LINCOLN — She was a young transplant from Iowa, trying to raise two children in an unfamiliar community in southern Missouri.
Then, she was gone.
Authorities have long suspected she was slain, but after 27 years they have not made an arrest. Eventually her name slipped into the cold case files, forgotten by all but a few investigators and the people who loved her.
One of those people would become the top elected official in Nebraska.
As Gov. Pete Ricketts made the death penalty a defining issue during his first year in office, every argument came down to his belief that capital punishment represents a just sanction for the most heinous killers, and that it’s a necessary tool for prosecutors. He never revealed in speeches or press interviews that his own first cousin had been slain. But he did discuss the matter in a meeting with death penalty opponents.
His cousin’s name was Ronna Anne Bremer. Her mother is the sister of the governor’s mother, Marlene Volkmer Ricketts.
Bremer had graduated from high school in the western Iowa community of Essex. By late 1988 she was 22 years old and married with two children, ages 3 and 1. She also was 7 months pregnant.
She and her family had recently moved from Iowa to Ozark, Missouri, a town of fewer than 15,000 people just south of Springfield. They lived in a trailer on the north edge of town.
Three days before Christmas 1988, she disappeared.
Law enforcement authorities initially had little to go on, so they worked it as a missing-person case. But they were deeply suspicious, said Lt. George Knowles with the Missouri Highway Patrol. Investigators developed nothing that would explain why she would suddenly leave without word.
“The fact that she left a couple of kids behind, and it was a few days before Christmas, that was very unusual,” Knowles said.
The investigation eventually stalled and she was officially declared dead by a judge in January 1997.
In 2001, sheriff’s investigators got a major break in the case, according to a report by the Christian County Headliner News, the paper that covers Ozark.
Working off a tip, authorities obtained a search warrant for a human skull that was in the possession of a forensic anthropologist in Colorado. Using dental records, an examiner back in Missouri confirmed the skull was Bremer’s.
In 1991, three years after Bremer disappeared, the skull had been anonymously mailed to the Sheriff’s Office in Greene County, which adjoins Christian County. The sheriff, in turn, sent the skull to Colorado State University, to a forensic facial reconstructionist who produced a clay sculpture of the victim’s facial features.
The clay face was broadcast nationwide but failed to produce any solid leads. It did not resemble Bremer.
In 2002, authorities said they were unsure if the skull had been compared with dental records of known missing people when it was mailed to the Sheriff’s Office. The press accounts also didn’t indicate why the skull had remained in Colorado for a decade.
“We have suspects in the case, and we believe it is a murder,” Christian County Sheriff Joey Matlock told the paper in 2002. “It’s a priority with us to run with this one.”
Still, no one was arrested.
About the same time the skeletal remains were being identified, Joel Bremer, the husband of the slain woman, began serving a seven-year prison term. He had pleaded guilty in mid-2001 to two counts of felony sexual abuse.
He did not return a message seeking comment last week.
He had filed for divorce in 1989, the year after his wife disappeared, according to the Springfield News-Leader. The divorce was granted in May 1990.
The paper reported that the two Bremer children were being raised by their maternal grandmother — Ricketts’ aunt.
Mary Ann Waller — Bremer’s mother, who now lives in Omaha — declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
When reached last week by phone, Deputy Ralph Phillips, chief investigator for the Christian County Sheriff’s Office, said he could not answer questions about the Bremer case.
“It’s an ongoing investigation, and it’s our policy not to disclose information on open cases,” he said. “I can’t disclose anything whatsoever.”
Lt. Knowles, with the Highway Patrol, said his agency assists the Sheriff’s Office in the investigation. He said it’s the patrol’s policy to review all open homicide cases on a quarterly basis.
“The only way to further an investigation when an investigation becomes stagnant is with new information,” Knowles said, urging anyone with potential tips to call the Sheriff’s Office at 417-581-2332.
Missouri is among the states that have the death penalty, but it’s unknown whether a prosecutor would seek a death sentence in the Bremer case.
Ricketts declined a request for an interview on the topic. However, his spokesman issued a statement Friday:
“The Ricketts family continues to grieve Ronna’s tragic death, and pray that the person who took her life will be brought to justice.”
The revelation that his cousin had been killed was made by the governor during one of the many behind-the-scenes death penalty debates at the State Capitol.
He had agreed to meet with several death penalty opponents in his office on April 7, even though he strongly disagreed with their position. They tried to talk him into supporting repeal legislation that was coming up for first-round debate in about a week.
Among those who met with the governor was Elle Hansen, a volunteer activist from Lincoln who lobbied hard for repeal. This despite, she said, having lost a niece and two close friends to murder.
The money spent on death penalty appeals, she added, could instead help those coping with tragedy and loss.
Then, Hansen said, she told the governor that if more could be spent on crime prevention, maybe he would never have to experience the pain of losing a loved one to murder.
Ricketts stopped her there.
He said his cousin had been murdered.
No minds were changed that day. The governor vetoed the repeal bill, and the Nebraska Legislature overrode his veto.
Hansen said she does not discount the governor’s experience. But she argued that Ricketts should have disclosed the Missouri incident. Hansen said she believes his family’s experience influenced his views on the death penalty.
In the wake of the repeal, the first-term governor has made it a priority to give voters the chance to preserve the death penalty at the ballot box. Ricketts, a former executive with TD Ameritrade, donated $200,000 to a pro-death penalty petition drive. His father, Joe Ricketts, gave $100,000.
Last month, petition organizers turned in 166,692 signatures. Enough had been verified by Friday to put the matter on the ballot — voters will decide the fate of Nebraska’s death penalty on Nov. 8, 2016 — but counting continues to determine whether the higher threshold has been met to suspend the repeal of the death penalty until the vote occurs.
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