22 years later, APD detective finds murder suspect

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AURORA | After more than two decades running down dead-end leads, Aurora police filed a murder charge last month against a man they say stabbed a 25-year-old man to death in the Prairie Middle School parking lot in 1995.

Michael Nilsson was found dead Sept. 22, 1995, in the parking lot of the school near East Jewell Avenue and South Peoria Street.

When officers found Nilsson early that morning, they also found bloody coins and cigarette butts near the dead man’s body — items that more than 20 years later helped police track down the man they say killed him: Jimmie Joseph Crank, now 41.

According to an affidavit, DNA from those items, as well as from Nilsson’s clothes, matched Crank’s DNA, which was submitted to the state following his May 2016 arrest in Denver on felony drug charges.

In his affidavit supporting Crank’s arrest, longtime Aurora police Detective Steve Conner — who has closed multiple cold cases in recent years — said Crank should be charged with first-degree murder.

When prosecutors filed formal charges against Crank in late October, they charged him instead with a lesser count of second-degree murder and a sentencing enhancer accusing him of committing a crime of violence.

Vikki Migoya, a spokeswoman for the Arapahoe County district attorney’s office said she couldn’t discuss charging decisions in a pending case.

According to court records, Crank is due in court Dec. 4. He is being held on a $500,000 bond at the Arapahoe County Jail.

According to Conner’s affidavit, Nilsson was stabbed four times in his back and police found his wallet laying on his chest, a likely sign that he had been robbed.

Nilson’s older brother, Steven Nilsson, later told police that the night before his brother’s body was found, he dropped his brother off at the movie theaters at the old Buckingham Square mall. But nobody was sure if he had gone into the theater and watched a movie or not.

The affidavit also said “Michael Nilsson had no close friends but had several enemies.”

Police spoke to more than 40 people in the months and years following the slaying, but didn’t turn up Nilsson’s killer.

“At the time a multitude of interviews were conducted but no significant investigative lead was developed,” Conner wrote. “In the ensuing years, the case ultimately went cold.”

In June 2013 Conner reopened the case and had several of the items found near Nilsson’s body tested. One of the coins found near Nilsson’s body and one of the cigarettes had DNA on them from an “unknown male” who wasn’t Nilsson. Still, that person’s DNA was not registered in a state database at the time.

Conner made a list of 22 people who knew Nilsson at the time and could have been suspects. He interviewed several of them and obtained DNA samples from them, but none matched the DNA from the bloody coin or cigarette butt.

Again, the case went cold.

Then, in August 2016, a CBI instigator contacted Conner with news that there had been a hit in the state’s database. Crank had been arrested in Denver on a drug conviction and his subsequent testing showed a match for Crank.

But that match required a secondary test and Conner brought Crank in for an interview in the fall of 2016. Crank denied knowing Nilsson and said he didn’t know anything about any slaying at the school. He agreed to give Conner a further DNA sample.

Those results showed a match to Crank’s DNA, but only on the cigarette butt and coins.

Conner then interviewed Crank’s former wife who told him Crank was violent. She said her memory was foggy about the time in the early 1990s when she was with Crank — a period she said was marked by abuse — but she had a fuzzy recollection of an incident involving a bloody knife and maybe something about blood on Crank.

After that, investigators ran further tests on Nilsson’s clothing and in August 2017 found a match to Crank’s DNA on cuttings from his pants and sweater.