Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Reader Photo of the Day: The Murder of Tammy Haas

Ravine in which Haas' body was found. Inset: Tammy Haas.

Ravine in which Haas' body was found. Inset: Tammy Haas. Submitted by Sharon in Yankton, South Dakota.

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On September 17, 1992, Yankton, S.D., high school senior Tammy Hass, 19, went to a homecoming party in nearby Nebraska, driven by her date, Erik Stukel. Though the party, which had some 80 guests in attendance, was across the Missouri River on the Stephenson family farm, it was only 8 miles from Yankton. Witnesses at the party remember seeing Tammy up until about 11-11:15 walking from the party to Stukel’s car. Then no one saw her for almost a week, until local Yankton man, Rick Kuchta, stumbled across her remains while looking for golf balls in the ravine pictured here south of the Lakeview Community Golf Course in nearby Crofton, Neb. The dumping site is reportedly about a mile from the Stephenson farm.

Investigators concluded after examining her half-naked body that Tammy was murdered, and then dumped in the ravine within 30 minutes of her death. An examination of the contents of her stomach placed death at no later than 12:30 a.m. September 18, probably earlier. Two autopsies revealed that she was hit hard, by a person, probably tackled, but cause of death remains undetermined. Though according to investigators, evidence found at the crime scene was consistent with foul play.

The trail to Erik Stukel as a suspect seems to begin at his parents’ restaurant on September 18, between 3 and 4 a.m. Witness Josh Fry, who was his waiter, told prosecutors that Stukel was drunk and severely impaired, when he confessed, “I think I killed a girl.” Stukel’s friends dismissed the statement as the ramblings of a drunk. However, after Tammy’s body was found, Fry went to police. His testimony at trial was ultimately stricken from the record. Police questioned Stukel, who said that he was with Tammy at his house until 1 a.m., when she left on foot. Later in the investigation, Stukels’ sister would confirm that she too had seen Tammy in her brother’s bathrobe in the bathroom at their home around 1 a.m. According to the coroner’s report, however, Tammy was already dead at that point. Police questioned Stukel further and during a polygraph test asked if he killed Tammy Haas. Stukel denied killing her, and failed that question.

Investigators also identified fibers that placed Tammy in Stukel’s trunk. Though no motive has been established in her murder, the evidence indicates that Stukel covered up Haas’ death by placing her body in the trunk of his car, dumping it, and lying to police. Such actions are criminal and would probably have ended in some sort of conviction in any other place. But even though this was a multi-jurisdictional investigation involving the FBI, Stukel was in his home town. He was not arrested. No new witnesses came forward, no new information was found and no new suspects were located.

It is possible that at some point police considered a lesser charge, thinking that the actions that resulted in Tammy’s death had been accidental. Stukel could have been tried on a lesser charge, and if convicted, his conversations monitored while the murder investigation continued. Instead the case was allowed to sit for three years. Then in 1995 Stukel was arrested for manslaughter and released on a $5,000 bond. The trial was held in 1996, and after 13 hours of deliberations jurors acquitted him. The long wait was over, and the truth of what happened to Tammy Haas the night of September 17, 1992, was never revealed, and may never be. The question of whether or not justice was served has dogged the town of Yankton ever since.

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