Mysteries in the Midwest: Gitchie Girl

Several times a year, I hope to feature mysteries set in and around the Midwest on my blog. Today, I have a special treat for readers who have followed the true crime novel Gitchie Girl by Phil and Sandy Hamman. I have an interview from the authors!

Sandy and Phil, thank you for the interview. Could you tell readers about the background of the story?

On November 17, 1973, five teenagers, Roger Essem 17, Mike Hadrath 15, Stu Baade 18, Dana Baade 14, and Sandra Cheskey 13, from Sioux Falls, SD, went out to Gitchie Manitou State Park, which is located on the South Dakota and Iowa border. The teens arrived late evening and headed to the only camp shelter in the park, finding some warm embers in the fireplace of the stone block shelter. They moved next to the river, started a fire, and began a night of conversation and music as one of the boys had brought along his guitar. They soon began hearing rustling and movement in the bushes beyond the tree line. Although spooked, the kids chalked it up to over active imaginations on a dark and foggy night. They also assumed it might be some other park goers returning to their fire in the camp shelter.

Suddenly, three shadowy figures holding shotguns appeared on a low rock ledge near the teens. “Who are you? What do you want?” Roger, one of the boys, called out. One of the strangers lifted his weapon, and a blast rang out. Roger crumpled to the ground. The others ran and hid. Mike grabbed Sandra, his girlfriend, and pulled her behind a tree. Feeling the men wouldn’t hesitate to shoot again, he pleaded with her not to run. Soon, the men began demanding the teens come out of their hiding places saying, “We’re with the police. Come out with your hands up!” None of the kids had been in any trouble with the law before, and they obeyed. After marching the teens through the woods for an extended time, one of the men took Sandra with him in his pickup and left the park. He told her the boys had been shot with tranquilizer guns. The other two men stayed behind and executed the boys. All three men met up at an abandoned house in the country in the early hours of the morning, and Sandra was raped by one of the men. One of the captors eventually dropped her off at her house but first insisted on getting her phone number.

Since Sandra thought the murderers were police officers and didn’t immediately report the incident, how were the bodies discovered?

A couple test-driving a car discovered the bodies the next morning. Sandra reported what had happened to her brother but was hesitant to go to the police as the men had claimed to be police and warned her not to report them. She ended up hitchhiking into Sioux Falls with a girlfriend and eventually was brought to the police station by Roger Essem’s older brother. The detectives at the police station did not believe her story. She was read her rights, fingerprinted, and mug shots were taken. She was given two lie-detector tests. The detectives had a hard time swallowing a story that she was the only one allowed to live.

Who were the murderers, and why were they there?

The murderers were three brothers, Allen, David, and James Fryer, all in their 20s and all convicted felons. None of the men were supposed to be in possession of firearms, yet all of them were. Most of the firearms they possessed were stolen. The brothers had been hunting pheasants outside of Sioux Falls, SD, that day but had no luck. They met again out at Gitchie Manitou to poach deer.

James was on work release from the Sioux Falls jail at the time. He’d clocked out of work, but David called the jail claiming to be James’s employer, stating James was needed longer at work. This allowed James several hours to poach deer with his brothers. When he clocked back into the jail in the early morning, no one at the jail noticed that anything was amiss. When this came to light, the work-release system was furiously reworked.

Some readers might wonder why a younger girl was out with four older boys. Can you shed some light on this?

Sandra was dating Roger Essem, one of the boys murdered that night. Sandra had three older brothers and often hung out with them and their friends as her mom worked long shifts as a nurse. Sandra and her brother Bill (who planned to go to Gitchie Manitou that night but changed his plans last minute) had formed an inseparable bond during their childhood days when they relied on each other to battle challenges that included time in foster homes and a Native American boarding school. Additionally, Sandra lived outside the small town of Tea, SD. Her closest neighbors were two older girls, and a conversation about them unintentionally left Roger with the impression that she was the same age. The starry-eyed 13-year-old girl never corrected this misunderstanding.

A major question surrounding this case is why. What was the motive for the murders?

This is the most curious part of the crime. There have been several motives suggested, but none have been proved. After reading the facts, the readers will have to decide for themselves.

Are there rumors surrounding motives that are not true?

One rumor was that it was a drug deal gone bad. This story may have grown out of the fact that the kids did smoke one marijuana cigarette that night. Actually, the boys were very late picking up Sandra as they had no luck finding someone to sell them only $2 worth of marijuana, which was all the extra money they had.

