July 23, 2014









Article From the September 2003 issue of Cosmopolitan Magazine
Reprinted with permission of Cosmopolitan Magazine

Why Can't They Find Her Killer?
By Katy Vine


        Last September, a 22-year-old up-and-coming newscaster was bludgeoned to death in her own apartment. Now, a year later, the once promising campaign to catch the culprit has hit some snags.

        Jennifer Servo worked 10-hour shifts Thursdays through Sundays at KRBC television in Abilene, Texas, so when she did not call a coworker on Monday, September 16, 2002, about movie plans they had made, he just figured she was too zonked to go out. But when Wednesday rolled around and she still hadn't returned messages, her friends at the station grew worried and called the manager of Jennifer's apartment building to check on her. By the time the friends arrived at her door, the manager had found the 22-year-old petite blond from Montana lying on her bathroom floor and a trail of blood leading back to the living room. "Injured subject possible DOA" was the message that went out over the police scanner, but Jennifer had been dead for days.

        The final autopsy wasn't pretty. Cause of death: She'd been hit on the head at least three times with a blunt object. She also had internal bruising at her neck and vagina-signs of strangulation and a possible sexual assault. But despite the violence of the act, there was no evidence of a struggle-no skin under her fingernails, no damage done to her door, and no obvious murder weapon. In fact, the mysterious circumstances of her death have all the makings of an episode of Law and Order or CSI, but unlike the cases on those superpopular crime shows, Jennifer's has not had a speedy resolution. Almost a year later, police have named no suspects and brought no charges as of press time, though not from a lack of trying. They've lifted tons of evidence from Jennifer's apartment and interviewed dozens of people, but they're still no closer to catching the culprit. "We were going to spread Jen's ashes over a lake that she loved in Montana," says Jennifer's mom, Sherry Abel. "But I didn't know if I could do that without knowing who the killer is."

STARS IN HER EYES

        Jennifer was born in the small resort town of Whitefish, Montana, and raised a few miles away in Columbia Falls. In high school, she was popular and ambitious-she dreamed of being the next Katie Couric and was accepted into the journalism program at the University of Montana. She signed up for the Army Reserve to help pay her tuition, and during her freshman year in 1998, in addition to taking a full course load, she got a job at a local television station. "Not only was she talented," says Denise Dowling, one of Jennifer's professors, "she was one of those students we just knew was going to make it."

        She was a flirt too, with a bubbly personality. She dated plenty, but she was mostly focused on her career. By the time she graduated in May 2002, she already had a tape of on-air appearances that she was using to apply for correspondent positions across the country. She broke up with her boyfriend, a former journalism student named David Warren, because, he says, "she wanted to get out on her own." But then, in mid-June, during a mandatory Army Reserve training session in Helena, Montana, she met Ralph Sepulveda, who would later become a subject of investigation.

AN UNLIKELY ROMANCE

        Lots of guys had fallen for Jennifer, but Ralph was different from her other boyfriends. A 34-year-old former Army Ranger also in the Reserve, he was stocky with a military-style haircut and multiple tattoos. He had grown up in a rough part of Los Angeles but told Jennifer he joined the Army so he could pull himself out of his bad circumstances. When he wasn't doing military training, he lived with his girlfriend in Missoula, Montana. Ali Watkins, another reservist, remembers, "He was really friendly, not the stereotypical macho Ranger. He was more passive and into things like bird-watching and hiking."

        Jennifer was intrigued, and after a two-week fling, she found out she'd landed a coveted job as general-assignment reporter at KRBC in Texas. When Ralph suggested he move with her, she impulsively agreed. Her friends weren't terribly pleased by her decision. "We talked about how she was probably just clinging to someone in Montana because she was scared of going to a new place," says Dara Freimann, a good friend of hers. "She did not think about what it meant to move somewhere with someone."

        In July 2002, Jennifer drove to Abilene and found an apartment. Although Ralph had told Jennifer that he'd be arriving a month later than her, he abruptly broke up with his girlfriend and arrived just days later. As some friends had predicted, his relationship with Jennifer quickly soured. Jennifer told her friends that Ralph was smothering her, that he would wake up in the middle of the night to snuggle and would get in her face when she tried to get ready for work in the morning. Ralph knew no one in Texas and was having trouble landing a job. Jennifer, on the other hand, was meeting tons of people at KRBC, but Ralph would get jealous when she went out with them, according to a friend.

        In August, she broke up with him. Jennifer later told friends that he cried a little when she told him of her decision and asked her to reconsider, but she held firm. Ralph moved out but stayed in town, renting an apartment a mile away, and wound up finding work at a manufacturing plant. It seemed there were no hard feelings. On Saturday, September 14, the day before she was killed, Jennifer commented to a coworker that she hadn't spoken to Ralph in a while, adding, "I need to e-mail him." (Police won't verify whether she sent him an e-mail or not.)

THE LOVE-INTEREST LINK

        After Jennifer was killed, her coworkers, who had never even met Ralph, immediately pointed their fingers in his direction. "Here's this guy who gave up his life and moved to Texas with Jennifer, and she basically dumped him three weeks into it. I'd be pissed too," says one friend. "But is that motivation for murder? I don't know."

