A New Friendship Spurs Darlene VanderGiesen’s Murder
(‘Hear No Evil,’ Forensic Files)
Daphne Wright didn’t contribute a whole lot to her community, but no one foresaw how much she would take away from it.
The Sioux Falls, South Dakota resident thought that her on-again off-again girlfriend was spending too much time with a factory worker named Darlene VanderGiesen, so she decided to eliminate the competition.
All three of the women were deaf and two of them were gay, so the novelty of the story captured many headlines. And the gory manner of death sparked debate over whether Daphne should become the first woman in South Dakota history to receive the death penalty.
For this post, I searched for more biographical information about Darlene and her killer and checked on whether she’s (fingers crossed) still in prison.
So let’s get going on the recap of “Hear No Evil” along with extra information from internet research.
Darlene VanderGiesen was born deaf. She graduated from the Iowa School for the Deaf and attended junior college before moving to South Dakota.
She worked in the shipping department at JDS Industries Inc., a company that makes sports trophies and promotional items in Sioux Falls, a town known for its large community of people with hearing impairments.
An employee for 13 years, Darlene loved her job and enjoyed camping, softball, going to the Deaf Club and collecting Beanie Babies in her spare time, according to her obituary.
On February 3, 2006, Darlene’s parents received word that their daughter hadn’t shown up for her job for two days in a row. Gene and Dee VanderGiesen left a family reunion in Nebraska and headed back to Sioux Falls to look for her.
They were particularly concerned because Darlene had started using online dating websites. According to Deadly Affairs, Darlene had no shortage of friends in Sioux Falls, but she wanted to find a serious relationship.
“Oh, Darlene, be so careful,” Dee recalled telling Darlene. “There are so many, excuse the expression, ‘weirdoes’ out there.”
(“When a mom excuses herself for using the term ‘weirdoes,’ you have no doubt she raised her daughter to be a good person,” one commenter said on YouTube.)
At Darlene’s apartment in the Timberland Village complex, her parents found her cell phone lying on a table. Normally, she took it everywhere for texting. The VanderGiesens didn’t see her truck in the parking lot, and her cats looked hungry, according to “Playing With Hearts,” an episode of Deadly Affairs.
Still, the VanderGiesens had no reason to believe someone wanted to harm their daughter.
“She has no enemies,” Darlene’s friend Cheryl Brimmer later told the Argus Leader. “Why anyone would want to kill her is beyond me. I never saw her mad or upset or anything negative about her.”
Many of Darlene’s friends gathered at the VanderGiesens’ home to offer moral support. Daphne Wright, an acquaintance Darlene met at a Deaf Club, showed up, too. “She gave me a hug and she said she was sorry that Darlene was missing, that they were friends, and she would be praying that we would find Darlene soon,” said Dee VanderGiesen, as reported by the Argus Leader. “And I thanked her for coming.”
Police got what looked like a promising lead in a man Forensic Files calls Jeff Flynn — a local field hand Darlene had recently dated. He seemed nervous during questioning and investigators found dried blood in the back of his car.
But testing proved the blood came from a deer, and Jeff could prove he had been out of town when the murder happened.
Darlene’s car soon turned up abandoned in a Pizza Hut parking lot on 26th Street and Sycamore Avenue, but police found nothing out of order inside. No one had used Darlene’s bank cards.
Meanwhile, her sister found emails on Darlene’s account from someone named Wendy Smith who declared her hatred of Darlene. “Wendy” called Darlene fat and said she had elephant feet. In other emails, the writer identified herself as the lover of Sallie Collins (Forensic Files uses the pseudonym “Sally Ford”).”You always visit Sallie when [I] am not here,” the message said. “Enough please.”
Police spoke to Daphne Wright, who said that she and Darlene were friends and they liked each other. But soon enough, Daphne cracked and admitted she had created the email account in the name Wendy Smith and sent the disturbing emails to Darlene. At first, she denied meeting her at the Pizza Hut, but later acknowledged that she did.
And news of a dramatic incident involving Daphne came to light. A few days before she died, Darlene had gone out to dinner with Sallie Collins.
