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With kidnapper behind bars, South Dakota family still seeking answers in Pamela Dunn's disappearance

When a person goes missing, law enforcement is often stuck in a problematic position. Without a body, it can be difficult to prove a crime existed. That means justice, however obvious it may seem, is often not achieved. For the 2001 missing persons case of Pamela Dunn, that’s not exactly the story.

Pamela Dunn missing
Pamela Dunn was 38 years old when she went missing from Watertown, South Dakota. Dunn was last seen on Dec. 9, 2001. Her ex-boyfriend, Dave Asmussen, is serving a life sentence for her kidnapping.
Photo courtesy of In Memory of Pamela Dunn.
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This is part 1 of a two-part series of articles on this case. To read part 2, go here .

WATERTOWN, S.D. — When a person goes missing, law enforcement is often stuck in a problematic position. Without a body, it can be difficult to prove a crime existed. That means justice, however obvious it may seem, is often not achieved.

For the 2001 missing persons case of Pamela Dunn, that’s not exactly the story.

While Dunn has not been located, her ex-boyfriend, Dave Asmussen, is serving a life sentence for a 2006 conviction related to her kidnapping. That sentencing came on the heels of a stalking conviction, which landed him in prison in 2004 for 40 months.

While it’s not the slam dunk investigators are content with, it’s the successful execution of a strategy intended to keep their main suspect behind bars while continuing to collect evidence related to the disappearance of Dunn.

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And, that’s exactly what they’re doing.

“We’re still investigating any tips that come in, and people are still calling in with tips,” Watertown Police Captain Chad Stahl told Forum News Service. “It’s definitely our goal to find her and get resolution for her family.”

What happened to Dunn?

When 38-year-old Dunn failed to show up for her shift the morning of Dec. 10, 2001, her co-workers knew something was amiss.

Concerned, a colleague drove to Dunn’s apartment to check in. There, she discovered Dunn’s vehicle in the parking lot. As she approached Dunn’s door, she was greeted by the sound of a television, seemingly turned up to maximum volume.

The Watertown Police Department was notified, prompting a welfare check at Dunn’s apartment. Gaining access through a maintenance worker, law enforcement officers searched the residence.

Inside the apartment, officers noticed signs of aggression. The phone cord had been forcibly ripped from the wall, made evident by damage inflicted to the cord connector. While the phone was intact, a caller ID box had been taken from the scene, according to the affidavit in support of application for arrest.

Dunn’s keys, cash, checkbook, prescription medication and winter coat were left behind. In her room, law enforcement officers also discovered her dog. The only belonging that appeared to be missing was a ring that once represented her short-lived engagement to ex-boyfriend, Dave Asmussen.

Dave Asmussen kidnapping
Dave Asmussen was convicted in 2006 for kidnapping Pamela Dunn, who was last seen Dec. 9, 2001. He is serving a life sentence.
Photo courtesy of The Charley Project.

In the bathroom, officers discovered a raised toilet seat, indicating the presence of a man. A garbage can near the toilet was empty, with the exception of one toothpick. As it turned out, toothpicks were Dave Asmussen’s signature.

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“He was a toothpick chewer,” Vincent Foley, former Codington County state attorney, said. “He always had a toothpick in his mouth.”

There was something else about the scene at the apartment that raised suspicion for law enforcement: Despite Dunn’s keys sitting on the counter top, the door to her apartment had been bolted shut. That means someone had to use a key to lock the door on their way out — and the only other person with a key to Dunn’s apartment was Dave Asmussen.

Inconsistencies in Dave Asmussen’s story

With Dunn missing, law enforcement honed in on one man: Dave Asmussen.

Their case advanced when he showed up at the Watertown Police Department the day of Dunn’s disappearance. There, he emphatically — and without prompting — denied having anything to do with Dunn’s case.

What stood out to investigators was his lack of concern for Dunn herself.

“You’d think that a guy whose love of his life has gone missing, that he’d be worried about finding her. He was worried about defending himself,” Foley said. “He was worried about making excuses. He was worried about everything except finding Pam.”

Pamela Dunn missing
Pamela Dunn, pictured as a teenager, was last seen in Watertown, South Dakota on Dec. 9, 2001. She was 38 years old.
Photo courtesy of In Memory of Pamela Dunn.

