Nebraska has, sadly, many missing persons and unsolved murder cases. However, few are as haunting and baffling as the 2006 disappearance and death of Steven Haataja in Chadron, a Panhandle town of 5,600 people.
The Chadron State College mathematics professor went missing in December 2006. His apartment did not look like that of someone who was planning to leave - perishable food was left in the fridge and no suitcases full of belongings were missing. He’d spoken with colleagues very recently about plans for the coming months. While his friends and colleagues worried about him, there was not much of an official investigation into his whereabouts. Many who knew Haataja knew that he struggled with depression and had even been hospitalized following a suicide attempt the previous year. But colleagues and close friends said that he had not shown any of the signs of major depression before his disappearance. There seemed to be no easy way to explain the professor’s disappearance.
Some Chadron residents were critical of the police department, saying that they weren’t taking the case seriously or putting enough effort into searching for Haataja. However, as the acting police chief at the time said, there’s a lot of wilderness in and around Chadron. It would have been difficult to know where to look. Some answers came three months later when Haataja’s body was found…but many, many more were raised.
Two ranchers happened upon Haataja’s body in March. It was so badly burned that at first glance, it didn’t even look like a human body. In the ensuing days and weeks, more details were uncovered. Haataja had been bound to a tree with electrical cords. The remains of a campfire were found nearby, on the other side of the tree, so that Haataja’s back would have been toward it. He had purchased a bag of charcoal and a bottle of peppermint Schnapps on the night he disappeared. There were no signs that anyone else had been there with him. He was found in a remote area, but it would have been nearly impossible for him to walk over the rough terrain on his own given that he’d suffered a broken hip recently. Nothing else around him had ignited in the fire that consumed his body. His body was bound to the tree, but his hands were left free. For every bit of information that pointed toward murder, something else pointed away.
Numerous theories were raised, including that Haataja had been the victim of a hate crime or simply targeted at random. Suicide seemed like the least likely option, but in the end it was all police had to go on. The case had been handed over to the Nebraska State Patrol early on, and a year after his disappearance, their prevailing theory was that Steven Haataja had taken his own life. There is still doubt, however, as the case remains open to this day.
If you have any information about the death of Steven Haataja, contact the Nebraska State Patrol at (308) 632-1211 or
(Above landscape images are not of the crime scene; they are photos of Chadron for illustrative purposes only.)