After working for six years on the Lisa Marie Kimmell murder case, Don Flickinger couldn't help but feel he had left business unfinished when he retired from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. As he feared, the federal role in the murder investigation dropped to almost nothing when he left the case.
For a while after retiring in 1995, Flickinger stayed in touch with the detectives in Casper, Wyo. But as the years passed without an arrest, the contacts became less frequent. Detective Dan Tholson transferred to another job in the Natrona County Sheriff's Office. Tholson's partner, Jim Broz, moved to Colorado.
Flickinger thought about Lisa every day.
He stayed in touch with Lisa's parents, Ron and Sheila Kimmell, who left Billings for Colorado the year after their daughter's murder. Flickinger and his wife had grown close to the Kimmells, and the friendship continued after Flickinger was no longer officially involved in the investigation.
When his mind turned to the case, which it often did, Flickinger reread the interviews he took before he retired. He scoured his notes of the evidence from the bridge in Wyoming where Lisa was stabbed six times and thrown into the North Platte River.
Was there something he missed? Could he have done something differently?
Who killed Lisa Kimmell?
"I just couldn't walk away," he said.
But there wasn't much he could do. Flickinger filled his days with golf and with research at the Little Bighorn Battlefield. Summers, he spends time with his family at Lake McDonald in Glacier Park.
More recently, Flickinger took a job driving cars for Big Sky Auto Auction three days a week.
He was working at the car lot last July when he was called to the office for a phone call. It was Dan Tholson. He asked if Flickinger was sitting down.
"We got our man," Tholson said flatly.
Flickinger sat down. Tholson said a DNA match had been made with a federal prison inmate in Colorado named Dale Wayne Eaton. The 57-year-old man was doing time on a firearms charge and he owned property in Moneta, about 75 miles northwest of Casper.
"Well Dan, I never heard of this guy," Flickinger told Tholson.
"We didn't either," Tholson replied.
Tholson explained how a routine DNA database search connected Eaton to Lisa's death. The match came from DNA taken from Eaton while he was incarcerated at the Wyoming State Prison in 1998. At that time, Eaton was in prison for a roadside assault. He later walked away from a halfway house.
Flickinger listened. When Tholson was done and they hung up, Flickinger lowered his head and wept.
News of the DNA match in Lisa's murder was kept from the public while investigators learned all they could about Eaton. The pieces fell together quickly. Investigators found Eaton's property and started digging where a neighbor said something large had been buried many years ago. The neighbor recalled Eaton saying he was putting in a septic tank.
After more than a decade of searching, Lisa's Honda was unearthed. A piece of the LILMISS personalized license plates was found with the car.
Last month, Natrona County prosecutors charged Eaton with Lisa's kidnapping, rape and murder. Officials haven't said whether they'll seek the death penalty.
Investigators are now looking at Eaton as a possible serial killer. Natrona County investigators remain quiet on that possibility, but several experts have said publicly that the circumstances of Lisa's murder suggest a methodical, organized killer.
Flickinger believes in the serial killer theory.
A few weeks ago, Flickinger returned to the old trestle bridge outside Casper where Lisa was stabbed to death and thrown into the river. It had been nine years since he was last here, when two psychics from Great Falls tried to imagine Lisa's last moments.
And for the first time, Flickinger visited the home of the man he had tried to find for 15 years.
Eaton's property is on a desolate swath of low rolling hills covered with cracked earth and thirsty sagebrush. Hell's Half Acre, described in a tourist guide as a "highly eerie" natural formation, is down the road on two-lane U.S. 20-26 that runs past Eaton's land.
A decrepit trailer house sits about 100 yards off the highway. Vermin have moved in and made the place an awful mess. Yellow crime scene tape remains tied to where the front door used to be. The tape was left last summer after investigators finished their search of the property.
A large metal shed is the only other structure. The earth floor has been dug up and dirt is piled where investigators searched for other evidence. Her car may have been hidden in this shed before it was buried.
Around the shed, car parts and oil drilling equipment are strewn across the ground. A spare tire that looks unused but weathered lies in the rubble.
Flickinger walks around, quietly observing, taking in the little pieces of the puzzle and trying to see in his mind the whole ghastly picture.
Inside the trailer he picks through a stack of old newspapers and envelopes. He looks into a back bedroom littered with old clothes and garbage covered in rat and bird droppings. The bathroom is a shambles, with debris and feces covering every inch of the room.
"This is a house of horrors," Flickinger says just above a whisper. "I can't even imagine what took place in here."
Flickinger knows that Lisa was alive for several days after she was abducted and before she was killed. He also knows that within days of her disappearance, searchers traced her route from Denver to Billings trying to spot her car from a small plane. Was Lisa still alive when the plane flew over 15 years ago?
It's one of the questions that haunt Don Flickinger.