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After 50 years, DNA helps police ID suspect in ‘heinous’ killing of Vernal Army veteran

SHARE After 50 years, DNA helps police ID suspect in ‘heinous’ killing of Vernal Army veteran

Gregory Dahl Nickell, 21, was shot to death during Thanksgiving weekend in 1972. On Wednesday, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of his death, the Uintah County Sheriff’s Office has identified one of two men they believe killed Nickell and then kidnapped and raped his 18-year-old date.

Uintah County Sheriff’s Office

Detectives have partially solved a nearly half-century-old cold case killing of an Army veteran, the Uintah County Sheriff's Office announced Wednesday.

Through "extensive DNA testing," investigators say they now believe Daniel Arthur Bell, who used to live in the Uintah Basin, was one of two men who shot and killed 21-year-old Gregory Dahl Nickell, set his car on fire with his body still inside, and then kidnapped Nickell's date and held her hostage for several hours while raping her.

The announcement comes just a few days before the 50th anniversary of the death of Nickell, who was killed during Thanksgiving weekend in 1972.

"My first thought is, 'It's about darn time,'" Lynnette Nickell Ray, Greg Nickell's sister, told KSL.com Wednesday when asked what her reaction was upon hearing the news.

There will be no trial for Bell, however. During their investigation, detectives learned that Bell died in 2019 at the age of 88 of unknown causes.

Early on the morning of Nov. 26, 1972, Nickell — who had recently come home from the U.S. Army — was on a date with an 18-year-old woman. The two had parked their vehicle at a scenic overlook when someone knocked on the car window. The man claimed he had been in a crash and asked for a ride back into Vernal, according to the sheriff's office. Nickell agreed to help.

"Greg said, 'Sure,' and started to roll the window up, then he began shooting," his date recalled in court in 1992. "On the first shot, Greg fell in the seat, but then he sat up. The man shot again. Greg lay back on the seat and he continued shooting."

Nickell was shot at least three times followed by the gunman getting into the car and pushing Nickell onto the woman in the passenger seat, according to the sheriff's office.

"He pushed Greg over and got in the car. The first thing he said was he asked me if he looked like the type of man who could rape a 13-year-old girl," the woman recalled.

As the man was driving, he continued to point his gun at the woman. The woman said the "trigger man" continually played with what she described as his "cowboy-type" gun. "He enjoyed his gun. Holding it to my head and neck. He was very busy with it." She said he had a Texas accent and a "very filthy mouth."

As they were driving along U.S. 40, a second vehicle soon pulled behind them and flashed its headlights.

"The kidnapper followed the second vehicle and the woman said she realized he had a partner," according to the sheriff's office.

When later talking to detectives, the woman referred to the two men as "Tex" and "Johnny." The woman said the suspects used several different aliases during the incident. At one point, one man did call the other Johnny, according to the sheriff's office. The name Tex could have just been used because of how the gunman spoke.

The woman said the men drove to a remote area near Brough Reservoir in Uintah County. There, they transferred the woman into the second car that had been following them and Nickell's car was set on fire with his body still inside.

The men then put the woman into the back seat of their car, covered her head with a coat or blanket and drove her around for several hours, the sheriff's office said.

"She told investigators each man raped her once before they left her on the side of the highway near Duchesne, about 60 miles from where she had been abducted. The woman walked to a nearby farmhouse for help and law enforcement was notified."

A police officer in Rangely, Colorado, near the Utah border, reported spotting a car that night occupied by two men and a woman that sped away from him. The action prompted police to set up roadblocks and a four-day search of the Book Cliffs area, but the vehicle was never found.

‘Everything changed’ in 2020

More than 30 pieces of evidence were sent to the FBI Crime Lab for analysis but nothing ever came of it and the case went cold, according to the sheriff's office. As of Wednesday, deputies were still unsure of a motive for the horrific crime.

Ray said her brother had only been home for a month after serving four years in the Army.

"He wasn't home long enough to piss anybody off that bad," she said, somewhat sarcastically, while adding that her brother was kind and generous and everybody loved him.

"I was told back in 1972 the reason it was not solved is because police can't find anybody who would have a motive. No one had one darn thing against Greg," his sister said.

In 1992, a man was arrested and charged with murder in connection with the case. Ray says the woman even positively identified the man through a mug shot before he was charged. But when he showed up in court and "cleaned himself up," the woman could no longer positively identify him as the person who killed Nickell and raped her, according to Ray. Because of that and DNA evidence that did not match, the charge was dropped a month later.

Then in January 2020, due to advances in forensic technology, the Uintah County Sheriff's Office resubmitted evidence collected in 1972 to the Utah State Crime Lab, including DNA evidence collected from the woman at the hospital after she was found. Ray says that's when "everything changed."

"Two 'unknown male' DNA profiles were found and submitted to state and national databases. In September 2020, sheriff's detectives were notified that one of the two unknown DNA profiles matched Bell," according to the sheriff's office.