Another rumor was that Sandra knew the killers. Actually, neither Sandra nor any of the boys had ever had any contact with any of the Fryer brothers.

If police doubted Sandra’s story, how was she released and the case solved?

You couldn’t make up a story as unbelievable as this! Sandra was actually a part of the team who went out looking for the murderers. She had not lived in the area for long. The night of the murders, Allen Fryer took off with Sandra in a pickup, and unknown to her, he was supposed to kill her. Instead, he drove around miles and miles of back roads (some gravel, some paved) and brought her to a working farm. From there, he made up a story about having to meet his brothers at an abandoned house for a drug raid. They drove down miles of endless roads again in the dark. From this limited information, the investigators developed a grid around Sioux Falls with a thirty-mile radius where the farm and abandoned house could possibly be located as Sandra knew she’d be able to identify both places if she saw them again. Sheriff Craig Vinson would pick up an available detective and Sandra each day. They drove around country roads for over two weeks with no luck, and each time they passed another white farmhouse, everyone’s hopes soared only to deflate when it wasn’t the right one. Then one fateful day, Sandra began screaming from the backseat, “THAT’S HIM! THAT’S ONE OF THEM!” Allen Fryer had just pulled out of the farmhouse they were looking for and was driving the same truck Sandra had described from the night of the murders. Because there was a gun hanging in a stock rack in the window, the sheriff pulled over by some bushes where Sandra and the detective scrambled from the car. Sheriff Vinson then arrested Allen without incident.

Where are the murderers now?

All three were sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole at Fort Madison Prison in Iowa.

South Dakota has the death penalty. Why didn’t they get the death penalty?

Gitchie Manitou State Park is located partially in South Dakota, but most of the park is in Iowa. They boys’ bodies were found in Iowa, which has never had the death penalty.

Why was Sandra, the lone survivor, allowed to live that night? Was she ever told?

Sandra wondered this very thing for over forty years. In 2015, she was able to arrange a meeting at Fort Madison prison with Allen Fryer, the brother who was supposed to kill her but brought her home instead. The meeting didn’t go quite how Sandra expected as Allen took no responsibility for anything that happened that night. He did give her the reason for letting her go, which is just one of the incredible twists in the story.

It’s good to know Sandra is okay after all this time. Where does she live, and what is she doing?

Sandra lives in Sioux Falls with her husband of 30 years. She still has the memo on her “dream board” to open a no-kill animal shelter.

Gitchie Girl is an interesting title. Where does it come from?

After the murderers were caught, Sandra was called on to testify at trials for over 1 ½ years. She missed a lot of school during this time. When she did return to school, however, she was surprised to find out that the parents of many of her former friends no longer allowed their daughters to associate with her. It was a different time, especially for rape survivors. The typical attitude of the time was that if a female was raped, what had she done to deserve it? Was she wearing something revealing? Was she promiscuous? Sandra was a virgin the night of the rape. Nonetheless, she was ostracized. Kids at school and people in the community pointed and whispered, “That’s her, that Gitchie Girl who was with the boys who were murdered.” Sandra said, “I could have handled the stares and the whispers. It was being excluded, ignored, and being made to feel I didn’t exist that crushed me.” Sandra quickly dropped out of school, moved in with her brother who now lived in his own apartment, and basically became a 16-year-old adult.

It must have been a hard time for Sandra. Why did Sandra decide to share her story after all these years?

For over forty years, Sandra did not make a statement to the press or give any interviews. She turned down book offers. But she knew me, Phil Hamman, for decades. I wrote two memoirs about overcoming a dysfunctional childhood in an impoverished area and heading down a road of crime before a life-changing event one night in a dark parking lot. I went on to become a teacher, working with some of the most difficult students in the school district for thirty years. After reading about my difficult childhood, Sandra decided to share her story as well. In addition, there were many false rumors about the night of the murders that were cropping up on the internet that she wanted to dispel.

Will there be a second book about these brutal murders?

There is a second book forthcoming, Gitchie Girl II: The Untold Stories.

I heard a movie might be made of Gitchie Girl. Is this correct?

Yes, we are working with a production company to get a movie or documentary contract with a network. Things are moving along in the right direction.

Thank you, Phil and Sandy Hamman, for spending time on my blog. I appreciate it.


