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Crime News Homicide for the Holidays

"The Most Horrific Thing": Who Shot an Illinois Mom and Her Teen Daughter on 4th of July?

After finding Sue Marshel and Melinda Marshel's skulls in a duffle bag, an investigator said it “was the most horrific thing I could ever imagine seeing.”

By Joe Dziemianowicz

Independence Day in Wayne City, Illinois comes with all of the traditional trappings: patriotic banners, parades, and fireworks.

How to Watch

Catch up on Homicide for the Holidays on Peacock or the Oxygen App.

But July 4, 1995 was different.

The first sign of trouble was the discovery of a car halfway submerged in a local pond. Investigators at the scene noticed blood by a tail light. 

Inside the car “there was just a massive amount of blood, literally gallons of it,” Wayne County Detective JB Fletcher told Homicide for the Holidays, airing on Oxygen. “It looked like red liquid Jell-O.”

A July 4th Mystery Emerges

The Illinois State Police sent a crime scene investigator to collect evidence and photograph the car and the scene. A long slender strip of wood had been used to hold down the gas pedal. Two .32 caliber shell casings were also collected.

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“That’s an unusual weapon,” explained David Elwood, now retired from the Illinois State Police. It’s far less common than a .9mm or a .45 caliber firearm.

Investigators popped the trunk and found a pair of bloody handprints inside it, as though someone alive inside was trying to escape, said Fletcher. 

Where Are Sue and Melinda Marshel?

The car was registered to Sue Marshel, a divorced mother of two: Michael, 19, who was out of town, and Melinda, 13.

Sue and Melinda were no-shows at an annual July 4 family cookout.

A wide-scale search for the two women was unsuccessful, and law enforcement suspected foul play. Investigators turned to Sue’s close circle, including her ex-husbands.

Johnny Marshel and Sue had married in 1974, and Melinda was born in December 1981. Marshel had a solid alibi for his whereabouts for July 4, which he’d spent with friends. He was at work the next day. Both stories were confirmed.

State Police also interviewed Sue’s ex-husband Jim Gelsinger. He said he was out of the area at the time of the crime, which was verified and Gelsinger was quickly ruled out, according to Barry Vaughan, former prosecutor for Wayne County.

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On July 6, State Police spoke with Sue’s most recent ex-husband, Niels Nielsen, who had a history of criminal activity: He’d been caught with stolen property in Utah in 1992 and wasn’t supposed to leave the state.

Nielsen ignored that decree and moved in with his mother and stepfather in southern Illinois, ultimately meeting Sue in Wayne City. Despite their age difference — she was 36, he was 20 — they married.

When Sue discovered Nielsen had a warrant out on him, she informed authorities of his whereabouts and he was taken back to Utah. Sue ultimately had their 10-day marriage annulled.

In 1995, Nielsen returned to Wayne City. Despite their rocky past, Sue and Nielsen still had a relationship, said Vaughan.

Niels Nielsen Speaks to Investigators

Nielsen told law enforcement that he was with Sue and Melinda on July 4. After watching the fireworks, they were with him as was driving to his house and ran out of gas.

He claimed that he grabbed a gas can and set out on foot to get fuel. When he returned, he said, Sue was talking to a stranger, a man who was white and about 5' 10" and driving a red car. Nielsen said Sue and Melinda then got in the car and rode off.

Authorities canvassed Sue’s family and friends for information about a man with a red car. They turned up no leads and questioned how Nielsen knew the height of a man who was sitting down, according to Homicide for the Holidays

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Nielsen agreed to a search of his bedroom in the home he shared with his parents. Inside the residence, investigators found several firearms including a .32 caliber semi-automatic handgun. Unlike the other dusty guns, the .32 caliber handgun was wiped clean. Nielsen’s stepfather allowed investigators to take the gun and ammunition for testing. 

As the investigation continued, Melinda’s brother Mike came to authorities. He said that Nielsen had driven up, and when Mike spoke to Nielsen through the window, he saw his toolbox that had been at Sue’s house in the backseat.

Mike filed a formal report and police obtained a warrant to search Nielsen’s residence. The tools were recovered. Outside, long thin strips of wood like the one located in the car in the pond were found.

Evidence linking Nielsen to the disappearance of Sue and Melinda was mounting. Nielsen was arrested for theft of the tools — but law enforcement had just 48 hours to produce a probable cause finding or he’d be released. 

Sue and Melinda Marshel's Bodies Are Found

On July 8, shocking evidence literally popped up in a local pond five miles from where Sue’s car was found. Two boys spotted a duffel bag break the surface of the water as they were fishing. 

Law enforcement arrived immediately and hauled the bag to shore.

“The smell was just overwhelming,” said Fletcher, who unzipped the bag and saw “two skulls. It was the most horrific thing I could ever imagine seeing.”

A .32 caliber casing was also found in the bag.

An autopsy was done on July 9. Through dental records, the bodies were identified as Sue and Melinda Marshal. Sue had been shot twice in the head. Melinda was shot three times in her head. The missing persons case was now a double homicide. 

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In addition to being shot, the bodies had been incinerated. Nielsen’s neighbors had reported seeing smoke from a very large fire on July 5. 

Investigators got a search warrant for the Nielsen burn pile. They turned up teeth, hair, and bones that were all human, along with keys, jewelry, and a .32 caliber bullet casing. The jewelry belonged to Melinda, according to her relatives.

At this point, Nielsen changed his story. He claimed that he was involved in the crime, but that he only helped dispose of the bodies. He alleged that Johnny Marshel, Sue’s first husband and Melinda’s dad, was the killer.

Nielsen also claimed that Marshel had gotten Melinda pregnant. A heated argument between Marshel and the two women turned deadly, Nielsen alleged. 

Nielsen then said he tried to sink the car, but when that failed they burned the bodies and put them in the duffel bag that was submerged in the pond.

However, Marshall’s alibi about where he was when the crime went down were already verified, and the medical examiner confirmed that Melinda was not pregnant. They believed Nielsen was lying and had acted alone. Marshall was never arrested in connection with the case.

On July 10, Niels Nielsen was charged with two counts of murder and two counts of concealment.

Though they pressed the suspect, Nielsen never gave a reason for the murders.

On May 27, 1996, Nielsen’s trial began. It lasted ten days.

Nielsen was found guilty on all four counts. He was sentenced to death.

In 2003, the governor of Illinois commuted all death sentences to life in prison. Illinois abolished the death penalty in 2011.

Niels Nielsen is now serving a life sentence at the Menard Correctional Center in Illinois. 

To learn more about the case, watch Homicide for the Holidays, on Oxygen