Murder on the Missouri River: Alicia Hummel’s unsolved murder inches closer to justice
The search to piece together evidence and find the 29-year-old preschool teacher's killer has led investigators and those close to Alicia Hummel down a tumultuous road of dead-ends and unanswered questions.
More than six years ago, 29-year-old preschool teacher Alicia Hummel was murdered in broad daylight at a popular boating and fishing dock located 11 miles outside of quiet Vermillion, S.D.
The news was shocking, leaving many with questions as to why — and who — would have so violently ended the life of a young woman who, in many ways, was at the start of a promising new phase of her life.
Her body was discovered in the shallow waters of the Missouri River near the Myron Grove River Access boat landing shortly after her murder on June 1, 2015 by a South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks employee. The autopsy report revealed Alicia Hummel sustained blunt force trauma to the head and suffered a large laceration to her neck, yet drowning was listed as the cause of death.
The search to piece together evidence and find her killer has led investigators and those close to Alicia Hummel down a tumultuous road of dead-ends and unanswered questions. Yet the case is far from cold, according to Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe. New evidence has provided hope for Howe — and Alicia Hummel’s loved ones — that justice is not out of reach.
“I’m optimistic as I sit here today that we’re going to clear this case,” Howe said. “I won’t say that I’ve been optimistic every day since June, but as I sit here today, I am.”
While Alicia Hummel’s phone was previously considered missing evidence, Howe said her phone is in the hands of investigators.
Details of the case remain largely guarded as it is considered an ongoing investigation.
The events leading to Alicia Hummel’s murder
It is assumed that Alicia Hummel traveled alone to Myron Grove on that early summer day — it wasn’t unusual for her to pack up her fishing gear and head out for a day of solitude on the water. She was an adventurous woman, described by those close to her as a trusting soul who believed the best in people.
Her plans were well documented on social media, with Facebook posts the night before and that morning indicating she was excited to spend her first day of vacation fishing. Having accepted a new position, Alicia Hummel had one month free between jobs.
The events leading up to her death were pieced together through Snapchats and text messages sent to friends. In one Snapchat, she captured the image of her fishing rod sitting on the passenger seat of her car with the top of the pole sticking out of the sunroof.
Another message sent at around 1 p.m. indicated she was missing her tacklebox. Fifteen minutes later, she sent a message that she had stopped at Walmart in Vermillion to purchase a fishing license, making note of the kind, elderly man who sold her the license and wished her well.
By 1:30 p.m., a Snapchat message showed a photo of the Myron Grove boat landing dock, with a caption that read, “Finally I’ve been waiting since fall.” At 1:45 p.m., she fired off a text message to a friend indicating she saw two people in a car having sex.
Her body was discovered at roughly 2 p.m. by a South Dakota Game, Fish and Wildlife employee, according to Howe. While Howe will not release the exact manner in which her body was found, it was located near the dock she had captured through Snapchat less than one hour prior to her death.
That leaves roughly 15 minutes between her last text message and the time her body was discovered.
“We believe that we have a very narrow time frame between her arriving in the area, her being killed and her being discovered … a very narrow time frame,” Howe said.
As for the location of the initial violence against Alicia Hummel, Howe places that scene on the river bank, located 10 to 15 feet from the water where she was found.
Howe said he is not at liberty to discuss the murder weapon or weapons, but did indicate that the presumption is that the laceration on the neck was intended to cause harm and was not the byproduct of a struggle.
Howe would not respond to questions regarding whether Alicia Hummel was sexually assaulted. The autopsy report has not been released to her family — a decision Howe said was made due to the ongoing nature of the investigation.
The dark-colored sedan
The Game, Fish and Wildlife employee who discovered Alicia Hummel’s body was never named, but Howe said that’s simply because there wasn’t a need to release his name. He was, however, initially questioned rigorously by law enforcement.
“He was subjected to quite a bit of interviews, he really went through a lot,” Howe said. “But he was very helpful.”
It was the Game, Fish and Parks employee who provided the information that a dark-colored sedan with a loud exhaust was spotted driving away from the boat landing — on the sole road that leads to and from Myron Grove — prior to his discovery of Alicia Hummel in the water. The employee was unable to specifically identify the make and model of the vehicle.
“To this date, nobody has ever come forward, which leads you to suspect that the people involved were in that car, but we have not been able to speak to those folks or that person,” Howe said. “But that’s why we looked so hard for that car. We get tips even to this day about that car.”
In the text message Alicia Hummel sent at 1:45 p.m., indicating she witnessed two people having sex in a car, she did not provide any details as to what the vehicle looked like.
The suspect list
At the time of Alicia Hummel’s death, she was separated from her college sweetheart and husband, Tony Hummel, and in the process of filing for a divorce. As is the case in most murder investigations, the spouse was questioned by law enforcement. In this case, Tony Hummel’s location at the time of the murder put him more than 200 miles from the scene — a solid alibi for law enforcement officials.
Tony Hummel’s current wife, Sarah Hummel, known as Sarah Gallimore at the time of the murder, was also questioned by law enforcement.
“I won’t say she was considered a suspect, but she was questioned and interviewed multiple times,” Howe said. “She was cooperative.”
There have been suspects over the years, Howe said. Yet to this date, a case has not been presented to the county prosecutor. In terms of any new possible suspects, Howe said he isn’t able to discuss specifics and timelines, but new suspects have been considered within the last five years.
“Names are presented to us all the time by people,” he said, “and we’ve certainly had some new names presented within the last five years."
As for witnesses at the scene, not one person has come forward. That’s an aspect of the case that has been particularly frustrating for Howe, especially considering Alicia Hummel’s text message history indicated there were, in fact, at least two people present in a parked vehicle.
