Three times the state of Arkansas has tried a man for Nona Dirksmeyer’s murder and three times they have failed to get justice for the beloved beauty queen. Will the family ever find answers?
Nineteen-year-old Nona Dirksmeyer both sounded and looked exquisite. The college student had a beautiful soprano voice and a body that turned all the boys’ heads. She parlayed her talent and looks into competing in, and winning, several beauty pageants. The teen queen was only 11 days from turning twenty, but the disputed events of one awful evening prevented that occurrence.
On the evening of December 15, 2005, emergency workers responded to a frantic call for help at Russellville, Arkansas’s Inglewood Apartment complex. Inside Apartment 12, they encountered a gruesome scene. There lay the lifeless body of Pope County’s Beauty Queen. Nona had been stabbed and beaten to death.
Fourteen years after the bombshell’s brutal slaying, Nona Dirksmeyer’s case remains rife with aftershocks, marked by allegations of police incompetence, lawsuits, and three costly and emotionally draining trials resulting in no convictions.
Nona Dirksmeyer’s short life ended brutally, and no ending to her story can yet be written. After Nona Dirksmeyer graduated from Dover High school in 2004, she entered Arkansas Tech University in nearby Russellville. At the time of her murder, she was a sophomore majoring in music education and living off-campus.
Nona had taken the crowns in several beauty pageants: Pope County Beauty Queen, Miss Teen Nebo, and Miss Petit Jean Valley for 2005. That same year, she had also competed in the Miss Arkansas Pageant.
Nona and Kevin Jones had been high school sweethearts. The two continued their relationship while attending Arkansas Tech and even after Kevin transferred to the University of Arkansas.
Kevin had returned to Russellville on the evening of December 15, 2005, and planned to spend time with his girl. He expected to hear from her after she had completed a final exam, but several calls and texts were unanswered. As he had plans to attend a party with his mother, Kevin asked his friend, pizza delivery driver Ryan Whiteside, to go to Nona’s apartment to check on her. Kevin expected Ryan to call him, saying something to the effect that she had dozed off. But when Ryan did call, Kevin’s concern grew.
Ryan rang Nona’s doorbell and received no answer even though her car was in the parking lot, and the lights in her apartment were on. En route to the party, Kevin and his mom, Janice, made a detour to Nona’s place.
Kevin and Ryan went to the apartment’s sliding glass door. As he peered in, Ryan saw Nona lying naked on the floor. The door was unlocked, and the two men rushed inside. Nona did not answer Kevin’s repeated cries. He attempted to give her CPR, but Nona still did not move.
When paramedics arrived at the apartment, they too attempted to revive Nona, but their efforts were in vain as well. Nona Dirksmeyer was pronounced dead at the scene, having been stabbed and beaten to death.
Kevin described the sight of finding the woman he loved as a nightmare. And it was only beginning. After the police were called and conducted their investigation of the crime scene, a distraught Kevin agreed to be questioned at the police station. After a couple of hours, he was told he could leave.
In questioning Nona’s friends, police learned she had been casually seeing several other people since Kevin had left Russellville for Fayetteville. All of the young men were questioned, their alibis were confirmed, and they were eliminated as suspects in Nona’s murder.
Afterward, the investigators’ focus returned to Kevin as they believed the crime scene looked staged. The medical examiner determined Nona had been stabbed and beaten repeatedly on her head, neck, and chest, all signs of personal attack. Police were certain Nona’s murder was a crime of passion. Crimes of passion are usually committed by those closest to the victim. Investigators asked Kevin Jones if he would take a polygraph test. He agreed and, according to one investigator, failed worse than anyone to whom he had ever administered the test in his twenty years in law enforcement.
On March 31, 2006, Kevin Jones was charged with the murder of his girlfriend. The prosecution believed Kevin murdered Nona in a jealous rage. A used condom wrapper was found on Nona’s kitchen counter, but although Nona was found nude, there was no physical evidence she had been raped.
Prosecutors contended that upon seeing the condom wrapper, an enraged Kevin grabbed a knife and began repeatedly stabbing Nona. His bloody palm print was found on the bulb of a lamp, and the prosecution claimed he had used it to crush his girlfriend’s skull. When questioned, Kevin said he had not touched the lamp.
