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Mike Terry, Deseret News
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.

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.

“'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.

“We just don't have much to go on,” Marett told the Uintah Basin Standard one week after the crime.

That wouldn't be the case for long.

In November 1976 — six months after Othea Wamsley's body was found in a Neola irrigation canal — a father and son hunting west of Green River, Wyo., found the near-skeletal remains of a man in a dry gully. He had been shot several times, including once in the head. There was no driver's license or other form of identification on the body, but police found a prescription bottle that they were able to link to a Utah man named Brent William Nisonger.

It was their first break in the case.

The Wyoming investigators' second break came when an anonymous tip led them to John Scott Beverleigh, a Nisonger associate being held in the Salt Lake County Jail on a federal explosives charge. At first Beverleigh made no admissions about the murder, but eventually he asked if prosecutors would make him a deal in exchange for his testimony against Nisonger.

“He laid it all out,” said Sweetwater County sheriff's detective Dick Blust Jr., who worked the case.

Nisonger, Beverleigh and a third man, John Anthony Boggs, were in Wyoming selling guns stolen from a Salt Lake County firearms collector, Blust said. A rift of some kind developed between the men and Boggs was murdered, the detective said.

It took Wyoming State Crime Lab technicians several more months to confirm that the body in the gully was Boggs, a feat they accomplished by lifting fingerprints from his mummified hands.

“We knew who killed Boggs before we knew who he was,” Blust said.

At trial, Beverleigh testified that Nisonger had told him he “always wanted to kill somebody, somebody nobody would miss,” court records state. Prosecutors also introduced a jailhouse letter Nisonger wrote to his wife telling her “it would be a miracle if (police) ever found all the pieces” of the gun he used to kill Boggs.

Nisonger was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He escaped briefly from a state work farm in 1982 and was recaptured, yet still managed to get his sentence reduced on three separate occasions by late Wyoming Gov. Edgar "Ed" Herschler and was released from prison in December 1986.

Beverleigh pleaded guilty to accessory to murder after the fact. He was sentenced to two years in prison.

“These are very, very, very bad guys,” Blust said.

While Blust and his partner, Don Beckum, were still investigating the Boggs case, they suggested to Duchesne County authorities that Nisonger and Beverleigh might know something about the killing, kidnapping and robbery in Neola. It wasn't a random hunch, according to Blust. Nisonger had once lived less than a mile from the Neola store and Beverleigh had a brother living in Roosevelt when Wamsley was killed.

In April 1977, Sheriff Marett conducted one of at least four interviews with Nisonger about the Wamsley case.

“I believe I asked the sheriff what it would be worth for him to have an eyewitness to the case,” Nisonger would later testify.

Court records indicate the sheriff promised Nisonger immunity and Nisonger proceeded to implicate himself and Beverleigh in the Neola store robbery and the abduction and murder of Wamsley. What can't be discerned from these records or the case file, according to Gibson, is whether Nisonger had personal knowledge of the crime or if Sheriff Marett sought to strengthen the case by passing along information for Nisonger to use in his testimony.

“If Nisonger was (involved), he would have all those details,” Gibson said. “If not, then Marett would have all the great details that Nisonger gave in his initial statement.”

When authorities questioned Beverleigh about Nisonger's allegations, he denied his involvement and even took a polygraph test. The results were inconclusive.

Still, in September 1978 — more than 2 ½ years after Wamsley's death — arrest warrants were issued in Duchesne County for both men on charges of murder in the first degree, aggravated kidnapping and aggravated robbery.

Nisonger was ordered to stand trial in April 1979 after a preliminary hearing where at least three Wyoming State Penitentiary inmates testified he told them about robbing the Neola store with Beverleigh and “blowing the old lady away.”

After the hearing, Nisonger agreed to another interview with Marett. He implicated Beverleigh once again, then added a new twist. Beverleigh's wife had accompanied the men to the store and had witnessed the slaying, Nisonger now claimed.

Linda Beverleigh was arrested and extradited to Utah from Wisconsin. Then, for reasons Gibson and other investigators looking back at the records don't understand, Marett put Linda Beverleigh in a room with Nisonger just two days before her husband's preliminary hearing was scheduled to take place.

After the face to face meeting, Nisonger said Linda Beverleigh wasn't involved after all. Now he claimed the third person at the Neola store was his own wife, Peggy Nisonger.

In his testimony at Beverleigh's preliminary hearing, Nisonger said the trio traveled from Salt Lake City to Roosevelt to borrow money from Beverleigh's brother. That plan didn't pan out though, so they drove north on state Road 121 toward Neola.

They pulled up to the intersection of state Route 121 and 9000 North in Beverleigh's 1971 Jeep Wagoneer and eyed the small store on the northwest corner. “Beverleigh made the statement, 'We might as well start here,'” Nisonger testified.

“Nisonger gave this great step by step of how the crime was committed,” Gibson said, flipping through a thick three-ring binder containing the entire case file.

“He goes through and basically fries Beverleigh,” the investigator added.

Nisonger said he and Beverleigh entered the store carrying handguns. Beverleigh walked directly to the counter and demanded money from Wamsley, according to Nisonger, who said he was prowling the store to ensure it was otherwise unoccupied.

The men then walked Wamsley outside. She broke free as they approached the Jeep and started to run, but Nisonger said he was able to stop her and put her in the backseat next to his wife.

“She was crying,” Nisonger testified, referring to Wamsley.

