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Past and Present Come Together for a Conviction

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    Grand Junction, 1975.
Linda Benson
Kelley Ketchum

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.

Grand Junction, 2007. 

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

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

Cold Case "War Room"

 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

Cold Case "War Room"

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. 

Nemnich arrested at Loma Port of Entry in April 2009

“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.

Jerry Nemnich photo from prior arrest

“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?

Closure.

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.

“What Else Do They Do?”- Sgt. Dave Stassen

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When you ask someone what a person who works for the police department does, you’ll likely get a response of “they arrest people” or “they write tickets.”  We can’t argue with that.  But, with 180 employees within the Grand Junction Police Department, both civilian and sworn, there are many folks here who do amazing things for our community and our police department- beyond just making arrests or issuing tickets.  We want you to know about some of these people.  We hope you’ll enjoy this insight into some of the work being done as we answer “What Else Do They Do?”

“It changes every day.  No matter what happened the day before, each new day has the opportunity to be completely different.”  – Sgt. Dave Stassen

For the last 15 years Sgt. Dave Stassen has been a member of the Colorado Police Protective Association Board of Directors, twice as president.  As the largest police association in Colorado, 2400 members strong, having someone from the Western Slope in that position has proved to be key when it comes to representing the interests of agencies such as our own.

“In the last 15 years, being able to see the changes we’ve made has been great,” said Sgt. Stassen.  “We’ve helped change it from a labor association to an organization that represents all parts of law enforcement in Colorado.”

Now, with the most recent CPPA conference complete, Sgt. Stassen is stepping down from the Board.  He has some notable issues he’s worked on during his time with the CPPA, including the annual District Attorney Council’s omnibus bill that covers topics from child sex abuse to DUIs to jail overcrowding.

“We have a great opportunity to be influential in issues of statewide concern,” Sgt. Stassen adds.

The Grand Junction Police Department, which was one of the founding members in 1922, will continue to have a strong presence with the CPPA.  Cpl. Suzette Friedenberger will take Sgt. Stassen’s place on the nine member board, along with Ofc. Brian Frasier who is the secretary, and retired Ofc. Paul Frey.  Together they will continue to work with the state    legislature and lobbyists on issues that affect us, giving up one full weekend a month plus time for phone calls during the week.

It’s not the extra time commitment that made Sgt. Stassen decide it was time to pass the baton.  Rather it’s the success of the organization he’s helped shape.

“After 15 years I decided the state association was on a solid track to provide the best services possible for officers statewide,” Sgt. Stassen said.  “Officers from a newer generation need to be encouraged to step up and continue the work that those of us who came before have started.”

We are grateful for the work Sgt. Stassen has done with the CPPA in representing Western Slope law enforcement issues.  Here are some other highlights of his career:

  • At the age of 16, Sgt. Stassen first started his work with the GJPD as a volunteer Police Cadet.
  • During the summers, Sgt. Stassen worked as a Parks Patrol Officer from 1987 to 1990. 
  • In 1991 he was sworn in as a Grand Junction Police Officer.
  • In 2008 he was promoted to seargent. 
  • Among many other duties as a GJPD officer, Sgt. Stassen is currently working on the county wide switch to a unified records management and dispatch system which will allow all law enforcement agencies in Mesa County to share information more efficiently.  The expected completion for that project is April 2011.

Other things Sgt. Stassen has said:

“It changes every day.  No matter what happened the day before, each new day has the opportunity to be completely different.”

When a Sexually Violent Predator Moves to Town

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This week there have been a couple of different pieces of news regarding sexually violent predators (SVPs).  It kicked off when we started spreading the word an SVP wanted out of Wyoming was believed to be in Grand Junction.  42-year-old Edward James McCabe had an active warrant for several counts of Sex Assault on a Child and left Wyoming without notifying the proper authorities as required by law in that state.  Working with the Lovell, Wyoming police department we were able to determine he was in our area, we just couldn’t find an exact time and place where he would be so we could pick him up.  It turns out, though, the heat we were putting on him during our search here was enough for him to head back to Wyoming, where the Cody, WY police department got a tip on his location and arrested him.

