Agent puts in years chasing false leads in Kimmell case

2003-05-18T23:00:00Z Agent puts in years chasing false leads in Kimmell caseGREG TUTTLE Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette
May 18, 2003 11:00 pm  • 

On July 3, 1989, Don Flickinger boarded a plane in Billings and flew to Portland, Ore., for his first official interview in the Lisa Marie Kimmell murder investigation. It had been 15 months since the 18-year-old Billings woman was bludgeoned, stabbed and thrown off a bridge in Wyoming.

When the agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms landed, he met Dan Tholson, one of the lead investigators on the case for Natrona County, Wyo., where Lisa's body was found in the North Platte River. Flickinger and Tholson had spoken many times on the phone, but it was the first time the two men met. They were in Oregon to speak with a county jail inmate who had been calling Kimmell's parents in Billings.

The interview was a bust. As Flickinger would find later, it was the first of many dead-end leads and disappointments in a case he spent six years trying to solve.

Some of the leads would take Flickinger as far away as Alaska and Texas. Others would have him questioning fellow law enforcement officers. He interviewed members of a cult, listened to psychics and sorted through thousands of tips from across the country after the case aired on prime-time television.

Flickinger followed every lead as far as it would go. Other cops called him "the vampire" because he took so many blood samples from potential suspects or people he wanted to rule out.

"Don was on a mission," said Sheila Kimmell, Lisa's mother. "He was passionate about this case, and tenacious. He wouldn't give up."

The inmate in Oregon was doing time for a petty crime. In several collect calls from the county jail, he told Ron and Sheila Kimmell he had information about Lisa's murder. He wanted to make a deal with the cops before he would say more.

Flickinger and Tholson were hopeful. After more than a year, the murder investigation had stalled and now federal authorities were involved. Flickinger was officially assigned to assist the Natrona County Sheriff's Office a month before the trip to Oregon.

Flickinger and Tholson quickly determined the Oregon convict didn't have a clue about Lisa's murder.

"We flew all the way out there, went in and talked to him and were there maybe 20 minutes," Tholson said. "He didn't know a thing. He was looking for a deal. But that was typical."

Flickinger and Tholson stayed up late that evening at a Portland hotel talking about evidence and possible suspects. The investigators found they shared a common focus, and they agreed not to let interagency politics derail their efforts to catch Lisa's killer.

"There was a lot of ill feelings at the top between the federal agencies and the sheriff," Flickinger said. "It was never at our level."

Shortly after joining the investigation full time, Flickinger met two FBI agents who gained some fame on the case of Arthur Shawcross, a serial killer who preyed on New York prostitutes. The agents were in Billings to give a seminar, and Flickinger cornered them for advice on the Lil Miss murder.

The FBI agents said the unusual knife wounds - five in a pentagram pattern on the chest and a sixth under the sternum - indicated a possible cult connection. The agents had seen ritualistic murders before, and told Flickinger not to ignore the occult.

Flickinger was willing to turn over any rock to catch the killer. During the next six months he interviewed about 20 people in the Casper area who said they were members of a cult. Some wore robes with a symbol similar to the pattern of knife wounds found on Lisa's body.

The cult members, including professionals and housewives, said they held meetings outside of town where unusual rock formations jutted up from the central Wyoming plains.

Rumors of the bizarre stab wounds on Lisa's body had spread. The story changed and grew with each telling.

"The biggest rumor was that her heart was cut out," Tholson said. "I don't think we could ever track how that started, but it just went all over, to everybody. We got phone calls and tips on that all the time."

Another crowd was spreading a different story about Lisa's murder, and they were more than willing to share their theory with investigators.

Don was on a mission. He wouldn’t give up.

— Sheila Kimmell, Lisa’s mother

Flickinger and the Natrona County detectives received tips that a drug dealer named Jack was connected to Lisa's murder. Flickinger learned that Jack was in the Casper area when Lisa disappeared.

When he found Jack, the man told a story that had Flickinger wondering if the tips were true.

Jack said he was in Casper at the time to pick up a stolen snowmobile and haul it back to Montana. Jack said he met several people at a remote cabin and noticed a suitcase and two stuffed animals among their belongings.

Jack's description of the items matched what Lisa was known to have with her when she left Denver for the drive to Billings.

After numerous interviews, polygraphs and DNA analysis, Jack and several of his pals were cleared of having any part in Lisa's death. Flickinger learned later that the description of Lisa's belongings had been leaked outside the circle of investigators. Jack was telling a long story based on a few specific details.

Flickinger believes Jack was fingered by rivals who saw an opportunity to hurt the competition. Jack responded by implicating other drug dealers. The false leads occupied investigators for months, and came to nothing.

Rumors were plentiful, but solid suspects were hard to come by. So Flickinger wasted no time tracking down people whose names came up in connection to Lisa's murder.

When Ron and Sheila Kimmell received a strange letter from a Las Vegas man they didn't know, they gave it to Flickinger. The unsigned letter lamented Lisa's death, and included a return address on the envelope.

Flickinger called the ATF office in Las Vegas, and agents there agreed to drive by the address. The next day, a breathless agent called Flickinger and said there was a black Honda CRX parked in the driveway. It was the same model year as Lisa's car, and had the same sun roof.

Flickinger asked the agent to check the car's identification number and find the owner. Then he called Tholson with the news. Tholson alerted the crime lab team and arranged a flight.

But before they could board the plane, the federal agent in Las Vegas called back. The vehicle identification number didn't match. It wasn't Lisa's car.

