Some of the folks who were around Grand Junction in 1975 called it the “killing season.” There were multiple murders, multiple tragedies, multiple families suffering tremendous losses.
One of those cases involved a beautiful young woman, Linda Benson, and her 5-year-old daughter Kelley Ketchum, who were murdered in an exceptionally horrible way in their apartment in 1975. Detectives from the Grand Junction Police Department launched a top-notch investigation, gathering hundreds of pieces of evidence, and speaking to dozens of people who may hold the clue to who did this. It was their work that would provide a solid foundation for what would become a guilty verdict.
For years, theories spread throughout the community. Was it the husband? Was it someone she knew? Or could it have been a complete stranger? It would take 35 years to get the answer.
In 2007 GJPD Commander Greg Assenmacher, at the time overseeing the Investigations Unit, laid a fresh set of eyes on what had long since become a cold case.
“After reviewing the case and seeing the traumatic event I felt we, as a police department, needed to do everything we could to try to bring a resolution for the victims’ family and bring someone to justice,” Cmdr. Assenmacher said at the time.
Current detectives had the one thing their 1975 colleagues didn’t: DNA technology. It would prove to be the key link between a scene now more than 30 years old, and a suspect.
Blood samples collected from the apartment had been held in storage the entire time, and in those samples was DNA from Jerry Nemnich. His blood was on various items within the apartment, in multiple rooms, even on the body of Linda Benson.
Cmdr. Assenmacher enlisted the help of retired GJPD officer Larry Bullard. Bullard, who volunteered most of the time he spent working on this case, worked tirelessly, hunting down clue after clue.
“In 1975, the officers did an impeccable job. If they hadn’t done their job the way they did, we wouldn’t have been able to do our job,” Bullard said.
Eventually the ultimate clue was revealed.
Grand Junction, 2009.
In January 2009 the Colorado Bureau of Investigations completed its analysis of some of the blood samples from the apartment. The result? a 1-in-1-quintillion(1,000,000,000,000,000,000) chance the blood belonged to someone other than Jerry Nemnich. A viable suspect had been revealed.
Jerry Nemnich, now 65 years old, was very familiar with the prison system. His first felony conviction came at the age of 15, with four more to follow. Two of those convictions included brutal rapes in which he held his victims at knife point, threatening to kill them. Nemnich was in and out of prison until the age of 50.
Current detectives had a dilemma when deciding how and when to contact Nemnich. Give him the heads up and he might run and disappear forever. Not talk to him and the people who know him, and they might miss out on some key information. In the end, the strategy they came up with worked.
In February 2009 the GJPD, along with the CBI and the DA’s office formed a task force, under
the direction of current GJPD Investigations Commander Mike Nordine. The plan: build a background on Nemnich by tracking down and talking to people who knew him in 1975 but who aren’t in contact with him now. GJPD Detective Sean
Crocker was assigned as the case agent, and he and CBI Agent Brooks Bennett began a months long journey that would take them across the country and into homes of people who hadn’t thought about Jerry Nemnich for decades. They were able to gain valuable information and evidence, including 2 bounced checks Nemnich wrote just days after the murder, that not only placed him in Grand Junction at the time, but showed he lived very near to the crime scene.
Detective Crocker says the biggest arrest he’s ever made came in April 2009. After working with Nemnich’s employer, an over the road trucking company, detectives were able to convince Nemnich’s bosses to route him through the Loma Port of Entry as he returned from a trip. Officers were waiting, and took him into custody.
“I personally handcuffed a murder suspect from the 1970s. It was unreal. It was very surreal,” Det. Crocker said.
What did Nemnich have to say when they told him he was under arrest?
“Not a word,” Crocker said.
Grand Junction, 2010.
Following the arrest, the task force work continued. Additional blood samples were analyzed. More interviews were conducted. What would be presented to a jury was gathered, scrutinized, and planned. And those on the task force tracked down what turned out to be some valuable witnesses.
In 1960 Nemnich raped a 15-year-old girl at knifepoint. In 1968 Nemnich raped a woman in Pueblo at knifepoint. Investigators knew their stories could be emotional accounts that could prove useful during trial. But after decades had passed, finding them would be tough. GJPD Investigation Sgt. Tony Clayton began with some internet searches for their names, but came up with nothing. Then he took a shot in the dark.
