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Crime News Accident, Suicide, or Murder

Man Puts Fiancée In Choke Hold Before Staging Her Shooting Suicide

Although Holly Durben’s fatal shooting death was ruled undetermined, investigators believed bruising on her neck pointed toward homicide.

By Aly Vander Hayden

In July 2009, sheriff’s deputies in Shenandoah, Iowa responded to a desperate 911 call from a rural farmhouse. 

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“My girlfriend just shot herself in the f--king head!” Brian Davis told the dispatcher, claiming he found his 29-year-old fiancée, Holly Durben, dead in their bedroom from a gunshot wound. 

When first responders arrived, Davis was hysterical, lying down in the middle of the two-lane highway outside the home, and he was quickly transported to the hospital.  

Inside, they discovered Durben in the upstairs bedroom with a shotgun in her hand. Her thumb was in the trigger guard, and her fingers were resting in the pistol grip, according to “Accident, Suicide or Murder,” airing Saturdays at 6/5c on Oxygen

Searching the rest of the home, investigators found signs the couple had been fighting prior to Durben’s death, including a broken bathroom mirror that was covered in blood and glass shards in the sink. 

Once Davis recovered, he told authorities that he had taken the shotgun out the night before with his friend, Scott Carpenter, to shoot targets. He claimed that he, Carpenter, and Durben had been drinking, and sometime during the evening, Durben became upset that he was spending more time with his friend. Davis said Durben took off her engagement ring, throwing it across the kitchen, and broke the bathroom mirror.  

Davis claimed Durben told him to sleep on the couch, and that the next morning he called up to ask if she wanted breakfast, but she said no. Then, soon after, she told Davis to come upstairs, and he heard the shotgun blast, Davis said. 

Davis denied he had anything to do with his fiancée’s death, but law enforcement was suspicious. 

“[It] really didn’t add up, especially after I found out that they had been fighting and that's why she’d done it. It just didn’t sound right to me that OK, you got angry, you shot yourself,” Fremont County Deputy Sheriff Tim Bothwell told “Accident, Suicide or Murder.” 

Davis was also no stranger to law enforcement. Trained in martial arts, he “was kind of the community bully. He was a fighter. He liked to get into fights,” Bothwell said. 

Durben’s sister, Heather Richardson, told producers she disapproved of the couple’s relationship and often feared for Durben’s safety. In one of several calls to Richardson prior to her death, Durben was “incoherent, almost hysterical” and said Davis had bent back her wrist. 

When the family heard the news of Durben’s death, Richardson called the sheriff’s department and told them her sister had been killed and that there was no way her death was a suicide. 

“There was never a moment, not even for a split second, that Holly would ever take her own life, no matter how sad, or how miserable, or how imprisoned she felt,” Richardson said. 

Holly Durben

Although there was no gunshot residue on Davis, there was other evidence at the scene that suggested Durben had not died by suicide. The gun had been found in Durben’s left hand, but she was right-handed. The shotgun was also a 12-gauge with an 18-inch barrel, which tends to have a heavy recoil.  

“It should have kicked her thumb out of that trigger guard when that went off,” Fremont County Sheriff Kevin Aistrope told producers. 

Testing the gun itself, investigators found Davis’ fingerprints, but there was no sign of Durben’s. 

After the autopsy was performed, the medical examiner ruled the manner as well as the cause of death as undetermined. It also found there was deep tissue bruising on both sides of Durben’s neck and a small bleed in her right eye. 

“Usually, when we see petechiae in a person, which is basically little tiny dots of red that are basically haemorrhages around the eyes, usually you see that because of asphyxiation — someone’s being choked. Those can be caused because of a shotgun blast, but not always,” Iowa DCI Special Agent David Dales told “Accident, Suicide or Murder.” 

Speaking with loved ones, authorities learned that at around 4 a.m. on the day Durben died, she sent her friend Jamie Stockwell a text message asking if she could come over. Stockwell called Durben, who was extremely upset, and she could not make out what Durben was saying. 

Davis then got on the phone and said everything was fine, promising Stockwell she did not have to worry. A few hours later, however, Durben was dead. 

While Davis remained a person of interest, authorities believed they did not have enough physical evidence to tie him to the homicide. It would be four years until a new prosecutor was appointed in Fremont County and decided to pursue murder charges. 

But before arresting Davis, law enforcement wanted to interview him one more time. Toward the end of their conversation, Davis waivered a bit from his original statement, telling investigators, “I don’t think I was in the room when the gun went off.” 

Investigators believed this slight change in his account was incriminating enough to bring charges, and two days later, Davis was arrested for first-degree murder. 

The prosecution built its case against Davis based on his pattern of violence, including a domestic abuse allegation reported by Duren about a year before her death.  

Durben said Davis choked her and put a handgun to her head, saying, “I’m gonna kill you.” Davis was arrested, and Durben received a protective order against him. She later, however, declined to testify, and the charges were dropped. 

Davis and his defense team requested a bench trial, and during the proceedings, both the couple’s friends, Stockwell and Carpenter, testified. Carpenter told the court that on the night of Durben’s death, Davis tried a sleeper hold on him, which was one of Davis’ signature martial arts moves. 

While Durben’s manner and cause of death were still undetermined, a forensic pathologist testified that the bruising on Durben’s neck was not consistent with a gunshot, and that it could have been caused by choking.  

A week later, the judge reached his verdict.   

“I remember the judge, at the very end, saying, ‘I am firmly convinced Brian Davis choked then shot Holly Durbin,’” former Fremont Country Attorney Corey Becker told “Accident, Suicide or Murder.” 

In Iowa, a first-degree murder conviction carries no chance of parole, and Davis was sentenced to spend the rest of his life behind bars.  

To learn more, watch “Accident, Suicide or Murder” on Oxygen

If you or someone you know is a victim of domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence hotline at 1-800-799-7233.