Nona’s autopsy showed she had been killed several hours before her body was found. The prosecution contends that after murdering her, Kevin left the apartment and later made the phone calls and sent the text messages to appear concerned. He also waited until the evening, the state contended, to return with his mother and friend to “find” her body. Kevin’s defense team, however, had an answer to all of the state’s contentions. First, an independent expert found the questions administered during Kevin’s polygraph examination were skewed to ensure his failure. The determination was a good start, but it was not of great help because polygraph test results are not admissible as evidence in court. Fortunately for Kevin, the finding was only the beginning.
The defense refuted the relevance of Kevin’s bloody palm print being on the lamp’s light bulb. The lamp was presumed to be the murder weapon because an EMT recalled it was within a foot of the body. The defense argued he had likely touched it without realizing it in his panic to revive Nona. Another weapon in the defense arsenal proved to be those in uniform: the Russellville Police. They declared the crime scene investigators, headed by first-time homicide detective Mark Frost, mucked up the investigation into Nona’s murder from the moment they arrived.
The defense emphasized that the only area investigators fingerprinted was around Nona’s body even though blood was near the front door and on the Venetian blinds. The front door was locked, but the back glass sliding door was unlocked, suggesting the route the killer had exited. The back door had not been fingerprinted. Although the killer would have walked across the kitchen floor to exit the apartment through the back door, the floor was not checked for footprints.
While prosecutors acknowledged mistakes had been made by police, they still felt the empty condom wrapper was a critical piece of evidence against Kevin Jones. They claimed upon finding the condom and believing his girlfriend had been with another man, Kevin killed Nona. Again, however, Kevin’s defense team was ready.
Kevin said he never noticed the condom wrapper, and his lawyers argued if he had, he would have picked it up and would have left his fingerprints on it. The prosecution did not have the wrapper tested; the defense did. Fingerprints and DNA were found on the condom wrapper, but they were not Kevin’s. They belonged to another male whose profile did not match any on file in the database. Kevin’s grandmother also testified he was with her in Dover at the time of the murder. After eight hours of deliberation, Kevin was found not guilty of Nona’s death in July of 2007.
Many agreed with the jury’s verdict, but some believed Kevin had gotten away with murder. Three months later, the arrest of another man for another crime led to his arrest for Nona’s murder, seemingly vindicating Kevin. He was, however, in for a rude awakening. Although another would be charged with the murder of Nona Dirksmeyer, Kevin Jones would, in a sense, be put on trial again.
In September of 2007, two months after Kevin’s acquittal, Gary Dunn was arrested for burglary. Dunn had lived in the same apartment complex as Nona and had been questioned and cleared by police. He agreed to submit his fingerprints and a DNA sample. After the tests were completed several weeks later, they suggested the DNA on the condom wrapper found in Nona’s apartment was Dunn’s. The fingerprints found on the wrapper were also consistent with Dunn’s but were not sufficient to be deemed a legal match.
When questioned again by police, Dunn said he had an alibi for December 15, 2005, the day Nona was murdered. He told them he was shopping with his mother, and she backed up his story. They told investigators the items they had purchased and from which stores. Investigators found receipts from the stores showing the items were purchased on December 13, not the 15th.
A new prosecutor found the DNA evidence and faulty alibi enough to charge Gary Dunn with the murder of Nona Dirksmeyer. His trial began in April of 2010. The new prosecution team argued the same theory as their predecessors that Nona was killed in a crime of passion. The accused man was now Gary Dunn, whom the state painted as a sexually violent man who had his eyes set on Nona.
Dunn’s former wife, Jennifer, testified against him at the trial. She was married to Dunn and lived with him in the apartment across the small parking lot from Nona’s at the time of the murder. By the time of Dunn’s trial, she had divorced him. Jennifer testified her former husband was often violent toward her and that in the weeks before Nona’s murder, she had caught lurking at Nona’s front door and looking in her bedroom window in the middle of the night.
