Laura Van Wyhe died in the early morning hours of October 26, 1996, after celebrating her 21st birthday. Laura’s childhood friend, Anne Champion, has created a $10,000 reward that will go to the first person who provides new information that leads to an arrest and conviction of the person(s) responsible.
Call the tipline at 855-SOLVE25 (855-765-8325) or fill out the form below.
Laura Van Wyhe’s cold case story is the subject of the podcast, ‘Bonaparte,’ from Imperative Entertainment and Vespucci Group. Help us spread the word about the podcast and the grass-roots effort, “Champion for Laura,” as we seek to find justice for Laura and her family.
“I believe this is a cold case that can be solved, and solving it is long overdue for Laura’s family and friends.”
– Anne Champion
If you don’t know who Anne Champion is, she’s a partner in the New York law office of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher. An Iowa City native, she defended President Trump’s niece, Mary Trump, against her family’s effort to stop publication of her best-selling book, Too Much and Never Enough. She also represented CNN and White House correspondent Jim Acosta in their successful suit to reinstate Acosta’s White House press credentials when they were revoked after a contentious press conference. Now, she’s asking the public for help. She believes new evidence—whether from witnesses or enhanced DNA analysis—is the key to solving the murder.
When the truck driver found Laura alive but incoherent on Highway 136 near Kahoka, MO, her location next to the road was suggestive of being hit by a car. But the facts didn’t add up. According to police records, there was little blood found at the scene and no debris to suggest she had been struck by a vehicle there. Her clothes appeared to have been changed after she was injured—the jacket she was found in did not belong to her and did not exhibit signs of having been involved in a vehicular accident, as there was no blood on it and it showed no signs of wear and tear or debris.
“My understanding based on the file is that she had already lost a lot of blood by the time she was found, yet there was little at the scene,” Champion said. “The police believed that her body had been moved to that spot. The question is: who moved it and why?”
Champion has studied every aspect of the case available to her, from the coroner’s inquest to portions of the police file. She has pieced together a timeline of the 24 hours surrounding the murder, and has driven from Iowa City to Bonaparte to Kahoka to analyze and photograph the locations where her friend spent her last few hours.
She points to the inquest that resulted in a determination that the death was not accidental and that it is being investigated as a homicide.
She said witness statements indicated that the night before her death, Van Wyhe and her 1-year-old son had gone to Bonaparte, Iowa, a town with a population of just over 400 people, to celebrate Van Wyhe’s birthday at the home of Rebecca Reynolds-Knight.
Reynolds-Knight is the mother of Donald Knight III, Van Wyhe’s then ex-boyfriend and the father of her son. At the time, Reynolds-Knight was running for a seat in the Iowa House of Representatives. She was elected and served from 1997 to 2002.
Van Wyhe rode to the party from Iowa City with her son and his father, Donald, and Donald’s brother, Benjamin Knight. Witnesses stated that after the party, Van Wyhe and her son traveled to Kahoka, MO., about 25 miles south of Bonaparte, to spend the night at the home of Donald’s sister, Sarah Bergman, her husband, Tony Bergman, and their two small children. The group reportedly planned to return to Iowa the next morning to attend a parade in connection with Reynolds-Knight’s political campaign. The Bergmans told police that Laura went to bed on their living room floor along with her son and their young daughter, and that when they woke up in the morning, she was gone.
What happened next is unclear, Champion said, but she agrees with Trooper Bruce Clemonds, the first person on the scene from the Missouri State Patrol, who testified at the coroner’s inquest that, based on his experience over “years of investigations,” that Laura “was not hit at that spot” but “was struck somewhere else and put at that spot.”
While the Bergmans told police that they believed Laura left their home in search of diapers, Champion does not find this to be a credible explanation. “There is no reason for Laura to go get diapers in the middle of the night,” Champion said. “The Bergmans themselves had a baby close in age to Laura’s baby. I don’t know why Laura left the Bergmans’ house, but I am convinced that there are people who do know.”
The jacket Laura was wearing when she was found belonged to Tony Bergman. Laura also had an assortment of odd items on her, including a baby blanket, a folded paper plate with cooked rice on it, and a bottle with a sip top. There was a knife in the pocket of the jacket that also belonged to Tony Bergman.
The police report indicates there were cockleburs stuck to Laura’s clothes and a cocklebur branch lying near her. There was a cocklebur bush in the cornfield across the highway from where she was found, indicating she may have walked or been carried by that spot. The spot where Laura was found was close to the Bergmans’ home, and a bag belonging to her with an assortment of baby clothes and other items apparently belonging to Laura was found the next day on a nearby property.
“While I’m no homicide detective, I think it’s likely that Laura’s body was staged,” Champion said. “She was wearing clothes that did not belong to her, and if she really left the Bergman home to buy diapers and left her baby behind, it’s hard to come up with any plausible explanation for the baby items she had with her. The evidence is confusing and could support any number of scenarios, but I think it’s possible that the truck driver who found her interrupted the people who were doing the staging so that they did not finish the job.”
Champion said based on her review of the file, it’s clear that there are many inconsistencies and many open issues begging for further investigation which is why she is pushing for answers. “I believe this is a cold case that can be solved, and solving it is long overdue for Laura’s family and friends.”
Laura and Anne knew each other growing up. “I am from Iowa City and was close to both Laura and her sister and was best friends with Laura’s sister,” Anne said. “We grew up together in Iowa City and are still in touch. Laura’s death affected me profoundly, not to mention her family.”
Anne and Laura stayed close through their teen years and early 20s. Laura started dating Donald Knight, had a baby, and dreamed of becoming a midwife. Anne has continued to stay in touch with Laura’s family throughout the years.
“I had known Laura since she was in middle school. We had some wild times as teenagers, but having a baby really settled her down. It was amazing to see what an incredible mother she was and how much it centered her. She was an original, extremely smart and talented, and I am really sorry that we don’t get to see the person Laura would have become.”
– Anne Champion
The events that led to Van Wyhe’s death—and the identity of those responsible—remain unclear. Police reports indicate that in the last 24 hours of Laura’s life, she traveled from Iowa City, Iowa to Bonaparte, Iowa for her birthday party. The party was held at the home of her son’s paternal grandmother. As the police file indicates, because there was not sufficient room for Laura and her son to stay in Bonaparte, they traveled across state lines to Kahoka, Missouri to stay with the sister of her son’s father and her family, reportedly arriving around 11 p.m.
According to police records, at around 1:45 a.m., a truck driver found Laura alive but incoherent on Highway 136 in Kahoka. She was transported to a hospital in Quincy, Illinois, where she died three hours later of massive blood loss due to blunt force trauma to her head and legs. An autopsy showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in her system.
Want to know more of the details of the cold case?
Anne Champion believes Laura’s case is solvable. Here are her thoughts.
“I am from Iowa City and was close to both Laura and her sister. Laura’s death affected me profoundly, not to mention her family, and it has always bothered me that her murder was not solved. There are too many things that don’t add up. A few years ago, I decided to start pushing for answers, and now it’s time to increase these efforts and enlist the help of the community.”
– Anne Champion