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New clue, new hope: After 31 years, killer's DNA extracted in unsolved murders of Billings couple

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New clue, new hope: After 31 years, killer's DNA extracted in unsolved murders of Billings couple
Senior portraits show Cliff and Linda Bernhardt. The couple were murdered in their Billings home on Nov. 6, 1973. They were both 24 years old. VICTOR ADY/Gazette Staff JAMES WOODCOCK/Gazette Staff Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Lt. Ron Wilson looks through boxes of evidence stored from the 1973 unsolved murder of Cliff and Linda Bernhardt. JOHN WARNER/Gazette Staff Rick Schaff, the brother-in-law of Cliff Bernhardt, says the family wants to know why the Bernhardts were killed. Cliff Bernhardt was decorated for service in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Tracy Reich was 11 when his sister, Linda, and brother-in-law, Clifford, were strangled in their Billings Heights home on a snowy night in November 1973.

Now living out-of-state, Reich sometimes considers putting up a billboard in Billings. It would have photos of Cliff and Linda Bernhardt and the question their families have asked for 31 years: "Who killed us?"

"Because somebody in that town knows, people do know," Reich said. "The message would be for somebody to do the right thing, to free themselves and to free their soul."

Sheriff's Lt. Ron Wilson says investigators now have an ace in the hole: the murderer's DNA extracted from the purple pants Linda Bernhardt wore the night she was killed.

Over the years Yellowstone County sheriff's detectives have reviewed evidence from the murder case - including the heavy dishes they ate dinner from that night and the clothing torn from Linda Bernhardt's body - but have never had enough information to charge someone.

Wilson hopes to solve the murder, the county's oldest unsolved homicide.

"They were brutally murdered for absolutely no reason we can fathom," Wilson said.

The years of waiting have left Cliff's sister and brother-in-law, Shirley and Rick Schaff, yearning for answers to simple questions: "We basically want to know the who and the why," Rick Schaff said. "Why both of them? That's what we can't understand."

Linda Reich and Cliff Bernhardt were junior high sweethearts who graduated from Senior High in 1967. Cliff's older sister Shirley was Linda's maid of honor and Shirley's fiancé, Rick Schaff, was Cliff's best man when the couple married in June 1969. Cliff joined the Army and was decorated for service in Vietnam and Cambodia before being discharged in March 1971.

When Cliff came home, the couple saved their money and built a home on Dorothy Lane, just around the corner from Linda's parents. In November 1973, Cliff was working construction with Rick Schaff. Linda was employed at a grocery store. They had lived in their new home just a few weeks.

According to what investigators found and family members recall:

It was storming outside on Nov. 6, 1973, when Cliff called his mom and said the couple wouldn't attend a family dinner that night, instead staying home for a hamburger casserole dinner. They had to go to their evening job later, cleaning an office building.

Linda's father, Emil Reich, learned early Nov. 7 that his daughter and son-in-law had not cleaned the building the night before. He called his wife, June Reich, who telephoned friends and family of the young couple hoping to find out what happened. Realizing it was possible they were at home - maybe they had overslept - June walked the short distance from her home to theirs.

The door was locked. Reich broke in the back door. The house was cold.

She found Cliff face down in a pool of blood in the master bedroom. He had been bludgeoned on the back of the head and bumped his forehead either on the bed or the floor on the way down. Investigators said the killer used something - maybe pliers - to get enough strength to garrote such a strong victim.

Linda was in another bedroom, face down and dead, her clothing torn away. She had been brutally sexually assaulted.

The killer had turned down the heat in the house and opened the bedroom windows, possibly to adjust the Bernhardts' body temperatures and make it more difficult for investigators to determine their times of death.

The house was so cold that ice cubes in a dish near Linda's naked body didn't melt. Detectives would later question area prostitutes to see if they knew of anyone who had a proclivity for using ice during sexual acts, but the women couldn't suggest any suspects.

Marks on their hands and feet showed both had been bound. Whatever was used to bind them was not found.

The Bernhardts' home was one of just a few on Dorothy Lane, a dead end road north of Two Moon Park that is now bisected by the concrete bike path but remains unpaved. There was no apparent forced entry into the house, and investigators believe the killer or killers stayed in the home for several hours, possibly removing clues to his, or their, identity because little evidence was left behind.

The killer apparently took nothing of material value, but did take trophies: All of Linda's underclothing was missing from the house as was a large, green suitcase.

Linda's brother, Larry Reich, was 22 and living with his parents at the time. Although recovering from a motorcycle wreck and in a cast, he had gone out to celebrate a friend's birthday. He came in around midnight and saw, two doors down, the lights on at his sister's house. He recalled thinking " 'Should I hobble over there and go see them?' "

"To this day, I swear, to me, something would be different if I had gone over there," he said.

The next morning, Cliff's parents called and asked about their son and Linda being dead.

"I said 'I really don't know,' " Reich recalled. "I was kind of lost. I couldn't find my parents around."

He grabbed his crutches, crossed snowbanks and opened the back door of the Bernhardts' garage and entered their house. "My God, there was police everywhere."

Rick Schaff was working a concrete job near the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office about a year ago when he approached Sheriff Chuck Maxwell and asked if someone would delve into Cliff and Linda's murder again.

Some people convicted of crimes had been freed on DNA evidence, Schaff said.

"I love seeing people that are badly done get freed," Schaff said. "But I'd also like to see something get going on this case."

