BENTON COUNTY, Ark. (KNWA/KFTA) — The Benton County Sheriff’s Office held a media conference to announce that it has identified victims in multiple homicide cold cases in the county.
Benton County Sheriff Shawn Holloway began the event on October 25 by stating that the update would cover three different victims in a trio of unrelated cases that occurred in 1981, 1990 and 1996. Before getting into details, he thanked the Benton County prosecutor’s office, the Arkansas Crime Lab and the Benton County Criminal Investigations Division (CID). He gave special mention to Lt. Hunter Petray for working on these particular cases.
The Sheriff noted that developments in the investigations were aided by the progression of using DNA evidence over the years, including a method used to identify a victim’s potential family member.
“With that, we were able to identify who these individuals are. Finally. After all these years,” he added. “Hopefully we’ll be able to give some closure to the family members.”
The DNA technology used in these three cases is called forensic grade genome sequencing. It was conducted by Othram, Inc. According to Dr. Kristen Mittelman, the Chief Development Officer for Othram, Inc., the DNA testing they do goes above and beyond the traditional 20 marker DNA testing.
“We look at hundreds and hundreds of thousands of markers on the genome instead of the 20. We’re able to upload this profile to genealogical databases consented for law enforcement use and then we’re able to catch fourth, fifth cousins, and third cousins—all these matches,” said Mittelman.
From there, scientists can match distant relatives to that DNA profile, whether it’s a victim or suspect.
“We’re able to figure out where this person that left DNA at the crime scene belongs on that tree,” said Mittelman.
Fred James Grow, 33, 1981
He continued by providing information about the first case, a homicide in the area of Garfield from 1981. After an initial investigation by the Benton County Sheriff’s Office, the case went cold and the victim remained unidentified for years.
On June 24, 2009, a case entry was created in the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Database (NAMUS). Lt. Petray began a case review in 2016, resubmitting evidence collected at the crime scene to the Arkansas Crime Lab. Attempts to obtain the victim’s DNA profile remained unsuccessful.
In 2019, Lt. Petray, with assistance from Benton County Coroner Daniel Oxford, determined that the victim had been buried in an unmarked grave at Bentonville Cemetery. In May of that year, Lt. Petray inquired about the possibility of using genealogy in cold cases and was advised that the state lab couldn’t do so, but a private lab might be able to help.
The investigator requested an order to exhume the grave of the victim from the Benton County Prosecutor’s Office and received one from a Circuit Court judge in October, 2019. This time, the state Crime Lab was able to obtain a partial DNA profile.
In April 2021, the lab sent testable portions of the remains to Othram, a private lab in Texas that specializes in, “the analysis of DNA from trace amounts of degraded or contaminated materials,” according to a report from the Sheriff’s office.
That private facility developed a victim DNA profile in March. Genetic genealogy was then used in the hopes of finding a relative.
In July, a “close familial match” was identified, along with a possible identity of the victim. Lt. Petray contacted that relative in August, confirming that the family had a missing relative. The DNA profile developed from the victim was compared to the relative and was a match.
After 41 years, the Sheriff’s Office was able to announce that the victim in that case was Fred James Grow, 33, who had been living and working in Fayetteville. On June 3, 1981, he left on a planned trip that would have taken him to Kansas City, Wichita and then Colorado to see family. Grow never arrived at any of those destinations.
Lt. Petray’s investigation determined that Grow was approached by two females seeking a ride to Oregon and that he offered to take them as far as the Kansas City area, according to witnesses. The two women were living at the Sassafras and Rainbow Communes in Newton County before coming to Fayetteville.
Witnesses saw the two females load their belongings into Grow’s 1965 Ford Econoline Camper Van. The Sheriff’s office stated that the investigation into Grow’s death continues.
Donna Sue Nelton, 28, 1990
The second case involved the homicide of an unknown female whose remains were discovered in a remote area of Maysville in May 1990. On January 6, 1995, it was determined that a facial reconstruction from the skull in this case would not be a possibility due to extensive damage.
