It’s been nearly 45 years since the body of 19-year-old Deborah Tomlinson was found bound, sexually assaulted and strangled to death in a Grand Junction apartment. Forty-five years of not knowing when or if the truth about what happened that day would ever come to light.
“I was beginning to wonder if the case was going to outlive me or not,” her father, now 82, Jim Tomlinson said on Thursday. “It’s the kind of thing that never goes out of your mind. It’s been there for 45 years.”
The once cold case has been officially closed, the Grand Junction Police Department announced on Wednesday.
Through DNA evidence, investigators identified Jimmie Dean Duncan, 26 at the time, as the man who killed Tomlinson’s daughter. Though Duncan reportedly died in 1987, this revelation still provided closure and satisfaction for a father left in the dark for decades.
“This is a huge load of my mind,” Tomlinson said. And, despite the fact that he will never see his daughter’s killer convicted in a trial, he was relieved for the case to finally be over. “There have been a lot of dead ends over the years.”
He could recall time after time when detectives would say they had a new suspect but it wouldn’t lead anywhere. He can now remember the day he watched GJPD Detective Sergeant Sean Crocker stroll up to the house to tell him the good news after all these years.
Deborah Tomlinson’s murder came during a particularly dark period of Grand Junction’s history. According to the Sunday, Dec. 28, 1975 edition of The Daily Sentinel, which came out hours after Tomlinson’s body was discovered, the 19-year-old was the 11th Mesa County homicide victim of the year.
“College coed murdered in city,” the headline read.
”A 19-year-old Mesa College coed was slain Saturday in her small Grand Junction apartment. The woman, Deborah, “Debi” Kathleen Tomlinson, of Belford Apartments, was discovered bound and dead in her bathtub,” the Sentinel article said.
Tomlinson became the year’s sixth murder case in Mesa County and the 11th victim, joining Linda Benson, 24, and her five-year-old daughter, who were found stabbed to death by the woman’s husband on July 25, 1975. Less than a month later, on Aug. 23, 1975, four people, including two young children, were reported missing and their bodies were found a month later in the Gunnison River weighted down with railroad ties.
Detective Crocker said 1975 was dubbed the “Year of Fear” in Grand Junction. This is now the second cold case he has been part of resolving from that bloody year.
“I was part of the Linda Benson case. We had blood evidence that we collected from that scene. We took that blood evidence and put it into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS)and we got a hit,” Crocker said. “We got a letter from the Colorado Bureau of Investigations stating this is the person you are looking for, go find him.”
Crocker said detectives compared that DNA to the DNA collected at the crime scene in 1975 and they matched up 100%. Longmont resident Jerry Nemnich was subsequently sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for stabbing Benson and her daughter to death in 2010, according to The Denver Post.
The same CODIS system that helped convict Nemnich is the one used to identify Duncan as Tomlinson’s alleged killer.
“In the 1970s and early ‘80s, all you could do was blood typing: A+, B, O, O+ etc. They didn’t have DNA. So crime scene evidence was collected and sat in our evidence warehouse for some 30 to 40 years,” Crocker explained.
In March of 2019, the Tomlinson case was opened back up. Detectives started pouring over old notes and interviews. Nobody currently at the GJPD was a part of the original investigation.
“They did an amazing job with what they were presented with at the time,” Crocker said.
He said each of the detectives at the crime scene used a different colored pen when making notes so that, years later, others could see their different interpretations of what they saw.
“Some of these investigators that worked the case, this was their first homicide ever. They had never worked a homicide,” Crocker added. There were reportedly four separate homicide investigations involving two or more victims in 1975.
Those first investigators also didn’t have CODIS.
”What we did was send off the DNA to the lab, which broke it down ... and led us to the suspect (Duncan),” Crocker explained.
Detectives put him in the Grand Junction-area at the time of the murder through interviews and, using DNA samples from one of Duncan’s relatives, they were able to get a match. Essentially, detectives were able to match DNA found at Tomlinson’s crime scene to Duncan’s using CODIS.
The new system looks at genetic genealogy and uses advanced DNA testing in combination with innovative genetic analysis, sophisticated identification techniques and traditional genealogical methods to establish the relationship between an individual and his/her ancestors. For forensic investigations, it is used to generate highly informative leads as to the possible identity of an unknown victim or offender, according to the GJPD.
Crocker said that Duncan’s relative consented to the test, but if they didn’t, he believed there was enough evidence for the court to demand the sample. He also said detectives were able to eliminate the relative as a suspect.
“We work these cases very intimately, we re-live them and want closure,” he added. “I picked the baton up and ran with it and am blessed to be able to jump in and close some of these cases for the families.”
GJPD Chief of Police Doug Shoemaker said solving these types of cases is very important to the department and its detectives. And, while not every case is solved, the GJPD hopes to continue to provide answer to the victim’s family and community in as many cases as is possible.