State Police investigators say they are pursuing promising leads in one of the state’s most troubling cold cases: the 1992 kidnapping and murder of 21-year-old Tammy Zywicki.
Zywicki was a senior at Grinnell College in Iowa and enroute back to school when her car was found abandoned on the shoulder of I-80 near LaSalle-Peru.
Nine days later, her body was found, wrapped in a blanket, hundreds of miles away on an entrance ramp of I-44 near Sarcoxie, Missouri. She had been stabbed to death.
“This case has never been shelved,” says Jeff Padilla, Master Sergeant of the Illinois State Police. “What we’ve had to do is essentially go back and work the case as if it were brand new.”
As part of that effort, former State Police Director Hiram Grau petitioned the Philadelphia-based Vidocq Society to take a fresh look at the case.
The organization – composed of investigators, forensic experts, even psychologists – investigates only cold cases. Last fall, a team from Illinois made a presentation to dozens of Vidocq members, and Padilla says it paid immediate dividends in a case where the existing files were nearly 6,000 pages long.
“It helped us to focus this investigation,” he said. “It really provided new life.”
Specifically, Padilla says police are now focusing on at least half a dozen specific leads, including one that he says was never properly vetted during the original investigation.
“What we’re focusing on now has always been in the case file, but, for lack of a better term, it’s been buried,” he said. “A lead that was there, that we really needed to follow up on.”
Padilla will not elaborate on that lead, but it’s safe to say it is a person of interest.
“I think that we are very hopeful in the direction that we are going,” he said. “And I would say that it is promising.”
Padilla did say, though, who that promising lead is not. It is not Lonnie Bierbrodt.
Bierbrodt is a former trucker and ex-con whose name has repeatedly come up in the Zywicki investigation, largely because a former investigator, Martin McCarthy, publicly named him as the most likely suspect.
“You never, ever, give up on murder,” McCarthy told NBC Chicago in January. “We have a lot of evidence, we have an excellent suspect.”
“There is a lot of misinformation about him out there,” he said. “For as much circumstantial information that there is about his involvement, there’s as much that indicates that he’s not involved.”
Bierbrodt said a nurse indicated she saw someone standing with Tammy near her car on I-80. She said that same man came into the emergency room where she worked months later. His wife, she said, was wearing a unique watch, which matched the one Tammy was wearing when she disappeared.
That woman’s information led investigators to Bierbrodt, and he was questioned. But Padilla said based on investigative information he has seen, he did not believe Bierbrodt was in possession of Tammy’s watch.
“We know that watch is missing,” he said. “What we don’t know, is if that watch has turned up.”
“I began to question why there was a continued focus on this person, when after 20 years, we could neither include nor exclude him,” Padilla said. “He is someone who remains a person of interest because of some of the circumstantial information surrounding him.”
But Bierbrodt died in 2002. And when asked if he believes Tammy’s killer is still alive, Padilla answers with an emphatic, “Yes!”
“As a result of the input from the Vidocq Society, I’m enthusiastic about the potential for resolution of this case,” he said.
He also emphasized that he and his investigators feel they have a responsibility to solve it.
“When you have a young girl who could be anyone’s daughter taken from the side of the road because her car broke down, we all feel for that,” he said. “It’s the most important thing in this investigation. Our role is not only to bring Tammy’s killer to justice, but also be advocates for her and for her family.”
Anyone with information on the case is asked to call the Jorge Fonseca at the Illinois State Police, at 815-726-6377 x286.