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Friend doubts CSC professor killed himself

CHADRON - A good friend of the Chadron State math professor found bound to a tree and burned to death says that if Steven Haataja committed suicide, it would confirm his initial fears about his friend's strange disappearance.

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But Tim Sorenson of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., said he cannot believe that Haataja would have burned himself to death.

"Steve did not like pain," Sorenson said. "I couldn't have imagined this. The details are even worse than I thought."

Sorenson met Haataja when both taught at Augustana 16 years ago. He commented Tuesday, after authorities released details of the evidence found near Haataja's body, which was a discovered March 9 by two rancher in a secluded ravine south of the Chadron State campus.

By PAUL HAMMEL

CHADRON - A good friend of the Chadron State math professor found bound to a tree and burned to death says that if Steven Haataja committed suicide, it would confirm his initial fears about his friend's strange disappearance.

But Tim Sorenson of Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., said he cannot believe that Haataja would have burned himself to death.

"Steve did not like pain," Sorenson said. "I couldn't have imagined this. The details are even worse than I thought."

Sorenson met Haataja when both taught at Augustana 16 years ago. He commented Tuesday, after authorities released details of the evidence found near Haataja's body, which was a discovered March 9 by two rancher in a secluded ravine south of the Chadron State campus.

Dawes County Attorney Vance Haug said there was no evidence that anyone other than Haataja, 46, was present where he was found dead. Haug said it was possible that Haataja could have tied himself to the tree.

However, Haug said, investigators have not concluded whether Haataja was the victim of a murder or his death was an elaborately staged suicide.

"This remains an unresolved death case," he told a crowd of more than 80 people, including several Chadron State colleagues and members of Haataja's family, who gathered at the courthouse for a press conference.

The crowd listened silently as Haug, for the first time, revealed evidence and offered a timeline of the last-known activities of the first-year professor who grew up in Spearfish, S.D., and got his doctorate at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Haataja, who had taken medication for depression in the past and had attempted suicide in Lincoln in January 2006, disappeared from Chadron on Dec. 4.

He last was seen leaving his apartment about 10 p.m., shortly after withdrawing $100 from a bank ATM. He logged onto the college computer system at 11:41 p.m. from his office.

His body - described as "very badly burned and bound at the ankles and torso to a tree" - was found March 9, a short walk into the hilly Pine Ridge.

After the discovery of the body, Haug and other officials released little information. A month ago, it was revealed that Haataja had died from being burned and inhaling soot and smoke.

Rumors spread that a killer was on the loose, and frustration grew that police hadn't done more to search for the professor in this city of 5,600.

Haug said Tuesday that it was possible that Haataja could have tied himself to the tree because his hands were not tied. He said it was possible that Haataja, a large man who walked with difficulty due to a hip injury, could have walked to the site.

The county attorney said there was no evidence or fingerprints linking anyone else to the site. And he said Haatja's DNA was found on a nearly empty pint bottle of peppermint schnapps where he was found.

The professor probably was intoxicated, Haug said, and most likely died the night he disappeared. He said no evidence of any drug use was discovered.

Other items found included an unopened bottle of water, an empty sandwich-size Tupperware container, an unidentified "blob" of plastic and remnants of a flashlight, both of which had burned in the fire, and remnants of Haataja's charred clothing.

Evidence of a fire accelerant was discovered. Haug declined to identify the type, saying that some information was being withheld. He also declined to say what kind of bindings were used, but he did say it wasn't barbed wire - addressing one rumor that had circulated in Chadron.

The prosecutor also shot down speculation that the case might be a sexually related "hate crime." He said interviews with more than 100 people produced no evidence that anyone hated Haataja, a divorcee, or that he was anything other than heterosexual.

"In fact, there's surprise that the (homosexual) question is even asked," he said.

The county attorney also said there was no evidence that Haataja had contemplated suicide, although he had attempted suicide in a dissimilar manner, according to Haug, in January 2006.

Nothing in Haataja's computers, Haug said, indicated fascination with bizarre fantasies.

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