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Search ends for woman trying to find mother

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Search ends for woman trying to find mother
Krissi Haas, Wilma June Nissen's daughter, places flowers on her mother's grave Sept. 26 during a trip to Rock Rapids, Iowa. (Staff photo by Jim Lee)

A lifetime of searching for the mother she never knew ended for Krissi Haas in a Rock Rapids, Iowa, cemetery nearly 28 years after Wilma June Nissen was found dead in a Lyon County ditch.

Haas, 29, visited her mother's grave for the first time 10 days ago.

On a sunny September day, Haas sits at the foot of Nissen's pink granite headstone. One by one she gently places a dozen pink long-stemmed roses into a white planter. After the final rose is in place, she pauses for a moment and runs a finger across the smooth stone.

"I wish she could hear me. I wish I could talk to her. I wish she knew I loved her even though I never met her."

Before leaving the cemetery Haas sets a mood ring engraved with the word "love" and a tiny silver Egyptian ankh on Nissen's headstone. The ankh she once wore around her neck symbolizes the life of a woman who will always live in her thoughts.

"I feel like I've lost someone that I've always wanted to meet," she says. "I feel like I've lost the last hope of having a family."

Haas' hopes were dashed when a friend spotted Nissen's name in an article in the Long Beach Press-Telegram in February after her body was identified. In May, a month before she was to attend a memorial service for Nissen, Haas was evicted from the house where she grew up. She was living in a broken down car in a bus yard in Downey, Calif. It was nearly four months later before she was able to make the trip to Iowa.

"It's a beautiful cemetery," she says. "It's so peaceful. With the fields it's so open and pretty."

Growing up

Haas was adopted by Vince and Alice Haas, Nissen's final foster family, when Nissen left soon after her birth. She was only a year old when Nissen died.

Growing up in Seal Beach, Calif., Haas dreamed of meeting the mother she knew little about.

"I wanted to know why she wasn't around," she says. "I didn't fault her for it, but I just wanted to meet her."

As a teenager Haas rummaged through the house looking for adoption papers. She says her adoptive parents, who were 65 and 71 when she was born, were "very secretive" about her mother. When she found a picture of Nissen, Haas says they took it away and told her they thought she was dead.

"I knew she could be dead, but somewhere in my head I thought she wasn't," she says. "I thought she'd be somewhere other than California maybe married with a new family forgetting the life behind her."

Bridging the generation gap between her and her adoptive parents was a struggle for Haas, who says she was "never pushed in any direction of success." At age 15 she says she was staying out late and smoking weed. When the Haases could no longer handle her behavior, she became a ward of the court.

In spite of the turmoil in her life, Haas continued her search for Nissen in phone books and directories. At age 17 she met her father, Robert Irvin, at a Denny's restaurant in Bellflower, Calif. Haas says he lived in a mini-mart that had no liquor license and slept behind the counter in a little cordoned off area. She says Irvin, who died a few years after she met him, couldn't tell her much about her mother.

When Haas was 20 her search moved to the Internet. She posted her name on several adoption registries and asked the Sally Jesse Raphael show to look for her mother. At age 28 she was caring for her adoptive father, Vince Haas, when he was taken away by his son. It was just months later Haas learned Nissen was dead. Her mother was identified when her left thumbprint turned up a match in a database. The dream of the family she always hoped for was lost.

"I feel like I missed out on a part of me," she says. Even though she had met her biological father, Haas says, "I've never really known anyone who was blood related to me and it would be nice to see someone I look like. Now especially since I know so much more about her, I really wish I could have met her."

Similar paths

Before visiting her mother's grave Haas met Lyon County Sheriff Blythe Bloemendaal. Sitting in a chair at the Lyon County Sheriff's Office Haas tugs at her black vinyl knee-high boots. She isn't coy about the parallels she sees between her and Nissen, who was wearing a pair of white go-go boots when her body was found on Oct. 4, 1978.

"I have more boots than I have shoes," she says giggling. "It's all about the boots."

Haas learned most of what she knows about Nissen from the Lyon County Sheriff's Office's investigation. Because her adoptive parents always told her that her mother was "slow," Haas never thought she had a life anything like hers.

"It tripped me out because she's got this record and apparently she and I lived a similar type of life," she says.

Bloemendaal said he thinks Nissen was the type of person who would get into a car with anyone. Haas has done her share of hitchhiking. The day before the June memorial service, she says she tried to hitchhike to Iowa. She got as far as Riverside, Calif., before a friend picked her up.

"I used to be the type who would hop on a Greyhound bus and go wherever I was going and figure it out from there," she says.

During her marriage to Donald Wellington, Nissen was arrested several times for prostitution. Bloemendaal said he believes prostitution was a "survival mechanism" for Nissen, something Haas says she knows all too well.

"It's a matter of getting by," she says. "I don't do it unless I have to because it makes me nervous. I don't worry so much about someone killing me, but I worry about someone hurting me or getting arrested."

Haas, who doesn't think she resembles her mother much, says they also have their differences. On this particular day her hair is jet black, Nissen's was dark blond. She says she thought people would react negatively to her appearance if she attended the memorial service.

"I was worried that people were going to expect this cute petite little blonde that's 23 or younger because my mom was that age when she died," she says. "I had pink and purple hair. I was weirded out that people were going to think, 'What the hell is that?'"

After meeting Bloemendaal and others who cared so much about her mother, Haas says she wouldn't mind living in a small town like Rock Rapids.

"Iowa's beautiful. The people are cool. It's great."

Moving on

A house with a fireplace and hot chocolate at Christmastime. Haas' dream for the future is a million miles from the life she left just weeks ago in California. After months of just trying to get by, she says she is ready to start a new life in Missouri with her boyfriend John.

"I have dreams, but they seem somewhat unattainable," she says. "I want to start my own little boutique. I don't see it ever happening at this point, but if I could just get a place to live and at least start a new life, that's my goal."

Haas hopes to soon have a place to put the concrete headstone that marked her mother's grave for years. The weathered headstone engraved with the words "unidentified female" sat in Bloemendaal's office to remind him of a murder unsolved. Now the headstone will remind Haas of the people that cared so much for Wilma June Nissen, a woman they knew only in death.

"For so long it was her identity," she says. "It means a lot to know that people actually cared enough to replace that."

Dolly Butz may be contacted at (712) 293-4275 or dollybutz@siouxcityjournal.com.

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