• Montana Press

Two Decades Later: Jennifer Servo Case Still Unresolved

Updated: Feb 17

The daughter of Norm Olson and Sherry Servo of Columbia Falls, Jennifer Lynn Olson was caring, artistic, loving, and studious.

Jennifer Juniper, lilacs in her hair

Is she dreaming? Yes, I think so

Is she pretty? Yes, ever so


Born September 23, 1979, Jennifer was named after a fanciful love song by Scottish singer Donovan, and she brought love into the lives of those around her.

She grew up in a quiet, even idyllic, neighborhood in Columbia Falls near Glacier Park. Like many other children, she adored Dr. Seuss and liked the rhyme and banter of Theodore Geisel’s wordplay. While her childhood friends propped snowmen in their front yards, her father Norman Olson tells stories of Jennifer crafting snow mice or another non-traditional sculpture. In the summertime, she dressed up like a clown and went for a bike ride, or climbed a tree while singing “Yellow Submarine” with impish glee.


“We never let her cry herself to sleep,” says Norman Olson. “I’d walk down the hallway, open the door, and those big blue eyes would be staring back at me.”


There were several family vacations, including one trip to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, where Jennifer was fascinated by the T-Rex replica as long as a school bus. Norm Olson recalled how Jennifer could always bring a smile to his face, no matter how tense the situation. One example he likes to share is a from family vacation in Honolulu, when he and Jennifer had to ride a transit bus to a far-off terminal for a flight to another island.


“The bus driver, who barked orders like a drill sergeant, was obviously irritated from the unscheduled overtime due to our late-arriving flight. And Jennifer was not feeling well from airsickness of the long flight from Los Angeles. As we sat where the gruff driver directed us, I thought Jennifer was going to get sick as her mouth drew tight and her face tilted down. Then, in a low, rough voice, she mimicked the driver: ‘Get to the back of the bus! Get to the back of the bus!’”


From an early age, Jennifer was singled out for her leadership qualities, her enthusiasm, and her motivation to learn and improve. She was nominated by Dan Fairbank, a teacher at Columbia Falls High School, to receive the United States Achievement Academy’s national award in history and government.


It wasn’t all serious business for Jennifer. She liked video games, especially Super Mario Brothers, pumping her fist when she had the chance to save the princess. Though it’s hard to quantify, she might have been the biggest fan of “The Simpsons” in the whole Flathead Valley, and perhaps even laughed the hardest.


Identifying with brainy, adorable Lisa, she also snickered and laughed at the antics of Bart. At one point, this musically-inclined young lady juggled instruments before establishing comfort with the baritone sax, the same way that Lisa Simpson did. There was an episode in which Lisa realized her dream of becoming a news anchor. After excelling at writing in school, teenaged Jennifer wanted to be a broadcaster and a journalist.


Throughout high school, she worked at the Columbia Falls waterslides and Gary and Leo’s Grocery Store. When she turned 17 and finished high school, Jennifer decided to join the Army Reserves, “against her mother’s wishes,” according to her family. She told her parents it would help pay for her college, and she would be able to travel to far-flung places she would not otherwise. Grudgingly, mother Sherry signed the enlistment papers, and, in the summer of 1997, Jennifer attended basic training.


Jennifer’s monthly National Guard training sessions were in Missoula, where she was a specialist in the 347th Quartermaster unit for almost six years. During infantry training, Jennifer, 22, was made the squad leader in her barracks.


Jennifer enrolled in communications classes at the University of Montana, working at Marina Cay in Bigfork during the summers. She became one of the “most well-liked and serious students,” in UM’s radio-television department, according to Sally Mauk, a UM professor and her boss at KUFM, and Jennifer also reported for both Montana Public Radio station KUFM and Missoula’s KECI-TV.


Jennifer graduated from UM in 2002, and it didn’t take the eye-ravishing, highly employable Montanan long to find work as a full-time reporter. There was a TV station in Abilene, Texas that would give Jennifer the experience she desired.