McCabe received the label Sexually Violent Predator by the courts because of his convictions.  While he is no longer here, there are now a total of 3 SVPs living either in Mesa County or within the Grand Junction city limits; the newest one just moved in this week.  There are some differences between SVPs and other registered sex offenders.  An SVP is a sex offender that also meets criteria set by the state and who has had an assessment done that determined they are at a higher risk of reoffending.  Whenever they move to a new area or change addresses the agency whose jurisdiction they are living in is required by law to notify the public.  That’s why you will see us alerting the media, posting information on websites, calling community meetings, or placing informational programs on Cable Channel 12 with information about SVPs.

So, do you need to be more worried about an SVP as opposed to any other registered sex offender?  Yes and no.  Assessments show SVPs are more likely to reoffend, which is of course a concern, but the requirements placed on SVPs are more strict in regards to how often they have to check in with law enforcement.  For example, here at the GJPD SVPs are required to check in with the person who manages our sex offenders every week, regardless if they are still under supervised probation or parole.  That’s in addition to periodic address checks we do throughout the year.  And remember, every time they change their address, we send out a notification, which is not true for other sex offenders.

What about protecting yourself and your family?  There are several things you can do- most importantly know who’s living around your home, your place of work, and your children’s schools.  That’s easy to do, thanks to a team effort by all of the law enforcement agencies in Mesa County.  We’ve created a single website that lists every registered sex offender living in the county, including SVPs.  There are pictures and a map, and you can search the site a number of different ways.  Both the Grand Junction Police Department and the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office have a link to an educational video about SVPs too.  The only catch is state law does not allow us to put the names and pictures of people with juvenile or misdemeanor convictions on the website.  While the site will let you know if those types of offender are living in your area, to get their name and picture you’ll have to stop by the law enforcement agency that has jurisdiction for that address.

Kids need to be educated too.  Let them know if there’s a house in your neighborhood you don’t want them playing in front of, or if there’s a neighbor you don’t want them to trick-or-treat at.    Don’t let them go door-to-door for fundraisers.  And, when your kids are out, know who they are with.  What most people don’t consider is most sex offenders, including SVPs, are people the victim knows.  If you ever suspect there’s something inappropriate going on with your child start asking questions and look into it.

There’s one more key piece of information you need to consider when we talk about SVPs.  The law says unless there are specific restrictions placed on them when they are sentenced, SVPs have the same right to live wherever they want, just like you do.  We as a police department can’t regulate that.  So, if an SVP does move into your neighborhood, and you don’t like that, you still don’t have the right to harass, threaten, or intimidate the offender or the offender’s family.  There’s a major benefit to you and the community for the anti-vigilantism law- we don’t want sex offenders to go underground and hide.  If we can continue to have our sex offenders register their addresses and places of work with us, then we can keep track of them and know where they are.  That gives you as a member of the community more power to make informed choices, and that is exactly what we want.

If you ever have questions regarding sex offenders, feel free to stop by the police department at 625 Ute Ave. or call us at 970-244-3555.  The Colorado Bureau of Investigation also offers information on the web regarding sex offenders.

“What Else Do They Do?”- Sgt. Lonnie Chavez

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When you ask someone what a person who works for the police department does, you’ll likely get a response of “they arrest people” or “they write tickets.”  We can’t argue with that.  But, with 180 employees within the Grand Junction Police Department, both civilian and sworn, there are many folks here who do amazing things for our community and our police department- beyond just making arrests or issuing tickets.  We want you to know about some of these people.  We hope you’ll enjoy this insight into some of the work being done as we answer “What Else Do They Do?”

“I just do my stuff, and I’m happy to be here.”

