Burlington's oldest cold case continues to baffle investigators

Tammy Zywicki

BURLINGTON — Sociopath. Sexual deviant. Serial killer.

While familiar terms today, they were chilling, terrifying, almost unexplainable to Burlington residents nearly a half century ago.

Local and state police used them to describe the person they believed raped, then killed a popular 48-year-old Burlington grandmother.

Dorothy Miller was found murdered Aug. 19, 1969, in a vacant two-story house in central Burlington.

Her unsolved killing is Burlington’s oldest cold case.

It will be 46 years next month since her death, but her case file remains open and every Burlington police officer who becomes a detective is familiar with the case.

“Everyone in the department still knows about it,” said Lt. Jeff Klein, commander of Burlington’s criminal investigation division. “We send every officer to a two-week homicide school when they become a detective. When they return from the school, we hand them the Dorothy Miller file and ask them to review it to see if we have missed anything.”

Despite those persistent efforts, Miller’s murder remains a mystery.

“About the only thing I am confident saying is we don’t believe the person responsible was from the Burlington area,” said Klein, as he and Maj. Dennis Kramer, recently sifted through boxes of witness statements and photographs.

“It’s my belief it was an individual who happened to be passing through Burlington. Being the small community it is, something would have stood out about who was responsible if that person had been local.”

Investigators and area mental health experts at the time had the same conclusion. Coincidentally, a carnival was in town that week.

The timeline

“The murder seemed to be so well planned and carried out that I feel the killer is a sociopath with previous experience,” Harold B. Lee, a psychiatric social worker with the Southeast Iowa Mental Health Center, told The Hawk Eye a few days after police discovered Miller’s body.

The petite real-estate agent’s hands were bound in front of her with a rope. After she was raped, Miller was bludgeoned with a brick, stabbed 22 times and left semi-naked in an upstairs closet of a vacant house she was showing at 118 Grand St. She was found the next morning by police after her husband, Fred Miller, reported her missing.

Detectives discovered a rope they believed was used to bind Miller and a brick used to beat her. Only the back door to the home was unlocked.

Miller told police his wife left their home about 7 p.m. that evening to meet with a “prospective buyer” of a house for sale.

Unlike her normal routine showing property for Bolick Realty, Miller decided on this night to meet the potential buyer without a chaperone. She had met him once before, two days earlier, when they visited the same property. Only that time, her husband accompanied her.

After talking with the man, who identified himself as Robert Clark, they agreed to meet again. Two days later, Clark called Miller. They agreed to meet at 7:30 p.m. to see the Grand Street home. Her husband of 29 years had to drive a truck early the next morning so he decided not to go with her that night.

Miller, who died in 2002 without knowing his wife’s killer, told police she had agreed to pick up Clark at the Maple Leaf Tavern, then drive to the vacant house.

Miller told police he went to sleep about 8:30 p.m. and when he woke up about 5:30 a.m. and realized his wife had not returned home, he called his daughter, Patricia Craven. They drove to the Maple Leaf Tavern, where they found Miller’s car parked a block away. They immediately drove to the police station to report her missing.

Not a random act of violence

Burlington detectives went to the vacant house and found her body.

The Burlington Police Department, which had 32 full-time officers, including two detectives in 1969, began a neighborhood canvass that eventually led to more than 200 people being interviewed. However, no one could provide viable clues of her killer’s identity.

The Iowa State Bureau of Criminal Investigations was called for assistance. Investigators eventually cleared family, friends and acquaintances of Miller’s death. But with that knowledge, investigators became fearful the murderer left the area and was making plans for his next victim.

It was clear to police the killing was not a random act of violence.

As investigators dug deeper into the killing, the one major clue they developed was a description of a stranger who was seen at the Maple Leaf Tavern, 904 Maple St., a few hours before the killing. Patrons there told police they had never seen the man before. They described him as a 5-foot-9 to 5-foot-11, good-looking, clean-cut man between 20 and 30 years old. He weighed about 175 pounds.

The patrons said the man was driving a dull, black cab-over engine pickup truck. The only thing he mentioned was he was from the Des Moines area and planned to move to Burlington.

Interestingly, investigators determined Clark had Miller call him at the Maple Leaf to set up the showing. Witnesses reported seeing Clark leave the tavern shortly after receiving a telephone call.

Police reports indicate witnesses saw Clark leave the tavern, go to a black truck and remove an unidentified object. A few minutes later, other witnesses saw Miller pick up Clark as he walked outside Riepe Pharmacy at 918 Maple St.

