A Nebraska man has been charged with arson in connection with the death of Yankton resident Phyllis Hunhoff.
Joseph Lloyd James, 47, of Norfolk, Nebraska, has been federally charged with arson in attempting to set fire to a vehicle owned by Hunhoff on or around Monday, Nov. 5, in Knox County, Nebraska, on the Santee Sioux Indian Reservation, according to federal court documents.
Hunhoff, 59, was last seen leaving her mother’s residence in Utica the night of Sunday, Nov. 4, and was reported missing the following day after not showing up for work.
On Nov. 7, her body was found inside her vehicle in a rural area on the Santee Sioux Reservation.
Evidence suggested that the vehicle had been set on fire. Court documents and media reports indicate that authorities found clothes and a soda bottle, covered in gasoline, in the vehicle.
Hunhoff’s death has been ruled a homicide, but no murder or manslaughter charges have been filed.
According to court documents, surveillance footage in the early morning hours of Nov. 5 showed James with Hunhoff’s vehicle at the Feather Hill gas station twice in the span of 6-7 hours. He got gas each time, the last time a little more than $2 of gas in a 1-liter soda bottle. During his exchange with the gas station attendant, he told the attendant the blood on his shirt was from hitting a deer and asked if the attendant knew someone who could help him get his truck towed out of a ditch. He also said that the Honda belonged to a friend.
The blood was later tested and was a match to Hunhoff’s.
That same morning, James made contact with two Santee Indian Reservation residents he didn’t know. The witnesses noted that he seemed nervous. One gave James a new shirt after James said that he had been getting odd looks because of the blood on his shirt.
James left in the Honda after receiving directions to another residence.
The suspect made his first court appearance at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday before United States Magistrate Judge Susan M. Bazis. The press release announcing the arrest was issued shortly thereafter.
The date and place of an arrest were not provided, nor was there any information about other possible suspects in the case or other details about the incident.
“As this matter concerns an ongoing investigation, the United States Attorney’s Office is unable to provide additional comment at this time,” according to the press release from the office of U.S. Attorney Joe Kelly
Bernie Hunhoff, a cousin of Phyllis Hunhoff, told the Press & Dakotan that the family is “grateful that an arrest has been made, and appreciate all of the hard work of the law enforcement communities — local, state and federal.
“(The family members) hope the community can rest somewhat easier now that a suspect is in custody, but they also recognize that this has been a shocking walk-up call that no one is immune to violence.
“They just want justice to be served for their sister and daughter, and justice for the entire community that mourns with them.”
He said the family has been “buoyed by their faith” and greatly appreciates the “overwhelming support” of friends, family and even strangers.”
He added, “This holiday weekend, they are finishing up a written statement that they will release next week.”
Tuesday was Phyllis Hunhoff’s 60th birthday. In remembrance of the event, a group of her friends and coworkers at Yankton’s First National Bank, where she worked for more than 40 years, held a brief, informal birthday ceremony in which they released 60 balloons in honor of her memory.
“We decided last week that we want to do something for her birthday,” said Teresa Kokesh, a close friend and former coworker. “The idea for the balloons came from one of the other ladies — I can’t take credit for that. Some of us wrote messages and we took them up to Hy-Vee and inserted the messages into the balloons for closure. We had the balloons come Tuesday morning and we all went out before the bank opened, we sang happy birthday to her and released them.”
This case is being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Nebraska State Patrol, the Knox County Sheriff’s Office, the Santee Sioux Nation Police Department, the Lincoln Police Department, the Nebraska State Fire Marshal, the Norfolk Police Department, the Niobrara Police Department and the Yankton County Sheriff’s Office.