DNA identifies suspect in Utah Army veteran’s cold case

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The Uintah County Sheriff’s Office announced Wednesday that detectives have partially solved the nearly half-century-old murder of an Army veteran.

Through “extensive DNA testing,” investigators say they now believe Daniel Arthur Bell, who lived in the Uintah Basin, was one of two men who shot and killed 21-year-old Gregory Dahl Nickel and set his car on fire. The body is still inside, and then kidnaps Nickel’s date and holds her hostage for several hours while raping her.

The announcement comes just days before the 50th anniversary of Nickell’s death, which took place during Thanksgiving weekend in 1972.

“My first thought was, ‘It’s about time,’” Greg Nickell’s sister Lynette Nickell Ray told KSL.com on Wednesday when asked what her reaction was to the news.

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

In the early morning hours of November 26, 1972, Nickell—who had recently returned home from the U.S. Army—was on a date with an 18-year-old woman. The two had parked their car in a scenic spot when someone knocked on the car window. According to the sheriff’s office, the man claimed he had been in an accident and asked to be driven back to Vernal. Nickel agrees to help.

“Greg said, ‘Sure,’ and started rolling down the window, then he started shooting,” his date recalled in court in 1992. “On the first shot, Greg fell on the seat, but then he sat up. Shot again. Greg lay back on the seat and he continued shooting.”

According to the sheriff’s office, Nickell was shot at least three times and then the gunman got into the car and pushed Nickell into the woman in the passenger seat.

“He pushed Greg into the car. The first thing he said was he asked me if he looked like the kind of guy who could rape a 13-year-old girl,” the woman recalled.

As the man drove away, he pointed a gun at the woman. The woman said “Trigger Man” was constantly playing with what she described as a “cowboy-type” gun. “He enjoyed his gun. Holding it to my head and neck. He was very busy with it.” He said he had a Texas accent and a “very dirty face”.

As they drove along US 40, a second car soon pulled up behind them and flashed its headlights.

“The abductor followed the second vehicle and the woman said she realized she had a partner,” according to the sheriff’s office.

When speaking with detectives later, the woman referred to the two men as “Tex” and “Johnny.” The suspect used different aliases during the incident, the woman said. At one point, one man called another man, according to the sheriff’s office. The name Tex may have been used for 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 to a second car following them, and Nickell’s car was set on fire with her body still inside.

The men then put the woman in 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 that each man raped her once before leaving her on the side of a highway near Duchene, about 60 miles from where she was abducted. The woman went to a nearby farmhouse for help and law enforcement was notified.”

A police officer in Rangeley, Colorado, near the Utah border, saw a car that night with two men and a woman driving away from him. The move prompted police to block the road and conduct a four-day search of the Book Cliffs area, but the car was never found.

‘Everything has changed’ in 2020

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

Roy said his brother had only been home for a month after serving four years in the army.

“He wasn’t home long enough to piss anyone off,” she said, somewhat sarcastically, adding that her brother was kind and generous and loved by everyone.

“I was told in 1972 that it wasn’t solved because the police couldn’t find anyone who had a motive. Nobody had anything terrible against Greg,” his sister said.

In 1992, a man was arrested and charged with murder in connection with the case. Roy said the woman positively identified the man through a mug shot before even pressing charges against him. But when he appeared in court and “cleared himself,” the woman could no longer positively identify him as the man who killed Nickell and raped her, according to the verdict. Because of that and lack of DNA evidence, 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 hospital after the woman was found. Ray says that’s when “everything changed.”

“Two ‘unknown male’ DNA profiles were obtained 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.

Ray’s response when detectives told him Bell’s name was “It didn’t mean anything to me.” “Didn’t know the name, didn’t know anything about him.” He also doesn’t believe his brother knows him.

Detectives also learned that Bell had died a year earlier in Yakima, Washington, and had been cremated. Ray said he was “extremely disappointed” that Bell had died.

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

Detectives waited to make their discovery public to give them more time to run additional DNA tests as well as continue to investigate the identity of the second man.

In researching Bell, they learned that at the time of the murder he was living in Utah’s Uintah Basin and working on a farm in the Book Cliffs area south of Vernal, which made 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 her rape conviction, her DNA profile was submitted to a national database.

DNA samples were collected from Bell’s two adult children and submitted to the crime lab for comparison with evidence collected in 1972. Tests showed their DNA was “consistent with a parent/child relationship” of one of the unknown men.

Investigators said Bell’s widow and family members who still live in the Uintah Basin are cooperating with authorities. Detectives have spoken with Bell’s family in an attempt to identify the second man, but noted Wednesday that all leads provided by the family have been checked and exhausted. The sheriff’s office said the widow described Bell as “a very quiet person who doesn’t talk about his past.” He was unaware of Nickel’s murder. Investigators say they were told Bell was suffering from dementia toward the end of his life.

Who is the other guy?

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

“I promised Greg, ‘I’m not letting it go, bro.’ I’m going to figure it out if it takes the rest of my life,” Roy said.

He credits former Uintah County Sheriff Vance Norton who, after serving as sheriff, returned to work as the department’s cold case detective.

“He really wanted to solve Greg’s murder,” Ray said.

Roy says he knew about the DNA match in 2020. Hoping to make the announcement Wednesday, Ray said, when families gather for Thanksgiving dinner Thursday, they will talk about his brother’s murder and maybe someone will remember Bell or who he was out with.

“Somebody was with him that night, so who was it? We’re hoping to get out of this (press release),” he said.

Roy also indicated that he believed detectives already had information about the second man that they had not yet made public.

“I’m not going to stop looking. I’m pretty good with what we’ve learned so far, what we’ve learned about our number 2 suspect.”

Other victims’ lives were not the same

Uintah County Sheriff Steve Labram on Wednesday praised the work of his detectives and everyone who contributed to the partial solution to the case.

“I am also grateful to the State Bureau of Investigation for the support and advanced DNA testing resources they have provided through 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 a second person involved in the crime.

“This case remains open and active,” he said. “Our investigators continue to develop and pursue leads in pursuit of justice for everyone affected by this heinous crime.”

The second person is believed to be a few years younger than Bell. Anyone who may know Bell and the individuals he was 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 are someone who can help us answer them, please come forward now and speak to our investigators.

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

Detectives say they contacted the woman and asked her to identify Bell. They said that “he is very grateful that we are working on the case and is looking forward to the time when we will say that we have found Suspect No. 2 and the case is closed.”

Satyajit said that he lost contact with that woman many years ago. The last time he visited her, he said the woman had moved out of state and started a family, but it seemed she was trying to move on from the tragedy.

“I think she would have liked to have him behind her,” Ray said.

He said the woman had to change her whole life because of what happened. He believes the woman is always looking over his shoulder as the killers are never caught and even avoid joining social media platforms. Ray says he has “all the sympathy in the world” for the victim and what she went 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.

DNA identifies suspect in Utah Army veteran’s cold case

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