man suspected in the 1975 stabbing deaths is repeat offender
The man suspected in the 1975 stabbing deaths of a Grand Junction mother and daughter is a twice-convicted rapist with a history of violating his parole and eluding law enforcement.
Statements from authorities and a review of 64-year-old Jerry Nemnich’s criminal history depict a man who has lived and traveled across the western United States as an over-the-road truck driver and been in and out of trouble with the law since he was 16.
Nemnich, who most recently lived in Longmont, was arrested Wednesday at the Loma point of entry station after he crossed from Utah into Colorado on Interstate 70. He was booked into the Mesa County Jail on two counts of homicide for the slayings of 24-year-old Linda Benson and her 5-year-old daughter, Kelley.
A judge Friday set Nemnich’s bond at $3 million after Mesa County District Attorney Pete Hautzinger told her Nemnich has been arrested several times for sexual assault and once fled from a Boulder work-release program.
Nemnich’s history of sex offenses could be important to the Benson case. Retired Lt. Ron Smith, who was in charge of the original Benson investigation, told The Daily Sentinel this week that although there was no evidence that either Linda or Kelley Benson was sexually assaulted, he considered the crime “sexually motivated.” Benson was found nude, while her daughter was found dressed only in her panties. Each had been stabbed eight times.
Nemnich was advised he could face two counts of first-degree murder, which could result in life imprisonment or the death penalty if he’s convicted. Formal charges will be filed April 21.
Sporting a red jail suit, glasses and a beard, Nemnich appeared in court via closed-circuit television from the Mesa County Jail. He gave one-word answers to the judge’s questions and was expressionless throughout the 20-minute hearing. He stood with his hands on a podium, then later folded his arms across his chest.
Public Defender Jody McGuirk told the judge Nemnich “is going to explicitly assert his right to remain silent at this time.”
The details of what led police to Nemnich are contained in an arrest affidavit that remains sealed, and authorities revealed only bits and pieces of their investigation during a news conference Friday afternoon at the Grand Junction Police Department. But they hailed the arrest 34 years after the slayings as testimony to advances in technology and proof that police didn’t forget the victims or their family.
“This case is personal,” Police Chief Bill Gardner told a room full of reporters and current and retired police officers. “This is a family that has gone without closure or justice for 30 years.”
Gardner commended Cmdr. Greg Assenmacher and retired Lt. Larry Bullard for creating a cold-case unit about a year and a half ago to review some of the 17 unsolved homicides in Mesa County dating back to the 1970s. The Benson case was among the most promising, in part because authorities had strong evidence in the case.
Assenmacher, Bullard and others spent months reviewing old handwritten police reports and other evidence and trying to jog hundreds of people’s memories of events that happened nearly 34 years ago. Assenmacher and Bullard told The Daily Sentinel last July they had shipped some evidence from the Benson case, including blood, to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for DNA testing, a tool police hadn’t even heard of in the 1970s.
Gardner said police, Hautzinger and the CBI formed a task force two months ago specifically dedicated to trying to solve the Benson slayings. The CBI offered the task force space in its new Grand Junction facility.
Without saying why, Gardner said investigators honed in on Nemnich and located him in Longmont.
Hautzinger said Nemnich’s name never came up in the original investigation, and the focus on him was “more of a recent development.” He declined to elaborate.
Hautzinger said the only apparent link Nemnich had to Mesa County is a 1964 check-fraud conviction. He wouldn’t say whether Nemnich lived here previously.
Officials downplayed reports that police are looking into whether Nemnich was involved in other homicides in Colorado.
“No one involved in this investigation has used that term (serial killer),” Hautzinger said, adding that authorities are focused on the Benson case.
While Gardner and Hautzinger stood in front of a bank of cameras, a team of officers who originally worked the Benson case, including Ron Smith and investigators Jim Fromm and Doug Rushing, huddled in the back of the room.
Fromm, who attended Orchard Mesa Middle School with Linda Benson, said he has often wondered what police missed, frustrated by the fact that a “boatload” of physical evidence never translated to an arrest. Until now.
“It’s a really good feeling,” he said. “This (feeling) is going to last for a while.”
“You know what does this for me?” Bullard said in reference to the arrest, then pointed to Fromm and Rushing. “Redeeming them. They worked their tails off. They took a lot of heat.”