Wisconsin's Unsolved Murders: Baby Nicole Hattamer

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There are dozens of unsolved murders in western Wisconsin dating back more than 60 years.

In 1989, 10-month-old Nicole Lee Hattamer was found outside the family home in the town of Holcombe in the middle of winter, face down and frozen.

It’s been a little more than 17 years since Nicole’s murder in Chippewa County, and prosecutors have yet to charge anyone with murder. The case outraged the public, especially when the details surrounding baby Nicole Hattamer's death came out. Now it seems, not many people want to talk about it.

She should have been celebrating a rite of passage, but Nicole Hattamer, who would have just turned 18, never had a birthday party, so the only place to bring a balloon is to her grave.

It was the night after Christmas, 1989, when the call came in. A baby girl was missing from her crib in her Holcombe home. The baby's teen mother, grandparents, and the mother's younger brother and sister were home at the time and said they couldn't find her.

Sometime after midnight, the people hoping to find a missing child made a gruesome discovery in the backyard instead.

“One of the firefighters who was conducting the search as part of the large group found the infant child and then hollered for us to come over,” says retired Chippewa Co. Sheriff Doug Ellis, who was also the lead investigator on the Hattamer case.

Ellis says he can't forget what he saw that night.
“An infant child face down in the snow,” he says.

They found baby Nicole about 25 yards from the house. Investigators say there is no way the little 10 month old could have gotten out on her own. An autopsy determined she died either from exposure or a chest injury.

“Whoever did this tossed the child from a location about here across the crick area and the baby hit the hard snow, hard pack snow, frozen ground, causing the internal bleeding,” says Tom Starr, who was the Chippewa County district attorney in 1990.

But it only got worse. Crime-scene photos revealed more about the last moments of baby Nicole’s life. She was clutching a single blade of grass in her tiny hand.

“That led me to believe that the child was alive when placed outside,” Ellis says.

When people learned someone had left baby Nicole outside to die, their reaction was predictable.

“I think shocked,” Ellis says. “Stunned that something like this could happen and disbelief that it did happen. We were initially led to believe that it was the father of the child and then the people in the residence were also suspects.”

However, Ellis says there wasn't enough evidence to charge anybody. During the investigation, Chippewa County held what is called a "John Doe" hearing in 1990 and reopened the hearing in 1998. At these secret, closed door proceedings, dozens of people testified, but prosecutors say it didn't lead anywhere.

Often, new DNA or forensic science technology opens up new leads in cold cases, but current Chippewa County Sheriff Jim Kowalczyk says they've gone through the evidence. At this point, he says they'll need someone to come forward with new information to crack the case.

“As most cases are solved after the fact, it's usually testimony- confession or information that would provide or that we'd need testimony to help out with that case,” Kowalczyk says.

He also says finding this 10-month-old's killer is a priority, but the department hasn't had active leads for years. Ellis says he's puzzled the Hattamer family has never contacted the Sheriff's Department to talk about the case or check on its progress.

Nearly two decades later, Ellis still thinks about picking up baby Nicole’s frozen body from the snow bank.

“On the job, you have to keep a stiff upper lip and be a 100 percent professional, but you do take something like this home with you,” Ellis says. “I still think about it. There's a picture you'll never get out of your mind...of that little baby.”

We went to Holcombe and no one we talked to would go on camera. People told us no one in town really talks about Nicole’s murder. Baby Nicole’s grandparents also declined an interview and we were unable to get a hold of baby Nicole’s mother.

Next week on Wisconsin’s Unsolved:

We’re looking at another unsolved murder from 1989. 9-year old Jennifer Wesho was murdered on the Sand Pillow reservation in Jackson County. The state dropped murder charges against one of Jennifer's distant relatives and has never solved the crime. Wisconsin’s Unsolved: Jennifer Wesho is scheduled to air Feb. 13 at 10 p.m.