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Murder Suspect Hiding in Plain Sight

Bodies of woman and child were found in Minnesota in 1999. Police finally think they know what happened.

November 23, 2003|Joshua Freed | Associated Press Writer

ROCHESTER, Minn. — Det. Brad Nelson's murder suspect hides in plain sight. An FBI agent has spoken with the man.

Around the world, investigators have laid traps, which will spring shut if he makes a mistake, such as returning to Rochester, or anywhere else with a watchful customs officer.

Nelson checks regularly for leads in the case. When another body is found, he asks if it could be connected. It never is.

He believes that the case is largely solved, yet the mystery remains.

And so, like the suspect whose name and whereabouts he knows, Nelson waits.

*

A township worker cleaning ditches found the two black trash bags.

He figured that they were garbage or deer hides from the hunting season that had ended a few weeks earlier. They were double-bagged. He dragged them into a ditch, then summoned a Bobcat loader that could handle their weight.

That's when a child's hand poked out.

Crying, thinking of his own daughter, the worker called 911.

The pager beeped at Herm Dybevic's side. The state Bureau of Criminal Apprehension investigator soon was at the ditch just out of sight of the last housing development on the fringe of the city. It was the day after Thanksgiving 1999.

Officers were on the scene taking pictures as dogs searched for more bodies. An officer tugged on the second bag, found that it weighed perhaps 100 pounds and left it where it was.

Deputies tromped through the ditches and corn stubble fields looking for clues -- a dropped purse, a wallet, another body. They found nothing. The bodies were taken to a Mayo Clinic facility used for death investigations.

There, Dybevic, a veteran of more than 100 homicide cases, pulled on latex gloves, a plastic gown and shoe covers, and -- after someone took more pictures of how the lawn bags were tied shut -- cut them open. Inside one bag was the nude body of a headless woman; in the other was the body of a small boy, wearing shorts and a T-shirt, also decapitated. They appeared to have been dead a few weeks.

The woman wore a gold ring on her left middle finger and had been physically fit, perhaps in her 20s or 30s. Fresh, unscratched lavender nail polish covered her left fingernails, but there was none on her right, suggesting that she may have been killed while doing her nails.

The boy looked to be 3 to 6 years old. Both had brown skin. From the necks down, there was no sign of trauma. Whatever killed them happened above their shoulders.

*

The early investigation went nowhere. Without the heads, detectives couldn't look for dental records. No one recognized the woman's ring. Investigators hoped that someone -- a day-care worker, a Sunday school teacher, an aunt -- would notice that a child was missing.

At a news conference, Sheriff Steve Borchardt appealed to the public for help. "If you can't identify the victims, you can't solve the case," he said.

About a dozen detectives scoured national databases of missing women and children and pursued leads.

Detectives notified schools that they were interested in young boys who might have gone missing early in the school year, but nothing came of it.

Seven months after the bodies were found, detectives were no closer to knowing the victims' names or their killer. DNA testing determined that they were genetically related, but could not conclude how closely. The original detective assigned to the case took a promotion to lead a narcotics task force.

In May, the two victims were given a funeral, attended by many of the officers working the case -- paying their respects but also watching in case a suspect showed up.

They were buried under markers that read "Mother at rest 2000" and "Son at rest 2000."

*

Brad Nelson, 35, had never led a murder investigation, but the junior detective jumped at the chance to run this one.

Nelson grew up on a Minnesota farm, but the life held no attraction for him. He decided that he wanted to be a state trooper, but after graduating from college with a degree in law enforcement, the only job he could find was running a printing press. He had just about given up on his dream when Olmsted County hired him as a deputy in 1988.

Nelson had been married for nearly 10 years and had 7- and 3-year-old children.

Borchardt gave him the lead job because he knew cases like this sometimes go unsolved because a detail is missed -- and Nelson was the sort of detective who doesn't miss much.

One of the first things that Nelson did was to revisit the school records. On June 6, he wrote on Lead Sheet 479: "Check Rochester public schools for student that may have transferred, but may be the child victim. Kindergarten and first grade."

Six days later, the school came up with the names of 15 students who had transferred. Nelson assigned each to a new lead sheet and handed them to detectives for follow-up.

Some of the names fell to Rochester Police Sgt. Kent Perlich, who called the home and work phone numbers on the school records. Many of the children were with migrant families who had moved to Texas. Some were white, not a match.

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