Long-Haul Trucking and Serial Killers: The Story of Tammy Jo Zywicki
The trucking industry is critical to the United States economy. Over 70% of all freight is transported throughout the country by truck. There are approximately 3.5 million professional truck drivers, primarily men, in the country and it is a $700 billion industry. Without truckers, our country would come to a standstill.
Most truckers are upstanding individuals, but there is a weird subculture that has emerged within the trucking community. While many rest stops are frequented by happy travelers and families on vacation on one side of a truck stop, on the other side are drug dealers and prostitutes wandering the lots. It has become a seedy underground where serial killers can blend in, the FBI claims.
Long-haul truckers are the ideal serial killer because their jobs are mobile, and many are traveling at night. It is harder for police to identify patterns of murders when various police departments are working on cases in different jurisdictions throughout the country. A trucker can pick someone up in one state, murder them in another, and dump their bodies in yet another. In addition, many of the victims are upwardly mobile, traveling throughout the country with no solid ties to any one place.
FBI's Highway Serial Killings Initiative
In April 2009, the FBI announced the Highway Serial Killings Initiative to raise awareness among law enforcement agencies and the public.
In the FBI report, it states the victims in these cases are predominately women living an “at risk,” transient lifestyle, involving drugs and prostitution. They are frequently picked up at truck stops and sexually assaulted, murdered, and dumped along the highway.
The suspects are primarily long-haul truckers. Because of the mobility of truckers, the unsafe lifestyles of the victims, multiple jurisdictions, and significant distances, these cases are often difficult to solve.
The Violent Criminal Apprehension Program (VICAP) is a national repository for violent crimes. The database contains information on homicides, sexual assaults, missing persons, and unidentified remains and available to law enforcement agencies throughout the country via a secure Internet Link on Law Enforcement Online (LEO).
VICAP analysts have created a national matrix of more than 500 murder victims from near or along highways, along with a list of approximately 200 potential suspects. The information is then analyzed to develop timelines and other investigative leads.
The information is helpful in investigating serial crimes, however, only as good as the information entered by law enforcement agencies utilizing the database—necessitating more training and outreach programs. However, this initiative gives hope to law enforcement investigators and families of murder victims nationwide.
Tammy Jo Zywicki
On the morning of Sunday, August 23, 1992, Tammy Jo Zywicki, a 21-year-old Grinnell College student, left Evanston, Illinois to return to school in Grinnell, Iowa. Grinnell College is a small liberal arts school in Iowa, where Tammy played soccer, studied Spanish, and took photographs.
She had planned on arriving at the school later that day after she dropped her brother off at his Northern University dorm, then she drove west alone.
Most people did not have cell phones in 1992. Then, a stranded motorist was really stranded until they were able to get a ride to a telephone booth. In that day, parents would anxiously wait hours before they knew their child was broken down somewhere.
That night, Hank and JoAnn Zywicki waited for Tammy to call home to tell them she had arrived safely at Grinnell College. As the hours passed, they began to worry, and JoAnn called the campus police.
The Chicago Tribune reported the police checked Tammy’s dorm and searched for her on campus.
Later that day, an Illinois state trooper found Zywicki’s car—a 1985 Pontiac T1000 with New Jersey license plates— parked alongside a highway in LaSalle and ticketed it as an abandoned vehicle.
On Monday, August 24, the Illinois State Police towed the vehicle. That same evening, Tammy’s mother had contacted the Illinois State Police to report that her daughter had never arrived at her college.
On Tuesday, September 1, 1992, Tammy’s body was found along I- 44 in Sarcoxie, a rural community between Joplin and Springfield, Missouri, over 450 miles from where her car was found.
The petite blond was found wrapped in a red blanket bound with duct tape. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed eight times, seven times in a circle around her heart and one time on her arm.
Tammy had last been seen with her vehicle at mile marker 83 in central Illinois between 3:10 and 4 p.m. on August 23. Witnesses reported seeing a semi-truck parked near her vehicle prior to her vanishing.
Task Force Launched
Tammy Zywicki’s murder drew national media attention, and Illinois State Police launched a multi-state task force, calling in other local officials and the FBI.
It was widely reported that several items of Tammy’s were missing to include a 35mm Canon camera and a Lorus brand musical wristwatch with a “green umbrella” on its face that plays “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.”
In January 1993, an eyewitness contacted the state task force and stated Tammy had been seen on the side of the road with a man who approached Tammy while she tried to fix her car.
According to the FBI report, the witness described the truck driver as a white male, over six feet tall, between 35 and 40 years old, with dark, bushy hair.
