South Dakota authorities seek answers in unsolved 2015 death
VERMILLION, S.D. (AP) — The last pictures Alicia Hummel took of herself were moments before she died.
Hummel had taken a few Snapchat selfies, posted on a boat dock along the Missouri River just outside of Vermillion, the Argus Leader reported. She wanted to show her followers how she was spending her first day of vacation.
That’s something her friends and family will forever cherish about Hummel. Her love of documenting her days with photos.
No one else was seen in those last Snapchats, just Hummel showing off a fishing pole. Hummel had mentioned in a few messages that there were others around, but it’s not known for sure if Hummel went fishing by herself that June 2015 day, Hummel’s good friend, Bethany Svacina, said.
“What’s unsettling, those people she mentions, did they take her life?” Svacina said in a phone interview in May.
Family, friends and law enforcement are all still looking for answers three years after a coroner ruled Hummel’s death a homicide. Authorities are confident it wasn’t an accident.
“We don’t have any more news then we did on June 1, 2015,” Svacina said. “That’s the hardest part. We don’t have answers. Will there be answers? Her grandparents are getting older. For the family you pray there are answers.”
Hummel is thought to have been killed sometime between 1 and 3 p.m., June 1, 2015, about three weeks shy of her 30th birthday. A state Game, Fish and Parks employee who was cleaning up the area found her body around 3:30 p.m. at the edge of the water by the boat ramp at Myron Grove, also known as the Highline Area, about seven miles west of Vermillion. A memorial cross with a flag and a flower rests near the parking lot by the ramp.
An autopsy determined that Hummel’s cause of death was drowning, but it also listed blunt force head trauma and an incised wound on her neck as contributing factors. Toxicology reports showed no signs of alcohol or other substances.
Howe wouldn’t say whether a sexual assault took place before the killing.
That day was a warm, sunny day in rural Clay County.
It was the perfect day to go fishing, something Hummel enjoyed regularly. It wasn’t uncommon for her to go by herself. It wasn’t uncommon for Hummel to do anything by herself. She was always one for spontaneous adventure, Svacina said, recalling times when Hummel made quick decisions to attend a concert a few hours from her home in Sioux City or a trip to a shrine in Nebraska.
“Her life was very much by-the-moment,” Svacina said. “Very much spontaneity. She just went with things.”
Hummel stopped at Walmart before she went fishing, according to Hummel’s Snapchat timeline, Hummel’s younger sister Emily Gilliam said in a phone interview.
There’s not much more we know about her day. Law enforcement say they can’t release much more information than what they initially did three years ago, as they still consider it an open case.
Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe, who runs point on the investigation efforts, said he’d love to release more information, but he wants to make sure that if the killer is found that prosecutors can still have a case.
“There’s certain information you want to make sure is unknown except to us and the killer,” Howe said in an interview in his Vermillion office in early May. “The goal is to successfully prosecute the case.”
Not one person has come forward to say they were at Myron Grove that day, and Howe is still puzzled as to how nobody would have been there that day, as Myron Grove is a relatively busy area for locals.
“I can’t explain that,” Howe said. “It should have been a busy area.”
The only road in or out of the Myron Grove area forks a few yards before the dock, with one road branching to private properties and the other to the popular public fishing and water sport spot.
Two parking lots are separated by a line of trees, a smaller one near the ramp and a larger one to park trucks and boat trailers. Next to a skinny dock, there is room for one boat to be loaded into the water.
In the summer, when trees are thick with leaves, the dock area is hidden. You wouldn’t be seen until you get on the water.
“It makes it secluded because until you literally get down there, you can’t see it,” Howe said. “But it’s very public in the sense that anyone can get to it. Anyone could.”
It’s not a staffed area. The only person regularly going through the area would be a Game, Fish and Parks employee who walks through different public areas to pick up trash.
It’s a place Hummel had been to alone before.
Law enforcement’s main lead is a dark car with tinted windows, and it’s the biggest slice of information released to the public.
Tips roll in somewhat regularly to the Clay County Sheriff’s Department, from people calling in to say they saw a dark colored car driving along the interstate to people saying they know someone with a dark car who would do something like this.
Three years later, Howe said he still gets stopped on the street to be asked about this case.
Anything new on that unsolved murder?
We’re still following up on leads, he says.