"Didn't mean a thing to me," was Ray's reaction when detectives told her Bell's name. "Didn't know the name, didn't know anything about him." She also doesn't believe her brother knew him.

Detectives also learned that Bell had died a year earlier in Yakima, Washington, and his remains were cremated. Ray says she was "extremely disappointed" when told that Bell was deceased.

Gregory Dahl Nickell poses with his mother in 1970. Nickell was shot to death during Thanksgiving weekend in 1972. On Wednesday, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of his death, the Uintah County Sheriff's Office identified one of two men they believe killed Nickell and then kidnapped and raped his 18-year-old date.

Gregory Dahl Nickell poses with his mother in 1970. Nickell was shot to death during Thanksgiving weekend in 1972. On Wednesday, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of his death, the Uintah County Sheriff’s Office identified one of two men they believe killed Nickell and then kidnapped and raped his 18-year-old date.

Family photo

Detectives waited to announce their discovery publicly to give them more time to conduct additional DNA testing as well as to continue to investigate the identity of the second man.

In researching Bell, they learned he had lived in Utah's Uintah Basin at the time of the murder and worked on a ranch in the Book Cliffs area south of Vernal, making him familiar with the area's back roads. Bell was later convicted of rape in Oregon in 1988, sent to prison and paroled in 1999, at which time he moved to Washington, the sheriff's office said. Because of his rape conviction, his DNA profile was submitted to a national database.

DNA samples were collected from two of Bell's adult children and were submitted to the crime lab to be compared with evidence collected in 1972. The test found that their DNA was "consistent with a parent/child relationship" of one of the unknown males.

Investigators said Bell's widow and family members who still live in the Uintah Basin have been cooperating with authorities. Detectives talked to Bell's family in an effort to identify the second man, but on Wednesday noted that all leads provided by the family had been checked out and exhausted. The sheriff's office said the widow described Bell as "a very quiet man that did not talk about his past." She was unaware of Nickell's murder. Investigators say they were informed that Bell suffered from dementia at the end of his life.

Who is the other man?

Although Wednesday is the first time the breakthrough in the case has been announced publicly, Nickell's sister has known for some time that the announcement was coming. In fact, she says she has never stopped trying to find the people responsible for her brother's death and has been very involved in working with law enforcement for the past five decades.

"I promised Greg, 'I'm just not letting this go, Brother.' I'm going to figure this out if it takes the rest of my life," Ray said.

She gives credit to former Uintah County Sheriff Vance Norton who, after serving as sheriff, went back to work as the department's cold case detective.

"He really wanted to solve Greg's murder," Ray said.

Ray says she knew about the DNA match in 2020. The hope in making the announcement Wednesday, Ray said, is that as families get together for Thanksgiving dinner on Thursday, they'll talk about her brother's murder and maybe someone will remember Bell or who he hung out with.

"Somebody was with him that night, so who was it? This is what we're hoping to get out of this (press release)," she said.

Ray also hinted that she believes detectives already have information about the second man that they haven't publicly released yet.

"I'm not going to stop looking. I feel very good about what we've learned so far, what we've learned about our No. 2 suspect."

Other victim’s life has never been the same

Uintah County Sheriff Steve Labrum on Wednesday praised the work of his detectives and everyone who contributed to partially solving the case.

"I'm grateful as well to the State Bureau of Investigation for the support and advanced DNA testing resources they've provided via the national Sexual Assault Kit Initiative," he said in a statement Wednesday.

The sheriff added that the case is not closed and that detectives are still working to identify the second man involved in the crime.

"This case remains open and active," he said. "Our investigators continue to develop and follow leads in the pursuit of justice for everyone who has been impacted by this heinous crime."

The second man is believed to be younger than Bell by several years. Anyone who may have known Bell and the people he associated with in 1972 is encouraged to contact the sheriff's office, as well as anyone who may have any information about the case.

"Greg's family deserves answers. The woman who was sexually assaulted that night deserves answers," Labrum said. "If you're the person who can help us give them answers, please come forward now and talk with our investigators.

"We are committed to finding the truth, committed to finding the other person responsible for taking Greg from his family and forever changing the life of the woman who was with Greg that night," he continued. "It's a tragedy that it's taken 50 years to identify one suspect. It's my hope that, with the public's help, we will identify the other suspect much, much sooner."

Detectives say they have been in contact with the woman and told her about identifying Bell. They say that "she has been very thankful that we were working on the case and looks forward to the time when we say we have found suspect No. 2 and the case is closed."

Ray says she lost touch with the woman many years ago. The last time she visited her, she said the woman had moved out of state and had started a family, but seemed like she was wanting to move on from the tragedy.

"I think she would have liked to put his behind her," Ray said.

She says the woman had to change her whole life because of what happened. She believes the woman has always been looking over her shoulder because the killers were never caught and even avoided joining social media platforms. Ray says she has "all the empathy in the world" for the victim and what she has been through.

Anyone with information about the 1972 case is asked to call the sheriff's office at 435-781-6700 or email coldcase@uintah.utah.gov.