Sue Marshel and her thirteen-year-old daughter Melinda Marshel went missing on July 4th, 1995. Sue, thirty-eight, had previously worked in healthcare but was primarily a homemaker as she faced significant health issues. She had severe asthma and sometimes required oxygen. She also had some personal challenges, including a history of five marriages. Her second husband, Johnny Marshel, was the father of her son, eighteen at the time, and daughter Melinda. The truth about what happened to Sue and Melinda on that Independence Day would shake the community to its core and change the lives of those living in Wayne County forever.
According to an article in the Northwest Herald (1995), Sue’s sister said that in the year before her disappearance, Sue had started attending church and taking steps to improve her health. As mentioned, she had significant respiratory issues and often used oxygen to breathe. Prior to that, it seemed instability and possibly poor choices led Sue down a dangerous path. According to an article in Evansville Courier and Press, Sue was facing charges of possession of cocaine at the time she disappeared. In fact, she had worked with police targeting a drug dealer in the past. Could this be the reason she disappeared?
Melinda Marshel (left) was thirteen years old and attended Wayne City Junior High School. She was a
basketball player and good student. “She was a normal kid like everyone else who had her life in front of her” a family friend told the Evansville Courier & Press (1995). Melinda, often called Mindy for short, was beautiful with long blond hair.
On the evening of July 5th, 1995, the partially submerged vehicle of Sue Marshel was found in a pond in rural Wayne County. There was a piece of furring strip wedged by the gas pedal. Unfortunately, there was no sign of Melinda or Sue (below) in the car or the pond. There was, however, blood in the vehicle believed to belong to the woman and her child.
Three days later, on July 8th, another pond about a mile away from where the car was found was searched. Police found a duffel bag that contained the charred and badly decomposed remains of two people. The cause of death was very evident- one had been shot twice in the head while the other had been shot three times. The bodies were then set on fire before being disposed of. A .32 caliber shell casing was found in the duffel bag and a .32 caliber bullet was found inside one of the bodies.
In order to identify the bodies, police used the jaw bones and dental records. Suspecting these were the bodies of Sue and Melinda, their dental records were compared. The dental records were a match to Sue and Melinda Marshel. Their deaths were clearly homicides and ruled such. The two had died a violent and horrific death. They were shot multiple times, set on fire, and then thrown in a pond to decompose.
As is typical in murder investigations, police looked at Sue’s ex-husbands. Police looked at Johnny Marshel, Sue’s second husband and father to Melinda, but were unable to tie him to the crime. They also looked at twenty-two-year-old Niels Nielsen, whom had been married to Sue for only 10 days in 1993. Sue met Niels, who was twenty years old during their short marriage, when he moved from Utah to Wayne City in 1993. Niels had a significant criminal history and had spent the last two years in a Utah prison (McGowan, 1996).
Police did not believe that the murders were related to Sue involvement with drugs and neither did her family. They believe that she had found God and was getting her life together recently. Her family did say, however, that she had been spending time with her ex-husband recently, Niels Nielsen. Her sister said that just a few days before she disappeared, Sue had been talking on the phone with her when she heard Niels in the background. “I said ‘Sue don’t trust him. Please don’t trust him” (McGowan, 1996), her sister said in an interview.
Police questioned Niels mother and stepfather with whom he lived at the time. His mother said that she saw her son leave with some people in Sue’s green Oldsmobile in the evening of July 4th to go see a fireworks show. She recognized Sue in the car and said a slender young lady with long blond hair was with the two. This description matched Melinda Marshel. Police used this information to obtain a search warrant for the property.
Niels Nielsen was arrested after the search for theft because some auto parts belonging to Sue’s son were found as well as possession of a weapon by a felon. That was not all they found in the search, however. Police found a .32 caliber pistol that matched the bullets used to kill the mother and daughter. Additionally, they found furring strips matching the one used to wedge the accelerator of the vehicle. What they found outside the home was even more disturbing.
In a burn pit behind the trailer home, police found human hair, blood, and bone fragments. They also found Sue’s keys and two rings known to belong to Melinda in the fire pit. Niels was their killer. He was charged less than a week after the murders with two counts of first-degree murder and concealment of a homicidal death. He was facing the death penalty.
The trial for Niels Nielsen began in June of 1996 with the prosecution seeking the death penalty. The defense was ready to present a dramatic account of the Independence Day murders, pointing the finger at another of Sue’s ex-husbands. Nielsen’s defense centered on the theory that Johnny Marshel killed the two. Niels defense claimed that Niels, Sue, and Johnny had argued because of allegations that Johnny had abused his daughter Melinda. Niels claimed he exited Sue’s vehicle and started walking away from the entire incident. He said shortly after Johnny pulled up and showed him the dead bodies of Sue and Melinda in the trunk of his car and forced him to help dispose of the bodies. Niels admitted to burning the bodies in his back yard fire pit but claimed he had done so under threats from Johnny Marshel (Fisher, 1996).
