A year ago this week, a Yankton woman was reported missing and later found dead, setting off a murder investigation that shook the community.
But so far, the investigation into the death of Phyllis Hunhoff has yielded few answers as to what actually happened.
The last year has been filled with grief and speculation as the community grasped for answers in this tragedy, but not much more is known about what happened on that dark November night last year.
This is what we do know.
Hunhoff lived in Yankton and worked at First National Bank, where she had been employed for more than 40 years. Though she was a private person, her job at the bank put her in contact with many people, both co-workers and patrons, who remembered her with fondness. Hunhoff had good friends, hobbies she enjoyed and she volunteered at her church.
One of four siblings, Phyllis cared for her aging mother, Catherine Hunhoff, who still lived at the family farm in Central Township. The farm was near Highway 81, a straight shot to Yankton, and, where investigators believe she stopped to help the men now being charged in her murder.
Phyllis left her mother’s house last Nov. 4, a Sunday night, to go home. But never arrived.
Catherine Hunhoff woke to the realization that Phyllis had not called when she got home.
Calls to Phyllis’ cell phone went unanswered.
By 1 a.m., Catherine had reported her daughter missing. Police performed a welfare check with her brother, Francis Hunhoff, who lived nearby. They found no trace of Phyllis or her car.
By the next day, Nov. 5, friends and family were searching the area between the farm and Yankton, and agents from numerous law enforcement agencies joined in the search efforts. But there was no trace of Phyllis or her white Honda Accord.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 7, police received a call about a body found in a white car in a rural area on the Santee Sioux Reservation, 35 miles away in Nebraska.
It wasn’t long before the body was identified as Phyllis Hunhoff. Evidence suggested that the vehicle and the body had been set on fire.
By that time, the case was being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Nebraska State Patrol, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the Santee Sioux Nation Police Department, the Lincoln Police Department, the Nebraska State Fire Marshal, the Norfolk Police Department, the Niobrara Police Department and the Yankton County Sheriff’s Office.
On Nov. 20, a group of friends and coworkers from the bank decided to remember Phyllis on what would have been her 60th birthday with the release of 60 balloons in her memory. Handwritten notes to Phyllis were inserted in the balloons before they were filled with helium and released in the early morning.
The next day, authorities arrested Joseph James, of Norfolk, Nebraska, for arson in connection the Hunhoff case.
According to court documents, surveillance footage in the early morning hours of Nov. 5 placed James at the Feather Hill gas station, on the Santee Reservation, twice in the span of 6-7 hours. He was driving Hunhoff’s car. He got gas both times he stopped. The second time, he filled a 1-liter soda bottle with just over $2 worth of gas, which he paid for inside the station.
During his exchange with the attendant, court documents say he told the attendant that the blood on his shirt was from hitting a deer. The blood was later tested and was a match to Hunhoff’s.
In court documents, authorities stated that they found clothes and a soda bottle, covered in gasoline, in the vehicle.
After James’ arrest, the community was still reeling from the horror of the death and the absence of any details to explain how James even came into contact with Hunhoff.
A week later, Hunhoff’s mother and three siblings, Mary, Joe and Francis Hunhoff, issued a statement to the media, expressing their appreciation to family, friends and strangers who grieved with them.
“As you have prayed for us, we also pray for you and your loved ones,” the letter read. “This is still the most wonderful place to live. One evil act does not change that; quite the opposite. Your outpouring of love and support shows that our community is very much like our Phyllis — warm and generous, loving and kind, and always present where there’s a need.”
In December, James was indicted and pleaded not guilty in the 8th District County Court in Omaha, Nebraska, to two charges of arson, which would carry up to 25 years in prison if he should be convicted. James has been in custody since his arrest.
In February, a superseding indictment was filed, charging James with murder, felony murder and carjacking resulting in death.
Court documents gave no specifics but indicated that James had gained control of Hunhoff’s car, that he had premeditated the murder and that he kidnapped and took her across state lines.
Due to the ongoing investigation, authorities released no further details on the case. That changed when a second arrest was made in the case.
In July, police arrested Ramon Simpson, also of Norfolk, for conspiracy to commit kidnapping and kidnapping resulting in death. Kidnapping resulting in death carries a minimum mandatory sentence of life in prison and a possible death penalty sentence, as well as a $250,000 fine.
Simpson had already been on investigators’ radar back in February when he was charged with making false statements to police, according to court documents.
A hearing in July to determine whether Simpson was a danger to the community and should be incarcerated revealed more details of what prosecutors believe happened on the night Phyllis Hunhoff disappeared.
At the hearing, prosecutor Sean Lynch outlined the night’s alleged events for the court.
According to Lynch, an “unnamed individual” drove co-defendants James and Simpson to Yankton to visit a strip club, but the club was closed. The three then went to a different bar and to a gas station where they came into contact with a fourth individual, the father of the unnamed driver.
The four left Yankton headed for a strip club in Lesterville, but the driver did not take them to Lesterville, instead stopping the vehicle in front of Phyllis Hunhoff’s mother’s house in Utica. He told the other three to get out and drove off, Lynch said.
“The defendant and co-defendant then gained entry into Miss Hunhoff’s vehicle, drove from Utica to Norfolk, Nebraska, where defendant Simpson gets out of the car,” Lynch said. “This codefendant had possession of Mr. James’ cellular phone. Mr. James and Miss Hunhoff then left Norfolk, Nebraska. They then travelled to the Santee Sioux Reservation where Mr. James then murdered her.”
A forensic review of James’ phone revealed that data relating to the night of the murder was deleted and altered, Lynch said, adding that Simpson eventually admitted that he was in Hunhoff’s car on Nov. 4, 2018, with Hunhoff and James, and that he exited the vehicle with James’ cell phone.
Simpson’s attorney argued that Simpson was not in the car when Phyllis was taken, and that when James and Phyllis picked him up on Highway 81, he thought she was acting according to her own free will.
At this time, neither defendant is seeking a speedy trial. No trial date has been set.
In an aside unconnected with the murder case, the Hunhoffs have taken steps to ensured that who Phyllis was and how she lived will eventually overshadow the tragedy that ended her life.
This year, the family’s plan to memorialize Phyllis with a business school scholarship for students at Yankton High School (YHS) came to fruition.
The Phyllis Hunhoff Memorial Scholarship plaque was displayed at YHS with a photo of Hunhoff and places for the names of those who would receive the scholarship.
The scholarship is aimed at students who exemplify Phyllis’s spirit and are seeking an education in business or finance. It was awarded in June to Tia Vlasman by Hunhoff’s sister Mary Hunhoff in June.
For Vlasman, who was set to pursue a degree in finance at the University of South Dakota’s business school, said the scholarship ensured that Hunhoff would be remembered for who she was in life.
“A scholarship is a happy thing that you are happy to receive and you’re grateful for it,” Vlasman said. “In the years to come, people that apply for the scholarship may not know as much about Phyllis, so it’s a way for kids in the next generation, and everybody for years to come, to know her legacy and know the good people that she knew and the good person that she was.”
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