As a telephone company laborer went to work on the morning of October 4, 1978, little did he know he would make a discovery that would instigate one of Iowa’s most wrenching mysteries?
The worker was laying cable along Highway 182 in rural Lyon County, near Rock Rapids in the far northwest corner of the Hawkeye state. In the course of his work, he found more than a few dead lines. He found one dead human. The skeletal remains of a half-naked woman lay in a ditch along the north side of a gravel road approximately one mile from the Rock Rapids school. The remains were too decomposed to identify.
The remains found near Rock Rapids remained unidentified for over 27 years until, January of 2006 when a Des Moines lab technician matched the woman’s left thumbprint to one sent to various labs from Los Angeles, California. The woman in the ditch finally had a name; Wilma June Nissen. Sadly, she had suffered a rough life.
Wilma was born in San Francisco, California, in 1954. Her younger sister, Mona, was deaf and unable to speak. Wilma’s mother abandoned her children when she was eight, and her father abused his daughters. While he was at work, Wilma and Mona were locked in a closet. After he was fired from his job, the young girls moved from the closet to the car, where Mona was confined for most of the day while Wilma was dispatched to the streets to scour for food. Wilma never attended school and could neither read nor write.
In 1964, after the state of California removed the Nissen children from their father’s “care,” they spent the remainder of their youth bouncing around foster homes. Perhaps predictably, as she became a young adult, the uneducated and desperate Wilma resorted to prostitution.
Wilma married three times and had two children. In February of 1978, the 23-year-old went to Atlanta, Georgia, with 54-year-old Charles Belt, the last known person to have seen her alive, eight months before her remains were found in Lyon County, Iowa. I could not find a picture of him.
Investigators believe Wilma was placed in the Lyon County ditch in either July or August of 1978, 5-6 months before her remains were discovered. She was naked from the waist up, and her feet were tied together with a braided hemp rope. The cause of death could not be determined, but it had been horrendous. All but two of her teeth had been pulled. The rest of her teeth, along with her lower jawbone, her other clothing, and belongings, were never found.
In August of 2009, a suspect emerged in the death of Wilma Nissen when 82-year-old John Van Gammeren was charged with six counts of perjury after lying to detectives about transporting strippers and prostitutes from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, across the Iowa border to his home in Inwood. The ditch where Wilma was found was not far from Inwood. However, the charges against VaGammeren were later dismissed.
Seven years later, in 2016, investigators announced they believed they knew one of the people who killed Wilma Nissen.
Authorities believe that after leaving Atlanta, Georgia, sometime between February and July of 1978, Wilma made her way to northwest Iowa after connecting with an escort service based in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Police say the woman pictured below was a prostitute and escort for the same company as Wilma during the mid-1970s when the photo was taken. Lyon County investigators believe she is one of the people who murdered Wilma Nissen. Police say they have conducted several interviews with her, but she has steadfastly denied any involvement in Wilma’s death. They know her true identity and where she is currently living but have not yet divulged that information.
In the summer of 1978, investigators say several Lyon County residents attended sex parties in the western part of the county, near the South Dakota border. Both Wilma and this woman worked as dancers, escorts, and prostitutes at these parties. Police believe Wilma was killed at one of the parties and that robbery was the motive, as the woman pictured below frequently stole from other prostitutes, escorts and dancers.
Authorities say they need someone to independently identify this woman; so far, no one has done so.
Another prostitute, known only by her stage name of “Peaches,” is also believed to have participated in Wilma’s murder. Authorities do not have a picture of her but say she is a light complected black female from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, who was in her mid-to-late ’20s in the late 1970s.
Investigators would like to speak to Donald Wellington, one of Wilma’s former husbands. It is emphasized that he is not a suspect in Wilma’s murder and is only being sought for questioning. Authorities believe he may be living in the Palmdale, California, area. The below photo was taken in 2000.
Wilma Nissen’s short and tortured life ended with her brutal death in an area to which she had no connection– rural northwest Iowa. Lyon County, nevertheless, considers the woman who had no name for over a quarter of a century as “Our Girl.” Wilma June Nissen is buried in Rock Rapids’ Riverview Cemetery.
By investigators’ own admission, a little luck led to learning Wilma’s identity. Perhaps luck will one day make a curtain call and lead to her killer’s identity.
A $10,000 reward is offered for information leading to an arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for Wilma Nissen’s death. If you have any such information, please contact one of the people below:
• Detective Jerry Birkey, Lyon County Sheriff’s Office, (712) 472-8300
• Special Agent J.R. Mathis, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, (712) 252-0507
• Special Agent Jon Moeller, F.B.I., (712) 258-1920
• ABC Affiliate KSFY TV
• CBS Affiliate KELO TV
• Iowa Cold Cases
• Lyon County, Iowa Sheriff’s Office
• Northwest Iowa Review
• Sioux City Journal
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More About Our Wonderful Guest Blogger:
Ian Granstra is a writer and a native Iowan now living in Arkansas.Growing up, he enjoyed watching real-life crime shows and further researching the stories featured. He wrote about many of them on his personal Facebook page, and several people suggested he should start a group featuring his writings. Ian founded the Facebook group “Murders, Missing People and More Mysteries” in August of 2018 he writes about many cold cases. The group also features many current criminal cases in the news. When Ian isn’t writing, he enjoys exercising, traveling and collecting sports cards. He’s also a big animal lover (his Facebook nickname is “beagle lover.”)
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