DNA in blood drops points to attacker being wounded
In two rounds of DNA testing, Jerry Nemnich’s DNA was matched to blood samples from five separate locations inside Linda Benson’s apartment, where the Grand Junction woman and her 5-year-old daughter were stabbed to death in July 1975, a prosecutor said Thursday.
Colorado Bureau of Investigation laboratory agents will testify that partial matches to Nemnich’s DNA profile were confirmed in yet another three locations at unit 211, inside Chateau Apartments, 1300 North 21st St., Assistant District Attorney Rich Tuttle promised jurors.
Prior to Thursday, authorities had acknowledged Nemnich’s blood had been matched to samples removed from a cereal box in the apartment’s kitchen, an ashtray and a single drop on Linda Benson’s chest. On the cereal box alone, authorities testified in an August 2009 pretrial hearing, the odds of a white male other than Nemnich having the exact same profile were greater than 1 in 40 quintillion, which is equal to one billion billions.
Suzanne Katchmar, a public defender who argued on Nemnich’s behalf, at one point Thursday conceded her client’s blood was in the Benson home, but she later suggested the state’s experts misinterpreted DNA results. Katchmar also said jurors can expect to hear about the DNA profile of an unidentified man and “possibly a second” recovered from the Benson apartment.
“What an unlucky man Jerry Nemnich must be to have only his DNA considered (by law enforcement) at that crime scene,” Katchmar said.
Nemnich, 65, sat through opening statements occasionally taking notes and conferring with attorneys on the first day of his trial on two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of felony murder in the July 25, 1975, Benson slayings.
‘A QUIET LIFE’
Gerald Ford was president, the Vietnam War was winding down, and DNA technology was decades away as Linda Benson, 24, her common-law-husband, Steve, and her daughter, Kelley Ketchum, rented a two-bedroom apartment at the Chateau, a “pretty nice place” three decades ago, Tuttle told jurors during his opening arguments.
It was July 1975.
Linda Benson spent most of her days tending to her daughter, and Steve Benson worked as a pipe fitter in Hayden, where he stayed Monday through Friday before usually heading home for the weekends.
“She (Linda Benson) worked sparingly, and they had a quiet life,” Tuttle told jurors.
The Bensons became friends with tenants above in unit 311, where Maureen Grant and her toddler lived. The two mothers’ children often played together outside; a crime scene photo from outside the apartment showed a child’s tricycle near the Benson apartment.
On July 24, Linda Benson and Maureen Grant had an afternoon yoga session, while Grant later told authorities she last saw Linda around 9 p.m. at the complex. Grant went to bed around 10:30 p.m.
“(Grant) didn’t hear or see anything that night,” Tuttle told jurors. “She heard a cat meowing (downstairs) in the morning as if it had been locked out of the apartment.”
Steve Benson, meanwhile, had left his car and a key chain, which included a key to the apartment, in Craig as he had plans to swap the vehicle for another, Tuttle said. Hitching a ride home with a co-worker, Benson arrived back in town around 8 p.m. July 25.
When he knocked on his door, nobody answered. He went upstairs and asked Grant, who said she hadn’t seen Linda or Kelley that day.
Benson told authorities he walked down to the ground level, hopped on a cooling unit to reach the balcony and opened the sliding-glass door.
“He saw something no husband, no father, no stepfather should ever have to see,” Tuttle said.
Linda Benson’s naked body was found in the master bedroom with multiple stab wounds to the chest, including a series of defensive cuts to the arms, “as if trying to fight an attacker,” Tuttle said.
Kelley’s body was lying in the hallway, her feet dangling just inside the bathroom.
“One, if not two (stab) wounds went through her lungs and heart, killing her on the spot,” the prosecutor said.
Grand Junction police, including rookie detective Jim Fromm, concluded their suspect had been wounded during the encounter, evidenced by deposits of blood throughout the apartment, including the single, clean drop on Linda Benson’s chest.
Tuttle said an investigation quickly ran out of leads: Steve Benson’s alibi in Hayden checked out, as did the alibi of Linda Benson’s stepfather, Larry Himmerite, who had a contentious relationship with his stepdaughter. Residents of Chateau Apartments also were cleared, Tuttle said.
The FBI eventually developed a profile of the probable killer for Grand Junction police: A male 16 to 30 who may have lived in the area, and if in high school, “may have gotten poor grades while in P.E. class,” Tuttle told jurors.
Police pored over lists of high-school-aged boys in local schools, cross-referencing the names of those treated around July 25 for knife wounds at local hospitals.
Nemnich was arrested in April 2009, four months after his DNA matched up with blood samples from the Benson apartment. Nemnich’s DNA had been entered into a state offender database in 1989 while serving a 14-year sentence for rape.
Tuttle told jurors they can expect to hear from two women who were sexually assaulted at knife point: one a teenager in 1960 in Nebraska and the other a 24-year-old in 1968 when she was assaulted in Pueblo. Nemnich was convicted in both crimes.