Like many parents, Nancy Haas has her daughter’s birthday — April 13 — written down on the calendar.
However, she hasn’t been able to celebrate the occasion with Tamara “Tammy” for 20 years.
The tragedy of Tammy’s death is a mystery that remains unsolved to this day. Its gruesome details still weigh heavily on the conscience of Yankton, where many people still maintain their own theories of what happened the morning of Sept. 18, 1992, but few — if any — know the truth.
Those who knew Tammy remember her beauty, her smile and her cheerfulness. She had played the alto saxophone in the Yankton High School band. She had danced in local productions since the age of 3. She was selected as homecoming royalty.
Tammy was a young woman full of promise, but she was prematurely snatched away from the world and those who loved her.
As Nancy wrote Tammy’s birthday on the calendar this year, she noticed that it fell on a Friday. Tammy had also been born on a Friday the 13th in 1973. She would have been 39 this year, although Nancy said she can’t picture Tammy as anything other than 19 years old. This would have marked Tammy’s first birthday as an aunt. Her youngest brother, Paul, had a son in January.
Nancy doesn’t remember much about Tammy’s 19th and final birthday.
“She actually would have been in school (at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln),” she said while seated in her living room this week with pictures of her daughter.
To celebrate Tammy’s life, Nancy said she tries to do something special on her daughter’s birthday.
She likes it when friends and family members mention the occasion — though they often do not. Nancy understands why most people would avoid the subject, but she said they perhaps don’t understand it from the perspective of someone who has lost a child.
“You don’t want your children to be forgotten,” she stated. “Even though she is not here, you still would like to hear, ‘Isn’t that something? Her birthday would have fallen on the day she was born.’ You do want people to remember. You don’t know how much that means.”
A Homecoming Tragedy
Yankton was celebrating an ordinary homecoming in September 1992.
Brian Sedlacek was named the Arickara Chief during Thursday night’s coronation, and Jenny Gooby was crowned as the Arickara Princess. Tammy was at the event with Eric Stukel, who she was dating.
Later, they would attend two parties, one of which was at a farmstead in Cedar County, Neb.
Something would go terribly wrong before the school’s homecoming celebration could resume Friday.
According to Stukel and his sister, Sarah, Tammy had left their residence between 12:30-1 a.m. to walk to her aunt’s home, where she was living at the time. A couple witnesses would testify that they saw her after that time.
Tammy was reported missing to authorities at 7:15 p.m. Friday, Sept. 18, by a family member.
An investigation was launched into her disappearance and came to a macabre conclusion Wednesday, Sept. 23. A golfer looking for balls in a ravine south of the Crofton Lakeview Golf Course came across a body. Authorities would soon confirm it was Tammy.
An Iowa medical examiner determined that she died of a neck injury, but how the injury occurred was unknown. The blow to her spinal cord near the head left her unable to breathe. She had also sustained a blow to the stomach area.
Authorities would testify that they believed Tammy had been dragged into the ravine where she was found.
Eric Stukel would be charged with class III felony manslaughter on Oct. 30, 1995 — three days before the statute of limitations was to run out in the case. The 22-year-old faced up to 20 years in prison and/or a $25,000 fine.
On Oct. 5, 1996, attorneys on both sides of the case made their final arguments after eight days of testimony at the courthouse in Hartington, Neb.
“The injuries and her body’s position are consistent with foul play,” said David Arterburn, the Nebraska assistant attorney general. “If it was an accident, why weren’t the paramedics called, the fire department, law enforcement? There was no reason to leave the body. It was no accident. Tammy Haas was killed.”
According to his version of events, Stukel became upset because Tammy wanted to break up with him, and he snapped.
“Eric Stukel is guilty of manslaughter without a reasonable doubt,” Arterburn told the jury.
Defense attorney Mike Stevens said he knew that Stukel had not killed Tammy.
“He loved her and misses her,” he stated.
Stevens argued that Tammy’s injuries were consistent with a pedestrian accident that could have resulted from being clipped by a vehicle, falling out of a car or car surfing.