The same eyewitness then contacted Martin McCarthy, a member of the investigative team who had joined the task force in 1992, and reported another happenstance; she was employed at a medical facility and said the wife of a man who fit the trucker’s description had come in for routine bloodwork, and while in the office, told the eyewitness about a beautiful musical wristwatch her husband had just given her. The watch matched the description of Tammy’s missing watch.
Authorities identified the trucker as Lonnie Bierbodt and had him come in for questioning. Bierbodt was cooperative and provided both hair and blood samples before being released.
It seemed like a promising lead, but a few weeks later the task force disbanded, reporting lack of progress—and Tammy’s homicide case went cold.
The 10-Year Anniversary
On the 10-year anniversary of Tammy Zywicki’s murder, the FBI renewed interest in the case by offering a $50,000 reward—which was combined with a longstanding $100,000 reward from an anonymous private donor from Zywicki’s hometown in New Jersey. The FBI asked the public for any information leading to an arrest in the case. They also announced they had collected DNA from Zywicki’s body ten years earlier.
With the new information, McCarthy, the former task force member also came forward saying that Lonnie Bierbodt should have been arrested but had never even been held as a formal suspect in the case. He cited several facts that were previously not released to include:
- Bierbodt lived close to the Missouri area where Tammy’s body had been located.
- Bierbodt had been visiting family just minutes away from where Tammy was last seen with her car.
- The blanket that Tammy’s body was wrapped in had a “Kenworth” trucking logo, which was the same kind of truck Bierbodt drove.
- Bierbodt had a criminal record, committing two armed robberies in the 1980s and considered a violent felon.
Years earlier, Bierbodt had been serving three concurrent 20-year sentences prior to being released and paroled in 1990.
Bierbodt died in June 2002 at the age of 41, and so did a solid lead in the case. McCarthy retired from the Illinois State Police the following month and again, the case went cold.
Life in the Aftermath
In the beginning, the Zywicki’s camped out in the Chicago home of one of the parents of Tammy’s friends. Every day, they visited the police station in LaSalle to wait—and every day they thought, “This will be the day.”
After nine days of waiting for the call that never came, they headed home.
Eight days later, Tammy’s parents were notified that their child’s body had been located along I-44 in Missouri, over 450 miles away. They got the news while they were changing planes in Cincinnati.
“In the beginning, you take one minute at a time,” JoAnn told the Chicago Tribune. “Then you go from that to hours. Then all of a sudden you think, ‘Gee, I haven’t thought about her today,’ and you know you’re moving on.”
During the 20th anniversary, in 2012, the FBI again announced that the case was still open with a standing reward of $50,000. It renewed hope so JoAnn and her husband Hank Zywicki decided to visit Tammy’s grave.
They drove to the cemetery located in West Newton, Pennsylvania, about 15 hours from their Florida retirement development, to a small town where they and their daughter Tammy were born.
There was no happy way to mark the 20th anniversary of a daughter’s unsolved homicide.
On their way, they stopped at Falling Water, a famous landmark where the famous Frank Lloyd Wright resided. They thought about how much their daughter would have loved it.
Tammy was a photographer and art lover and she would have loved how the light danced around Wright’s house, the stone, water, and trees. A moment in time she would have loved to capture on her 35mm film.
While at the cemetery, they saw the beautiful pink geranium blooms JoAnn’s sister, tends to. Another moment to be appreciated and something Tammy would have loved.
Rather than letting Tammy’s untimely death ruin their lives and that of their children, instead, they focused on appreciating these reflective moments and things in their lives.
“One of the things that’s very inspiring about the two of them is that they didn’t get absorbed by it,” Todd Zywicki, their oldest son, and a law professor at George Mason University told the Chicago Tribune. “It didn’t defeat them, didn’t drive them apart, didn’t cause them to blame each other, or be so overwhelmed by grief that they couldn’t function. If anything, it made them more appreciating, not taking for granted their kids or grandkids.”
The Zywicki’s had already experienced the anguish having a child murdered, frustrated by the lack of progress in the investigation, and waiting for a murderer to be caught. Minutes became months, then years—and still a question lingered.
Was the killer a trucker? A serial killer cloaked as a supposed a Good Samaritan? The Zywicki’s would always wonder but they refused to let the questions consume them.
Hank Zywicki passed away May 26, 2015, leaving JoAnn alone with the enduring question of what happened to their precious daughter. Despite finding a way to cope in the aftermath of such tragedy, JoAnn still hopes she will receive the answer one day—sooner than later.
If you have any information about the murder of Tammy Jo Zywicki, please call the Illinois State Police at 815-726-6377.
© 2020 Kym L Pasqualini