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Rural Minnesota farm slaying of Karla Jo Nieland remains unsolved

On May 17, 1981, Karla Jo Nieland was found dead inside a vehicle belonging to her boyfriend, John Keep. Authorities arrested Keep and charged him with second- and third-degree murder — one year later, a jury found him not guilty. The case remains open.

Karla Jo Nieland
Karla Jo Nieland was last seen alive at a party on May 17, 1981 on this farm property in Hoffman, Minnesota. While charges for second- and third-degree murder were filed against her boyfriend, he was acquitted by a jury. The case remains open.
Trisha Taurinskas/Forum News Service
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HOFFMAN, Minn. — The 1981 slaying of Hoffman High School senior Karla Jo Nieland sent shock waves throughout the small Minnesota farming community — the effects of which are still being felt today.

At around 3:30 a.m. May 17, 1981, Nieland was found beaten to death inside a vehicle belonging to her then-boyfriend, John Keep. Keep was arrested and charged with second- and third-degree murder related to her death.

Karla Jo Nieland
Karla Jo Nieland's body was discovered by law enforcement May 17, 1981 in her boyfriend's vehicle in Hoffman, Minnesota. Charges were filed for second- and third-degree murder against her boyfriend, John Keep — a jury found him not guilty. The case related to her death is still open.
Photo courtesy of Ancestry.com.

On May 26, 1982, Keep was acquitted by a jury of 11 women and one man. It was a decision that stunned locals, including Nieland's family members, who were under the impression the trial would be an open-and-shut case.

More than 40 years later, the case technically remains an open investigation.

“There are no suspects being looked at right now. Obviously the case hasn’t been closed, but I can’t necessarily say it’s open either,” Grant County Sheriff Mark Haberer said. “The case has been sitting through three or four different sheriffs right now and, to my knowledge, nobody else has done anything more to this case since the suspect, or the defendant, was found not guilty,” Herberer said.

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The acquittal left a gaping hole of injustice for local residents, who have spent the last four decades debating who is to blame for Nieland's death.

“It is certainly possible that the person who committed that murder has been acquitted of that murder,” Grant County Attorney Justin Anderson said.

Speculation over what really happened the night of Nieland's death grew when the court records associated with the murder trial were sealed — an action that was taken within the last few years by Judge Amy Doll. Doll was appointed to the Eighth Judicial District in 2016.

Forum News Service has filed for access to the sealed record. At the time this story published, access had not been granted.

The night Karla Jo Nieland died

May 16, 1981 was a Saturday — the students of Hoffman High School were planning a party at a farm on the outskirts of town.

Karla Jo Nieland slaying
Karla Jo Nieland, an 18-year-old high school senior, was found beaten to death in her boyfriend's vehicle in 1981 on a farm in rural Hoffman, Minnesota.
Photo courtesy of Google Maps.

A year prior to the party, Kensington and Hoffman schools merged, creating a tense situation for many students who began attending class alongside their crosstown rivals.

While reluctant to attend the party, Nieland did eventually show up to the outdoor gathering. Witnesses in the 1982 court case testified that Keep had already begun drinking, consuming at least six beers before Nieland’s arrival, according to a 1982 article in the Star Tribune.

Witnesses also said the two had an argument, prompting Nieland to walk away from the gathering while Keep continued to consume alcohol, according to the article.

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One witness, Roland "Rocky" Fiebranz, testified that Nieland was seen after the fight in an area between two outbuildings on the farm property — he claimed he saw her just before everyone — except Nieland and Keep — left the party grounds, the 1982 article reported. Keep denied seeing Nieland again at the party. Instead, he claimed he was hit over the head and woke up to find Nieland’s body in his car.

Fiebranz's sister, Jackie Hermel, testified that Keep stormed into her home — located on the farm property — in the early hours of May 17, 1981, frantically confessed to killing Nieland and then took off in Fiebranz's vehicle, before returning — then, Hermel said, Fiebranz hit Keep for stealing his vehicle, according to the 1982 Star Tribune article.

A woman who answered the phone at Fiebranz's residence told Forum News Service he did not wish to comment.

Testimony from investigators indicated Nieland was severely beaten and strangled. Law enforcement arrived on the farm around 3:30 a.m. — there, they discovered Nieland’s body inside Keep’s car, according to the Associated Press.

Nieland's shirt, sweater and bra were discovered in a field on the farm's property, near the location where Keep's shirt and car keys were discovered, according to the 1982 article.

Keep was charged with second- and third-degree murder days later, according to the Grant County Herald.

The trial

Keep was just 17 years old at the time of Nieland’s death. It was decided by a juvenile court judge in June 1981 that Keep would be charged as an adult — a decision Keep and his lawyers appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, where it was affirmed, according to the Grant County Herald.

The trial began on May 19, 1982. Seven days later, after just a few hours of deliberation by the jury, Keep was acquitted.

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Keep's attorney, Joseph Friedberg, cast doubt on key claims made by the prosecution, including the time of death. Friedberg insinuated Nieland's death could have occurred during a portion of the evening when Keep was drinking beer with friends at the party, according to the Star Tribune article. Friedberg also cast doubt on the prosecution's reliance on the testimonies of Fiebranz and Hermel.

John Keep
John Keep was found not guilty by a Grant County jury in 1982 on second- and third-degree murder charges related to the death of Karla Jo Nieland. The investigation related to her death is still open. Photo courtesy of Ancestry.com.

The prosecuting attorney, Jon Stafsholt, expressed shock following the verdict. In a 1982 interview, Stafsholt said he would not have done anything differently, casting doubt on the jury. A voicemail message left for Stafsholt by Forum News Service was not returned.

The acquittal left local law enforcement in a difficult situation. While initially confident in their arrest, the verdict sent them back to the drawing board. They’ve been there ever since.

Since the acquittal in 1982, the communities of Hoffman and Kennsington have been embroiled in a feud over what happened the night of Nieland’s death. There are those who, despite the verdict, believe Keep is to blame. And there are those who believe law enforcement never arrested the right guy.

The sealed case files

The sealing of court records associated with the 1982 murder trial leaves Grant County residents without an opportunity to review documents related to public testimony of the trial.

Court records are available to the public, unless they include confidential information. Domestic violence cases, juvenile proceedings and custody-related records are kept confidential by the courts, to name a few.

In order to request that court documents be sealed, an applicant must complete expungement forms for each case they wish to seal, including for charges in which they were not convicted.

In the application, the petitioner must indicate a legal reason to seal the record. Applicants are given four legal justifications for expungement. One of those options applies to Keep — the criminal matter was resolved in his favor.

Applicants are also encouraged to explain how sealing the record could improve their life and possibly benefit their family.

When submitted, the judge “must weigh the disadvantages for the community if your case is expunged against the benefits you would get from the expungement,” according to the Minnesota Judicial Branch.

Anderson said the request to seal the record did not land on his desk, indicating that he was not familiar with the request or who filed the request.

A Minnesota Judicial Branch case records search did not reveal any information related to the charges against Keep.

Messages left on Keep’s voicemail by Forum News Services were not returned.

Trisha Taurinskas is an enterprise crime reporter for Forum Communications Co., specializing in stories related to missing persons and unsolved crime. Her work is primarily featured on The Vault.

Trisha can be reached at ttaurinskas@forumcomm.com.
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