“If there were people in the car, they were there in roughly the same timeframe. Whether they were involved or not, I would very much appreciate visiting with them,” Howe said. “No such person has ever approached us.”
Howe said they’ve also made it clear that they’d be interested in speaking to anyone who was at the boat landing earlier that day, as they may provide new information for the investigation.
“Even if there are people saying they were there hours earlier, I would like to talk to them,” Howe said.
At the time Alicia Hummel’s body was discovered, law enforcement officials said her purse, cellphone and fishing pole were considered missing evidence. The keys to her car were discovered on the front passenger seat of her vehicle, located in the parking lot closest to the boat landing.
A number of national and local law enforcement agencies were included in the initial investigation and search of the area, including the South Dakota Department of Criminal Investigation; Federal Bureau of Investigation; South Dakota Games, Fish and Parks Department; Vermillion Police Department; Highway Patrol; and Clay County Sheriff’s Office. Since then, Clay County Sheriff’s Office and DCI have taken the lead with help from the FBI along the way.
“The FBI has been used multiple times throughout,” Howe said. “We’ve reached out to them for assistance several times. We’re not actively working with them right now, but I can imagine that we’ll be talking to them again. They’ve been helpful whenever we’ve needed help.”
A year after her murder, Alicia Hummel’s purse was discovered by local college kids at an above-water sandbar located on the river — the contents of her purse, including cash and credit cards, remained intact. The cellphone, however, was not located in the purse.
Howe’s recent admission that law enforcement located and possesses the cellphone is new information for the family and the public. While the cellphone was assumed to be missing on the sixth anniversary of Alicia Hummel’s murder, Howe would not give a definitive answer as to when, how or where the cellphone was found.
“We found a cellphone. It’s Alicia’s phone. Yes, we did discover the cellphone during the investigation,” Howe said.
Howe would not comment as to whether Alicia Hummel’s fishing pole has been located.
For so many close to Alicia Hummel, the cellphone was considered a missing piece they hoped would provide more information. In addition to whatever may be on the phone, close friend Bethany Svacina said friends and family members were also holding out hope that new technology would provide clues — or answers — to the whereabouts of the phone or where it may have traveled.
Those are aspects of the case Howe said investigators have been working on adamantly.
“We’ve been seeking digital records pretty much since the first day,” he said. “Even now, that’s one of the ongoing avenues — seeing what sort of digital avenues might exist, looking at new technology. We’ve gathered quite a bit of that.
The technology he’s speaking of relates to data that could reveal what cellphone towers were pinged — or accessed — as the phone came within close proximity. It’s that sort of technology that could provide a roadmap that the phone — and possibly the suspect or suspects — traveled.
“There is so much available now,” Howe said. “We’re trying to make it retroactive for previous data. It just takes time and requires assistance from other entities.”
Waiting on justice
Svacina was Alicia Hummel’s close friend and spent the last six and a half years speaking out about her friend’s murder in the hopes of keeping her name — and her case — alive.
For Svacina and those who knew and loved Alicia Hummel, the last six years have been trying, yet Svacina said her hope for justice was recently renewed.
“I really feel good about this,” she said. “I don’t know what it is — if it is Alicia leading me or what it is — something tells me we’re moving in the right direction.”
That recent feeling has been comforting for Svacina, but it doesn’t blind her from the hurt and frustration she and so many people have endured since June 1, 2015. In addition to the heart-wrenching grief, they’ve consistently been confronted with unanswered questions regarding what happened that day.
“It’s just so frustrating on the end of myself and even the family. Her grandpa just celebrated his 87th birthday,” Svacina said. “Are they going to see this through? Are they going to see the end of the light and the person or persons who did this brought to justice? I mean, you think about a ticking time clock, that’s what you think about. And so I really do hope that that’s where we’re at — that they’re getting closer to getting answers.”
Seeking justice is complex for those who loved Alicia Hummel. In addition to discovering who violently murdered their friend — and why — there’s also a certain sense of discomfort and unease that comes with knowing her killer continues to walk free, particularly when the crime occurred in a small town.
For those who continue to vocally seek justice for their friend, they often wonder if their actions are being noticed by the person who took Alicia Hummel’s life.
“I guess that’s why I want: justice, so that maybe her grandparents can sleep a little better at night,” she said. “Maybe her sisters and her brother and her parents and, ya know, those friends can all sleep a little better at night knowing the person who did that to her is sleeping in a cell and not living the freedom of their life … however they’ve wanted to live it for the last six years.”
Like so many people who have been touched by this case, Svacina still holds on to hope that the person — or people — responsible for Alicia Hummel’s death would surrender to the guilt, giving her and Alicia Hummel’s loved ones the peace they have been seeking for so long.
“There’s also that part of you that hopes that they … that what they did eats at them every day and maybe they’ll gain up the courage to not want to live with it the rest of their life and turn themselves in,” she said. “But, ya know, that’s kind of one of those miracles that you hope happens.”
On the investigative side, Howe and his team continue to march forward with the ultimate goal of putting together a case for prosecutors that ends in the conviction of Alicia Hummel’s killer — or killers.
“My goal is not only to arrest the killer but also to successfully prosecute. And there’s just so much I can’t discuss right now. I don’t want to jeopardize the case,” he said.
Yet he would say this: He has hope.
“I’m optimistic. Like I said, it is an active investigation. We do have leads,” Howe said. “I think that we’ve had periods where really nothing has happened or changed for months at a time, and I got concerned about that, but then we’ll have some new information or get a report back from another entity or lab that will get us moving again.”