Just before 2 a.m. on Oct. 26, 1996, Dan Clyde was driving his truck along Route 136 in Kahoka, Missouri, not far from the Iowa and Illinois borders, when he spotted something strange on the side of the road. Looking closer, he found it was a young woman, unresponsive and near death.
Clyde called authorities, and EMS took the woman to a hospital in Quincy, Illinois. She had blunt force trauma to her head, hips and legs. Within a few hours, she was dead.
The woman was Laura Van Wyhe, a 21-year-old Iowa City mother with a passion for natural foods and childcare.
“She was very naive, but she was a genius,” Van Wyhe’s mother, Leanne Thomas, told the Des Moines Register, 25 years after her daughter’s death. “Her IQ was insane. But she never wanted to go to college. She wanted to be a midwife. She was like an Earth Mother.”
Van Wyhe had been at a party that night, but the circumstances leading up to her death — including how she ended up alone, who caused her fatal injuries and why she was left on the side of the highway — remain a mystery. Anne Champion, one of Van Wyhe’s best friends, said there’s no way drug or alcohol use caused her friend to wander off that night; indeed, postmortem tests showed no substances in her system.
“This whole thing is just this big, murky situation,” Champion told the Register.
Frustrated the case has gone cold, Champion, now a New York-based attorney, started another push to solve it earlier this month, announcing a $10,000 reward for new information regarding Van Wyhe’s murder.
Forensic science has advanced considerably since 1996, in particular DNA technology; genetic genealogy, for instance, has cracked decades-old cold cases from the Golden State Killer crimes to the murder of Cedar Rapids teenager Michelle Martinko in 1976.
Investigators reportedly collected paint chips, hair, fiber and blood embedded in the clothes Van Wyhe was wearing when she was found.
“There may be additional DNA on Laura’s clothing that was not previously identified or developed,” Champion said.
In addition, witnesses in the case have allegedly changed their stories over the years, stoking suspicion.
“I am hoping for a big break,” Thomas told the Register. “We’ve had nothing but lies for years. Somebody knows something, but … it’s been a den of thieves.”
In the 24 hours leading up to Van Wyhe’s death, she and her 14-month-old son celebrated Van Wyhe’s 21st birthday with friends and family in Bonaparte, Iowa, at the home of her son’s grandmother: Rebecca Reynolds-Knight, who was the mother of Van Wyhe’s ex-boyfriend Donald Knight and at that time was a candidate for the Iowa House of Representatives. Reynolds-Knight would be elected to represent Bonaparte as well as parts of Van Buren, Wapello and Jefferson counties in the House just 10 days after Van Wyhe’s death.
“At the gathering, Van Wyhe was seen arguing with a man who had been helping put out yard signs for Reynolds-Knight,” the Register reported. “Van Wyhe that night accused the man of sexually assaulting a friend, according to family and Champion.”
Space was limited at the Knight house, so come bedtime, Van Wyhe and her son hopped in the car with Sarah and Tony Bergman, Reynolds-Knight’s daughter and son-in-law, to stay at their mobile home in Kahoka, just 30 minutes away. According to investigators, this drive was uneventful and Van Wyhe “went of her own free will.” The plan was to drop Van Wyhe back off in Bonaparte early the next morning.
What happened between their arrival at the Bergman house and the discovery of Van Wyhe on the side of Route 136 a few blocks away is a mystery, described by Missouri Highway Patrolman Bruce Clemonds as “bizarre” and “suspicious.” Evidence was collected, but most of it created more questions than it answered.
Van Wyhe had left her purse and diaper bag in Bonaparte. A tote bag belonging to her was found in a tree close to where her body was discovered. Van Wyhe herself was carrying a few loose baby items — a bottle, blanket and cooked rice on a folded paper plate — though her son was found at the Bergman house, naked. Her clothing was scuffed and bloody, except for a black jacket she was wearing, which belonged to Tony Bergman and had a knife in the pocket. Investigators speculated she many not have been wearing the jacket at the time she was injured. The sweatpants she had on over a pair of drawstring pants also didn’t belong to her, and were likely put on after she had been attacked.