In addition to bizarre behavior, Dave Asmussen also delved into a story of inconsistencies.

After initially denying he had been at Dunn’s apartment the night prior, Dave Asmussen told officers that he had visited Dunn from around 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 9, 2001, according to court documents. Dave Asmussen claimed Dunn told him she no longer wanted to see him, prompting a disagreement before making up.
He told officers that, after leaving in his gray Buick, he spent the night at his trailer in Bemis, located roughly twenty minutes outside of Watertown. He claimed he woke up early and drove to Sioux Falls to check out a vintage car for sale. Then, he said, he returned to the Clear Lake area to meet with his brother, Rick Asmussen, before hitting the road on business.

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Pamela Dunn Missing
While her ex-boyfriend is serving a life sentence for her kidnapping, Pamela Dunn remains missing.
Photo courtesy of the Watertown Police Department.

When investigators interviewed Rick Asmussen, he said his brother had gone the morning of Dec. 10, 2001 to look for vehicles in Brookings, a town one hour north of Sioux Falls.

A blue Chevy, a gray Buick and a red Geo Metro

There were other inconsistencies in Dave Asmussen’s story that investigators discovered — and they all related to the vehicles he was driving around the time Dunn went missing.

Rick Asmussen told investigators his brother was driving a red Geo Metro when he arrived at his home on Dec. 10, 2001. When confronted by law enforcement, Dave Asmussen claimed he drove his Buick to Sioux Falls before returning to Bemis and swapping the Buick for the red Geo Metro. After visiting his brother in the Geo Metro, Dave Asmussen claims he returned home, before taking off for work in his Buick.

The Geo Metro, owned by Steve Berndt, an associate of Dave Asmussen, had been spotted Dec. 10, 2001 at a Super 8 Motel in Watertown — a twenty minute drive from Dave Asmussen’s home in Bemis, where he claimed to have parked it for the day, according to court documents.

Investigators later discovered that Dave Asmussen had picked up yet another vehicle from a friend — a blue Chevy Cavalier — the evening of Dec. 9, 2001. The residence from which Dave Asmussen retrieved the car was located a short distance from the Super 8 Motel, according to court documents.

The owner of the blue Chevy Cavalier told investigators Dave Asmussen claimed to have sold the vehicle.

It doesn't stop there.

Berndt told investigators that on the morning of Dec. 10, 2001, Dave Asmussen arrived at his shop in Brandt, located roughly an hour and a half north of Sioux Falls, driving a blue Chevy Cavalier. In prior interviews with law enforcement, Dave Asmussen claimed he drove his Buick to Sioux Falls the morning of Dec. 10, 2001.

Berndt claimed Dave Asmussen requested that he store the vehicle at his shop. Together, the two removed the license plate, according to court documents. After that, Dave Asmussen took off in the red Geo Metro.

Later that day, Berndt called Dave Asmussen to let him know law enforcement had called looking for Dunn, claiming she had gone missing. Later, Dave Asmussen told him he could recover his red Geo Metro at the Super 8 Motel.

As for the blue Chevy Cavalier, it was sold before law enforcement had a chance to first inspect it. The vehicle was searched after the sale, and law enforcement did find hair consistent with Dunn's color and length. However, DNA testing was unable to determine they belonged to Dunn, according to court documents.

Dave Asmussen’s blatant inconsistencies related to the three vehicles he was known to have operated between Dec. 9 and 10 raised the question for investigators: Why had Dave Asmussen gone to such great lengths to obtain a vehicle that could not be linked to him? And, why did he obtain that vehicle on the evening of Dec. 9, 2001, the last night Dunn had been seen or heard from? And, why did he lie?

Those questions, along with Dave Asmussen's history of domestic abuse against Dunn, were enough to lead investigators and prosecutors down a strategic path intended to put him behind bars while they gathered additional evidence to keep him there.

In the next layer of their investigation, voicemails retrieved from Dunn's answering service revealed an angry Dave Asmussen who nearly gave himself away through audio recordings.

Read part 2 of this series for an in-depth look into how investigators continue moving closer to justice for Dunn and her family.

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Trisha Taurinskas is an enterprise crime reporter for Forum Communications Co., specializing in stories related to missing persons and unsolved crime. Her work is primarily featured on The Vault.

Trisha can be reached at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.
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