Volume 106, Number 8 - February 19, 2009
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Cold case murders examined
Nearing the eve of its 25-year anniversary, the Sublette County Sheriff’s Office may be close to a breakthrough in the 1984 Lisa Ehlers homicide case.
“We spoke to some people, who eventually led us to a possible suspect in the case,” said Brian Ketterhagen, captain of investigations.
“We are currently awaiting some test results. We believe it’s very possible there may be charges filed on a suspect in the death of Lisa Ehlers.”
Ehlers, 25, was found dead on a pullout near the Hoback Canyon and Black Powder Guest Ranch on June 21, 1984. She had been shot once in the chest and once in the head by a large caliber pistol.
She was found not far from her car, which was still running with a turn signal on — indicating she had intentionally pulled to the side of the road.
“I got the call at about 6 a.m.,” said Hank Ruland, who was undersheriff at the time. “I was the first Sublette County officer to arrive on the scene.”
Eventually a cadre of officials converged on the scene, taking evidence and notes — including the state’s Department of Criminal Investigation (DCI).
“[DCI] did some technical stuff,” Ruland said. “Back in those days, not a lot of us had expertise in homicide investigation.”
It is believed that Ehlers was driving to Panama City, Fla., to meet her husband of two and a half years, Peter. She was living in Jackson at the time.
Officials have never been certain what made Ehlers pull her car off to the side. An early witness to the scene had claimed to see fading taillights moving away from the crime scene.
“We had always theorized that her windsurfer [on top of the car] — that she may have pulled over to adjust that,” Ruland said.
“Maybe somebody jumped her there in a rime of opportunity, but that was only a theory at the time.
“They said she was pretty wary and conscious of her surroundings — that she probably wouldn’t stop for just anything. There are a hundred theories as to what could have happened at that time.”
DCI eventually took over the case, but new leads led to little new progress.
“There’d be some activity and they’d sit down and go through it again,” Ruland said. “They did a pretty good job. Whenever you’re following leads, you can’t create evidence. Whoever did this did a pretty good job — intentionally or not — of covering this up pretty well.”
Enter 25 years to the present, and the new SCSO shakeup had Sheriff Wayne “Bardy” Bardin reorganizing the office with a new captain of investigations. He asked Ketterhagen to open up all the cold cases in the office, including the Ehlers homicide and the Richard Nystrom homicide of 2007.
“They were shelved,” Ketterhagen said. “These crimes were put in the back and shelved. To me and the sheriff, that was unacceptable.”
So Ketterhagen and his detective team of Sarah Brew, Lance Gehlhausen, Shane Templar and county attorney’s office special investigator Randy Hanson opened up the old files, specifically the homicides. Ketterhagen brought out the Ehlers files and told everyone to grab a piece.
“The case had been extensively investigated,” he said. “After about an hour of reading we all agreed that we had a direction to take in the investigation.”
The team was able to look in a new direction, partially because of new work DCI had done in the 1990s.
“This case has required a lot of travel and a lot of man hours put into basically re-investigating what happened and trying to follow up,” Ketterhagen said, noting the age of evidence and the fact that some people have either died or moved. “It’s difficult to try and bring this all together from 25 years ago.”
Some outlets and theorists have tried to tie the murder to several other unsolved “gangland-style” shootings that occurred in about the same year, including the murders of Eric Cooper in October of 1983 and Jon Rice inMay of 1984.
“We did a lot of looking into that,” Ruland said. “We just couldn’t find any connection as far as the Sublette County investigation.”
Ehlers probably didn’t know Rice outside of seeing each other shopping at the local grocery store, Ruland added.
Today, Investigations will continue to wait for results, but no timeline on furthering the case has been given.
“[The Ehlers case] would go for a while — you’d get something that was a lead — and then it’d just sputter,” Ruland said. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about that girl and that case.”
— The SCSO also opened up the case of Nystrom.
Nystrom, 54, considered a transient but previously of Ukiah, Calif., was found dead on April 3, 2007 at 11:30 p.m. on Rim Road near the Hoback Ranches.
“We believe he had been dead for less than an hour,” Ketterhagen said. “And then a deputy just happened to be driving up there and saw the body just lying on the road.”
He was killed from blunt trauma to the head and face.
“It was quite an extensive scene,” Ketterhagen said. “There was a lot of biological evidence at the scene.”
The crime scene spread out to almost 20 or 30 yards — but what little leads the SCSO came up with led nowhere.
Witnesses did identify Nystrom as hitchhiking south on Highway 191 from Jackson, where he had spent time at the Good Samaritan Mission there. His family contended that he was traveling, “preaching God’s message of love,” but that he also might have been suffering from schizophrenia.
Now, Ketterhagen is hopeful for a breakthrough.
“The evidence in the case was re-examined and has been sent for testing,” he said.
Investigations assured the Roundup that progress was being made, but could not go into further detail on the case.
“We have persons-of-interest [in the case],” Ketterhagen said. “We are awaiting test results on some evidence.”
Regardless of how much progress can be made, Ketterhagen vowed to continue investigating each case until they could be brought to a conclusion.
“To me, these are almost career cases — these two homicides — and they mean a lot to me,” he said.
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