10 years after Evansdale case, investigators inching closer to justice

Published: Jul. 14, 2022 at 11:50 PM CDT|Updated: Jul. 14, 2022 at 11:51 PM CDT
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EVANSDALE, Iowa (KCRG) – 10 years. 2,000 leads. And no arrests.

The abduction and murders of Lyric Cook-Morrissey and Elizabeth Collins in 2012 are never far from the minds of investigators working to bring their killer, or killers, to justice.

Now that a decade has passed, some might worry the case has gone cold. Far from it, say investigators.

July 13, 2012

Elizabeth’s mother, Heather, filed a missing persons report with Evansdale Police at 2:48 p.m. after her eight-year-old daughter and ten-year-old niece didn’t return home from a bike ride. Police immediately began their search. Their initial efforts focused on the Collins’ home in the event the girls were sleeping or hiding. At the same time patrol units canvassed surrounding areas.

Within 30 minutes local police were joined by deputies from the Black Hawk County Sherriff’s Office and the Evansdale Fire Department. At about four o’clock, the first discovery and indication that something was very wrong.

A firefighter located the girls’ abandoned bikes about a mile from the Collins’ home along a trail that surrounded Meyers Lake. The location of the bikes immediately concerned law enforcement – an area of trail in the southeastern corner of the lake hidden by trees and brush, approximately 40 feet from Interstate 380.

Another sign of trouble: Elizabeth’s purse had been thrown over a fence separating the trail from the lake. Her cell phone, which was only used for games and music, was also found at the scene. Additional evidence was located nearby, but officials have not disclosed what they found. An investigator close to the case told KCRG-TV9 in May that from the get-go, it was obvious the girls had been abducted.

As the afternoon turned to evening, officials gave the order to drag Meyers Lake. That night the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation and the FBI were contacted by local authorities. The agencies arrived in Evansdale early the next morning. The FBI already had assets and resources in the Cedar Valley investigating a massive fraud case involving businessman Russell Wasendorf Sr. Many of those resources were quickly redirected to help with the search for the cousins and assist with chain of evidence.

Scott Reger, the current lead agent investigating the case for the DCI, was among those who responded to Evansdale in the first hours of the search for Lyric and Elizabeth.

“I was one of the assisting agents that was there that first weekend, and then worked alongside our case agent, Mike Roehrkasse,” Reger said.

Reger and other investigators questioned family members and close associates, then turned their attention to known sex offenders in the area. A week after the girls disappeared, the search of Meyers Lake was called off. Officials said the girls had been abducted.

Investigators looked into hundreds of leads as the search for the girls extended into weeks, then months. Despite their efforts, there were no signs of Lyric and Elizabeth or what happened to them.

The hunt for a killer

On Wednesday, December 5, 2012, hunters traveled to a remote area of Bremer County known as Seven Bridges Wildlife Area. At about 12:45 p.m., they made a grisly discovery: human remains later identified as the missing cousins. Their cause of death has not been released. Investigators said that information will not be released to the public to preserve the continuity of evidence.

Investigators said the location of where Elizabeth and Lyric were located could be a key piece of information that leads investigators to the killer.

“We do believe that it is somebody that is familiar with the Meyers Lake area and Seven Bridges area,” said Bremer County Detective Jason Ellison, who has been assigned to the investigation in 2017.

“You’d have to know it was there, you’d have to be familiar with it, you’re not just gonna be driving down Highway 20 and stumble on to Seven Bridges. You have to know that it’s there,” said Reger.

In the years since the girls disappeared, officials have said they believe the suspect used “quiet coercion” to abduct Lyric and Elizabeth.

Other high-profile murder and abduction cases in close proximity to Evansdale – or with similar circumstances – have led to questions about connections to the cousins’ disappearance. DCI investigators said they looked at the abduction of 15-year-old Kathlynn Shepard and a 12-year-old girl from Dayton, Iowa, in May 2013, less than a year after Elizabeth and Lyric’s abduction. The 12-year-old was able to escape. Kathlynn’s body was found a few weeks after the abduction. The man responsible for the abductions and murder, Michael Klunder, committed suicide the same day.

