RALEIGH, N.C. – Police are looking for clues into who murdered Jennifer Kathleen Nielsen, a 22-year-old mother of two who was found stabbed to death last Thursday.
Nielsen, who moved to North Carolina from Utah last year, was killed while working as a newspaper carrier for USA Today and delivering a local weekly newspaper in Raleigh. USA Today took out a full-page ad in hopes of finding information about who killed her.
A Raleigh police officer found Nielsen's body around 5 a.m. on June 14 behind an AmeriKing Food Mart and Exxon station near 1709 Lake Wheeler Road. She was likely killed between 3 a.m. and 4 a.m. when the store was closed, investigators said. Nielsen was eight months pregnant and expected to deliver her third child, Ethan, July 8.
She apparently was stabbed in the neck, according to a preliminary report from the state medical examiner's office. Police are asking for help in finding her killer.
"We're still looking for any information from anyone who may have seen anything," Raleigh Police Capt. Chris Bertram told USA Today.
The ad in Monday’s editions include a police sketch of the man wanted for questioning in connection with Nielsen’s murder. He is described as a 5’3", 120-pound male 17 to 20 years of age, with long black hair in a ponytail. He was seen wearing a black sleeveless t-shirt and baggy blue jean shorts. He is thin with a slender face, no apparent facial hair and light skin.
The sketch was made after an unidentified witness told police he had seen the man in the area, USA Today reported. The newspaper also said investigators are reviewing videotapes from surveillance cameras at the scene. Bertram said he didn't know whether the attack was captured on the tapes.
The area where Nielsen’s body was found is near woods where multiple homeless camps have been set up, but Bertram told USA Today: "We are not speculating that the person who did this might have been homeless."
Nielsen was buried Saturday in Salt Lake City, near where she lived before she and her husband, Tim, moved to Fuquay-Varina last August. The couple already had two young children before her death.
"She was the joy of our life," said Diane Frank, Nielsen's grandmother, USA Today reported. "She played the piano beautifully. She danced. She sang. She could make music out of anything."
Nielsen worked as a paper carrier for USA Today to earn extra money.
USA TODAY contributed $5,000 to a fund established by Nielsen's family in her name.
The newspaper's parent company, Gannett, has pledged to contribute $10,000, said Heidi Zimmerman, a USA TODAY spokeswoman.
Anyone with any information is asked to call the Raleigh Police Department at (919) 227-6220.
Unlike more than half the states in the nation, North Carolina does not have a homicide law for the death of an unborn child. That means if Nielsen's killer is arrested and brought to trial, prosecutors can't charge the suspect with the death of her baby.
"I don't think there's anything we can do," said Colon Willoughby, Wake County's district attorney. "I try to carry out the law as it is written. The policies are decided by the legislature."
A 1989 state Supreme Court ruling also limits prosecutors in such cases. That ruling says that causing harm to the mother that results in the death of her unborn child does not amount to murder. The court said it's only murder if the child survives the attack then later dies of injuries.
Nielsen's friends find these legal limits hard to understand.
"If the baby had been inside of her for one or two months, then I think there may be questions about it as a developing fetus," said Paul Grynick, a family friend from Utah. "But at eight months, it's a baby living inside of its mother. It's alive."
While prosecutors can't treat her death as a double homicide, they may be able to seek the death penalty. North Carolina's capital punishment statute includes a section about aggravating circumstances, which could allow prosecutors to argue the killing of a young mother and unborn baby was especially heinous or cruel.
"There's certainly an argument to be made there," said Joe Kennedy, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Willoughby said it's too soon to say if his office will seek the death penalty in the Nielsen case. Her killer is expected to be charged with first-degree murder.
"That's the highest classification we have," Willoughby said.
Prosecutors can push for enhanced penalties against attackers if the mother survives but miscarries. Under North Carolina law, a charge can be elevated to the next-higher level of offense when a crime against a pregnant woman causes a miscarriage or stillbirth of her unborn child.
Nationally, 31 states have fetal homicide statutes. One high-profile use of such a statute was the Scott Peterson case in California. In 2005, a judge there sentenced Peterson to death for the murders of his wife Laci and her unborn son.
The federal Unborn Victims Violence Act of 2004 also recognizes an unborn child at any stage of development as a legal victim. However, the law is limited to federal statutes, including acts of terrorism, crimes committed on f
A fund has been set up for Nielsen’s family. Contributions can be sent to:
Nielsen Family Fund
First Flight Credit Union
1156 North Main Street Fuquay-Varina, NC 27526
Attention: Kati 919-557-5311
The Associated Press contributed to this report.