The Abduction and Murder of Tammy Zywicki

Published: Updated: 22 comments

In August 1992,  Tammy Zywicki disappeared after her car broke down on I-80 in Illinois. Her body was found one week later in Missouri, but no arrest has ever been made.

About Tammy Zywicki

Tammy Jo Zywicki was born to Henry and JoAnn Zywicki on March 13, 1971, in Pleasant Hill, Pennsylvania. She was their only daughter out of three children.

For six months in 1992, Tammy toured Italy, Portugal, and Spain while over in Madrid for a study abroad program. In August of that year, she was to start her senior year at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. There, she majored in art history and Spanish and worked in the athletic office’s sports information department. She was also a member of the college’s soccer team. Tammy was set to graduate in May 1993, and she had plans to become a sports photographer.

Tammy was about to begin an internship at the Art Institute of Chicago on September 8 that would have lasted until December, but she never got the chance.

About the Case

In August 1992, Tammy Zywicki, 21, and her younger brother, Daren, 19, left Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to drive to the Midwest to attend college. Along the way, the two managed to fix an overheated engine in Indiana. Daren put some oil in it, and the car was fine at that point. The two made it to Evanston, Illinois, without further trouble on Saturday, August 22nd. Tammy stayed the night in Evanston and left for Grinnell College at around 1:00 p.m. the next day. The drive would have taken her about four to five hours.

A few hours later, at about 5 p.m., an Illinois State Trooper discovered Tammy’s white 1985 Pontiac T1000 about two miles east of Utica along Interstate 80 and ticketed it as abandoned. The hood was down, doors were locked, the keys were gone, and there was no sign of foul play. Her clothes and camera were still inside the car.

When Tammy failed to make a prearranged phone call to her mother, JoAnn, to let her know she arrived safely in Grinnell, JoAnn called the Illinois State Police.

The Search for Tammy Zywicki

Tammy was last seen wearing a white shirt, green shorts, white socks, and gray running shoes. Her mother said she probably had her hair in a ponytail (Lenhart, 1992).

The Illinois National Guard brought in helicopters and performed aerial scans of cornfields along I-80. They found nothing.

State police canine units were brought in, and friends and family members handed out missing posters.

In Iowa, 16 carloads of college friends pledged to comb the highway for 24 hours. They fanned out east and west of the interstate, and 2,500 fliers were ready to be distributed. (Lenhart).

Tammy Zywicki. Volunteer holding flier. The Gazette August 28, 1992

Truckers helped deliver some posters to several states, as did other college students across the U.S.

Despite the massive search, Tammy was nowhere in sight.

Discovery and Investigation

Witnesses saw Tammy get out of her car, open the hood, and stand alongside the road at about 3:20 p.m. Several witnesses also claimed to see a man assisting Tammy with her car between 3:20 and 4:00 p.m. One also stated that the man’s tractor-trailer was parked near Tammy’s Pontiac. The trucker was described as a white male in his 30s or 40s, over six feet tall, with collar-length dark, bushy hair. He drove a five-axle semitrailer with a white background and brown diagonal stripes across the cab and trailer.

One week later, at around 11:00 a.m. on September 1st, a female’s body was found along I-44 in Missouri, 33 miles east of the Oklahoma border. The victim was wearing a T-shirt that said “Eastside Eagles Soccer 1989”. Tammy had graduated from Eastside High School in Greenville, S.C. in 1989. The victim was first wrapped in a white sheet, then a dark red blanket and bound with duct tape at both ends. According to one source, the hair on the victim was auburn, not blonde. She had been sexually assaulted and stabbed seven times – six wounds to the chest, one in the arm.

The_Des_Moines_Register_Wed__Sep_2__1992_ (1)

The victim was identified as Tammy Zywicki through dental records.

The_Des_Moines_Register_Fri__Sep_4__1992_

Tammy’s items were later discovered missing, including a musical wristwatch with an umbrella on the face.

