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Couple's Suicide Deepens Longtime Mystery of Missing Child

Disappearance: The two killed themselves after detective bluffed that he knew where husband's daughter was. She had vanished 20 years before at the age of 2.

June 21, 1998|TIM DAHLBERG | ASSOCIATED PRESS

LAS VEGAS — The detective was bluffing, but Jarrett Betterson didn't know it. His wife, Barbara, stood behind him as he opened the door a crack and stammered responses to questions about a bouncing, bubbly 2-year-old they had left Michigan with 20 years ago.

"I know what happened to your daughter," Det. Jeff Rosgen said. "It will be easier on you if you tell us the whole story."

Betterson was shaken. He promised to get back to the detective in a week or so and shut the door to the modest apartment, trembling as he sank back into his motorized wheelchair.

Then he and his wife went about their final task.

*

The handwritten letter was as polite as it was chilling. When Joni Betterson retrieved it from the mailbox at her Georgia home, it was the first she had heard from her son and daughter-in-law in more than 20 years.

"By the time you get this we should be dead," Barbara Betterson wrote. "Jarrett is about to go to jail and I don't want to live without him. I'm sorry about living apart from our family. I'm sorry about so many things. We've had a sad and difficult life."

Inside the envelope was a money order for $900 that Jarrett and Barbara Betterson had managed to scrape together to pay for their cremation. Barbara Betterson asked that their ashes be placed in the same urn.

When their decomposing bodies were found a few days before last Christmas--Barbara clutching a Bible and a wilted red rose--there was no suicide note in the apartment. Just an apologetic note on the refrigerator to their apartment manager asking him to "forgive us for having to deal with the mess we left."

No mention was made of a daughter who would now be 22 if still alive.

*

It was Labor Day weekend 1977, and Jarrett Betterson was at the wheel when the car he was riding in with his girlfriend, Susan Klingel, and their young daughter, Nikole, went out of control and rolled several times before coming to a stop.

Susan Klingel was thrown from the vehicle and killed. Jarrett and Nikole were not seriously injured.

Marijuana was found in the car, and police wanted to charge Jarrett with vehicular homicide. But the investigation was sloppy, and charges were never brought.

Soon Jarrett had a new girlfriend, Barbara, and the two had plans to take Nikole with them and start a new life out West.

"I'll be a good mother to Nikole. She'll be well taken care of," Barbara promised Susan's parents just before leaving Dearborn, Mich., around Christmastime 1977.

Bill and Mary Klingel cried as they said goodbye to their 2-year-old granddaughter. Jarrett and Barbara didn't say where they were going. He told some friends they were headed toward Las Vegas. Someone else said they were on their way to California.

The Klingels had lost their daughter and were now losing their granddaughter. All they had left were pictures of a smiling little girl in a red and white dress with a ribbon in her curly black hair. In one picture, Nikole is wearing a bonnet and holding a stuffed bunny while Jarrett prepares to give her a kiss.

The Klingels were already at odds with Jarrett Betterson, who hadn't exactly been welcomed into the family. Jarrett was bitter, thinking that the family rejected him because he was black. They thought that he had lured his daughter into a lifestyle of drug use.

It didn't matter now. Jarrett and Barbara were leaving, and they were taking Nikole with them.

It wasn't until two decades later that the Klingels, aging and looking for their sole heir, set about trying to contact their granddaughter. Nikole would now be an adult, they figured, able to decide whether she wanted to see her grandparents after all the years.

They hired a private investigator, and it didn't take long to find the Bettersons living a meager existence in a part of Las Vegas far removed from the glittering casinos.

But there was no trace of Nikole. Records were searched, but no evidence was found that she ever made it with her father to their new home.

It was as though Nikole Betterson, sometime in early 1978, had simply ceased to exist.

Except in the eyes of the Social Security Administration. Until she turned 18, it kept sending her the monthly survivor benefit that goes to children whose parents have died. Jarrett faithfully picked the check up each month at a local post office.

*

The case wasn't one that Rosgen, the detective, really wanted. Missing persons is a busy enough beat, especially in a transient town like Las Vegas, without having to dig up a case now two decades old.

But there was something about it that intrigued Rosgen when he got the call last summer from private investigator Peggy Bezy.

Send me the file, he said, and I'll look into it when I can.

Bezy had already searched school, adoption and other records. Rosgen took it a step further, looking into family court archives, police records and driver license records.

Still nothing. Like Bezy, Rosgen could find no trace of Nikole after she left Michigan.

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