Francis Nemechek signed letter envelope set

Francis Nemechek signed letter envelope set

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It was Dec. 13, 1974, as gunman Francis Donald "Don" Nemechek climbed into his pickup truck and turned on the engine.

He pulled to a stop near the stranded motorists, two young women and a small boy.

Their lives were about to end.

File/The Capital-Journal

Francis Donald "Don" Nemechek was led from a Salina courtroom in February 1976 after being convicted of five counts of first-degree murder.

Love and hate

Nemechek, then 24, was upset. He had just argued with his former wife, Cindy, about visitation rights with their young son, Kyle.

The couple had divorced that summer after a two-year marriage. A psychiatrist would testify he thought Nemechek had a "love-hate" relationship with his former wife and killed other women because he couldn't get away with killing her.

Nemechek's victims on Dec. 13, 1974, would be three people he had never met: Cheryl Young, 21, who was separated from her husband; her 19-year-old friend, blond-haired Diane Lovett; and Young's son, Guy Young, who was 2 years and 10 months old. The three had visited relatives in Colorado and were driving to Iowa, where Lovett lived.

Nemechek shot out their tire on I-70 near Ogallah, west of Hays. Authorities aren't sure what happened next.

A history of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation, published by that agency in 1990, contends the women -- alone and in the dead of night -- saw Nemechek approach, got into their car, rolled up the windows and refused help. But Nemechek went back to his truck, got a shotgun, returned and forced them to go with him to his truck. One woman carried the child wrapped in a blanket.

File/The Capital-Journal

From left, Lynette Ball, Danny Fabrizius, Kelli Morrill and Chris Moro speak to the Kansas Parole Board during a parole hearing for Francis Donald "Don" Nemechek. Nemechek killed five people, including Danny Fabrizius and Kelli Morrill's sister, Paula Fabrizius.

Nemechek later would say in a confession that he intended to help the stranded motorists, but Lovett cursed at him. He said Lovett's cursing, and the fact she was relatively short, reminded him of his wife, so he abducted the women at gunpoint.

Nemechek drove his victims to a two-story stone farmhouse that had been vacant for 35 years. The house was on a little-used, dead-end road about 15 miles north of I-70. The site is about 15 miles northeast of WaKeeney.

"It was a really, really secluded area," Graham County Sheriff Don Scott recalled recently, describing the route to the building as more of a path than a road. Nemechek had worked for the landowner.

Nemechek took the women up a rickety staircase to the second floor, where he raped one or both, then killed them with blasts from his 12-gauge shotgun.

Guy Young was wearing slacks and a light T-shirt, but no shoes or coat. The KBI history says Nemechek ignored the child, who crawled from the building and froze to death in the cold night.

Scott said Nemechek admitted to killing both women, but denied that a child was involved.

"He never, ever would admit to taking the boy," Scott said. "It was just like that was a blank part in his mind."

After blasting the women to death with his 12-gauge, Nemechek felt he had done something wrong. He even vomited.

But after that, he said, he "never gave it much thought."

Sniper attack

Scott, who has been Graham County sheriff since 1973, felt little concern when the car that carried Lovett and the Youngs was found sitting with a flat tire along I-70. Abandoned cars on that stretch of highway were fairly common, and nothing about their car looked suspicious.

A month later, on Jan. 13, 1975, trappers found Guy Young's frozen body lying 10 to 15 feet from the abandoned farmhouse. Scott found the bodies of Lovett and Cheryl Young on the dimly lit second floor. Parts had been eaten away by rodents.

The KBI helped local authorities investigate without success.

Then, shortly before 1 a.m. on Jan. 1, 1976, a man driving a pickup truck with a topper started playing a vehicular game of "cat and mouse" with four members of a Denver family who were headed eastbound on I-70 east of WaKeeney.

Sensational series

This is the seventh installment in The Topeka Capital-Journal's "Sensational Crimes" series, which will run for 12 Mondays on the Local & State page.