No sounds of a struggle, ‘virtually no clues’

Neighbors living near 118 Grand St., told police they saw Miller and a man get out of her vehicle about 8 p.m. and enter the house. The witnesses, who were sitting on their front porch, never saw anyone leave. Neither did they hear any screams or sounds of a struggle.

Lee, the social worker, drew a composite sketch of the suspect based on the descriptions he got from the tavern patrons.

The man who identified himself as Clark never was seen in the Burlington area again.

Tammy Zywicki cold case investigation nears 23 years

By Stephen Gruber-Miller, Iowa City Press-Citizen

Twenty-three years after Tammy Jo Zywicki’s death, her mother is trying to stay optimistic that investigators will solve the case.

“It’s been hard,” said JoAnn Zywicki. “It’s been really up and down, and it never really goes away.”

The 21-year old Grinnell College student was returning to school from Evanston, Illinois, and should have arrived in Grinnell on Aug. 23, 1992. That day, her car — a white Pontiac T1000 — was found abandoned in Illinois.

The next month, her body was found along Interstate 44 near Springfield, Missouri. Zywicki was wrapped in a red blanket, and her mouth was covered in duct tape. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed seven times in a circle around her heart, as well as once on her right arm.

JoAnn Zywicki said she’d been hopeful investigators were making progress in the case after last fall enlisting the help of the Philadelphia-based Vidocq Society, which is known for its interest in cold cases. JoAnn Zywicki said they turned up new leads that had long been overlooked.

But now, she said, budget cuts are making it difficult for the investigation to progress, frustrating her just when she thought police might be able to finally close the case.

ISP Master Sgt. Jeff Padilla refuted claims that his budget had been cut and called the Zywicki case one of his department’s highest priorities.

“We have had absolutely every resource at our disposal in this investigation,” Padilla said, noting that the Vidocq Society’s advice has led to possible new suspects.

Zywicki’s older brother, Todd, said what happened to his sister was so random and awful that identifying her killer won’t shed new light on a motive.

“It’s not really a mystery as to why they did it: just because they’re an evil person,” he said.

Before her abduction, Zywicki had been traveling back to college early to take preseason photos of college sports teams for Andy Hamilton, Grinnell’s assistant sports information director at the time. When her body was found, her Canon 35mm camera and a unique wristwatch were gone.

“What’s amazing is no one really had an account of what happened and saw it,” Hamilton said. “And that’s kind of tragic.”

A 14-member task force made up of officials from multiple states and FBI investigators was created to solve the case, but disbanded in February 1993, citing a lack of progress.

One longtime suspect in the case was Lonnie Bierbrodt, a truck driver with a history of violent crime who came to authorities’ attention when an anonymous caller described someone matching his description seen with Tammy Jo Zywicki on the interstate as she struggled to fix her car. The caller said she later saw Bierbrodt’s wife speaking about a watch her husband had given her that matched the description of Zywicki’s watch. He was questioned, but never charged. He died in 2002.

Padilla said investigators could not rule out Bierbrodt as a suspect, but he believes Zywicki’s killer is still alive. And he’s excited by the current leads.

“We are treating this investigation as a brand new investigation,” Padilla said. “We are going over the entire case file — which is voluminous — with a fine-toothed comb.”

Despite the passage of time, support from friends, classmates and strangers has grown stronger. More than 1,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org requesting Illinois to release further information, and more than 400 people are members of a Facebook page called “Who Killed Tammy Zywicki.”

JoAnn Zywicki is encouraged by the support and said her daughter’s case has helped draw attention to other cold cases.

Todd Zywicki said he’s often reminded of his sister’s absence in surprising ways. At 10 years old, Todd’s daughter has never known her aunt, but when the girl makes certain expressions, he’s reminded of Tammy’s smile.

“It’s just kind of interesting to see the similarities between my daughter and Tammy,” he said.

Call in tips

Anyone with any information about Tammy Zywicki’s murder is urged to contact Illinois State Police Special Agent Jorge Fonseca at (815) 726-6377 Ext 286.

40 years after ‘Waverly Stranglings,’ a renewed search for answers

By Mike Kilen, Des Moines Register

Julia Benning lived on a farm near Clarksville, but she wanted to experience the wider world. She had pen pals in Michigan and Scotland and shared with them her righteous rants about small-minded prejudices against black people, Indians and young women who spoke their mind and didn’t conform in dress or behavior.