Gitchie Girl

The sound of snapping twigs closed in on the five teenagers enjoying an evening around a glowing campfire at Gitchie Manitou State Park. The night of music and laughter had taken a dark turn. Evil loomed just beyond the tree line, and before the night was over, one of the Midwest’s most horrific mass murders had left its bloodstains spewed across the campsite. One managed to survive and would come to be known as the “Gitchie Girl.” Harrowing memories of the terrifying crime sent her spiraling out of control, and she grasped at every avenue to rebuild her life. Can one man, a rescue dog, and a glimmer of faith salvage a broken soul? This true story will touch your heart and leave you cheering that good can prevail over the depravity of mankind.


About the authors

Phil Hamman is the author of three nationally published books: Under the Influence, disOrder, and Gitchie Girl (co-authored with his wife, Sandy.) These fast-paced, true stories have proven popular with teens and adults. As a high school teacher for 30 years, Phil has been committed to working with teenagers with difficult behaviors such as conduct disorders and oppositional defiance. He has spoken extensively on the topics of anti-bullying, positive peer choices, setting goals, and reaching out to others.

Sandy Hamman has been a teacher for over 20 years and specializes in teaching reading and writing. Sandy is a graduate of Augustana University in Sioux Falls, SD. She completed her graduate work at Morningside College in Sioux City, IA. She is the co-author of Gitchie Girl with her husband, Phil. They have been married since 1984.

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  1. Darcia Helle on March 9, 2017 at 10:44 am

    Heartbreaking story. To have endured such horror is bad enough, but then to be further traumatized by the cops meant to protect you is unimaginable. Good to know that Sandra managed to pull her life together and find happiness despite it all.

    This book is going on my wishlist!

  2. Mary Angela on March 9, 2017 at 11:20 am

    It is a heartbreaking story but one that focuses on the victim and her triumph over this horrific event. I think you will enjoy the book.

  3. James Potratz on March 9, 2017 at 7:15 pm

    Roger invited me to go with them the night they went, We were in a class together at Washington High School and he asked me to go, Told him I was busy and couldn’t. I am blessed. Phil is a good friend of mine and I let him know after the book came out. Fryer brothers older brother and wife lived 2 houses down from me when I was a Kid in West Sioux, He scared the crap out of me one night when he chased me around the house. He had a look of If I catch you I’m gonna kill you. Bad Family.

    • Mary Angela on March 9, 2017 at 8:45 pm

      Thankfully, you didn’t go along that night or run into any more trouble with them in your neighborhood. Very scary.
      Thanks for stopping by my blog and commenting!

  4. Jena Wilka on November 2, 2017 at 11:25 pm

    Thank you so very much Sandra for telling YOUR story. This is very much a tragedy for ALL 5 of the victims. I hope after telling your story, some peace came to you, Sandra. I wish the best, most peaceful life for you and your family.

    • Mary Angela on November 3, 2017 at 8:19 am

      Thanks for stopping by my blog, Jena. Yes, Sandy was very courageous to share her story with readers. This was such a tragedy for all involved.

  5. Robert Bilodeau on January 10, 2019 at 10:37 am

    The others ran and hid. Mike grabbed Sandra, his girlfriend, and pulled her behind a tree.

    I believe Roger was her boyfriend, not Mike.

  6. Bryan L. Black on January 21, 2019 at 12:37 pm

    Roger sat next to me in our first class every day until that Monday morning. I asked my classmates where was Roger and they told me he was one of those murdered in the park. I’ve never forgotten that moment.

    Really nice guy.

    • Mary Angela on February 6, 2019 at 2:32 pm

      Such a tragedy. I’m sure the moment will stay with you always.

  7. JoEllen Enright on April 18, 2020 at 12:09 pm

    Great read! Read both books in two days. Horrible tragedy for Sandra to go through. Glad she is healing and moving forward in life.

    • Mary Angela on April 19, 2020 at 7:52 pm

      Thanks for stopping by my blog, JoEllen! I’m glad you enjoyed the books. Happy reading!

  8. Randy West on January 9, 2023 at 10:12 am

    Hi, I’m interested in getting information on the upbringing of the Fryer brothers (family history, troubles, discipline, etc.) What were they like as children, teens and young adults? I haven’t been able to find anything so far. Hopefully you can point me in the right direction. Thank you so much for all your hard work on this case.

    • Mary Angela on January 9, 2023 at 10:34 am

      Hi Randy! The authors of Gitchie Girl would be the best people to contact with that question. You might message them at their Facebook page at If you haven’t read both of their books on the subject, I also suggest reading them. Very informational!

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