At a glance

The time: 1974-1976.

The place: Four counties in western Kansas.

The crimes: A serial rapist and killer murders three young women, a teenage girl and a small child before a clue left at a murder scene leads to a conviction and five life prison terms for the perpetrator.

On the air

Hear Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Tim Hrenchir talk about the Sensational Crimes series this morning on WIBW-AM Radio 580.

Online

If you miss any stories in this series, you can find them online at www.cjonline.com/indepth/crimes.

Next week

Gunfight: An FBI agent was killed and two bystanders wounded during a battle with two fugitives in April 1937 inside Topeka's main post office at 424 S. Kansas Ave. An elevator in the building still shows a mark left by one of the bullets. Both fugitives were caught later that day and hanged the next year.

Expanded coverage

Read past stories in the Sensational Crimes series.

:: Sensational Crimes

The driver of the pickup drove ahead, stopped at I-70's Ogallah overpass and fired four .22-caliber bullets at the moving car. One bullet hit a hubcap, two struck the front driver's side door and another hit the rear driver's side door, lodging in the back seat.

The car's occupants weren't hit. They drove to Hays and reported the sniper attack, giving a detailed description of the truck. Authorities investigated and announced on Jan. 14, 1976, that they had charged Nemechek with firing the shots.

Nemechek was jailed, then set free on a $20,000 bond. His trial was set for September 1976.

Investigators found it curious that the sniper attack occurred at nearly the same place where Lovett and the Youngs disappeared. Though they were unable to link Nemechek with the triple murder, authorities would be keeping an eye on him.

More murder

Since his divorce, his father would say, Nemechek had done little but work in a welding shop, fish, drink beer and hunt coyotes.

Soon, however, he would kill again.

On the evening of June 30, 1976, 20-year-old Carla Baker, of Hays, went for a bike ride. Baker was a University of Kansas student at home visiting her parents.

Nemechek said in a confession he was outside his truck urinating alongside a country road west of Hays when Baker rode in his direction and he exposed himself to her. She scolded Nemechek, who grabbed her from her bike and forced her into his truck. Nemechek said he was unarmed as he drove Baker to an isolated area at Cedar Bluff Reservoir and tried to rape her.

"She kicked me in between the legs, so I went to get my knife," he said, recalling his wife once kicked him between the legs: "When I put in the blade, I remember calling her Cindy (his wife's name), and I thought, 'You will never do that again.' "

Baker's father -- Dr. Richard Baker, a professor of education at Fort Hays State College in Hays -- found her bike early the next morning lying in weeds alongside the country road. Her body remained unaccounted for.

A cheerleader

The next victim was 16-year-old Paula Fabrizius. She was a cheerleader at Ellis High School in Ellis, almost 20 miles east of WaKeeney and 20 miles north of Cedar Bluff Reservoir.

Fabrizius worked part-time as a rangerette at that reservoir, checking stickers on vehicles. Rangerettes were supposed to work in pairs, but a shortage of employees forced Fabrizius to work alone on Saturday, Aug. 21, 1976.

At about 6:30 p.m. that day, a male park ranger briefly left Fabrizius at her post on the south side of the reservoir to get her some bubble gum. Fabrizius was sitting in her car when Nemechek drove up to talk. He later said in a confession that he "snapped," opened her car door, grabbed Fabrizius and pulled her out.

Nemechek took the girl in his truck to a machine shed on land owned by his father near historic Castle Rock, a sandstone formation that rises high above the western Kansas plains at Quinter, almost 30 miles northwest of where she was abducted.

The shed was locked, so he took her to an area near Castle Rock and raped her.

Afterward, Nemechek said, Fabrizius insisted her dad would "get" him for what he had done, then hit him with a rock. Nemechek stabbed her at least eight times with a hunting knife, cutting her hands as she sought to defend herself. The fatal wound pierced her heart. An autopsy showed Fabrizius was stabbed in the groin area after she died. Nemechek threw her nude body off a 25-foot bluff.