The prosecution contended that Dunn, whom Jennifer also said had violent sexual habits, entered Nona’s apartment with the intent of forcing a sexual encounter and that he brought a condom which he disposed of but had left the wrapper behind. He forced all of her clothes off but killed her without raping her. Like the prosecutors in Kevin Jones’s trial, the state attorney’s evidence was attacked vigorously by Gary Dunn’s lawyers. They argued the DNA on that condom wrapper was only a mixed partial match to Dunn, and that it could also partially match thousands of other people.
Dunn’s attorneys conceded their client was not shopping with his mother on the day of Nona’s murder, but that he had not lied to the police. On the contrary, he cooperated fully by telling investigators where he had shopped and what he had purchased. Dunn’s lawyers argued he had simply forgotten the day he had gone shopping since he was questioned two weeks after the fact. He was in his apartment at the time of Nona’s murder.
The Double Jeopardy clause prohibits a person from being tried a second time for a crime for which he or she has been acquitted. At least officially. Despite Kevin Jones’s acquittal of Nona’s murder three years earlier, he was unofficially put on trial again and became the focus of Gary Dunn’s defense team. Dunn’s counsel argued Jones, his mother, grandmother, and friend, all gave conflicting statements to the 911 operator, the paramedics, and the police. They offered that Kevin, who admitted to using Marijuana, Xanax, and Adderall, may have killed Nona while high on the drugs.
In an ironic twist, Gary Dunn’s defense team also used the same argument as Kevin’s prosecutors in that Kevin knew of Nona’s seeing other boys and, upon finding the condom wrapper, killed her in a state of fury. The attacks on Kevin Jones were enough to dent the prosecution’s case against Gary Dunn. After three weeks of deliberation with the jury deadlocked, a mistrial was declared. Undeterred, prosecutors immediately filed charges to try Dunn again.
The state felt confident this time would be different, mainly because the testimony of Kelly Jo Harris was allowed to be admitted as evidence. In 2002, three years before Nona’s murder, Dunn had attacked her as she jogged along an isolated trail. He approached her from behind and hit her over the head with a large stick, knocking her down. Dunn pinned her to the ground and threatened to kill her, but Kelly was able to break free and summon help. When police arrived at the scene, they found Dunn hiding in the water.
Dunn was convicted of the attack and served 18 months in jail. After being released, he moved into the apartment across from Nona’s. Dunn’s lawyers, however, again successfully offered the same arguments they had used in his first trial. Despite the admission of his criminal past as evidence in his second trial, prosecutors were again unable to get a conviction. The second trial of Gary Dunn resulted in another hung jury.
In 2017, Dunn was sentenced to ten years in prison for a firearms offense. He was paroled in August of 2018 after serving only one year. Four months later, however, Dunn was in trouble again and was arrested on two counts of attempted kidnapping and one count of indecent exposure. Each of the incidents occurred in Russellville, Arkansas.
In November of 2019, Dunn accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 15 years in prison with ten years suspended. He will have to serve 70 percent of his sentence before he’s eligible for parole. The state of Arkansas could charge Gary Dunn for the murder of Nona Dirksmeyer again but has not given any indications of plans to do so. Many feel the state, after three strikes, has struck out in its attempt to get a conviction in the murder of Nona Dirksmeyer.
Kevin Jones sued former Detective Mark Frost, former Police Chief James Bacon, Gary Dunn, and the City of Russellville, claiming all had conspired to conceal evidence and deprive him of his constitutional right to a fair trial. The actions, he claimed, resulted in his malicious prosecution under federal and state law. In October 2014, the Eighth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals upheld the District Court’s rule that the claims were time-barred by statute limits.
Nona Dirksmeyer, the Dover beauty, was killed by a beast. Fourteen years later, no one has been convicted of the crime. Her story is ended with a question instead of an answer: Will there be no justice for Nona?
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More About Our Wonderful Guest Blogger:
Ian Granstra is a writer and a native Iowan now living in Arkansas.Growing up, he enjoyed watching real-life crime shows and further researching the stories featured. He wrote about many of them on his personal Facebook page, and several people suggested he should start a group featuring his writings. Ian founded the Facebook group “Murders, Missing People and More Mysteries” in August of 2018 he writes about many cold cases. The group also features many current criminal cases in the news. When Ian isn’t writing, he enjoys exercising, traveling and collecting sports cards. He’s also a big animal lover (his Facebook nickname is “beagle lover.”)
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