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.
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.
The 1973 case of a Billings Heights couple who were killed in their home has been solved, the Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office announced Monday.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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
Nels and Annie Anderson — Billings
On the night of December 7, 1924, one of Billings' oldest unsolved murders took place. 43-year-old barber Nels Anderson and his wife, 39-year-old Annie, were slain in their barber shop on Minnesota Avenue.
The weapon used, an ax that the Andersons kept at the shop for splitting wood, was found near Mr. Anderson's body. Evidence indicated that the Andersons were just getting ready to leave for the night when they were surprised by the killer, as both victims had their coats on and there was no sign of a struggle.
Police attempted to gather fingerprints from a washstand used by the killer to rinse his or her hands, and combed over the Andersons' correspondence to try and find anyone who they might have been in conflict with. The search for suspects extended to nearby towns, but no arrests were made.
Lloyd Duane Bogle and Patti Kalitzke — Great Falls
On Jan. 3, 1956, three young boys walking west of Great Falls, in an area now known as Wadsworth Park, discovered the body of 18-year-old airman Lloyd Duane Bogle lying next to a car. Bogle's hands were tied behind his back using his own belt, and he'd been shot through the head. The car's ignition switch was still engaged, and its headlights were still on.
The body of Bogle's 16-year-old girlfriend, Patti Kalitzke, was found the next day northwest of the city. Like Bogle, Kalitzke was shot through the head. She showed no signs of sexual assault.
Bogle and Kalitzke were last seen alive at a Great Falls drive-in Jan. 2. Investigators didn't believe that the two were killed during a robbery, as money and a camera were found in Bogle's car.
Few clues were initially found to lead investigators to a suspect. A man named Wendell Wallace Smith claimed to have killed a boy and girl in Montana, but he was ruled out as a suspect by Great Falls investigators in 1964.
In 1989, bullets were removed from a cottonwood tree near the spot where Lloyd Bogle was found. Investigators hoped the bullets could be matched to a firearm.
More than 60 years later, the case remains unsolved. It has been theorized that Bogle and Kalitzke may have been victims of Edward Wayne Edwards, who was convicted of similar double murders in Ohio and Wisconsin, and was known to have been in Great Falls in 1956. Edwards died in prison in 2011, and is believed to have been responsible for the murder of at least one more couple in Oregon.
Richard and Alice Easton — McGregor Lake
The bodies of Richard Easton and his wife Alice were found on Feb. 19, 1963 at the Paradise Lodge, a resort that the Eastons owned at McGregor Lake west of Kalispell.
The Eastons were bludgeoned to death. Mrs. Easton was found inside the lodge by her daughter, while Richard Easton was found inside a padlocked garage by police who responded to the scene. A pathologist determined that the Eastons were attacked with a straight, narrow instrument approximately two days before their bodies were found.
A cash register stolen from the lodge and Richard Easton's billfold were found in 1965. A suspect was questioned a few months earlier, but was released.
A woman came forward 38 years after the murder, saying she believed her ex-husband was the murderer. Arlene LaPierre lived with her then-husband Kenneth Lloyd Pendleton in a cabin not far from the lodge.
LaPierre told authorities in 2001 Pendleton returned to their cabin one night covered in blood. Pendleton claimed to have hit a deer and told LaPierre not to ask any questions. He then proceeded to burn his clothes, according to LaPierre.
Jim and Lois Arrotta — Great Falls
On the morning of Friday, Sept. 4, 1964, a beer salesman and a produce manager discovered the bodies of James and Lois Arrotta in the East Side Super Save Market in Great Falls, where James Arrotta was manager.
Lois Arrotta's body was tied to the rear door of the market, bound with clothesline and gagged with cloth. Jim Arrotta was also bound and gagged, and detectives determined that the cloth used was torn from the aprons worn by the store's employees. Both of the Arrottas had been stabbed with a long knife found at the scene. Broken Pepsi bottles, which police believe were used to hit one or both of the victims, were also found nearby.
Investigators believed the murders to be the result of a burglary and theorized that the Arrottas were abducted from their home while their seven children slept and taken to the store to open the market's safe. The safe could not be opened by James Arrotta, as it used a time lock that kept it sealed during late hours.
The Arrottas' car was found near their home, leading investigators to believe that the murderer or murderers drove the car away from the market before abandoning it. It was later determined that Jim Arrotta's coin collection was stolen from the Arrottas' home. The empty coin collection books were eventually found near the Black Eagle Dam.
Alan Reavley, who was fired from the market for theft just weeks before the murders, was charged in 2002 with the murders during investigation of thefts from multiple Great Falls organizations. Witnesses testified that Reavley had talked during a religious retreat about killing people when he was younger, and one witness said Reavley claimed to be the one who found the bodies.
