New Mom’s 21st Birthday Party Ended With Her Dead on Highway
The party was hosted by her ex-boyfriend’s family, but no one was ever charged. Now her mom and a high-powered lawyer are making a new push for justice.
Leanne Thomas can still remember how frazzled her daughter, Laura Van Wyhe, was the morning of her 21st birthday party.
While Van Wyhe had already hit the milestone a few days prior, the Oct. 25, 1996, event hosted by her daughter’s ex-boyfriend’s family about an hour from their Iowa City home had the new mom “running around the house and [she] spent a lot of time getting ready,” Thomas recalled.
“I told her not to worry about the mess,” Thomas told The Daily Beast, noting that she was living with her daughter and her 15-month-old grandson, Samson, at the time.
“She was always packing so much stuff and was so nervous to make sure her son had everything she needed,” Thomas added. “But she was also excited that she was going away for the weekend and that it was her birthday.”
Before Van Wyhe sprinted out the door that Friday afternoon to meet her ex-boyfriend and child’s father, Donald Knight, who was driving her to his mother’s house in Bonaparte, Iowa, for the party, Thomas said, she bid her daughter a quick farewell.
“I said, ‘Love you honey, have a good time,’” Thomas said.
“That was the last time I ever spoke to her.”
Several hours later, a truck driver would find Van Wyhe incoherent and bloodied on the side of a Kahoka, Missouri, highway—at least 100 miles from her mother’s home. While she was transported to the nearest hospital, in Illinois, the young mother died three hours later of massive blood loss from blunt force trauma she suffered to her legs and head.
Van Wyhe was found wearing a jacket belonging to Knight’s brother-in-law—its pockets stuffed with bizarre objects, including a baby blanket, a folded paper plate with cooked rice in it, and a bottle. Police would later learn that the young mother had lost copious amounts of blood, but little was found at the initial crime scene.
After 25 years, no arrests have ever been made in the case that spanned three states, plaguing those close to Van Wyhe with questions about the circumstances that led the new mom to end up on the side of the highway so far from her child.
“We don’t know what happened in the hours that Laura went to bed and when she was found on the side of the highway,” Anne Champion, a New York civil attorney who was childhood friends with Van Wyhe, told The Daily Beast. “There are too many things in this case that don’t add up. It’s time we shake things loose and get some answers—for Laura.”
The Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation confirmed to The Daily Beast that no arrests have been made in the case, but that it remains active. The Missouri State Highway Patrol also confirmed to The Daily Beast the quarter-century investigation is still open but declined to comment on the details of the case.
“This is an open and active investigation. So far, our investigators have followed up on 120 criminal leads,” Missouri State Highway Patrol Lt. Eric F. Brown told The Daily Beast.
Members of the Knight family, none of whom have ever been named as suspects in the case but who were identified in a police report, did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment. Van Wyhe’s son, Samson, declined to speak for this story.
In the weeks leading up to Van Wyhe’s 21st birthday, Thomas said, her daughter was deeply concerned about what lay ahead, focused in particular on her recent decision to start a daycare, and how to best provide for her son.
“She was happy to turn 21 years old, but she was very nervous about her future and how to spend as much time with [her son] Sam while still being able to pay the rent,” Thomas said. “She was at a point of transition, of trying to figure out how best to care for her child.”
“Laura was a genius, but she was not interested in college. Her life passion was to be a babysitter and a midwife,” Thomas added. “She was kind of a hippy mother too, always making sure whatever was around Sam was natural and healthy. She couldn’t be apart from him for a second.”
Even if it meant spending time with her ex-boyfriend and his family.
“Laura was very into the family. To her, the birthday party was a good opportunity for Sam to see the cousins and the rest of the Knight family,” Thomas said. “She also took it as a positive sign that Donald and she could work things out for the future.”
Van Wyhe and Knight “hadn’t been together as a couple for quite some time, but she had kept her association with Donald up for the baby’s sake,” a December 1996 coroner’s inquest obtained by The Daily Beast states.
