The Deck - Donna Lemon (7 of Spades, Idaho)

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Our card this week is Donna Lemon, the Seven of Spades from Idaho. Donna was a young woman

working as a nurse and had a hopeful future, but her life was cut far too short. And her

death has been clouded in mystery for almost 50 years. But all of that could change very

soon. I’m Ashley Flowers, and this is The Deck.

On July 5th, 1973, in a beautiful area of Montana known as Gallatin Canyon, Sherry Pierce

was at her house waiting for her friend Donna to come over. Sherry lived about 45 minutes

southwest of a town called Bozeman. Nowadays, this region is a popular tourist attraction

because of the Big Sky Ski Resort. But back in 1973, the resort was just being built,

and a lot of the mountainous area was undisturbed. This particular week was the 4th of July,

and Sherry and Donna had made plans to go horseback riding at 4 o’clock in the afternoon,

something they did for fun all the time. Well, 4 o’clock came and went, and Sherry noticed

that Donna was late. After a few more minutes of waiting around, Sherry called Donna’s

parents’ house, which was only about 5 miles up the road. Now, Donna didn’t live

with her parents, she was 20 years old and worked as a full-time nurse at the Bozeman

Health Deaconess Hospital and had her own place. But Sherry figured because it was a

holiday week and Donna would have been going right past her family’s house in order to

get to Sherry’s, maybe Donna had stopped in to see her parents. Unfortunately, no one

answered at Donna’s parents’ house, so Sherry waited a few more minutes before she

jumped in her car and drove around the canyon to look for her friend. Sherry did that for

about an hour and a half before eventually returning home and calling Donna’s house

again, this time around 6 o’clock. During that second phone call, Donna’s parents,

George and Clara Lou picked up, but they told Sherry that Donna hadn’t been by all day

and they hadn’t seen her, which struck Sherry as odd. If Donna didn’t go to her parents'

house and hadn’t called to cancel with her, then where was she? This was super unlike


So Sherry, along with Donna’s parents, joined efforts and decided to retrace the

roads of Gallatin Valley to look for Donna or any sign of the 1969 green Mustang she

drove. But the longer they kept driving, the more worried they got. It was starting to

get dark and they had not seen any sign of Donna or her car. They retreated back to the

Lemons’ house and started calling around to see if any of Donna’s other friends or

maybe co-workers had seen her. Detective Mike Hammer, who’s working the case today, told

us that even though family and friends were worried about Donna at this point, they were

not in a full-blown panic mode yet. They tried to stay calm and come up with reasonable explanations

as to why Donna had not called.

It’s the 70s, so communication’s a little slow. There were some assumptions, maybe she,

you know, somewhere else with other friends, other family members. So there was a lot of

that, well, let’s wait and see if she shows up type mentality.

But by the next morning, Friday, July 6th, when there was still no word from Donna, her

dad George went to the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office to officially report his daughter missing.

As is common in a lot of missing person cases, law enforcement at first didn’t suspect the

worst case scenario. Back then, Gallatin County was not known for murder or any serious violent

crime. So detectives took George’s report and said, you know, we’ll look into it. But

since it was the 4th of July holiday, they figured Donna was just out and about, maybe

with a boyfriend or something and just hadn’t contacted her family because she was busy.

But that’s not how the Lemon family felt though. Donna’s little sister Verna told

the Montana Press Monthly, quote, we knew something was wrong. Though the protocol of

law enforcement for someone Donna’s age was that she probably had a fight with her

boyfriend or that she had run off with a boyfriend, not to deal with it right away, end quote.