Her family didn’t know where this came from, but accepted it. The oldest of five daughters of Lowell and JoAnn Benning, Julia had been the picture of a good farm girl, following her father around to do chores as a youngster, growing into a beautiful 4-foot-11-inch tall young woman who sang in the Plainfield High School choir, played in the band and performed for the speech team.

But with no money to attend college, Julia went to nearby Waverly to find a job after high school. She loved the music of the era — bands like the Eagles. When the family took a rare trip to California in 1974, she begged to stop in Winslow, Arizona, because the Eagles sang about standing on a corner there. They did, and she sang.

Lighten up while you still can/don’t even try to understand/Just find a place to make your stand/and take it easy

She wanted to work at a radio station, but the managers said she needed more experience and education. She settled for trying to find a job at a bowling alley, but they already had stacks of job applicants.

That’s when Julia, 18, walked into the Sir Lounge in Waverly and was hired on the spot as a cocktail waitress. That it was a strip club pained her religious parents. This was a girl more likely to go to church camp than a party, one who had experienced only a couple of dates in high school, despite her good looks and free spirit.

Julia wrote in her diary: “Everyone at school, home and everywhere else was duly shocked and amazed to think good ol’ Julie was working in a ‘strip joint,’ as they inelegantly termed the Sir, which is really a fairly classy, plushly carpeted, dark-paneled club with a nice atmosphere. The dancers are pretty decent people, not the ten dollar whores most of the men think they are. It was a strange experience watching a chick strip and dance completely nude, but after the initial novelty, it soon became old hat and didn’t bother me a bit.”

On Nov. 28, 1975, the day after spending Thanksgiving with her parents, Julia was seen walking to work. But then, she disappeared.

Nearly 40 years later, her parents and sister Carol Kean sat in the dining room of the same rural farmhouse where Julia grew up, and where her own father did, too. It was like a time warp. The carpet is still candy-striped, popular in the 1970s. Julia’s drawings are splayed across the dining room table — of fashionable rock stars and stylish women’s dress of the era.

Her father stood in the doorway, well into his 70s now, and his voice cracked. There was no way he could talk about it again. He only whispered, “I gave her her first ice cream,” before exiting to the farm shed, where his daughter’s ’70s-era platform shoes hang above his work bench.

JoAnn Benning said she tried to talk her daughter out of working at the club, but the young woman they more commonly called Julie said she wanted to be an “independent woman” and promised she would never be a stripper. She made pottery and chokers out of bear claws, feathers and beads, and sewed the dress she wore that last day on the way to work.

They didn’t know it then, but Julia had been writing to pen pals the month before, saying she’d grown up fast working at the bar and had already learned not to trust anybody. “A sleazy guy offered me $1,500 to go to bed with him and I turned him down. I saw the money and knew he had it, but the idea of it bummed me out…I just didn’t think I could live with myself later.”

Deep down, her letters show, she was concerned that people didn’t accept her and wanted to save money to fix the “lazy eye” she had since childhood. She wrote that she was depressed and had a feeling that some drastic change was about to occur in her life.

Julia loved Thanksgiving, her favorite holiday. After stuffing themselves around the family table, she got up the next day and said she had to go to work. Her mother begged her to call in sick, but she left anyway.

“She looked back and waved at me, and I had a strange feeling,” JoAnn Benning said. “It was the last time I saw her.”

The bar staff called her the next day to say Julia hadn’t shown up for work on Friday. They waited a day before going to police. The family searched in fields and buildings in the area. They contacted television stations to get the word out. Nothing.

“I looked in culverts. By then I knew she was gone. It was a matter of finding her. I just had a feeling,” said JoAnn Benning, whose own mother had died when she was an infant. JoAnn had Julia at 19, and they were deeply connected because she felt they matured together.

“We just stayed here at home all winter. Just to be here.”

Five months passed, and a black car pulled into the driveway. Sister Carol, who was only 12 at the time, was in her bedroom and heard the words “black fingernail polish” — the color Julia wore –— and “ID the body.”

Her naked body was found by a county maintenance worker in nearby rural Butler County. She had been strangled, and her body was stuffed in a culvert, washing out with March rains.

A homicide investigation ensued.

“I couldn’t feel anything,” Carol Kean said. “My other sister cried on the floor. But for years, I didn’t think about it.”

