Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Unsolved Double Murder in North Carolina

Who Killed Jenna and Ethen Nielsen?

By Robert A. Waters

Seventeen years ago, twenty-two-year-old Jennifer “Jenna” Kathleen Nielsen (pictured above) died in a convenience store parking lot.

At 4:45 A.M., on June 14, 2007, a 9-1-1 call came in to the Raleigh, North Carolina Police Department.

Dispatcher: "What is your emergency?"

Caller: "Yeah, I don't know if this is an emergency or not but there's a car sitting in front of another newspaper box and I can tell it's normally a newspaper guy's also. The lights are on inside the car. There's papers laying on the ground outside his car. So I rode around the building to see if he was outside or anything. I don't see anybody beside the building."

(The Ameriking Food Mart on Lake Wheeler Road had news racks outside. In the early mornings, carriers would load newspapers into them, removing coins from the previous day.)

Dispatcher: "You say the car was empty?"

Caller: "Yeah, the car was empty. It was funny because the light was on inside the car. The car was pulled over right in front of the paper box."

Dispatcher: "Are you calling from a payphone?"

Caller: "Yeah, I'm at the corner gas station on the south side...I'm still on my paper route. And the car still has Utah license plates on it."

Dispatcher: "What kind of car is it?"

Caller: "I think it's a Honda civic."

Dispatcher: "You have the color on it?"

Caller: "Gray."

The dispatcher told the caller she would send officers to the scene. 

A few minutes after the 9-1-1 call, two officers from the Raleigh Police Department arrived. 

Jim Sughrue, spokesman for the police department, described the scene to reporters. “As [police] investigated the area,” he said, “they located a female behind the building who is a homicide victim.” Robbery seemed an unlikely motive since Jenna Nielsen’s purse and other personal belongings were found in the vehicle. The victim’s pants had been pulled down to her knees, causing investigators to theorize that she may have been murdered while fighting off a sexual attack.

When she died, Jenna was eight-and-a-half months pregnant with a boy already named Ethen. Married and the mother of two boys, Jenna had been going about her job restocking newspaper boxes for USA Today. Her husband, Tim, worked during the day and kept the children at night while his wife delivered papers.

An autopsy revealed a single stab wound to the neck. Only three inches deep, it had slashed her carotid artery and jugular vein, causing her to bleed to death. There were abrasions on Jenna’s arms and legs, as if she’d been dragged or had fallen. The autopsy also showed that Ethen was 39-40 weeks old, weighed 6.35 pounds, and was 19.9 inches long. He was healthy and normal in every way.

Even though he would have been delivered within a few days, at the time, North Carolina had no fetal victim law that would allow for the conviction of Ethen's killer.

After detectives interviewed area residents and business owners, they released a sketch of a “person of interest” (pictured below) who had been seen in the area near the time of the murder. According to police, that neighborhood is usually deserted at four-forty-five in the morning.

From the start, leads were few. It seemed to be a random attack, possibly committed by a sexual predator. The double murder made national headlines for a few weeks, and America's Most Wanted, a popular true crime show, picked up the case. USA Today published ads calling for information about the case.

As the investigation continued, the family released a statement to the press. “Jenna was a loving mother, wife and daughter,” the statement said. “She had a very outgoing personality, [and] was everyone’s friend. Jenna and her Husband Tim had 2 wonderful sons: Schyler, 3, and Kaiden, 11 months. They were expecting their third son Ethen on July 8th. Jenna’s family recently relocated to the area from Utah when her father and husband’s jobs were relocated. She enjoyed living in the Raleigh area for the warm weather and the friendly people. She fit right in.”

Seventeen years later, the family is still waiting for an arrest. The news crews are long-gone, and stories about their beloved wife and daughter only seem to come on anniversaries of Jenna's murder.

The family has a website, justice4jenna.

Tim and Jenna's father, Kevin Blaine, worked to pass the Unborn Victims of Violence Act in North Carolina. The law, enacted in 2011, reads: “AN ACT TO PROVIDE THAT A PERSON WHO commits the crime of murder or manslaughter OF A PREGNANT WOMAN is GUILTY OF A SEPARATE OFFENSE for THE RESULTING DEATH OF THE unborn child and to provide that a person who commits a felony or a misdemeanor that is an act of domestic violence and injures a pregnant woman that results in a miscarriage or stillbirth by the woman is guilty of a separate offense that is punishable at the same class and level as the underlying offense.”

