Unsolved: The murder of Wilma Nissen
Updated: Feb 28, 2022
If you consume true crime content on an even semi regular basis, you’ve probably seen a lot lately about recently identified Does who had been effectively nameless for decades. It’s great to see such huge steps forward in so many of these cold cases. But as exciting as this all is, many Does who were identified even years ago still don’t have their murders solved. Let’s talk about Wilma Nissen, whose killer hasn’t been caught after over 40 years.
Wilma June Nissen was born on October 18, 1954 to Charles Clarence Nissen and June Simmons Bradford. When Wilma was eight, her mom abandoned the family, which consisted of Wilma, her father and sister. By the time Wilma was ten, she couldn’t read or write and was often locked in a bedroom closet by her dad. The family also had to live in their car after Charles Nissen lost his job.
Wilma and her sister, Mona, were removed from their dad’s care that year, and Wilma lived with at least six different foster families throughout her childhood. On August 5, 1973, 18-year-old Wilma married Donald Wellington and the couple settled in Hollywood. Wilma was arrested several times for prostitution while she was married to Donald Wellington, and I have seen some sources imply that he and/or some of her other exes had pushed her into the career. At some point in their relationship, she began another relationship with a man named Michael Pizarro and, on May 10, 1974, she gave birth to her first child, Michael Pizarro Jr. Just seven months later, on December 12, 1974, she gave birth to Donald Wellington Jr. She’s believed to have lived with Donald Wellington Sr. until 1975; by October of that year, she was living with a man named Robert Irvin. They married on June 21, 1977 and welcomed daughter Crystal Joy Irvin two months later on August 18.
In early 1978, Wilma left California with a man named Charles Inman Belt and moved to Atlanta. Just a few days after they got there, 23-year-old Wilma left the apartment that Belt’s mother lived in. By the summer of 1978, she was working at an escort service in Iowa, but wasn’t heard from after that.
On the morning of October 4, 1978, a phone company employee laying cable near Rock Rapids, Iowa, stumbled on a body. The woman was naked from the waist up, her feet tied together with rope and her lower jaw missing. A subsequent police investigation found evidence that she had been dragged into the ditch by her feet and her body could have been there for as long as three months. Due to her pants and underwear being pulled down her leg, she was thought to have possibly been sexual assaulted. An autopsy later found dislocations in her elbow and neck — possible evidence that she fought with her killer. Her official cause of death has never been released. Her pants and underwear were tested for blood and semen, but I don’t know the results of those tests.
The woman remained a Jane Doe for nearly 30 years. in 2006, she was identified via fingerprints as Wilma Nissen. In 2007, Wilma’s body was exhumed to obtain DNA.
In 2009, 82-year-old John W. VanGammeren was arrested on six counts of perjury. These charges stemmed from statements he’d made while being questioned about Wilma’s murder. His house was also searched, but he was never officially named a suspect, and the perjury charges were later dropped.
2016 suspect photo
In 2016, a photo of a female suspect was released. The woman’s name isn’t publically known, but she was an escort who worked with the same escort service as Wilma Nissen in the summer of 1978 — and this woman was known to rob other escorts.
Investigators believe this woman — who went by the stage name “Sugar” — along with another who went by the nickname “Peaches,” killed Wilma Nissen with robbery as the motive. No pictures of “Peaches” have been released, but she’s described as a light skinned black female from Canada. According to Crystal Haas, Wilma’s biological daughter, these women and the escort service they were affiliated with might have ties to other cities, including Thunder Bay, Ontario, Lesterville, South Dakota, Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Rock Rapids, Iowa, where Wilma’s body was found.
I learned about this case from Crystal Haas’s postings about it on Reddit. Krissi has been working really hard for years to get her mom’s case out there, and it seems now like it’s pretty close to being solved.
If you have any information about the murder of Wilma Nissen, you can contact Detective Amy Stoner of the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office at 712–472–8326. You can also reach Stoner by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of Wilma’s killer, and you can remain anonymous when submitting tips.