Suspect Named in 1973 Cold Case Killing of Young Montana Couple After Police Use Genealogy Website
Linda and Clifford Bernhardt were found strangled in their Billings home on Nov. 7, 1973.
The summer of 1969 was a joyous one for the loved ones of Clifford Bernhardt and Linda Reich.
Clifford’s family filled one side of pews, while Linda’s occupied the other to watch the childhood sweethearts wed at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Billings, Montana on June, 7, 1969.
Theirs was a marriage filled with love and hard work, those who knew them would later say.
He was a Vietnam veteran who was awarded a Purple Heart for his service and worked in concrete after being discharged in 1971. She was an aspiring teacher who worked at a grocery distribution warehouse and often joined her husband to work a second job at nights cleaning carpets.
They wanted children and spent their scant free time building up their home as they planned for their future.
But an act of unthinkable violence would bring their respective families together again to fill the pews at Pilgrim Congregational Church in November 1973. This time, it would be for a joint funeral.
Both Linda and Clifford were just 24 years old when they were found dead in their home in a case that would remain unsolved for more than four decades. But on Monday, investigators announced a public genealogy database had helped them identify a now-deceased suspect whom they believe to be behind the gruesome killings.
On Nov. 7, 1973, Linda’s mother forced herself into the couple’s Billings-area home after they failed to show up for a work project the night before. There, she found Clifford face-down in a pool of blood in the master bedroom. He had suffered a severe wound to the head, but an autopsy showed he died from being strangled, authorities said.
Linda’s body was found in another bedroom. She too was face-down and had been strangled. She had also been sexually assaulted, police said.
Investigators determined the couple had been bound at the wrists and ankles at some point, and items missing from the house included a large green suitcase, all of Linda’s underwear and some pairs of her shoes.
No motive was determined and the home showed no signs of a break-in, officials said. Police believed it possible that the victims knew their killer, as there were signs they had someone over for dinner before they were murdered, Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said in 2014.
Linda’s sister, Kelly Reich, spoke of the toll the killings had on her family, most of whom left Billings after the murders.
“It changes your whole life,” Reich tearfully said in 2014. “Until that happens to somebody, you don’t really understand it.
The case went cold, but investigators continued to search for answers.
“We were obsessed with it,” Scott Goodwin, a volunteer with the cold case unit, said of the quest to find the person responsible for the Bernhardt killings. “These are two young people who didn’t deserve what happened to them. They didn’t do anything. They came home on a Tuesday night and they were murdered.”
A much-needed break came in 2004, when DNA was discovered on evidence gathered at the crime scene. The DNA helped eliminate 80 possible suspects, but it yielded no matches against an FBI database of known criminals, either.
Then in 2015, the sheriff’s cold case unit tapped Parabon NanoLabs, the DNA technology company whose breakthroughs in genetic analysis have helped law enforcement agencies make arrests and identify suspects in decades-old unsolved murders.
Parabon NanoLabs was able to produce a composite sketch with the suspect’s skin, hair and eye color, as well as comb through GEDmatch, a public genetic genealogy database, for any possible relatives of the suspect.
That process led to Cecil Stan Caldwell, who worked for the city of Billings and was once Linda’s co-worker, Sheriff Linder said. Caldwell died in 2003 at the age of 59, his obituary in the Billings Gazette said. He had no criminal history.
Investigators were able to eliminate all of Caldwell’s living relatives as possible suspects, and there was additional “behavior” that matched Caldwell to the profile of the killer, officials said. They declined to specify what behavior they were referring to.
Though authorities would not speculate on a possible motive in the killings, they did say they believed Linda was the target of the attack.
“There's a lot of theories as to why and how, and I don't think we're ever going to know the answers,” said retired Yellowstone County detective captain Vince Wallis.
The families of Linda and Clifford asked for privacy as the update into the case was shared, but they attended the press conference and issued a joint statement thanking the Yellowstone County Cold Case Unit for their perseverance in solving the couple’s murders.
“Nobody deserves to have that happen,” Reich said. “Nobody deserves to go through that for whatever reason. They were just good kids. Young, starting their life out, they had a future ahead of them. And for whatever reason, tragedy strikes.”
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