“There have been no confessions by Eric,” he said. “He was a 17-year-old boy all by himself being interrogated for hours at a time and never had an attorney present. His phone was bugged, his car was taken away, his personal writings had been read to all and he was followed by law enforcement.
“Eric Stukel did not kill Tammy Haas,” Stevens stated. “Tammy loved him, and he loved Tammy.”
After 13 hours of deliberation, the jury agreed with the defense. Stukel was found not guilty.
There is no tidy ending to the story.
Tammy’s family and friends still wrestle with the lack of resolution.
“In our eyes, it was a murder,” Nancy said. “It still isn’t clear to any of us what happened.”
She believes there are people in the community who do know what happened but have remained silent.
Nancy’s son, Mark, holds the same belief.
“I think there is an expectation of finding out the truth of what happened that night,” he told the Press & Dakotan in an email. “Real people were involved and real people helped protect those involved.”
Paul told the Press & Dakotan in an email that he has little to no expectation of ever knowing the full truth of what happened to his sister.
“What came out during the investigation and subsequent trial has given me some indication of what might have happened,” he said. “If I were offered the full truth, I would, of course, want to know. But to be honest, I believe that would have little to no impact on me. The true impact was the loss of my sister. Regardless of details and circumstance, that can’t be undone.”
A part of Nancy also knows that she may never have resolution.
“That does cross your mind, but you can’t forget (the possibility),” she said. “It’s always there. You would like to, in your mind, say, ‘This is where we’re at, and that is how it’s going to be.’ But you always have that hope. It did and still does affect family and friends. You want answers for them, as well. You’re always going to wonder, what did happen?”
Local authorities said there has been no compelling new evidence in the case that would warrant re-opening it.
Yankton County Sheriff Jim Vlahakis was with the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation in 1992 and was on the scene the day Tammy was found in Nebraska.
“We’re always open to new evidence,” he said. “But during my time in office (since January 2011), there has been no new evidence brought to my attention.”
Lt. Todd Brandt of the Yankton Police Department understands the public interest in the case but also said there has been no new evidence.
“If there were any new evidence, it’s my opinion that the case would have been re-opened and considered in light of the new information,” he said. “From time to time, we get anonymous calls. We look into any information we get.”
Brandt said the department is always willing to speak with people who have new evidence to provide.
“People still remember the case due to the tragedy that occurred,” he stated. “It’s something that I think about, and I would still like to find some answers in regard to what actually happened.”
Nancy praised the efforts of law enforcement to listen to her concerns and keep her informed.
“The authorities have always been very considerate,” she said.
Soon, Nancy and Mark will depart for Beijing, China, to visit Paul, his wife and his son, Alexander.
It will be the first time either of them will meet the newest generation of the family.
In a way, Tammy will be there, too.
“You think, this would have been her nephew,” Nancy said, holding a photo of the baby. “That she is not here is crummy for her and for him.”
Paul added, “I have thought about it, as well, and I'm sure Tammy would be an awesome aunt.”
He said he hasn’t given much deliberation to what he will eventually tell Alexander about Tammy.
“It will probably be a few years off, but I'm sure he will see a picture (of her),” Paul stated. “I will just answer his questions like anyone else who asks, ‘Who’s that girl?’ I will say, ‘It’s my sister, your aunt, and she passed away when she was young.’”
The family still holds on to the good memories they have of Tammy.
“I really just remember her great joy and sense of humor,” Mark said. “She also really enjoyed music, and just recently I re-discovered some mixtapes she had made. That really made me smile. I think she was listening along.”
Paul said he still holds on to Tammy as his sister.
“I may not be able to see her or talk with her, but she’s part of me and always will be,” he stated. “One memory which still sticks out is goofing around during Sunday services in church.”
Religious faith has played an important role in dealing with Tammy’s loss, according to Nancy.
“I believe that she is in Heaven, a better place,” she said. “If you didn’t have that, I can’t imagine.”
You can follow Nathan Johnson on Twitter at twitter.com/AnInlandVoyage