Monday, June 15, 1998 | 9:16 a.m.
LAS VEGAS - The detective was bluffing, but Jarrett Betterson didn't know it. His wife, Barbara, stood behind him as he opened the door a crack and stammered responses to questions about a bouncing, bubbly 2-year-old they had left Michigan with 20 years ago.
"I know what happened to your daughter," Detective Jeff Rosgen said. "It will be easier on you if you tell us the whole story."
Betterson was shaken. He promised to get back to the detective in a week or so and shut the door to the modest apartment, trembling as he sank back into his motorized wheelchair.
Then he and his wife went about their final task.
The handwritten letter was as polite as it was chilling. When Joni Betterson retrieved it from the mailbox at her Georgia home, it was the first she had heard from her son and daughter-in-law in more than 20 years.
"By the time you get this we should be dead," Barbara Betterson wrote. "Jarrett is about to go to jail and I don't want to live without him. I'm sorry about living apart from our family. I'm sorry about so many things. We've had a sad and difficult life."
Inside the envelope was a money order for $900 that Jarrett and Barbara Betterson had managed to scrape together to pay for their cremation. Barbara Betterson asked that their ashes be placed in the same urn.
When their decomposing bodies were found a few days before last Christmas - Barbara clutching a Bible and a wilted red rose - there was no suicide note in the apartment. Just an apologetic note on the refrigerator to their apartment manager asking him to "Forgive us for having to deal with the mess we left."
No mention was made of a daughter who would now be 22 if still alive.
It was Labor Day weekend 1977, and Jarrett Betterson was at the wheel when the car he was riding in with his girlfriend, Susan Klingel, and their young daughter, Nikole, went out of control and rolled several times before finally coming to a stop.
Susan Klingel was thrown from the vehicle and died. Jarrett and Nikole were not seriously injured.
Marijuana was found in the car, and police wanted to charge Jarrett with vehicular homicide. But the investigation was sloppy, and charges were never brought.
Jarrett and Susan had never married. Soon, Jarrett had a new girlfriend in Barbara and the two had plans to take Nikole with them and start a new life out West.
"I'll be a good mother to Nikole. She'll be well taken care of," Barbara promised Susan's parents just before leaving Dearborn, Mich., around Christmas time 1977.
Bill and Mary Klingel cried as they said goodbye to their 2-year-old granddaughter. Jarrett and Barbara didn't say where they were going. He told some friends they were headed toward Las Vegas. Someone else said they were on their way to California.
The Klingels had lost their daughter and were now losing their granddaughter. All they had left were pictures of a smiling little girl in a red and white dress with a ribbon in her curly black hair. In one picture, Nikole is wearing a bonnet and holding a stuffed bunny while Jarrett prepares to give her a kiss.
The Klingels were already at odds with Jarrett Betterson, who hadn't exactly been welcomed into the family. Jarrett was bitter, thinking the family rejected him because he was black. They thought he had lured his daughter into a lifestyle of drug use.
It didn't matter now. Jarrett and Barbara were leaving, and they were taking Nikole with them.
It wasn't until two decades later that the Klingels, aging and looking for their sole heir, set about trying to contact their granddaughter. Nikole would now be an adult, they figured, able to decide whether she wanted to see her grandparents after all the years.
A private investigator was hired, and it didn't take long to find the Bettersons living a meager existence in a part of Las Vegas far removed from the glittering casinos.
But there was no trace of Nikole. Records were searched, but no evidence was found that she ever made it with her father to their new home.
It was as though Nikole Betterson, sometime in early 1978, had simply ceased to exist.
Except in the eyes of the Social Security Administration. Until she turned 18, it kept sending her the monthly survivor benefit which goes to children whose parents have died. Jarrett faithfully picked the check up each month at a local post office.
The case wasn't one Rosgen, the detective, really wanted. Missing persons is a busy enough beat, especially in a transient town like Las Vegas, without having to dig up a case now two decades old.
But there was something about it that intrigued Rosgen when he got the call last summer from private investigator Peggy Bezy.
