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Kidnapper’s trail of evidence paints horrific picture in South Dakota missing woman case

A key piece of evidence in this case stemmed from the discovery of Pamela Dunn's engagement ring.

Missing Pamela Dunn
A billboard dedicated to Pamela Dunn was put up in Watertown, SD to celebrate what would have been Dunn's 50th birthday. Dunn was last seen Dec. 9, 2001. While her ex-boyfriend, Dave Asmussen, is serving a life sentence for her kidnapping, investigators have yet to find Dunn.
Photo courtesy of In Memory of Pamela Dunn.
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This is part 2 of a two-part series of articles on this case. To read part 1,  go here.

WATERTOWN, S.D. — As investigators dug deeper into the disappearance of Pamela Dunn, the evidence of foul play began to pile up.

While ex-boyfriend Dave Asmussen had already provided investigators with inconsistent stories related to the vehicles he had driven the day of — and day after — Dunn’s disappearance, they knew the deeper they dug, the more they’d discover.

And, they were right.

Phone records revealed Dave Asmussen had called her 41 times in the month leading to her disappearance, according to court documents. That was a problematic discovery for Dave Asmussen, who was on the other end of an order of protection, filed by Dunn in 2000.

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Voicemails obtained by South Dakota law enforcement further complicated his case. On Dec. 5 and 6, 2001, recordings from Dunn’s answering service revealed threatening messages.

In one message, Dave Asmussen is recorded saying Dunn will get “the full effect” for allegedly seeing someone new. He goes on to say that she will “get the consequences for the rest of your life,” according to court documents. In his last message to her, he tells her that if she reveals who she was with, it will go a lot easier for her.

The messages and phone calls were enough to charge Dave Asmussen with violating an order of protection and stalking. In 2004, he was convicted and sentenced to 40 months in prison.

That gave investigators time to put together the next case against him.

“The goal was to get him locked up and then proceed to work the bigger case. And we were able to do that,” Vincent Foley, who was Codington County state attorney at the time, told Forum News Service.

While the stalking charges stemmed from incidents recorded before Dunn’s disappearance, the kidnapping charges were more complicated.

Pamela Dunn Missing
Pamela Dunn was last seen Dec. 9, 2001. While her ex-boyfriend is serving a life sentence for her kidnapping, she is still considered a missing person.
Photo courtesy of In Memory of Pamela Dunn.

Without a body, prosecutors were left with the task of proving — at the very least — that Dave Asmussen had taken Dunn from her apartment, against her will.

The kidnapping case

It was no secret that Dunn viewed Dave Asmussen as a threat. In addition to the order of protection, Dunn’s closest friends and family members witnessed the evidence of domestic abuse first-hand.

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Deb Tarnowski and Dunn were best friends when they learned they were half sisters. As a result, the two shared a unique bond — they looked out for one another. When Dave Asmussen entered the picture, Tarnowski knew almost immediately that he didn't deserve her sister.

“Something didn’t sit right with me about him, but I couldn’t put my thumb on it,” she said. “But, it was her life and I thought, if he makes her happy, more power to them. But things started getting really rocky right away, and everyone kept telling her to get rid of him.”

Despite many breakups, Dunn and Dave Asmussen continued the pattern of getting back together. At one point, she accepted an engagement.

A key piece of evidence in the kidnapping case stemmed from the discovery of the engagement ring. When investigators arrived at Dunn’s home on Dec. 10, 2001 for a welfare check, they saw that Dunn had left behind all of her belongings, except for the engagement ring.

The ring was handed over to law enforcement by Chris Asmussen, the now-ex wife of Rick Asmussen, Dave Asmussen’s brother.

Chris Asmussen told investigators that Dave Asmussen had dropped the ring off at their house prior to his 2004 sentencing, according to court documents.

This added to the growing list of evidence.

Dave Asmussen admitted to being in Dunn’s home the night of Dec. 9, 2001. Considering the door was locked and Dunn’s keys were found on the counter, it was clear to investigators that the only other person with a key to the apartment was likely the last to leave — and lock — the apartment door. That person was Dave Asmussen.

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Pamela Dunn missing
Loren Diekman, former president and CEO of Jenkins Living Center in Watertown, SD, accepts a painting donated in memory of Pamela Dunn. Dunn was an employee of Jenkins Living Center when she went missing. A reliable employee, her coworkers became concerned when she failed to show up for work the morning of Dec. 10, 2001. She has not been seen or heard from since. <br/>
Photo courtesy of In Memory of Pamela Dunn.

There was also the issue related to the number of vehicles Dave Asmussen operated on Dec. 9 and 10, 2001, and the related lies he told investigators.

In addition to the evidence gathered, testimony from an inmate living alongside Dave Asmussen proved to be credible, according to court documents. In the affidavit in support of application for an arrest warrant, it’s indicated that a prisoner told investigators Dave Asmussen had told him, “Where she is, she won’t be found any time soon.”

On top of all of this, phone records indicated Dave Asmussen never attempted to reach Dunn again after the evening of Dec. 9, 2001. Even after a friend informed him she was missing, he never called to check in on her. He never called her family members. His incessant phone calls stopped.

Dave Asmussen was convicted in 2006 for kidnapping Dunn — a judge sentenced him to life in prison in 2007.

Sitting on the truth?

In 2017, law enforcement received a credible tip that Dave Asmussen disposed of Dunn’s remains in a well in Deuel County. Initial surface-level investigations of the well yielded a clump of hair.

“We did send it out for DNA testing,” Watertown Police Captain Chad Stahl said. “Unfortunately, the hair sample was too degraded to get DNA out of, but it did come back and was confirmed as human.”

Deuel County Pamela Dunn
In 2020, investigators conducted a full excavation of a well in Deuel County on a credible tip related to the missing person case of Pamela Dunn. Dunn was last seen in Watertown, SD on Dec. 9, 2001.
Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

That was enough to prompt a full excavation of the well in 2020. To the dismay of law enforcement and Dunn’s loved ones, it did not lead to the discovery of Dunn’s body.

“We went for the full excavation of the well because we wanted to make sure,” Stahl said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out the way we wanted it to.”

Despite facing a life sentence for Dunn's kidnapping, Dave Asmussen maintains his innocence — for her kidnapping and death.

That’s a bittersweet pill to swallow for Dunn's family members. who claim the right man is already behind bars. While it’s a form of justice, they still haven’t heard the answer to the question that keeps peace out of reach.

“It doesn’t give us closure,” Tarnowski said. “It’s the last piece of control that he has.”

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Trisha Taurinskas is an enterprise crime reporter for Forum Communications Co., specializing in stories related to missing persons and unsolved crime. Her work is primarily featured on The Vault.

Trisha can be reached at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.
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