Wamsley tried once more to escape from the moving Jeep. Nisonger testified that Beverleigh responded by taking wire from a set of tire chains and binding the woman's wrists with it. He also blindfolded her with a bandana, Nisonger said.

The group drove in silence for several miles before pulling onto a dirt road. Wamsley was taken from the Jeep and walked a short distance away by the two men, according to Nisonger's testimony. She stumbled and fell at some point and Nisonger said Beverleigh told her to stay down. Then, without warning, Beverleigh fired one shot into Wamsley's head, Nisonger told the court.

“He said, 'We're all going to be involved in this,'” Nisonger testified. "At that point I fired the second shot.”

Beverleigh fired the final shot, dragged Wamsley's body to the nearby canal, and collected the shell casings from his gun, Nisonger said. The men got back in the Jeep with Nisonger's wife and drove back to Salt Lake, passing Swain's store again as they went, he testified.

Their take, according to Nisonger, was $623 in cash. They dumped the checks in the Strawberry River on the way back to Salt Lake City, he said.

Based largely on Nisonger's testimony, Beverleigh was ordered to stand trial for robbery, kidnapping and murder. Then, everything went wrong for the prosecution.

“Somewhere in there — we don't know where — Nisonger says he lied, he made it all up,” Gibson said.

Duchesne County Attorney Dennis Draney filed a motion to dismiss the charges against Beverleigh, telling the Uintah Basin Standard at the time that Nisonger had submitted to a polygraph test and his “'new' story is true.” Nisonger told authorities he was just trying to “get even” with Beverleigh for testifying against him in the Boggs case, the newspaper reported.

A judge dismissed the charges against Beverleigh on Nov. 11, 1979. The charges against Nisonger were dropped one month later.

Now a mechanic living near Phoenix, Delwin Wamsley maintains that his family was never told about the original charges against Nisonger and Beverleigh until the cases against the men were dismissed. His mother's murder shattered the family, he said.

“When she was gone, I lost Dad the same day,” Wamsley said. “My sister and I were basically alone after that.”

Wamsley's older sister left Duchesne County in the fall of 1976 to attend college. Their father, he said, spent much of the first few months after the killing sitting at home each night with “a shotgun on one side of him and a 12-pack of beer on the other side,” angrily mumbling about going after the people he believed were responsible for his wife's death.

“To be alone, it was killing him,” Wamsley said.

Othea Wamsley's father also took her death particularly hard, according to his grandson.

“Every Christmas, every Thanksgiving, every anything we'd be together and look over and Grandpa would have tears running out of his eyes, and it was that way 'til the day he died,” Wamsley said. “It was absolutely heartbreaking.”

Larry Swain, who sold the Neola store several years after the murder and later moved to Idaho, was close to Othea Wamsley's father. He confirmed that Olaf “Pat” Duncan “never got over it.”

“He said, 'Sure she was a woman, but she was my little girl,'” Swain said, his raspy voice choking with emotion at the memory. “It really busted him up.”

Wamsley said he always had the impression that his mother was “the one with a little bit of spark.”

“She didn't always do what (her) mom and dad said,” he recalled. “She was the head of the family. She was the dominant person in the whole family, that's for sure.”

But she was also easy to be around, her son said. She let him drive the family car on the country roads as a youngster and they frequently went fishing together. She was an excellent cook and played the piano beautifully.

“It would make the hair stand up on the back of my neck,” Wamsley recalled. “I'd just stand there in amazement. … I think about her every day.”

The 49-year-old father of three also described his mother as “strong” and “bullheaded,” a woman unlikely to back down from someone who tried to steal from her employer.

“I guarantee she told those guys, 'I know who you are and you're not going to get away with it,'” he said.

Variations of that threat are found in the transcripts of the preliminary hearings for both Nisonger and Beverleigh.

Swain, however, isn't so sure that Othea Wamsley would have challenged the robbers. But he also has no doubt that it wouldn't have mattered one way or the other.

“They came into that store knowing they weren't going to leave anybody to testify and they didn't,” he said. “They executed her. We'll never know the hell that Othea went through.”

Nisonger and Beverleigh have continued to have brushes with the law over the years.

State court records in Utah show that Nisonger has been convicted of eight felonies since 1986. In 2006, he was No. 2 on Utah's Most Wanted list when he was arrested following a traffic stop in Juab County. Officers found martial arts throwing stars, knives and a pellet gun in the car — all items Nisonger is prohibited from possessing because of his prior felony convictions.

Nisonger, now 59 years old, is still serving time in the Utah State Prison for his conviction on the felony charges stemming from the Juab County arrest and parole violations. His next parole hearing is set for August 2017.

“He's not a model inmate and he's never been a model citizen,” Gibson said.

Beverleigh's crimes in recent years have been minor, for the most part. He has convictions for misdemeanor counts of assault and mischievous conduct, Utah court records show.

But in December 2006, Beverleigh made headlines when the Salt Lake County sheriff's narcotics unit found a sophisticated marijuana-growing operation in the basement of his home. The set up was capable of growing hundreds of thousands of dollars of marijuana each year, authorities said.

Beverleigh pleaded guilty in 2007 to drug possession and drug manufacturing charges. He was ordered to serve 75 days in jail and three years on probation. Today the 57-year-old lives near the office where Gibson continues to search for the break that will solve the Wamsley case.

“I drove by and looked at his house the other day,” the investigator said.

E-mail: geoff@ubstandard.com, Twitter: GeoffLiesik