In November 1998 Evan Zimmerman began dating Kathleen Thompson in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, but they broke up in May 1999.
Not quite a year later, on February 25, 2000, Thompson married Robert Miles, though the marriage got off to a shaky start—they were seen fighting at the wedding reception. That night, both Miles and Thompson were taken to jail following a domestic dispute.
At 3 a.m. on February 26, Thompson was released while her husband was remained in custody on a probation hold. Thompson refused an offer of a ride home from a police officer and set out on foot to her residence, just a few blocks away.
At 5:45 a.m., her body was found on a curb on Laurel Street. She had been strangled.
Police found Zimmerman on the afternoon of the morning the body was found. He was drinking in a VFW bar and was very intoxicated.
A prosecution witness testified that Zimmerman told him that Thompson had been murdered and “they found her up on Margaret Street, gutted like a fish.”
Police contended that even though some of the details were wrong (the street was Laurel and she had not been gutted), he knew these things because he was the killer. Zimmerman contended he had heard that information when he got up that morning and went to a gas station to buy cigarettes.
Zimmerman contended he had been at the VFW on the night of the murder—which was confirmed by witnesses—and then went to try to stay at the home of a friend, Diane Steinke, but went home instead when she did not answer his knock.
Steinke told police that Zimmerman had spent the night at her home—a conflict that aroused police suspicion.
In April 2000, while the case was still under investigation, police conducted a traffic survey near where Thompson’s body was found, asking motorists if they had been in the area on the morning the body was found.
One motorist, Brice Rene said he had been there and noticed a white van with a sleeping or passed out female passenger around 5:30 a.m. while going to work. Rene said Zimmerman’s van, a white Dodge with wood paneling, looked like the van he saw, but he was not sure.
Police had Rene hypnotized. During the session, Rene said the woman had a medium build, was in her late thirties and had shoulder-length brunette hair—qualities that fit Thompson.
Zimmerman was interviewed on several occasions—some of these interviews occurring when he was drunk, he later claimed. In August 2000, police told him a witness had seen a woman with her eyes closed in a white van near the area where Thompson was found. An officer would later testify that Zimmerman replied “Nobody saw us,” although on cross-examination, he conceded that Zimmerman actually said, “nobody saw us because we weren’t together.”
The state found witnesses who said that after Zimmerman and Thompson broke up, Zimmerman continued to be obsessed with her, appearing at taverns and other places where she was, even showing up in her kitchen once in the middle of the night.
One witness said he heard Zimmerman say that he wanted to kill Thompson, cut out her genitals and take them home to have sex whenever he felt like it.
On February 5, 2001, Zimmerman, 53, was charged with her murder. He went on trial in Dodge County Circuit Court in May 2001.
The prosecution’s case was largely circumstantial and focused on alleged incriminating and conflicting statements Zimmerman made during the lengthy investigation of the murder.
The prosecution contended that Zimmerman finally snapped in anger over Thompson’s marriage and killed her.
A medical examiner said Thompson died of ligature strangulation and that a telephone cord found in Zimmerman’s van may have been used. He also testified that Thompson’s nasal secretions had dried in a way to suggest she had been sitting up, rather than lying down, which was consistent with her sitting in the passenger seat of Zimmerman’s van.
The prosecution presented a hair identified as Thompson’s found on a brush in Zimmerman’s van.
The defense presented evidence that Zimmerman was “over” his relationship with Thompson. A man whom Thompson dated between Zimmerman and her husband, Robert Miles, said that Zimmerman was not angry when he learned of the relationship and told him to treat Thompson well. Two other witnesses testified that Zimmerman wished Thompson well when he learned she was getting married.
Zimmerman was convicted on May 17, 2001. He was sentenced to life in prison.
The Wisconsin Innocence Project took up Zimmerman's appeal and on August 12, 2003, the Wisconsin Court of Appeals reversed the conviction, finding that Zimmerman’s trial lawyer was inadequate.
The court found that the lawyer had failed to introduce the results of DNA testing of evidence found and near Thompson, including hair and cigarette butts. The tests of some items excluded Zimmerman and the tests of others excluded not only Zimmerman, but also Thompson and Robert Miles, her new husband.
Further, the lawyer had failed to present evidence that even though police recovered a substantial amount of dog hair from the van (Zimmerman owned a dog), no dog hair was found on Thompson. In addition, the jury never learned that Thompson’s sweater was covered with hair from her cat, but no cat hair was found in Zimmerman’s van.
The lawyer failed to inform the jury that DNA tests on the telephone cord were negative for the presence of DNA and that carpet fibers found on Thompson’s shoes could not be matched to any source.
The court also noted that after the conviction, another medical expert determined that the telephone cord could not have been the murder weapon because the mark left on Thompson’s neck was a wide, webbed, fabric-like pattern and contained a buckle mark.
On June 30, 2004, Zimmerman was released on bond pending a retrial.
Still represented by the Wisconsin Innocence Project, Zimmerman went on trial in April 2005, but on April 29, after five days of testimony, Eau Clair County District Attorney Rich White asked that the case be dismissed because he did not have sufficient evidence to secure a conviction.
Zimmerman, who had suffered a stroke while in prison, died of cancer on July 1, 2007. A civil wrongful conviction lawsuit brought against Eau Claire County was dismissed at the request of his family.
– Maurice Possley