On May 23, 2015, the Rapid City Police Department released a public notice stating that Jessica Ann Rehfeld, a 22-year-old Rapid City woman reported missing the previous day, was now considered by police as "not in immediate harm,” and that police believed she was still in Rapid City.
Then, almost exactly a year later, with no further updates issued, the police department and Pennington County Sheriff's Office announced they had found Rehfeld’s body buried in a makeshift grave in the woods south of Rockerville, and that five people were charged in connection with her murder and burial.
Police didn't know it at the time, but when the chief of detectives decided to inform the public that Rehfeld was believed to be OK, she was already dead. Police now say she had been killed and buried a few days prior to that alert, reportedly stabbed to death in a car by two men who had been hired by her ex-boyfriend.
Some people close to Rehfeld believe it was a major mistake for the police department to publicly announce that Rehfeld was “not in immediate harm,” and they are skeptical if investigators continued to look for her after that point.
Those critics include Raquel Brubaker, one of the last people to see Rehfeld alive.
"They’re acting like they did everything in their power," Brubaker said of the police, “but they didn’t."
Last year, Preston Feagan, a friend and co-worker of Rehfeld’s, offered Rapid City Detective Daniel M. DeNeire — the lead investigator of Rehfeld's missing persons case — information about the man who police now say was the mastermind of her murder. Feagan believes that DeNeire did not take Rehfeld's disappearance seriously from the start.
Rehfeld “was a good, honest, wonderful person who deserved to be looked for,” Feagan said.
Capt. James Johns, supervisor of the Rapid City Criminal Investigation Division, insists that despite perceptions to the contrary, detectives never stopped looking for Rehfeld. He said that over the last year, detectives conducted 30 interviews with people close to her, including the man who is now charged with setting her murder in motion, Jonathon Klinetobe.
“The reality is there are questions. And we recognize that,” Johns said. “When I sent out the message that we believed Jessica was safe, I knew that we would be scrutinized if we were wrong. But at that time, that was the best information we had. Again, hindsight being 20/20, go back, do it all over again, we would do things differently knowing what we know now.”
This news article — pieced together from court documents, criminal hearings, information provided by authorities and multiple interviews with people close to Rehfeld — is an attempt to answer some of the questions that loom over the investigation of Rehfeld’s disappearance and murder.
Her final hours
On May 18, 2015, the last day she was seen alive, Rehfeld was at Raquel Brubaker’s home when two men came to the door offering her a ride to work.
Tucked away in a quiet neighborhood near the Central States Fairgrounds, the Brubaker home is a single-story house that the 47-year-old Rapid City woman shares with her daughter and son Taylor Janis, 28. At the time of her disappearance, Janis was dating Rehfeld, and had been on and off for two years.
“Jessica was like a daughter to me,” Brubaker said.
She and Janis remember Rehfeld as a well-liked, energetic and bubbly person. A graduate of Rapid City Central High School, Rehfeld was working on writing and illustrating a children’s book, and planned to someday become a beautician, Brubaker said.
“She liked to dance,” Janis said with a pained smile. “She liked to go to the hookah bar.”
Rehfeld's small stature belied a vibrant, strong personality, Feagan said.
“She was tiny, itty-bitty,” he said. “Dynamite comes in small packages, though.”
Rehfeld’s grandfather, John Rehfeld, 70, of Rapid City, described his granddaughter as hardworking and smart.
“That girl went through calculus and trigonometry like it was child’s play,” he said.
Rehfeld started spending her nights at the Brubaker household shortly after she and Janis started dating again in the spring of 2015. She had her own apartment but was scared to stay there alone, Janis said. When she went out, she carried a Taser.
“She was completely afraid of JJ,” Janis said.
JJ Jones is a Facebook alias used by Klinetobe, and was the name by which Brubaker and Janis came to know Rehfeld’s volatile ex-boyfriend. Brubaker said that Klinetobe once broke into Rehfeld’s apartment while she was there and proceeded to beat her. When she came over to the Brubaker house after the incident, she had dark bruises on her arms.
Feagan remembers multiple occasions when Rehfeld came to work with bruises on her back and hips.
Worried for her safety, Brubaker helped Rehfeld get a protection order against Klinetobe on May 12, 2015. In her handwritten statements, Rehfeld said that she feared for her life and that Klinetobe had threatened to choke her, slit her throat and rape her.