An FBI task force was assigned to the case. Fourteen investigators set out to gather any information regarding Tammy’s killer.

Truck driver Robert Bullington, 24, of Des Moines, came forward to police. He said he was chatting with a man named Jerry on his CB radio. The two decided to meet up and get coffee together. Both men saw a stranded motorist on I-80 in Illinois and stopped. Robert told police he saw a young blonde woman climb into the man’s gray Chevrolet Celebrity with Nebraska plates at 1:00 a.m. on August 24.  Robert then headed on to his destination in Utah.

Then, a promising lead came in.

Lonnie Bierbrodt

An unnamed female witness called the task force. She told them she was driving on I-80 and had seen Tammy standing at the rear of her car. A green pickup truck had pulled over and its front faced the front of Tammy’s car. A man stood next to the truck and appeared to be assisting the student.  The nurse – after learning of Tammy’s disappearance – later recognized the man, Lonnie Bierbrodt, when he came to her office with his wife, who was having blood tests done. (Colimore, 2005).

Bierbrodt’s wife, Carrie, was wearing a musical watch similar to the one Tammy had worn before her disappearance and pointed it out to the nurse. Carrie said Bierbrodt had given it to her.

The watch had an umbrella on the face and played the tune “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.” This watch matched the description of Tammy’s missing watch she had on her when she disappeared but which was never recovered after her body was found.

Carrie later denied that Bierbrodt gave her the watch but acknowledged that she could not provide an alibi to him.

When police followed up on the lead, they learned that Bierbodt drove a green pickup like the one the witness saw on I-80. He also had previously lived near where Tammy was last seen and was visiting relatives there at the time. Additionally, he lived in Missouri, within 30 miles of where Tammy’s body was found.

Bierbrodt also had a criminal record and was considered a “violent felon.” He had served two concurrent 20-year sentences for armed violence and attempted murder and was paroled in 1990 when he started truck driving. It just so happened that the semi he was driving in August 1992 was a Kenmore. The red blanket Tammy’s body was wrapped in had the Kenworth logo on it.

When police interviewed Bierbrodt, he did not have an alibi. Police took blood and hair samples, but there was not enough DNA recovered from Tammy’s body to run testing on it.

Bierbrodt was never arrested. He passed away on June 17, 2002, at the age of 41.

Another Possible Suspect

Bruce Mendenhall was a trucker convicted in 2007 for the murder of 25-year-old Sara Hulbert, a prostitute. He later admitted to more killings. At the time of Tammy’s murder, Mendenhall would have been around 40 years old. However, most of his victims were prostitutes he picked up at truck stops he frequented. Tammy came from a good family, was athletic, and a student, not a prostitute.

Unfortunately, Bierbodt died in 2002 at the age of 41, so if he killed Tammy, we will never know. As far as I can tell, Mendenhall is still breathing.

I think about her to this day, which is why I wrote this post. I hope one day we will know for sure who killed her. Even if we don’t, I will remain convinced that it was Lonnie Bierbodt.

Here is a picture of Bruce Mendenhall.

Bruce_Mendenhall

Update November 2014: A reader posted a pic of Bierbodt in the comments. I have put it here.

lonniebierbrodt

Update January 23, 2015: According to GreenvilleOnline, Illinois State Police have turned to a nationally known criminal investigators organization for help in solving the 1992 murder of Tammy Zywicki. Read more here. Also, read this exceptional GreenvilleOnline article on Tammy, too.

Update April 3, 2015:  Police Pursue Promising New Leads in Zywicki Investigation – Say the killer is still alive, give little information. Also, say Lonnie Bierbodt is not a promising lead.

If you have any information concerning Tammy Zywicki, please contact your local FBI office or the nearest American Embassy or Consulate.

*Article updated August 2019. 

