Haataja came to remote Chadron, Neb., where cowboy hats are
still worn for work and rodeo trophies greet visitors to the
local college, it was supposed to be a new beginning
for the mathematician who had just earned his
But just seven
months later, in March, the man colleagues say had
astounding intelligence was found burned to death in
fire-scarred hills just south of the small school
where he taught.
According to a
source close to the investigation, Haataja was burned and
bound, though it's not clear how. He died of smoke and soot
inhalation, along with ''thermal injuries,''
authorities said last month.
''When you see
something like that, somebody in that kind of condition,
you just hope they catch whoever did it,'' Mike Bloom, one
of two ranchers who found the body, said in March.
Haataja, with his
large frame and fedora hat, was more visible than most
on Chadron's wide, Western streets for a simple reason: He
didn't own a running car and walked everywhere from
his downtown apartment, including to the college,
which is a mile away.
from this city of 5,600 in December. Police saw no signs
he planned on leaving and have acknowledged they did little
to search for the professor.
searched these remote areas for days and days and days, but
where do you start?'' said acting Chadron police chief
After months of
near-silence about the case and criticism that
authorities have been slow-footed to investigate, more
information is supposed to be released Tuesday at a
Residents say it
is long overdue. Without any answers, the intensity of
the speculation over his death has ''gotten crazy,'' said
Kit Reeves, who works across the street from where the
professor lived. ''Some people are freaked out,''
Reeves said. ''Was he just randomly picked on, or was
there a reason?''
In the fervor,
former city councilman Morgan Muller and others said they
worried that Haataja was the victim of a hate crime. Kelen
Kahrs said he and other students wondered whether
their professor was singled out because of his
friend, Tim Sorenson, said he was not gay, and police
wouldn't say whether they believe it was a hate crime.
that Haataja, who had been hospitalized early last year
for depression, committed suicide.
But it would have
been difficult for Haataja, 46, to make the journey
himself to the rough hills where his body was found.
He suffered a
broken hip in March 2005 while ice skating, and the
accident made the already cautious Haataja even more
careful, Sorenson said. He avoided walking on bumpy
sidewalks and stepping over objects more than a couple
''This is the
most mysterious thing that's ever happened here,'' said Con
Marshall, a lifelong area resident who has worked at Chadron
State College for 38 years.
at Chadron State said their colleague had
been looking to the future.
professor Phil Cary said Haataja didn't cocoon himself
inside mathematical abstractions or depressive states
and lock others out.
He used his dry
sense of humor on coworkers, liked to chitchat about a
variety of topics, and sought advice on better ways to
explain math to his students. Colleagues also said
Haataja seemed immersed in his new job and liked to
work late at night.
Shortly before he
was last seen alive, Cary said Haataja asked for advice
on what books to use during the spring semester.
''I know a person
can hide depression, but I didn't see any of it,'' Cary
State Patrol recently took over the investigation. Loren
Zimmerman, a former Los Angeles police detective who taught
criminal justice at Chadron State College and launched
his own unofficial search for Haataja, said he is
confident state agents can solve the case.
''But it's gonna
take a little bit of work,'' Zimmerman said. (Nate