Left and Center: Tammy circa, 1984
Right: Age Progressed to age 42
Vital Statistics at Time of Disappearance
Missing Since: May 16, 1984
Missing From: Eldon, Miller County, Missouri
Classification: Non-Family Abduction
Date Of Birth: August 10, 1968
Age: 15 years old
Height and Weight: 5’7″ and 140 pounds
Distinguishing Characteristics: Caucasian Female, Blonde/Brown hair, Brown eyes, Tammy has a scar on her left arm and a tattoo of the letter “R” on the same arm, she has several moles located on her cheeks and chin
Clothing/Jewelry Description: A sweatshirt, Nike shoes, Tammy was last known to be wearing a chained necklace with an arrowhead pendant and was also wearing a leather wristband at the time of her disappearance
NCMEC Number: 601885
Details of Disappearance
Tammy was last seen in Eldon, Missouri on May 16th 1984. She was last seen standing outside Eldon High School which is just across the street from her residence at approximately 7:45 am. According to Tammy’s mothers live-in boyfriend, Martin “Marty” Dean Priest, he saw that Tammy did not go inside the school building and was smoking cigarettes while standing outside. Her friend, Theresa, said she saw Tammy getting into a blue Plymouth vehicle outside the school with two men inside.
Theresa said that Tammy told her she would be back. Tammy never returned home and was never seen or heard from again. She was reported missing that same afternoon. When she first disappeared, investigators felt she might’ve simply run away due to her age but weren’t ruling out foul play. They questioned Martin Priest early on regarding her disappearance and he gave them an account as to what happened after he picked Tammy up that day.
Martin claimed that when he pulled up to Tammy at the school, she told him that she intended to skip that day and meet friends at the Rock Island Park. This was a popular hangout spot for teenagers at the time. Martin was using Donald Rothganger’s car that day because the previous night, she drove Priest’s vehicle and ended up wrecking it. Donald was Tammy’s older brother and he stated that Priest told him he needed the vehicle to get to work that morning.
Martin claimed he left her at the park that morning. Other reports indicate that Theresa stated that she and Tammy went to the Bass Pro Shop convenience store located at the intersection of Highway 54 and 52 that morning. According to Theresa, as they walked away from the store she saw Priest drive up and yell Tammy’s name. She said she saw Tammy getting into the back seat with Martin and another unidentified male inside. This is the last time she reported seeing Tammy.
When investigators interviewed Priest, he denied having any involvement in Tammy’s disappearance. He reportedly told them the story that he picked Tammy up from the front of the high school and dropped her off at the park. However, investigators have been unable to confirm she ever made it to the park and all of Tammy’s friends denied that they had made any plans to skip school and go to the park.
Investigators have been able to confirm, however, that Martin was the last person to see Tammy that day. Her mother, Sandra Sue “Sandy” Jeffries, told police that Martin was willing to help her when Tammy first disappeared. He said he would help her distribute missing persons posters and that he suspected Tammy had run away on her own accord. He later claimed that he had Tammy and that the only way she would ever see her daughter again is through him. He specifically told Sandra that Tammy was in Kansas City and would come back to her if she got back together with him.
After this, the police told Sandra to keep a diary and write down anything Priest mentions about her missing daughter in the hopes that he will give information that leads to Tammy’s location. She maintained her relationship with Priest for some time hoping to find her daughter. She had met Priest in February of 1984 at the Southside Bar where she bartended. They dated on and off for the next few months and often argued with one another.
Priest claims he didn’t know Tammy very well and that the only time he had been alone with her was when he drove her to the hospital to visit Sandra when she had a problem. He stated that on the night before Tammy went missing, he argued with her mother and was considering breaking things off and leaving Eldon. According to Priest, after dropping Tammy off in the park, he went to his brother’s farm in the Rocky Mount area to get worms for fishing and left.
His sister-in-law later told police, however, that Martin arrived at the farm between 9:00 am and 9:30 am and was reportedly acting strangely. He did take a shovel to dig worms and left for approximately fifteen to twenty minutes. He returned to said the ground was too hard to dig for worms and claimed he brought his own plastic container. He got the worms within ten minutes and then left.
Martin claims he returned to Eldon that afternoon and saw Tammy was still at the park and was supposedly with a few other kids. He stopped and asked what she was doing because she allegedly told him she was going to return to school at some point during the day. She told him that she had gone back but left again. Under cross examination, he told police that Tammy was visible to anyone on the road and other children in the park.
