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Wisconsin Cold Case: Detectives release photos to try to solve abduction, murder

By Jennifer Hoff, jhoff@wisctv.com
Published On: May 08 2014 10:38:31 PM CDT
Updated On: May 09 2014 03:29:41 PM CDT

It’s been years since detectives admit they’ve had a credible lead in a Rock County woman’s death. To try to change that, the detectives showed News 3 photos the public has never seen before.

EDGERTON, Wis. -

Detectives admit it’s been years since they’ve had a credible lead in a Rock County woman’s death.

To try to change that, the detectives showed News 3 photos the public has never seen before.

Authorities took the pictures in August 1982 when they found Barbara Nelson’s body in a Walworth County cornfield. She was partially clothed in what detectives think was the killer's vest. It could be the clue they need, if someone recognizes it.

"Why did they take her, why her?" Edgerton Reporter writer Jeff Brown said. "I’ve kind of really gotten into this case because it’s interesting, but because it’s an injustice."

Brown recently dedicated months to writing about Nelson’s murder, but his memories of it go back years.

"It’s something that happened where I lived, and I remember it happening and the effect it had on people and that certainly has gotten me more emotionally involved than if I was from someplace else," Brown said.

Brown grew up not far from the Dane County convenience store where Nelson worked in Albion off Highway 51, and on August 5, 1982, that's where she was abducted from.

"I don’t necessarily know who did it, but I will tell you I have a real strong feeling that it was someone from this area or who knew this area very well," Brown said.

The two people involved reportedly drove on back roads that started at the store, and they ended up in a cornfield 24 hours later east of Elkhorn. Detectives said the people shot Nelson several times, but it took four more days for someone to find her body.

"Investigators back in 1982 followed up on a lot of leads, but came up with dead ends, so to speak," Walworth County Detective Robert Craig said.

Craig has worked on the case for five years without any luck, so he’s showing News 3 photos of a vest and T-shirt detectives think the killers wore.

Investigators said Nelson had a polyester piece of clothing on, along with her undergarments. The military-like vest was popular then as a way to portray the conflicts going on in the 70s, and Craig doesn’t think it was worn for work.

"This wasn’t a gas station uniform or anything like that," said Craig, who also said Nelson didn’t have her pants on, but she wasn’t sexually assaulted.

Investigators also found a blue, one-pocket T-shirt balled up next to Nelson at the scene. It’s the first time Craig has publicly shown a picture of the medium-sized shirt he thinks was purchased at a nearby JC Penney store.

At least six witnesses saw the suspects driving away from the convenience store and the cornfield in a pickup truck. Brown drives around town, by his own definition, obsessively searching for the green or blue Studebacker-like vehicle built in the 60s or 70s, but has come up empty. So has Craig at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

"It’s kind of like a black hole opened up, this truck shot out, they did this horrible thing, the truck went back into the hole," Brown said. "Of course that’s not what really happened, but sometimes it feels like that; you get frustrated because you think somebody, somewhere had to have seen those two guys in that truck."

Brown admits he's frustrated, so he’ll do what he’s trained to do as a reporter -- ask more questions. He’ll write about the pictures you’ve seen on News3 for the first time, and like Craig, hopes someone watching or reading, will help solve this Wisconsin Cold Case.

"I guess to say you’d work on it forever would be kind of crazy, but I’m not giving up on it at this point," Brown said.

Walworth County detectives are working with Dane County detectives on the case, who said they’re expecting another round of DNA results back within a few months.

They’ve submitted samples to the state crime lab and to private ones around the country to help investigators narrow down their 10 persons of interest.

The murder weapon, a .25-caliber gun, was never recovered. Nelson’s widower tells News 3 he’s still frustrated with the case.

If you can help call Walworth County’s tip line at 262-741-4425.

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