In 2014, Evansdale Police Chief Kent Smock ruled Klunder out as a suspect in the Evansdale case.

Reger did not rule him out, or in.

“Michael Klunder was a specific, that the timing of him being within nine months of this and the call to rule him out . . . those are decisions that were made by the investigators that had more to say than I would right now,” Reger said. “It would be inappropriate for us to comment on ruling in and ruling out, which I know is super frustrating.”

Reger explained why he won’t comment on anyone that has been ruled out or is being looked at by investigators.

“If I do, and that person is the one that ultimately did it, that might prohibit me from actually being able to provide justice . . . If they didn’t do it, and I start commenting on who we ruled in or who ruled out, that person’s name now becomes now attached with Evansdale. And now I might be causing that innocent person to suffer strictly because I made a comment on their name being affiliated with Evansdale.”

Reger and Ellison are two members of the team investigating the case. It’s made up of representatives from local, state, and federal agencies. The team is in frequent contact and attempts to meet once a month to go over new tips and leads in the case. Ellison said they have a wide array of resources, including former investigators in the case that have retired or moved on to different assignments.

“The agents that are on it right now, most of them have been in since the very beginning. And all of them that were involved that are no longer actively with us … we can call them anytime and they’ll try to help us out as much as they can with details that we have to fill in,” he said. “All of the investigators that have been involved with this case have a personal connection to it, a lot of them were there from day one, or within the first couple of days.”

That institutional knowledge coupled with advances in technology gives investigators hope that they will make a break in the case.

“Time creates advances in technology, things that we’re able to do now that weren’t necessarily able to do back in 2012,” Reger said. He added private companies and labs have offered up new technology to help develop leads in the case. Reger would not elaborate on what type of technology.

More than anything, investigators need the public’s help.

“We want people to come forward if they have information. For whatever reason, you know, people have information that they don’t feel like it’s worthy of sharing,” Ellison said. “Let us do our job and get us that information. And it could be that piece of the puzzle that we need.”

Case integrity

Both investigators acknowledge the frustration from family members and the public that 10 years have gone by with no arrests.

“The weight that it hasn’t been resolved is not lost on us. And it’s not lost on the investigators,” Reger said.

“It doesn’t compare to the weight that the family is carrying. But the weight is not lost on us. We feel the weight of that as well. And we have a desire to see this resolved.”

Investigators provide regular updates to the family, specifically Elizabeth’s father. But investigators can’t reveal too much – including the girls’ cause of death.

“Protecting the integrity of the case facts is crucial for us,” Reger said. “The person that did this, and person or persons that did this, and the investigative team are the only ones that can know that. That’s the only way that these types of cases get resolved in the long term.”

“What we can let the family know . . . is that it is actively being worked and that we’re regularly evaluating things,” Reger said. “It can be frustrating because the family wants to know. It helps settle things for them. But at the end of the day, my responsibility is to resolve this. And it means sometimes you have to fight that tension that you’re going to have with the families for the information that they can’t have.”

‘We will continue to hit this rock until it breaks’

A decade after girls disappeared from Evansdale, investigators believe they are closer than ever to solving the case.

Ellison’s message to the killer: you’re not getting away with it.

“Time is on our side. Now. Time is not on their side,” he said. “There’s been huge advances and those are only going to continue and it’s going to work in our favor.”

“I live in the community, I have personal investment in it,” Reger said. “We’re not going away. This case isn’t going away. And sometimes big things just break over time because we hit it again, again, again, again. And it’s not just law enforcement, it’s the community . . .you’re seeing it with Drew, you’re seeing it with the foundation, you’re seeing with our team and investigators.”

Reger said he and his team won’t stop until they can finally get justice for Elizabeth and Lyric, their families, and the community.

“We will continue to hit this rock until it breaks.”

A reward of $100,000 is being offered for information that leads to an arrest in this case. If you have any information you are asked to email ourmissingiowagirls@dps.state.ia.us or call 1-855-300-TIPS.