A Minnesota liquor store owner was killed in his house behind locked doors. 5 years on, police seek new leads
Police reveal new details and seek people to come forward in unsolved 2017 homicide case of businessman Brian Nelson, robbed and stabbed to death inside his home, behind doors with new deadbolt locks and with his 'inside pet' Dodo chained up outside.
HIBBING, Minn. — Brian Nelson closed up his liquor store the night of Saturday, July 8, 2017, and returned to his house directly behind the business.
It was typical for Nelson to take his cash proceeds home over the weekend before making a deposit at the bank on Monday. And he likely saw strong sales that day, as the Hibbing Jubilee Community Festival attracted crowds downtown for a parade and street dance.
But when Nelson failed to show up to work on Monday, employees knew something was wrong. They went to his house — still locked and secured — and discovered that he had been brutally stabbed to death.
Also missing was a bank bag that investigators believe contained roughly $1,700 in cash — strongly indicating robbery as a motive for the killing.
"They would have had personal knowledge of his operations and how he handled his business and what he did," Hibbing Deputy Police Chief Tyler Schwerzler said this week. "Somebody had firsthand knowledge of the locked doors, maybe had access inside and outside his house, knew the layout. There's a lot of stuff that leads me to believe it was someone who had a relationship with him."
Five years later, Schwerzler and fellow investigators are still working the case, though new leads are less common these days. The Hibbing Police Department has identified some people of interest, he said, but there are "pieces of our puzzle that are missing."
"This case is very solvable," Schwerzler told the News Tribune. "We just need people to do the right thing and come forward with information, because that's how we're going to catch who did this."
'A pretty good guy'
It was a shocking crime for Hibbing and the broader Iron Range community: the life of a seemingly well-respected local businessman taken in his own home hours after a community celebration.
Nelson, 60, was born in Hibbing and spent much of his life in the city, aside from a stint in California. He graduated from Hibbing High School and went on to attend the Minnesota School of Business before owning and operating The Bottle Shop, 2410 First Ave.
A member of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in Hibbing, Nelson enjoyed fishing, watching auto racing and playing baseball in his spare time, according to an obituary. Always by his side was his faithful dog, Dodo.
Schwerzler said there was no reason for police to suspect that Nelson would be the target of a violent crime. He had previously reported some thefts from the bottle shop — hardly out of the ordinary for a liquor store — but he had a clean record and was not known to be associated with any criminal activities.
He even had a reputation for allowing customers to make purchases on a charge basis and pay later.
"It sounded like he was a pretty good guy for his customers," said Schwerzler, who was the lead detective on the case and now supervises the investigative unit.
Swift, violent attack
The report of Nelson's death came around 4:25 p.m. Monday, July 10, 2017. Employees were able to access the locked residence through a window, finding Nelson dead in the kitchen of the residence, 2408 1/2 First Ave.
Schwerzler wouldn't put a number on it, but said Nelson had been stabbed "a lot" and "all over his body." A medical examiner determined at least some of the wounds were post-mortem — inflicted after he was already dead.
"He had a couple of small abrasions on his hands," Schwerzler said, indicating defensive wounds. "But my thought is that they actually assaulted him when he was facing away."
Nelson was "small-figured, frail," weighing roughly 115-120 pounds, the investigator said. The attack was likely swift and probably occurred right where the victim's body was discovered. Evidence indicates he was physically robbed as well, with his pockets turned inside out and items such as coins strewn across the floor.
"I think that he either tried to stop the person from going out or from grabbing the money, because it would have been somewhere in this area where he did most of his bookkeeping," Schwerzler said. "I think he had kind of confronted them."
Employees told police that Nelson typically handled clerical duties on Sundays, as liquor stores were previously prohibited from operating that day. He would often stop by the store to check inventory and get orders ready for the week, and then mostly take Mondays off. But that week he hadn't completed those tasks and workers couldn't get a hold of him.
Also unusual was that Dodo, normally an inside pet, was chained up in the backyard. It appeared Nelson had been eating just before he was killed and had lit a cigarette that was left to burn down in an ashtray. The TV was on but apparently had been sitting idle long enough that it was simply displaying a screensaver.
Nelson had reportedly changed his locks within a month before his death, and no one other than his parents were known to have a spare key — an oddity, as the deadbolts remained locked and there was no sign of forced entry. Schwerzler said it's unknown whether the culprit or culprits were somehow able to obtain a key or use a window as a means of entry.
Nelson's last known contact with others was a call to his parents Saturday night. But his phone records and other evidence helped investigators further narrow down a time of death to sometime after noon Sunday.
Leads quickly dry up
Hibbing police quickly began interviewing neighbors and anyone else who might have relevant information, and the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension sent in its crime scene team to search for any traces of whoever was responsible.
But within a week or two, Schwerzler said, the case went cold.
"We were getting no information; nobody was talking about anything, besides the family," he said. "And then all these rumors started. People would be calling me and be like, 'I heard he was kidnapped and drugged and beaten and gutted and beheaded.' And I'm like, 'That's just not what happened.'"
Forensic evidence came back inconclusive, only confirming Nelson's DNA at the crime scene and picking up plenty of dog hair. No fingerprints could be identified and no murder weapon has been recovered. A round-up of surveillance video in the area didn't provide any clues.
That doesn't mean there was a particular effort to clean up the crime scene or cover tracks, Schwerzler said. While "CSI"-style TV shows give the impression that every case can be solved with forensics, that's not always the case in the real world.
But good old-fashioned police work wasn't producing fruitful leads, either.
For example, investigators learned a man who had threatened Nelson at some point in the past had recently been released from the high-security state psychiatric hospital in St. Peter. But they were able to rule him out as a suspect.
Police also learned Nelson had recently stopped allowing customers to charge purchases at the store because too many accounts were going unpaid. Aware that it seemed to upset some people, officers tried taking a look through his books.
"I believe it was all kind of in his head," Schwerzler said, describing an informal system. "He had a lot of books and records, and a lot of it was shorthand notes, no real dates, no times. None of it really made sense to any of us or even his family."
Police not giving up
With no answers after a year, the nonprofit Spotlight on Crime fund offered a reward of up to $25,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for Nelson's killing. Four years later, that remains active.
Schwerzler hopes that will provide some incentive for someone to come forward. But it's also led to odd calls over the years — from psychics who claim to know what happened, to people claiming Nelson is alive and well, working at The Home Depot in St. Cloud.
Schwerzler said he and his three investigators still follow up on all new tips and are continuing to work with BCA agents in hopes of cracking the case. It's still widely discussed around town, he said, and people deserve answers and accountability.
"I take it personally," Schwerzler said. "I take pride in my job. I live here. I raise my family here. I want people to be able to call me if they have a problem. I think that's what we expect as a community of our police department, to figure out things — what happened and who did it."
Nelson's father, Leo, had served as the main spokesman and point of contact for the family, but he died in November at age 94 without any closure. His mother, Helga, is still awaiting answers. The News Tribune was not able to speak with a family representative in time for this story.
While most records these days are digital, Schwerzler still keeps a bulky file of documents from the Nelson case on his desk at all times — both for quick reference and as a reminder to keep pursuing justice.
"I wouldn't call it a long shot, because I don't believe anything is unsolvable," he said. "We just need people to do the right thing."
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Hibbing Police Department at 218-263-3601 or firstname.lastname@example.org .