They say it was a conspiracy, set in this sleepy river town nearly a quarter-century ago, and that it started innocently enough. First, they took her radio. Then they took her bike. Since she needed glasses, they took those too, they even broke into her house.
Then, they killed her.
After about four hours of deliberation, a Fillmore County jury convicted Jack Willis Nissalke, 43, of four counts of first degree murder in the death of Ada Senenfelder, 40, in 1985.
The conviction followed decades of investigation of the cold case, reopened with a $50,000 reward in 2006. Now, if appeals aren’t successful, Nissalke will face life in prison with sentencing later this week expected to determine whether there will be a chance of parole.
Senenfelder was stabbed to death in her home on the night of June 5 or early morning of June 6, 1985. Over 30 wounds were found on her face, arms, neck, torso and heart -- some puncture wounds, several defensive wounds, and six deep stab wounds. A forensic pathologist testified that the angle of the wounds -- seeming to come from at least four different directions, were likely the result of Senenfelder being held down, rather than her moving around in a struggle.
“They didn’t just kill her,” said prosecuting attorney Tom Gort during his closing argument. “They were poking her. Then, the defendant took the butcher knife from the kitchen set, and, just like he told everybody, he stabbed her in the heart.”
Prosecutors believe that Nissalke killed Senenfelder to silence her after she reported that James Bolstad, who along with Linda (Erickson) Parrish was named a coconspirator in the case, had molested her daughter. On June 5, 1985, just hours before her murder, she met with Bolstad’s probation agent and recanted her story while Nissalke and Bolstad’s sister June recorded the conversation from another room in Senenfelder’s house.
At a party later that night, Parrish got a phone call from someone, allege prosecutors, informing her that Senenfelder’s recant hadn’t convinced Bolstad’s probation agent to drop the case, and Bolstad would remain in jail.
That’s when Nissalke and his friends turned their anger and frustration to violence, said Gort. They left the party, went to Senenfelder’s home, and murdered her.
The prosecution’s witnesses, many of whom didn’t provide police with valuable information until over 20 years had passed, testified that Nissalke either made jokes or threats about the murder after the fact. “I’ll give you what Ada got,” or “I’ll cut you like I cut Ada,” were statements made by Nissalke repeatedly, at least one witness said.
Rena Bambenek testified that she’d seen Nissalke just after midnight on June 6, when he came to her apartment asking for a flashlight so he could look for a knife he’d lost. She said that he was sweaty and had a white cloth wrapped around his hand, stained red or pink.
Defense attorneys argued that witnesses were unreliable because of the effects of time, drug and alcohol abuse, police reminders, embellishments and the reward money -- all factors, they said, which changed witneses testimony over time.
Some of the more damaging testimony came within recordings of Nissalke himself, recorded while he was in jail and talking to his wife, Julie, on the phone. “Yeah, I think I’m about ready to tell, you know, the whole story, ‘cause I’m sick of sitting here by myself,” he said in one conversation.
That, said Gort, means that Nissalke is guilty, and that he did not act alone.
“He’s just tired of being the only one held accountable,” said Gort during his closing argument Monday.
Prosecutors said that witnesses didn’t immediately reveal the information that they knew because they feared retaliation from Nissalke. Applauding the witness testimony as courageous, County Attorney Chuck MacLean said in a statement that the conviction was a result of the hard work of many agencies over many years.
“[It was] very gratifying to see the, literally, thousands of hours of work from officers, investigators…[and multiple departments]...come together to what we consider justice served,” said Winona Police Chief Paul Bostrack. “A lot of people’s lives who worked on this case went on hold.”
Jurors convicted Nissalke on all four charges, including: murder in the first degree (with intent and premeditation), aiding and abetting murder in the first degree (with intent and premeditation), murder in the first degree (with intent during first degree witness tampering) and aiding and abetting murder in the first degree (with intent during first degree witness tampering).
Conviction = $50,000 reward?
When the case was reopened in 2006, Spotlight on Crime teamed up with local law enforcement and the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and offered a $50,000 reward for information that would lead to a conviction in the cold case.
And a conviction, they got.
But when asked Tuesday whether any of the witnesses who came forward with new information would actually get any reward money, Bostrack and Deputy Chief Tom Williams seemed skeptical. Probably not, said Williams.
Bostrack said that Spotlight on Crime, a collaboration between members of the Minnesota Business Partnership and public safety officials offering rewards in Minnesota cold case murders, would make the final decision on whether a reward would be granted. Williams said that local police hadn’t met with Spotlight officials since the reward was offered, and that they may have to go meet with them again to discuss the case.
When asked whether the Winona Police Department would advocate for such a reward for witness testimony, the two were silent for a moment. “We’ll leave that determination up to [Spotlight on Crime officials],” said Bostrack.