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Crime News Cold Justice

Texas Prosecutors Reexamine Montana Reporter’s Senseless and "Chaotic" 2002 Murder

More than two decades after the 22-year-old was found dead in the bathtub of her Abilene, Texas, apartment, Cold Justice examines the case.

By Jax Miller

The Cold Justice team banded to learn why a young Montana woman on the fast track to becoming a celebrated news journalist was brutally murdered in her Texas apartment more than 20 years ago.

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Kelly Siegler and Detective Jeff Cowan of the Abilene Police Department (A.P.D.) in Texas headed to Kalispell, Montana, to sit with the relatives of murder victim Jennifer Servo. Servo, an up-and-coming investigative journalist with big dreams, was only 22 when she was found dead in the bathtub of her Abilene apartment, about 150 miles west of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

“Everybody really liked her,” Servo’s sister, Christa Handford, told Cold Justice, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.

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Who was Jennifer Servo?

The “fun-loving” Montana-raised Servo was a popular high schooler enrolled in cross country and cheerleading, according to her loved ones. Her mother, Sherry Abel, laughed when she told of how Servo’s decision to enlist with the U.S. Army Reserves while still in high school was partly inspired by her watching the 1994 Pauly Shore comedy In the Army Now.

Soon after, Servo found work at a local news station in Missoula, Montana, while working on earning a degree in journalism. After college, she applied for a reporting position in Abilene — about 1,600 miles south of Missoula — and packed her things for the Lone Star state in August 2002.

“She had a romantic vision of Texas: ‘It’s gonna be full of cowboys, cowboy hats, and cowboy boots,’” said Servo’s mother. “She was excited.”

The 22-year-old’s career was taking off with NBC Abilene affiliate KRBC-TV when, in September 2002, an apartment manager found Servo dead, face-down and slumped over the bathtub of the new apartment after coworkers reported her as a no-show for work.

Authorities believed Servo died on Sept. 16, a couple of days earlier, having sustained blunt force trauma to the head and strangulation. It would become one of the most high-profile cases in Abilene, growing colder and colder over the years.

“Something like this, you think it always happens to somebody else,” an emotional Abel told Cold Justice. “When it happens to you or your family, you’re just devastated.”

About Jennifer Servo’s Death

Jennifer Servo featured on Cold Justice Episode 706

Relatives and authorities quickly cast their suspicions onto Servo’s former boyfriend, 35-year-old Ralph Sepulveda, an Army Ranger whom Servo met while training with the Reserves in Montana. According to Servo’s mother and sister, Sepulveda and Servo were in the early phases of their romantic relationship when Servo announced the boyfriend would join her in Texas.

“Jennifer and Ralph had instant chemistry. They only knew each other about a month before he decided to uproot his life and aggressively pursue her,” said Kelly Siegler. “But within weeks, Jennifer realized she’d made a mistake.”

The couple only lived together for a few weeks before Servo kicked Sepulveda out after feeling misled. Servo learned Sepulveda had a fiancée and a child from another relationship back in Montana, details he’d withheld before moving into Servo’s new residence.

Sepulveda subsequently moved into another apartment nearby in Abilene.

Before long, Servo had a brief romantic fling with her 24-year-old coworker, a weatherman named Brian Travers. Travers and Servo ran errands together hours before Servo’s time of death, and based on entries in Servo’s diary, it seemed he was more into her than she was into him.

A closer look at the crime scene

Cold Justice Team Recreates Jennifer Servo's Crime Scene

Homicide Detective Steve Spingola and A.P.D.’s Shawn Montgomery joined Siegler and Cowan back in Texas to discuss the crime scene. Now-retired detectives Jeff Bell and David Atkins, who were on the case in 2002, also came to assist.

As seen in a police video obtained and published by Cold Justice, Servo’s fully clothed body was discovered slumped over the bathtub. Drag marks of blood appeared to start on the floor near the victim’s bed — which was stationed in the living room — and tracked through the living room and into the bathroom.

A postmortem examination stated Servo died of manual strangulation and was dead before the upper portion of her body entered the water. Experts found bruising around the exterior of Servo’s genitals, though it didn’t appear she was sexually assaulted. Seeing as Servo was fully-dressed, it didn’t seem likely — given the chaotic scene — that an assailant would have raped Servo and then put her back in her clothes.

Bruising around the vagina was theorized to be caused by the assailant’s knee during the act of strangulation.

“[The] crime scene looks chaotic, like someone is panicking,” noted Forensic Pathologist Kathryn Pinneri M.D. “They’re grabbing stuff from here and there and trying to figure out what they’re going to do.”

DNA from Travers’ semen was discovered on Servo’s bed, but it didn’t prove anything criminal since he was in a relationship with Servo. Travers also volunteered his DNA to help further the investigation.

A lack of forced entry into the apartment led detectives to conclude that Servo probably knew her killer. The theory was also supported by a neighbor’s statement that they heard Servo and another arguing for some time.

“What a violent, horrible crime,” said Siegler. “I don’t know if the person who did this came over here intending to hurt Jennifer or if this is an unplanned action of an obsessive, jilted lover.”

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Servo's Final Moments

Upon review of the victim’s final hours, authorities stated Servo and Travers left work at around 11:30 p.m. and shopped together soon after, as was confirmed by the store’s surveillance footage. They left at around 12:30 a.m. on Sept. 16, 2002.

Servo and a friend spoke on the phone after Servo returned to the apartment, hanging up at around 1:39 a.m.

Police said Travers was “cooperative” during the initial investigation and even helped officers in a walk-through of the victim’s apartment. He also reported seeing a strange car hours before someone committed the murder.

