Unsolved Montana: Who Killed Donna Lemon?
The Snake River is a behemoth marvel of nature with mouths, bridges, and inlets that encompass more than 1,000 miles across parts of six states. Originating from a series of small headwaters in the Rocky Mountains of western Wyoming, it cuts its vast, tangled mark through southern Idaho, including Idaho Falls, a city in Bonneville County.
On Monday, July 9, 1973, at approximately 7:42 p.m., the body of a young woman was discovered near the river’s greenish-bluish shoreline, a sunny, radiant sky above.
The falling rays of the evening sun streamed through the trees off Milligan Road, lighting a wooded area of trees and bushes where, about 15 feet from the edge of the tributary and several steps from the road, a local man spotted a heavy, awkward lump in the ankle-high scrub.
Closer inspection revealed the bloody and begrimed features of a prostrate Caucasian female with light brown hair, dark frame glasses, about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, and weighing about 110 pounds. Though fully clothed, the body was an unsightly mash of cuts, slashes, and bruises, emanating the metallic tang of caked blood. Her throat cut, she bled to death after the main artery in her neck was severed.
The victim was stabbed multiple times, though knife wounds on the woman’s right side “were apparently not deep enough to have mortally wounded her,” according to a later coroner’s report. No determination was rendered regarding whether she was sexually assaulted. Details were scarce, though Sheriff Blaine Skinner told the media that he believed the kill site was the location where the body was discovered.
A pair of prescription glasses and a green 1969 Ford Mustang nearby identified the victim as Montana resident Donna Irene Lemon. Later, dental records were also traced and matched to her.
Donna’s vehicle was located off Broadway in Idaho Falls, where it was “parked inconspicuously for several days” about one mile from where its owner was found; its doors were unlocked and some of its contents were strewn across the dashboard and seats and it yielded a smattering of dried patches of blood “by the driver’s door handle and on a shift handle,” according to police records.
Though DNA technology was still in its embryonic stages, a partial palm print and a number of fingerprints were preserved.
Before long, investigators were to determine that the victim was a well-liked young lady who was “quiet, happy and fun, without a mean bone in her body,” as one friend recalled her. Donna was from a well-grounded family and was born and raised in the Gallatin Canyon. At the time, she was a 20-year-old nurse who was living in Bozeman, Montana, a city roughly 200 miles north of where her life ended abruptly along the shore of the Snake River in eastern Idaho.
With interstate coordination in the early 1970s a bit haphazard, authorities in two states investigated many possibilities, though largely separately, in an attempt to determine the woman’s trail to Idaho and who had brutally ended her life. Combined, they chased hundreds of tips, which lead them down a number of frustrating cul-de-sacs.
To date, all of the hard work by Montana and Idaho authorities has proved futile. The case of Donna Lemon’s death has remained unsolved for 48 years.
Roots in the Gallatin Canyon
Daughter of George and Clara Lou Lemon, Donna Irene Lemon was born November 7, 1952 and lived most of her life in the Gallatin Canyon, about forty-five miles south of Bozeman. George, a former military engineer in the Army’s Tenth Mountain Division, was an avid outdoorsman with a particular zeal for rock climbing, skiing, and horse packing trips.
George married Clara Lou Barnes in 1950, and they lived in the home built from logs that George sawed with his own muscle. To support his family, George worked for the Montana State Highway Department.
Donna was a quiet child, the first of George and Clara Lou’s two daughters along with younger sister Verna. From the earliest age, Donna is described as smart, disciplined and kind, someone who loved animals, and had inherited her father’s passion for remote places and physically challenging adventures. The Lemon girls were always surrounded by dogs, cats, or horses, and Donna and Verna would sometimes ensnare chipmunks in fox traps and keep them as pets for a while, before turning them loose or until they escaped back into the woods.
Among their many frequent outdoor experiences, George regularly took Donna rock climbing – some old, thick ropes strung off of a cliff, nothing too extreme, just enough excitement to ensure a safe descent and enliven the senses.
The family rode horses together, repeatedly embarking on pack and multi-day camping trips, crates of food and other critical supplies in tow, to the azure lakes in the Spanish Peaks mountain range in the Gallatin Canyon. Donna was a bold rider, always cool and fearless, and eager to ride all day.
“Donna was an avid backcountry skier, too,” says Verna Sene, Donna’s sister. “We would take off at night and go backcountry skiing in the moonlight. She loved rock climbing. Dad was good at that, too, and he pursued it with her. Fishing, camping, hunting, she loved the outdoors. We killed elk and deer.”