Out of the tens of thousands of law enforcement officers in the entire state, coupled with all of the civilians in Colorado who are working to end domestic violence, Grand Junction Police Sgt. Lonnie Chavez stands out from the rest.

When Sgt. Lonnie Chavez was promoted to his current rank he received an assignment that would help shape the work he does today, work that resulted in him being one of two people in the entire state to receive the 2010 Colorado Coalition Against Domestic Violence “Make a Difference Award.”

Sgt. Chavez was tasked with looking at the victims of domestic violence cases and seeing how many times they go back to their offenders.  Sgt. Chavez began documenting the cycle of violence and looking for ways to help those involved in the highest number of incidents.

“It can be frustrating when the victim doesn’t understand the cycle they’re involved in,” said Sgt. Chavez.

But that doesn’t mean Sgt. Chavez gives up on those victims.  Instead, he works harder, teaching younger officers how to go beyond the appearance of a situation and to dig deeper into what is really happening with each domestic violence incident they respond to.

“I want to bring more information about domestic violence to the police department,” Sgt. Chavez adds.  “I want to help our people feel more comfortable when it comes to making decisions when they respond to calls, and to look at the history of the relationship and what it can mean for the present case.”

This award is a nice recognition of the years of work Sgt. Chavez had dedicated to the fight against domestic violence.  Here are some of the highlights:

  • Has been a member of the Mesa County Domestic Violence Task Force for the last 3 years
  • Started teaching at the Western Colorado Peace Officers Academy (police academy) in 2007
  • Is an instructor for the Domestic Violence Academy, which is an annual 2-day training for professionals in the industry
  • Teaches basic and advanced domestic violence and sex assault courses

Things Sgt. Chavez has said about what he does:

“Work against domestic violence is such a female dominated area that I think it’s good that I can offer a different perspective.”

“I keep learning, even as long as I’ve been working with domestic violence cases, that there’s an amazing amount of resources out there for victims.”

“You don’t hear about domestic violence a lot in the news.  It’s an uncomfortable crime to talk about.  But, I can guarantee nearly everyone has been affected by domestic violence or knows someone who has.”

“Receiving the award is very humbling, it’s something I didn’t expect.”

Flying with the Veterans

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On October 5th and 6th GJPD Commander Greg Assenmacher had the privilege to be a guardian for two Grand Valley World War II veterans as they traveled on the latest Honor Flight.  Commander Assenmacher was gracious enough to share a few of the many memories this trip created for him and the 106 veterans.

As I awoke this morning, Tuesday October 12th, I couldn’t help but reflect on my experience last Tuesday (Oct 5th) as be part of the Western Slope Honor Flight.  The mission of this group is transport our country’s World War II veterans to Washington D.C. to visit memorials dedicated to their honor, their service and their sacrifice.  As a nation our debt to these heroic men and valiant women may never be repaid, however I saw an expression of gratitude to these heroes throughout our trip, and came away with many more stories than I have room to share with you here.
On the evening of October 5th a Brigadier General assigned to the Pentagon came out to speak with the vets at dinner.  Although I am sure his career keeps his schedule full, he took the time to be with the Honor Flight veterans to share a few personal stories of his childhood life growing up in Salida, Colorado and how he was inspired by their generation and later felt a sense of pride to serve our country as well.  For him, it was an honor and to come out to see these men and woman and to pay tribute and salute them for fighting and winning the most devastating war in American’s history.
At each Memorial (WW-II, Korean, Vietnam)  visited the following day by these veterans I witnessed the American people who were there as tourists, including girl scouts, high school field trips, and citizens pay tribute to these vets by thanking them, hugging them or giving them personal hand made cards expressing their thanks and appreciation.  These simple ways of saying thanks for their service had such an impact on me that I cannot even imagine the full impact their small tributes made on the veterans.
During our return flight back to Grand Junction the Veterans had a “Mail Call”, just like their military days, in which they received packets of letters from students, City & County officials and family members recognizing them for their service and how they inspired future generation to come.  Upon our landing these Vets were greeted by more than 100 police and fire officers and another 400 plus community members who came out to honor them in a special ceremony in the terminal at the airport.  While the marble structures, statues and stars of the D.C. memorials were impressive, the heart warming welcome back to Grand Junction is a memory that these men and woman will never forget.  So, as a guardian on this flight and seeing first hand the tribute paid to these men and woman, I’m proud to be part of such an event and a member of a community who made this two day trip (35 hours) so special to “The Greatest Generation” of Americans who emerged from the depression and triumphed in a war allowing us the freedom and individual rights we enjoy today.

