A look inside the investigation seeking to bring justice in the 31-year-old cold case disappearance of an Eldon teen
The case of Tammy Rothganger has haunted the town of Eldon since the 15-year old high school student disappeared while walking to school on May 16, 1984, just blocks away from her home.
“It’s an absolute tragedy that this 15-year old girl faced,” Brian Kidwell said, whose been the main investigator on the case for the Eldon Police Department since October, 2008, and who has two daughters of his own. “She deserves justice, she deserves a Christian burial.”
For three decades, law enforcement officers with the Eldon Police Department, Missouri State Highway Patrol’s Drug and Crime and Violent Crime Divisions, Camden and Miller County Sheriff Departments, and the FBI have worked on solving the cold case.
These efforts have taken Kidwell across the United States on more than 20 trips to interview witnesses and follow up on leads. The MSHP was instrumental in coordinating travel, while the City of Eldon provided every available resource without asking questions, and a majority of the interviews were conducted in FBI offices around the country.
“TR was a juvenile victim who absolutely deserved all of the attention we could give her for as long as it took to solve the case,” Kidwell said in an exclusive interview with the Eldon Advertiser and Lake Sun.
Rothganger's family has also never given up. Their search for answers and justice has continued since her disappearance.
Kidwell first learned of the case when Detective Jim Mays of the Eldon Police Department retired in 2008. Mays and Police Chief Rodney Fair recruited to take over the investigation and join the Deparment. Prior to being with Eldon, Mays had spent close to 40 years with the MSHP as an investigator and Kidwell had worked for Miller County from 1999 to 2007.
Taking on a decades old case is a daunting task, riddled with challenges and requires a commitment on behalf of the investigators who are willing to spend hours sorting through leads and potential evidence. To finally bring a case forward for charges was rewarding but, according to those who worked the case, it was their responsibility to make sure justice was done for the victim.
“I think because it was a pretty, young girl and you know it shouldn’t have happened to her,” Mays said. “You never give up on a case, you come up with answers.”
Kidwell said he had heard of Rothganger, but had no knowledge of the details or specifics until Fair dropped off the “murder book” on Kidwell’s desk which detailed the case. Kidwell then began talking regularly with Mays about the investigation.
“Rodney (Fair) started sending me to classes for investigations and during the class I would read the reports,” Kidwell said. “I found some things in the report I could follow up on.”
“When the case was assigned to me, one of the factors in the case was the other passenger in the car and it was clear who the suspect was, all other possibilities had been eliminated at this point,” Kidwell recalled. “We began to pursue the passenger in the car. Me and Jimmy went to his location and spoke with him. In the beginning, he was less than cooperative, over the years he became more cooperative. He reached out and made contact, he called us. At that point, we interviewed him and received his disclosure found in the probable cause statement.”
Kidwell said he and Mays conducted numerous polygraph tests and interviews to rule out other suspects and zeroed in on Priest. The witnesses were not offered any sort of immunity or deal for cooperating.
When Ben Winfrey won the election for Miller County Prosecutor in January, 2015, one of the first things he did was meet with Kidwell, at the request of Kidwell, to discuss the case and possible options moving forward.
“We sat down for four or five hours and just went through everything with him,” Kidwell said. “Throughout the year we talked about once every two weeks about this and what we both felt needed to be done. It just reached a point where I was done with the investigation, there was nowhere else go.”
Kidwell said he, Winfrey and other investigators went to Kansas last month to interview witnesses and make sure they were willing to cooperate before filing the Capital Murder charge against Priest. Winfrey paid his own gas, hotel and drove his own car to take part in the meetings.
It’s important to note that everything in this case has to be treated like it’s 1984. That’s why the capital murder charge was filed and the names of juveniles protected under state statute.
“You work all this stuff, you see all these child molestations, you see all these rapes, you see all these assaults,” Kidwell said. “Each of these cases is absolutely earth-shattering for the person who gives it to the law enforcement officer. The law enforcement officer should be absolutely attentive to that, no matter what.”
A girlfriend reported the last time she had seen Rothganger was at approximately 7:45 am on the morning of May 16, 1984, she was getting in a car with an unidentified man and her mother's live-in boyfriend, Martin D. Priest, a man known to have a violent background and most recently released from prison after serving two and a half years of a 25-year sentence for a murder conviction of a 12-year old girl from Nevada, Mo. that was overturned following an appeal.
Unexpectedly last week, Priest, who is already serving life in prison in Kansas for a separate murder, was charged with her murder by Miller County Prosecuting Attorney Ben Winfrey. He is charged with capital murder for willfully, knowingly and with premeditation, deliberately killing the young girl from Eldon. Priest allegedly struck Rothganger with a wrench to knock her unconscious, raped and strangled her and then later disposed of the body, according to a witness who was seen in the car with the two.
Rothganger’s mother reported her missing the same day she was last seen. Initially the Eldon Police Department thought she might have skipped school and gone to a park to hang out with friends. Priest was questioned in the early stages of the investigation, and he denied any involvement in her disappearance.
“All of these witnesses that we’ve tracked down, they’ve victims too,” Kidwell said. “They’re not with TR. They’re not able to talk to her. She’s not in their lives. She’s a huge missing piece that was very important to these people.”
Investigators have interviewed Priest a number of times over the years. There have been a number of searches for her remains, but Rothganger’s remains have not yet been recovered. Priest has remained silent about Rothganger's murder.
Without a body, the prosecutor cited a records search conducted through the Social Security Administration and Department of Revenue which show Rothganger did not get a motor vehicle operator’s license, receive benefits or use her social security number and has never been employed since May 16, 1984.
“As a police officer you don’t deal with people in their best hours. They called you because they need help. She didn’t have that option,” Kidwell said. “She didn’t have the option to complain about this. She didn’t have the option to call 911. She had the most atrocious thing happen to her that could happen to any human being on this planet and she was never able to tell a soul.”