Thirty-three years ago this month, two teens shredded a family and rocked a community when they raped, robbed, bound and then trapped 21-year-old Mary Jo Hovendick, still alive, in a car, then sent the car hurtling into the Missouri River.
Within two weeks, one of the teens had confessed and pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison.
January hadn’t even thawed. Hovendick’s body wouldn’t be found until spring. Yet Dale V. Nollen, 17, was in a state prison for the rest of his life.
But as in most things judicial, resolutions are rarely final.
On Friday, Nollen — remorseful and, his supporters say, reformed — was resentenced to 90 years to life in prison.
District Judge John Samson’s sentence — prompted by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that says judges must have the ability to sentence juveniles to something other than an automatic life term — means that Nollen will be eligible for parole at age 62. Absent parole, he cannot be released.
Samson said he recognized that Nollen was 17 at the time of the crime — an age in which, scientists say, juveniles have a hard time comprehending the consequences of their actions.
“However, the manner in which (Hovendick) was abducted, abused and terrorized over a significant period of time and your utter disregard for her at that time shows a depravity and callousness,” Samson said. “Even to this day, it is difficult to comprehend.”
In many ways, time has raced by since then — the bedroom community 20 minutes north of Omaha has grown into a community of 8,000, a 25 percent increase over the population in 1980.
In other ways, it has stood still. No better example than the scene Friday inside Washington County’s only felony courtroom.
In court was Nollen, now 50 and with a receding hairline, awaiting sentencing for the crime he committed at age 17.
Behind him was Washington County Sheriff’s Deputy Wayne Flora — the former Blair police officer who picked up Nollen and his co-defendant, Brian Smith, on the Missouri River bridge that night and gave them a ride into town, unaware that they had just sent Hovendick to her grave.
Behind Flora was Hovendick’s sister, Melinda Kahlandt, wiping away tears as prosecutors and the judge recounted what her sister went through.
Kahlandt said she resents that her sister never had the chance to find romance or a husband, to have children, to share her spirit or her skills with the world.
Something else Kahlandt resents: that everyone now knows Mary Jo as a murder victim and not the kind, smart, shy young woman she was.
Mary Jo was the subdued contrast to her sometimes-feisty sister. She minded her parents, never partied, got good grades and was respectful.
At 21, she was on the cusp of life; like so many others in their early 20s, she was searching for a purpose. In the meantime, she dutifully took care of her customers at the Blair doughnut shop and lived a “boring and serene life.”
“I guess it’s true what they say — only the good die young,” Kahlandt wrote.
It was a death that was beyond cruel, said prosecutor Corey O’Brien, an assistant attorney general.
O’Brien noted that Hovendick, according to her sister, had just two major fears in life: water and knives.
Both would play a part in her death.
The killing started with a plot: Nollen and Smith decided to rob the doughnut shop.
The two had been sort-of outcasts in the community — Nollen had dropped out of school. But they still participated in a church choir.
“They weren’t bad kids,” Flora said of the boys before the killing. “But we ran into them quite a bit on the streets.”
Late that January 1983 afternoon, Nollen and Smith broke into the doughnut shop about 4 p.m. — and waited in the basement for Hovendick to arrive. The two teens talked about sexually assaulting her. Nollen would later tell authorities that he was young and inexperienced and wanted a victim who was the same.
That way, Nollen told investigators, “I couldn’t be made fun of.”
As they waited in that basement, the two talked about something else: That they would have to kill Hovendick if they raped her.
“So we wouldn’t get caught,” Nollen said in his confession.
At knifepoint, the two teenagers forced Hovendick, in her car, down U.S. Highway 30 and across the Blair bridge to the Missouri River.
Pulling off to a spot overlooking the river, they took turns raping the 5-foot, 100-pound woman in the backseat. After they were done, Nollen tied her hands behind her back.
Nollen and Smith briefly talked about what they would do. Nollen’s attorney, Adam Sipple, said Nollen got out of Hovendick’s car and threw his knife into the river.
“He knew he couldn’t kill her,” Sipple said.
But Smith reached into the car, put it in gear and sent it hurtling into the Missouri River. Searchers found Hovendick’s car within days; it would be months before a fisherman found her body in the river, near Fort Calhoun, Nebraska.
Sometime after 10 p.m. that night — six hours after the teens broke into the doughnut shop — Flora spotted Nollen and Smith walking along the Missouri River bridge.
They gave him a story about a party in Missouri Valley, across the river in Iowa. He gave them a ride to McDonald’s.
Two days later, a drunken Dale Nollen broke down and sobbed at a gathering. Smith’s brother asked him why he was distraught.
He tearfully confessed at the gathering, then to authorities, and then quickly pleaded guilty.
Thirty-three years later, Nollen told the judge that he cannot explain or excuse his actions. He apologized to Hovendick’s family, even as he acknowledged that the word “sorry” is hollow.
“I would give anything to be able to take that night back,” Nollen said, his voice breaking. “But I know that is not possible.
“I made a promise that I would never leave prison the same person I was when I went in.”
Sipple said his client has made good on that promise.
The defense attorney took exception to prosecutors’ suggestion that Nollen represents the one “irreparably corrupt juvenile” (a term borrowed from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling) who merits a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Sipple said Nollen has been a model prisoner — an inmate who has such a good relationship with prison staff that he has received the highest clearances possible to work in certain areas of the prison.
The attorney noted that two dozen prisoners used to attend Nollen’s Bible studies in the yard. So many that prison officials had to put an end to the gatherings; no more than six people can huddle in the yard together.
“Think for a minute about what that says about Dale Nollen and whether he’s irreparably corrupt,” Sipple said.
Flora — who went onto become Washington County sheriff before retiring and returning to his current part-time court security beat — said he respects Judge Samson’s sentence. It fell somewhere between the life-without-parole sentence that prosecutors sought and the time-served term that Nollen’s defense wanted.
After Nollen was led to jail, Flora stood outside the empty courtroom. He recalled Nollen’s first return trip to that courtroom a year or so ago, when the resentencing phase had just begun.
Flora was doing security when Nollen was led past him. Nollen asked if he could speak to Flora about the night of Jan. 11, 1983.
They met later — and Nollen apologized for lying to the officer about what the teens were doing on the bridge that night.
If he had come clean, Nollen told Flora, authorities might have been able to find Hovendick before she drowned.
“He was sincere; I could tell it was heartfelt,” Flora said. “I didn’t say it to him, but I remember thinking, ‘Of all the people, I’m the last one you should be apologizing to.’ ”