When Steven Haataja came to this remote corner of Nebraska, where cowboy hats are still worn for work and rodeo trophies greet visitors...
CHADRON, Neb. — When Steven Haataja came to this remote corner of Nebraska, 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 doctorate.
But just seven months later, in March, Haataja was found burned to death in fire-scarred hills south of Chadron State College, 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,” said Mike Bloom, one of two ranchers who found the body.
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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 working car and he walked everywhere from his downtown apartment, including to the college a mile away.
He disappeared from this town of 5,600 in December. Police saw no signs that he planned to leave and have acknowledged they did little to search for the professor.
“We could’ve searched these remote areas for days and days and days, but where do you start?” acting Chadron Police Chief Margaret Keiper said.
After months of near-silence about the case and criticism that authorities have been slow to investigate, more information was supposed to be released today at a news conference.
Residents say it is long overdue. Without any answers, the intensity of the speculation over Haataja’s 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 effeminate mannerisms.
Haataja’s best friend, Tim Sorenson, said the professor was not gay, and police wouldn’t say whether they believe it was a hate crime.
Others suggest 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 of feet high.
Fellow professors at Chadron State said their colleague was looking to the future.
Assistant professor Phil Cary said Haataja didn’t isolate himself and liked to chat with co-workers.
“I know a person can hide depression, but I didn’t see any of it,” Cary said.
“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.