Six days after filing the protection order, Rehfeld was at Brubaker’s house. She needed a ride to Wal-Mart, where she worked the night shift. Without access to a car, she would usually rely on Janis for rides.
But that day, Janis recalled, two men he didn’t know came to the house and said they would give Rehfeld a lift. Brubaker said they stopped by in an initial visit in the afternoon, then returned to pick up Rehfeld later that night.
It wasn’t actually that unusual. Brubaker said Rehfeld’s friends would sometimes drive her to work instead of Janis, and Rehfeld seemed to know at least one of the two men that came for her that night. The older man, Brubaker and Janis agreed, the one with the cane who walked with a limp. He said his name was Richard, Brubaker recalled, though he didn’t give a last name. Rehfeld seemed to know him, Brubaker said, because she called him “brother,” as she often referred to her male friends.
Sitting in the living room, Rehfeld and Janis talked casually with the two men for awhile. Richard was the chatty one, Brubaker recalled, while the other man, a heavy-set guy who said his name was David, stood mostly silent and aloof.
In the course of their conversation, Rehfeld brought up Klinetobe. The two men nodded along as they listened to her worry that he might some day do something to seriously hurt her. After a while, they eventually escorted Rehfeld out to their car parked in the driveway outside.
David got into the driver’s seat and Rehfeld sat next to him in the front passenger seat. The second man, Richard, the one with the limp, sat behind her.
“I watched her look at me,” Janis said.
It was the last time he saw her. The two men, who police now say are Richard Hirth, 35, and David Schneider, 24, allegedly stabbed Rehfeld to death in their vehicle not long after leaving Brubaker's home.
A search is launched
When Rehfeld didn’t return home, Brubaker said she reported her missing to the Rapid City Police Department the next day and urged investigators to question Klinetobe.
Capt. Johns said Rehfeld was officially listed as a missing person on May 22, 2015. On May 23, 2015, the department issued its statement that Rehfeld was “not in immediate harm” and was presumed to still be in Rapid City.
The determination that she was alright, Johns said, was made based on information given to the police by people who knew and were "close" to Rehfeld.
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Johns said he made the decision to push that information to the public because “at the time we didn’t want to have this overwhelming shadow of people going out and taking matters into their own hands and trying to find Jessica.”
Despite the police bulletin stating Rehfeld was in no danger, family members continued to search for Rehfeld. According to her grandfather, Rehfeld's father, who declined to be interviewed for this story, hired a private investigator and returned to Rapid City in June to conduct a foot search for his daughter in several locations.
Johns said Rapid City detectives interviewed 25 of Rehfeld’s associates in the two-day period after she was reported missing. After sending out the notice that they believed Rehfeld was in no immediate danger, investigators conducted a total of five more interviews, Johns said.
When they called for updates a few days after May 22 last year, Feagan and Brubaker recall police detectives telling them that the investigation into Rehfeld’s disappearance was either closed or suspended. The Journal was unable to confirm if Rapid City detectives made those statements, but Johns said the idea that the investigation was ever suspended is false.
“This was never put on a shelf,” Johns said, adding that it's difficult to investigate a case as a homicide without a body. “This was never dismissed as a closed case. This was a case that our detectives had on their minds, that they were concerned about and continued to work throughout the entire year.”
Main suspect interviewed
Klinetobe, 26, was among the 25 people interviewed in the two days after Rehfeld's disappearance, Johns said. Rehfeld’s protection order and deep fear of Klinetobe came up in the course of those interviews, but it didn’t lead anywhere, he said.
He also believes detectives talked to the two men who picked Rehfeld up on the evening of May 18, 2015, though he could not say for sure. In the initial public notice that Rehfeld was a missing person, police indicated she had last been seen in the presence of two men, now believed to be Hirth and Schneider, who are charged with stabbing her to death.
“Obviously the people that we talked to in those interviews, some of those people lied to us," Johns said. "Some of those people may have been — how do I say it — wrong in what they believed.”
Feagan said that when he called the police department’s lead investigator for an update on Rehfeld, he was told the police didn’t think Klinetobe was involved based on information learned from other sources.
Johns would not elaborate on what Klinetobe or anyone else said during their interviews, but court documents allege that Klinetobe, along with Schneider and Hirth, “provided false information to law enforcement in attempts to obstruct the investigation into Ms. Rehfeld’s disappearance.” All three are charged with first-degree murder and are each being held on $2 million bonds.
Besides the interviews, another technique RCPD detectives used in their investigation was to show certain people close to Rehfeld a photo of a woman believed to be her, taken after Rehfeld's disappearance.
