Over 22 years ago, Tammy Zywicki departed Chicago en route to Grinnell College in Iowa.
She never arrived.
After she failed to reach her destination, August 23, 1992, the 21 year old college student’s car was found on the shoulder of I-88 in LaSalle County. Nine days later, her body was discovered, wrapped in a blanket, hundreds of miles away, on the shoulder of a highway near Joplin, Missouri. She had been stabbed seven times.
The crime has never been solved. On Tuesday, the Illinois State Police said it was turning it over to a private forensic group, in the hope of finding new clues.
“My understanding is that there were leads, from the beginning, that were not checked out,” Tammy’s mother Joanne Zywicki said from her home in central Florida. And she’s not alone.
Hundreds of Tammy’s friends have banded together on a Facebook page, organized by a Chicagoan who never met her. That man, Patrick Jones, says he has daughters of his own, and simply believes the family deserves some measure of justice.
“Somebody knows, somebody had to see something,” he says. “Somebody doesn’t remember they’ve seen something. They don’t realize what they’ve seen.”
Toward that end, Tammy’s supporters embarked on a petition drive last year, hoping to prod Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and now, Governor Bruce Rauner, to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate the case.
“I would hope the governor would do something,” Jones says. “Because the governor has children too. And he’s got to understand how hard it would be to lose a daughter like that.”
One person who worked on the case, insists solid leads went unpursued.
“The problem in my mind is that’s all been kept inside state police,” says retired investigator Martin McCarthy. “They don’t say anything to anybody, whatever, but they don’t know who killed her!”
McCarthy thinks he has a prime suspect: an ex-con named Lonnie Bierbrodt, who lived near the spot where Tammy’s body was discovered. McCarthy says he developed information that Bierbrodt’s wife was seen wearing Tammy’s watch. Bierbrodt is now deceased.
“It comes to the point where we have a lot of evidence,” he says. “We have an excellent suspect. We need a grand jury. We need the power of a grand jury.”
Joanne Zywicki echoes that sentiment, that something needs to be done to push the case forward.
“I know myself that the watch was there,” she said. “And I just think they need to clear that up once and for all.”
The best way to do that, says McCarthy, is to put someone new in charge of the investigation. But LaSalle County State’s Attorney Brian Towne disagrees.
“A special prosecutor is ordinarily used when there is a conflict,” he said. “That isn’t the case here.”
“I absolutely stand ready if an investigation yielded a suspect for me to charge,” Towne said. “The Illinois State Police have this matter, and the only time they close a case if they solve it.”
On Tuesday, the Illinois State Police insisted they had developed new leads, and were turning the case over to a private organization, the Philadelphia-based Virdocq Society, to take a fresh look at the investigation. That volunteer group is made up largely of retired forensic and law enforcement professionals.
“I personally called Joanne Zywicki last week, to reassure her that Tammy’s case is a priority for the ISP,” said outgoing Chief Hiram Grau. “This case is not forgotten, and will remain on the forefront of our efforts, until it is solved and her killer is brought to justice.”
The agency said in a statement, that case agents were continuing to conduct interviews, searching through DNA files and various public records. But McCarthy insists new eyes are needed.
For his part, Towne questioned what a grand jury would yield, especially if it determines that Bierbrodt was the real killer.
“I will certainly confirm that the deceased suspect is a person was part of the investigation for quite some time,” he said. “But the grand jury does not indict dead people.”
He conceded that if investigators concluded Bierbrodt would have been charged, they might make some kind of announcement that the case had been solved. But McCcarthy clearly believes fresh eyes are needed in the case.
“Cold cases come up from time to time, and there could be a break,” he said. “But we could expedite that, by getting as much information out to the public because somebody knows.”
The Illinois State Police say anyone with information is asked to call Zone 3 Investigations, at (815) 726-6377.