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Trail To Nowhere 

For decades, the Spencer family sought justice for Judy. But what if they got the wrong man?

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click to enlarge Donald "Doc" Nash. A lead miner, he was 18 years older than his girlfriend, Judy. - COURTESY OF THE MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL
  • COURTESY OF THE MISSOURI ATTORNEY GENERAL
  • Donald "Doc" Nash. A lead miner, he was 18 years older than his girlfriend, Judy.

In a secluded corner of Dent County, at the end of a gravel driveway lined with bull pines, Tim Bell offers his bloodied hand to greet a reporter.

"Sorry about that," he says. It's a bright November morning during deer season. Behind him, a small buck has been shot and lashed to the back of a four-wheeler.

Bell is now a process server and bounty hunter, which explains the revolver strapped to his husky torso. Clad in blue denim overalls, he sits down by a bonfire in his side yard to tell how, as a Dent County Sheriff's deputy, he once felt hot on the trail of Judy Spencer's killer.

Bell joined the department in 1991. Even then, ten years after the crime, Judy's murder was still a hot topic. "That's all everybody talked about there," he recalls.

A new sheriff, Bob Wofford, was elected a year later. He asked Bell and Roger Barr, a county juvenile officer, to poke around in their spare time.

Little came of it at first. Then, in October 1995, Wofford wrote the highway patrol asking that the Violent Crime Support Unit, an elite panel of investigators from around the state, take a fresh look at the case. For several days in January 1996, four investigators huddled in Jefferson City with the file.

The panel realized that the four sets of latent fingerprints lifted from Judy's abandoned car had never been run through AFIS, the relatively new digital print database. When a state technician ran them, one print from the driver's side window matched the right index finger of a certain Lambert Anthony "Tony" Feldman.

"We'd never heard of Feldman," Bell says. "I remember when they printed out his criminal history. I could've held it up like this" — he lifts both fists to his bushy beard — "and it would've drug on the ground."

Feldman, a six-foot-two, 230-pound native of Hannibal, had been arrested in St. Louis for indecent exposure, unlawful use of a weapon and second-degree robbery. He'd also been arrested in Rolla for peeping on two women and first-degree assault.

Most ominously, he had pleaded guilty to assault with intent to commit sexual abuse in Iowa City. According to the police report, he'd shadowed a female college student across a footbridge on November 1, 1988. Creeping up behind her, he lifted her up with one hand under her crotch "as if to carry her off." With the other hand, he groped her breasts, saying "You have nice titties." The victim twisted around to look at Feldman, who then ran off. When police caught up with him minutes later, he said he was in town on business and merely out for a jog. The victim and some witnesses later identified him. He received a one-year jail sentence.

The state panel reviewing the Judy Spencer file concluded that "Mr. Feldman needs to be eliminated as a suspect in this case."

Investigators started tracing his whereabouts. They learned that, in the month Judy was killed, Feldman had been an attendant at the Dishman Mobil gas station in Rolla — about nineteen miles from her abandoned car.

But this triggered another question: Did Feldman, then 23, leave a print on Judy's window simply by helping her at the gas pump?

First, investigators looked at Judy's checkbook. It showed no checks written to Dishman in the month prior to her death. (She often paid for gas with checks; on her last night alive, for example, she filled up her tank in Salem and wrote a $10 check.)

Next, they drove to the Dishman station to see if Feldman worked a shift on the day of the murder. The owner, Don Dishman, checked his records. They didn't go back that far, he said.

Finally, in July 1996, the officers tracked down Feldman in Quincy, Illinois, where he was working at a soybean company. They took him to the police station and interrogated him.

Feldman confessed that "he had done some things in the past that he was not particularly proud of, but he had got his life together." He denied knowing Judy Spencer. He denied ever going to Salem or even Dent County. He denied ever owning a shotgun. (He did admit, though, to drilling a peephole in the wall of the women's restroom at the Dishman station.)

He could not explain his fingerprint on Judy's car. The gas station had been full-service at the time, so one sergeant asked if he might have "shut the door for a good-looking lady." Feldman said it wasn't routine, but he could have smudged the glass as he washed her windshield.

The sergeants had Feldman fill out a written questionnaire about the murder. They reviewed it and concluded it "did not show deception."

Yet Bell still harbored suspicions. He took all his evidence to Dent County's prosecutor, who declined to file charges against Feldman. Bell wasn't pleased, but he now concedes his case was circumstantial.

Bell resigned from his post as chief deputy in 1997 in search of better pay. He took up truck driving. For a whole decade, he seldom thought of Feldman.

Then, on the evening of October 2, 2008, a Quincy policeman found Feldman dead on his couch. He had shot himself in the chest with his own shotgun. (Police determined it wasn't the gun that killed Judy; he'd bought it in 2002.) The window of opportunity to charge Tony Feldman had closed forever.

But the theory of Feldman's guilt didn't die with him. In fact, it gained traction the next year with attorney Frank Carlson.

By that time, Carlson was defending Doc Nash against the murder charge, and learned from his private investigator about the Feldman fingerprint. Carlson thought that if he could shift the jury's suspicion over to Feldman, he could instill reasonable doubt and win a not-guilty verdict.

So Carlson set out to build a case against Feldman. To do that, he had to show Feldman interacted with Judy.

Carlson located a former Salem police dispatcher named Jenny Boxx. She recalled that, in the weeks before the murder, Judy had made several requests for a police escort to her car in the hospital parking lot because she was afraid of someone. Boxx said she recorded these requests in the dispatch log.

(That dispatch log has since been discarded, according to the Salem Police. An RFT analysis of Salem News archives suggests that Boxx, now 75, may be mistaken on her timeline. Four months before Judy's murder, a hospital worker was shot to death by her estranged husband in the lot. Employees had "security concerns" afterward, so the hospital board voted to hire a security guard starting January 1, 1982. Not a single person close to Judy remembers her expressing any fear about a stalker right before her murder.)

Carlson also claimed that three separate witnesses noticed Feldman and Judy drinking together in March 1982 at the popular Tower Inn — one of Judy's favorite hangouts. (Two of these witnesses have passed away; the third could not be reached for comment.)

However, Carlson's strategy never got a chance. Under Missouri's "direct-connection rule," defense lawyers can only point to a different suspect if evidence links that person to the crime. Just before trial, the judge ruled without explanation that the Feldman fingerprint was not directly connected to Judy's murder — even though it had been discovered on her car.

The direct-connection rule has its merits. Without it, the defense could recklessly point the finger at any third party, which might confuse the jury. But that's not what's happening here, Nash's new lawyers insist. Yes, Judy's car was seventeen miles from where her body was found — but they believe it's part of the crime scene. Even the prosecutor himself had claimed at trial that Nash ran the vehicle off the road before killing her.

The Bryan Cave attorneys argue that the judge's exclusion of the Feldman fingerprint "gutted" Nash's defense, and unfairly denied his right to a fair trial.

Former deputy Bell agrees. He signed an affidavit in support of Nash's innocence in September 2012, during an unsuccessful campaign for Dent County Sheriff.

"My personal opinion is that this investigation was shoddy from the start," Bell says. "They looked at Doc, the boyfriend, and they got tunnel vision and turned a blind eye to everyone else."

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