YANKTON, S.D. — Tammy Haas would have turned 48 years old Tuesday, April 13.
But for the past 29 years, there has been no cake or candles to celebrate her birthday. Instead, only questions to be answered.
So, on her birthday, the FBI and the Yankton Police Department announced a $15,000 reward for information surrounding Haas’ death on Sept. 17, 1992, in hopes of ferreting answers kept in the shadows that could provide her family, friends and the city closure.
In 1996, Haas’ boyfriend Eric Stukel was tried and acquitted of manslaughter in Cedar County, Nebraska — where Haas’ body was found by a golfer at the bottom of a ravine. Law enforcement officials declined to comment on past trials, but repeatedly stated someone had answers that needed to be revealed.
“There are people out there that know what happened to Tammy, and today, we’re talking directly to them,” FBI Minneapolis Special Agent Michael Paul said. “The burden of that knowledge that they carry, the weight of knowing for so many decades without speaking, coming forward now can lift that burden off their shoulders, their heart and their soul.”
Haas’ case is one of South Dakota’s most infamous unsolved mysteries, as the vivacious 19-year-old never returned home after attending Yankton’s homecoming coronation and then traveling to a party on a farm just across the Nebraska border.
FBI agents meet with local law enforcement officers yearly and have received new information over time, but despite being featured locally and nationally on NBC’s Dateline in 2015, nothing significant has been revealed to change what the FBI deemed a cold case Tuesday.
“There have been changes in scientific analysis, forensic evidence, so part of what we’ve done in this case is consistently go back and review forensic evidence and re-submit pieces of evidence where we can,” FBI Special Agent Matt Miller said. “Those pieces of evidence will really help us when we have someone come forward who can help us put those pieces in order. That’s what we’re seeking: the human element.”
However, a reward has never been offered for information regarding Haas’ death and the FBI and local police believe it can help create new leads. When asked why a reward was being offered 29 years into the mystery, Yankton Police Commander Todd Brandt’s answer was succinct, “What’s changed is that nothing has changed.”
Hope for new evidence
Despite being acquitted 25 years ago, many on social media, including a Facebook page called “Justice for Tammy Haas” with 5,465 followers, still point to Stukel as the culprit in the death of Haas, who was discovered with a broken neck six days after her disappearance. Stukel, meanwhile, told police they left the party and Haas walked from his house to her aunt’s that night.
No clear evidence or confession is connected to Stukel and no arrests have been made since, but the offering of a reward is a fresh start, according to family friend and activist Gary Idt. He is hoping it could bring a lead or someone could offer new information for old leads.
“Apparently to the jury that heard the evidence in 1996, it wasn’t sufficient enough to find a person guilty,” Idt said. “Through my personal mind and through all my review of the evidence and everything else that’s not in the evidence, I believe it was pretty well known. There still might be another alternative out there or someone that knows more about this that would now be willing to share what they know.”
In May 2020, Haas’ gravesite was vandalized roughly 24 hours after friends and family were in town to visit the site. Although police did not feel the vandalism did not add anything significant to the investigation, the FBI believed it was proof that information is floating within the public.
“The vandalism of the grave did indicate to us that someone in this area still is thinking about this and may have some knowledge,” Miller said. “Whoever that was I think has some connection to the case. We’re hoping that if that person is out there and the vandalism in fact had some connection with the case, they might come forward.”
Brandt said new evidence procured occasionally, but mostly he receives opinions or theories from people. Yet because police do not know what led to Haas’ death, it is hard to determine if a source or piece of information is reliable.
For Brandt, the cloud of doubt over the case brings angst, because within a community that has so many theories is someone with the answers.
“A significant, impactful case that not only impacted these agencies in 1992, but it impacted the family and the community,” Brandt said. “The community wants answers and they deserve it. That’s one of the frustrations because somebody knows what happened.”