Daphne showed up and confronted Darlene and Sallie with accusations and got so out of hand that the police were called to escort Daphne off the premises. (Forensic Files says the outburst happened at a restaurant, but a newspaper account gave Sallie Collins’ house as the venue.)
Darlene later said that she made peace with Daphne. Darlene and Sallie Collins were just friends. Darlene wasn’t gay. But, in reality, Daphne still harbored suspicions. According to her mother, Daphne had some boyfriends in her youth before coming to terms with her gayness. Maybe Daphne thought Darlene would do the same—and then steal Sallie.
A look at her background showed that Daphne did have some understandable anxiety over abandonment. As a child, Daphne — who lost her hearing to rubella at the age of 10 months — faced rejection from other kids and even some members of her extended family. Daphne’s parents had to leave her at a school for the deaf 125 miles away from their home in North Carolina.
Her father died when she was a teenager.
As far as Daphne’s intellect, opinions vary widely. According to her mother, Daphne did well in athletics but had trouble reading in school. One mental health professional described her as “mildly retarded.” Another assessment placed her nonverbal IQ at 114 to 117, a higher-than-average score.
Snapped described Daphne as working in a series of low-paying jobs. She reportedly received Social Security. Daphne’s roommate, Jacki Chesmore, would later say that Daphne spent most of her time sleeping and playing video games.
Fortunately for police, Daphne didn’t channel much energy or intelligence into her murder plan. She left forensic evidence scattered in a 20-mile area starting in South Dakota and ending Minnesota.
When police searched Daphne’s apartment at 1806 S. Phillips Ave., they smelled chemicals and found a receipt for a chainsaw from Ace Hardware. Her basement floor had random spots painted blue, and a storage room had a freshly painted floor in the same blue color. Investigators found some human tissue and bone pieces there.
Their DNA matched Darlene’s and so did blood found beneath the blue paint.
A hardware store employee remembered selling a deaf customer a chainsaw. She had handed the worker a note that said “tree cutting machine” and then bought the cheapest model available, a 1.5-horsepower that cost $60.
With the preliminary forensic evidence unmistakably grim, Darlene’s family went ahead and held a memorial service for her.
Shortly after, there was gruesome confirmation of Darlene’s fate. At a landfill, investigators found the pelvis, thighs, feet, and lower legs of an adult female along with a sweatshirt printed with sign language. It had Darlene’s bloodstains on it.
Just across the South Dakota border near Hills, Minnesota, a county snowplow driver named Keith Schmuck discovered a female upper torso and severed head wrapped up in a plastic bag in a ditch near Interstate 90. A drawstring was tied around her neck.
The body parts had a petroleum smell — as did Daphne’s basement, especially after investigators scraped the blue paint off the floors, according to Jessica Lichty, a forensic chemist with the Sioux Falls Police Department.
All the body parts belonged to Darlene. She died of either blunt force trauma to the head or suffocation, or both.
Police arrested Daphne 10 days after the murder. Media stories described the case as a “lesbian love triangle,” despite that Darlene self-identified as straight.
On the witness stand at the trial, Sallie Collins described the confrontation that preceded the murder. As the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported her testimony:
“[Daphne] saw Darlene, and she got very mad and said, ‘Why are you destroying our relationship?’ And she was very angry and then she sat down, and I said, ‘Daphne, you are wrong,’ Collins said. VanderGiesen left and put her middle finger up to her face as a gesture toward Wright, who refused to leave, so Collins said she went to a neighbor’s house and called police. She left when officers arrived, Collins said.“
Sallie also said that Daphne was antsy after the murder and smoked “a cigarette every minute.”
During Sallie’s testimony, Daphne chewed gum and shed some tears, according to an AP account.
Police theorized that on February 1, 2006, Daphne met Darlene at the Pizza Hut and somehow persuaded Darlene to get into her Suzuki SUV. Once at Daphne’s apartment, the prosecution alleged, Daphne hit Darlene in the head and threw her down the steps to the basement, where she ultimately died.
