In the early hours of June 16, 1979, at the break of dawn, Kimberly Nees, a young woman of 18 who had recently attained the prestigious title of valedictorian in her class, tragically met her demise through a brutal bludgeoning. The month prior had seen her triumphantly graduate. As the first rays of sunlight painted the horizon, her life was cruelly extinguished. Law enforcement discovered her vehicle, stained with her essence, just beyond the edges of the quaint settlement known as Poplar, nestled in the heart of Montana. The location was infamous as a gathering spot for youthful revelry.
A trail, marked by faint traces of crimson, stretched across a span of 257 feet from the abandoned truck towards the Poplar River. There, her injured form was discovered, resting gently on the water’s surface, face up, in the shallows, a mere ten feet from the shoreline. The post-mortem examination revealed the grim toll of at least twenty savage blows to her head, leaving behind grotesque wounds on her neck, shoulders, and hands – a result of the unforgiving impact of two metallic instruments, likely a tire iron and a crescent wrench.
While her truck bore gruesome evidence, bearing both inside and outside the grim traces of her ordeal, including clumps of hair and blood, gashes ingrained with hair adorning the ceiling and steering wheel, as well as a pungent mixture of beer or urine staining the driver’s seat, no indications of robbery or sexual assault were apparent. Her sweater, meticulously folded, lay in the rear of the truck, accompanied by her purse – a packet of cigarettes casually rested on top. The post-mortem examination yielded no signs of recent sexual activity.
Both the truck and its environs served as a repository of evidence. Inside the vehicle, over twenty-four fingerprints (with some reports indicating as many as forty-two sets) were documented, while a blood-stained palm print – subsequently attributed to the perpetrator – was discovered on the passenger-side door. The surrounding terrain bore witness to the presence of multiple individuals, as evidenced by a constellation of footprints converging at the river’s edge. A blood-soaked cloth, suggestive of the crime, was located less than a mile distant. Analysis confirmed that the blood was not that of Nees.
However, despite this wealth of evidence, the investigation yielded disappointingly scant leads. The jurisdictional complexity of the case, unfolding within the confines of the Fort Peck Reservation, engendered the involvement of federal, tribal, and state entities. Allegations of haphazard crime scene procedures, a lack of effective leadership, and the specter of potential evidence contamination served to mar the inquiry’s integrity.
A Limited Pool of Suspects
In the aftermath of Nees’ tragic demise, whispers circulated, insinuating a narrative of jealousy – a conspiracy orchestrated by a collective of three or four young women who harbored envy toward Nees, her beauty, her intellect, her achievements, and her popularity.
Barry Beach, then a seventeen-year-old and a neighbor to the Nees family, as well as a former boyfriend to Nees’ younger sister, was among those subjected to rigorous police scrutiny before being released. Subsequently, Beach embarked on a journey to Louisiana, where his father and stepmother resided.
Despite the ample evidence and a shallow pool of potential suspects – a consequence of the small-town milieu – progress on the case slowed to a crawl, eventually stagnating over the ensuing years.
Then, in 1983, four years after the tragic event, an unexpected turn of events would shift the focus from victim to possible perpetrator.
Some two thousand miles removed from the site of the crime, Beach’s stepmother summoned the authorities, registering a complaint against Beach, now twenty-one years of age, for allegedly aiding his younger stepsister in truancy. This resulted in his arrest. The day following his apprehension, Beach issued a menacing threat to his stepmother, triggering her alarm and subsequent report to the police. During this interaction, she disclosed Beach’s prior questioning in connection to a Montana murder years earlier. The police, embroiled in the examination of three homicides in Monroe, Louisiana – one of which was thought to involve Beach – proceeded to interrogate him extensively over a span of two to four days, seeking insights into the three local victims as well as Nees’ untimely demise. Although Beach initially professed his innocence, he ultimately confessed to the killings, including the murder of Nees, several days into the inquiry.
However, the Louisiana homicides remained unprosecuted due to his purported absence from the state during those events. In the case of Nees’ murder, Beach was indicted for first-degree murder. He entered a plea of not guilty, vehemently maintaining that his confessions pertaining to all four murders were obtained under duress – a consequence of alleged threats by detectives, which included references to execution via the electric chair. Furthermore, he contended that assurances had been proffered, promising assistance in evading the Montana murder charge in exchange for his admissions. Despite these allegations, the jury returned a guilty verdict for Nees’ murder following a mere six hours of deliberation. Subsequently, he received a sentence of one hundred years behind bars, devoid of the possibility of parole.
The pronouncement of “case closed” resonated, but doubts lingered. This tale of Beach’s culpability and the subsequent commutation of his sentence continued to unfold, casting a shadow over Nees’ memory. Even her own sister, once romantically involved with Beach, voiced her uncertainty. Despite acknowledging Beach’s propensity for heavy drinking and his reputation as a tempestuous youth prone to fits of rage, she remained incredulous at the notion of his involvement in murder.
