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Utah lawmakers identify suspect in 1972 murder and rape case; still looking for a second suspect ‘ Utah

VERNAL, Utah – A suspect in a 1972 murder and rape case involving an Army veteran and his date has been identified, according to Uintah County deputies.

“Daniel Arthur Bell, who died in 2019, has been identified through extensive DNA testing as one of two men suspected of killing Gregory Dahl Nickell nearly 50 years ago at a scenic lookout west of Vernal,” reads a press release of the Uintah County Sheriff’s Office on Wednesday morning.

Gregory Dahl Nickell, 21, was shot dead in Vernal on November 26, 1972. Fifty years later, one of the suspects in the case was identified. (Uintah County Sheriff’s Office)

According to the publication, on November 26, 1972, Nickell, who had recently returned to Vernal after his honorable discharge from the army, drove to a scenic lookout with a woman.

A little after 1am a man approached Nickell’s car window and said there had been an accident and that he should drive to Vernal to report it. Nickell, who was 21 at the time, said he would help, but as the man turned away from the window, he shot Nickell with a .22 caliber handgun.

Deputies said the man fired at least three more shots before pushing Nickell’s body onto the 18-year-old woman in the passenger seat. The man then got into the car and drove off on US Highway 40.

“The woman told investigators the man pointed a gun to her head and threatened her while he was driving,” the release said.

Eventually, a second car pulled up behind them, lit up, and then drove around them. When the man in the first car began to follow, deputies said the woman noticed the attacker had a partner.

The two men eventually came to a stop in a remote area near what is now Brough Reservoir, according to the press release.

MPs said the woman told investigators she was taken to the back seat of the second vehicle, where her head was then covered with a coat or blanket.

Shortly after, the two men used gas from Nickell’s car to set it on fire while his body was still inside.

“The men then drove around with the woman for several hours. She told investigators each man raped her once before leaving her on the side of the highway near Duchesne, about 60 miles from where she was abducted,” the release said.

The woman then went to a nearby farmhouse to get help. There she informed the police about the incident.

Deputies said she was unable to provide investigators with a good description of her attackers – whom she referred to as “Tex” and “Johnny” in interviews – or where she was taken after Nickell was killed.

“The men kept their heads covered for most of their ordeal, she said, so she couldn’t see much.”

According to the publication, a Rangely, Colorado police officer reported seeing a car occupied by two men and a woman that night. The officer said it made a U-turn, then sped away and headed for the Book Cliffs.

“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 deputies said the sheriff’s investigators also sent more than 30 pieces of evidence to the FBI Crime Lab for analysis, but nothing came of it and the case went cold.

“However, forensic evidence collected from the woman at Vernal hospital shortly after her captors released her proved key in identifying Bell as a suspect; although it took nearly five decades for science and technology to make this possible,” the release said.

That evidence was re-presented by sheriff’s investigators in January 2020, according to the press release.

Lawmakers said two “unknown male” DNA profiles turned up at the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services, where the evidence was sent. This information was then submitted to state and national databases.

In September 2020, detectives were told that one of the two profiles matched Bell, who they also learned had died and been cremated in Yakima, Washington, in March 2019.

Following this discovery, two detectives – identified as Vance Norton and Chase Hall – began gathering more information about Bell.

“They learned that Bell was living 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 back roads.”

Sometime after 1972, Bell moved away from Utah.

According to the publication, he was convicted of rape in Oregon in 1988, paroled in 1999, and moved to Washington state, where he remarried.

“Bell’s widow in Washington has been working with sheriff’s investigators, as have members of his family in the Uintah Basin,” the release said.

Deputies said Norton and Hall received samples from two adult children from Bell in Utah and submitted them to the crime lab.

According to the lab, comparing those samples to Bell’s DNA profile revealed the relationship was a parent-child.

Although the second suspect involved in this crime has still not been identified, lawmakers say they hope that identifying Bell will unearth additional information that will lead them to him. The press release said the unidentified suspect was younger than Bell by several years.

Gregory Dahl Nickell pictured with his mother. (Uintah County Sheriff’s Office)

“We are determined to find out 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,” Steve said Labrum, Uintah County Sheriff. “It is a tragedy that it has taken 50 years to identify a suspect. I hope that with the public’s help, we can identify the other suspect much, much sooner.”

“Greg’s family deserves answers. The woman who was sexually abused that night deserves answers. If you are the person who can help us provide them with answers, please get in touch now and speak to our investigators,” Labrum added.

Anyone with information about the case has been asked to call 435-781-6700 or email [email protected]