Send me the file, he said, and I'll look into it when I can.
Bezy had already searched school, adoption and other records. Rosgen took it a step further, looking into family court archives, police records and driver license records.
Still, nothing. Like Bezy, Rosgen could find no trace of Nikole after she left Michigan.
Rosgen figured he had but one chance. He would go to Jarrett Betterson and pretend he knew all about his daughter. Tell him he would be brought before a grand jury if he didn't talk, where more questions would be asked.
Then lure him in with a promise of leniency if he did.
By now, it was early November 1997. If Nikole were alive somewhere, she would be 22.
It was time to talk to Jarrett Betterson.
At first, homicide detectives treated the deaths of the 49-year-old man and his 50-year-old wife as a murder-suicide. Declining health may have prompted the man to shoot his wife and turn the gun on himself.
In the apartment was a motorized wheelchair Jarrett was forced to use because of injuries from a bus accident. A bathroom full of pills indicated that Barbara also had severe medical problems.
It was a gruesome scene even for hardened homicide detectives.
Jarrett had shot Barbara twice in the heart with a .22-caliber rifle while she lay on a water bed, clutching a Bible and a cross. He then made the bed and placed a red rose on her chest.
Jarrett then went into the adjoining bedroom, covered himself with a blanket and fired a bullet through his brain.
"We had hoped our troubles would never touch our families so we kept to ourselves," Barbara said in her final letter to Jarrett's mother. "We've tried to follow God. Now it's about time for him to judge us."
It wasn't until three weeks later that the bodies were discovered by the apartment manager. On the front door were several eviction notices for nonpayment of rent.
The case was about to be closed when Rosgen came back from vacation the day after Christmas to a flurry of phone messages. He called homicide.
There's a twist to this one, he told police Lt. Wayne Petersen.
Rosgen's visit with Jarrett Betterson had been more bluster than substance. But it was enough to put fear into the couple.
Jarrett acknowledged as much when he called the detective four days later and said he had no other option but to cooperate.
But he needed time.
Give me a few weeks, Jarrett said, and I'll set up a meeting with Nikole. Ten days later, Jarrett called again, asking for more time.
Thanksgiving passed before Rosgen called the Betterson home to see what was taking Jarrett so long.
There was no answer. Faced with what they thought was a jail sentence for Jarrett, he and Barbara had chosen death as the way out.
What Jarrett didn't know was that the police had no case. There was no body, no evidence of a crime. All police had was a mystery about a little girl who seemingly vanished 20 years ago, perhaps on the way from Michigan to Las Vegas. And a lot of questions that they wanted to ask.
In death, Jarrett and Barbara did nothing to answer them. The only hint came in Barbara's final letter to Jarrett's mother.
"Go to your Bibles to see peace," she wrote, "and please forgive us for all the wounds we have put in your hearts with our tragic and youthful blunders."
On a recent morning in the homicide offices of the Las Vegas police department, Petersen scans a file, perhaps hoping something might have been overlooked that could lead to Nikole.
Inside the folder are police pictures taken of the Bettersons' apartment. A 1977 report on the accident that killed Susan Klingel is attached, as are autopsy reports that describe the deaths in unemotional medical language.
Notably missing are any pictures of Nikole.
Nikole could be alive somewhere, police say. She could have been sold for drugs or given away somewhere between Michigan and Las Vegas. She could have grown up with another family, another name, never knowing her past.
More likely, police say, Nikole is dead. Perhaps she was fussing on the trip west, and attempts to quiet her turned tragic. Perhaps Jarrett and Barbara panicked and buried her body in a remote grave.
The body may already have been found. Cemeteries across the country contain graves with the remains of children never identified.
Petersen would like to get DNA from the Klingels on the slim chance it might provide a match if a body is found or someone comes forward who believes she might be Nikole.
Police fear, though, that Nikole's fate may never be known.
"It may forever remain a mystery," Petersen said. "The only people who can solve this mystery may be dead. Their secret may have died with them."