Lisa Vander Esch

REGIONAL—Lisa Ann Vander Esch of Ireton was killed more than three decades ago, but her death remains classified as an unsolved homicide and her son, Jason, does not understand why.

The 19-year-old woman was playing with 16-month-old Jason in the backyard of the family home about five miles southwest of Ireton when she was killed by a bullet to the head on Sept. 14, 1982.

The bullet came from a firearm that was in the possession of Lisa’s husband, Darwin Vander Esch, who reported the incident to law enforcement. Darwin, a trained marksmen and hunter, according to his 1981 “Senior Interview” published in the Hawarden Independent newspaper, told authorities his rifle had accidentally discharged.

No charges were ever filed against Darwin, and the case remains open, but as far as Jason is concerned there is nothing left to look into.

“I know it should be closed,” he said.

The now 35-year-old resides in Boise, ID, and said he learned about his biological mother’s death when he was 7, but only after he badgered family members for answers.

His family had moved away from Iowa when he was younger and returned to the Hawkeye State when he was 5. Shortly after moving back, he was playing with some friends near the Lebanon Christian Church Cemetery. His friends dared him to enter the cemetery where he unknowingly stumbled upon Lisa’s grave, which gave him a feeling of unease, he said.

“You can’t define it because there’s no word to adequately portray how you know that something bad has taken place here,” he said. “Then I found out two years later that headstone is my biological mom’s headstone. My biological mom, the woman who had given birth to me, was under that headstone.”

‘Momentary distraction’

That graveyard occurrence prompted Jason to start asking his father and stepmother questions, like why did he have three sets of relatives, but his sisters only had two sets?

Jason’s persistence paid off and Darwin relented and told him everything he could about his mother’s accident.

According to what Jason was told by his father, he and his mother were outside enjoying the day when Darwin saw them as he was crossing a barbed wire fence with a loaded .22-caliber rifle in his hand. Infant Jason reacted to seeing his father by trying to get his attention and when Darwin reciprocated his son’s greeting he became distracted.

“That momentary distraction through my interaction with my dad as my biological mom and I were playing outside caused him to lose focus on what he was doing, causing his pants’ leg to get caught up in the barb wire and it ended with the resulting consequence of him falling and hitting the ground while a firearm was in his in hand, which would then provoke said firearm in his hand — a .22 with a rimfire bullet in it — to strike the ground with enough force to cause the round to detonate just from the abrupt impact of a firearm hitting the ground,” Jason said.

“The consequences and repercussions of that round discharging led to a bullet hitting my biological mom in the head, causing her death from his pants getting snagged in a piece of a freaking fence which resulted in him falling, causing the firearm to discharge,” he said.

Jason pointed out that .22 ammunition is notorious for being able to detonate without a gun if enough force is applied to it.

“You can set it on the ground and stomp on it with a cowboy boot — stomp on it with your heel — and it will detonate,” Jason said. “That is how volatile the round is, and that is what I know of as far of circumstances leading up to and the resulting consequences of my biological mom’s death occurring.”

‘Some speculation’

While the situation is cut and dry to Jason, the case still appears suspicious to others.

Darrell Simmons, special agent in charge for the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation western Iowa office, said the case remains open because of concerns from family members of Lisa, whose maiden name was Lisa Hamstra.

“I haven’t reviewed the case myself, but I think there was some speculation on whether it was an accident or not; some people feel it was accident and some people don’t, so still trying to follow up on some of those allegations,” he said.

Simmons said there is an agent assigned to the case, but there has not been much traction in it.

“We haven’t had anything on that for a while,” he said.

Jason said he reached out to Sioux County sheriff Dan Altena to gather more information about the case, but said the lawman told him he could not provide him any information on the case since it remained open and unsolved.

However, Jason said Altena told him that he would be interested in flying him to Sioux County over a weekend in February to meet with investigators.

When February approached with no meeting scheduled, Jason said he contacted the department to follow up and Altena told him that he and other investigators would visit him in Idaho instead, which resulted in the meeting being delayed several more times throughout the year.

‘It still is ongoing’

Jason said he is extremely frustrated by the situation since he wants to meet with the officials and help clear his father’s name from any indication of wrongdoing.

“No chance in hell of them coming out here like they say they are going to; yet, they want to sit and interview me about questions regarding her death,” Jason said. “Them saying they are going to come out here and then never following through, it sounds like they don’t have a leg to stand on.”

Altena confirmed that the department has been in contact with Jason, but he could not provide the exact reason due to the case being an open investigation.

“There’s been some scheduling difficulties, I worked on this case along with a couple of other agencies — the FBI and the DCI — and part of the problem is it’s been an extremely busy year for cases and getting all of our schedules together has been a little difficult,” Altena said. “At this point, we haven’t been able to do as much as we’d like with it, but it still ongoing.”

Jason also is exasperated by the negative portrayals of his father he has read about because of his mother’s death.

“I’ve never seen him act with a hostile, aggressive or mean bone in his body toward anyone period,” Jason said. “I’ve never seen him start a fight. I’ve never seen him provoke the circumstance for that kind of an outcome to take place.”

‘There’s no way’

From what Jason knows of Darwin and Lisa’s relationship, they were happy together and he said his father loved Lisa “more than life itself.”

He described Lisa and Darwin as sweethearts at West Sioux High School in Hawarden were they both attended. The couple married on Nov. 1, 1980, both were 17.

His mother gave birth to him three days before his parents graduated with the rest of West Sioux’s 1981 class, he said.

“I know how happy he was about the fact that he was not only able to marry his high school sweetheart, but he was able to have a son with her — I know how happy he was at that point in his life with what was going on,” Jason said.

“I know there’s no way he would do anything to jeopardize that happiness that existed in his life,” he said. “There’s no way — it’s not possible — that he killed her.”


COLD CASE BREAKDOWN:

Who: Lisa Ann Vander Esch

What happened: The 19-year-old was shot by her husband, Darwin Vander Esch, when he said his .22-caliber rife accidentally discharged. Authorities say the case remains open because of speculation whether it was an accident.

How you can help: Contact Sioux County sheriff Dan Altena at 712-737-2280 or the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation at 712-322-1585 or dciinfo@dps.state.ia.us.


ABOUT THIS SERIES:

“Gone Cold: Exploring Iowa’s unsolved murders” is an ongoing collaborative effort by Iowa news organizations to revisit some of the most brutal and mystifying homicides in the state’s history. The N’West Iowa REVIEW is presenting some of the unsolved homicides in the hope that they will lead to new tips and potentially help solve cases.

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