Patricia Barnes Conway is Donna Lemon’s first cousin. At the time that Donna was killed, Patricia was 16-years-old and staying with George, Clara Lou and Verna for the week and working at Buck’s T-4.
“I admired her,” says Patricia. “She was a lot like the Mother Hen, and she watched out for the younger ones, and she had a maternal instinct to her. She was a loving, caring, quiet person, and she had a good sense of humor. Her and her dad had a very close relationship. In the woods, we’d go out hunting, where she was like a cat; she could sneak up on you and you would not know that she was coming. Our families spent every holiday together. Snowmobiling in the winter time. We kids would be gone for hours. We’d go sledding behind their house [the Lemons], or we snowshoed.”
Donna attended the Ophir school in the Gallatin Canyon (now called the Big Sky School District #72) from kindergarten through eighth grade before traveling to Bozeman to complete junior high and high school.
“When we lived up in the Gallatin, few residents lived there year round,” says Verna Sene. “Ranches and dude ranches up and down the canyon were main attractions at that time. Our Ophir School had eight kids in all eight grades, a one-room school with a little cabin out back that the teacher lived in to stay right there.
“Lots of times we had to go outside to the outhouse, and there would be moose in the yard, and we couldn’t get to the bathrooms.”
At Bozeman High School, Donna was a member of the Girls’ Rifle Club – a yearbook photo shows a determined Donna taking aim at target practice – where she earned a reputation as a good marksman and a crack shot, and even pocketed a few medals from competitions. After graduating in 1971, Donna spent two years working to obtain a degree at Montana State University as a Licensed Practical Nurse. As a refuge from studying, she whittled away stress at the shooting range at the University.
Summer of ‘73
In the summer of 1973, Donna was employed full-time as a nurse at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, where she routinely worked the evening shift. She also worked a second job as a housekeeper at the Castle Rock Inn.
The girl from the Gallatin Canyon was now her own woman, embracing real-world responsibilities: tall and slender, her brown hair was neatly clipped, and she had a face marked with a pair of blue-gray eyes, a modest smile, and a calm, dignified expression that unfailingly inspired trust and respect. Though a heavily-lidded left eye caused her to instinctively deflect her body position to the right, she was for the most part self-confident.
In July 1973, Donna had just moved out of living quarters with her roommate Diane Mihalovich on the west end of Bozeman when Diane got married. Donna’s pleasant, single-bedroom apartment on tree-lined Willson Avenue was closer to her employment at the hospital and adjacent to MSU where she planned to enroll in classes in the fall that would allow her to advance as a Registered Nurse.
“Donna was quiet, sweet, and very trusting,” says Mihalovich.
“She went into the perfect profession for her,” says Donna’s friend Sherry Pierce, “because she was such a caring individual. I was younger by a couple of years, but we became fast friends…We would go horseback riding, fishing, and do lots of outdoor activities. Her folks raised her that way; I’d been raised that way.”
A Mystery Disappearance
While police investigators have grappled with the task of reconstructing the victim’s last days, they are certain that on the evening of Tuesday, July 3, and the afternoon of Wednesday, July 4, 1973, Donna Lemon and Sherry Pierce attended the Ennis rodeo together. Around the sights of kicking horses and clenching cowboys, Donna was smiling and relaxed. When a song from The Statler Brothers, or Gordon Lightfoot, or Johnny Cash erupted through the speakers (Pierce says Jack Blanchard and Misty Morgan’s “Tennessee Bird Walk” always brought a spurt of enthusiasm from her), Donna was a paragon of contentment.
The following day, Thursday, July 5, the two friends had made plans to go horseback riding in the Gallatin Canyon, sometime after 4 p.m.
“Her folks lived five or six miles from where we lived,” says Sherry. “We lived right on West Fork Creek, a mile up the road, where we leased some property and had four or five head of horses, and that’s where we were planning to go. We were going to meet at my house and then go there.”
On July 5, sometime after 11 a.m., Donna stopped at the Corral Bar and met her sister Verna for hamburgers and bottles of Coke. Later, she reportedly was seen by the mother of one of her friends at the Standard station, on West Main in Bozeman, alongside her Mustang, a vehicle she had recently acquired at Ford’s garage on the trade-in of a Chevrolet Bel Air. Donna made eye contact and the two exchanged smiles and waves.
