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Investigators try to make sense of crime scene

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On a gray September day, a white SUV travels down a narrow gravel road kicking up dust as it passes open fields dotted with crops. It slowly comes to a halt along the side of the road. Lyon County Sheriff Blythe Bloemendaal exits the vehicle and walks a few steps from the road into the ditch and stops.

The landscape has changed since Oct. 4, 1978 when a lineman stumbled upon Wilma June Nissen's body lying face down in the ditch, hidden in the tall grass. She was wearing green khaki pants, bikini underwear, white go-go boots and a gold ring on the ring finger of her right hand. She was naked from the waist up. The body was so severely decomposed that Nissen's face was unrecognizable. Her lower jaw and all but four teeth were missing.

Bloemendaal says Nissen's body may have been lying in the ditch up to 120 days before it was discovered. Based on the evidence he says he believes Nissen may have died as a result of severe trauma to the face and that strangulation could also be a possible cause. Due to the deterioration of Nissen's body, he says a cause of death could not be determined by the autopsy in 1978. With today's technology, he says experts would have a "decent shot" at determining a cause of death if the body was exhumed.

"There is the idea that we could exhume the body and restudy the bones to see if we can find knife marks, bullets that passed close to bones or nicked bones," he says. "Today's people could tell us that. If we have a bona fide suspect and a possible arrest more than likely, you'll see it happen."

As to the circumstances surrounding the crime, Bloemendaal says he can only speculate.

"Because of the dumpsite I think it's a good possibility that a terrible fight occurs between these two and one of them reacts in a deadly fashion," he says. "I don't see where we have a young woman who's picked up in Atlanta or California and she's purposely brought here to Iowa to be murdered."

Based on the position of the body, Bloemendaal says he believes Nissen was already deceased going into the ditch, however, he says that does not mean the murder did not occur on the gravel road, at another location in Lyon County or in a nearby county.

"If rigor is a part of it, we'll have the dragging, the pulling of dirt, the accumulation of dirt," he says. "Both hands go straight forward. That's not a body that's still alive going into that ditch and I don't think it's a body that was killed 10 hours earlier."

Bloemendaal says he sees no connection between this particular spot, the crime and the killer.

"If you want it out of your vehicle because you just got stopped by a trooper, the closest, darkest spot is gonna work for you," he says. "If it's nighttime and it's dark you're gonna think this is as good a place as any and into that ditch you go."

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