Cockleburs were stuck to her clothes, though the plants didn’t grow on the side of the highway. There was, however, a cocklebur bush in a cornfield just northeast of the Bergman house. A footprint discovered in the cornfield was consistent with Van Wyhe’s shoes, though she was barefoot when she was found. Signs point to Van Wyhe fleeing something or someone in the night.
An autopsy determined Van Wyhe’s cause of death as brain trauma, blood loss and blunt force trauma, consistent with being struck by a vehicle.. Her death was ruled a homicide. Authorities in both Iowa and Missouri collaborated on the investigation.
They first suspected that Dan Clyde, the trucker who found Van Wyhe, or another driver had run the young woman over, but it soon became clear that she had been injured in a different location than Clyde found her — little blood was found near her body despite massive blood loss, and there was no vehicle debris.
Tony and Sarah Bergman lawyered up, and Trooper Clemonds told the Gazette he was “frustrated” the couple refused to take lie detector tests; Rachel Smith, sister of Sarah Bergman and Donald Knight, also declined to take the test. The Bergmans rebuffed media interviews, and though investigators did execute a search warrant on their home, the results weren’t made public.
The Bergmans did share their belief with police that Van Wyhe had gone out that night to go shop for diapers. Family members doubt this, since she had left her purse on the other side of the Iowa/Missouri border and the Bergmans, who had a baby of their own, likely had diapers around the house.
“It’s a very difficult time, trying to adjust to the loss of a fantastic, dynamic member of our family,” Reynolds-Knight told the Gazette in 1997. “… Not a day goes by that we don’t think of this and wonder, ‘Will this be the day that we get that last piece of the puzzle?'”
By 1999, investigators admitted they were stuck.
“We’re at a standstill until someone decides to talk to us,” Sgt. Randy King of the Missouri Highway Patrol told the Gazette.
Both Thomas and Champion say their loved one’s death has haunted them over the past 25 years. Champion began her own investigation three years ago, returning to the Midwest to audit the case and question witnesses. She established a website, ChampionForLaura.com, and plans to launch a podcast about Van Wyhe’s case this fall called Bonaparte. Offering a $10,000 reward for new information was “the next logical step,” she said.
Champion offers her own broad-strokes theory about the murder on her website.
“While I’m no homicide detective, I think it’s likely that Laura’s body was staged,” Champion said. “She was wearing clothes that did not belong to her, and if she really left the Bergman home to buy diapers and left her baby behind, it’s hard to come up with any plausible explanation for the baby items she had with her. The evidence is confusing and could support any number of scenarios, but I think it’s possible that the truck driver who found her interrupted the people who were doing the staging so that they did not finish the job.”
Van Wyhe attended Iowa City West High School between 1988 and 1992 before transferring to the district’s alternative high school, Community Education Center. Following her death, West High principal Jerry Arganbright told the Gazette that Van Wyhe was an “outstanding student academically and very nice to be around.”
She met the father of her son, Donald Knight, in late 1992 or early 1993. According to Leanne Thomas in statements made during a custody battle between Thomas and Van Wyhe, the couple broke up in July of ’96 after Knight hit Van Wyhe during a trip to Montana. Thomas said Knight had struck her daughter in ’94 as well and made threats against her. Despite these alleged conflicts, Knight worked for Thomas’s catering company from 1994 to November 1996.
In an email to Little Village on behalf of Donald Knight, his wife Taryn Knight categorically denied Thomas’s claims that Donald was ever physically abusive towards Van Wyhe, or threatened her life.
“Donald did not kill her. He is actively working with Anne Champion to do whatever he can to solve this,” Taryn wrote, noting that there were multiple witnesses to Donald staying at the Bonaparte house the night Van Wyhe was killed.
Van Wyhe was living at her mother’s house on Washington Street in Iowa City at the time of her death, and had secured licensure to work as a childcare provider.
Memorial services for Van Wyhe were held at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Iowa City on Oct. 31, 1996. Knight had helped care for his and Van Wyhe’s son at Thomas’s residence, but the two adults allegedly fought after Thomas found a bag of marijuana Knight had left in the baby’s room. Custody was awarded to Thomas in early 1997, despite objections from Knight, whom the Johnson County District Court judge found to be unfit due to long-term drug and alcohol abuse. He was, however, granted weekend visitation.
The two families reportedly do not have a close relationship.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on Aug. 2, 2021 with statements from Taryn Knight.