At approximately 1 p.m., Donna picked up her paycheck of $316.80 at Bozeman Deaconess Hospital and stopped at Security Bank & Trust Co., in Bozeman, where she received $116.80 back in cash.
Police also believe that Donna went to Monarch’s Clothing Store at Buttrey’s shopping center in Bozeman, where she bumped into her cousin Patricia. Patricia was there with her mother and sister. Donna was alone. The Lemon family had plans to attend a family reunion in Moscow, Idaho the weekend of July 7 and 8, expecting to leave on Friday, July 6. For the occasion, Donna looked for new clothes, perhaps a special pair of jeans or a studded knit top.
“Donna came in and said that she was getting ready for the reunion,” says Patricia. “Her and my sister tried on things in the dressing room together, and I think she bought a white shirt. I know she was trying some shirts on. She was going to pick up her paycheck and then go to the bank… She mentioned that she was going to be meeting a friend to go horseback riding at 4 p.m. That was the last I saw of her…”
“Donna was planning to go out to pick up her paycheck and do something at the new apartment,” says Pierce. “She was planning to then head back up the canyon, where we would squeeze in a horseback ride in the early evening. Then she’d finish packing. Leave the next day to go to Idaho.”
It is not known if Donna visited her apartment. Witness accounts, however, place Donna at Stacey’s Old Faithful Bar and Steakhouse, at 300 Mill Street, in Gallatin Gateway, at between roughly 2:30 and 4 p.m. There, according to bartender Jean Holland, Donna entered the bar, ordered a single can of Olympia to go, paid with a $1 bill, received the change, and then left. This transaction, which from start to finish lasted no more than five minutes, remains the last known or confirmed public sighting of Donna Lemon. Patty Wells, a young woman from Gallatin Gateway, told police she believed she saw Donna driving east towards Highway 191. Wells did not see anyone else in the vehicle with Lemon.
“Her favorite thing to do was to drive up Gallatin Valley,” recalls Donna’s friend and former roommate Diana Mihalovich. “She would sit by the river and have a beer and smoke a cigarette, and contemplate life, and then head on home. Something I have thought that she might have done on the day she was last seen.”
She never arrived at Pierce’s place for the horseback ride, nor did she stop in before the ride to visit with her parents nearby.
Sherry Pierce called Donna’s house, did not receive a response and someone told her that her friend had not been seen by George or Clara Lou that evening, either.
Pierce, heightened by a sense of unease, jumped into her car and started driving around the community. A few hours later, Sherry contacted Donna’s folks again. She remembers driving around with her friend’s increasingly concerned parents for several hours, well into the dark.
“The next day,” says Pierce, “we drove the canyon again because we thought she might’ve driven off of the road in an obscure place.”
“We knew something was wrong,” says Donna’s sister Verna, “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.”
For nearly five decades, authorities have tried to follow the violent path that brought the jovial, gentle-spirited Donna Lemon from a life she loved in Bozeman, Montana, to such a grisly death hundreds of miles away in Idaho Falls.
“There were a lot of out-of-state workers in the area at Big Sky,” says Sherry Pierce, “a lot of people from out-of-town, or who weren’t local, from other places in the state. But I’ve always felt that because it was up close and personal, and because the circumstances of the car and location and other things surrounding it, that it was someone she knew.”
From the beginning of the investigation Idaho authorities considered that few people were killed in such a gruesome fashion by someone they had no acquaintance with. But they entertained the notion that Donna’s death could be the work of serial killer David Meirhofer, who committed four horrific and random murders in the Bozeman area between 1967 and 1974 before determining that Meirhofer had no part in Sonna’s death.
Contract workers with transient ties to the building and expansion of the Big Sky Ski Resort were investigated, as were factory workers at nearby Gallatin Gateway Cheese Factory.
“The area was a booming place for transients and seasonal workers at the time,” says Detective Mike Hammer of the Bonneville County Police Department. “The time frame of that summer time shows a big influx, a lot of people who could have come and gone, or who could have been there and no one could have known.”
As is common procedure in a murder investigation, police probed Donna’s relationship history; there was no husband to question, though she had date casually over the years, and was seeing a man named Gary Scheidecker at the time of her death.
Scheidecker, who worked as a security guard at Big Sky Resort in the summer of 1973 and later worked at the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, says that to the best of his recollection, he was away on military leave at the time of Donna’s abduction. Though police reports place Scheidecker and his friend Ric Brown at the same rodeo event that Donna attended the evening before she was last seen, Scheidecker says that doesn’t recall the exact day or time that he last saw Donna.