As mentioned previously, no one could provide any confirmation that Tammy had ever set foot in the park on the day she vanished. Martin also told police that he was driving to his brothers home in Wichita, Kansas when his car broke down. He claimed he sold the vehicle and stayed in Kansas for a few days. Priest said he found out Tammy was missing a few days after she was reported missing and he returned to Eldon.
He continued his relationship with Sandra, her only being in it to potentially unravel the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance. On August 14th 1984, Sandra left her residence to go to the Walmart store. Her family reported her missing when she didn’t return home that evening. Her car was found locked up in the stores parking lot. She was missing for several days until she contacted the police and said she was okay.
Sandra stated she had been approached by Martin at the store and was very fearful of him at the time. She reportedly left with a friend and stayed with them until deciding to contact police to confirm her whereabouts and welfare. Sandra had recently filed an adult abuse petition in the Miller County Circuit Court and named Martin in the petition. She was also seeking an order of protection against him at the time.
Martin was immediately considered a person of interest in Tammy’s disappearance. Investigators and her family discovered that Priest had previously been convicted for second degree murder in the death of thirteen year old Tonya Lea Lewis. Martin had worked as a painter in the apartment that Tonya lived in with her mother, Shirley Lewis in Nevada, Missouri. While working in the home, he heard Tonya and a friend discussing about going to the local public swimming pool on June 13th 1980
Some agencies state Martin was dating Tonya’s mother but it’s unclear if this is true or not. Priest told his employer that day that he was going to a job interview but this was a lie. He instead took his stepdaughter to the pool where Tonya and her friend were at. Priest allegedly made arrangements to play basketball with Tonya later in the day. During the game, Tonya got a splinter in her finger and left the game to go home afterwards.
At 9:00 pm, witnesses said Priest also left the basketball game and said he was going to pick up his wife. However, he did not pick up his wife that evening. Tonya was reported as a missing person at 8:30 pm when she didn’t come back home. At 10:30 pm, Shirley went to Priest’s apartment and asked him where Tonya was because she never returned home that evening. He reportedly told her he last saw her walking home but that he knew nothing about her whereabouts. He claimed he went home after the game and didn’t leave all evening.
Several days after Tonya went missing, her badly decomposed body was discovered floating face down in a farm pond by two men who were fishing. The pond was located eleven miles south of Nevada, Missouri. An autopsy was performed on her body but investigators were unable to locate a cause of death for Tonya. However, police were able to uncover some evidence at the scene where her body was found.
The police noted that someone had driven through the grass and stopped at the pond. Footprints were also seen and showed that the person driving the vehicle got out of the car on the drivers side and walked over to the passenger side of said vehicle. Investigators have been unable to link this directly to Martin, however. Despite no clear evidence of foul play, investigators treated Tonya’s death as a suspected homicide from the onset.
Martin was questioned about his involvement in Tonya’s death. He told them that he had gone fishing that evening at a pond that was different than the one her body had been found in. His claim was analyzed but had some problems with it. The pond he claimed to have been at was filled with 18 inches of water. His fishing poles also appeared to be dusty which indicated they likely hadn’t been used when he claims to have used them.
Investigators also noticed Priest had scratches on his legs that went from his knees to his ankles. When asked about these, he became angry with them. He also refused to consent to having the scratches photographed and later had a letter sent to the police saying he no longer wished to be interrogated and requested an attorney.
A month after Tonya was killed, Priest was charged with her murder. He was charged with capital murder in connection to Lewis’s presumed murder and while awaiting trial in August of 1980, his wife attempted to break him out of prison and struck a prison guard in the back of the head during the process. She fled but was later arrested for attempting a prison escape. She apparently committed suicide sometime after this.
On March 5th 1981, Priest was convicted of second degree murder in Tonya’s death and was sentenced to twenty five years in prison. He was sent to the Missouri Department of Corrections to serve his sentence. While in prison, he filed for a retrial three times. The first two motions were denied but he managed to get it on the third try. Despite the fact that Priest was one of the last people to see Tonya alive, investigators had no evidence directly linking him to her death.
Some reports indicate that Tonya’s death was later determined to be the cause of drowning and while most suspect Priest did cause her death still, there was no way to prove she didn’t die accidentally or that Priest intentionally caused her death. He was acquitted of killing Tonya Lewis and was ordered to be released on September 20th 1983. Nine months later, Tammy vanished. Priest’s involvement in Tonya’s death made investigators and her family doubt she was alive.
At some point after Tammy’s disappearance, Priest moved to Wichita, Kansas. There, he met Linda Hall and became friends with not only her but other people associated with her. On November 16th 1984, Linda’s oldest child, fifteen year old Katrina Annette Cheely, was running late for school. Priest was at their home that morning and offered to take the girl to school. Katrina was last confirmed to have been seen with Priest that day.