Donna’s family insisted she would never take off without notice. And moreover, she

didn’t have a serious boyfriend at the time. I mean, sure, she’d gone on dates with a

few guys here and there in those last few months, but no one that she would run away

with. Donna enjoyed spending a lot of her free time with her family, and she was especially

close with her dad. He’d raised his girls to love the outdoors and they did a lot of

activities together. Donna would go hunting, rock climbing and backcountry skiing with

her dad and siblings. And even though she’d moved out of the family home, she usually

stopped by a couple of times a week. So by the afternoon of July 6th, when she’d been

missing for a full 24 hours, Gallatin County authorities agreed to help kickstart a more

formal search. They put out an all points bulletin for the Mustang and scrounged together

some deputies and community volunteers to search nearby woods and canyons for her. Almost

everybody in that immediate area was looking for her. With the search underway, police

began investigating and trying to figure out who the last person was to see Donna. They

tried to piece together a rough timeline of her week leading up to that point, but that

proved challenging because you see, Donna had not been in her usual routine that week.

She was in the process of moving to a new apartment. Sherry told police that she’d

been with Donna on July 3rd and the 4th in the nearby town of Ennis, Montana. They had

gone to a rodeo together and everything seemed totally fine with Donna then. She said Donna

was having a good time with friends and didn’t appear to be down or in distress about anything.

On the morning of July 5th, just a few hours before Donna was supposed to meet up with

Sherry, she got together with her sister, Verna, at a restaurant called the Corral Bar

and they had an early lunch together. Verna said that she and Donna ordered hamburgers

and bottles of Coke and the whole time that they were there, nothing was out of the ordinary.

So the next place police turned to for clues and to pin down Donna’s timeline was the

hospital where she worked. Deputies confirmed with staff there that Donna swung by around

1 o’clock on July 5th to pick up her paycheck. And after that, her financial records show

that she went straight to the bank to deposit the check and made a cash withdrawal. Detective

Hammer said that the case reports indicate that Donna deposited $200 and got out about

$116 in cash. The next confirmed sighting of Donna was shortly after she left the bank.

Her cousin, a teenage girl named Patricia, ran into Donna at a boutique in town. Patricia

told police that Donna mentioned she’d been looking for a new shirt or dress to wear to

a family reunion that was scheduled for the upcoming weekend. And then after that, the

last confirmed sighting of Donna on July 5th was at a place in town called Stacy’s

Old Faithful Bar.

The lady that works at the bar saw her come in somewhere between 2.30 and 4 o’clock,

come in and purchase a beer. She spent about five minutes in the bar, paid for it with

a dollar bill. She got changed, seemed pleasant, and then walked out. So talking to her friends,

it’s not abnormal. It’s not a regular thing that she buys beer. It was a normal, fairly

common thing. She would a lot of times take the beer and then drink them, you know, stop

by the river and watch it according to a friend, you know, watch the river and smoke cigarettes

and drink a beer.

The bartender told police that Donna seemed fine when she came in. She just bought that

one can of beer and then left. There was one local woman who came forward and told police

that she thought she saw Donna’s car leaving Stacy’s Bar and heading east toward the highway

right before 4 p.m. The way this witness described Donna driving would have meant that she was

definitely headed in the direction that she would have needed to be in in order to meet

Sherry at her house for horseback riding. Detective Hammer has said that the case file

doesn’t indicate that the witness mentioned anything about seeing another person in the

car with Donna. On top of that, this woman’s memory sort of ebbed and flowed. And today,

law enforcement can’t 100% confirm that sighting of Donna. Either way, Donna’s family

reunion that weekend came and went, and there was still no sign of her or her car.

Volunteers and deputies searched for the Mustang in all the obvious places. Her old apartment

that she shared with a friend, her new apartment that she was moving into, her parents’ house,

the hospital, and various other businesses in and around the county, but it never showed

up. Deputies did all they could to learn as much as possible about Donna and what her

life was like, particularly right before she went missing. And obviously, they looked into

why she was making that move to a new apartment. And it turns out it was just because that

friend that she was living with was about to get married. Donna had decided to get her

own place, which was actually closer to Bozeman where she worked. She’d planned to continue

nursing school and get her advanced nursing degree to set her up for a long career in

health care. So police pretty much ruled out any scenario where Donna and her old roommate,

or really anyone for that matter, had gotten into a fight or there had been any bad blood

that would have led to Donna moving out. It was just time for Donna to make room for her

roommate’s fiance and to get a place of her own. Police carefully searched her old apartment,

her new rental unit, and her parents’ house for any clues, but all of their efforts came

up empty. The most glaring piece of information they learned from their searches was that

it was obvious Donna had left personal belongings behind at both her old place and her new one,

which meant it was highly unlikely she’d just gone out of town or ran away with someone.

