The Justice Files: The murder of Jocelyn Hickenlooper Pt.2

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – Jocelyn Hickenlooper and Bernt Murphy became close friends while at a training school for people with mental disabilities.

And they may have been searching for love, but murder got in the way.

“I think it was mostly my problem because the way I acted and the things I did,” said Bernt Murphy in a 1988 interview with ABC4.

In 1955, Hickenlooper vanished from her home. The case baffled Salt Lake City police.

About three weeks later, a man accidently found her body in in a shallow grave in Parley’s Canyon.

At the time, her mother told reporters she was “distraught, I can’t stand it. I’m sure Jo has met with foul play.”

“She was out front in the yard and my uncle, her older brother was doing tile work,” said Jeffrey Jessup, Hickenlooper’s nephew. “He had seen her and then about 20-minutes later she was gone.”

Murphy became a suspect after he was questioned for allegedly molesting a four-year old girl.

According to a 1957 police report, Murphy suddenly disclosed that he had murdered Hickenlooper.

During his alleged confession he said “I went over and got a rock and hit her in the head and then she screamed. I didn’t know if she was dead or not.”

He claimed he dragged her body to a hole and put her inside and described how he buried her.

Murphy told police: “I had her covered up all the way and “with my hands, throwing dirt on her.”

But he offered different accounts in later interviews. Primarily, how he left the school in American Fork and arrived at her home in Salt Lake City. During one interview Murphy said he borrowed a doctor’s car. The second time he claimed he hitchhiked the 20-plus mile distance.

Finally, he said he stole a car from a used car lot and drove to her home. Police later questioned the owner of the car dealership and said there was no evidence of a car being stolen from their lot.

But each time he was interviewed by police, he didn’t waver about murdering Hickenlooper.

“It seems like the confession and a lot of things surrounding that scene other things seemed troubling,” said Nate Cripps with the Utah Disability Law Center. “The facts don’t line up. Certainly he could have had the right to an attorney.”

According to the 1957 police report, the staff at the training school claimed he never left on the day of Hickenlooper’s disappearance. Other staff members said Murphy had a tendency to “make up stories.”

Prior to the murder, the couple were friends while at the Utah State Training School in American Fork.

In police reports, he claimed “she was his best girlfriend” and always ‘danced with her.”

When she was discharged “she had written her address” and gave it to Murphy, according to the police report.

But her family was convinced he killed her.

“I think my family thinks that he did it because if he could do that to a little girl, he would murder somebody older.”

Murphy’s competency became an issue after he was charged with Hickenlooper’s murder. Eventually, a judge “declared him insane.” The murder charges were “dismissed,” according to media reports.

But he was ordered to remain at the state hospital for treatment.

More than 30 years later, Murphy was still at the state hospital with a public defender who filed motions to address his situation. Brooke Wells who would later become a federal judge argued that Murphy had no chance to be rehabilitated at the hospital. She also claimed that if Murphy had pleaded guilty to the murder he would have already been paroled. Meanwhile, she argued that it was not right that Murphy was still languishing at the state hospital.

The Utah Supreme Court determined Murphy had been wronged.

One of the justices in the majority opinion wrote: Murphy is “not mentally ill … but retarded.” (The word “retarded” was widely accepted in the 1980’s).

The Justice wrote he’s already “served over twice the maximum sentence … if he’d been found guilty” and the “law does not allow” this.

In addition, the state’s highest court admonished the state for not providing services to the mentally disabled.

Murphy left the state hospital and was placed in a group home.

“What I am mostly looking for is to be able to show people that I can make it on the outside,” Murphy said in a 1988 interview with ABC4.

The news crushed the Hickenlooper family. Tuesday in ABC4’s final segment of “Forbidden Love,” her sister was devastated, became despondent and it ended in another family tragedy.

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