Katrina never attended any of her classes at Allison Junior High School and never returned home that day. Linda said she knew something was wrong when her daughter didn’t come back home. She called Priest and asked what he did to her daughter and he said she was probably just off with friends and stuff. When Katrina still hadn’t returned home by the following day, her family reported her missing.
Katrina was classified as a runaway when she was first reported missing but her family always suspected Priest had something to do with her disappearance. He was the last person to have seen her alive that. When interviewed, Priest said he last saw the girl when he dropped her off at school and that he never saw her again.
On February 28th 1985, Katrina’s body was discovered face down in a drainage culvert by a man collecting aluminum cans. Her body was found in an area that was west of Wichita. Her mother identified her from a ring that was on her body when she was found. She had been stripped naked before being thrown into the culvert. It’s believed she died of asphyxiation but her true cause of death could not be determined.
Martin is the primary suspect in Katrina’s death but investigators had no evidence to charge him when her body was found in 1985. However, in 1987, Priest’s ex-wife, Debra Yoder, came forward to police and gave them an important piece of evidence that connected him to Cheely at the time. After her death, Priest gifted her a silver bracelet that belonged to Katrina. She was wearing it on the day she went missing.
Yoder also told police that Priest had admitted to killing Katrina on the morning she disappeared. He allegedly said he was driving around with her and that he tried to molest her. Katrina resisted his molestation attempt and he said that he strangled her with her own pantyhose as a result before throwing her body into the culvert where it remained undiscovered for months. She said Priest laughed about his killing of Katrina and bragged that he’d never be convicted.
On September 21st 1987, Priest was charged with first degree murder in connection to Katrina’s death. It was ruled that Yoder’s conversations with him about Katrina’s murder and the bracelet which was missing from her body were enough evidence to file charges against him. He was ordered to stand trial for her murder and was already serving life in prison for another murder he committed a month after she was killed.
On December 25th 1984, twenty five William “Billy” Mayhugh and his girlfriend, thirty three year old Freida Bayliff were last seen by relatives as they celebrated Christmas in Wichita, Kansas. Three days later, William’s body was found in a water filled ditch near the Arkansas River. He had been shot in the back of the head once. He was discovered by a flood control supervisor who was checking the floodways. It’s believed he had been there for the duration of time since Christmas.
On December 29th 1984, investigators additionally discovered the body of Freida in the apartment that she and William both shared at the time. She had been strangled to death and was found in her waterbed which had been cut open. The temperature on the bed had been turned all the way up and so was the temperature inside the apartment. This likely destroyed any evidence connecting Priest to her death. There was no evidence Bayliff was sexually assaulted.
Priest had met the couple through Freida at a bar in Wichita. This also happened to be the same bar where he met Linda Hall. It’s never been established why he targeted the couple but some have pointed toward robbery being the likely motive for the crimes. He has been jailed on forgery and theft charges previously. In early March of 1985, Priest was in jail for theft charges when he posted bond and disappeared.
Hours after his release, however, investigators obtained a .32 caliber pistol which belonged to Priest. Evidence from the gun proved he had killed Mayhugh and probably Bayliff as well. A warrant was issued for his arrest as a result and eventually he was caught. On March 30th, he was arrested at 9:15 am from the Todd Motel in Fort Scott, Kansas. He was charged with two counts of murder in both slayings and one count of auto theft. He had stolen his brothers two truck.
Priest was ordered to stand trial for the murders. On December 11th 1985, He was convicted of killing William and was sentenced to life in prison for his death. He was acquitted of killing Bayliff during the trial, however. He was to serve a mandatory life sentence with the possibility of parole in 15 years. So far, all of his parole hearings have ended with him going back to prison to serve the rest of his sentence for Mayhugh’s death.
In December of 1987, Priest stood trial for the murder of Katrina Cheely. However, the case quickly fell apart. Debra Yoder testified in her ex-husbands trial but during it, she claimed that she couldn’t recall him admitting to the murder. She said she felt “shafted” because she was told by police that Priest would be released from prison early for parole violation in exchange for her testimony.
On top of that, the defense brought forth three witnesses who had information indicating the possibility that Katrina’s own father killed her. A man identified as Howard Jatcher of Barton, New York testified as a witness in Priest’s defense and said he had heard Katrina’s father, Walter Cheely, admit to killing her. He stated he had been driving home during the night of March 4th 1985 when he came upon a supposedly “hysterical” Walter in a car that was sitting broadside in the road.
