*This article initially stated that Wilma’s former husband, Donald Wellington, was still alive. It has since been corrected, based on information from her daughter, Krissi.*
Wilma June Nissen was born on October 19, 1954 in San Francisco, California to her parents, Charles and June Nissen. Abandoned by her mother when she was just 8 years old, Wilma and her younger sister, Mona, were left under the care of their father, who was neglectful of them. During this time, they did not attend school and were locked in a bedroom closet while Charles was at work, meaning that by the age of 10, Wilma could not read, write or even eat with a fork.
The neglect escalated when Charles lost his job, forcing the family of three to live in his car. Wilma was tasked with scouring the streets for food, while Mona was often confined solely to the trunk of the car. The girls wouldn’t be removed from this environment until 1964, when California authorities finally stepped in. From there, Wilma was placed in several foster homes, where she is said to have thrived. According to one set of foster parents, she had been a bubbly child and a quick learner.
While in her 20s, Wilma turned to prostitution as a way to make a living. She was known by the nickname “Boots” and would hitchhike from place to place. In 1974, she was arrested in California for prostitution, and by the time of her disappearance, she was working for an escort service in Sioux Falls, South Dakota named either “Playgirls” or “Playmates”.
Wilma was married numerous times throughout her life. In 1973, she married a man named Donald Wellington, but after their marriage dissolved she entered into a relationship with Michael Pizzaro Sr. This resulted in the birth of her first child, a son named Michael Pizzaro Jr. Eventually, Wilma would marry another man, Robert Irvin, with the pair giving birth to a baby girl named Crystal “Krissi” Joy Irvin in 1977. Both children were eventually removed from Wilma’s custody and placed into foster care.
In February 1978, Wilma left San Diego, California, where she had relocated, and moved with a 54-year-old man named Charles Inman Belt to Atlanta, Georgia. According to his statement to authorities, Wilma had left his mother’s apartment just a few days after arriving in Atlanta and he’d never heard from her again.
A few months after moving to Atlanta, Wilma is believed to have travelled northwest to Sioux Falls, which is her last confirmed location.
On October 4, 1978, a telephone company employee was laying cable along Highway 182 in western Lyon County, Iowa when he stumbled upon the body of an unknown female in a roadside ditch. The remains had initially been hidden behind tall, browning weeds. The area was one mile south and 1 1/2 miles west of West Lyon School and 20′ from the road.
Due to the level of decomposition, the remains were unrecognizable. It was noted that her lower jaw was missing and that only two whole teeth remained attached to her skull.
Except for her body, clothing and a length of braided hemp rope, there was no evidence present at the scene. She had been found wearing a pair of light green denim/khaki pants with braid trim around the pockets and waist; white patent leather calf-length “go-go” boots; bikini-style underwear; and a silver ring with gold indentation on her right ring finger. Jane Doe had been naked from the waist up, and her underwear and pants had been found wrapped around her left leg.
The position of her pants and underwear indicated that a sexual act may have occurred before her death. At the time, it was unknown if said act could have been willing or done against Jane Doe’s will. Based on the position of the body, it was determined that the rope had been tied around her feet and used to pull her into the ditch from a nearby vehicle or area. Her arms, hands and hair had been brought forward, further confirming she had been dragged, face down, to the location where she was found.
The initial autopsy in 1978 showed her right elbow had been dislocated and suggested that her cervical vertebra had also been dislocated, an injury which could have occurred after death. The dislocated elbow was deemed significant, as it showed Jane Doe had fought with her killer. The autopsy also found a depressed skull fracture approximately 2″ above her right eye, but the coroner was unable to determine if this injury was related to her death.
Her body was tested for any blood or semen, but lab technicians with the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Criminalistics Laboratory were unable to establish the presence of either. Her fingernails were later removed and sent for testing.
It was determined her body had been dumped in the area between June and August of 1978.
A crime scene search team scoured the road and the surrounding area for any other clothing and belongings, but were unable to find anything of value. They also searched the ditch for Jane Doe’s missing jaw and teeth, but were unsuccessful.
Hoping to find out Jane Doe’s identity, investigators looked through the list of missing people in Iowa, but found no matches. Initial checks with law enforcement in South Dakota also revealed nothing.
On January 31, 2006, Jane Doe was officially identified as Wilma June Nissen, after a Des Moines lab technician matched her left thumbprint to a print card from the Los Angeles Police Department. From there, they were able to determine she’d been killed when she was only 23 years of age.
After Wilma’s body was officially identified, information about the case was submitted to the FBI’s ViCAP system, which collects, collates and analyzes crimes in order to find any patterns or similarities that may point to certain offenders. This move also led investigators to seek the assistance of an FBI profiler.
Hoping to develop leads, investigators studied Wilma’s associates and anyone who could have come into contact with her between Georgia and Iowa.
In September 2007, her body was exhumed, in the hopes of gathering evidence that could be tested through the use of more modern techniques that hadn’t been available in 1978. Unfortunately, water and time had washed away much of what would have been deemed useful.
A man was arrested in relation to the case in 2009 and faced six counts of perjury. However, the charges were dismissed in 2010.
On May 2, 2016, investigators released a photo of one of the women believed to be responsible for Wilma’s murder, and, in an unusual move, they refused to provide the public with her name, saying they were looking for someone to come forward and independently identify her. What they did reveal was that she was an escort and dancer by the name of “Sugar” who was known to rob others in the industry and frequent parties in both Sioux Falls and Lyon County. She has been interviewed numerous times, with the motive for the murder believed to be robbery, but won’t admit to what happened. However, it has been discovered that she’d fled to Canada soon after the murder, but had to return to the United States after stabbing a person whilst in hiding.
It was also revealed that “Sugar” possibly had an accomplice who went by the nickname “Peaches”. She is said to have worked alongside Wilma for the Sioux Falls-based escort agency. While “Peaches” has never been located, they have been able to determined she is a light-skinned black female from Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada who worked in Sioux Falls and Yankton, South Dakota in the 1970s and 1980s. She is known to have robbed people with “Sugar” at the time.
Eight years prior to this revelation, investigators had approached those who were known to frequent the western Lyon County party scene during the summer of 1978, in the hopes of identifying someone who had seen Wilma with “Sugar”. From the information gleaned, they are confident they have a good idea of how and where the murder occurred. While they won’t release Wilma’s cause of death, as it’s something only the killer would know, they have revealed that it’s likely she was murdered at one of the parties she’d attended and her body later dumped in the ditch where she was found.
Investigators had shared that they’d wanted to speak to her former husband, Donald Wellington, who was said to have been residing in Palmdale, California at the time. According to Wilma’s daughter, he has since passed away. He was not considered a suspect in the case.
There is currently a $10,000 reward being offered for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for Wilma’s murder. Police currently have a total of eight suspects, with only two being free of any previous criminal record.
Aside from Wellington, many of those related to Wilma and the case have since passed away. Charles died in 1986, with Michael Pizzaro Sr. passing away only a few years later, in 1989. Her mother, June, is said to have died in Magna, Utah in 2003, before learning of her daughter’s fate.
CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:
Those with information regarding the case are asked to contact the Lyon County Sheriff’s Office at either 712-472-8326, 712-472-8311 or 712-472-8300. An anonymous hotline is also available at 712-472-8334 for those wishing to not share their identity.
Image Credit: Iowa Cold Cases