Sources

  • Associated Press. “Trucker Says He Might Have Seen Missing Grinnell Student.” The Courier, August 31, 1992.
  • Colimore, Edward. “FBI is Following Up on Two Tips in Marlton Woman’s ’92 Slaying”. The Philadelphia Inquirer, August 23, 2005.
  • Gorsch, Dave. “Efforts to Find Missing Student Mixed With Dread at Grinnell.” The Gazette, August 28, 1992.
  • Harrison, Pat. “Search Under Way for Missing Woman.” The Times-Press, August 25, 1992.
  • Kummer, Frank. “New Clues Point to Coed’s Killer.” Courier-Post. August 23, 2002.
  • Lenhart, Jennifer. “Student Disappears Without Trace on I-80”. Chicago Tribune, August 27, 1992.
  • Santiago, Frank. “Search on for Zywicki’s Killer.” The Des Moines Register, September 4, 1992.
  • Wall Howard, Phoebe. “Woman’s Body is Found in Missouri.” The Des Moines Register, September 2, 1992.

22 comments

Cyndi February 3, 2017 - 9:25 PM

Check him out… He even had the women’s stuff cameras recorders clothes jewelry etc killed in area and the same way…

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William Scorby September 14, 2016 - 3:46 PM

It was him why the police use his highschool picture is beyond me I did look through microfilm at the library at old newspapers clippings of this case but this photo was on the web I can’t find it since

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Williamscorby September 14, 2016 - 1:30 AM

Dear truecrimediva ,in 2011-12 I did searches for bierbrodt at library I’m pretty sure I found a more recent photo of him I was using computer there the photo that I found someone had shrunk it to a very small size if you use those computers you can enlarge images on the web but sometimes they go out of focus but this photo stayed in focus the person in the photo matched bierbrodt to a tee curiously enough he wasn’t wearing glasses his eyes were blue and blood shot and he had earrings in his ears and hair above shoulders thick the shirt I thought was flannel possibly blue I know you think I’m bullshitting about it but I’m not I had a Samsung phone at the time and took a picture of it and saved it for awhile but erased it because it creeped out little bit but I thought I would be able to find it again on the web but can’t find it again I think it’s a safe bet to that when bierbrodt went to give blood and was suspect they had to of taken his photo too and person in photo matched his age 31 his face kind of rugged looking like he did some time no joke not mistaken one other thing I think the reason they didn’t arrest bierbrodt other than none of his DNA was found is that they can’t prove he was in Illinois at time I think that story about her watch and nurse seeing his truck there at the time I’m not buying that I heard that nurse was married to appellate judge and was from Peru I started thinking of making of a murder Wisconsin I’m not kidding about that picture

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truecrimediva September 14, 2016 - 7:45 AM

Oh I wish you could find that photo again! Was it on microfilm?

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Marcia Shepherd August 27, 2016 - 8:25 PM

On the day that Tammy was abducted, my car broke down about a mile behind where Tammy’s car was. I was heading over to Peru from Ottawa on I 80, and it was about the same time also, because I wanted to get there before 5 when the mall closes. A trucker also stopped to help me with my car, but he told me to stay in my car. He had me just raise the hood from inside. He let the radiator cool a bit, then poorer some water into it. He told me he would follow me to the next exit, which was the Utica exit, and make sure I got off the interstate ok, and then he drove on. But we passed Tammy’s car on our way to that exit. There was nobody around it at that time, but it was pretty close to around tge time they felt she was taken. Anyway, the next morning when I heard about Tammy, I called the police in Ottawa, and they put me in touch with the Illinois State Police. From then on, one of the detectives on the csse would keep in touch with me and continue to ask me different questions about what I did or did not see. I worked at the downtown LaSalle County Courthouse at the time. I also had got in touch with Tammy’s parents and have kept in touch ever since. I myself feel that Lonnie B. was involved somehow in the abduction and murder of Tammy. There is just way too much information that points to him. I tried called and talked to Joe Navarro, because he was the States Attorney at that time. But nothing came out if talking to him. I also had called Brian Towne, States Attorney, and asked why they didn’t call a grand jury on Tammy’s case. Didn’t get any help there either. People need to continue to ask the States Attorney, and even the Governor if Illinois to call a grand jury on Tammy’s case. Her mother and the rest of her family and friends need answers.

