After not hearing from his 18-year-old daughter, Anita, for several days in 2007, Gordon Knutson drove about an hour to her apartment in Minot, N.D., to make sure she was okay. But when he arrived, it seemed no one was home.
Then, he peered into Anita’s bedroom window.
“The mattress was soaked with blood,” Gordon said in a 2016 interview with Crime Watch Daily, a news magazine series.
Anita, face down on her bed, had been stabbed several times. Someone had covered her body in a large house coat, her father said. He reached through the window to touch her.
“Her body was cold, so I knew she was dead,” Gordon said.
The Minot Police Department took on the case, which went unsolved for over 14 years. The delay frustrated Anita’s family, who said in interviews over the years that they felt law enforcement fumbled the investigation. That was until Wednesday, when Minot Police Chief John Klug announced the arrest of Nichole Rice, Anita’s roommate at the time of her death.
Rice, 34, has been charged with intentional murder, court records show. The charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment without parole. Rice’s attorney did not respond to The Washington Post’s request for comment.
“My heart goes out to the family,” Klug said at a news conference. “I wish we could have solved this sooner, but at the same time, I’m glad to say that we have a person responsible for the murder of Anita Knutson in custody.”
Police did not elaborate on a possible motive.
Anita, a tenacious, kind and compassionate young woman, had just completed her first year at Minot State University, where she was studying elementary education, her family told Crime Watch Daily. She had been working two jobs to pay for school and was living with Rice in an off-campus apartment.
Sharon Knutson said she last spoke to her daughter on Friday, June 1, 2007. The two were in touch daily, she told the true crime show. So, when Anita didn’t answer her phone for several days, Sharon asked her husband on June 4 to drive from their home in Butte, N.D., to Anita’s apartment.
Gordon attempted to enter the apartment, but it was locked, according to an affidavit of probable cause for Rice reviewed by The Post, so he found the landlady and the maintenance worker to ask for help. The maintenance man had recalled seeing a window screen, removed and sliced, outside of Anita’s apartment, Gordon said.
When Gordon went to look for the screen, he realized it was from his daughter’s bedroom window, he said. He then looked inside and saw his daughter on her bed. The landlady let them into the apartment, the affidavit says, and they called the Minot Police Department.
Officers arrived around 5:12 p.m., and found a small pocketknife with dried blood on the edge of Anita’s bed, according to the report. Investigators noted in the affidavit that Anita’s laptop, cellphone, purse and digital camera were all in her bedroom – indicating her death was not part of a robbery. There were no signs that anyone had entered through Anita’s bedroom window, where the screen had been taken out, the report says.
In an interview with Crime Watch Daily, Sgt. David Goodman from the Minot Police Department said he found traces of blood where the screen was cut, indicating it was probably sliced after the murder.
“I believe the purpose would be to mislead law enforcement – to try and show that this is possibly an entry point,” Goodman said.
Police questioned Anita’s friends, neighbors and construction workers who were on a job nearby, investigators told Crime Watch Daily. They found traces of DNA on the pocketknife and took samples from the people they interviewed.
Police also spoke to Rice, Anita’s roommate. Rice allegedly told police officers she was with her family all weekend.
But investigators suspected something was off with Rice’s story, according to the affidavit. Statements given by Rice and her parents were allegedly inconsistent and contradictory. Several friends told police that Anita and Rice often fought, the report says. According to the affidavit, people close to the roommates said Rice “was hot-tempered and reactionary.”
“Anita was scared of her,” Sharon said on the true crime show, adding that Rice allegedly sent Anita threatening messages. Anita planned to move out, Sharon added.
Klug, the police chief, said investigators never ruled out Rice as a suspect, but they did not have enough evidence to arrest her. The Minot Police Department began re-interviewing suspects and witnesses earlier this year after partnering with “Cold Justice,” another true crime show, Klug said. The program, which airs on Oxygen, provided additional support and expertise for investigators, according to the police chief.
Anita’s family grew frustrated over the years, concerned that the case was being pushed aside by the police department. Anna Knutson, Anita’s sister, told Crime Watch Daily that she was upset over how long it was taking investigators to solve the case.
“I don’t think they’re doing a great job,” she said.
But Minot Police say they have never forgotten about the case and have been continually following leads. In the years since Anita’s death, investigators received several tips about Rice, the affidavit says, including one that said her roommate admitted, while intoxicated, to killing Anita. But police were not able to identify the person Rice allegedly confessed to until earlier this month, according to the affidavit.
Investigators learned it was a man Rice was dating for a few months in 2008 and 2009. During that period, someone brought up Anita’s death while the couple was at a party, the report says. Rice got “belligerently drunk,” the former boyfriend told police. Rice then told him that she “did it,” the affidavit says. The man later tried to ask Rice about the confession when she was sober, but she allegedly rebuffed the questions in anger.
Klug did not provide details on the evidence that pointed to Rice. Rather, he said, it was about looking at the facts from a different perspective.
“I think the turning point in this case was really just trying to pull all of that information together and put it in an order that made sense,” Klug said. ” . . . It just took a little bit of refocusing and a lot of paying attention to the fine details.”
Rice was arrested Wednesday at Minot Air Force Base, where she worked as a civilian. She was taken to Ward County Jail and released the next day on a $120,000 bond, KFYR reported.
Rice is due back in court on April 21, according to court records.