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.

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