Daphne then used the chainsaw to dismember the body in a room formerly used to store coal. She tried to burn the body parts — hence the gas smell — and then disposed of them in the dumpster in South Dakota and along the highway in Minnesota. She used the blue paint to cover up the blood in her basement.
Jacki Chesmore, Daphne’s helpful roommate, said that Daphne left the house with some cinderblocks and garbage bags and stayed out for two hours around the time of the murder.
When the prosecution showed photos of Darlene’s body parts, Dee VanderGiesen left the courtroom in tears, according to reporting from the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, which also noted that Daphne rarely let her emotions show, and mostly watched an interpreter stationed near the front of the court room.
Much to his credit, Judge Brad Zell decided the evidence was already gruesome enough and declined the prosecution’s request to show a video demonstrating a chainsaw carving up a pig’s body.
It’s unclear why Daphne didn’t just bury Darlene’s body whole instead of doing the ghastly work of sawing it up. By disposing of it in different places, Daphne made it easier to find and she branded herself forever as not only a murderer but also a depraved murderer.
And an inept one at that. At the sites where Daphne dumped the body parts, investigators found bed sheets, coal dust, rope, and carpet fibers, all of which originated from her house.
Public defender Traci Smith had an uphill battle but she managed to throw a few salvos. She tried to shift suspicion to Sallie Collins, because a T-shirt with the logo of her employer, Wells Fargo, turned up at one of the crime scenes. Smith also suggested that some unknown man Darlene met online could be her killer.
Smith claimed that the prosecution made too much out of the emails. “These childish words have been spun into the death threat which gave rise to the state’s theory of their case,” Smith said. She also hinted that a pack of cigarettes, not Darlene’s regular brand, found at her apartment implicated an unknown suspect.
In the end, however, Smith was no match for the prosecution’s evidence. The jury of 11 women and one man convicted Daphne of kidnapping with gross personal injury and first-degree murder.
After the verdict, Darlene’s sister, Sandra Sidford, who is also deaf, said thank you and hugged state attorney Dave Nelson. “Deaf bloggers around the country felt the same elation, loss, and sadness,” the Argus-Leader wrote.
Friends from the deaf community explained their grief through interpreters. “I just can’t believe she’s gone,” said Monique Lion-Boothe. “We want her back so bad.”
The death penalty was in play and, as mentioned, the media publicized that Daphne could be the first woman executed in South Dakota.
Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said that Daphne didn’t deserve any leniency because of her deafness. “I think it’s very dangerous to argue that deaf people as a general matter shouldn’t be eligible for the death penalty,” he told ABC News, according to information available on Murderpedia.
The victim’s sister and brother-in-law said they felt comfortable leaving the punishment up to the jury’s discretion. According to an AP account, during the penalty phase, some jurors cried when they heard Eugene VanderGiesen describe the last time he saw Darlene — when she “put her big arms around me and gave me a great big hug” and said “I love you” in sign language.
But the testimony of Carolyn Tucker, Daphne’s mother, probably affected them as well. She said that Daphne’s father was an alcoholic and physically abusive and Daphne had witnessed his violence against her. According to an AP account, Daphne did poorly in school as she struggled with her sexuality.
Tucker told of the scene when she and her husband left Daphne at the school for deaf students. “She came out and thought she was going with us,” Tucker said, “but we had to leave her and she was screaming and crying, running behind the car.”
The jury decided Daphne deserved life without parole rather than the death penalty.
Today, Daphne Wright lives in South Dakota’s Women’s Prison in Pierre. Her inmate profile describes her as 5-foot-7 and 203 pounds. The South Dakota Department of Corrections lists her status as life, with no chance of parole mentioned.
In one of the few bright notes to the story, the families of both the murderer and the victim came to terms with each other without rancor. “As one mother to the other, I express my sorrow to your family,” Dee VanderGiesen told Carolyn Tucker, according to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press. “We both have lost our daughters. One to death and the other to prison time for as long as she lives. May God’s grace be shown to you at this time of pain in your life.”
That’s all for this post. Until next time, cheers. — RR
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