Do You Know Where These Two Men Are?

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Juan Martinez
Miguel Martinez

The Grand Junction Police Department is asking for the public’s help in locating two men wanted in connection with an investigation into an assault that escalated to two men being run over by a pickup.  Just before 2:00 this morning, police were dispatched to the Tequila’s Bar on Hwy 6 & 50 for an assault.  When the first officer got to that area he found two men with traumatic injuries near the Carl’s Junior restaurant.  Officers also found a woman who had injuries to her face. 

 The investigation at this point shows 23-year-old Miguel Martinez of Grand Junction assaulted the woman and then got into a truck driven by his brother, 29-year-old Juan Martinez, also of Grand Junction.  Witnesses say the men were driving around in the area and ran over two men.  Those two victims suffered serious injuries and were taken to St. Mary’s Hospital. 

 GJPD Detectives have obtained arrest warrants for both Miguel Martinez and Juan Martinez.  Miguel faces a 3rd degree assault charge which is a class one misdemeanor.  Juan’s charges include 2 counts of attempted 2nd degree murder and 2 counts of vehicular assault. 

 We are asking for anyone who may know where Juan and Miguel Martinez are, or who knows where we can find the vehicle they were in, to call 242-6707.  The pickup is a 2003 gold Dodge truck with Colorado license plate 588 TDM. 

 At this point we have not been able to identify one of the men who were run over.  If anyone has information about this incident they can call the Grand Junction Police Department at 242-6707, call Crime Stoppers at 241-STOP, send the information via the web at www.241stop.com, or text a tip to CRIMES (274637) with the word TIP729 in the message.  The identity of the person providing the information will remain anonymous.

Get Rid Of Your Unwanted Prescriptions

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Clean out your medicine cabinet and get rid of your unwanted, unneeded, outdated, or just plain useless prescription drugs THE SAFE WAY.  This Saturday, September 25, the Grand Junction Police Department is taking part in the National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day.  From 10 am to 2 pm you can drop off unused, expired medications with absolutely no questions asked.  There are several locations throughout the Grand Valley, including the GJPD at the corner of 6th St. and Ute Ave.

There’s a good reason we’re doing this.  Having a bunch of prescription medications lying around people’s homes is a leading cause of accidental poisoning, overdose, and abuse.  In fact, some pharmaceutical drugs taken without a doctor’s prescription are just as dangerous as taking illicit drugs.  Here are some stats for you:

  • According to the 2008 National Survey on Drug Use and Health the non-medical use of prescription drugs ranks second only to marijuana as the most prevalent category of drug abuse in the U.S.
  • That same survey found more Americans currently abuse prescription drugs than the number of those abusing cocaine, hallucinogens, and heroin combined.
  • The 2009 Monitoring the Future Survey found one in ten 12th graders use the narcotic Vicodin for non-medical purposes.
  • The 2008 Partnership Attitude Tracking Survey showed the majority of teenagers using prescription drugs got them from family and friends, including from their home medicine cabinets.

The best part about this program is you don’t have to pay anything to participate.  Simply stop in at a participating location, put your unwanted medications in the box, and walk out.  You’re done.  There are some things we cannot accept.  See a full list of those items and the complete list of participating locations here.