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truecrimediva August 28, 2016 - 8:57 AM

I agree with you. It almost sounds like they were not in a hurry to arrest someone or investigate further. I feel that Lonnie was the best suspect, and most likely was the one who murdered her.

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Jeff phillips August 22, 2016 - 2:32 AM

Alot of us knew Lonnie from his area. As I and my friends know, he hung out in the bar that now is closed and confessed just before he died. Not to police but members present just before his death.

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Marcia Shepherd August 27, 2016 - 7:45 PM

Then why didn’t someone tell the police back then?

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Charlie February 22, 2015 - 2:45 PM

Exit 33 you wrote you got that information from another blog. Was that my blog? Here is how I determined it and made my guess. I got a lot of my information from an article in People magazine. News reports said Tammy Zywicki’s body was found near Sarcoxie, MO, but Sarcoxie is in the next county Jasper County. But who did Tammy’s autopsy? Lawrence County. I figured it has to be the last exit on I-44 closest to Sarcoxie, MO. I still did not see anything on a map that fit the criteria so I got a topographical map because I figured that would have every exit. That is how I made my determination. I looked up Sarcoxie town limits later and it looks like it does not extend over Exit 33 so maybe I am wrong. There is actually another exit 29 that also has a gas station which is located on the outskirts of Sarcoxie so maybe it was that one? I chose exit 33 because the article had quotes from the Lawrence County coroner so I figured that information had to be correct. I also thought that exit was more likely for Bierbrodt to use, but when I saw news footage later was kind of confused because it looks like her body was found on an entrance ramp, not exit ramp. You can tell by the slope of the road.

Of the information out there, it is hard to be sure about what is good info. I read before that Tammy’s body had many defensive wounds from a crime encyclopedia, but recently read another article that said she did not have a lot of defensive wounds. So what to believe?

I think I am 90% sure about the exit where her body was found. Even though the gas station was not a Zip Stop gas stations change names over time. As you probably have figured out, trusting information you get off the internet can be sketchy at best.

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truecrimediva February 23, 2015 - 10:10 AM

Hi Charlie, I wrote the post almost 4 years ago, but I believe I did see that on your blog.

Yes, I have learned all too well about info on the internet. That’s why I go to various sources before I write the post. An article I read from Tammy’s hometown paper said Tammy had “few defensive wounds”.

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Robert Kotlarek November 23, 2014 - 7:13 PM

A picture of Lonnie Bierbrodt from the 1978 Lasalle-Peru High School Yearbook. Only picture I have  been able to find of him.

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truecrimediva November 25, 2014 - 4:10 PM

Oh thank you so much, Robert!

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William Scorby February 23, 2016 - 4:41 PM

Dear truecrimediva, ask yourself this question why bierbrodt’s high school picture in what other case has law enforcement uses there high school picture of the suspect are you kidding me bierbrodt was fingerprinted and blood and hair samples taken and they didn’t take his picture and they have to use his high school picture are you kidding me four years ago while searching at the library I came across a picture that I’m about 90% was bierbrodt I believe it was taken when he had to give blood bierbrodt was 5ft.8in blue eyes 160 lbs the picture I got off the internet someone had shrunk it down in size so it almost looked like a black dot but using the computer to increase the size I brought it up to original size that it was .he wasn’t wearing glasses but his eyes were bloodshot which could suggest contacts and earrings in his ears and his hair was thick and just above the shoulder his shirt possible flannel blue or black for some reason I could never remember that part for sure but when you looked at his face he looked like he did some time in prison. The credible witness that said they seen bierbrodt up there was a nurse and also married to a circuit judge I believe from Peru. So I don’t how true that is .l believe law enforcement can’t prove bierbrodt left Missouri or he would have been arrested . I also believe if he was on vacation he wasn’t alone

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Robert Kotlarek August 24, 2016 - 7:59 AM

William Scorby – RE: High School picture. I posted that pic; it is not from law enforcement. It is the only pic I have been able to find that is confirmed as being Bierbrodt.

