A podcast currently in development on the death of a Yankton teenager 29 years ago looks to shed new light on the facts of a case that has stymied investigators ever since.
A podcast exploring the unsolved 1992 death of Tammy Haas is expected to be released next spring, podcast creator Chad Zimmerman told the Press & Dakotan.
Zimmerman happened to find out about on the Haas case earlier this year when the FBI announced a reward in connection with information regarding her mysterious death during Yankton’s homecoming week.
Haas, who was 19 at the time of her death, was seen at several parties in connection with homecoming before vanishing.
Days later, the missing woman’s body was found in a ravine at the Lakeview Golf Course in Crofton, Nebraska. A three-year investigation culminated in manslaughter charges being brought against Haas’ boyfriend at the time, Erick Stukel.
Stukel’s trial began 25 years ago today (Saturday). A Cedar County jury eventually exonerated him of the charges, and the case went cold.
There have been no new developments since, though there have been a lot of theories circulating about what happened.
“I’ve been trying to find a case that interested me, that I wanted to try to develop into a podcast,” he told the Press & Dakotan. “I have some background in digging through case stuff.”
Specifically, Zimmerman spent the better part of a decade studying the former President John F. Kennedy Jr. (JFK) assassination case, he said.
“I kind of went through all those rabbit holes,” he said, adding that in 2004 he received permission from the Kennedy family attorney to view JFK’s autopsy photographs and X-rays in College Park, Maryland.
Then, life changes, including marriage, children and relocating to Sioux City, Iowa, led Zimmerman to search for a new case to study.
“I’ve been trying to find a case that was more local, that I could actually visit the area and do the deep dive into,” he said. “In April, it just happened to fall on me, and since then, I’ve gotten to know some of Tammy Haas’s friends and her family and it’s just kind of been snowballing.”
Though Haas’ friends and family were supportive of the idea of doing a podcast, said Zimmerman, the lack of any new evidence combined general fatigue regarding the case meant that a lot of doors would likely remain closed to him.
“Now, I’m out here trying to open the doors up,” he said. “Being an independent person, I don’t have a dog in the hunt, per se. I’m trying to gather the facts and do what I can to make sense of them so I can tell the story, the best that I can.”
There were two autopsies done of Haas’ body, one in Sioux Falls and a second in Sioux City, Zimmerman said, noting that the second autopsy was never made public.
Many theories are dispelled by the second autopsy report, he said, pulling out his copy of the report during the interview.
In order to gain understanding of why a person died, autopsy reports depict all marks and wounds found on a body by marking a diagram of the front and back of the subject. The autopsy also discusses those marks or wounds in detail to determine the cause of death.
“Most of what’s on here is inconsequential — it’s postmortem,” Zimmerman said. “There’s absolutely nothing of interest on the front side.”
What actually happened to Haas, including several light, superficial scrapes, is visible on the back view of the body, he said.
“And then there (is) about a two-inch mark below the base of her head — this information came from the second autopsy, not the first,” Zimmerman said. “Her head came into contact with — something — right here. This is what delivered the fatal blow.”
In light of the second autopsy, Zimmerman said he realized that a lot of the theories about Haas’ death are simply impossible.
“So, you look at these theories, like, she fell off (while) car surfing,” he said. “Well, there would be impact marks, impact bruises. There would have been little bits of sand and gravel in the scrapes that they would have picked out.”
The scrapes that have been theorized to be road burns were described in the autopsy report as unabraded, not caused by rubbing or friction.
“These are smooth and straight, unabraded,” he said. “So, what she hit wasn’t the pavement.”
Zimmerman said that other scrapes shown and described in the autopsy appear consistent with having been dragged across a road.
Theories that Haas may have walked home alone and been raped and killed are not supported by the injuries she sustained, he said.
Also, the evidence doesn’t support the theory that Haas was walking along the road alone and simply fell off the road and into the ravine, he said.
“That didn’t happen,” Zimmerman said. “When they analyzed her pants, there were yellow reflective-paint flakes that they found that came from having been dragged across the road.”
The most frustrating error about the evidence in the case is that the cause of death is widely reported as a broken neck, Zimmerman said.
“She had a torn ligament in her neck. Her head had to have been forward, and something pushed (the ligament) beyond its natural limits,” he said. “That extra stretch caused the bones to move a little too far, which irritated the very delicate spinal cord.”
Haas would have been instantly paralyzed and would have lost the ability to breath, he said.
“According to the testimony, she would have been conscious for 20-30 second and then, she would have passed out,” Zimmerman said. “Her heart would have stopped, due to lack of oxygen, within about a total of three minutes.”
Zimmerman said he hopes a review of the case file will turn up more forgotten or misinterpreted evidence that could begin to show a better picture of what happened that night.
“I don’t view it as though it’s my position to try to solve something per se,” he said. “My position is to tell the story, to be as accurate to that story as I can, but help to bring clarity.”