Investigation Disocvery’s ‘Dead of Winter: Nightmare in North Dakota’ chronicles the heinous double murder of the elderly couple, Cora and Charley Abernathey, inside their rural Minot residence in North Dakota in February 1985. The police were shocked by the brutality of the crime and had to survive several months of public pressure before eventually arresting one of the perpetrators. The other killer was apprehended and convicted around eight years later. If you’re interested in finding out what happened, here’s what we know.
How Did Cora and Charley Abernathey Die?
Cora Olive Kortgaard Abernathey was born to Martin Kortgaard and Anna Baglien on a farmstead south of Larson in Burke County, North Dakota. She graduated from Columbus High School and stayed with the David Houston family while attending Minot Business Institute. One of Cora’s classmates, Ellen Bennell, arranged a blind date between Cora and Charley. Ellen was the daughter of Charley’s employer. Charley Wallace Abernathey was born to John Franklin Abernathey in Leal in Barnes County, North Dakota, on June 16, 1909.
Cora and Charley married at Minot in Ward County, North Dakota, on October 19, 1939. The newlyweds lived on the Bennell Dairy in Surrey and the OTT Dairy before settling in Nedrose Township in 1944. Charley served on the Nedrose Township Board for many years, and they both drove school buses. He worked for Dakota Transfer, Border Freight, and Buckingham before retiring from Midwest Motor Express in 1972. The Abernatheys were house enthusiasts, enjoying the raising and showing of Hackney Ponies, while Cora also enjoyed needlework.
Hence, it was shocking when law enforcement was called to the rural Abernathey residence about two miles north of Gavin Yard in the late afternoon on February 9, 1985. The first responders encountered a gruesome scene — the elderly couple had been shot in the head with their throats slashed. While Cora’s body was found in her bed, Charley was discovered on the living room floor. According to their autopsy reports, the medical examiner put the time of death as the previous evening, February 8.
Who Killed Cora and Charley Abernathey?
The lead investigator for the Ward County Sheriff’s Office, Vern Erck, noted, “At that time there weren’t home invasions, things like that. There were burglaries, but they were mostly businesses, not home burglaries. People felt safe and secure.” During the time of the double murder, Charley was 75, and Cora was 66, with the latter virtually immobile due to recent hip surgery. The investigators noted the rural home had been ransacked with broken dishes on the floor and blood evidence in several locations.
However, the most concerning aspect was the number of onlookers inside the home when the homicide detectives appeared at the crime scene. Some furniture had been moved to get better pictural evidence of the bodies. Vehicles parked alongside the house destroyed any opportunity of obtaining tire tracks impressions. While some critical pieces of evidence had been compromised, the officers were bewildered by how both the victims had been slain the same way.
One of the investigators noted, “That’s really the only thing we took from the crime scene, the way they were killed.” The detectives also determined that all that was stolen was an estimated $300, with Charley still having money inside his pocket. The brutality and senselessness of the double homicide perturbed the officers. Due to a lack of evidence, the case went cold for several months while the public clamored for an arrest until almost eight months later, the police made a significant breakthrough.
Calvin Newnam, then 24 and a resident of south Minot, admitted to the authorities that he was involved in the heinous act. According to court records, Calvin had a lengthy criminal record and was convicted for assaults and burglaries unrelated to the double homicide in November 1982. He was on probation during the Abernathey investigation. The police first questioned Calvin regarding the Abernathey murders on February 15, 1985, when he was arrested on a forgery charge at a Minot bank with his accomplice, Kevin Austin.
According to court documents, Calvin consented to a search of his automobile and home, and he was again questioned three days later. He even underwent several polygraph examinations in the following days, with them being found inconclusive. The police repeatedly interviewed Calvin in the ensuing months and even executed a formal search of his residence. The officers could not link him to the crime even when they seized his father’s guns on September 20 and interrogated him multiple times.
Calvin went down to the Minot Police Station for another round of formal interrogation on September 25, and he eventually confessed to the crime. One of the investigators said, “He was shown the pictures and stated that it was really a horror. I said, yes, it was, and I said, you were there, Calvin. He said yes.” Calvin’s accomplice, Kevin Austin, was not arrested until eight years later, even though the police placed them together at a South Broadway restaurant in the hours before the killings and at a Minot motel later.
Where Are Calvin Newnam and Kevin Austin Now?
Calvin Newnam was convicted on multiple charges of robbery, felonious restraint, and murder on June 9, 1986. He was sentenced to consecutive life terms for the murders and concurrent terms of 20 years for robbery and five years for felonious restraint. However, the police could not arrest Kevin since they could not place him with Calvin at the time of the murder, and the latter refused to testify against his accomplice. The prosecution eventually let Kevin’s case go without any trial.
But, Kevin, then 30, did go to trial in 1993, more than eight years after the double homicide, after Calvin changed his mind after sitting in prison for several years with no hope of release. He took the law enforcement officials to the attic of his parents’ home, where he had stashed the two .22 caliber handguns used in the murders. Along with Calvin’s testimony and other incriminating statements made by Kevin, he went to trial in June 1993, was convicted on both counts of murder, and was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences.
Due to his cooperation with the authorities, the prosecution and Abernathey family consented to reduce Calvin’s sentence from two consecutive life terms in prison to two concurrent terms of 50 years each. Calvin, now 62, has been released from prison on May 16, 2019, after serving 33 years of his sentence. Kevin, 61, is presently incarcerated at the North Dakota State Penitentiary, and his estimated release date is in January 2100.