'Absolutely heartbreaking': Investigators still searching for answers in 35-year-old murder mystery

Published: Monday, Aug. 29 2011 6:00 p.m. MDT

Delwin Wamsley at his home in Gilbert, Ariz., on June 29, 2011. In 1976 in rural Neola, Wamsley's mother was kidnapped and killed while working at a small country store. A 12-person team that includes the director of the Utah State Crime Lab are taking a fresh look at the cold case that occurred over three decades ago.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

NEOLA, Duchesne County — Delwin Wamsley still remembers the rain when he thinks about those two terrible days more than three decades ago. It was a depressing drizzle that seemed to fall endlessly from battleship-gray clouds, making the ground sloppy.

He was 14 years old then, a boy whose only real summer plan was to go fishing as often as possible with his mother in nearby Uintah Canyon, where they regularly caught their limit.

But as the school bus reached Wamsley's stop on May 5, 1976, something was wrong.

His classmates were still buzzing about the sheriff's cars that had screamed past the bus, sirens blaring, when Wamsley saw his father and grandmother. They stood outside the small corner store in Neola where his mother held a part-time job. Deputies milled about as Wamsley made his way off the bus and walked to his family.

“Both of them just looked sick and my heart kind of sank,” Wamsley recalled. “They said, 'Mom's missing,' and it all just kind of went to hell from there.”

The rain began falling that evening.

“I remember it rained the whole time,” Wamsley said.

Two days later, when Othea Duncan Wamsley's body was found partially submerged in an irrigation canal about nine miles from the store, it was still raining. The 43-year-old mother of two had been shot in the forehead, the left cheek and near the left ear after being blindfolded and having her hands bound with “partly rusted wire,” according to the medical examiner's report.

“Honestly, in my heart, I knew from the first day that she was gone,” Delwin Wamsley said.

What he wouldn't learn until years later was that the investigation into his mother's death led authorities to Brent William Nisonger and John Scott Beverleigh — two Utah men who had ties to the Uintah Basin and were involved in an unrelated Wyoming murder.

He also didn't know until much later that Nisonger had agreed to testify against Beverleigh after multiple meetings with the Duchesne County sheriff and a promise of immunity from the county attorney. Or that Nisonger had provided a step-by-step account of the crime only to later recant everything, leading to a dismissal of all charges against both men.

And Wamsley couldn't possibly know that 35 years later, Nisonger and Beverleigh would once again be front and center for investigators taking a new look at his mother's unsolved killing.

“To think that Beverleigh is free and watching TV right now,” Wamsley said, his voice trailing off for a moment, “I feel like something needs to happen about that.”

It's called the Utah Technical Assistance Program, a name as plain as the building two of its lead investigators occupy in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley. What Craig Gibson and Ed Spann do, however, is anything but plain.

The veteran law enforcers work for the Utah Attorney General's Office and are part of a special 12-person team that includes the director of the Utah State Crime Lab, the state's chief medical examiner, forensic science and homicide consultants, police detectives and prosecutors. They combine cutting-edge technology like DNA testing with old-fashioned, shoe-leather detective work to help local law enforcement around the state take a fresh look at cold case homicides.

“We like to support and supplement,” said Gibson, who is working with the Duchesne County Sheriff's Office on the Wamsley investigation. “We don't really want to come in and take over a case.”

A case becomes cold, according to Gibson, when investigators get to the point where they have exhausted most of their leads. It's often a gradual process, he said.

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