Then one day this past spring, she started thinking about it again because of a man she met with in a park who claimed to know what happened and who did it. She hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it every day since.

After a few months, state investigators disappeared. After a few years, the Bennings quit checking in with local cops. The case had gone cold.

The Bennings were upset, too, about the damage to their daughter’s reputation. It was as if because she worked in a strip club, she got what she deserved, despite their insistence that she never stripped and her diary entries that she was a waitress there only to save money for college.

They felt guilt about not providing her the money, and still do. But they followed the ethic learned hard on the farm to pick yourself up by the bootstraps, go to work, be strong. Carol Kean even went to school the day after her sister was found.

In the months following the murder, questions arose.

Her case was similar to that of Valerie Kossowsky, 14, whose strangled body was found in 1971 on a creek bank off a gravel road near Waverly. Six months after Julia’s body was found, 20-year-old Wartburg College sophomore Lisa Peak’s nude body was found in a ditch north of Waverly. She had also been strangled.

The three unsolved cases became known as the “Waverly stranglings.” Bremer County Sheriff’s Department Detective David MacDonald believes they may be connected.

“We do believe the possibility exists that there is still a suspect out there somewhere, which is one of the reasons the case remains open,” he said.

Lisa Peak’s body was exhumed in 2010, and other tips have been pursued through the years. But no charges have ever been issued in the three cases. Authorities say the stranglings have become urban legend among young people in the area.

But in the 1970s, the disappearances of young women who were later found dead was all too common, said Susan Chehak, who authored the website and book titled “What Happened to Paula?” about the murder of Paula Oberbroeckling, 18, of Cedar Rapids in 1970.

She said the sexual and cultural revolution around civil and gender rights made it “a particularly dangerous time to be a girl of 18 or older…The rules had been removed, but safety nets weren’t in place.”

The Bennings had tucked away Julia’s lock of hair, snipped from her so her mother could always have a piece of her lovely daughter, and a hair pin JoAnn found while scouring the ground one day where Julia’s body was found. Her mother used to suffer thinking of the act of dying and whether Julia felt physical pain. Now she just regrets that her daughter never got to experience life.

“I wish she could have had a horse,” JoAnn Benning said.

Recently, the sorrow was channeled into a new lead. A man from a nearby small town told Carol Kean he was at the Sir Lounge the night of the murder and named the people responsible. He said he had first told authorities what he saw in the months after it happened. Then after his own daughter’s death, he was determined to tell it again, and contacted Jody Ewing of the website Iowa Cold Cases.

He later met with Kean, and both women believe his story.

“I’m not going to get anything out of this. I have no reason to lie,” said the man, who spoke with the Register only on the condition he wouldn’t be named because he said he’s been threatened by the men he saw with Julia that night.

This is what he says happened, while acknowledging that he is a former felon who had been drinking that night: He was at the Sir when he saw Julia taking money at the door, although authorities reported at the time that she was last seen walking to work. A struggle ensued in the hallway. Men blocked his vision of it when he tried to look back there.

A short time later in the parking lot, he saw what appeared to be Julia slumped in the passenger side of the pickup. When the pickup door was opened, he saw a man he knew with his hand near her throat, trying to cover the dome light with his other hand. What he thinks were the victim’s clothes were later planted in his garage by the man he suspects or his associates. He says he threw them away, not yet knowing Julia was missing.

Waverly Police Capt. Jason Leonard said he’s taken information from the man, and police have looked into every new lead. But there hasn’t been any “new information” in the past two years, he said.

Every day since she met with the man who says he witnessed the slaying, Kean said she’s been on a mission. She wants to repair her sister’s reputation and shame the man who was in that pickup. She is researching, drawing up theories and tracking down the locations of people there at the time.

“It consumes me. For the first time in 40 years, I have a name,” she said. “To imagine this beautiful girl, nude and stuffed in a culvert covered in mud and leaves, the indignity of it. The man who did this is walking free, and I can’t live with that.”

The family still notices one less plate on the Thanksgiving table every year.

“I hate Thanksgiving now because that was her favorite holiday,” JoAnn said. “She’d say, ‘I’d walk all night to be there.’”

Left to console her is a short story Julia wrote for one of her high school classes. In it, a dying girl told her weeping mother on her death bed that she was going to heaven, “and I will be waiting for you.”

How you can help

Anyone with information about Julia Benning’s unsolved murder is asked to contact contact Special Agent Jon Moeller at the Federal Bureau of Investigation at (712) 258-1920.