Jury acquits man accused of 1995 cold-case murder in Aurora

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Pictured: Jimmie Crank. Photo provided by the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office.

AURORA | The question of who killed 25-year-old Michael Nilsson in the parking lot of Prairie Middle School in September 1995 remains unanswered after an Arapahoe County jury on Thursday acquitted a man who had been accused of the crime.

A jury composed of three women and nine men determined Jimmie Joseph Crank Jr., who turned 43 on Monday, was not guilty of fatally stabbing Nilsson sometime between 8 p.m. Sept. 21, 1995 and 6:45 a.m. the following morning.

Jurors deliberated for less than three hours May 30 before rendering their verdict at 2:39 p.m., according to Vikki Migoya, spokeswoman for the 18th Judicial District Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors had charged Crank with second-degree murder.

For nearly 20 years, Aurora detectives had not identified any suspects in connection with Nilsson’s murder until new DNA evidence obtained through blood and saliva was uncovered through a series of laboratory tests conducted earlier this decade. Detective Stephen Conner, who has worked for the Aurora Police Department for nearly 40 years, began to reinvestigate Nilsson’s unsolved murder in June 2013.

Nilsson was last seen alive when his brother, Steven, drove him to a movie theater at the former Buckingham Square mall around 8 p.m. on Sept. 21, 1995, according to an arrest affidavit penned by Conner and filed against Crank. Police never determined whether Nilsson ever entered the movie theater, which has since been redeveloped as The Gardens on Havana shopping center.

The next day, police were called at about 6:45 a.m. to Prairie Middle School at 12600 E. Jewell Ave. on reports of a man laying in the parking lot.

Responding officers found a man with stab wounds who was later identified as Nilsson. He had been stabbed four times in his back, and there was a pool of blood on the right side of his head, according to the affidavit.

He died of stab wounds to his right lung, and sustained additional blunt force injuries to his head, according to an autopsy conducted by the Arapahoe County Coroner’s Office. His death was ruled a homicide.

At the conclusion of Crank’s nearly two-week-long trial on Thursday, prosecutors said Nilsson died after more than half the blood in his body entered his lungs and suffocated him.

Detectives believed Nilsson may have been robbed after they found a trifold wallet near his right shoulder, and several coins totaling 76 cents scattered around his body. Police also collected a Marlboro cigarette butt and a partially smoked GPC brand cigarette from the scene. 

Investigators eventually identified more than 40 potential suspects, but never developed any substantial leads before the case went cold for nearly 20 years.

In July 2013, Conner submitted several items from the crime scene to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation for DNA testing. In December of that year, a DNA profile from an “unknown male contributor” was identified from saliva found on one of the smoked cigarettes found at the crime scene. The same DNA, which did not belong to Nilsson, was also discovered in the form of blood found on the coins strewn around his body.

Detectives then used that DNA to create a list of 22 possible suspects. In August 2014, detectives obtained buccal swabs from more than a dozen of the potential suspects, including Nilsson’s brother, but received no positive results. Once again, the case went cold. 

Two years later, Conner received word from CBI that a DNA sample matching the genetic material found on the cigarette and coins from the crime scene had been uploaded to the Colorado Offender Database. The sample was linked to Crank, who had been arrested on a felony drug charge on May 27, 2016 in Denver. He was later sentenced to two years of probation and 30 days in jail for the crime, according to CBI records.

With the help of Crank’s Denver probation officer, Conner met with Crank, who was homeless at the time, at Aurora police headquarters on Sept. 12, 2016.

During the interview, Crank denied ever knowing anyone named Michael Nilsson or ever working at or attending Prairie Middle School. He also denied ever having any issues related to drugs or alcohol. 

Crank has been charged and convicted with a litany of crimes, including several drug offenses, in multiple Front Range municipalities in the past 25 years, according to CBI records. While he has been sentenced to jail and probation several times, he has never served time in prison.

Crank later told detectives “he would be surprised if there was any evidence associating him to the crime scene,” such as hair, fingerprints or other DNA evidence, according to Conner’s affidavit. However, he said “he had been ‘all over Aurora’ having lived here for over 20 years,” according to the arrest document.

Detectives later took a cheek swab sample from Crank and sent the DNA to CBI. A month later, in October 2016, CBI confirmed Crank’s DNA matched the sample found on the cigarette and coins from the Aurora middle school.

On Nov. 23, 2016, Conner spoke with Crank’s ex-wife on the phone from Haskell, Oklahoma. 

Crank’s ex-wife said “Crank was abusive toward her and that she feared him.” She said Crank would kick her while she was pregnant with their son.

Crank’s ex-wife said she was married to Crank and living with him in Aurora in 1995, but “was somewhat oblivious to the activities of Crank.” They had a son together, and she moved back to Oklahoma after obtaining custody of the child. 

When asked whether she ever remembered Crank coming home bloodied from a fight, Crank’s ex-wife said “something had ‘just hit’ her ‘mind.’

She then explained she remembered Crank and his brother talking about “someone ‘jumping them or them jumping somebody.’” She then remembered them talking about a knife.

Recalling the event caused Crank’s ex-wife to become ‘nervous and shaking’ during the conversation with Conner, according to the affidavit.

Three months later, investigators submitted Nilsson’s clothing for DNA testing. Six months after that, on Aug. 30, 2017, Conner received word from CBI that blood samples taken from the “fly area” of Nilsson’s pants matched Crank’s DNA. 

While the DNA found on the coins and pants were only a partial match to Crank’s DNA, CBI officials determined the DNA from the Marlboro cigarette was a total match, prosecutors said.

CBI officials said the chances of someone else having the same DNA as that found on the items at the crime scene is one in 50 quadrillion.

Conner then recommended charging Crank with first-degree murder. Prosecutors eventually levied the lesser charge of second-degree murder with a possible sentence enhancer.

During closing arguments, Crank’s defense attorney argued police mishandled and destroyed important evidence related to the case over the decades, including surveillance footage and 911 communications. Crank’s defense also argued investigators had purposefully omitted testing some items for DNA.

Prosecutors said investigators had tested 17 pieces of evidence — much of which was in the courtroom in sealed plastic bags on Thursday — for DNA. 

“DNA at the scene is not equal to murder,” Arapahoe County public Defender Andrea Kremer told jurors in her closing argument.

Aside from the DNA evidence, Kremer said any number of people, including a man who testified at the trial and was known to have dealt drugs in Aurora in the 1990s, could have killed Nilsson.

“There are a lot of people who could have killed (Nilsson),” Kremer said.

Prosecutors investigated the known Aurora drug dealer and determined he had no ties to the killing, according to Migoya.

In the 2017 affidavit, police wrote “Michael Nilsson had no close friends but had several enemies.”

Crank, who appeared in court wearing khaki slacks and a black dress shirt, had been detained at the Arapahoe County Detention Center for almost two years in lieu of posting a $500,000 cash or surety bond.

He was released from custody after jurors rendered their verdict yesterday.