On a sunny day 23 years ago this weekend, a beautiful girl with a promising future disappeared from the shoulder of Interstate 80 near LaSalle-Peru. Her car was found locked and abandoned on the road, her belongings still neatly packed inside.
Nine days later, 21-year-old Tammy Zywicki’s body was found hundreds of miles away, wrapped in a blanket bound with duct tape on a roadside near Sarcoxie, Missouri. She appeared to have been stabbed numerous times.
It is one of this state’s most troubling mysteries.
“This case remains one of the Illinois State Police’s highest priorities,” says Master Sergeant Jeff Padilla. “When I’m involved in cases like this, I try to treat it like it just happened.”
In many respects, the Zywicki murder mystery might be viewed as the coldest of cold cases. But Padilla says it remains a very active investigation.
“For us, this is just as active a case as it was back then,” he said. “We want to find the right guy, and we want to bring him to justice.”
Padilla says while many names remain on the investigative radar, one is, at least for now, front and center. He says it is an individual who had been a truck driver, and had in his history the stalking, home invasion, and rape of a girl similar in appearance to Tammy Zywicki.
“He is a person with a history very close to what happened to Tammy,” Padilla said. “Had the potential, had the history, and was in the general proximity of Tammy when she went missing.”
Padilla says the individual’s name was in the case file from the earliest days of the investigation, but was never adequately pursued. The lead came in as a tip from a citizen.”
“It was, you ought to look at this guy,” Padilla said. “He’s had a history of this type of behavior, and he’s extremely violent.”
The suspect, who police declined to identify, is still alive, is under scrutiny, but has not been interviewed. But for Tammy’s mother Joann Zywicki, word of any promising lead comes as welcome news.
“I feel they are really looking at this as a case from the beginning,” she said. “Right now I am optimistic that they have a lot of things planned, and we can get to the bottom of this.”
Zywicki says over the decades she has stayed in touch with police assigned to her daughter’s case. At times critical of the investigation, she says she is convinced the investigation into Tammy’s murder is now in the hands of committed officers.
“They know me,” she said. “They seem to know where they’re going with it, and most of all, they answer my questions.”
Padilla says he feels a responsibility to keep Tammy’s family in the loop. But he stresses that the case is not yet solved. That there is still much to be done, including the re-testing of key evidence.
“There have been significant advances in the collection of DNA evidence,” he said. “The current tests that our lab personnel use are very sensitive to detect even the smallest amounts of DNA.”
With that in mind, Padilla says investigators plan to travel to the FBI laboratory in Virginia, to coordinate the re-testing of physical evidence found at the Missouri crime scene.
“We want to have all of our facts lined up,” he said.
For Joann Zywicki, this anniversary of Tammy’s murder comes with a new layer of sadness. Her husband Hank, Tammy’s father, died this summer, having never learned the identity of Tammy’s killer.
“That was the one thing that he wanted,” she says. “He wanted to know. He always said it.”
It’s one of the reasons, she says, that she also stays so involved.
“I want to know that I’ve done everything I could possibly do, to find out who took her life,” she said.
Still, she says she and Hank, along with their other children and grandchildren, did their best to lead a normal life.
“I said from the beginning, that the person who took Tammy’s life was not going to take the rest of our lives,” she said. “She would be the first one to say, don’t let it consume your life. Go on.”
“But you don’t forget. And you always have it in the back of your mind. Who did this? Why did they do it? Are they still out there?”