“I thought maybe she still has a relative that lives in Colorado, so I put in her last name she was using in 1968 and came up with about 60 people,” Sgt. Clayton says referring to the 1968 victim. “I just picked one of the people on the list and called that person. As luck would have it, that person turned out to be a relative of the woman we were looking for.”
It was a similar search that led Sgt. Clayton to a 1960 Nemnich rape victim. This time help from a police department in the town where she was raped was the key link.
Finding the women was difficult. Convincing them to break open wounds and relive their ordeals was even harder.
“This was in their past, decades ago, and we were dredging it up again. People in their families didn’t even know about these cases, and all of the sudden they were going to be exposed.”
It was a tough sell, but after explaining the importance of them telling their story to a jury they realized “this guy needed to be put away.”
What the detectives and prosecutors didn’t have was a conversation with Nemnich; he declined to speak with them. In fact, the first time they heard any of Nemnich’s account of what took place in 1975 came at the same time the rest of the public heard it; during his surprise testimony a week into his trial. Det. Crocker got word he was going to testify shortly before he took the stand.
“I thought this is going to be good…. this is going to be good,” Det. Crocker said. “To see what story he’s made up either in the last 35 years or the last 5 minutes.”
Nemnich’s story put him right at the crime scene. The Daily Sentinel did a good job of recounting Nemnich’s story, a story in which he proclaimed his innocence saying he stumbled upon the bodies after being attacked by a knife-wielding person.
“The defense had worked so hard to shoot holes in the evidence, the DNA, and then he put himself right there at the scene.”
Unfortunately for Nemnich, his testimony contradicted much of the evidence. And then District Attorney Pete Hautzinger dropped two bombshells during his closing arguments. Nemnich testified he simply put his fingers on the throats of Linda and Kelley to check for a pulse after they were already dead. Hautzinger then asked the jury if that were true, then how did Nemnich’s DNA end up underneath Linda’s fingernails? And if Nemnich entered the apartment through the open front door and ran out after finding the bodies, why was the front door closed and locked from the inside when Linda’s husband came home the next day and found Linda and Kelley?
The jury began their deliberations at 9 am on October 26th. They wouldn’t announce they had a verdict until late in the afternoon on the 27th, nearly two full days later. It’s said that if a jury takes a long time to deliberate, it’s good news for the defense. But, that’s not always how it turns out. Det. Crocker never doubted the case, though, and never doubted what the jury would come back with.
“We had a strong case. There was a lot of evidence to look through. There was the testimony from Nemnich’s prior victims. If I was a juror I’d want to look through all of that stuff.”
Det. Crocker’s faith was upheld. So was Larry Bullard’s, who also said there was never a doubt in his mind. The jury came back with guilty verdicts on the two counts of 1st degree murder, and guilty of felony murder for Linda Benson. The mandatory sentence for 1st degree murder is life in prison without the possibility of parole.
There weren’t any outbursts in the courtroom when the verdict was read. There wasn’t any wailing or crying. There were some tears, though. You could see the flood of emotions flowing through Linda and Kelley’s family members, but mostly what appeared to be relief mixed with gratitude. Some of the investigators who had put so much time and effort into this were choked up too, and there were lots of hugs going around. Nearly everyone just seemed glad it was over.
“We opened a wound that was 32-years-old at the time,” said Bullard in reference to Linda and Kelley’s family. “They were at a point where they were going on with their lives and all of a sudden we brought this to the front of their minds again.”
Bullard did have something to say to Linda’s mother, Barbara Rippy, as the courtroom began to clear.
“Finally. Sorry it took so long.”
Barbara’s response, “Thank you.”
In fact Barbara could be heard telling anyone who helped with this case “thank you,” and she backed it up with big hugs. One could only imagine what this has been like for her.
Around the Police Department this case, and now the verdict has been the big topic of discussion. People here are relieved it’s over, and relieved the jury came to the conclusion they did.
“They took their job very seriously, and they did a good job with it,” says Bullard.
There are some pats on the back for the folks who were involved in the investigation too. Their hard work paid off. But if you ask the people who were closest to this case what they’re feeling today they may not be able to sum it up. That’s because the real inspiration for what they did, Linda and Kelley, are still gone. They just hope their family will finally feel some peace after 35 years.