The trial unveiled unsavory elements surrounding Beach’s temperament and behavior, while certain discrepancies and irregularities within the investigation, interrogation, and legal proceedings prompted public scrutiny. A law enforcement officer from Poplar, the father of one of the initial suspects, had illicitly entered the evidence room in the aftermath of the murder, resulting in the non-disclosure of pertinent evidence at trial. Moreover, the crime lab analyst who provided testimony against Beach was subsequently dismissed from his post due to professional incompetence, and his prior testimony against two other individuals led to their wrongful convictions, later overturned. Additionally, none of the physical evidence found at the crime scene could be attributed to Beach – fingerprints, handprints, and shoe prints failed to implicate him. Nonetheless, assertions surfaced that the prosecutor had selectively downplayed evidence favoring Beach’s innocence, including discrepancies related to footprints found near the truck, which did not align with the footwear worn by the police.
Furthermore, although the prosecutor asserted that Beach’s confession contained details only the perpetrator would possess, numerous such details – including the description of Nees’ attire, the location of her parked truck, her post-assault condition, and the manipulation of her body towards the river – were subsequently debunked or proven to be common knowledge within Poplar. Curiously, the confession tape had been erased, leaving jurors reliant on a transcript authored by the prosecution.
Even the integrity of the Louisiana investigators who scrutinized Beach was subject to skepticism. The lead investigator bore a history marred by allegations of misconduct, culminating in repeated suspensions without pay, charges of procuring false testimony, and even orders for neurological assessment due to a litany of falsehoods and deceit. Notably, the same detectives who extracted Beach’s confession were embroiled in inquiries involving two other men who later recanted their confessions – coincidentally, those confessions pertained to the Louisiana homicides which initially sparked Beach’s questioning. Additionally, it came to light that the Poplar police had furnished incorrect details of the Nees crime scene to their Louisiana counterparts, subsequently influencing the information relayed to Beach, who unwittingly incorporated these inaccuracies into his confession.
Nevertheless, these complications and concerns failed to alter the irrevocable reality – Beach’s life sentence was a fait accompli.
A Glimmer of Hope for Beach
Then, in the year 2000, a consortium comprising Centurion Ministries, a prisoner advocacy group, and an investigative organization, undertook Beach’s case. Assembling a corpus of evidence, they unearthed elements supporting an alternate theory – one positing Nees’ demise as a consequence of jealousy-fueled conspiracy among a group of peers. Testimonies from the sibling and coworker of a fellow classmate implicated the latter in the crime, asserting that the classmate had confessed her involvement due to envy stemming from Nees’ romantic involvement with the father of her child. Notably, tangible proof connecting the classmate (or two others implicated in the investigation) to the murder remained elusive. These women, though identifiable in certain sources, remain nameless herein for reasons of privacy.
Centurion’s endeavors yielded mixed results. Despite the Montana Board of Pardons and Parole’s rejection of Beach’s clemency appeal in 2007, the case garnered heightened attention. An April 2008 special feature by Dateline thrust the matter into the public eye, culminating in a pivotal development in late November 2009, when the Montana Supreme Court mandated an evidentiary hearing. This culminated in a fresh trial being granted to Beach. During the 2011 proceedings, a new witness emerged, attesting to her childhood observations of the murder – a collective assault perpetrated by a group of girls. Notably, she recounted a police vehicle passing by, halting near Nees’ and the girls’ automobiles, the lights extinguished before ultimately departing. Her silence persisted for over three decades, born of a potent mix of fear and uncertainty. However, even in the face of this new testimony, the Montana Supreme Court, in May 2013, reaffirmed Beach’s murder conviction. Nevertheless, persistence and numerous hearings eventually bore fruit, culminating in Montana Governor Steve Bullock’s decision in November 2015 to commute Beach’s sentence. The decree paved the way for Beach’s release following time served, albeit with an additional ten years of probation.
Consequences and Reflections
Notably, skepticism persists, with some steadfastly holding that the commutation of Beach’s sentence was an error, arguing his culpability in Nees’ death. Fingers of suspicion continue to point towards the trio of girls initially named as suspects. While no definitive forensic matches to these individuals have materialized, witnesses dispute their alibis, asserting that their claims of being home and in bed are mendacious. Testimonies converge on accounts of the girls congregating in a local bar, fomenting discord mere hours prior to the tragedy. A neighbor further attested to witnessing a group of individuals – Nees, accompanied by four females and a solitary male (gender specifications provided in subsequent statements) – within the confines of Nees’ truck around 2:30 a.m. on the fateful morning.
Employees from different workplaces, who were privy to the inner circle of two implicated girls, came forth to share that these now-adult women had confessed their involvement in Nees’ murder, boasting of their successful evasion of justice. However, when confronted by authorities, both individuals vehemently denied any connection to the crime. Moreover, a neighbor of one of the women substantiated her admission of murdering a girl on the reservation, coupled with a threat on his life.
However, in spite of the compelling narratives and lingering questions, there appears to be a dearth of official impetus or plans to reopen the inquiry.
Over four decades have elapsed since the tragic demise of Kimberly Nees, a grim incident that unfolded on the periphery of that diminutive Montana settlement. To this day, more queries than answers prevail. The legal tumult surrounding Barry Beach’s conviction and eventual commutation has, in many respects, overshadowed the memory of the victim herself. Understandably, such developments have engendered frustration and resentment among Nees’ family, friends, and advocates. As tangible evidence remains frozen in temporal stasis, the prospect of justice steadily wanes with each passing year, a grim reminder of the potential decay of truth and retribution in the face of the inexorable march of time. Had fate been kinder, Nees would have celebrated her fifty-ninth year, a stark testament to the fragility of existence, tragically truncated on the cusp of its blossoming.