The day after Jenna's murder, someone discovered a bloody knife discarded near a sidewalk not far from the crime scene. Police quickly confiscated the weapon, but remained tight-lipped on its significance to the case. Investigators also found a single human hair in Jenna's hand. Other items collected from the scene were a broken earring, a flip-flop, two shirts, bloodstains, cigarette butts, and a broken red vehicle light lens. Whether any of those items belonged to the killer remains to be seen. 

Investigators are still searching for the person of interest noticed by a witness in the area of the murder. The suspect was thought to be in his late teens or early twenties and is about five-feet-three-inches tall, weighing 120 pounds. Police said he may be Hispanic. At the time of the murder, he wore a dark-colored sleeveless shirt and baggy denim shorts. His most noticeable characteristic was black hair pulled into a long pony-tail.

Police have one major clue that could lead to the killer’s capture. Family members informed reporters that police have DNA thought to be from the killer. Investigators continue to run the sample through CODIS, the FBI's national database that contains profiles of convicted offenders. So far, they have not gotten a match. 

Meanwhile, a murderer, unless he's in prison for another crime or dead, lives and breathes free air. Justice waits to be served.

If you have any information about this case, please contact the Raleigh Police Department at 919-227-6220.

Monday, May 13, 2024

Drifting Towards Death -- Or Freedom

Cuban Boat Washed up on Marquesas Keys

Quiet Martyrs
By Robert A. Waters

In the dead of night, on March 3, 1964, a rickety 22-foot-long fishing boat called the Delfin moved slowly off a beach near Santiago de Cuba. Equipped only with an antique outboard motor and sails made from flour sacks, eighteen men, women and children crowded its decks. They were bound for Jamaica, 140 miles away. From there, they knew they could obtain visas to freedom (i.e., the United States of America).

If caught by patrolling Cuban gunboats or Russian helicopters, they would be machine-gunned. But they decided freedom was worth the risk.

After working for many years as a salesman, Vicente Mayans saved up enough money to purchase the Delfin. When friends and neighbors learned of his plan to flee, many asked to join. Mayans later said he couldn't turn them down. Thinking the trip would take two days, they stocked up with only six cans of ham and ten gallons of water.

Almost immediately, things went wrong. First, the motor quit. A mechanic named Alberto spent 24 hours attempting to repair it, but to no avail. Next, heavy winds blew down the flimsy mast. Now the boat was at the mercy of the ocean currents. And soon their food and water ran out.

Mayans later told Ian Glass, a reporter for the Miami News, "We became hopelessly lost." The boat began drifting, first in one direction, then another. Vicente's pretty wife, Digna, had joined him in their quest for freedom but now it seemed they both might die. 

It never rained. The sun beat down all day every day. They tried fishing, using a few crumbs of bread for bait. Luis, a former hotel worker, landed a small shark. "We tore it apart with our hands like animals," Mayans said. "We ate it raw." 

The refugees tried to row, but the current was too strong. As the boat floated aimlessly through heavy seas, some began slowly losing their minds. Two men jumped into the water and were never seen again. Starving, dehydrated, sunken-eyed and so thin they looked like skeletons, one-by-one the freedom-seekers dropped dead on the deck. Many died clutching their rosaries.

Mayans said, "Death came almost quietly. They would just lie down in the boat to conserve strength and assumed when they woke up we would have been rescued. But they never woke up." A trail of vicious sharks, smelling death, followed the boat. Mayans and his fellow Cubans reluctantly pushed corpses over the edge and watched the sharks fight for the bodies.

Day after day, the sad boat drifted.

Mayans recounted, "Soon there was only Digna and me. And then she, too, died. One minute she was asleep, and the next..." Unwilling to throw his beloved wife to the sharks, he held her and vowed they would die together.

After seventeen days, the boat washed up on the shores of Grand Cayman, one of a group of British-owned islands. Beachgoers found the sole survivor, Vicente Mayans.