Thomas said Van Wyhe and her son were picked up by Knight and his brother around 6 p.m. and drove straight to the party about 30 miles north of the Missouri border. The coroner’s inquest confirms Knight picked up Van Wyhe that night. (Donald Knight did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.)
The party had fewer than a dozen guests and included most members of the Knight family, like Donald’s sister, Sarah Bergman, and her husband, Tony, neither of whom responded to requests for comment. Investigators state that about five hours later–when the party was winding down—the Bergmans took Van Wyhe and her son to their home in Kahoka across state lines to crash for the night.
The plan was to return to Bonaparte the next morning for a parade—a campaign opportunity for Reynolds-Knight, who was running for a seat in the Iowa House of Representatives at the time. Reynolds-Knight, who could not be reached for comment, ended up serving as a state representative from 1997 to 2002.
After arriving at the Bergmans’ trailer at around 11:30 p.m., Tony told investigators, he went straight to bed while his wife made “a place on the living room floor” for Van Wyhe, her son, and their own daughter.
“They were playing like they were camping out,” the inquest states.
When they woke up the next morning, Van Wyhe was gone. The coroner’s inquest said that Van Wyhe’s son was “laying on the floor without a diaper and a wet diaper was laying by his side.”
A Missouri State Highway Patrol incident report from that night states that around 1:50 a.m. that morning, Oct. 26, a truck driver found Van Wyhe “lying on the edge” of Highway 136. The truck driver, Dan Earl Cylde, told police he had been driving eastbound when he saw “something, possibly hay or something that might have fallen off a truck, on or near the shoulder,” the incident report obtained by The Daily Beast states.
“He almost continued on, but something didn’t look right with what he had seen. Clyde stopped his truck just west of MO 81 and walked back to the item lying on the shoulder of the road. He took his time because he didn’t know it was a lady,” the report details. “When he found out it was a lady who was injured, he sought help. A car was passing by, and he attempted to flag it down, but to no avail.”
Clyde finally ran over to a local gas station for help, where he was able to call for police assistance. The incident report states that the gas station attendant and Clyde went back to the stretch of highway where Van Wyhe was laying “to provide help and make sure no one would hit her.”
When officers arrived at the scene, Van Wyhe was found lying on her left side and wearing a black satin jacket with “Mike Sanders’ Masonry” emblazoned on it, a white tank top, and maroon sweatpants. In her left hand, one officer noted in the report, the 21-year-old was holding a bottle of fruit-punch flavored water and was laying near a cocklebur branch.
“Found in the jacket was a folded paper plate containing cooked rice, a baby food jar with colored sand in it, and an opened pocket knife in the right pocket,” the incident report states. “A baby blanket of multiple colors and animal designs had been found stuffed beneath her jacket. A blue hair wrap was on her left wrist and a plastic bottle, with a Coralville, Iowa, Amoco price sticker, containing what appeared to be water, was near her left wrist. She was wearing a pair of earrings, silver in color, with an amber stone.”
Investigators also noted in the report that there is no evidence of the “body sliding or scutting” at the scene, and the only blood located was “immediately below where the body was found”—a small enough amount for police later to conclude she had not been injured there.
After Van Wyhe had been declared dead at a local hospital, the Bergmans told authorities they had been surprised to find Samson alone in their living room that morning. The coroner’s inquest said that while Tony was beginning to look for Van Wyhe, one of his cousins came over to inform him “police had found a body along the highway.” The document states that Tony called the police—and eventually got confirmation the body was Van Wyhe’s.
The police report, the inquest, newspaper clippings, and Thomas all confirm that the Bergmans and Knight refused to take polygraph tests but did provide police with hair samples and agreed to have their cars searched. Thomas, who said Knight informed her of her daughter’s death that Saturday afternoon, recalls that the Knight family “lawyered up fast.” No member of the family was ever charged in connection with the case.
An Oct. 30, 1996, article in The Des Moines Register also states that Reynolds-Knight was interviewed by Missouri investigators at her Bonaparte home in connection with the investigation.
While what happened after everyone went to sleep and before Van Wyhe was discovered off the highway remains a mystery, Champion and Thomas recounted various theories that have emerged. Among them: the bizarre notion that Van Wyhe left the apartment in the middle of the night to get diapers for her son.
