76-year-old mother continues to fight for justice for daughter killed 27 years ago

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By Grace Stetson

Tammy Zywicki was a determined and focused student at Grinnell College in Grinnell, Iowa. She was active on campus as an accomplished soccer player and a photographer for the student newspaper. The 21-year-old had spent much of the summer of 1992 abroad in Madrid studying for her bachelor’s degree in Spanish. She was excited to return to Grinnell for her senior year in August 1992, according to her mother, JoAnn Zywicki.

“Tammy was a very practical person, very smart about the things she did,” JoAnn Zywicki, told Dateline. “She was always busy. She always had something going on.”

Tammy and her younger brother left the family home in New Jersey together to drive back to their respective schools. On August 23, 1992, Tammy dropped her brother off at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and then began the final leg of her drive to Grinnell, which was five hours away.

That evening, Tammy’s parents JoAnn and Hank Zywicki expected a call from her which did not come. They became worried the next morning when they still had not heard from their daughter.

JoAnn told Dateline that she called Amy Fort, Tammy’s friend and roommate from freshman year, to see if she had heard from Tammy.

Amy told Dateline she told JoAnn no, but said she did remember asking, “Is everything OK?”

“Her mom did not indicate that everything was OK, and so that’s when I started becoming very worried,” Amy said. “I started to become personally worried when her mom called me. I had no inkling -- nothing before that.”

On August 24, JoAnn contacted Illinois State Police to inform them that Tammy had still not arrived at Grinnell.

JoAnn told Dateline that she described both her daughter and the vehicle she was driving to school. Authorities told her that an Illinois State Trooper had found what they believed to be an abandoned car the day before, the same make as Tammy’s. The car had been parked along I-80 in LaSalle County and was towed from the scene.

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The family and the police jumped into action, with groups of people at both Grinnell and Northwestern conducting searches for Tammy. JoAnn and her husband Hank pleaded for their daughter’s safety on both local and national television. Close friends took turns driving through Iowa, Illinois and Missouri handing out fliers and speaking with truckers asking if anyone could shed light on Tammy’s whereabouts.

“Everybody knew who Tammy was on campus, so it was almost instant mobility,” Amy Fort told Dateline. “One of our classmates has been harmed, and we need to do something about this. This could have been any of us — what are we going to do about it?”

It wasn’t until September 1, 1992 – nine days after she was initially reported missing – that Tammy’s body was found along I-44 in rural Lawrence County, Missouri, wrapped in a red blanket by the side of the road, according to Dateline’s affiliate NBC5 Chicago. It was also reported that she had been stabbed eight times, and there was evidence of sexual assault.

According to the FBI, several items were missing from Tammy’s belongings, including a Cannon 35mm camera and an unusual Lorus musical wristwatch with a green umbrella on the face and a green band. The watch played ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.’

Twenty-seven years later, family and friends are still searching for answers and wondering if new DNA-testing technology could finally lead to a killer.

JoAnn, now 76 years old, works diligently to find her daughter’s killer, largely with the help of Internet sleuths.

“[Tammy] was just an all-around person who just enjoyed everything about life and couldn’t wait to see what would happen tomorrow,” JoAnn said. “I just think of it many times every day, that one of the last things she was doing was writing letters to sports information places for internships after graduation. Whoever did this took it all away from her.”

Reporter Phil Rogers of NBC5 Chicago, who has been covering the case since Tammy’s disappearance, remembers that Northwestern students went to task in the search, setting up fliers and working at phone banks, but noted that the case lost some traction over time.

“Every now and then, anniversary stories would happen, and the Zywickis always seemed gratified that somebody remembers,” Rogers told Dateline.

Rogers mentioned that the command at the time, Sgt. Jeff Padilla, ended up retiring during the investigation, but noted other investigators have taken on the case.

Sergeant Jacqueline Cepeda of the Illinois State Police informed Dateline that the case is still open and ongoing, and they are committed to ensuring appropriate follow-ups and investigations in their jurisdiction.

“We appreciate the public’s efforts to keep the case at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and we encourage them to share any information they may have that would assist with the ongoing investigation,” she said.

“Tammy wasn’t a silly person; she was strong, she had her own mind. She wasn’t just going to trust a person,” friend Amy told Dateline. “That could have been any of us. We have to live with this wound that her killer hasn’t been found, and it just seems totally unfair.”

JoAnn told Dateline she believes it’s important to continue to investigate her daughter’s case.

“You relive this every day. The memories are still there,” JoAnn said.

If you have any information on the death of Tammy Zywicki, please contact the Illinois State Police at (815) 726-6377, or the Chicago FBI Field Division at (312) 421-6700.