That night, a group of people searched the area at Cedar Bluff Reservoir trying to find Fabrizius. One searcher was Nemechek. They didn't find her.

The noose tightens

Fabrizius' body was found the next morning. Among the dozens of pieces of evidence collected at the scene was a warranty card for a citizen's band radio.

KBI agents, who were already suspicious of Nemechek, checked to see whether any of the evidence linked him to the killing of Fabrizius.

They hit paydirt.

A thumbprint on the CB radio warranty card was Nemechek's.

In addition, several people said they had seen Nemechek's truck at the reservoir or on the way to Castle Rock on the day Fabrizius died.

On Aug. 24, 1976, KBI agents questioned Nemechek. He admitted he had talked with Fabrizius the last day she was seen alive and that he had bought a new CB radio that day. Nemechek was quickly jailed in connection with the murder of Fabrizius.

"We knew we had the evidence we could convict with, and we didn't want to take any chances that he'd kill again," recalled Bob Clester, then a KBI supervisor. The KBI history published in 1990 described the Nemechek probe as one of the finest examples of investigative and laboratory work in the bureau's history.

The following month, Carla Baker's remains were found in a canyon on the south edge of Cedar Bluff Reservoir. An autopsy was unable to determine how she was killed.

Soon afterward, authorities learned from a fellow county jail inmate that Nemechek had admitted to killing Fabrizius, Baker, Lovett and Cheryl Young.

In October 1976, Nemechek confessed to investigators that he killed those women. He pleaded innocent by reason of insanity when he went to trial in February 1977 for the slayings of the four women and Guy Young.

Though the murders were committed in four different counties, the cases were combined. The trial was moved to Salina on a change of venue order after a judge ruled Nemechek couldn't get a fair trial in WaKeeney.

At trial, jurors heard conflicting testimony from psychiatrists about whether Nemechek was sane when he committed the murders.

A defense psychiatrist said Nemechek liked to dress in women's clothing in his late teens and seemed undecided about whether he rather would be a man -- in a world where he felt he couldn't compete -- or a woman. He said Nemechek became psychotic when the women reacted to him negatively before he killed them.

A prosecution psychiatrist countered Nemechek knew what he was doing and knew his actions were wrong. He said he thought Nemechek lied to him during testing in order to appear insane.

A special prosecutor challenged statements from Nemechek's confession. He said Nemechek admitted to a state psychologist that Lovett hadn't cursed at him before he killed her, and contended Nemechek already must have been carrying a knife when he grabbed Baker.

After nearly four hours of deliberation, a jury found Nemechek guilty on all five counts of first-degree murder. He was sentenced to five life prison terms. In another confession soon afterward, Nemechek told Scott and two other law enforcement officers further details of the killings, admitting he had shot out a tire of the car carrying Lovett and Cheryl Young before killing them.

The following month, March 1977, Nemechek insisted in media interviews that he had changed. He said that after years of not accepting religion, he had found God. Nemechek said his favorite reading materials were the Bible and hot rod magazines. He said he believed God meant for him to help other prisoners.

"I can't even go out and shoot a dog," he said. "The Don Nemechek who killed five people is dead."

Aftermath

Nemechek first became eligible for release from prison in 1991. Kansas Parole Board members decided to keep him behind bars and not consider him again for the maximum possible period of three years.

In 1994, they did that again.

In 1996, Kathleen Fabrizius, sister-in-law of Paula Fabrizius, was among people who testified before the Legislature in favor of a law that would give the parole board authority to refuse inmates parole and not consider them again for 10 years.

The law passed.

When Nemechek became parole-eligible again in 1997, Kathleen Fabrizius presented the parole board petitions containing signatures of more than 15,000 people. Those people asked that Nemechek be refused parole and not considered again for 10 years. Signatures had been gathered from 38 states and two foreign countries, though most were from Kansas.

The letter and envelope are both handwritten. The letter is signed, Don. 

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