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MILLCREEK — Jessica Nemelka is thankful she now has answers to what happened to her mother.
But news on Wednesday that two people have been charged in connection with the mysterious death the Millcreek mother of five, who was found shot to death in her car in a driveway, is only one step toward closure.
"I think closure will come in time. Having answers is definitely helpful, it really is. But I think closure will come when everything is finished. It's going to be a long court process, it's going to be a very long timeline from here on out. And having answers is part of its own closure. But it doesn't change what happened, it doesn't bring her back. But it does help," she said.
On Wednesday, James Dekota Brunson, 24, and Anika Celeste Thorpe, 23, were each charged with murder, a first-degree felony, in 3rd District Court in the March 11, 2020, death of Linda Nemelka, 57.
"We are absolutely relieved," Jessica Nemelka said Wednesday. "We are so relieved."
Nemelka said her family has experienced a lot of emotions over the past year, including anger, fear and uncertainty. But she said the family is also somewhat comforted knowing now that the couple charged with murdering their mother have been incarcerated for more than a year and that the killing appears to be the result of a random attack.
"Any rage and anger is mitigated that they were apprehended literally within days after they killed our mother," she told KSL.com. "It's actually incredibly comforting to some of us that they were incarcerated a couple of days (after the killing) for a completely separate charge. It's comforting to know they were off the streets.
"Now that we know it's more like a random carjacking, it's not more comforting — nothing could make this comforting — but it was absolutely the wrong place, wrong time for her. And that's unfortunate, but it's better than being someone that she knew who targeted her for a personal reason," she continued. "There is no sense to be made of it."
About 10:10 p.m. on March 11, 2020, Linda Nemelka had just finished eating dinner with a friend and had gotten into her car to go home when she was shot. When Unified police arrived, the driver's side door of the car in the driveway was open, the engine still running and Nemelka was slouched over the console. She was taken to a hospital where she died from her injuries.
Her daughters say Nemelka kept a lot of items in her car. They believe their baby books — which have been missing for about a year — are still in their mother's car that been impounded by police as evidence since the crime occurred. One theory the family has is that Nemelka attempted to fight off Brunson to keep him from taking items that were personal and had sentimental value, such as her daughters' baby books.
For months after the killing, there were no suspects in the case as the family pleaded with the public for anyone with information to step forward.
But unknown to the family and police at the time, Brunson and Thorpe were actually arrested for unrelated crimes just days after Nemelka was killed.
Neighbors reported seeing a dark-colored SUV speeding away shortly after the shooting. As detectives gathered information in the investigation, they learned that Brunson and Thorpe were believed to be driving a dark-colored SUV that had been stolen in American Fork three days before the shooting and the couple had stolen nine firearms — two shotguns, three handguns, one revolver, two .22 caliber rifles and one AR-15 —from Thorpe's mother in Orem on March 10, 2020, according to the charges.
On March 12, 2020, detectives from the Orem Police Department and Utah County Major Crimes Task Force found Brunson and Thorpe in West Jordan. Brunson was arrested after attempting to run from police and was tackled by officers. As he was running, he took a 9mm handgun from his waistband and threw it over a fence, the charges say.
The gun was recovered by police, and using ballistic comparisons was determined to be the same gun that was used to shoot Nemelka, according to charging documents.
Further tying the case together, on Feb. 9, police were contacted by a man who said he had information about Nemelka's death. Detectives interviewed him with his attorney present.
The man told police that on the night of the shooting, he had given Brunson money to buy drugs. Later that evening, Brunson contacted the man stating he was running late, and then asked him to look on the news for information about a shooting in Millcreek, according to the charging documents.
"Brunson stated that he and Thorpe were 'hitting a lick' and it went bad," the charges state. Hitting a lick is slang for getting money quickly, such as in a robbery.
In addition to murder, Brunson and Thorpe were also each charged Wednesday with aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony, and possession of a weapon by a restricted person, a second-degree felony.
Both Brunson and Thorpe were on parole at the time of the killing and both have remained in prison since their arrests on March 12, 2020.
Bruson was last paroled from prison in January 2020, just two months before Nemelka was killed. He was sent to prison in 2017 after being convicted of carjacking a woman in American Fork and getting into a chase with police that ended when he rammed a Utah County sheriff's vehicle and was later arrested at gunpoint, according to charging documents. He was sentenced to a term of one to 15 years in the Utah State Prison in that case.
For the stolen guns, Brunson was charged in federal court in 2020 with being a felon in possession of firearms and ammunition, and possession of stolen firearms. That case is still ongoing.
Thorpe was convicted in July 2020 for the same incident by pleading no contest to theft and two counts of attempted theft by receiving stolen property. She was sentenced to a term of one to 15 years in the Utah State Prison.
Even though the crime happened right before the COVID-related "shutdown" of the state, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera said her detectives were patient and diligent and never stopped working.
"The detectives have worked nonstop on this case and we were fortunate that an informant came forward," she said.
Rivera believes the case would have been solved even if an informant had not contacted them, but "It always helps to have more information."
The sheriff also praised the Utah State Crime Lab, the state prison, and other law enforcement agencies for their help in the investigation.
"It takes all of us to solve these types of cases, especially when the crime is so random," she said. "It's tough when there are no witnesses, no video and no real evidence left at the scene."
Nemelka and her siblings on Wednesday expressed heartfelt gratitude to Unified police detectives who worked the case. They also stated that they have not been able to have a proper memorial for their mother yet because pandemic restrictions went into effect just days after their mother was killed. She said a memorial service is now being planned.
"She was an absolute beacon of light," Nemelka said of her mother. "She was a friend to everyone she met. She was the kind of woman who could go to a grocery store and make three best friends just waiting in line because everyone felt like they could just open up to her and talk to her about personal things and we do miss that about her.
"She had a very giving spirit, a giving nature."