DNA evidence helped solve the 1988 murder of Billings teen Lisa Marie Kimmell. Like the Bernhardt case, officials were able to use new technology to remove DNA from clothing the victim wore when she was murdered. In late 2000, that DNA profile was entered into the FBI's database, which generates investigative leads in crime where biological evidence is recovered from the crime scene. In July 2002, it was matched to a sample of Dale Wayne Eaton's DNA taken at the Wyoming Penitentiary. Last year Eaton was convicted and sentenced to death for Kimmell's rape and murder.

Wilson has already used the DNA to make comparisons and eliminate suspects from the original murder investigation. While the DNA is run through national databases - in hopes of finding a match - detectives need help from anyone who has information.

What they need, Wilson said, is "somebody the murderer talked to, it could be the killer themselves," to come forward. Any information will help, he said.

"The suspect could have said something to somebody and they didn't take him seriously," Wilson said.

Detectives, some now retired and others still in law enforcement, have never given up on solving the murders.

There's no statute of limitation, said Lt. Wilson, the sheriff's detective.

But the investigation has never been easy. Days after the slayings, officials said the Bernhardts' location and personal lives offered no clues as to why they were chosen as victims.

Harold Hanser, who was county attorney at the time of the murders, said that as far as he knew, nothing negative was ever uncovered about the Bernhardts.

"There was no apparent motive why it occurred," he said. "It was a horrible murder. Two people and no clear motive why they ended up dead."

Officials also were puzzled at how the pair could have been subdued. Cliff was trim and muscular after serving in Vietnam. Linda had a stunning grin and was loving, but feisty and fit, the Schaffs said.

Rick Schaff, who came home from his own stint in Vietnam right before Cliff left for his, said most soldiers would not have been easy targets for violence - especially stout Cliff Bernhardt in his own home.

"My theory is whoever walked in that house, they let them in," Rick Schaff said. "There was no struggle in that house and, by God, I know there would have been if it had been a stranger."

From the time Cliff came home from the war, the couples did everything together, from late night ice cream runs to camping to sharing pizza dinners. If it was an acquaintance that killed the Bernhardts, there was the unnerving chance that it would have been someone whom the Schaffs knew, had met or crossed paths with.

"We knew all their friends and they knew all our friends," Rick Schaff said.

Hanser said there was never "a viable suspect in the case."

"From the standpoint of my office, there was virtually nothing that we could file," Hanser said. "It just ended up at a brick wall."

Investigators were willing in 1974 to allow a psychic, called a "mentalist" at the time, to try to help when he stopped in Billings on tour.

Evidence, including nail scrapings, was sent to FBI laboratories. Officials consulted a criminal psychiatrist from Detroit who determined the killer was a "lonely, frustrated man" who probably had an "internal fire" that built up before the murders. Local investigators and the psychiatrist believed whoever murdered the Bernhardts would probably kill again.

In the late 1980s there was renewed interest in the case. Detectives tried DNA profiling and putting fingerprints and case information into new computer databases.

Wilson reviewed the Bernhardts' murders last year as part of a new effort to find new information in old evidence that can be identified by new technology and techniques. In September, the Montana State Crime Lab wrote with good news: Technicians had extracted DNA not able to be removed earlier.

"DNA is not a surefire result, but it gives us a lot better shot," Wilson said.

Wilson has spent time going through the "two huge boxes" of evidence collected at the murder scene and has asked a retired detective, who worked the case from the day the couple was found, to also look through it again. One of the early theories was that the couple invited someone to dinner who then killed them, but detectives have no preconceived notions as they review the evidence, Wilson said.

"We're looking at the case all over again from all aspects," he said, "as if we just walked into the case. We don't have any theories, any notions, that it happened this way or that way."

All homicides are senseless, Wilson said, but the Bernhardts' deaths are almost impossible to comprehend.

"These people are sitting in their house, having dinner a week or two before Thanksgiving," Wilson said. "It doesn't look like robbery was a motive. It's just tough to figure out why somebody would go in there and murder two people."

Cliff Bernhardt's parents, Loveen "Bernie" and Eva, have both died. Tracy Reich hopes his parents, Emil and June, can see a murderer brought to justice.

"There's never closure," Reich said. "But at least a finality to it … at least the last page is turned."

Larry, also Linda's brother, said the murders forced his family to move away from Billings.

"It's not on the back burner, it's always there. It's not like it's ever gone away, it just comes to light again," he said

It haunts Reich that his children have been to her gravesite, but never met their Aunt Linda.

"I accept that she's gone, I don't accept the way in which she was taken," Reich said. "If you lost a sister to a fire or a car wreck or something … something like this, where somebody just wipes her out and rapes her and does everything else in the world and killed her husband … I can't accept that. I still can't accept that."

Tracy Reich said he is thankful there has been a development in the investigation.

"We've never had this before, which is a big deal," he said. "It's been a lot of years, it's kind of hard for me to get my hopes up.

"I'm kind of excited about it, but I reserve my emotions," he continued. " … part of me is excited, part of me is scared and part of me is real standoffish about the whole thing."

Larry Reich has tried to keep the investigation alive, including writing to national television shows and local media asking for coverage of the murders. He has mixed feelings about the resurgence in the investigation - excited it is in the forefront again but apprehensive because detectives may have to search out the owner of the DNA.

"I think it's fantastic, the only problem is you've got to match it with something," he said. "At least it's something concrete. Something to grab into."

How to help

Relatives of Linda and Cliff Bernhardt are offering a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the murderer. Contact the Yellowstone County sheriff's detectives at 256-2939.


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