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‘Cold Justice’ Investigation Into North Dakota Murder Helps Lead To An Arrest Years Later
In the 100th "Cold Justice" episode, the team tries to determine who killed Anita Knutson, who was stabbed to death when she was just 18.
Who fatally stabbed 18-year-old North Dakota college student Anita Knutson in June 2007?
On “Cold Justice,” airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen, prosecutor Kelly Siegler and investigator Steve Spingola took a deep dive into the homicide in the series’ 100th episode. Fifteen years after the slaying, they were able to help the Minot Police Department make an arrest.
Working with Det. Carmen Asham, Det. Mikali Talbott, and Chief John Klug of the Minot Police Department, the team began with four suspects. One of them, Tyler Schmaltz, was eventually determined to be “a harmless crush,” said Siegler.
Three suspects remained: Michael Vann, a wannabe boyfriend who was the last person to text Anita, maintenance man Marty Annell, and roommate Nichole Thomas, who allegedly sent threatening texts to Anita and witnesses claimed made a drunken confession about killing Knutson years ago at a party.
Digital forensics expert Eric Devlin analyzed text messages between Anita and the suspects. Investigators found no evidence indicating animosity between the victim and Michael Vann. Messages between Anita and Nichole told a different story. The exchanges “painted a pretty clear picture of escalating tension” between the two young women, said Siegler, although in the initial 2007 investigation, Nichole downplayed the divide between her and Anita.
Detectives noted that Nichole’s final text to Anita was sent after the time of the killing. Was Nichole unaware of Anita’s murder? Or was she trying to appear that way?
Next, the team moved on to the crime scene itself. They re-examined the actual apartment where Anita was killed to better understand the homicide. Did the killer enter and exit through the window of the bedroom where Anita was found dead in June 2007?
At the time of the murder, the screen on the window had been cut. Annell had claimed that he’d removed the damaged screen the day the crime was discovered to repair it but didn’t see her dead inside the room. By recreating the scene, investigators saw that his claim actually made sense.
Other evidence suggested that the killer never entered or exited through the bedroom window.
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“I’ve seen a lot of crime scenes in my day, and this was clearly staged,” said Spingola, adding that the killer must have entered through the front door. “When Anita’s body was discovered that door was actually locked.”
In a significant determination, investigators noted that the front door wasn’t a push turn lock — it could only be locked with a key. Who had a key in June 2007? Anita, her roommate, and the maintenance man. Recognizing that, the team essentially eliminated Michael Vann, who died in 2009, as a suspect.
Marty Annell, the maintenance man at the apartment complex where Anita lived, died by suicide a year after the murder. A question has floated for years about whether he felt guilty about Anita's death. Annell had expressed to a friend that something bad had happened to him, but never went into details. But when detectives dug deeper into his motives, Annell’s sister said that her brother was despondent over discovering that his longtime girlfriend was cheating on him.
“It just totally pulled the rug out from beneath him,” she said.
Siegler and the team considered the possible explanation that when Annell told a friend about “something bad” he may have been talking about his own relationship and not about Anita’s murder. Investigators concluded that Annell was looking less and less like a suspect.
So, they focused their efforts on Nichole. They interviewed her co-worker, Donna Bjelland, who said she had heard Nichole badmouthing Anita for months. Things escalated after Nichole’s pet fish were killed. It got to the point where Bjelland told Nichole, “You two can’t live together,” she told investigators.
After Anita’s murder, Bjelland told investigators, Nichole made a provocative comment: “As long as I keep my mouth shut, I’ll be fine.”
They also spoke with Willy May, who dated Nichole after Anita’s murder. He recalled Nichole being “belligerently drunk” at one of their house parties when the subject of Anita’s slaying came up.
“She said, ‘I did it,’” May told investigators.
He added that she refused to say it again when she was sober, so May left it at that and the pair eventually split up.
The team sought to interview Nichole, who agreed to come in and talk. The plan was for Spingola and Asham to question Nichole, while Siegler and Talbott talked with her parents at the same time. Inconsistencies, they thought, would be easier to spot this way.
Now married with the new name Nichole Rice, she downplayed her arguments with Anita when questioned. But her statements about where she was around the time of the murder kept wavering and the inconsistencies raised red flags.
When investigators confronted her with May’s claims about her drunken confession, she stopped the interview: “I don’t want to talk anymore,” she said.
While that was happening, Siegler and Talbott found no one home at Nichole’s parents’ house. When they drove to Nichole’s residence, her father was there.
“Our daughter’s being charged for something she didn’t do,” he told Siegler.
Then, he made a statement about his daughter’s whereabouts at the time Anita was killed that contradicted his daughter’s various versions of the events.
After reviewing all of the witness statements and evidence, investigators officially eliminated Annell and Vann as suspects. They determined they had sufficient circumstantial evidence suggesting that Nichole killed Anita to present to the prosecutor.
In March 2022, the Minot Police arrested 34-year-old Nichole Rice for the murder. Police Chief Klug cited the “Cold Justice” team in helping them to “move forward” on the case.
To learn more about this case and others like it, watch “Cold Justice,” which you can stream here.