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Residents of a small farming town in the Midwest began to suspect one another after a well-liked hostess disappeared from a local tavern.
Catherine Beard, 31, grew up in Ord, Nebraska, home to the Someplace Else tavern, where she worked as a part-time waitress. It was her night off, and the social woman went to the bar on May 31, 1989 to mingle and see a few of the familiar faces of Ord. But at closing time, Beard’s manager and friend didn’t know where she went, finding her cigarettes and keys still at the bar.
The manager grew concerned and called the police. While there was no apparent emergency, authorities came at once and spoke with the patrons. Several said they saw Beard talking with a local man named John Oldson.
“John Oldson and Cathy Beard did know each other,” former Valley County Prosecutor Curt Sikyta told “Buried in The Backyard,” airing Thursdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. “I think Cathy considered him somewhat of a friend.”
Witnesses saw Beard and Oldson leave through the back exit and into the alley.
When authorities later questioned Oldson, he admitted that he tried to hit on Beard but said that she rebuffed his advances. As they talked behind the bar, Oldson said a pickup truck with two unknown men pulled up, and Beard willingly left with them.
A second witness also saw Beard get into the pickup truck in the alley.
Running on a partial license plate number Oldson provided to police, investigators searched high and low but could not find a vehicle that fit the description. Without any leads, they returned to Oldson, who let them search his truck.
“Law enforcement collected whatever samples they could find,” said Sikyta. “And everything came back that there was no DNA trace that belonged to Cathy.”
However, what struck officers was that in a town like Ord, where crime was rare, another crime had taken place on the night of Beard’s disappearance.
“On the same night Cathy Beard becomes a missing person, there was an armed robbery at a motel,” said Jay Morrow of the Nebraska State Patrol.
The victim was a Colorado seed salesman in Ord on business, telling police he met two men at a random bar. After drinking with the men, the salesman offered cash if the duo could find him a female companion for the evening. They went back to the visitor's motel room, where the couple pulled out a shotgun and robbed him.
Authorities were quick to identify the criminals as two locals named Rex White and Glen Hall. They were known around town for their mischief, but they didn’t match the description of the two men with whom Beard left. However, law enforcement learned the duo took the salesman to Someplace Else tavern to look for Beard.
“And they walked in and was asking where Cathy was,” said Larry Karschner of the Nebraska State Patrol. “It popped in their head that Catherine Beard would be someone that they would find for him."
Rex and Glen could not find Beard at the bar, and the salesman claimed he’d never seen her. But further investigation raised suspicion when authorities spoke with the foreman of a job site.
“Mr. Hall and Mr. White worked for a construction crew,” said Sikyta. “And their boss indicated to investigators at one point that he had overhead Rex White say they had killed someone and cut them up and indicated that they may be buried somewhere.”
A bag of lime had also disappeared from the construction site. Could Beard's body be there?
Investigators attained a search warrant and searched a recently constructed concrete slab at the worksite. To their disappointment, they found nothing. Soon, White and Hall were cleared as suspects.
Catherine Beard’s case went cold until April 1992 when kids stumbled on skull fragments on “Party Hill,” where teenagers often drank and partied. Police found more bones scattered on the farming property.
“Based on the evidence, the damage to the skeletal remains, we knew that it was a homicide,” said Karschner.
Authorities found the sweater Beard was last reported wearing buried in the area. Someone cut a hole from the abdominal area. They collected blood from the sweater and compared it to Beard’s mother’s DNA, proving that the remains belonged to Catherine Beard.
An autopsy determined Beard sustained both blunt force and sharp force trauma.
Police turned their attention back to Rex White and Glen Hall, who witnesses heard talking about Beard right before she disappeared from the tavern. But White and Hall passed a polygraph test.
“Basically, we feel that Glen Hall and Rex White [were] both trying to sound tough and intimidate people,” said Larry Karschner of the State Patrol. “As far as being suspects, they were discredited and disproved.”
Investigators also cleared the Colorado seed salesman of being involved in Beard's murder. The suspect list had shrunk, leaving them no option but to return to original witnesses at the bar, including John Oldson, the last known person to see Beard alive.
To their surprise, Oldson was in jail on charges of sexual assault. Oldson was accused of grabbing a gas station clerk as she left work and pinning her to the ground. He lifted her shirt and rubbed her stomach, according to the prosecution.
Still, years after Beard’s disappearance, Oldson’s story didn’t change, and nothing connected him to her murder. Once again, the case went cold.
In 2010, more than two decades later, the Nebraska State Patrol released a deck of playing cards to circulate through the prisons. Each card featured a different cold case, with Beard's on the two of spades. An inmate contacted authorities when he recognized the woman’s story.
“The cellmate was incarcerated in Valley County with John Oldson,” said Casey Hurlbert of the Valley County Sheriff’s Office.
Investigators brought their focus back to Oldson and learned he was convicted in 2003 for sticking hypodermic needles in the abdomens of his two stepdaughters. He was released from prison in 2005. Remembering the previous assault where Oldson rubbed a woman’s stomach, and the hole cut out of the abdominal area of Beard'’s sweater, authorities cited Oldson’s alleged stomach fetish (known as alvinolagnia).
But what about the second witness who claimed to see Beard get into a pickup truck with two unknown men the night she disappeared? Investigators went back to the bar 21 years later and determined the angle at which the witness allegedly saw Beard would have been impossible. The witness later recanted.
“I suspect he was just trying to get attention,” said Karschner.
Authorities reached out to Oldson’s sister, who they hadn’t interviewed in the initial 1989 investigation. She told detectives that Oldson went to great lengths to clean his pickup truck the day after Beard disappeared.
Although the evidence against John Oldson was circumstantial, the county attorney went ahead and charged him with murder.
While awaiting his 2012 trial, Oldson’s mother came forward with a shocking announcement: She had proof that Oldson wasn’t the one who murdered Beard, providing authorities with an unmarked envelope. Inside was a diary documenting a residence north of Ord where the owners allegedly ran a “sex slave ranch” and held women captive before murdering them. The diary entries alleged that Beard was one of their victims.
“It severely interfered with our prosecution,” said Glenn Clark, former Valley County Attorney. “You just gotta really wonder if that diary is true.”
Investigators went to question the couple who owned the ranch. By then, the husband had died, but authorities interviewed the 80-something-year-old widow.
“She was a frail old lady, and you’re looking at her saying, ‘I don’t think so,’” said Clark. “’Not even in her youth.’”
Experts claimed her handwriting didn’t match the journal entries. But who would make such bold claims against the widow? She suggested Doug Olson, a ranch hand who became bitter after he felt cheated by the widow out of a piece of land.
Doug Olson admitted to writing the diary and making false claims against his neighbors. He was charged with evidence tampering.
In January 2013, the trial of John Oldson finally began. The prosecution stated their belief that Oldson sexually assaulted Beard after she rebuffed his advances. He allegedly threw Catherine in the back of his pickup truck and murdered her before dumping her body on the remote Party Hill.
The jury found John Oldson guilty of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to life in prison.
“You could just tell, within the community, that it was a brick off everyone’s shoulders,” said a tearful Hurlbert. “To get justice for Cathy was what everybody wanted. That was our goal, and that’s what we got.”
Today, Catherine Beard rests in a grave near her mother’s.
John Oldson continues to serve his life sentence at Tecumseh State Correctional Institution.
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