Cop: Blood ties suspect to murders

Jerry Nemnich in court wearing orange jumpsuit

Blood found inside an apartment where a Grand Junction mother and daughter were killed in 1975 matched the DNA of the man suspected of murdering them, a Grand Junction police detective testified Wednesday.

Detective Sean Crocker testified that a drop of blood inside a cereal box, a drop of blood on an ashtray and blood found on victim Linda Benson’s chest matched DNA collected from 64-year-old Jerry Nemnich. Crocker said police believe Nemnich accidentally cut himself with the knife he allegedly used in the slayings.

The DNA link was first reported by The Daily Sentinel. The blood match was one of several new pieces of information that emerged during a three-hour preliminary hearing for Nemnich, who’s accused of stabbing to death the 24-year-old Benson and her 5-year-old daughter, Kelley, on July 25, 1975.

Mesa County District Judge Brian Flynn ruled at the end of the hearing that there was enough evidence for prosecutors to take Nemnich to trial on two counts of first-degree murder, two counts of felony murder and single counts of first-degree burglary and second-degree burglary. Nemnich will be arraigned Sept. 30 and is expected to enter a not-guilty plea then.

Nemnich, who most recently lived in Longmont and worked as an over-the-road trucker, was arrested in April after police reopened the Benson case in 2008. Investigators reviewed old reports, re-interviewed witnesses and passed along to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation blood evidence that had been collected from the Bensons’ apartment.

In January, CBI agents tested the blood, developed a DNA profile from it and entered the profile into a computer database containing profiles of convicted offenders. The database hit on Nemnich, who had a blood sample drawn from him in 1989 while he was serving a 14-year prison sentence for rape, according to court records.

CBI agent Cynthia Kramer testified that a saliva sample police took from Nemnich following his April arrest matched the blood found in the Bensons’ apartment. Referring to the DNA profile developed from the blood inside the cereal box, she said the odds of a white male other than Nemnich having the exact same profile were greater than 1 in 40 quintillion. A quintillion is equal to one billion billions.

Prosecutors primarily played up the DNA match during Wednesday’s hearing. But they also introduced evidence that Nemnich lived in Grand Junction at the time of the July 1975 murders.

Crocker testified that Nemnich’s girlfriend in 1975, Sandy Higgins, told police in an interview earlier this year that Nemnich came home one night during the summer of 1975 with blood all over his jeans. Crocker said Higgins told her Nemnich indicated “he got into a fight with an American Indian at a bar.”

Higgins and Nemnich lived together in Grand Junction at the time, Crocker testified.

Under cross-examination, Crocker said Higgins was surprised when police contacted her the day after Nemnich was arrested and informed her they suspected him of murder.

“She told us it didn’t seem to fit the Jerry she used to know,” Crocker said.

The detective also testified that George Conroy, who was dating Higgins’ best friend at the time, told police Nemnich and Higgins visited them in Denver days after the Benson murders. He said Nemnich wrote two bad checks on July 28 and 29 to purchase alcohol from a liquor store where Conroy worked.

The checks were in the name of Jerry and Sandra Nemnich and showed a printed address of a motel at 1430 North Ave. That address was crossed off, and an address for a mobile home at 2850 Texas Ave. was written next to it, Crocker testified.

The motel at 1430 North Ave., which no longer exists, was located about eight blocks from the Bensons’ apartment.

In other testimony, former Detective Jim Fromm described the grisly scene officers combed through after Steve Benson returned from working in Hayden for a week and found the bodies of his common-law wife and her daughter.

Fromm, who worked for the department from 1973 to 1976, said Linda Benson’s nude body was on the floor of the master bedroom. Kelley Benson’s body was in a hallway. He said Linda Benson was stabbed in her back and chest, indicating she fought back against her attacker.

Crocker said autopsies indicated Linda Benson was stabbed at least five times in her neck, back and chest. She also had several slash marks and bruises on her body, and the base of her skull was fractured.

Kelley Benson was stabbed eight times in the chest. The knife was turned 360 degrees in one of the stab wounds, Crocker said.

Public defenders Steve Colvin and Ryan Esplin questioned Fromm and Crocker about how police collected and stored evidence and tried to create doubt about whether evidence in the Benson case was properly maintained. They also pressed detectives on other suspects they pursued.

But they ultimately didn’t challenge whether prosecutors had presented enough evidence for Nemnich to stand trial.

Several family members and friends of the Bensons, including Linda Benson’s mother, Barbara Rippy, and brother, Mark Himmerite, attended the hearing. They sat silently on the prosecution’s side of the courtroom.

Nemnich, who was dressed in a red jail jumpsuit, took notes but said nothing during the hearing. He continues to be held in the Mesa County Jail on $3 million bond.


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