No physical evidence was found to link Reavley to the crime scene, and he was found not guilty of the murders in February 2004. Reavley was convicted of stealing money from the Great Falls Food Bank while serving as its executive director and is on parole, according to the Montana Department of Corrections.
Marjorie and Nancy McQuiston — Butte
Five days after 51-year-old Marjorie McQuiston and her 26-year-old daughter Nancy went missing on April 9, 1965, their bodies were found near the top of a hill northwest of Butte, less than a mile from their home at 945 17th St.
The two women were shot and badly beaten, according to contemporary news stories. Nancy McQuiston's car was found a quarter-mile away from where the bodies were found, in a gully on the edge of Big Butte. The car's trunk was stained with blood, indicating that the women were killed elsewhere before being taken to the dump site.
Authorities were stuck juggling the murder investigation with the search for 17-year-old JoAnn Kankelborg, who went missing the same day as the McQuistons. Kankelborg's body was found on April 15, 1965, just one day after the McQuistons were found, under a bridge southeast of Butte. Butte athlete Jerry Van Nuland was quickly charged with Kankelborg's murder.
Investigators tried in vain to find some connection between Kankelborg's murder and the double murder of the McQuistons. Van Nuland pleaded guilty to the Kankelborg murder and was sentenced to life in prison, but was never linked to the deaths of the McQuistons.
Bullet holes and blood-stained objects were discovered in the McQuiston residence. The suspected murder weapon, Nancy McQuiston's own .22-caliber automatic pistol, was found in the home. The case remains unsolved.
George Heinrich and Marlene Mazzola — Billings
George Heinrich, 58, and Marlene Mazzola, 42, were on only their second date when they were murdered in Heinrich's home northeast of Billings on Sept. 21, 1980.
The couple was found by Heinrich's adopted daughter the next afternoon. Both had been strangled and beaten and were bound with electrical tape. There was no sign of sexual assault on either victim.
They were last seen by Heinrich's brother and sister the night of the murders at the Elk's Club in Billings, which they left around 1:30 a.m. according to witnesses. Mazzola's 1979 Pontiac LeMans was found abandoned at a Husky service station on Main Street.
Missing from Heinrich's home off Highway 312 were a valuable diamond ring, a Masonic ring and a clock. Investigators found Heinrich's keys outside of the door between the garage and house, leading them to believe Mazzola and Heinrich were surprised by the killer or killers within the garage. The door to the master bedroom, where the bodies were found, was damaged.
A red pickup, which was missing its tailgate, was seen driving up the lane toward the house around 2 a.m., according to investigators.
Kenneth and Iva Larue Cheetham — Lake Inez
The Cheethams' 1969 Ford van was found days later on Aug. 5, 1991, on a logging road near Lake Alva. Their bodies were found five weeks later on Sept. 11, by a man walking his dog off Highway 83 near Lake Inez, just a short distance from where the van was discovered.
The Cheethams both died of gunshot wounds. Iva Cheetham's purse was dumped outside of the van, but her checks and credit cards were not taken. The couple's Hitachi video camera was one of the few items taken from the van. The strap from the camera was found along Highway 80 near Geraldine, more than 200 miles away.
Investigators questioned a man who was known to be in the Geraldine area around the time of the murders, but never had any physical evidence to charge him. Shell casings found near the bodies indicated that a 9mm pistol was the murder weapon.
Dorothy Harris, Brenda Patch and Cynthia Paulus — Florence
On Nov. 6, 2001, three women were murdered in the Hair Gallery salon in Florence. The women were found by a customer who was arriving for an appointment.
The throats of Brenda Patch, Cynthia Paulus and salon owner Dorothy Harris had all been slashed. The brazen nature of the murders, in broad daylight during business hours, puzzled investigators, but also provided a lead. Witnesses described a person wearing a fedora or top hat and a long coat walking briskly near the salon and through a nearby neighborhood after the murders.
Brian Weber, who was questioned in the weeks after the murders, allegedly made statements to acquaintances regarding the murders. Attention returned to Weber while he was being held on drug distribution charges.
Weber claimed that investigators suggested he had been sent to the salon by an Idaho drug dealer because of a drug debt owed by a relative of one of the victims.
Weber and the Idaho man, Lincoln Benavides, were charged with the murders in 2008. Benavides pleaded to lesser drug charges in a plea agreement that cleared him of the murders. The death of a key witness and doubt regarding the credibility of another witness led to dismissal of the charges against Weber in 2010.
The case was reopened after the charges against Weber were dismissed.