United States Attorney Joe Kelly announced that Joseph Lloyd James, 49, of Norfolk, was sentenced today in federal court in Omaha to life imprisonment for First Degree Murder in Indian Country by United States District Court Judge Brian C. Buescher. On November 5, 2018, James murdered Phyllis Hunhoff of Yankton, South Dakota, on the Santee Sioux Indian Reservation in Nebraska. There is no parole in the federal system. As part of his plea agreement, he waived his right to appeal, to seek a pardon, or seek a commutation.
Phyllis Hunhoff regularly traveled from her home in Yankton to her mother’s home in Utica, South Dakota. Her regular practice was to call her mother upon returning to Yankton. On November 4, 2018, at approximately 10 p.m., Phyllis Hunhoff left her mother’s residence, alone, to drive home to Yankton. She did not call her mother as she did not make it home. Having not heard from her daughter, her mother began repeatedly calling her phone to determine her whereabouts. All calls were unanswered.
James and other men were near Phyllis Hunhoff’s mother’s residence as she was leaving. James and another man encountered Phyllis Hunhoff outside of the residence and got into her car with her inside. James, Phyllis Hunhoff, and another man traveled to Norfolk, Nebraska, arriving at about 11:00 p.m. When they arrived in Norfolk, James remained in the vehicle, and the other man left the vehicle. James drove Phyllis Hunhoff’s vehicle, with her inside, to the Santee Sioux Indian Reservation in Knox County, Nebraska.
During the early morning hours of November 5, 2018, while on the Santee Sioux Indian Reservation, James killed Phyllis Hunhoff. He stabbed her with a knife and strangled her. She died in her vehicle as a result of the bleeding and strangulation. James drove Phyllis Hunhoff’s vehicle to a gas station on the Santee Sioux Indian Reservation. Video from the gas station showed James putting gasoline into her vehicle and driving away. Later, James returned in the same vehicle to the gas station and pumped gasoline into a soda bottle. James put the bottle containing the gasoline into the vehicle. He then drove to a wooded location on the Santee Sioux Indian Reservation in Knox County, Nebraska, where he set fire to Hunhoff’s body and her vehicle to conceal evidence of the murder. He abandoned the body and vehicle and left the area.
Law enforcement officers investigated the murder and obtained evidence, including surveillance footage of James at the gas station during the early morning hours of November 5, 2018. Santee Police recovered the shirt James was wearing when he killed Phyllis Hunhoff. Her DNA was on James’ shirt. James’s DNA was on clothing Phyllis Hunhoff was wearing when he killed her.
“Your conduct has taken a life and altered the lives of others,” Judge Brian C. Buescher told James before imposing a life sentence. “I hope you remember the pain you caused for everyday of your sentence which will be for the rest of your life.”
U.S. Attorney Kelly stated, “This was a brutal, horrific, and senseless murder and we hope that today’s life sentence brings some small comfort for the family.”
FBI Omaha Special Agent in Charge Kristi Johnson said, “The Santee Sioux Nation Tribal Police, Knox County Sheriff and Nebraska State Patrol partnered with FBI Omaha to investigate the brutal murder of Phyllis Hunhoff. Those efforts brought us to Joseph James’s life sentence today. The FBI will continue to work with our law enforcement and Native American partners and to fight crime on tribal land.”
The case was investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Nebraska State Patrol, Knox County Sheriff’s Office, Santee Sioux Nation Tribal Police, Yankton County Sheriff’s Office, Yankton Police Department (South Dakota), Norfolk Police Department, the University of Nebraska Medical Center, the Nebraska State Fire Marshal, and the Lincoln Police Department.
The case was prosecuted by Assistant United States Attorneys Jody B. Mullis and Sean P. Lynch.