Father waits for call in daughter’s unsolved slaying

Deborah Tomlinson

Mack rancher Jim Tomlinson pauses for a moment and purses his lips as he discusses the decades that have passed since the 1975 murder of his daughter Debbie.


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For 35 years, horror and hope have come with phone calls for Mack-area rancher Jim Tomlinson.

The 73-year-old keeps a cellular phone in the pocket of his work shirt and rises early most mornings, tending to his cattle roaming west-valley lands he has worked over a lifetime, much of it the same property his father worked before him.

A recent interview was interrupted by hungry herds of cattle.

“They’re waiting for me, and you’re on their list,” Tomlinson told a reporter with a disapproving grin, upon learning in a phone call he had wayward animals.

Tomlinson took a very different phone call on the night of Dec. 27, 1975.

A Daily Sentinel reporter had phoned the family’s ranch. Tomlinson answered.

“He wanted to know who Debbie Tomlinson’s siblings were. I asked him, ‘What’s going on?’ And I think he realized then I hadn’t been contacted yet by police.”

Deborah Kathleen Tomlinson, 19, was found earlier that evening in her apartment, 1029 Belford Ave., Unit 6, lying partially clothed in a bathtub. She had been sexually assaulted, bound and strangled. A gash on her forehead suggests she may have fought with her attacker, but there’s no evidence a weapon was used, authorities have said.

A woman who managed the 20-unit apartment complex, which was home at the time to numerous Mesa College students, found Tomlinson’s body around 6 p.m., after using a pass key to enter Tomlinson’s locked unit. The manager had become worried after repeated phone calls went unanswered. She noticed a bedroom window open and heard a toilet running.

The bathroom light was the only fixture “on” in the apartment, according to an early Daily Sentinel account.

Large metal trash bins on the property were hauled away in a search for evidence by Grand Junction Police Department investigators in what was the sixth Mesa County murder of 1975, later pegged as “the killing season.”

‘Nothing productive’

Tomlinson was last seen at the apartment complex approximately three hours before her body was found.Bystanders speculated in a Sentinel story that an attacker may have entered Tomlinson’s ground-floor apartment from the open bedroom window, which faced a parking lot. Dalton Tanonaka, a classmate of Tomlinson’s at Mesa College whose apartment unit was near Tomlinson’s, told a reporter he woke from a nap around 5:30 p.m., hearing a man and woman in a “heated” argument, according to the paper’s Dec. 28, 1975, edition.

Two weeks later, police working Tomlinson’s case announced they were seeking a man in his 20s or 30s, possibly wearing a black, waist-length, zip-up jacket and dark-rimmed glasses, for questioning. The man reportedly was knocking on strangers’ doors at another Grand Junction apartment.

At the same time, a detective reported “nothing productive” as far as leads.

Today, police said they can’t attach much meaning to accounts of an argument, nor the man’s description. Grand Junction Police Cmdr. Mike Nordine said he didn’t know if the mystery man ever was accounted for.

“Without something more attached to it, without saying Tomlinson was involved (on reports of raised voices), you’re talking about an apartment complex full of college kids, and you hear those things pretty regularly,” Nordine said.

Friends of Tomlinson’s underwent hypnosis by detectives to help create a composite drawing of a man who had recently dated Tomlinson.

With the Grand Junction Police Department also working the unsolved murders of Linda Benson, 24, and Kelley Ketchum, 5, from July 1975, a task force consisting of city, county and state law enforcement agencies was gathered in January 1976. Four months later, the group disbanded after making little progress.

The task force’s work was highlighted by the defense in last year’s trial of 66-year-old Jerry Nemnich, who was convicted and sentenced in November to life in prison for the Benson murders.

The Benson and Tomlinson crime scenes are roughly 12 blocks apart. Authorities know Nemnich lived at a now-defunct east North Avenue hotel, and a home on 28 1/2 Road and Texas Avenue.

But while police said they can’t conclusively rule Nemnich in or out as a suspect in Tomlinson’s murder, they don’t encourage the notion of involvement.

Nordine points to testimony from Nemnich’s trial. The killer’s former girlfriend in Grand Junction from 1975 told jurors that they moved away from the area in the fall of 1975.

“We have a harder time showing his presence in Grand Junction in December 1975 than we did for July 1975,” Nordine said.

Under court order, Nemnich provided DNA to investigators in the weeks after his arrest in March 2009, for additional DNA testing. Authorities have declined comment on the results.

Police early in the Tomlinson-Benson cases highlighted dissimilarities between the two crime scenes. Then and now, however, they praise the quality of work at the two scenes, both yielding a trove of biological evidence.

Police Cmdr. Greg Assenmacher, assisted by retired police officer and Mesa County Sheriff’s Department deputy Larry Bullard, along with retired FBI agent and New Castle resident Phil Walter, dusted off the Benson and Tomlinson cases in 2007. They were worked together until Nemnich’s DNA turned up in an offender database, matching blood removed from the Benson family apartment.

“Tomlinson’s evidence is just as good as Benson’s,” Assenmacher said.

Evidence in Tomlinson’s case was submitted to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation lab for testing some two years ago, and some of it still remains in-line, some of which they’ve already received back, according to Nordine.

Evidence is expected to be shipped by the CBI to the FBI for additional testing, according to Nordine. He didn’t specify the evidence, nor whether lab work so far generated a possible DNA profile for a suspect.

Serial killer Ted Bundy, once eyed for possible involvement in Tomlinson’s murder, is believed to have been incarcerated elsewhere at the time of Tomlinson’s murder, authorities have said.

“Certainly this is a case we’d like to clear ... this one as much, if not more, because we’ve had some recent contact with her family,” Nordine said. “You feel for all the families in these cases, particularly those that still have family here and alive.”

‘Were you the one?’

Jim Tomlinson said his phone rings about once a month, with Grand Junction detectives reporting whatever is news in the DNA waiting game.

“They’ve been real good to me,” he said.

A widower, Tomlinson’s surviving children have since moved to Rangely and Nebraska. Certain things will trigger a memory of Deborah, like the horses and cows she loved while attending Fruita
Monument High School, he said. He still keeps a few photos of her around the home, where Deborah gathered with family for Christmas two days before her murder. She brought a box of candy

“For a long time, when someone would pull into the yard, everyone I looked at I’d wonder, ‘Were you the one?” he said, taking a deep breath.

He still gets that way from time to time.

“Yep, sure do,” Tomlinson said.


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