The prosecution fought back with the evidence. Pieces of Melinda’s hair, human bone, blood, and personal items were found in that burn pit. Sue’s keys were in the burn pit as were Melinda’s rings. They also had the gun, but his stepfather testified that Niels did not have the gun during the time of the murders. His stepfather and mother did, however, admit in their testimony that Niels left with Sue and Melinda that fateful July 4th evening to watch fireworks. His mother also said Sue’s car was at her property from late July 4th until July 6th, but Sue was not.
People who knew Niels said he had been trying to rekindle his romance with his much older ex-wife in the months prior to the murder. They said he claimed Sue played “mind games” (Fisher, 2006) with his emotions and had sold a vehicle that Niels believed was his property. One witness said that Niels complained about Sue at the Fourth of July fair in Wayne City the day of the murders and said, “he might never see (Sue) again” (Fisher, 2006).
A fingerprint was found on the blood-stained vehicle and matched Niels Nielsen. The print, on the gear shift lever, was only one of eight prints, however. The other seven prints were not a match to Nielsen or Johnny Marshel. Several witnesses were also able to provide a solid alibi for Johnny Marshel, poking further holes in the defense team’s theory.
During the trial, testimony was also heard about Niels criminal history, which was quite significant. His juvenile record alone was alarming. “When he was twelve, he held a knife to a six-year-old and threatened to kill her” (McGowan, 1996). Niels had a history of being a violent criminal.
Prosecutors theorized that on the way to the fireworks show, Sue and Niels had a fight that resulted in him shooting both the mother and daughter to death. Witnesses said he attended the fireworks show alone that night, presumably with the dead bodies still in Sue’s Oldsmobile. He waited until the next day to burn and dispose of the bodies and then attempted to seek Sue’s vehicle in the pond.
When the jury returned a verdict, those in the courtroom got a peak at the real Niels Nielsen. Niels Nielsen was found guilty on all counts in June of 1996, less than a year after the murders. Upon delivery of the verdict, Niels spit on the prosecutors, swore at the judge, kicked over a table, and flashed obscene gestures (McGowan, 1996). These tactics lead the judge to eventually kick the now convicted murderer out of his courtroom. In fact, he was kicked out during sentencing for repeated violations of courtroom etiquette and violent outbursts. He was not in the courtroom when the judge announced he was sentenced to death.
In 2003, Illinois Governor George Ryan commuted all condemned Illinois prisoners’ sentences to life in prison, including Niels Nielsen (right). Although he will no longer face execution, Niels Nielsen will spend the rest of his life in prison and is ineligible for parole. All of his appeals have been denied.
Sue’s sister gave in interview in 1996 in which she described her ongoing pain and suffering after losing her sister and niece. She said “It can happen to anyone. Murder has to stop” (McGowan, 1996). It truly can happen to anyone and anywhere, even in our small, sheltered communities. Murder happens everywhere.
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McGowan, M. (1996) A year later, sister’s murder tough to accept; Northwest Herald; Woodstock, IL; 08 Jul 1996; Retrieved at: 08 Jul 1996, Page 1 - Northwest Herald at Newspapers.com
Associated Press (1995) Wayne County man charged in double murder; Daily Repbulican-Register; 12 Jul 1995
Fisher, F. (1996) Prosecution: Nielson alone fired shots; Daily Republican-Register; 5 Jun 1996
Associated Press (1996) Nielsen’s stepfather claims he did not have weapon; Daily Republican Register; 6 Jun 1996
Associated Press (1996) Fingerprint found; Daily Republican-Register; 11 Jun 1996
Murderpedia (accessed 2021) Niels Christian Nielsen; Retrieved at: Niels Nielsen | Murderpedia, the encyclopedia of murderers
People V. Nielsen (1999) The people of the state of Illinois V. Niels Nielson: Supreme Court of Illinois; Retrieved at: PEOPLE v. NIELSON | 718 N.E.2d 131 (1999) | ne2d1311845 | Leagle.com
Whitehead, B. (1995) Ex-husband charged; bodies severely burned; Evansville Courier and Press; 12 Jul 1995; Retrieved at: 12 Jul 1995, 1 - Evansville Courier and Press at Newspapers.com
FindAGrave (2021) Melinda Kay Marshel; Retrieved at: Melinda Kay Marshel (1981-1995) - Find A Grave Memorial
E. Sue McKinney Marshel; Retrieved at: E. Sue McKinney Marshel (1956-1995) - Find A Grave Memorial