“Brian tells investigators that there was a car following him and Jennifer that night,” Spingola told Cold Justice. “He’s cooperated with police from the very beginning, but is his cooperation genuine or a ploy to steer the cops away from himself as a suspect?”

Servo’s ex-boyfriend, Ralph Sepulveda, told detectives he was home and went to sleep at around 10:30 p.m. after watching football alone.

Kelly, Steve, Kathryn and Local Law Enforcement featured on Cold Justice episode 706

Det. Bell said he quickly grew suspicious of Sepulveda’s “matter-of-fact” demeanor.

“He was not emotional in any form or fashion, just didn’t ask the right questions,” said Bell. “’Jennifer’s dead,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, that sucks.’ He never asked, ‘How did she die, what happened to her,’ never asked for the details that you would expect someone to ask.”

Bell said Sepulveda moved from Abilene just weeks later and re-enlisted in the U.S. Army for active duty. Sepulveda “cut ties” with any mutual acquaintances of Servo’s while Travers — contrastingly — attended Servo’s funeral and kept in touch with the victim’s family over the years.

“Whether it was Brian or Ralph or an unknown attacker, we have a better appreciation now of how this murder was a very close and intimate ordeal,” Siegler said.

RELATED: Why Kelly Siegler Was "Pleasantly Surprised" By Victim's Friends and Family in Upcoming Episode

Witnesses help the Cold Justice team

Siegler and company sat with a handful of Jennifer Servo’s friends and coworkers, one of whom called her “universally loved” around the Abilene-based news station and “too talented” to stay long. A college friend — who spoke with Servo before the murder — told investigators Servo had just returned from running errands with Travers.

“What I do know is that her door was locked,” the friend told Cold Justice. “She would not have just opened it, in my opinion, for a stranger.”

Some said Travers “carried a torch” for Servo, while Servo told people she “regretted” having sex with Travers. They both remained friendly, however, and witness after witness claimed Travers was far from violent.

One even referred to Travers as the “news station sweetheart.”

However, many acquaintances cited the problems between Servo and Ralph Sepulveda, claiming Sepulveda left his long-term girlfriend in Montana to follow Servo to Texas.

“I know that he came back over about three weeks after they broke up and asked her to get back together,” said the college friend. “She was like, ‘Not now, I’m sorry,’ and he cried.”

Two of Servo’s closest female friends told Siegler and Cold Justice that Servo said she was unhappy with her sex life with Sepulveda, claiming he enjoyed strangling her in bed, which Servo disapproved of. A review of Servo’s diary also showed that Sepulveda allegedly “bullied” his way into moving with Servo to Texas and was “mooching” off of her financially and emotionally.

The Cold Case team wondered if the suspicious car following Servo and Travers hours before the murder was driven by a jealous Sepulveda.  

Steve and Local Law Enforcement featured on Cold Justice episode 706

Soon after Servo’s death, investigators obtained a love letter Sepulveda penned to his ex-girlfriend in 2002, suggesting he no longer had feelings for Servo and still loved the former fiancée in Montana. The woman claimed she and Sepulveda had been together for three years.

She said she spent the summer of 2002 in Phoenix, Arizona, for work, during which time Sepulveda was “developing a new life.”

“I finally tracked him down through one of his coworkers, and she put him on the phone, and he said that he had met somebody else, and he didn’t love me anymore, and he was moving,” said the ex. “I never heard from him again.”

The former girlfriend’s statements told investigators that since Sepulveda made zero attempts to rekindle his relationship with the woman, the love letter written around the time of Servo’s death was likely bogus.

Cold Justice confronts Sepulveda and Travers

Investigator Spingola and A.P.D. Det. Roger Romero headed to pay Travers a surprise visit at his Des Moines, Iowa, residence. No one answered the door, but Travers called the investigators, later agreeing to speak with his attorney present.

Meanwhile, Detectives Montgomery and Cowan found Sepulveda at his Honolulu, Hawaii, home, as recorded with a body camera and published by Cold Justice. Sepulveda didn’t offer much after going outside to meet them.

“You know, it’s been so long; I haven’t talked to anybody in a long time,” said Sepulveda. “There’s nothing else I could add to that. Absolutely nothing.”

For detectives, Sepulveda’s “guarded” manner rang as suspicious.

“He wouldn’t divulge any new information to us; he gave us nothing,” said Montgomery. “He strikes me as like he still doesn’t give a sh-t. He never asked us, ‘How’s the case coming? Are there any leads? Who’s your main suspect?’"

Back in Des Moines, without Cold Justice cameras rolling, Travers cooperated with investigators. With nothing in his history pointing to violence, coupled with a mountain of witness statements attesting to his wholesome character, investigators didn’t believe Travers made for a strong suspect in the case.

Will there be justice for Jennifer?

“Brian Travers has cooperated with the police department since day one, even against the advice of his own lawyers,” said the Cold Justice host. “He’s given his DNA, he flew up to Montana to her funeral and grieved there with her family and friends, and has continued to e-mail Jennifer’s mom about the case."

Siegler maintained Travers’ only mistake was “falling too hard” for Servo.

The team concluded Sepulveda felt slighted when Servo kicked him out of the home upon discovery of Sepulveda’s ex and his child. They theorized he became even more jealous when learning about Travers.

Matched with Sepulveda’s alleged penchant for sexual strangulation, his purported bogus love letter, his quick military reenlistment following Servo’s death, and his “stoic” demeanor, authorities felt they had enough of a case to present to the district attorney’s office in hopes of charging Sepulveda with murder.

Brian Travers has been cleared as a suspect.

Watch all-new episodes of Cold Justice, airing Saturdays and 8/7c on Oxygen.