“It was a while...it might have been sometime before she died, I don’t know,” says Gary Scheidecker. “I was interviewed by the FBI right afterwards. I don’t remember much about her. All I know was that she was supposed to meet a friend after stopping at Stacey’s.”
There was also one local Gallatin Gateway man around Donna’s age who seemed to be especially obsessed by her. Police identified and honed in on him and even members of his family, though none have ever officially been charged in connection to the crime.
While plausible theories exist involving the possibility of a serial killer or a random attacker, no one who knew Donna believes she would have let a stranger in her vehicle.
Donna was last seen in Bozeman on July 5, but her car was first observed by an Idaho Falls police officer working the night shift on July 7, 1973, two days before its owner was discovered. The whereabouts of Donna and the vehicle on July 6, 1973 are unknown.
“It is hard to imagine that Donna would have stopped willingly to give someone a ride on the highway unless she knew them,” says Verna Sene.
Shortly after Donna’s murder, the FBI assisted local authorities in the identification and processing of the various fingerprints that were powdered and pulled from the interior of Donna’s vehicle.
“The FBI told me then that they were damn sure that Donna’s killer was someone that she and we knew,” says Pierce. “They were cautioning me and concerned for my safety, and felt that I could alert this person in some fashion, and that I may become on this person’s list. At the time, I was afraid.”
Many questions surrounding the uncharted details of Donna’s death still haunt the investigation. Was the murder scene indeed in Idaho Falls or was Donna killed in the Bozeman area?
“I would say that she was likely killed in Idaho Falls,” says Detective Mike Hammer. “There is no reason to believe that she was leaving to come to Idaho Falls or it was a destination. It’s likely the killer or killers were in the car when she got to Idaho Falls. Nothing says that it had to be one person or that it wasn’t more than one… There was just enough decomposition and bloating that would hide some of that stuff that we would be very interested in knowing.”
Hammer refers to DNA technology, namely the partial samples collected from the Mustang almost a half century ago, that might be able help unravel the secrets shrouding Donna’s murder.
In 2009, the Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office announced hey had DNA samples to work with and said they had identified three men as potential suspects. The testing of the new DNA technology cleared one of the suspects from the pool. According to the January 2009 press release, another DNA test was being applied to the DNA of the second suspect (it failed to match), and the third suspect still needed to be tracked down by authorities and be tested.
“We had the crude DNA profile of a male, but nobody that could be tied to it,” says Mike Hammer.
Search for Resolution
For many years George and Clara Lou watched helplessly while the investigation of the brutal death of their beloved daughter petered into oblivion; they had no ability to avenge their loss, no remedy but tears.
“No one seems to be able to come up with an answer to our questions,” Clara Lou once said to the press. “Who and why? Somewhere, someone knows these answers. Will they ever be answered for us?”
Both George and Clara Lou Lemon died without ever knowing the hard facts of their child’s fate.
“The truth is that we don’t know what happened to Donna,” says Detective Hammer. “There were multiple suspects and possibilities that made them likely. Stats show that most people are killed by someone close to them. But it could have been a stranger.”
Hammer says that it is confounding that such a terrible crime could happen in an area as insular as Gallatin Gateway was in the 1970s without tongues sooner or later loosening.
“It’s hard to believe that in a close-knit community like Bozeman in 1973 was that nothing has ever come up. We are hoping that someone could provide that one lead or that one new thought or spark that connects the dots for us.”
Despite the disappointment of dead ends, Donna’s family and friends are not doomed to thinking that the killer will forever escape identification or that an arrest in this crime is out of the question.
“Donna’s murder was earth shattering to a lot of people,” says Patricia Barnes Conway. “And it still is.”
Forty miles south of Bozeman on the grounds at Soldiers Chapel Cemetery on the West Fork of the Gallatin River, a memorial fountain engraved in Donna Lemon’s memory was erected a few years after she was murdered. The inscription reads: “In loving memory of our friend, Donna Irene Lemon, 1952-1973. By Gallatin Canyon young people.”
To provide information or tips regarding the murder of Donna Lemon,
please contact Detective Mike Hammer at (208) 529-1350
or email@example.com ,or the Idaho Cold Case Tip Line at
1-844-TIP-4040. Brian D’Ambrosio may reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.