ROCK RAPIDS—A significant development has occurred in a N’West Iowa cold case that dates back nearly 40 years.
The Rock Rapids-based Lyon County Sheriff’s Department released a photo earlier this month of a woman whom investigators think to be responsible for the death of a 23-year-old woman named Wilma June Nissen.
Nissen’s severely decomposed body was discovered Oct. 4, 1978, in a ditch along a country road near Lake Pahoja in western Lyon County.
Chief deputy Jerry Birkey has been working for about 15 years to solve the Nissen murder.
“We’ve been at a stalemate for a couple of years,” Birkey said. “We’ve exhausted all of our leads.”
The sheriff’s department decided to release the suspect’s photo — it was taken during the mid-1970s — and more information about the case to the public in hopes of generating new leads.
“We’ve released the fact that the victim was working for an escort service, according to our investigation, out of Sioux Falls,” Birkey said. “That escort service was servicing parties in Lyon County.”
Since the release of the suspect’s photo and more information about the case, Birkey has received two tips to investigate.
He said Nissen, a blue-eyed white brunette, and the suspect, a black female who went by the stage name of “Sugar,” worked as dancers, escorts and prostitutes at parties in and around Sioux Falls, SD, and in Lyon County during the summer of 1978.
The escort service they worked for went by the names of “Playgirls” and “Playmates.”
Who was at parties?
Investigators first approached particular people in western Lyon County nearly eight years ago to talk about the parties that occurred in that part of the county during the summer of 1978.
“The people in the western half of our county got very defensive when we first approached them about these parties,” Birkey said. “What we’re trying to get them to realize is, ‘We don’t suspect one of you, but we do hope one of you will come forward and say you saw our victim with Sugar at one of these parties.’”
He said the sheriff’s department has conducted many interviews during the course of investigating the Nissen case.
“When we first found out about these parties, we tried to interview everybody we could prove who was at a party,” Birkey said. “Some people live around here yet; some people don’t. We’re actually seeking for people to come forward that were at these parties to help identify these girls.”
Investigators know the suspect’s real name, but they are not releasing it publicly because they are waiting for someone to come forward and independently identify her.
“We’re fairly confident of who we have as a suspect,” Birkey said. “We just need some witnesses now to come forward.”
He said the sheriff’s department has interviewed the suspect many times about the case, but she has never admitted to any involvement in Nissen’s murder. Investigators also know where the suspect lives.
“Our suspect fled to Canada soon after our victim was killed,” Birkey said. “She then stabbed a person in Canada and had to flee Canada back to the United States.”
The sheriff’s department is confident that it has a good idea of where Nissen was murdered and how she was killed.
According to evidence in the case, investigators think Nissen was murdered at the location of one of the Lyon County parties, but her body was dumped many miles away in a ditch along a country road north of Inwood.
Birkey said the suspect was known for robbing other dancers, escorts and prostitutes, and that the motive for Nissen’s murder was robbery — she was killed by people who wanted to steal the money she had earned while working at a Lyon County party during the summer of 1978.
Nissen was killed so viciously and in such a definite manner that investigators will not divulge how she was murdered because only the killer would know those details. They also suspected that more than one person was involved in Nissen’s murder.
Birkey said the sheriff’s department has been trying to track down the identity of another dancer, an escort and prostitute who went by the stage name of “Peaches.” She is another suspect in the case.
That person has been described as a light-skinned black female from Canada who worked in the areas of Sioux Falls and Yankton, SD, during the 1970s and 1980s.
“We suspect Peaches may have been involved and may have been with Sugar,” Birkey said. “We cannot find the identity of Peaches. We don’t know who she is.
“Ideally, we would like to be able to find Peaches and her true identity,” he continued. “Peaches and Sugar were robbing dancers and prostitutes during that time frame.”
$10,000 reward offered
When Nissen’s body was found Oct. 4, 1978, she did not have any clothes on above her waist, her feet were bound together and her bottom jaw was gone.
At the scene, investigators found a pair of green khaki pants and white “go-go” boots — a low-heeled style of women’s fashion boot worn since the mid-1960s — Nissen had been wearing and a silver and gold friendship ring on her right hand.
For decades, that evidence was all the sheriff’s department had to go on in the case. The body was not even identified as Nissen’s until a fingerprint match made 10 years ago revealed who she was.
Throughout the nearly four decades since Nissen was killed, investigators gathered information about her life.
Nissen was a San Francisco native, born on Oct. 19, 1954, unwanted by her parents. She lived out of a car with her sister before she was passed through a series of foster homes until she became an adult.
She was married several times and had a couple of children who were taken away from her by local jurisdictions and put into foster care.
During the spring of 1978, Nissen left California, headed east across the United States and ended up in Atlanta. A few months later, she traveled west to Sioux Falls and began working for escort services.
There is a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or people responsible for Nissen’s death.
FOR MORE INFO:
To learn more about the Nissen case, visit www.lyoncosheriff.com/tips or iowacoldcases.org/case-summaries/wilma-june-nissen.
COLD CASE BREAKDOWN:
Who: Wilma June Nissen
What happened: The 23-year-old’s severely decomposed body was discovered Oct. 4, 1978, in a ditch along a country road near Lake Pahoja in western Lyon County.
How you can help: Contact Lyon County Sheriff’s Department chief deputy Jerry Birkey at 712-472-8311 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ABOUT THIS SERIES:
“Gone Cold: Exploring Iowa’s unsolved murders” is a yearlong 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.