Utah deputies identify suspect in 1972 murder, rape case; still looking for second suspect

Nov 23, 2022, 11:45 AM | Updated: 7:40 pm

VERNAL, Utah — A suspect in a murder and rape case from 1972 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 overlook west of Vernal,” read a Wednesday morning press release from the Uintah County Sheriff’s Office.

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

According to the release, Nickell, who had recently returned to Vernal after being honorably discharged from the Army, drove up to a scenic overlook with a woman on Nov. 26, 1972.

“He was kind and he was extremely friendly and just the sweetest person you’d ever want to know,” his sister Lynnette Ray said.

Just after 1 a.m., a man approached Nickell’s car window, saying there had been a crash and that he should drive into Vernal to report it. Nickell, who was 21 at the time, said he would help, but as the man turned from the window, he shot Nickell with a .22-caliber pistol.

Deputies said the man fired at least three more shots before shoving Nickell’s body onto the 18-year-old woman in the passenger seat. The man then got into the car and started driving on U.S. Highway 40.

Ray said, “To come home and take a girl out on a date and then have that happen to him is just, it’s heinous. There’s just no describing how horrible it was.”

“The woman told investigators the man pointed a gun at her head and threatened her as he drove,” the release stated.

At some point, a second car pulled up behind them, flashed its headlights and then pulled around them. When the man in the first car started to follow, that’s when deputies say the woman realized the attacker had a partner.

The two men, according to the release, eventually came to a stop at a remote area near current day Brough Reservoir.

Deputies said the woman told investigators she was moved to the backseat 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.

Ray said, “My mom died at a young age, 62. My dad died at 68. It wore and tore at them until the day they died. And my younger brother passed away a little over a year ago.”

Ray said it’s been tough on her whole family over the years not having answers.

“I haven’t gotten over it. I can’t get over it,” Ray said.

“The men then 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 release stated.

The woman then walked to a nearby farmhouse for help. While there, she alerted law enforcement to what had happened.

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

“The men kept her head covered for most of her ordeal, she said, so she wasn’t able to see much.”

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

Deputies said 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.

“Forensic evidence collected from the woman at the hospital in Vernal shortly after her kidnappers released her, however, turned out to be the key to identifying Bell as a suspect; even though it took almost five decades for science and technology to make it possible,” the release stated.

That evidence, according to the release, was resubmitted by sheriff’s investigators in Jan. 2020.

Deputies said two “unknown male” DNA profiles came up at the Utah Bureau of Forensic Services, where the evidence had been sent. That information was then submitted to state and national databases.

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

After that discovery, two detectives — identified as Vance Norton and Chase Hall — began gathering more information on Bell.

“They learned that 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 backroads.”

At some point after 1972, Bell moved away from Utah.

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

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

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

According to the lab, when those samples were compared to Bell’s DNA profile, it came back consistent with a parent/child relationship.

Although the second suspect involved in this crime has still not been identified, deputies say they’re hopeful Bell’s identification will bring additional information to light that will lead them to him. In the release, they say the unidentified suspect is believed to be younger than Bell by several years.

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

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

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

Anyone with information about the case has been asked to call 435-781-6700 or email coldcase@uintah.utah.gov.

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Utah deputies identify suspect in 1972 murder, rape case; still looking for second suspect