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Police solve 2007 Utah cold case, but will suspected killer remain scot-free?

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Sisters Corey Thompson, left, and Denise Penny pose for a photo at Thompson’s apartment in Murray on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Their mother, Donna Nordgren, died after being run over by a car in a South Salt Lake parking lot in 2007, but charges were never filed and the case went cold. More than a decade later a new South Salt Lake police detective picked up the case and determined that investigators had enough evidence to bring charges, but the statute of limitations for automobile homicide has expired.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

SOUTH SALT LAKE — Corey Thompson and her sisters have experienced a roller coaster of emotions over the past decade.

Saturday marks 14 years since her mother, Donna Nordgren, 49, of Murray, was found lying on her back in a parking lot at 3244 S. 300 West. Nordgren had been run over by a car and later died from her injuries at a local hospital.

South Salt Lake police investigated the incident but no one was ever arrested and no charges were ever filed. The case was closed less than six months after Nordgren’s death. The family mourned their loss and then tried to move on.

But more than a decade later, in March 2019, a different investigator — South Salt Lake police detective Dustin Lee Hansen — started looking at the case again and discovered that “the initial investigator overlooked and or missed critical steps resulting in this case going cold,” according to a search warrant affidavit. “Information was received that (a woman) intentionally ran over her sister ... and Donna. The initial investigator over the case failed to take necessary action at the time this information was obtained.”

The new detective showed up at Thompson’s door one day to tell her a that a full new investigation was underway.

“I was shocked, and I cried. And (the detective) said, ‘They dropped the ball big time on this case and I’m so sorry,’” Thompson recalled. “So there was a lot of rage. Why wasn’t it done right the first time? I had a lot of questions.”

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Corey Thompson poses for a photo at her apartment in Murray on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Her mother, Donna Nordgren, died after being run over by a car in a South Salt Lake parking lot in 2007, but charges were never filed and the case went cold. More than a decade later a new South Salt Lake police detective picked up the case and determined that investigators had enough evidence to bring charges, but the statute of limitations for automobile homicide has expired.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Thompson and her sisters were hopeful this was the breakthrough they had long been waiting for. Those hopes were further raised when Hansen recently announced he believed investigators had solved the case and had enough evidence to present the case to the district attorney for potential criminal charges against the suspected driver.

But then, more frustration and anger.

Thompson said she received a call from Hansen who told her, “This makes me sick that I have to tell you this. …”

He had learned that the statute of limitations for a charge of automobile homicide to be filed had expired.

Thompson called the news “infuriating.”

“Charges would have been filed 14 years ago had a full investigation been done,” she said.

There is still a chance that a charge of manslaughter could be filed, which does not have a statute of limitations. But it would require additional evidence — such as a witness — to come forward.

“That roller coaster …,” Thompson started to say as she tried to describe her emotions over the past decade. “There’s so much we missed out on (with my mom), and then knowing there’s all these critical details (from the investigation) that were missed.”

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Donna Nordgren, center, is pictured with daughters Denise Penny, left, and Corey Thompson, right, and grandchildren.

Courtesy of Kellie Karren

Donna Sue Tuckey Nordgren, 49, died on Feb. 20, 2007. Just the day before, Nordgren was attending the funeral of her own mother. After the service, Nordgren went with two other relatives to Frankie and Johnnie’s Tavern, 3 W. 4800 South.

While at the bar, Nordgren met two other women who are sisters and the group left the tavern together and went to a nearby Maverik station, 530 W. 4800 South, according to the search warrant. Video surveillance shows the group at the convenience store about 10:20 p.m.

The group then went to another club at 921 S. 300 West, according to police. It was after the three women left that club that Nordgren was hit and killed. Emergency crews found Nordgren in a parking lot at 3244 S. 300 West just before 1 a.m.

Friends say the two sisters Nordgren met at the bar were known to fight frequently with each other, according to police. When officers arrived at the parking lot, one of the sisters was present and “expressed a range of emotions from anger to nothing at all,” the warrant states.

Police also noted that the sister “had marks on her clothing consistent with being hit by a car” but that she was “uncooperative with police,” according to the warrant.

Police also interviewed the second sister — the alleged driver — who claimed she had already gone home by that point and had dropped Nordgren and her sister off on the street in South Salt Lake so they could continued bar hopping, the warrant states.

