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It was warm for April. With the temperature in the 60s, it was 20 degrees higher than normal on April 27, 1975.
A Sunday morning in Orchard, it was quiet in the 470-resident Antelope County community. But that was about to change with the discovery of Merlin Mosel’s body lying face down in a ditch a quarter mile from town.
To this day, the homicide remains unsolved. But the nearly 43-year-old cold case hasn’t been forgotten. Details are again fresh in the minds of Antelope County Sheriff Bob Moore, investigators with the Nebraska State Patrol and part-time county deputy Ron Westlake.
After all, a confession — especially one claiming accessory to murder — tends to spark interest. Moore said he became aware of a confession involving the 1975 Mosel homicide on December 10 when he was contacted by the Meade County Sheriff’s Office in South Dakota.
“They had a suspect that admitted to being at the scene, and that conversation was forwarded to us,” Moore said.
Mosel’s body was discovered around 8 a.m. on April 27, 1975, by Duane Bivens of Plainview. He drove north, pulled his milk truck into Orchard Dairy Products and told others what he had just seen. Bernard Kellogg and his son were preparing to leave with another truck and investigated what Bivens spotted.
That’s when Kellogg called then-Antelope County Sheriff Vernon Hixson with the startling news, and the quiet Sunday morning in Orchard was abruptly shaken by a rare homicide of a local resident.
According to reports, foul play was suspected immediately. Mosel’s body was taken to Plainview and then transported to the Yankton Hospital for an autopsy the same day it was discovered. The Orchard News assisted with the investigation, photographing both the crime scene and autopsy for law enforcement.
The cause of death was ruled to be a cerebral hemorrhage caused from a blow to the head with a blunt instrument. The autopsy determined Mosel died around 3 a.m. — five hours before his body was discovered in a ditch halfway between his home and Orchard.
Mosel, a World War II veteran and father of seven, had been last seen alive just hours before, leaving the Orchard Legion Club in the early hours of Sunday morning.
But one person said he saw Mosel later that morning. That individual said he not only witnessed the murder, but arranged for Mosel to be killed.
Moore said upon investigation, the confession has been made at least three times by that individual since 1988, and multiple agencies over the years have investigated the confession.
The Nebraska State Patrol was so dedicated to finding a suspect in the homicide that the case was one of 43 featured in the patrol’s first edition of “cold case cards” in 2010. The playing cards were distributed to state prisons and county jails in hopes of triggering memories or encouraging an inmate to speak up about information regarding the cold cases.
Following the December confession, Moore assigned the investigation to Ron Westlake, a former Madison County deputy who also works part-time for both the Antelope County Sheriff and Neligh Police departments. A former Air Forceman, Moore described Westlake as meticulous for detail and said he investigated the claims thoroughly.
Westlake scoured evidence and autopsies of both Merlin Mosel and his wife, LaVera, who was found dead in her Orchard home just three years after her husband’s murder. Her autopsy was inconclusive, although alcohol was believed to be a factor in her death.
As for the claim of responsibility for Merlin Mosel’s death, Moore said the individual who confessed hasn’t changed his story in 30 years. However, his description of events doesn’t match the evidence.
As for the man allegedly hired to commit the murder, Moore said that former Orchard resident has repeatedly denied involvement and no evidence links him to the murder.
“There’s not enough there to move forward with any type of charges. If something new develops, we’ll go after it, but as of right now, there’s not,” Moore said.
The Dec. 10 confession marks the third in three decades for this individual. Authorities from multiple agencies, including the State Patrol and Norfolk Police Department, investigated the case each time, including 20 years ago with the previous confession.
Moore said Antelope County again did its due diligence to follow-up and gather all of the documentation and evidence on the homicide. After a complete investigation, Moore said the case is cold and remains unsolved.
“The bottom line is we discovered the same information that came forward between 1998 and 2000, which the Norfolk Police Division and Nebraska State Patrol worked, there was nothing new uncovered after 22 man hours of following up on anything that was potentially new,” Moore said.