The Case of Tammy Zywicki
Mendenhall's alleged victims do not have much in common with Tammy Zywicki. Unlike the truck stop prostitutes the accused killer targeted, Tammy was wholesome and athletic. She played soccer and collected sea shells. Unlike the middle-aged Symantha Winters, Deborah Ann Glover, Lucille Carter and Sherry Drinkard, Tammy was only 21. At first glance, Sara Nicole Hulbert, 25 and without major arrests, appears similar to Tammy. But Sara Hulbert's life was very different from Tammy's. Hulbert's sister, Roxanna Wayman, told Tennessee's News Channel 5 that Hulbert and Symantha Winters were acquainted on the street. Family described Hulbert, a mother of two, as a good person who made bad choices. Drugs and the prostitution which paid for them, police said, are what led her to stand, vulnerable and desperate, at that TA truck stop on the day she was killed.
But Tammy was vulnerable in her own way, too. Based on the report of a passing motorist, she was last seen standing on the side of the road by her broken-down car near mile marker 83 on I-80 in central Illinois. Helping her was a man, described as 35 to 40 years of age, over six feet tall and with dark bushy hair. The witness also recalled that the man's tractor trailer was pulled over near Tammy's car.
When Tammy's body was found 490 miles away, in a ditch on the side of Interstate 44 in Missouri, the case gained national attention. The idea of a cold-blooded killer posing as a good Samaritan caused a wave of anger and fear to sweep through the hearts of many. At Grinnell College, a small private liberal arts school nestled on a sprawling rural campus, the community of students and faculty was awash with sadness at the loss of one of their promising young scholars. Were young women driving across the country to college at risk of abduction, assault and murder at the hands of a killer trucker? Was a stranger's offer to help with a broken-down car to be taken as a threat?
An FBI task force were assigned to the case. Fourteen investigators set out to gather any information regarding Tammy's killer. In January 1993, an anonymous female witness called the task force and told investigators that the wife of a man who matched the FBI's description — the bushy hair, the age and height — entered her workplace for some routine bloodwork. The woman showed the witness a watch her husband had given her. The Lorus-brand wrist watch was unique — it had an umbrella on the face and played the tune "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." It matched the description of one of the personal items Tammy was said to have had with her when she disappeared but which were never recovered after her body was found. The witness and the watch led investigators to Lonnie Bierbodt.
Bierbodt, 31 at the time of Tammy's death, was a convicted felon who'd been serving two concurrent 20-year terms for a pair of armed robberies until he was paroled in 1990. He lived in Missouri, close to that stretch of highway between Springfield and Joplin where Tammy's body was discovered. After his release, Bierbodt began to drive trucks, specifically a Kenworth truck. The red blanket in which Tammy's body was found was decorated with a Kenworth logo. A further coincidence was that Bierbodt had been visiting some family in Illinois, mere minutes from the spot on I-80 where Tammy was last seen. Yet after Bierbodt was questioned and swabbed for DNA, he was released and no arrest was made. With no other leads, the task force dedicated to Tammy's case was disbanded shortly thereafter.
Ten years later, one of the investigators who served on that task force is still convinced that Lonnie Bierbodt was the person they were looking for. Now retired, former Illinois State Police Master Sargeant Martin McCarthy announced in 2002 that the details surrounding Bierbodt caused him to believe that the man was a suspect and should have been arrested. The facts regarding Bierbodt's residence, the visit to his family and the Kenworth logo were not known to the public until McCarthy came forth. McCarthy, father to one daughter, retired from the force a month after Bierbodt died in June 2002 at the age of 41.