According to Howard, Walter continued repeating the words “Leave me alone. I want to die. I killed my daughter.” Priest’s defense lawyer also had two witnesses who claimed that Katrina had told them her father made sexual advances towards her but the judge barred their testimony. The lawyer claimed this evidence seemed to indicate it was more likely that Walter killed Katrina in comparison to Priest.
However, investigators firmly believe Priest killed Katrina as he was the last one seen with her. Walter is not a suspect in her death. Despite the strong belief that Priest killed her, he was found innocent in her death and was ultimately acquitted on December 13th 1987. Priest was continually questioned about Tammy Rothganger but he always denied being involved in her disappearance and her body was not found.
In late December of 1988, the investigation into Tammy’s disappearance intensified after a fresh clue surfaced in her then four year old case. The clue, which hasn’t been identified by investigators, led them to a pond in Nevada, Missouri. On December 21st, officers from the Eldon police force as well as deputies from the Vernon County Sheriffs Office and firefighters drained the pond so they could search the muddy bottom for Tammy’s body.
However, a snowstorm prevented them from being able to search and it was postponed as a result. When weather conditions improved, investigators searched through the mud for any trace of her remains. The search went on until late January of 1989 when it was stopped due to no evidence being located. Investigators are certain Tammy’s body was not in the pond but supposedly had information form an unidentified individual that her body had been thrown into the farming pond.
In April of 1989, investigators from Eldon announced they were compiling evidence against Priest to hopefully file charges against him for Tammy’s presumed death. While it was said that the evidence gathered would be enough to take Priest to court for Tammy’s disappearance, it ultimately wasn’t and Priest didn’t face charges in the case. Tammy’s case grew cold after this.
In 2005, investigators announced they would be reopening the cold case investigation into Tammy’s disappearance and taking a look at it with fresh eyes. They interviewed older investigators who worked the case when it first happened and also sought to interview Martin, who hadn’t been asked about her case in twenty years. He continued to deny involvement in the case and was uncooperative in the investigation. Investigators also had no idea who the unidentified male in the car with Priest was.
In 2010, Tammy’s friend, Theresa, who was one of the last people to see her alive was asked to be interviewed by police once again in the case. During the interview, she was shown a photo line up. Each photo showed a possible suspect for the still unidentified male that was in Martin’s car when Tammy got in it on the morning of her disappearance. She was able to identify the second male as Martin’s nephew, David Nicholas. He was thirteen years old in 1984.
Investigators managed to track him down but he initially refused to speak with them regarding his uncle or Tammy. However, sometime afterwards, he finally admitted that he was with Martin and her on the morning she went missing. He also stated that he witnessed Tammy’s brutal murder. On February 24th 2010, he told them in detail what happened on the day she was reported missing and what Martin had truly done to her.
According to his statement, David woke up on May 16th 1984 when his grandmother asked him to go and help Martin with his car. He said that Martin told him to get into the vehicle with him and that they drove to Eldon High School where they both saw Tammy standing outside the building. Nicholas got her to get into the vehicle and they then drove to a gas station. They stopped and Martin went inside.
While alone in the car, Nicholas said Tammy was noticeably nervous and she said she wanted to go back to school. When Martin came back, they drove to a rock road and Tammy asked him to pull over so she could use the bathroom. When he stopped, Tammy got out of the vehicle and ran away. David said he managed to chase her down and told her to get back into the vehicle and that everything would be okay.
Nicholas told investigators that he and Tammy were dating in 1984 and that Priest knew this information. He stated that while driving, Priest ordered him and Tammy to have sex in the backseat of the vehicle. They did so while he watched and then afterwards, she got into the front seat of the vehicle. Martin dropped something on the floorboard on Tammy’s side and he asked her to pick it up.
When Tammy bent down to pick it up, Martin hit her over the head with a wrench and she was knocked unconscious. He then started to rape her in the backseat of the vehicle and David said he tried to stop Martin but he was pushed/hit away. Tammy apparently woke up at some point during this and said “no” while trying to get out of the vehicle. Priest eventually ended up strangling Rothganger to death.
Tammy was allegedly killed in the Rocky Mount area. After she died, Martin and David drove along a back road from the Bagnell Dam area but got lost a few times before reaching David’s family’s home. There was sexual abuse within David’s family and he had previously had sex in front of other family members. They carried her body into the home and placed her on a bed in the back bedroom of the house.
David’s other relatives soon discovered her body in that bedroom. According to David’s older brother, Michael Nicholas, their mother yelled and screamed at Martin after finding out what he had done to Tammy. No one contacted the police to report her death or that Priest had murdered her. Instead, they came to the decision to conceal Tammy’s death and hide her body. Later that night, Priest returned to the residence with a truck and a barrel and some tools.