He was hospitalized for nearly a week, then finally made it to the United States. He spent many years working to commemorate lost freedom-seekers from Cuba.

The Straits of Florida, called the "Death Corridor," lies between Cuba and Florida. For Cubans, the 92 miles of ocean has remained a watery gauntlet to be sailed through. Refugees face hurricanes, Cuban militia patrols, man-hungry sharks, exposure to scorching weather, high seas and rogue waves, the loneliness of the open ocean, and other deadly obstacles to reach freedom.

Perhaps Vicente Mayans said it best. Cuban refugees "are quiet martyrs who are testimony to the hell that Cuba must be, if they are willing to give up their lives rather than live there."

Here are some other stories I've written on this subject.

Tuesday, May 7, 2024

Unsolved Murder of "Old Man" John Maxwell

Prospector Led a Solitary Life
By Robert A. Waters

For nearly a hundred years, the one-room log cabin sat high up in the Continental Divide, seven miles above Butte, Montana. It weathered blizzards and freezing weather each winter, and summer thunderstorms that rocked the landscape with killer bolts of lightning.  

In 1957, seventy-six-year-old John Maxwell called the cabin home.

The Montana Standard reported that "at the age of 26 [he] was employed by the Corry Consolidated Mining Co., as a stationary engineer and later in charge of mining operations." Many years later, when the gold and silver "played out," the company hired Maxwell to remain there as caretaker. During those decades alone on the mountain, he enjoyed prospecting, occasionally finding a nugget or two missed by the mining company.

But Maxwell was no miser. He made monthly trips down steep, dangerous mountain trails to resupply and meet with friends. The Standard said his modest cabin "was a haven for hikers, skiers, and Boy Scouts out on an adventure. Everyone passing by received a warm welcome and most returned again and again to visit with the friendly prospector."

On August 7, Curley Robbins, a forest ranger, saw smoke rising near Maxwell's cabin. While checking to find the exact location of the fire, he stopped by to see if his prospector friend could direct him to the source. As he entered the cabin, Robbins encountered a gruesome sight. Maxwell lay near his bed, severely beaten and shot twice.

When Jefferson County Sheriff George Paradis and Coroner Kyle Scott arrived at the scene, the place was neat and orderly. They found no sign of ransacking, or any other clue to provide a reason for the violence inflicted on the old man. Maxwell's own gun, an old Colt Peacemaker, "a 38-40 caliber revolver" he had brought home after serving in the Spanish-American War, was the murder weapon.

Maxwell's eyes were swollen shut from heavy blows, and two of his teeth had been knocked out. Paradis found them on the bed. Coroner Scott said "the slug that killed Maxwell entered the back near the left shoulder blade, coursed through the body, and emerged near the groin. The bullet was found embedded in the cabin's wooden floor..." It's possible that Maxwell had been sleeping when attacked.

The neatness of the cabin surprised the sheriff. A bookcase held many well-worn editions, such as the complete works of Dickens, The Life of Napoleon Bonaparte, The Plattsburg Manual, and hundreds more. A transistor radio sat beside Maxwell's bed. Friends said he could sometimes pick up music stations at night.

Maxwell's body was taken down the mountain to the Scott Funeral Home in Whitehall. A few days later, staff transported him to the Masonic Temple in Butte where services were held. His remains were then shipped to his hometown of Portland, Oregon for burial.

Although the sheriff put a lot of effort into solving the case, there seemed to be no viable clues to follow. In addition to the bullet that killed him, a second round hit him in the back and exited his shoulder. But cops never found the old man's gun.

The Standard reported that "lawmen rummaged inch-by-inch through Maxwell's cabin Friday night. They found a bullet embedded in the cabin's wooden floor near a large, iron-posted bed and was found about five feet from Maxwell's body." The sheriff interviewed everyone known to be in the area at the time of the murder, but all were cleared.

Sheriff Paradis told reporters he'd found nothing of any real value inside the cabin.

The years passed, and the old prospector eventually faded from memory. 

And there the case remains. Unsolved and cold as a Montana winter. In 2024, bare remnants of the old log cabin remain, still fighting harsh winters and summer thunderstorms that break down on it like random cannon blasts.

NOTE: The cabin pictured above is from an old postcard. It is not the prospector's original home.