Editor’s Note: This is the third of a multi-part series covering Dawson County Sheriff’s John Rohnert’s investigation into the murders committed by Dennis Sell and subsequent trial
Dennis Sell was born on July 31, 1945 in Omaha to an unmarried mother and was put up for adoption.
He was three years old when he was adopted by Pete and Mary Sell.
His home life was not a happy one and there was a great deal of instability. A Tri-City Tribune article stated he was badly abused by his adoptive father.
It was also noted Sell grew up bitter and hated his biological mother for abandoning him.
Peter Sell died when Dennis was still young and Mary Sell remarried, changing her last name to Fraizer.
While Sell was attending grade school and junior high in Kearney, he began to have run-ins with the law. Law officials said Sell was picked up several times for window peeping and stealing women’s underwear off of clothes lines.
A Tri-City Tribune article from June 1978 reported at the age of 14, Sell was sexually involved with an older man.
Law enforcement officials noted Sell was a loner who didn’t go out with girls like his peers and had no hobbies or special interests.
Sell later moved to Lexington with his stepmother and attended Lexington High School. He dropped out after one year at the age of 16. He married the same year and held odd jobs washing cars and working at several gas stations.
In 1965, when he was 20, Sell was charged in an incident where he forced his way into a Kearney home and attempted to rape a woman at knifepoint before he robbed her.
According to an Oct. 3 1977 Dawson County Herald article, the Buffalo County District Judge S.S. Sidner handed down sentences of 12 and five years. A sexual psychopath charge filed in the court was dismissed, as Sell was already in prison.
By this point, Sell’s first wife had divorced him while he was incarcerated.
Despite the 17 year prison sentence, Sell was paroled on Aug. 24, 1971, having served only six years. Judge Sidner contacted the parole board saying Sell should be denied parole on the basis of psychiatric reports they had on him.
Sidner said Sell, “would kill some time,” and “I felt like this man was going to be a menace all of his life. When I put him in the penitentiary, I intended that he spend as much time as possible out of circulation.”
Sidner’s prediction about Sell killing would become prophecy.
Despite the protests, Sell was granted parole by a unanimous vote of the parole board. They wrote back to the judge stating they had a new psychiatric evaluation and released Sell on its basis.
Their decision played a part in the deaths of Judith Dangler and Ruth Eby.
On May 27, 1972, just nine months after his release, Sell was returned to the Nebraska State Penal Complex for a parole violation, for leaving the state.
On Nov. 1, 1974, Sell was paroled again, this time by a 3-0 vote. Conditions were set that Sell immediately start a work release program and that he receive a psychiatric evaluation.
When newspapers reached out to the Great Plains Mental Health Center at North Platte regarding Sell’s treatment in 1974, they reported for what amounted to a 20 minute interview with a worker at the center.
A letter was sent to the newspapers from health center worker Dorothy Wissbaum, “Dennis Sell was seen here at the health center on Nov. 15. I saw him for a period of 20 minutes and he seemed to be enjoying his job (at Howell Lumber, Lexington) and appeared pleasant and co-operative. He stated that he would be on parole until April of 1975. I am not aware of any requests from the Penal Complex for further psychiatric treatment at this center.”
The letter continued, “I did see him on one occasion, but further sessions did not seem warranted, as Dennis was not requesting further treatment.”
The director of the health center, Harold Snow later said it was not the intent of the letter that Sell be released for treatment, but a request for further information and guidance from the parole board. Her letter was never answered, which deleted the requirement for continuing psychiatric care from Sell’s parole order, according to an article in the North Platte Telegraph from Feb. 2, 1978.
Later, a parole officer would find work for Sell at the Sperry-New Holland plant in Lexington in 1976, the same place as Bob Dangler, husband of Judy Dangler. Sell would marry again, his second’s wife name was Vivian and they resided in Lexington.
A spokesman for New Holland said Sell was employed as a welder and his work record was described as, “satisfactory,” according to a Tri-City Tribune article from Sept. 29, 1977.
“Neighbors said Sell dressed neatly and had a personality many described as likeable. He was a quiet-living church-going, married man on the surface. But beneath, he was a nightmare,” according to an Associated Press article printed in the Grand Island Independent on Jan. 17, 1978.
It was on Feb. 7, 1977 that Sell would murder Judy Dangler, but details about her death would not come out until early 1978.
In June 1977, Sell was arrested and charged with breaking into a Johnson Lake home with the intent to commit rape. He was charged with first degree sexual assault.
Sell was bound over to Dawson County District Court where he posted ten percent of his $10,000 bond. He pleaded not guilty on July 22.
On Sept. 20, Sell and his attorney changed his plea to guilty and Judge Keith Windrum released him on the same bail, pending the presentence investigation. Windrum later told newspapers Sell remained free on bail because Nebraska law provided any person the right to bail, unless the crime committed was a capital offense.
Three days later, Sell would rape and murder Ruth Eby.
Sell maintained his innocence ahead of his preliminary hearing in Dawson County Court, which was held on Oct. 17, 1977.
A photographer captured the scene as Sell, handcuffed to Sheriff Rohnert, was led out of the jail to the courthouse under gray and overcast skies. They were flanked by several other officers.
Sell was joined during the hearing by his wife, Vivian.
One of the witnesses was Samuel Heltman, personnel manager at the Sperry New Holland plant, where Sell had been employed as a welder since March 15, 1976 until Sept. 27, 1977.
Heltman responded to the questioning of Dawson County Attorney Willard Weinhold, saying in Sell’s work, a pair of pliers was used to cut wire. He also stated all employees were assigned a clock number when hired and this number was to put on all tools use by the employees.
Sell’s number was 6368, the same which was engraved on the pair of pliers found by Sheriff Rohnert in a ditch not far from the place where Ruth Eby’s body was discovered.
Heltman said on Friday, Sept. 23, the day Ruth went missing, Sell clocked into work at 7 a.m. and worked until 12 p.m. Sell then left, but did not return until 3:45 p.m. in the afternoon.
Dr. Miles Foster, a pathologist from North Platte testified about how Ruth died and stated bruises were found in Ruth’s vaginal area and there was evidence of sperm, this indicated a sexual assault had occurred within two to four days of the autopsy.
Sell was silent throughout the proceedings only saying “yes,” when asked if he understood the charges.
Dawson County Court Judge George Bigelow found sufficient evidence to hold Sell for trial in district court, he was held without bond, despite the protest of Sell’s defense lawyer.
Bob Dangler, husband of Judy Dangler, also worked at the plant and recalled how Sell would sometimes sneer at him in a way he didn’t understand, as if saying, “I know something you don’t.”
It was only after Sell confessed to the murders did Bob fully understand the meaning behind Sell’s look.
Even after the preliminary hearing, there were questions which still went unanswered, where was Judith Dangler?