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

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 30 2011 1:19 a.m. MDT

“'Cold' is not one day it's 'good' and the next day it's 'cold,' it kind of goes cool and then the longer and older it is, it gets really cold,” he said.

Gibson characterized Wamsley's kidnapping and murder as a typical cold case. Duchesne County Sheriff George Marett and many of the other lead investigators are dead, as is the man who prosecuted the aborted cases against Nisonger and Beverleigh. Potential witnesses and suspects have also died or disappeared. That makes it impossible to tie up some of the loose ends in the case file, Gibson said.

“They built this case strictly on people's testimony, which in those days was pretty normal,” he said of his predecessors. “I'm plinking away at different things now; going down different avenues.”

One of those avenues involves trying to find and interview all of the 72 men who have shared a prison cell during the past 35 years with Nisonger, a man who has a penchant for bragging about his criminal past, according to investigators and court records.

“This would be a tough case to truly prosecute, but not impossible,” Gibson said. “One of the things that's going to make this case is solid testimony from someone who was close to it and would make an admission.”

Such an admission is a real possibility, Gibson said. The people involved are aging and may want to clear their consciences before they die. And allegiances that were thick in the 1970s are possibly thinner now, he said.

Still, Gibson is careful not to call Nisonger or Beverleigh “suspects” when discussing the Wamsley case. Instead he uses the nebulous law enforcement term “persons of interest” when referring to the pair.

“Right now, I don't have enough to convict them in a court of law,” Gibson said, “but I also don't have enough to rule out their involvement.”

Othea Wamsley was only supposed to work until noon on the day she died, but store owner Larry Swain offered to let her work a full shift and she took the opportunity to earn some extra money.

About 3 p.m. that day, Swain's wife got a call from a man who said the store was unattended. Something had to be wrong. Wamsley wasn't the type of woman who shirked her responsibilities, Swain said.

He raced his Cadillac the 10 miles from Roosevelt to Neola and discovered his store had been robbed. Wamsley was gone.

Swain's hope was that Wamsley, a relative by marriage, was only “tied up some place or in an old cabin.” He immediately organized search parties to look for her.

“She was a very sweet lady, but she didn't take any guff,” he said. “She wasn't somebody to panic. She wasn't foolish.”

Delwin Wamsley remembers the local authorities being “overwhelmed” by what they faced. “It was completely over their heads,” he said. “They couldn't believe somebody would come into town and murder someone.”

“It was a mess,” Swain confirmed when asked about the initial response to the crime, noting that there were never any roadblocks set up.

Investigators initially believed there were no witnesses to the crime. Then a woman came forward and said her sons, ages 3 and 5, had come home and told her they'd seen three “robbers” armed with guns take “Thea” away in a blue and white pickup truck. The boys said two of the men were Native Americans and one was Caucasian.

At some point soon after the boys talked to detectives, Roosevelt police stopped a blue and white pickup truck occupied by three men who fit the description the children had provided. Duchesne County Sheriff George Marett interviewed the men and cleared them of any involvement in the case, Gibson said.

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