David stated that Tammy’s body was placed in the barrel and was driven away from his home. He made David come with him to dispose of the evidence. Tammy’s body was supposedly buried in the barrel in an unknown location by Martin and David. He stated that he lied for years and didn’t come forward with the information about Tammy’s murder because he didn’t want to get his brother or mother into legal trouble.
On January 4th 2016, Miller County Prosecutor Ben Winfrey charged Martin Priest with Capitol Murder in Tammy’s death. The charges came mainly as a result of David’s testimony. He was ordered to stand trial in October of 2018. Both David and Michael Nicholas testified against their uncle and both told the story of Tammy’s brutal murder and the disposal of her remains.
Martin adamantly claimed that he was not involved in Tammy’s disappearance or presumed death. He continued to claim that Tammy was dropped off in the Rock Island Park and that something else must’ve happened to her. His defense also tried to undermine the testimony of the two Nicholas brothers and accused them of lying about the entire situation.
David and Michael both told the court that they were in the court on their own volition and had made no deals with the prosecution in regards to their own criminal histories. David and Michael got into a lot of trouble with the law in the years after Tammy’s disappearance and were arrested for multiple offenses. David was previously facing firearm trafficking charges between state lines.
David had criminal convictions in crimes such as robbery and aggravated robbery while Michael had a record consisting of stealing, assault, escape, aggravated battery, fleeing law enforcement and possession of opioids. He also had a brush with police in 2015. The defense stated the brothers lied after David was picked up on a federal firearm charge and sought to strike a deal with the prosecution.
The defense additionally reminded the court that despite David’s testimony about the location of Tammy’s remains and the efforts by law enforcement to recover her, they were ultimately unable to locate her. They also pointed towards the fact that no physical evidence exists to indicate Tammy is even deceased.
However, the prosecution showed record searches conducted on the Social Security Administration and the Department of Revenue which showed that Tammy did not obtain a drivers license, did not receive monetary benefits, and had not used her social security number at all since her 1984 disappearance. There was also no proof of employment. This all indicates Tammy indeed died in 1984.
The Nicholas brothers also maintained they indeed knew of Tammy’s death and that Priest did do it. They never changed their statements and at one point, David was shown a photograph of Tammy during the trial and he broke down into tears. It’s unknown if investigators plan to file charges against the Nicholas family for their alleged involvement in covering up Tammy’s death and to date, no one else has faced charges.
On October 11th 2018, Martin was found guilty of the murder charge and was ultimately convicted of killing Tammy. He was sentenced to life in prison for the crime. He will begin serving his sentence for her death if he’s ever released from Kansas prison for the murder of William Mayhugh. Investigators have conducted searches for Tammy’s remains but have been unable to locate her.
Investigators believe Martin Priest is a serial killer and that his target victims were young females. It appears as though he gets close to his victims through their mothers as he cozies up to them. So far, he’s only been named in Tonya Lewis, Katrina Cheely, and Tammy’s cases. Investigators believe Martin began targeting Tammy as a victim shortly after he moved to Eldon to be close to his mother.
Tammy was described by those who loved her as kind and she was known to hang out with her friends often. One friend recalls playing with Tammy when they were younger and who they swam in ponds and played with horses. Her family is still seeking her whereabouts and continue to hope for the recovery of her remains. Many of her relatives have since moved away from the Central Missouri area.
Foul play is highly suspected in Tammy’s case. Her case remains classified as a non-family abduction with most agencies.
If you have any information concerning this case, please contact:
Eldon Police Department 573-392-5611
The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children
The Eldon Advertiser 05/24/1984
The Eldon Advertiser 08/23/1984
The Miller County Autogram-Sentinel 04/04/1985
The Wichita Eagle-Beacon 10/07/1987
Press and Sun Bulletin 12/06/1987
Press and Sun Bulletin 12/06/1987
The Wichita Eagle-Beacon 12/11/1987
Press and Sun Bulletin 12/13/1987
The Kansas City Times 12/30/1988
The Wichita Eagle-Beacon 12/31/1988
The Eldon Advertiser 01/26/1989
The Eldon Advertiser 04/06/1989
The Eldon Advertiser 12/29/2005
The Eldon Advertiser 02/16/2006
The Eldon Advertiser 02/23/2006
Tammy Sue Rothganger – Find a Grave
Katrina Annette Cheely – Find a Grave
Martin Dean Priest – Wikipedia