As Montana police were stitching together Donna’s timeline and making these observations at her

apartments, the case took a dark turn. An Idaho police officer, hundreds of miles away from

Gallatin, made a discovery that turned everything upside down. On the night of July 7th, just a few

days after Donna vanished from Gallatin County, Montana, an Idaho Falls, Idaho police officer

named Dennis Tremaine was working the night shift. Around 10 o’clock he was patrolling not

far from the city’s police department in the heart of downtown when he noticed a car parked

on the side of one of the main streets. He made a mental note of the car because it was parked in

kind of a weird spot so late at night, but he decided to just leave it alone. But the next night,

July 8th, the officer saw the Mustang again, still parked in the exact same spot, and it looked like

it hadn’t been moved at all. So a Idaho Falls policeman actually stopped, looked at it, did a

check, noticed that the car was unlocked, noticed the keys were in it, actually put the keys in the

glove box for safety. Do we know why he stopped to check it out? Did someone report it as like

abandoned? No, it was just it’s just in a parking lot. It was late at night and that’s a, you know,

standard operation for police to kind of just check on those vehicles. The car was just the

first discovery. The next night, another discovery was made that confirmed everyone’s worst fears about Donna.

The evening of July 9th, a man walking his dog on a dirt path in downtown Idaho Falls stopped when he saw something odd in the brush. There, laying under some trees, in a pool of blood, was a woman’s body. Immediately, this man called 9-1-1 and reported what he’d found.

The body was clothed. It was hidden under some bushes. She was laying on her back. She had a

stab wound in her side and her throat. It was slashed. Idaho Falls police responded to the scene, and Officer

Tremaine immediately wondered if this woman had any connection to the abandoned Mustang that he’d

seen the two previous nights. He told the detectives working the homicide about spotting the car,

and they went to run the license plates. And ding, ding, ding. That’s when they saw that

bulletin that was out for the car from Montana in relation to Donna Lemon. When they saw a photo of

Donna, there was no doubt in their minds, particularly because of the distinct eyeglasses

on top of the victim’s head that were the same as the thick framed ones that Donna was always known

to wear. They had found her, and eventually, dental records confirmed their suspicions.

Idaho Falls investigators took a closer look at the Mustang, and something that wasn’t obvious

to Officer Tremaine before became clear as day. There was blood in the car. Small amounts, not,

you know, large amounts. There’s some on the driver’s side door, and there’s some inside

by the gearshift knob. So it wasn’t noticeable to the Idaho Falls police officer? He did not

notice it. It was dark, and he wasn’t, you know, particularly looking for it. Once they found the

body and kind of put it together, they went back there and then noticed it was, you know,

it was evident that it was there. Just wasn’t looking for it. And was that her blood? That’s

one of the questions we’re still trying to answer. A bloody palm print was near the inside

of the driver’s side door. Also inside was the insole of one of Donna’s shoes,

which told detectives that she might have tried to get away from her killer, either by

running or fighting. Technology in the 70s wasn’t as advanced as it is now, so the only testing that

authorities could do on the blood was typing, which isn’t super detailed, but at the time,

it was better than nothing. If they could figure out the blood type, they could compare that to

Donna, and if it didn’t belong to her, then it could have come from her killer. Police took

samples as they processed the car and lifted fingerprints, particularly the palm prints,

as best they could. Then Idaho police officially linked up with the Gallatin County investigators

in Montana, and they all got started on a homicide investigation. But the jurisdictional waters got

kind of muddied at this point, because neither agency could prove which state Donna had actually

been killed in. They just knew that her body was left in Idaho, and whoever her killer had been

had fled from downtown Idaho Falls, leaving her and her car behind.