The woman’s mother doesn’t buy it.
“Laura would never leave Sam alone in the apartment—it doesn’t make any sense. She wouldn’t leave him anywhere, and if she felt like she had no other choice but to leave in the middle of the night to get diapers, she would have taken him,” Thomas said. “I also find it hard to believe that if she did leave Sam behind, how nobody in the trailer heard her leaving, or Sam crying. He was an infant, he couldn’t sleep through the night.”
Champion agreed, noting that the Bergmans had small children of their own and that the possibility that they did not have diapers for Van Wyhe to borrow “seems impossible.” The lawyer, however, admitted that she had “no idea what could have lured Laura out that night, or what happened to her in the two hours she was unaccounted for.”
One theory that has been debunked, however, is the possibility that Van Wyhe had been hit by the same truck driver who found her two hours after the Bergmans retired for the night.
According to the coroner’s inquest, Missouri State Trooper Bruce Clemons said that based on her blood loss and injuries, Van Wyhe was “not hit at the spot” where she was found and “was struck somewhere else and put in that spot.” The inquest also mentions that when investigators searched the area for blood, it was only located exactly at the spot Van Wyhe was discovered.
Clyde, the truck driver, could not be reached for comment.
The inquest also notes that investigators discovered a cornfield near where Van Wyhe was located, which contained a cocklebur bush that appeared to be “where the branch came from that was found near” her body. On the north side of the cornfield, investigators found Van Wyhe’s tote bag with “items of clothing in it.”
Clemons also noted that while Van Wyhe’s sweatpants, which were put on top of tan slacks, had holes and blood on them, the jacket she was wearing—which belonged to Tony Bergman, her ex-boyfriend’s brother-in-law—“was clean.” The inquest added the jacket had “no sign of wear or tear—no sign of any debris on it and no blood was found on it.”
“That is also very perplexing,” Clemons said, according to the coroner’s inquest. “It looked like it was placed on her after she received the injuries.”
A March 2008 autopsy report obtained by The Daily Beast concluded that Van Wyhe suffered “traumatic injuries,” including “bilateral subarachnoid hemorrhage and contusions of the frontal lobes of the brain and multiple bilateral compound fractures of the bones of the legs.” The young mother also lost so much blood that there was “little” inside her cardiovascular system at the time of her death.
The autopsy report, which concludes Van Wyhe’s death was a homicide, also noted that there was no evidence of sexual assault and that neither drugs nor alcohol were detected in the young mother’s system.
Despite all the physical evidence, Champion lamented the fact that over the last 25 years, the case of her middle-school friend’s murder has gone so cold.
Now, after decades of silence, she has taken matters into her own hands.
“This happened when I was very young and I always thought the police were going to solve it,” Champion told The Daily Beast. “It didn’t seem like there were that many possibilities for what happened. It wasn’t someone that was going out for a run or something. It was clearly a murder. But it never did get solved.”
The litigation lawyer has represented a slew of high-profile names, from President Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, in her fight to publish her book, to CNN’s White House correspondent Jim Acosta when his press credentials were revoked after a contentious Trump press conference.
Now, Champion is focusing her attention on “ChampionForLaura,” a grassroots effect dedicated to finding new information about Van Wyhe’s case. The campaign also includes a $10,000 reward for any information in the case that will lead to an arrest. Van Wyhe’s case is also going to be the subject of “Bonaparte,” a podcast that is set to be released in the fall.
“Hopefully, the reward will shake something loose,” Champion said when announcing it. “But we are also trying to get authorities handling cold cases in both Missouri and Iowa involved. Investigators across the nation are solving decades-old cold cases, such as the Golden State Killer and the 1979 murder of Michelle Martinko in Cedar Rapids, using new technology. Maybe that type of analysis can also help solve Laura’s case.”
The re-energized push for answers has given Thomas a newfound hope that authorities will finally crack her daughter’s case, and give their family some long-waited peace.
“I have never lost hope that someone would be punished for murdering my daughter,” Thomas said. “All it takes is someone with loose lips at a bar to crack this case open. It’s time we get justice.”