Johns would not say who the photo was shown to, how many people it was shown to, or how many people positively identified Rehfeld in it. That information, he said, is part of the ongoing investigation.
But Brubaker, who was shown the photo, said, “It was from Wal-Mart, or a store or something. I’m not sure.”
Johns could not say where it was taken, but Brubaker remembers the photograph was a grainy, downward-slanting view of a young woman. She looked vaguely like Rehfeld, Brubaker said, but there were some key differences. The glasses were wrong. Her hair was too short. Her clothing was too colorful. Rehfeld, Brubaker said, preferred wearing darker clothes.
Police then asked Brubaker if she thought it was Rehfeld, thereby indicating she might still be alive. “I said, ‘It kind of looks like her, but I’m not sure,’” Brubaker said.
Janis and Brubaker’s daughter, who also knew Rehfeld, looked at the photo as well. Both said they told the police that it wasn’t her.
Rapid City investigators also contacted the Internal Revenue Service to track Rehfeld’s financial activity, and placed her name on a national law enforcement database to keep tabs on traffic tickets or any other run-ins she might have had with the legal system. If any leads came in, detectives would chase them down, Johns said.
Witness breaks case open
The big break in Rehfeld’s case came on May 13 this year, when a witness whose identity has not been released went to the police station in Newscastle, Wyo., and told officers where they could find Rehfeld's body.
Investigators from multiple law enforcement agencies reacted quickly, Johns said, assembling a 15-member task force to comb the woods near Rockerville and work around the clock to chase down leads on the people they believed were responsible for Rehfeld’s death.
A probable cause affidavit prepared by Detective DeNeire states that after picking Rehfeld up from Brubaker's home on May 18 last year, Schneider and Hirth drove to an industrial area of town, held her down and stabbed her multiple times with a knife. Once it was apparent that she was dead, they put her in the trunk and picked up Klinetobe.
Police say the three men then drove into the woods south of Rockerville and buried her body in a shallow grave.
Police arrested Klinetobe on May 15, alleging that he hired Schneider and Hirth to kill Rehfeld. The three men have since been charged with first-degree murder, conspiracy to commit first-degree murder, first-degree aggravated kidnapping and conspiracy to commit first-degree aggravated kidnapping.
Two weeks after Rehfeld’s killing, police allege that Klinetobe returned to her burial site to move the body. Investigators say he brought two Rapid City men with him: Michael Frye, 24, and Garland Brown, 29, who are both charged with being an accessory to a crime and are being held on $1 million bond each.
Law enforcement officials have since declined to answer further questions from the Journal, citing a pending motion for a gag order filed by Klinetobe's defense attorneys.
Finding out about Jessica
When Brubaker came home on the afternoon of May 17 this year, she found Janis standing in the living room, his eyes raw and red. His expression blank, Janis held out his cell phone to his mother. On the screen was a breaking news report from local media explaining details surrounding Rehfeld's killing.
Brubaker and Janis had learned of Rehfeld’s death the previous day. But what they didn’t know at the time was how she died.
Janis learned the grisly details of Rehfeld’s murder about 20 minutes before his mother walked through the front door. Scrolling through the news report on her son’s phone, Brubaker read for the first time the horrific manner in which Rehfeld’s life was taken.
Suppressing a flood of tears with the palm of her hand, Brubaker said, “There’s just no reason for what they did."
Brubaker remains unsatisfied with how the Rapid City police investigated Rehfeld’s disappearance.
“They’re not going to convince me of anything,” she said. “They should have tried harder.”
Feagan, Rehfeld's former co-worker, knows there’s probably nothing anyone could have done to save Rehfeld, but he also has to live with the fact that he saw his friend's death coming.
“There was an officer who said something along the lines that ‘Jessica’s voice was taken from her and we have to be her voice now, and we will make sure her voice is heard,’” Feagan said. “And I think at the root of all this is that when she disappeared, nobody’s voice was heard. Not mine, not her father’s, not her grandmother’s, not her sister’s, not any of the people who called.”
Rehfeld’s grandfather John said he was impressed with how quickly the Rapid City police detectives were able to track down and arrest Klinetobe and his alleged accomplices once the body was found. But he wishes the department had not made the May 23 statement that Rehfeld was “not in immediate harm.”
“I would have preferred to leave it where it was,” John Rehfeld said, “so people wouldn’t think everything was OK.”