On July 21, Jack Diemel made a phone call to the Caldwell County Law Enforcement dispatch to report his two sons, Nicholas and Justin, didn’t make their return flight back to Wisconsin after a business trip to Braymer, Missouri.
The criminal case that followed has been unpredictable and mainly predicated on DNA evidence: a splotch of blood on a shirt, remains found in an unknown condition and other items found several hours away in Nebraska.
Law enforcement has one suspect in its sights, 25 year-old Garland Joseph Nelson, who lives on the Braymer farm where the Diemel brothers had business in July, according to court records. The case appears to be barreling toward a trial, with two murder counts based on recovered remains.
The timeline of the case is winding, already stretching into its fifth month and rapidly approaching its sixth, with new developments around every turn.
After the brothers didn’t return from their trip to Missouri, Jack Diemel contacted authorities in Caldwell County. According to a probable cause affidavit filed in the case, Jack Diemel said this was uncommon.
“He had checked the flights and they never got on the plane,” Caldwell County Sheriff’s Major Mitchell Allen wrote in the affidavit. “They have not answered their phones and this was unlike them.”
Justin and Nicholas Diemel were visiting Nelson to collect a $250,000 check, according to the affidavit.
Law enforcement officials announced the case was a death investigation instead of a missing persons case. Nelson was arrested for allegedly illegally driving the brothers’ rental truck, but no other charges were filed. However, he was ordered to be held without bail by Caldwell County Judge Jason Kanoy.
Many police agencies participated in the search for the brothers, including the Buchanan County Sheriff’s Department, which handled some of the forensics.
Authorities announced they had found human remains on Nelson’s property, but did not identify what those were.
“On Tuesday July 30, investigators were assisted by a frontier forensic anthropologist who has identified that human remains have been located at the search area,” Clinton County Sheriff Larry Fish said.
It wouldn’t be until months later that law enforcement would announce they’ve positively identified the remains, something a DNA expert said is common.
“The process itself can be very lengthy,” University of Kansas Professor Dennis O’Rourke said. “The more degraded the DNA, the more time-consuming and labor-intensive it is to get results.”
A Shawano, Wisconsin, judge approves petitions to declare both Nicholas and Justin legally dead. The petitions, submitted by Nicholas’ wife, Lisa, said business matters needed to be attended to.
After 84 days of investigation, Caldwell County Prosecuting Attorney Brady Kopek announced murder charges against Nelson, predicated on law enforcement claiming to have matched the human remains found on Nelson’s farm to the Diemel brothers.
“Burnt human remains were found and collected by law enforcement that were concealed in the manure pile on the property,” Allen wrote in the probable cause affidavit. “Based on DNA comparisons it is believed they are the remains of Nicholas and Justin Diemel.”
“A blood stain found on clothing belonging to Garland Joseph Nelson has been confirmed by DNA to be Nicholas Diemel,” Allen wrote.
Authorities have not said how the DNA was tested, though O’Rourke said there are two common methods: Short tandem repeats and sequencing.
“Sometimes there are three bases, sometimes there are four bases or other numbers,” he said. “And there is a standard set of short tandem repeats that are used in forensic testing.”
However, O’Rourke said DNA can become so degraded that using short tandem repeats isn’t feasible.
“In which case a laboratory might extract the DNA and just sequence it directly and then compare the DNA sequence to one or more references to try and obtain a similar match,” he said.
The probable cause affidavit lays out some disturbing details about what’s alleged to have happened to the brothers’ bodies after their death, something that could make DNA testing more difficult.
According to Allen in the affidavit, once Nelson returned back to the farm after dumping the brothers’ rental truck, he, “found and observed two bodies he believed were Nicholas and Justin Diemel dead each inside of a 55 gallon metal barrel.”
Allen wrote that Nelson then moved the bodies with a skid loader to another pasture, where the bodies were, “burnt by an unknown liquid and (with) diesel fuel being poured over them and ignited.”
After they were burnt, Nelson allegedly placed the bodies in a manure pile and crushed both the bodies and the barrels with the skid loader.
“At some point (Nelson) returned to the pole barn located south of the residence and used a shovel to remove what he believed to be blood from the floor where it is believed the Diemels were killed,” Allen said in the affidavit.
He added that blood was found on a shovel used to clean some dirt in the pole barn.
O’Rourke said DNA can be destroyed when exposed to harsh conditions, but that it’s generally resilient.
“It always begins to degrade post mortem, but it also binds to other molecules found in the soil,” he said. “It’s very highly variable and oftentimes we don’t know beforehand what the likelihood of success is in obtaining DNA.”
While O’Rourke’s work mainly focuses on ancient DNA, he said that if a forensic lab is willing to confirm DNA belongs to an individual, that it’s extremely likely that is in fact the case.
“I can’t say precisely, but when an experienced forensic lab makes a judgement it’s very, very certain,” he said. “The match must be very clear.”
Nelson’s lawyer, Public Defender Ryan Williams, requested a continuance of Nelson’s preliminary hearing citing “substantial discovery” being turned over in the case.
His request was granted, and Nelson is next scheduled to appear in court at 10 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 9. In addition to the murder charges, Nelson also faces charges of abandonment of a corpse (two counts), tampering with physical evidence (two counts), armed criminal action (two counts) and unlawful possession of a firearm.
The tampering with a motor vehicle charge, which Nelson was originally arrested on, was dropped.
According to the probable cause affidavit, Nelson admitted to shooting two animals with a firearm. Allen also wrote in the affidavit that a neighbor heard, “the sound of multiple gunshots” on July 21 coming from Nelson’s farm between 11:15 to 11:30 a.m.
The Lincoln County Nebraska Sheriff’s Department announces that a man found what he believed to be human remains in a tub of dirt. The tub was allegedly inside a trailer recently purchased in Missouri.
A Missouri State Highway Patrol Spokesperson, Sgt. Jake Angle, confirmed to News-Press NOW that a Highway Patrol helicopter transported law enforcement officials to Nebraska to collect the remains.
“Investigators with the Caldwell County Sheriff’s Office confirmed the remains could belong to the homicide victims,” the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement.
The department said “other items” also were found to possibly link the Nebraska remains to the Diemel brothers. And so, with yet another twist, the DNA cycle began once again.
The Caldwell County Sheriff’s Department announced that the remains found in Lincoln County and in Braymer do belong to Nichols and Justin Diemel, citing dental records. In a statement, the department said the confirmation was made a day before, on Nov. 21. Nicholas’ remains were found in Braymer, while Justin’s were found in Nebraska, the department said.