The investigation into the disappearance of Jill Cutshall was the most extensive ever undertaken by the Norfolk Police Division.
Nothing comes close to the amount of time and effort involved in the case, said Police Chief Bill Mizner.
The Madison County sheriff’s office, Nebraska State Patrol and FBI joined in right away. There were about 30 investigators working on the case from the start.
But there were significant investigative issues from the beginning all the way through the finish of the case that made it especially difficult to solve, said Steve Hecker, an investigator on the case 25 years ago. He has retired from the Norfolk Police Division.
For starters, there’s the lag time from the time Cutshall disappeared until the time she was reported missing. Jill was last seen on the steps of her babysitter’s house around 6:30 a.m. on Aug. 13, 1987. She wasn’t discovered missing until late afternoon when her stepmother, Sheila, came to pick her up.
She was officially reported missing to the police by 6 p.m.
By late that night and into the next morning, investigators started to suspect foul play.
“Nine-year-olds don’t stay out that late,” said Hecker, adding that Jill wasn’t thought to have run away and she wasn’t at a friend’s home.
But there was no real crime scene. A search of the city yielded no clues.
Three months later, Jill’s clothing was found in the Wood Duck Wildlife Area, 12 miles southeast of Norfolk.
“We really had a feeling that we would find her in this area,” Hecker said. “And then when we didn’t and we spent a bunch of days out there and we didn’t, there’s a bunch of pressure as to now what?”
Besides the clothing, no other evidence was found. Lab reports on the clothing also yielded no additional leads.
“You know, boy, within a couple days, you’re going to struggle with this because you’re not going to have any direct evidence that’s going to take you anyplace,” Hecker said.
No body. No weapon. No witnesses.
There were plenty of leads, though. Investigators had a massive amount of information coming in — some even from other states. Plus, they were doing their own leg work on the case.
The work led them to talking to hundreds of people — some of them several times\!q — without getting any closer to finding out what happened to Jill, Hecker said.
Over time — into 1988 — the number of investigators dwindled to only four. Out of that working group, no one had any idea who may have been involved with Jill’s disappearance.
Early that year, Hecker was assigned to re-interview Kermit Baumgartner. He lived in the same apartment building as the Cutshalls at the time of her disappearance. And investigators had received tips that Baumgartner could’ve been involved.
He had already been interviewed three times.
But Hecker spent another 45 minutes interviewing Baumgartner, taking a more accusatory tone than in previous interviews.
However, there was nothing in the interview that caused Hecker to think he had been involved — that is, until Baumgartner’s employer later told Hecker that, after the interview, Baumgartner never came back to work.
“It was obviously interesting post-interview behavior,” Hecker said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.”
But by that time, police couldn’t locate Baumgartner.
A few months later, Hecker spotted Baumgartner’s car in Norfolk and saw him standing on the porch of a house with a woman and man.
“I have no idea what I’m going to do other than I need to talk to him,” Hecker said he recalls thinking.
But instead of calling Baumgartner out, he focused on the other man on the porch. He told the man, “I need you to come talk to me now.”
After some expletives were exchanged, the man came to the police station and talked to Hecker.
Hecker started with, “So, you know why I want to talk to you?”
And the man said, “Because I used to live at McNeely Apartments and I know Roger and Sheila Cutshall.”
That was the name of the apartments where Jill lived with her father and stepmother. The man just connected himself to the case on his own.
Hecker said he didn’t know who the man was at the time but quickly learned his name: David Phelps.
Hecker went back to the file and found that Phelps’ name was given to police early on, however, investigators were unable to locate him. He also learned the Cutshalls knew Phelps — but by a different name.
Baumgartner fell to the wayside as a suspect because he had an alibi of hand-written work time sheets for the time of Cutshall’s disappearance.
But police never had the evidence to arrest Phelps outright. Instead, he was indicted by a grand jury that stemmed from a petition circulated by Jill’s mother, Joyce.
After the indictment, Hecker arrested Phelps in Perry, Iowa.
“I didn’t get to sit with him alone,” Hecker said. “I would’ve liked to have been able to. . . . It’s more difficult to get confessions when you have a lot of people in the room.”
Phelps was convicted at trial and is serving a life sentence for Cutshall’s kidnapping.
Even with that, investigators are still left with questions. What happened to Jill? Where is she?
“You never say never,” Bill Mizner said. “I won’t say it will never, ever be known what happened. It’s still within the realm of possibility. . . . Only time will tell.”
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Coming tomorrow: David Phelps continues to maintain his innocence while serving a life sentence in prison.