Linda and Clifford Bernhardt

Linda and Clifford Bernhardt

Using DNA evidence from the crime scene, investigators have solved the 45-year-old homicide of a Billings Heights couple, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder announced during a press conference Monday.

Linder named Cecil Stan Caldwell, who died in 2003 at the age of 59, as the man who fatally strangled Clifford and Linda Bernhardt in their home at 1116 Dorothy Lane in the Billings Heights on Nov. 7, 1973.

Billings Gazette obituary in print for Cecil Stan Caldwell

Cecil Stan Caldwell's obituary is shown published in the Dec. 17, 2003, Billings Gazette.

Linda Bernhardt and Caldwell had been co-workers at the Ryan Grocery Co., wholesale warehouse, Linder said.

“Cecil Caldwell had basically a spotless record,” Linder said.

The sheriff and other law enforcement speaking during the press conference declined to speculate on possible motives.

“There’s a lot of theories as to why and how, and I don’t think we’re ever going to know the answers,” said Vince Wallis, a retired detective captain with the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office.

Born in Arkansas, Caldwell moved with his family to Chester, Montana, and, after graduating from high school, moved to Billings where he worked at the grocery company from 1966-1976, Linder said.

Caldwell adopted two children, in 1970 and 1972, and later became a father to his second wife's two children. He worked for years for the City of Billings in its sanitation department. 

The Bernhardts were a young couple, both 24, and had lived in their newly built Heights home for about a month when they were killed. They had been married for four years.

The house was just around the corner from Linda’s parents’ home, and it was Linda’s mother who discovered the dead couple, Clifford face-down in a pool of blood in the master bedroom, and Linda in another bedroom.

Clifford and Linda Bernhardt

The home of Clifford and Linda Bernhardt in the Billings Heights is pictured the day after the couple was murdered in November 1973.

The families of the victims attended the press conference and issued a joint statement thanking the Yellowstone County Cold Case Unit, but asked for privacy. They had just been informed of the development in the case Monday morning.

The night of the murders, the Bernhardts had set the table for three, and when police were called to the scene two days later, they found a hamburger casserole still out. The home showed no signs of forced entry.

Both Clifford and Linda had suffered blows to the head, and Linda showed signs of strangulation and sexual assault. There were also signs that both were bound at the wrists and ankles at some point, though investigators never found the bindings.

Linder said any ideas investigators have about what led Caldwell to kill the young couple would be an assumption that they’d be unable to prove, but that they believed Linda was the target of Caldwell’s attack.

Wallis, the retired detective captain, said that in addition to the DNA match, Caldwell’s “signature type behavior” matched facts of the case, even though Caldwell had “zero” criminal history.

He declined to elaborate, “because it’s of a personal nature,” he said.

Caldwell is not considered a person of interest in any other investigations, Wallis said.

Clifford Bernhardt was an Army sergeant and was said to be in excellent physical shape and proficient in using weapons, which investigators noted would make a home invasion unlikely. An FBI profile of the killer was developed, painting a picture of a man who was acquainted with the Bernhardts and who may have had an infatuation with Linda.

The killer had turned down the heat in the house and opened windows. The temperature on that snowy night dropped to 6 degrees, according to the National Weather Service.

The house was cold enough that ice cubes in a bowl by Linda’s naked body didn’t melt. Investigators have said the ice may have been used as part of the assault.

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Items missing from the house included a large green suitcase, all of Linda’s underwear and some of her shoes, according to earlier reports.

Caldwell’s name was in the Bernhardt investigative file but he was likely never interviewed, detectives said.

Bernhardt file

Bernhardt file

Over the course of the 45-year investigation, law enforcement eliminated 80 people as possible suspects, through DNA testing.

In 2005, the sheriff's office announced the killer's DNA had been extracted from the purple pants Linda Bernhardt wore the night she was killed. But the DNA yielded no match in the FBI database.

In 2013, an anonymous donor offered a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the double homicide. Crimestoppers offered an additional $1,000 reward in the case.

In 2015, the county’s special detectives unit enlisted a private genealogy lab in Virginia, Parabon NanoLabs, to produce a composite sketch with the suspect’s skin, hair and eye color. Parabon used GEDmatch, a public genetic genealogy database, to compare the crime scene DNA with DNA from 1.2 million other people, and identify relatives of the suspect.

Cecil Caldwell

A composite sketch and yearbook photo of Cecil Caldwell show the man identified in the 1973 murder of Cliff and Linda Bernhardt.

Subsequent rounds of DNA testing, both at the private lab and the Montana State Crime Lab, identified Caldwell, after eliminating the only other possible suspect DNA allowed for at that time — one of Caldwell’s living relatives.

The sheriff thanked several investigators including current and former law enforcement officials with the Yellowstone County Cold Case Unit for their continued work on the case.

9 unsolved multiple homicides in Montana

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The Billings Gazette's Sam Wilson and Phoebe Tollefson contributed to this report.