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True Crime Diva August 28, 2012 - 12:04 PM

Cleaning a vehicle and selling it after someone disappears is never a good sign. If he was on vacation, that could explain why her body was found a week later, as opposed to right after she disappeared.

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Moose August 23, 2012 - 5:38 PM

In your things to ponder section, you remark about this trucker. Well Lonnie Bierbrodt was employed as a trucker and drove a Kenworth truck, but he was in his personal vehicle, a Datsun pickup truck on this vacation. A “credible” witness identified him and the pickup. He apparently steam cleaned the interior and sold that truck soon after getting home.

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True Crime Diva July 14, 2012 - 2:33 PM

Thank you! 🙂 I know what you mean. When your car breaks down, you expect the person who pulls over to help you, not harm you. This case has always touched my heart. All she was doing was heading back to college and some freak comes along and takes advantage of the situation. Sad.

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Anonymous July 14, 2012 - 5:17 AM

I live at mile marker 81 off of 80. I am 28 now so this happened when I was quite young. I always hoped this would be solved, but I agree w/ you on Beirbodt being the murderer. I find it odd for him to only murder once (unless that was b/c of his early demise).

I just wanted to state, when I was younger, I was w/ my mom and our car broke down at night time. We hitched a ride w/ a trucker that pulled over, luckily he dropped us where we were wanting to go. You never realize how many bad people are in the world when you come from a small area.

Great Blog BTW 🙂

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True Crime Diva October 5, 2011 - 6:12 PM

Oh how interesting! I will have to check it out!

I pray for justice, too. I also realize LE is just doing their job but certain officers are questionable in certain cases lol. It must be so frustrating for family members.

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Charlie October 5, 2011 - 4:45 PM

Yes, I still have my blog called TheCanDo, named after a ship that sank during the Blizzard of 1978. I named it that because I liked the name. Then I read bits and pieces of the actual story behind the ship and realized how appropriate the name is considering none of the cases have been solved.
I question the work ethic of law enforcement as well but try to remember they are human beings and sometimes there is nothing left they can do. It would be nice to hear that one of these cases got solved. Maybe someday.

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True Crime Diva September 29, 2011 - 10:16 AM

Hi Charlie! Thanks for commenting! Oh you're right…I do have the mile marker wrong! I will correct that. Thank you!!!

I do think Bierbrodt killed Tammy and I never believed it was Mendenhall because his MO doesn't fit with Tammy's murder. Do you still have your blog?

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Charlie September 27, 2011 - 5:58 PM

I liked your blog so I thought I would comment. I authored a blog about Tammy Zywicki as well as a few other cases. It seems like you take some of these cases personally but I can understand that. Everything starts out personal. I can tell you that if you live long enough in an area where everyone takes everything personally you will find yourself very frustrated very fast. Emotions end up overruling reason.

None of that has to do with Tammy Zywicki. There is not much I can tell you that you probably cannot find online already. You have the mile marker of where her car was found wrong. Her car was found at mile marker 83 alongside I-80 west, not mile marker 86. As for who killed her, I can only guess that her killer is either very sorry or very dead and that it is most likely the latter(Bierbrodt). He does not seem like the guy to me, but he is the most logical suspect as you wrote. It is hard to deny all the circumstantial evidence surrounding him. Good luck with your blog.

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True Crime Diva

True Crime Diva

I've blogged true crime since 2010, happily taking up only a tiny corner of the internet. I'm not here for attention; I'm here to tell you their stories.

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