Looking through the case file, Detective Hammer has come up with a theory that he thinks could

explain how the killer got away. He says that it’s possible that whoever was responsible for

the crime likely walked to a nearby Greyhound bus station in Idaho Falls after ditching Donna

and her car. You see, the Mustang was parked just a few blocks away from the bus depot, so that may

be one way that he skipped town pretty much undetected. On the other hand, he said it would

also not surprise him if the killer hitchhiked. A lot of people did that in the 70s. Because Idaho

Falls is near a major highway, it wouldn’t take long for someone to get out of sight and out of

mind within minutes if they got picked up. No matter how the suspect got away, what’s important is that

he left some evidence behind. Detectives dug for days to find some sort of connection between Donna

and Idaho Falls, but they couldn’t find anything. That family reunion I mentioned earlier that Donna

was supposed to go to the weekend after she vanished was in Idaho, but in Moscow, Idaho,

which is a completely different part of the state, like eight hours away from Idaho Falls.

So if Donna had no reason to be there, detectives had to wonder if maybe Donna’s killer had some

connection to Idaho Falls. But who that was, who would want to kill Donna in such a brutal way,

was still a mystery. As the investigation continued, detectives started evaluating

critical clues that would help them establish a possible motive for murder. Notably, nowhere

around Donna’s body or in her car did police find her purse. But remember, Montana investigators knew

that Donna had deposited her paycheck and withdrawn cash on July 5th. Now, they assumed she could have

spent some of that $116 while running errands before she vanished, and that bar where she was

seen before she disappeared. So they figured that by the time all of her shopping was done, Donna

couldn’t have had a ton of cash on her, maybe like a hundred bucks or less. But here’s the catch with that.

Investigators also knew that when Donna was found, she was still wearing a watch and earrings.

So if robbery was the motive, why didn’t the killer take her jewelry and her car?

Authorities also couldn’t rule out that Donna’s murder was sexually motivated. The position in

which they had found Donna’s body made police suspect that robbery was likely secondary to

some sort of sexual component. Detective Hammer said that Donna’s legs were spread apart in a way

that was unnatural, like they were forced apart, not like she just fell down. But like Detective

Hammer said before, she was fully clothed except for one of her missing shoes. Unfortunately, back

in 1973, the only way to check to see if a victim had been sexually assaulted was by running a test

that checked for a body’s level of acid phosphate enzymes. They didn’t have the traditional tests

that we have today. One of Detective Hammer’s colleagues at the Bonneville County Sheriff’s

Office said this proved to be another challenge. She’s badly decomposed and this even happens to

this day. You have a body that’s decomposing. One of the issues is one of the enzymes you’re looking for

for sexual assault matches your decomposition enzymes. When the test results for the enzymes

that would indicate sexual assault came back, they were highly positive. But as far as what

caused the enzyme results, that was inconclusive. Without a definitive motive and more than 200 miles

between where Donna was found and where she was last seen, police had to start weeding through a

massive pool of tips and potential suspects. First, there was the obvious question. Did Donna have an

ex-boyfriend or one of the guys she was maybe currently seeing who would want to hurt her?

We know she’s dated a little bit so she had several people that she had dated and so I don’t

know if she had a steady boyfriend. Young men Donna had dated or had been seen with as recent as the

day before she died were all questioned, but all of them provided good enough alibis to investigators.

The rest of the year, police explored every possible theory and interviewed dozens of witnesses,

friends, family members, and people they thought could be persons of interest. But nothing panned

out. At one point, they even rigged up a giant magnet to a boat and dragged the Snake River to

see if they could find the murder weapon, assuming it was tossed into the water. But no knife surfaced.

And then, in 1974, to everyone’s surprise, police made an announcement that someone was under arrest.

