MOUNT PLEASANT — Though her body has never been found, Elizabeth Syperda was murdered “with malice” nearly 18 years ago by her estranged husband, Michael Syperda, now 58, a judge ruled Monday after hearing evidence in the cold case.
Judge Mark Kruse read the verdict in his Henry County courtroom nearly two months after the trial ended. The question of guilt was left up to him after Michael Syperda waived his right to a trial by jury.
Emotions ran high as the judge told of his findings — guilty of first-degree murder. Donna Forshee — Elizabeth’s mother — gasped as her son Michael Forshee — Elizabeth’s brother — placed his hand on her knee in comfort.
“We’re satisfied with the verdict,” prosecutor Darin Stater said afterward. “Mostly pleased to offer Liz’s family closure. This has been an open sore in the community for a long time. This is a good day for Liz’s family.”
Years before the couple married, a young Elizabeth lived with her family in the northern California community of Truckee, across the street from the older Michael Syperda. He was married to someone else at the time, and the father of two children.
As a teen, Elizabeth was their baby sitter.
When the couple moved to Iowa, then-17-year-old Elizabeth followed. Forshee tried to stop her daughter several times, even contacting child protection services, but to no avail.
Michael Syperda later divorced, and he and Elizabeth became romantically involved. But from accounts at trial, the relationship rapidly went downhill.
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In the months and even years preceding Elizabeth’s disappearance, Syperda was heard more than once threatening to kill her. The first was when she briefly left him in 1998 — before they were married — to live with her friend, Harper Tracey.
At trial, Tracey recalled encounters with the two, including seeing injuries on Elizabeth’s neck and bruises on her arms and abdomen.
Other witnesses recalled other threats closer to the disappearance.
When Elizabeth traveled back to California in 2000 for her brother’s graduation, Syperda telephoned repeatedly and threatened her — and also threatened to kill the Forshees and one of Elizabeth’s friends.
“When a person, without equivocation, repeatedly threatens another with great injury and death in these circumstances, it shows a clear motive and intent,” Judge Kruse wrote in his ruling. “If a person keeps threatening to kill another person, these words are not merely words but express an intent to do a particular act.”
Back in Iowa, Elizabeth left Syperda and moved in with an ex-girlfriend, Sara Thomas Beckman. Beckman said Syperda called the house at 10:57 p.m. July 16, 2000. When Beckman returned from work the next morning, Elizabeth was gone. That day, Beckman reported to police that Elizabeth — then 22 — had disappeared.
The judge said this was about the time of death. A key piece of evidence in making the case was a V-shaped emerald and diamond ring, given to Elizabeth as a graduation gift from her mom.
She can be seen in a June 2000 photo, taken a month before her disappearance, wearing it.
The ring was found in a metal box in Syperda’s home. Syperda could not explain how it got there.
Throughout the trial, the defense questioned the credibility of the state’s witnesses, with Syperda’s attorney Kym Auge arguing the state’s agenda was not to find the truth.
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However, the court found that the circumstances of Elizabeth’s disappearance — including having had no contact with her family since July 16, 2000, leaving behind key personal effects and having few resources she would need to be able to hide for 18 years proved beyond a reasonable doubt that she was dead.
It’s unusual in Iowa for a defendant to be convicted of murder without finding the victim’s body.
The most recent involved another cold case murder from 2000 — the death of Cora Okonski, 23, of Tama County. In 2016, a jury found her fiance, Tait Purk, guilty of murder, though her body has never been found. A judge later tossed the conviction, saying the state’s evidence was too weak. However, after a second trial, a judge ruled late last year that Purk indeed was guilty of second-degree murder.
Mount Pleasant police Lt. Lyle Murray, who began investigating Elizabeth’s disappearance in 2012, hopes that Elizabeth’s body is found.
“Liz’s family deserves it. They need a conclusion. They deserve an answer,” he said following the verdict. Former Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation Special Agent Tim Sammons said he, too, hopes the body is found but nonetheless celebrated a case closed.
“That would be the conclusion,” he said. “If we could just find Liz.”
Sentencing is scheduled for 1 p.m. Aug. 23.