MINOT, N.D. - One of two convicted killers involved in the double murder of an elderly Minot area couple is scheduled to be released from the North Dakota State Penitentiary next May. Calvin Arthur Newnam has an estimated release date of May 16, 2019. His accomplice in the murders, Kevin Austin, is currently serving a life sentence for the same crime.
The murders happened during a time when few homeowners in the area locked their doors. Violent crime was extremely rare in the Minot area.
Late one Saturday afternoon, law enforcement was called to the rural home of Charles and Cora Abernathy, about two miles north of Gavin Yard east of the city. They encountered a gruesome scene. The couple had been shot in the head. Their throats were slashed. Cora was found in her bed. Charles was on the living room floor. Investigators put the time of death at the previous evening, Friday, Feb. 8, 1985.
"At that time there wasn't home invasions, things like that," said Vern Erck. "There was burglaries but they were mostly businesses, not home burglaries. People felt safe and secure."
Erck was a 30-year-old newly appointed captain of investigations for the Ward County Sheriff's Office at the time of the Abernathy killings. He was not initially in charge of the investigation but it would later be handed to him. It was his first major case. Several years later Erck was elected Ward County sheriff and served in that position from 1994-2010.
Charles was 75 years old and Cora, 66, at the time of their murders. The latter was virtually immobile due to a recent hip surgery. Their rural home had been ransacked but, in the end, all that was determined to be missing was $300. Charles Abernathy still had money in his pocket.
"Vern called me. He was already out there," said Tom Slorby, a Minot attorney who was the Ward County State's Attorney in 1985. "I walked in and wondered what all the cops were doing there. It was really bad."
It wasn't until several agonizing months later, while understandably anxious citizens were clamoring for an arrest, that Newnam, then 24 years old and a resident of south Minot, admitted to law enforcement that he was involved.
On Sept. 25, 1985, Newnam went to the Minot Police station at the request of officers John Glibota and Leo Keelan. It was then that Newnam, who had been considered by investigators to be a leading suspect in the case, confessed to the crime.
Newnam was convicted on June 9, 1986, and sentenced to consecutive life terms in the North Dakota State Penitentiary for the murders and to concurrent terms of 20 years for robbery and five years for felonious restraint. Remarkably, the man Newnam identified as his accomplice, Kevin Austin, Minot, avoided a murder trial. The primary reason was that Newnam refused to testify against Austin.
"Newnam turned against us and wouldn't testify," said Slorby. "At that time I could not have gotten Austin's case to the jury. I dismissed that case without prejudice to save it for later. That was better than having him acquitted. I would have gone to trial in a heartbeat had Newnam not turned on us."
"I didn't like it but I understood it," said Erck. "It was the right thing to do."
Police arrested Austin on a forgery charge in 1985 about one week after the discovery of the Abernathys. He would eventually serve time behind bars, but not for the Abernathy murders. It wasn't until 1993 that Austin would face a jury for his role in the Abernathy killings. Newnam, who had earlier refused to testify against Austin, changed his mind after sitting in prison for several years with no hope of release.
"The best thing I remember was the day that Calvin called me from the penitentiary," remembered Erck. "That was a pretty big part of the case. He said he was ready to come up and testify and show us the weapons. We rushed down there and brought him back. The rest is history."
Investigators had recovered several items identified as belonging to Newnam and Austin, but not the guns used to commit the murders. As he said he would do, Newnam took law enforcement to the hiding place of the guns, two .22 caliber handguns. The guns were stashed under insulation in the attic of the home of Newnam's parents. Ironically, law enforcement had searched that home earlier but failed to find the hidden handguns. Ballistics tests later confirmed they were the guns used in the murders.
Austin's trial took place in June and July 1993 at the Ward County Courthouse more than eight years after the murders took place. Newnam testified in vivid detail about Austin's participation. Austin denied any involvement. The jury returned with a verdict of guilty on both counts of murder and Austin received two consecutive life sentences. Now 56 years old, he remains in the State Penitentiary. Austin had turned 22 years old just months before the murders.
In return for Newnam's cooperation, new Ward County State's Attorney Doug Mattson, along with others that included members of the Abernathy family, consented to reducing Newnam's sentence from two consecutive life terms in prison to two concurrent terms of 50 years each. Now, after 33 years behind bars, Newnam's release date is in sight.
"May 16, 2019, is his good time release date. Could it change? Yes, based on behavior he could lose some," explained Michelle Linster, N.D. Department of Corrections public relations officer. "Upon his release he walks out the doors and goes where ever he wants. He'll have served his time."
Erck, retired from his law enforcement career, credits fellow officers, both from the county and the city, with doing some excellent work in helping solve the crime. He also remembers members of the Abernathy family who, despite extremely trying circumstances, graciously worked with law enforcement.
"They are one of the most kind and decent families I've ever met or worked with," said Erck sincerely. "I consider them friends."