Cold Case solved: '80 murder of Danville woman

Cold Case solved: '80 murder of Danville woman

DANVILLE — On March 26, 1980, a young Danville woman named Virginia Sue Nipper failed to show up to work.

Around 4 p.m., her husband Paul, along with his mother, went to the couple's home at 404 Sager St. They found her car running in the driveway and her 15-month-old son in his stroller inside the home, bundled up to go outside and unharmed.

They soon discovered her body in her home. She had been assaulted and strangled.

The murder of Mrs. Nipper, who was only 18, became the police department's top priority. But, the case eventually went cold.

Now more than 38 years later, police said they've finally solved the crime through DNA evidence.

On Wednesday, Danville Public Safety Director Larry Thomason announced that testing of DNA evidence recovered from the murder scene matches one person —  James R. Lyons.

Lyons – of Pinellas County, Fla, and formerly of Danville – died in 2003.

In a news release, Thomason, who investigated the case years ago, said Lyons was an early suspect. However, there wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge him at the time.

Then in 2015, Detective Phil Wilson resubmitted evidence to the Illinois State Police crime lab for DNA processing.

“In the (1980s), the lab could only rely on ABO blood grouping, but that changed in the (1990s) with the ability to test DNA. With the refinement of the DNA process, (a) forensic scientist revisited the evidence,” Thomason said, adding the results came back on July 13.

He added that the DNA profiles on four pieces of evidence matched Lyons. One piece provided the odds at one in 27 million, another one in 3.6 million, another one in 310,000 and another piece, one in 96 trillion.

“When Detective Wilson called me with the news on a 38-year-old case, I was ecstatic,” continued Thomason, who said he can’t praise the ISP lab enough, especially forensic scientist Amanda Humke. “If Mr. Lyons was alive today, we would have gone forward with asking for charges against him.”

In the news release, State’s Attorney Jacqueline Lacy also applauded the work of police investigators and the crime lab.

Known as Sue, Mrs. Nipper was the youngest child of James and Marilyn Hughes Hecker and grew up in the Bismarck area. Older sister Bess Huls still recalls how excited she and her siblings – Kathy and Jim – were when their parents brought her home from the hospital.

“She was always happy,” Huls recalled of her baby sister, who had curly blonde hair and freckles on her nose. “She always woke up with a smile, and we called her Susie Sunshine. She was very sweet and very tenderhearted.”

Sue loved music and played the flute, Huls said. She was very artistic and created beautiful sand sculptures.

She was a gifted student and active in the speech and drama club and Students for Education at Bismarck High School, from which she graduated.

Mrs. Nipper married her husband in June 1978. Their son Danny came along in December, an early Christmas present.

“She loved being a mom, and she was a natural,” Huls said.

At the time of her death, Mrs. Nipper worked at the Machinists’ Local No. 172 office and was a part-time student at Danville Area Community College.

According to a story that ran in The News-Gazette, Alfred Bott – then the union’s business manager and her boss – became concerned when she didn’t come in to work that Wednesday in March. He said several typing assignments he’d left for her were still on her desk.

Later that day, Huls was home when the phone rang. It was her dad: Susie’s been murdered, she remembers him saying.

Huls called her husband, Ron. Her brother Jim came home from the navy.

Family members – devastated, heartbroken and still in shock – wondered how could this have happened, who could have done this and why?

“We hoped and we prayed they’d find the person who could have done such a terrible thing and that it would be solved right away,” Huls said.

Thomason said police interviewed many people during the first few weeks of the investigation, “but nothing solid developed, pointing to one suspect.”

Then that November, a woman named Christina Pesek, then 30, called. In an interview with Thomason and Investigator Bob Rouse, now retired, she reported being attacked early morning on Nov. 2, 1980 by  Lyons.

Thomason said Pesek was Mrs. Nipper’s sister-in-law, and she and the Nipper family were “well-acquainted” with her assailant.

The next day, then-State’s Attorney Tom Fahey charged Lyons with one count of unlawful restraint, one count of burglary and two counts of battery in Pesek’s attack, Thomason said. On Oct. 23, 1981, Lyons was sentenced to 30 months probation for unlawful restraint.

Because of similarities in the women’s cases, Thomason said investigators looked into whether Lyons was involved in Mrs. Nipper’s murder.

“Evidence was submitted with necessary comparisons,” he said. “But there were no matches found (that were) sufficient to go forward.”

Huls said they continued to wait, but the weeks turned into months, then years.

While Mrs. Nipper and the investigation were always on their mind, life went on.

Paul married a woman named Karen Sexton, and they had two sons – Ryan and Troy.

“I call them my nephews,” Huls said. “And Karen is (Danny’s) mom. She’s always been there for him, and we’re very grateful for that. We love all of them.”

Huls and her husband had two children – Jennifer Heidrick, who was born on Danny’s sixth birthday, and Adam. Her brother Jim had a son, James.

Danny grew up and had three children – Kayln, now 20; Nathan, 16; and Addisyn, who turns seven in August.

Every now and then, police would contact a family member, saying they had a new lead, Huls said. One came exactly a year after her sister’s death.

“My parents received a letter in the mail,” she recalled. “It was from someone who called in and gave a tip. The police checked it out and said it was a dead end. The leads always came to a dead end."

The last one came about five years ago, and the suspect was Lyons. Huls had a glimmer of hope he would finally be brought to justice, but she’d been through this before.

“You get your hopes up and then …,” she said, her voice trailing off.

Then late afternoon on July 13,  Huls got a call from Paul. She noted it was Friday the 13th.

“He said, ‘Are you sitting down?’ said Huls, who couldn’t take any more bad news. Her parents had passed away years ago, both of her siblings within months of each other about six years ago, and she lost her husband of 43 years in June.

“But (Paul) said police officers came to his home and said it had been solved,” she continued. “I wasn’t expecting it at all.”

Huls felt frustrated that her sister’s murder had taken so long to be solved and that Lyons died before he could be brought to justice. But, she was relieved the waiting was over – not only for her, but for Paul, Danny and their extended family.

“It’s bittersweet. It’s good news, but it doesn’t erase what happened and all the years of wondering,” said Huls, who wishes she could have shared the news with her parents, siblings and Ron.

“He would’ve been glad,” she said of her husband, who continued to dog investigators over the years. “He was very persistent and would not let something die. He kept calling and asking and reminding them. If there was someone new that came along (in the department), he would ask him about it. He just cared so much. I was very proud of him and so grateful for his efforts.”

Huls said she bears no hatred or bitterness toward Lyons.

“It’s just sad that someone would want to hurt someone that you love. I used to feel more rage. That has eased over time. I mostly feel heartbroken and sad. He’s been free all these years to live his life, and she was not able to do that, and that’s not fair.

“The saddest part is he robbed Danny of ever knowing that bond with his mother. He robbed her of seeing her son grow up and seeing her grandchildren,” she continued, adding "what a wonderful family they have become.”

Huls said her sister’s remaining loved ones want to make sure people never forget her or the tragedy that befell her.

“She had such a sweet nature. She loved her family and her family loved her and still loves her.”

Huls sees her sister in family members. Danny and her daughter, Jennifer, have her sweet nature.

Jennifer, an art teacher at Armstrong High School, and Danny’s daughters share her love of art. And Adam and Nathan share her love of music.

“If there is a message to convey, (it’s) I definitely believe there are more good people than bad. You do your best to love your family and God with all of your heart.”

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