On January 24th, 1974, authorities who’d been investigating Donna Lemon’s murder announced

that they had taken a man into custody for the crime. The guy’s name was Charles Hembree,

and back in July of 1973, he was a transient worker who’d been camping in Gallatin County,

near where Donna lived. On the same day, Donna vanished. Police determined that for most of

1973, Charles had been hitchhiking his way back around the West. By the time they learned about

him, he was all the way in Nebraska. Detective Hammer said police found him because he had left

a tent, clothes, and food behind in Montana. Now, anyone could argue that Charles camping in the

same area at the same time Donna’s abduction and murder occurred could just be a coincidence. But

it’s what Charles had in his tent and in his pockets that convinced police in Montana they

had their guy. Charles had two receipts from Idaho Falls, Idaho that were time stamped for

the exact week that Donna was found murdered. So, was it a coincidence that Charles was camping in

the same area Donna went missing and Idaho Falls when her body was found? Maybe. Maybe not.

Detective Hammer said that Charles was known to carry a knife and a pistol, which he claimed

were for hunting. But interestingly, he also had women’s clothing in his tent. But out of all of

that, the main reason police took Charles into custody was because of a map and a disturbing

picture he had on him that they felt was super incriminating.

On the map, Charles had drawn an X where he left his tent in Gallatin County. He also marked another

X nearby, which made police wonder if that’s where he killed Donna because on the back of this map

there was a drawing of a woman with her head cut off. With that information, Gallatin County

officials made sure that Charles was held in a Nebraska jail cell until they could get over to

interview him. When they got there, Charles agreed to take a polygraph test, but it’s not known if

that test was ever completed. If it was, the results weren’t published in any newspapers in 1974,

and the law enforcement agencies we interviewed for this episode don’t have record of it.

What’s wild is that not long after his arrest, charges against Charles were abruptly dismissed

because he was able to prove where he was on the day police believed Donna was killed,

and it wasn’t Idaho Falls.

Charles said that he was driving cattle for a Montana rancher that week,

and his bosses confirmed he was near Billings, Montana on the day Donna was likely killed.

Not just that, but receipts from a tire change on the opposite side of Montana

also confirmed Charles was nowhere near Donna the day she vanished.

And as far as the women’s clothing goes, well, Charles said that he was a crossdresser,

and that apparently checks out too. But what about the drawing of a decapitated woman?

Well, Charles admitted that he had some issues, but being creepy didn’t make him a killer.

Not to mention, police were never able to prove a clear motive he would have had to kill Donna.

Detective Hammer also told our team that two knives found in the tent Charles left in Montana

were determined not to be the murder weapons. After that blunder,

Donna’s case went cold, and stayed cold for the last 49 years.

Detectives have examined between seven and ten solid potential suspects,

all of whom are men who knew Donna or could have known her in passing.

But the investigation really ramped up just last year, when the Bonneville County Sheriff’s

Office, where Detective Hammer is heading up the investigation,

sent some old DNA evidence in for additional testing.

The samples are still with the lab, but depending on what the science shows,

this could break the case wide open. Maybe the killer, like Donna’s car,

has been hiding in plain sight all these decades. Maybe whoever did this is from Montana or Idaho

and still lives there. If they were the same age as Donna was in 1973, they’d be in their

late 60s or early 70s today. Detective Hammer has this whiteboard up in his office that is

dedicated to Donna’s case. He has scans of fingerprints taped up, maps with key locations

highlighted, and a diagram of the spot where Donna’s body was found. When our reporter Emily

was there for this interview, Detective Hammer and his boss flipped through a binder about 10

inches thick, and they pondered the possibilities. If you’ve ever driven from Bozeman to here,

there’s many, many places, and better places in my mind, you’re going to commit a sexual assault

or burglary and dump a body. Between here and there, she would never have been found. So why there?

He’s got a point. The Snake River is a long, winding, and massive tributary in the mountains.

So their big question was, why did the killer leave Donna’s body on the banks of that river?

Because if you wanted to get rid of a body, the Snake River would do it for you.

Leaving the car with blood in it and Donna in an area where she was definitely going to be found,

less than a mile from her car, makes investigators wonder if Donna’s killer almost

wanted to leave clues behind. Detective Hammer and his colleagues are left to think about all

of these questions as they continue to comb through old interviews and evidence while they

wait for the DNA test results to come back. One piece of evidence Detective Hammer really wishes

they still had is Donna’s 1969 Mustang. Back in the 70s, detectives gave the car back to the

Lemon family after it was fully processed, and then the Lemon family sold the car to someone

in Arizona. Detective Hammer says that it would be extremely helpful to re-examine that car today.