        When police questioned Ralph extensively, he said he was at home on the night of the murder. Detective Jeff Bell, of the Abilene Police Department, says that Ralph has a "plain history," meaning he has no previous crimes on his record. (Ralph didn't respond to repeated requests for an interview.) Nonetheless, Ralph also refused to take a lie detector test, and Bell admits, "I cannot rule him out."

        In fact, experts say that former or current lovers are the most likely perpetrators in cases where the victim's death is caused by repeated trauma to the head, as was Jennifer's. "Hitting the victim repeatedly on the head (as opposed to shooting them once with a gun) means that the perpetrator was angry in a way that suggests there was a personal relationship," says Reid Meloy, Ph.D., a forensic psychologist and author of Violent Attachments. Certainly, it seems as though Jennifer was killed by someone she knew. Judging by the bed clothes she was wearing, she was probably attacked very early in the morning on Monday, September 16, and her friends say she wouldn't have opened her door to a stranger at that hour.

        But the problem is that at the time of her death, Ralph wasn't the only man vying for Jennifer's attention. There was also 24-year-old Brian Travers, a meteorologist at KRBC. He was not only interested in Jennifer romantically but was also the last person to see her alive. Brian and Jennifer had started dating casually in August, though she soon decided she wasn't interested in a serious relationship. They cooled things off yet stayed friends. On the night of Sunday, September 15, Jennifer and the rest of the crew did the 10 o'clock evening news as usual. At about 11:30, she and Brian both left the station to run some errands together. Sometime after midnight, she left his house. According to Brian, he insisted on walking Jennifer to her car, saying to her, "If something happened between here and your car, nobody would ever forgive me."

        After the murder, Brian was questioned and also said that he was asleep at his home. "The police took me into her apartment [that] Friday and I pointed out something that was missing," says Travers, who's not allowed to reveal what that object was. "To me, the fact that they brought me into the apartment shows that I didn't do it. For the record, I didn't."

        And what about David Warren, Jennifer's boyfriend in Montana with whom she had broken up only months earlier? He can actually be ruled out, because after Jennifer drove home, he called her from Missoula at about 12:30 a.m. "We talked for about an hour, mostly about work," recalls David. "She said that everyone wanted her to go out with this Brian guy but she didn't want to be in a relationship. She didn't say much about Ralph, and I never got the impression that she was scared of anybody."

        Is it possible that some random person saw Jennifer doing a news report on air, tracked her down, and killed her? Women who appear on TV are more likely to have stalkers (see "Danger on the Airwaves," at left), but Jennifer had only lived in Abilene for two months and had also taken the precaution of having her mail delivered to a post-office box instead of a street address.

DISAPPOINTING DNA

        But as we all know from CSI, it's the physical evidence that solves the crime. Police collected carpeting, bedding, and hair and blood samples from Jennifer's apartment and got DNA from Ralph Sepulveda, Brian Travers, and four other unnamed people who knew her, to see if there were any matches. But six months after the murder, police told Jennifer's family that the most promising samples hadn't yielded any leads, although they would continue to send more evidence to the lab. "I call the police almost weekly to check in," says Jennifer's mom. "I've even begun to watch all the forensic shows on TV and ask police if they have done everything possible."

        Detective Bell explains that because they lack the equipment in Abilene, the tests were done by the Tarrant County Medical Examiner, in Fort Worth. (Very few police stations in the country have the kind of high-tech machines you see on CSI.) But the real problem is that not all crime scenes contain case-solving samples of DNA. So far, the only blood that's been found is Jennifer's. As for other evidence such as fingerprints, hair, and saliva, all of those things could reasonably be found in Jennifer's apartment from any possible perpetrator who had a relationship with her. "The ultimate DNA would show someone who had no reason to be there or who says they hadn't been in the house in more than a month before her death," says Bell. And that kind of DNA simply hasn't turned up. Experience can also play a role in a case, and Detective Bell admits that this is the first time he's ever been in charge of a homicide investigation. One thing is for sure: The chances of catching a killer grow smaller over time, not greater.

        Meanwhile, last May, Ralph Sepulveda relocated to an Army base in New York. That same month, Brian Travers got a new job and moved to Iowa. The rest of Jennifer's friends have grown somewhat cynical about the case's outcome. "If this DNA evidence is coming back and the police aren't taking action, they don't have enough to make a link," says Dara Freimann. Jennifer's mom notes that the last time she called the police to ask for an update, Detective Bell said, "No more news. I don't know where to look next unless somebody comes in and confesses."

        Jennifer was a good reporter-sharp and fearless. If she were alive today, this would be the type of case she would want to crack. "A year before she died, Jen did a story about America's Most Wanted coming to Montana for the murder of three women in a beauty parlor," remembers Jennifer's mom. "She was really excited and said, 'I could do something like that.'" She never could have known that one day, she'd become the subject of such a news story herself.


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