Laura Van Wyhe, an Iowa City native, died in the early morning hours of October 26, 1996. Her death has been unsolved for more than 25 years.

The events that led to Ms. Van Wyhe’s death – and the identity of those responsible – remain unclear. Police reports indicate that in the last 24 hours of Laura’s life, she traveled from Iowa City to Bonaparte, Iowa Oct. 25, 1996 for a party to celebrate her 21st birthday. The party was held at the home of her son’s paternal grandmother.

As the police file indicates, because there was not sufficient room for Laura and her son to stay in Bonaparte, they traveled across state lines to Kahoka, Missouri to stay with the sister of her son’s father and her family, reportedly arriving around 11 p.m.

According to police records, at around 1:45 a.m. Oct. 26, a truck driver found Laura alive but incoherent on Highway 136 in Kahoka. She was transported to a hospital in Quincy, Illinois, where she died three hours later of massive blood loss due to blunt force trauma to her head and legs. An autopsy showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in her system.

When the truck driver found Laura, her location next to the road suggested she had been hit by a car. But the facts didn’t add up. According to police records, there was little blood found at the scene and no debris to suggest she had been struck by a vehicle there. Her clothes appeared to have been changed after she was injured – the jacket she was found in did not belong to her and did not exhibit signs of having been involved in a vehicular accident, as there was no blood on it and it showed no signs of wear and tear or debris.

“My understanding based on the file is that she had already lost a lot of blood by the time she was found, yet there was little at the scene,” childhood friend and attorney Anne Champion said. “The police believed that her body had been moved to that spot. The question is: who moved it and why?”

Ms. Champion has studied every aspect of the case available to her, from the coroner’s inquest to portions of the police file. She has pieced together a timeline of the 24 hours surrounding the murder, and has driven from Iowa City to Bonaparte to Kahoka to analyze and photograph the locations where her friend spent her last few hours.

She points to the inquest that resulted in a determination that the death was not accidental and that it is being investigated as a homicide.

She said witness statements indicated that the night before her death, Van Wyhe and her 1-year-old son had gone to Bonaparte, Iowa, a town with a population of just over 400 people, to celebrate Van Wyhe’s birthday at the home of Rebecca Reynolds-Knight.

Ms. Reynolds-Knight is the mother of Donald Knight III, Van Wyhe’s then ex-boyfriend and the father of her son. At the time, Reynolds-Knight was running for a seat in the Iowa House of Representatives. She was elected and served from 1997 to 2002.

Van Wyhe rode to the party from Iowa City with her son and his father, Donald, and Donald’s brother, Benjamin Knight. Witnesses stated that after the party, Van Wyhe and her son traveled to Kahoka, Mo., about 25 miles south of Bonaparte, to spend the night at the home of Donald’s sister, Sarah Bergman, her husband, Tony Bergman, and their two small children. The group reportedly planned to return to Iowa the next morning to attend a parade in connection with Reynolds-Knight’s political campaign.

The Bergmans told police that Laura went to bed on their living room floor along with her son and their young daughter, and that when they woke up in the morning, she was gone.

What happened next is unclear, Ms. Champion said, but she agrees with Trooper Bruce Clemonds, the first person on the scene from the Missouri State Patrol, who testified at the coroner’s inquest that, based on his experience over “years of investigations,” that Laura “was not hit at that spot” but “was struck somewhere else and put at that spot.”

While the Bergmans told police that they believed Laura left their home in search of diapers, Champion does not find this to be a credible explanation. “There is no reason for Laura to go get diapers in the middle of the night,” Ms. Champion said. “The Bergmans themselves had a baby close in age to Laura’s baby. I don’t know why Laura left the Bergmans’ house, but I am convinced that there are people who do know.”

The jacket Laura was wearing when she was found belonged to Tony Bergman. Laura also had an assortment of odd items on her, including a baby blanket, a folded paper plate with cooked rice on it, and a bottle with a sip top. There was a knife in the pocket of the jacket that also belonged to Tony Bergman.

The police report indicates there were cockleburs stuck to Laura’s clothes and a cocklebur branch lying near her. There was a cocklebur bush in the cornfield across the highway from where she was found, indicating she may have walked or been carried by that spot. The spot where Laura was found was close to the Bergmans’ home, and a bag belonging to her with an assortment of baby clothes and other items apparently belonging to Laura was found the next day on a nearby property.

“While I’m no homicide detective, I think it’s likely that Laura’s body was staged,” Ms. Champion said. “She was wearing clothes that did not belong to her, and if she really left the Bergman home to buy diapers and left her baby behind, it’s hard to come up with any plausible explanation for the baby items she had with her. The evidence is confusing and could support any number of scenarios, but I think it’s possible that the truck driver who found her interrupted the people who were doing the staging so that they did not finish the job.”

Ms. Champion said based on her review of the file, it’s clear that there are many inconsistencies and many open issues begging for further investigation, which is why she is pushing for answers. “I believe this is a cold case that can be solved,” she said, “and solving it is long overdue for Laura’s family and friends.”

– Synopsis from