She also started dating a 34-year-old former Army ranger, Ralph Sepulveda, “a bad-looking man, with tattoos all over his arms,” recalls one of Jennifer’s friends. Sepulveda represented something different from her recent long-term college boyfriend—and not in a good way. Many in her family hoped that Ralph was a passing fancy that would be over fast.


While military service instilled greater levels of discipline and self-respect, it was only a springboard to other things. Her life goal was to become a nationally esteemed TV news anchorwoman, to follow the path of Katie Couric.


Sherry Servo helped her daughter settle into her new apartment in the Hunters Ridge Apartments in the 5500 block of Texas Avenue. To her mother’s dismay, Jennifer wasn’t living alone: even though she’d only known Ralph Sepulveda for a few weeks, he decided to leave his life in Montana to follow Servo to Texas.


Though ambitious, Jennifer expressed satisfaction, telling her mother, according to her later account to the Associated Press, that “life is good; I have my own apartment with a swimming pool, a new job reporting, my cat and cable TV.”


At 22, she now had her first full-time reporting job, at the local NBC affiliate in the mid-sized market of Abilene. She would adapt to the unending flatland, the oppressive summer heat and the buzz of the cityscape.


“She said, ‘Don’t worry,’” remembered her former professor at UM Bill Knowles. “I’ll remember my Montana home. And I’ll be fine.”

Slain in Her Apartment

After work on September 15, 2002, Servo and Brian Travers, a weatherman at KRBC she had been starting to see romantically, picked up a coffee table from a friend’s apartment and then stopped at Wal-Mart to shop.


According to available published reports, Travers reported that Servo told him she thought he was being followed.


Perhaps it was Ralph Sepulveda, she feared. While in Abilene, Servo discovered that when she had first met the much older man in Missoula, he had a fiancée, a fact he failed to mention. Sepulveda told Jennifer he had discarded his fiancée after knowing Jennifer only for a couple of days. He also had a child whom he never saw or even acknowledged. Disturbed, Jennifer Servo broke it off with Sepulveda.


In addition, Sepulveda had a violent fetish that Jennifer didn’t like: he choked her during sex. She shared this intimate detail with close friends from work. Perhaps Jennifer even learned that, before he moved to Missoula, Sepulveda once had two criminal charges of child molestation filed against him in Phoenix, one of them alleged that he was having sex with his 15-year-old niece.


Travers said that he told Jennifer “she was just imagining things.” In Travers’ narrative, he asked Jennifer he could walk her to her car; she said no, but he insisted.


According to the Fort-Worth Tribune, Servo phoned ex-boyfriend Dave Warren, then a weatherman in Montana. Warren stated that they discussed possible plans to meet in Dallas in December, and that Jennifer did not reference any suspicions about anyone following her home.


It was Jennifer Servo’s last phone conversation.


For several days, no one heard from Jennifer. Phone calls were not answered. Coworkers contacted the staff at the Hunters Ridge Apartments where, on September 18, less than a week before her 23rd birthday, she was found murdered.


An autopsy report released to the Associated Press speculated that Servo had been dead for at least two days. According to that report, “She suffered various blows to the head, bruising around her neck consistent with strangulation and bruising consistent with sexual assault.”


Detectives told the Fort-Worth Tribune, however, that they did not believe at the time that Servo had been raped because she was “found fully clothed” and there were “no signs of a struggle.” Her door was never forced ajar, one reason authorities believed someone she knew was responsible for the murder.


Routine procedures followed: evidence was collected, including DNA, blood, hair, and other trace evidence, a process made especially difficult because of Jennifer’s cat, Mr. Binx, whose hair was mixed in with any probable human hair in the apartment.


Several odd items were determined to be stolen from her apartment; one report notes that a Guess-brand purse, a cell phone, keys, and two DVDs (“Saving Private Ryan” and “Sex and the City”) were missing.


“Jennifer’s mother called that night her was body found on September 18,” says Norman Olson. “I screamed, and I couldn’t understand. I paced back and forth and around. How could you get a grip on it?”