Photo courtesy Sheila and Ron Kimmell Sheila and Ron Kimmell today live in Littleton, Colo. In a stunning coincidence, Dale Wayne Eaton was an inmate at a federal prison in Littleton in 2002 when he was identified as a suspect in Lisa Kimmell's murder.

Flickinger flew to Las Vegas anyway. The man who wrote the letter told Flickinger that he used to live in Cody and often went to Billings. He met Lisa at the fast-food restaurant in the Heights where she worked. He had a crush on her, but never got up the nerve to ask Lisa for a date. Smitten, he bought a car just like hers.

The man was embarrassed, but he was no murderer, Flickinger said. The federal agent made sure by taking a blood sample. DNA from the man with a crush on Lisa Kimmell did not match the foreign DNA found with her body.

Other names were not as easy to rule out, or even to investigate.

There was a police officer in Texas who used to drive a taxi in Casper. The man's name was added to the suspect list when several people said he had acted strangely with women fares, sometimes taking a long route so he had more time with them in the cab. He was living in Casper when Lisa was killed.

Flickinger flew to Houston and met with the officer. Aghast to be suspected, the man quickly agreed to give a blood sample. The DNA comparison ruled him out.

Ron Ketchum was not as cooperative.

A powerful political figure in Casper, Ketchum had served as the county sheriff from 1987 to 1991. After leaving the sheriff's office, Ketchum taught criminal justice at the University of Wyoming and worked as a polygraph examiner. He was elected to the Natrona County Board of Commissioners in 1999, and the next year was named chairman.

Ketchum had made it clear from the start that he resented Flickinger's involvement in the county sheriff's case. Later, his resentment boiled into outrage when Flickinger asked him to account for his whereabouts the night Lisa disappeared.

Flickinger had reason to ask. A credible witness reported seeing Ketchum in a sheriff's patrol car on the night of March 25, 1988. The witness said Ketchum had a small black car with a young woman driver pulled over at the side of the road. Ketchum denied working that night, but dispatch records showed that he was.

There were other reports about Ketchum stopping women on lonely county roads. A woman who used to live in Casper said she moved out of state after such an encounter, only to have Ketchum show up unexpectedly at her new home in Missouri.

No one in Wyoming law enforcement would criticize Ketchum publicly, but in private many cops told Flickinger of their gut feeling that the sheriff should be investigated.

Ron Ketchum, shown in this 1989 photo, was Natrona County sheriff from 1987 till 1991. He was a suspect in Lisa Kimmell’s slaying and later elected to the county commission. He shot himself to death in 2000.

Some of the speculation was tied to Ketchum's attempted suicide on the two-year anniversary of Lisa's disappearance.

In March 1990, Ketchum was found unconscious in his home from a drug overdose. He returned to work three weeks later and said he was being treated for depression. He left the Sheriff's Office the next year.

The timing of the suicide attempt, along with the other information, raised Flickinger's interest in Ketchum. He asked Ketchum for a blood sample and was met with a hostile rebuke. The investigation became mired in a political battle, which ended only after Ketchum submitted to a DNA test. He was ruled out as a suspect after he left the Sheriff's Office.

In May of 2000, Ketchum drove to a remote area outside Casper and shot himself in the chest.

One year after Lisa's body was found, the Wyoming murder case went on national television when "Unsolved Mysteries" aired a segment on the Lil Miss murder. The show received what was then a record number of calls from viewers, and the segment was rebroadcast several times in the years that followed.

Most callers reported seeing Lisa's black Honda with its Montana personalized license plates LILMISS. The calls came in from across the country, and a few from Canada.

"They flooded us, literally flooded us with thousands of phone calls," Tholson said.

Investigators spent weeks looking for solid clues from among the many reports, but only a few seemed worth following. There wasn't enough manpower or money to check on every sighting of a black sports car with personalized plates.

"We just tried to sort them out and somehow pick the ones that were most likely," Flickinger said.

Tholson believes that most of the callers really thought they had seen Lisa's car, or were so horrified by the story they were desperate to help.

Even police officers called. Flickinger flew to Anchorage, Alaska, to check out a cop's sighting of Lisa's black Honda. When he got there, the officer said he was sure at the time that he saw the car, but was probably mistaken. No one else there had reported seeing the missing car.

Flickinger caught the next plane back to Billings.

"They were legitimately nice people trying to help," Tholson said. "But I don't have a lot of faith in eyewitnesses any more. Virtually none."

One of Flickinger's last attempts to crack the case came in 1994, when sisters from Great Falls who worked as psychics were brought in by the Kimmell family.

Flickinger and Tholson met the psychic sisters at the scene of the murder on Government Bridge.

The investigators were skeptical, but open to anything that could help. It had been six years since Lisa's death, and they were no closer to an arrest now then when her body was found in the North Platte below.

"At that point, I think we were looking at anything we could try," Tholson said.

The sisters walked around on the bridge, one holding a glass of water, the other a crucifix that had been given to Lisa by her father. They said they received images of a rural setting, and something about the number 2. They had a sense of something buried, but could offer nothing more.

Flickinger reached mandatory retirement age the next year. Ron and Sheila Kimmell, who had since moved to Littleton, Colo., came to his retirement party. Flickinger and his wife, Linda, had grown close to the Kimmells, sharing the ups and downs of the investigation and the painful knowledge that Lisa's killer was out there somewhere.

Flickinger tried to share some hope. The foreign DNA found with Lisa's body could one day point to her killer. He urged the Kimmells to have faith and patience.

Copyright 2014 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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