Those tips are getting fewer and farther between, but Howe doesn’t consider it a cold case. DCI agent Brian Schnabel said he just filed an additional report the week during these interviews in the first weeks of May.
“It’s not a cold case if we’re following up on leads,” Howe said. “We’ve maintained this as a focus.”
The Clay County Sheriff’s Department has the lead on the case, working with agents from the FBI and state Division of Criminal Investigation. The DCI agent assigned to the case is conveniently right down the hall, and Howe will meet with him and even occasionally reach out to other agencies for fresh ideas.
He’s hoping people come forward with firsthand knowledge of what happened to connect and fill in the holes of the physical evidence he has. Even if the tips are anonymous, Howe encourages tippers to add enough detail for officers to follow-up on.
The persons of interest circle starts small, with those closest to the victim. As persons of interest are ruled out, the circle grows larger, expanding out to strangers, which is unlikely in murders.
In most cases, victims are murdered by a romantic partner or someone they know, Howe said. Media covering the initial homicide mention Hummel’s husband, and how he was quickly ruled out as a suspect. Howe said the investigation started there. When Hummel’s husband was confirmed to be out of town with relatives, the investigation moved to other family and friends.
Those people were ruled out fairly quickly, and the killer is likely still walking the streets.
As someone who lives near the scene of the crime, Svacina is unsettled.
“If you did that brutal of a murder, what’s going to stop you from doing it again?” Svacina said. “That’s what’s scary to being that close to that community. It could be someone going to the grocery store.”
She gets nervous speaking out about what she knows publicly, but knows she must, to keep alive Hummel’s story.
Anytime Emily Gilliam hears a Luke Bryan song, she thinks about her sister.
Bryan had released his “Kill the Lights” album that year. The song “Kick the Dust Up,” the first track on the album, came out on the radio shortly after Hummel died.
“Every time a Luke Bryan song comes on, my heart breaks,” Gilliam, 23, said. “It was constantly playing. Every time it played, I cried.”
Hummel loved Luke Bryan so much, his music was played at her funeral processional.
“She loved her music; she loved to dance,” Svacina said. “She’d sing any of (Bryan’s songs) at the top of her lungs if she could.”
Hummel had been working at a preschool in Dakota City, Nebraska, since 2013. She had taught infants and toddlers, a passion of hers she hoped to continue and grow.
Hummel had a love for school. She could have gone to school her whole life if she could, said her mother Lora Gilliam. Hummel, who graduated from East High School in Sioux City, had received Bachelor’s degrees from South Dakota State University and the University of South Dakota in psychology and communications fields.
She was looking into getting a Master’s degree when she died.
Hummel’s love of taking photos makes Svacina grateful. The last photo the two of them have together are after a spontaneous trip to get a perm. Hummel decided to drive up from Sioux City in October 2015 to see Svacina, who lived and still lives in Yankton, to get perms.
“She made me take a picture and I didn’t want to, but now it’s a picture I treasure,” Svacina said. “It’s one of the only ones we have together.”
Emily Gilliam didn’t grow up in the same household as her sister. Hummel was raised with grandparents in Sioux City, and Gilliam didn’t start to really develop a deeper relationship with Hummel until closer to her death.
Gilliam remembers seeing Hummel almost every Sunday growing up. They’d attend church as a family and then go to their grandparent’s house for lunch.
Hummel is one of the reasons Gilliam finished out her degree at Southeast Technical Institute.
“I was only going to go for one year, then she was murdered,” Gilliam said. “Doing that second year I kind of did for her. She wasn’t able to complete school so I did it for her.”
Gilliam, too, shared her sister’s love for documenting her time with photos; family have plenty to choose from when reminiscing fun times with Hummel.
That’s what her friends and family are trying to do: keep alive her memory.
They try to tell her story, and they regularly update a Facebook page, Fighting for Justice for Alicia Hummel.
Her family aren’t the only ones looking for a resolution.
Not a day goes by that Howe doesn’t think about this case. It’s the only unsolved murder in his county.
He wants a resolution. He feels a time crunch. Hummel’s grandparents are getting older, and he wants this case solved for them and other family.
“This is something that we’re all invested in,” Howe said. “We care. This is our county. Despite our best efforts and everything we’ve done, we still don’t have a resolution, which is frustrating.”
Howe encouraged anyone with information to come forward by calling the Clay County Sheriff’s Office at 605-677-7100.
Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com