Her body was returned to the Flathead Valley of Montana for funeral services. In a tribute to Jennifer, the Reverend Dan Heskett read a letter prepared by her father. The lobby of the church in Kalispell was adorned with photographs of Jennifer throughout her brief life—baby pictures, graduating senior shots, college, at work. Hanging on the rack in the vestibule were her blue high school letter jacket and her green Army Reserves jacket.


The mood was distinctly somber. “Jennifer was murdered,” Rev. Heskett said. “That weighs heavy on us. A person filled with sickness or evil took her life… When someone this young dies a violent death, it’s just unspeakable.”


After Jennifer’s funeral, Norman took in Mr. Binx, Jennifer’s sage tabby; soon the animal and the father were in near constant contact.


“We shared the mournful days and nights, months and years together. I played the word games of decades ago with him that only Jennifer and I understood and laughed so hard at.”

Suspects

Despite a mountain of physical evidence, no arrests were ever made in connection with Jennifer’s murder. In a 2012 interview for the program 48 Hours: Deadline for Justice,” a pair of detectives in the case said they lacked probable cause.


Over the years, several people in law enforcement in Texas have publicly voiced their resentment that Ralph Sepulveda was not charged. “All the times that we interviewed him he really never said anything that made us think this wasn’t our guy,” Jeff Bell, a detective for the Abilene Police Department, said in 2013, although other suspects were also still being considered as of 2012.


Shortly after the homicide, Sepulveda enlisted in active duty with the Army. He decamped to Fort Drum, New York, and then spent a year in Kuwait. After returning to the states, he was stationed at Fort Lewis, Wash. (and lived in Lacey, Wash.) and eventually moved to Fort Carson, Colo. where he met a woman from California and lived there briefly with her before the couple removed to Joppa, Maryland.


According to property records, Sepulveda purchased a house in Joppa while he was working at Aberdeen Proving Ground, a nearby military installation. Sepulveda’s social media accounts currently identify him as living in Hawaii and as single.


Brian Travers was also considered a suspect in Jennifer’s murder, though it seems if he remains so, it's only because the police are unable to rule him out.

Path to Healing

After Jennifer’s death, her mother Sherry Servo started blogging about “the narcissistic” Ralph Sepulveda, including a possible link between him and her daughter’s missing purse from the crime scene and certain library books that had been checked out after Jennifer’s death using her college library card. Books were checked out from the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana on the account of Jennifer Servo on November 6, 2003, more than one year after she died.


Barry Brown, the access services coordinator at the Mansfield Library, told the Fort Worth Tribune that, plausible as it might be that the transaction could’ve have been a clue to a crime, it was just as likely a clerical error could be blamed.


“We might have accidentally brought up the wrong record and checked them out,” Brown said Monday, “but we don’t know for sure.” Detective Jeff Bell stated to the Associated Press that her account was used “to check out four books, which were mainly about philosophy, on November 6.” That was about the last new evidence or lead in the case.

For Norman Olsen and Sherry Servo, the daily reminders of their daughter’s life in their hometown are ubiquitous.


To Norm, the Columbia Falls High School and its embedded memories of Jennifer inside its swimming pools, lapping, competing, strikes him hardest. And there are the tributaries of the Flathead River, places where he and his daughter would cross the river, walk up a bank, or hold hands on the shallow ice. “The best days of my whole life,” says Olson.


Justice is an odd concept to Olson, more like an abstraction, that, though tantalizing, offers little to alleviate the day-to-day reality of his everlasting survivor’s remorse. Servo had taken her mother’s last name and had a limited relationship with her father before her death.


“I’ve never had any interest in life since 2002,” says Norm Olson. “I laid in bed for five years. I’m just now starting to sleep again. I use audio books at night to control my mind, and to not let it get too dark. The negative emotions, the grief, the rage -- they are still like an electrical storm and lightning between by ears.”

—Brian D’Ambrosio

dambrosiobrian@hotmail.com

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