Then on March 14, 2007, Salt Lake police interviewed another woman who called and “expressed that she didn’t want to go to jail” but said she had “information to get off her chest.”

That woman said she was a friend of the second sister whom Nordgren met at the bar, who was not at the scene of the crash but allegedly drove the car that hit both Nordgren and the first sister, according to police. The woman told police that the second sister had called her after the incident “bawling and said, ‘I think I ran her over,’” according to the warrant.

The second sister told the woman she was “drunk and fighting” that night and had kicked her sister out of the car. But when the sister returned home the next morning, “she had track marks from where she had been run over,” the affidavit states. The second sister also told the woman she remembered her injured sister “bouncing.”

The woman then asked the second sister about Nordgren.

The second sister again stated she was drunk and mad that night and didn’t know what happened, the warrant states. The friend said she then told her that Nordgren’s family “deserved justice and if you tell them you need help you could get a reduced sentence or an ankle bracelet.”

But the second sister told her friend that she did not want to go back to jail, according to the affidavit, and made the friend “promise not to say anything and that she would rather die than go back to jail.”

The information from that phone call taken by a Salt Lake police officer was passed along to the original South Salt Lake detective assigned to the case, the warrant says, but “the investigator failed to follow up with the information” and the case was closed before a full investigation was complete.

In order for a manslaughter charge to potentially be filed, Thompson said it’s her understanding from police that a witness — such as the first sister — would have to come forward with information.

South Salt Lake police say if additional information is received, they will screen the case again for manslaughter.

The Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office confirmed the statute of limitations of an automobile homicide charge is four years. The difference between that charge and a charge of manslaughter is based on a person’s intent and conduct, something that typically requires additional evidence.

Since Nordgren’s death in 2007, the alleged driver, now 43, has been convicted of DUI in 2011 and 2014, according to court records. She was sentenced to up to five years in the Utah State Prison following her 2014 conviction because it was her third DUI in 10 years.

Thompson said all the new developments in her mother’s case has her and her sisters going through the mourning process all over again. But they are also angry.

“If someone had done their job right the first time, this wouldn’t be an issue. We would have had closure long before now,” she said.

“The original case was hard for us to handle for the fact that we were in shock from our mom being killed, and being a little naive on how the justice system works,” said Kellie Karren, one of Nordgren’s three daughters. “So just knowing that we were just listening to what these officers and this detective was telling us, we had to just take that as truth.

“And then, here it is 10-plus years later, this new detective says, ‘Hey, they dropped the ball. This is a homicide.’ And all of these facts are there. This evidence is right there. And we’re left with, ‘Well, now it’s too late girls. Sorry. You guys waited too long.’ It really disgusts me,” Karren said.

“I wish we would have been smarter to know we could have pushed, we just didn’t know what we should be pushing for. We just take these authority figures that we look up to and take their word for it, and it’s so disappointing that that’s what we have to remember, is that the South Salt Lake Police Department failed us, and we just have to accept it again.”

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Denise Penny poses for a photo at sister Corey Thompson’s apartment in Murray on Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. Her mother, Donna Nordgren, died after being run over by a car in a South Salt Lake parking lot in 2007, but charges were never filed and the case went cold. More than a decade later a new South Salt Lake police detective picked up the case and determined that investigators had enough evidence to bring charges, but the statute of limitations for automobile homicide has expired.

Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

Nordgren’s daughters say they are exploring the option of filing a wrongful death lawsuit against the suspected driver, a woman whom Thompson said she has never talked to.

“I don’t know if I’d actually want to talk to them, to be honest with you. If you can kill somebody and your whole reasoning of not giving the family closure is because you don’t want another DUI to go to jail,” she said.

Regardless, Nordgren’s daughters say they’ll always remember their mother as someone who fought for her family and was especially fond of her grandchildren.

“All I know is she was my best friend. I went to her for everything,” said Denise Penny, another daughter.

“We’ll find ways to move on. For me, I’m glad I know what happened,” Thompson said. “But I’m more mad and I wouldn’t be able to look myself in the mirror if I didn’t try everything I could to get justice for our mom.

“There’s no way I could live with myself if I didn’t try everything.”