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DNA points to late Yakima man as a suspect in 1972 Utah murder

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Nov. 27—Utah investigators have identified a Yakima man as a suspect in the 1972 Thanksgiving weekend murder of an Army veteran and the rape of his companion.

Daniel Arthur Bell, who died at age 87 on March 7, 2019, was identified through extensive DNA testing as one of two men suspected of killing Gregory Dahl Nickell on Nov. 26, 1972, the Uintah County Sheriff’s Office said in a news release. Bell was identified with help from state investigators and forensic scientists.

Immediately after the killing at a scenic overlook west of Vernal, Utah, Bell and the other man abducted Nickell’s date and later raped her. The identity of the second suspect remains unknown but forensic testing is ongoing, and investigators continue to develop and follow leads.

Bell was living at Garden Village in Yakima when he died, according to his death notice in the Yakima Herald-Republic.

Detectives are optimistic that Bell’s identification might bring more information that will lead them to the second suspect, whom they believe is younger than Bell by several years.

“It’s a tragedy that it’s taken 50 years to identify one suspect,” said Uintah County Sheriff Steve Labrum. “It’s my hope that, with the public’s help, we will identify the other suspect much, much sooner.”

They want to talk to anyone who might recall the people Bell associated with in 1972, or anyone with any possible information about the case.

“Greg’s family deserves answers. The woman who was sexually assaulted that night deserves answers,” Labrum said. “If you’re the person who can help us give them answers, please come forward now and talk with our investigators.”

Tex and Johnny

Nickell and his date were parked at the scenic overlook sometime after 1 a.m. on Nov. 26, 1972, when a man knocked on Nickell’s car window. Nickell, who had recently returned to Vernal after being honorably discharged from the Army, rolled the window down.

The man said there had been a crash and asked Nickell, who was 21, to drive into Vernal to report it. Nickell said he would help.

As Nickell turned from the window, the man shot him with a .22-caliber pistol. He fired at least three more shots into Nickell’s body before shoving him on top of the 18-year-old woman in the passenger seat, getting into the car and driving onto U.S. Route 40.

The woman told investigators the man pointed a gun at her head and threatened her as he drove. A second vehicle pulled up behind them, flashed its headlights and pulled around them, the sheriff’s office said. The kidnapper followed the second vehicle and the woman said she realized he had a partner.

The two men, whom the woman referred to as “Tex” and “Johnny” during interviews with investigators, drove to a remote area near present-day Brough Reservoir. The woman said she was moved to the back seat of the second vehicle and her head was covered with a coat or blanket. The men used gas from Nickell’s car to set his vehicle on fire with his body inside.

Afterward, they drove around for several hours with the woman. She told investigators each man raped her once before they left her on the side of the highway near Duchesne, about 60 miles from where she had been abducted.

The woman walked to a nearby farmhouse for help and law enforcement was notified. Because the men kept her head covered for most of her ordeal, she said, she wasn’t able to see much. She was unable to provide investigators with a good description of her attackers and couldn’t say where they had taken her between the time they killed Nickell and released her.

A police officer in Rangely, Colo., reported seeing a car occupied by two men and a woman that night, which made a U-turn when the driver spotted the officer. The driver sped away, headed toward the Book Cliffs, and the officer was unable to catch him.

The sheriff’s office set up roadblocks and conducted a four-day air and ground search of the Book Cliffs, but had no luck finding the men or their vehicle, the sheriff’s office said.

Sheriff’s investigators also sent more than 30 pieces of evidence to the FBI Crime Lab for analysis. Nothing came of it then. But forensic evidence collected from the woman at the hospital in Vernal shortly after her kidnappers released her turned out to be the key to identifying Bell as a suspect.

Forensic evidence key

In January 2020, sheriff’s investigators resubmitted the evidence collected at the hospital in 1972 to the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services — the state crime lab — for testing. Two “unknown male” DNA profiles were found and submitted to state and national databases.

Sheriff’s detectives were notified in September 2020 that one of the two unknown DNA profiles matched Bell. They also learned Bell died in March 2019 in Yakima and was cremated.

Sheriff’s office detectives Vance Norton and Chase Hall began researching Bell to see if there was additional evidence that would link him to the murder and rape, evidence that might also lead them to the second suspect.

They learned Bell lived in the Uintah Basin at the time of the crime. He worked on a ranch in the Book Cliffs south of Vernal and was familiar with the area’s back roads.

Bell moved from Utah at some point after 1972, according to the sheriff’s office. He was convicted of rape in Oregon in 1988, was paroled in 1999 and moved to Washington state, where he remarried.

His widow in Washington has cooperated with sheriff’s investigators, as have members of his family in the Uintah Basin. Norton and Hall obtained samples from two of Bell’s adult children in Utah and submitted them to the crime lab for comparison.

When tested against the DNA profiles from the evidence collected in 1972, the samples from Bell’s children were consistent with a parent/child relationship, according to the lab, the sheriff’s office said.

The sheriff thanked the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services and Statewide Intelligence Analysis Center for their work and ongoing support in the case.

“I’m grateful as well to the State Bureau of Investigation for the support and advanced DNA testing resources they’ve provided via the national Sexual Assault Kit Initiative,” Labrum said.

Labrum also praised Norton, Hall and the other sheriff’s detectives and crime scene technicians who continue to work to solve the case.

“We are committed to finding the truth, committed to finding the other person responsible for taking Greg from his family and forever changing the life of the woman who was with Greg that night,” he said.

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