During all these years of investigation, and even that debacle with Charles Hembree,

police have never been able to truly rule out a stranger abduction and murder theory.

You see, in the summer of 1973 in Gallatin County, there were a lot of transient men working in

construction who were building that big Sky Ski Resort or working for the State Highway Department.

In essence, there were tons of potential Charles Hembree’s out there.

You had people doing construction for the ski resorts, you had the roads that were being built,

and a lot of the infrastructure that you see now in that Gallatin Valley was being built up then.

Just based on what he told us, Detective Hammer is less inclined to accept a random serial killer

situation. Law enforcement believes Donna knew her killer. Even her family agrees with that theory.

The reason being Donna’s personality. Donna’s parents and friends said she was not the type

of person to pick up random hitchhikers. Though on the other hand, it might not have been out of

her character for her to stop and help someone who looked like they were broken down on the side

of the road or in need. But if she had done this, Donna’s friends and family suspect that she would

have only done this for someone familiar to her. She would not have just stopped for a perfect

stranger if she was driving alone. Here’s victim advocate and founder of the East Idaho Cold Cases

organization, Crystal Douglas, to explain a little more about Donna.

She was shy. She was helpful. She didn’t engage in drama or gossip. She wasn’t one of those type

of girls. She was a very close friend. She was a nurse, so she had a natural helping personality.

Just a kind of a down-home country girl is how people have described her, not an enemy

in the world. Just a nice girl from the gateway area. George and Clara Lou Lemon have passed away,

but Donna’s sister, Verna, is still living. Crystal has interviewed her and lots of Donna’s

other friends who were around back in 1973. Crystal has spent an extensive amount of time

learning about this case and even visited Gallatin County to document the key locations.

You can see her photos along with photos of Donna’s car and old crime scene photos on our

website, So knowing all she does about the case, Crystal agrees with the

Lemon family’s theory that Donna could have stopped on her way to meet Sherry to help someone

in need if she recognized them. My theory is that driving down Mill Street as she left Stacy’s bar,

I think it’s possible somebody maybe flagged her down or said hello and she pulled over to

say hello, hey can I get a ride? And that person was maybe drunk or high, violent,

maybe just an acquaintance or a friend or a brother of somebody maybe. And she didn’t think

twice, sure I’ll give you a ride down the road and there’s where it happened. I’ve always said

it was too thoughtful of a crime, why not run a car in the river, hide evidence, why not throw the

key in the river, why not use it for a few days and go have, you know, crazy fun down in Salt Lake,

it doesn’t make sense. Everyone, including law enforcement, has always agreed that Donna most

likely didn’t see her attack coming and that whoever intercepted her on her way to go riding

with Sherry took control of Donna immediately. She was petite, it would have been easy to do,

she was like 110 pounds. They could have got her to do anything based on fear,

they could have verbally or with a weapon intimidated her to keep driving and nobody

would have thought twice seeing a couple in a car. Telling you about Donna’s case for this episode

just reminds me that there is no time like the present to bring justice to a victim like Donna

Lemon. For almost 50 years her killer has gone unnamed and it is time we try and change that.

So listeners, I know this is a long shot but if you think you have her old Mustang or

know someone who has that car, contact Detective Mike Hammer at the Bonneville County Sheriff’s

Office in Idaho Falls, Idaho. And if you or anyone you know has information about Donna Lemon’s

murder, please come forward and try and help solve one of Idaho’s oldest cold cases. All

information can be useful, even if you just think you have ways to help detectives fill in the

timeline of the last moments of Donna’s life between July 5th and July 9th, 1973. You’re

encouraged to call the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office at 208-529-1200.

The Deck is an AudioChuck production with theme music by Ryan Lewis.

To learn more about The Deck and our advocacy work, visit

So what do you think, Chuck? Do you approve?