A month after being honorably discharged from the U.S. Army, Greg Dahl Nickell took his sister’s college roommate out on a date.
The pair drove to the top of a scenic overlook not far from Vernal, Utah, where a man walked up to their car and rapped on the window. The stranger told Nickell there’d been an accident, and he needed help. Then he pulled out a gun and shot the 21-year-old man three times.
The gunman climbed into the car, shoving Nickell’s body onto the terrified student. He drove them out west until a second vehicle pulled up behind them, flashing its lights. It was then, the 18-year-old girl later told police, that she realized her abductor had a partner.
The pair, apparently referring to each other as “Tex” and “Johnny,” ferried her out into a remote corner of the desert, where they doused Nickell’s car in gasoline and set it ablaze. Forcing the girl into the second car, the men took turns driving and sexually assaulting her. Hours later, they pulled over, dumping her out on the side of the highway.
One of the men “bent down next to her, he kind of turned her body with her shoulders and he said, ‘Now, don’t open your eyes,’” Nickell’s sister, Lynnette Nickell Ray, told ABC4 Utah in 2020. Once the girl heard their car drive off, she was told, according to Nickell Ray, she was allowed to get up and go for help.
That was Nov. 26, 1972. Despite a frantic four-day air and ground search of the surrounding mountain range, police were unable to find the woman’s assailants, whose faces she hadn’t been able to look at closely. The trail went cold.
“Greg was good, and kind, and happy-go-lucky,” Nickell Ray wrote in a commemorative Facebook poem earlier this month. “... There wasn’t a bus depot or an airport traveled that he didn't ‘bump into’ someone he knew.”
On Wednesday—nearly 50 years to the day of the murder and the rape—Uintah County authorities announced they’d made an astonishing breakthrough by identifying one suspect in the case: Daniel Arthur Bell.
Bell died in 2019, having long ago moved out of Utah, where he’d worked as a ranch hand south of Vernal around 1972. He’d settled down in Yakima, Washington after being convicted of a 1988 rape in Oregon, according to a release from the Uintah County Sheriff’s Department. After reopening Nickell’s murder case in 2020, Bell popped up as a possible forensic match, and detectives were able to track down his family. Comparing evidence taken from the crime scene with that of Bell’s two adult children, the investigators found a match.
But the identity of the other man is still unknown, and the investigation remains open and ongoing, according to Uintah County Sheriff Steve Labrum. “Greg’s family deserves answers,” he said. “The woman who was sexually assaulted that night deserves answers.”
In his statement, Labrum asked that anyone with information contact the Uintah County Sheriff’s Office as soon as possible. “It’s a tragedy that it’s taken 50 years to identify one suspect,” he said. “It’s my hope that, with the public’s help, we will identify the other suspect much, much sooner.”