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, 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 that's a mile away.
He disappeared 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.
"We could've searched these remote areas for days and days and days, but where do you start?" said acting Chadron Police Chief Margaret Keiper.
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 news conference.
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 effeminate mannerisms.
Haataja's best friend, Tim Sorenson, said he 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 feet high.
"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.
Fellow professors at Chadron State said their colleague was looking to the future.
Assistant 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 co-workers, 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 said.
The Nebraska 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.