Evidence was submitted to the Arkansas Crime Lab in February 1995, but the victim could not be identified. Additional material submitted in December of that year was also unsuccessful in doing so.
The victim’s remains were sent to the University of North Texas in October 2008 in an attempt to develop a DNA profile. A mitochondrial DNA profile was made and submitted to NAMUS in December 2008.
Lt. Petray began a case review on November 18, 2017, to determine the best options for identifying the victim. Dental records were compared against those of “numerous other known missing individuals” with no success.
In March 2021, Lt. Petray and Captain Thomas See met with Othram, which ultimately developed a DNA profile of the victim. A distant relative was identified through genetic genealogy.
On August 13 of this year, the lieutenant contacted the relative, who was unaware of any missing immediate family member. However, a family history, including the names of close relatives, was provided to investigators.
Two weeks later, Lt. Petray used that information to locate a relative that confirmed having a missing family member. DNA was collected and used to confirm a genetic match with the victim.
The Sheriff’s Office announced that Donna Sue Nelton, 28, was the victim in this case, 32 years after her remains were found. Further investigation revealed that she had last been seen in the fall of 1989.
At that time, federal authorities had been investigating her boyfriend, George Alvin Bruton, for “various offenses.” He had spent time on the FBI Most Wanted list for three months in 1979 after taking two families hostage and wounding a pair of officers in Utah.
Bruton was also implicated in several murders in the Kansas City area and had “numerous convictions” for bank robbery, burglary and auto theft. In 1980, he was wounded in a shootout in Fort Smith and captured.
After being paroled from prison in 1988, Bruton again came under investigation in July 1989 for numerous crimes. In September 1989, Bruton and another associate were seen disposing of black trash bags in a dumpster in North Kansas City.
FBI Agents retrieved these bags and located “a large amount of Donna Sue’s personal effects.” Her vehicle was later located inside a storage unit used by Bruton.
On April 6, 1990, Bruton was arrested on parole violation and indicted on drug charges after being identified as the alleged leader of a multistate drug ring. In July 1990, a source informed a Federal Agent that Bruton had mentioned killing a female named “Donna” over threats to expose his drug and theft operations.
Nelton’s remains were reported to be on land owned by Bruton in Ozark County, Missouri. Federal Agents executed a search warrant on the land, but after four days, agents were unable to locate any evidence. Bruton was eventually sentenced to life in prison on drug-related offenses.
According to family, both Bruton and Nelton were known to pass through Benton County on occasion. They were also known to visit an RV park, known as the Pine Island Resort, located in Jay, OK.
Bruton died in Federal prison in 2008. Given all of this new information, the Benton County Sheriff’s Office considers the case closed.
John Douglas Rollins Jr., 31, 1996
The third homicide involved a man’s remains found near Beaver Lake in October 1996. Nine days later, members of the University of Arkansas Department of Anthropology performed an autopsy in an attempt to determine the victim’s age.
A facial reconstruction was completed in 1998 and a composite rendering of the victim was released. Over a decade later, testable remains were sent to the same private lab in Texas, which developed a mitochondrial DNA profile.
A subsequent case entry was filed in NAMUS in December 2008. Lt. Petray began a case review in 2016, again comparing dental records against those of people known to be missing.
This was unsuccessful. Petray and See met with the Texas private lab in 2021 and a relative was identified. This person could not narrow down the search and was unaware of any missing family members.
In September, the lab found “a potential lead” in the form of someone living in the Springdale area. That person’s son had been listed as deceased in an obituary, but no social security death index record could be found.
Investigators made contact with the relative, who disclosed that his son had been missing “since the mid-1990s,” but no police report had ever been filed. Other information relayed during that interview led Lt. Petray to believe that the missing son could be the unidentified victim.
A DNA sample collected indicated a genetic match between the two people. The Sheriff’s Office identified the victim as John Douglas Rollins Jr., 31. Further investigation found that he was last seen by family members in 1995.
The homicide investigation into Rollins’ death continues. If anyone has any relevant information about any of these three cases, they are asked to contact Lt. Hunter Petray at firstname.lastname@example.org or to call the Benton County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division at 479-271-1009.