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, thedeckpodcast.com. 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 thedeckpodcast.com.
So what do you think, Chuck? Do you approve?