In 1977, Dawson County was rocked with two cases involving the disappearance and murder of two young mothers. It was unimaginable in a seemingly safe rural area like central Nebraska. It is very rare for a police officer here to ever have to investigate a homicide. So the fact that the Dawson County Sheriff solved one case while investigating the other is very deserving of recognition.
In October 2020, former Dawson County Sheriff John Rohnert was posthumously inducted into the Nebraska Sheriff’s Association Hall of Fame for his work on a case involving the murder of Judith Dangler of Lexington. On Thursday, Feb. 25, Dangler’s family members presented the Hall of Fame plaque to current Sheriff Ken Moody and the two daughters of Sheriff Rohnert, who passed away in 2006.
Judy Dangler’s husband, Bob, was accompanied at the award presentation by Judy’s two daughters, who were nine and five years old at the time their mother disappeared.
“I accept this on behalf of the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office and we will place it at the Dawson County Sheriff’s Office on the front wall,” said Sheriff Moody. “I’m sure John would be very honored to receive this award himself.”
“John and I spent an awful lot of evenings just talking in there,” said Bob.
In a lighthearted moment during the presentation, Bob shared a phone call he received from Sheriff Moody. “He called a few days ago, and when he found out I was approaching 80 he said, ‘Well don’t forget the plaque!’,” he said as everyone laughed.
Then he got serious. “John had told me once that he had been to 22 states following up leads. And I’m sure they didn’t fly him there - I’m sure he drove,” said Bob. “He felt so bad about not getting it resolved.”
John’s daughter, Jo Swartz, chimed in, “He was going to retire but he said, ‘I can’t retire until I get this solved’,” she said.
Judy Dangler had dropped her daughters off at the small country school outside of Lexington on an early February morning in 1977. She was never seen again.
For months no one knew where Judy had gone. There were no clues to indicate foul play, so at that point law enforcement was treating the case as a missing person. Meanwhile, Bob was doing his best to take care of his daughters while trying to remain hopeful of a positive outcome.
Bob worked at New Holland at the time. So did another Lexington man named Dennis Sell. “I would walk out into the welding department where he worked and I would get this almost sneer, like ‘I know something you don’t know’,” Bob recalled. “I wondered for a long time what that was all about.”
On Sept. 20, 1977 - seven months after the disappearance of Judy Dangler - Dennis Sell, 31 of Lexington, appeared before a Dawson County judge and pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a woman the previous June. He was released on bail, and just three days later Ruth Eby disappeared. Her body was discovered four days later in a grove of trees 18 miles west of Lexington. Her husband was in the search party that found her. Sell was arrested for Eby’s murder on Sept. 28 after a pair of pliers inscribed with Sell’s clock number at the factory where he worked was linked to the murder.
While authorities suspected Sell in the disappearance of Judy as well, without a body or any evidence they had their work cut out to prove that. It was through Sheriff’s Rohnert’s attempts to establish a rapport with Sell while incarcerated for the Eby murder that the Dangler case was eventually solved.
“There was one time that my parents went out of town and the jailer who was working put Ajax over Sell’s window so he couldn’t see out, and he was about ready to lose it,” Swartz shared during the award presentation. “So when my dad came back he told my mom and sister to pray for him because he was going to go up and talk to Sell and find out. First he removed all the Ajax from his window so he could see and then he told Sell, ‘I need to talk to you so we can find out where she is and the family can have closure.’ Sell said he couldn’t talk to him because he didn’t have a lawyer there. So dad asked if he could just shake his head yes or no and he said he could do that. He eventually got a map and asked him where he should look and he would point, and got it narrowed down just by pointing and nodding. But he never would talk to him.”
Eleven months after Judy disappeared, Sell finally revealed to Rohnert by pointing at the map the location of Judy’s remains.
“I think about her every day,” said an emotional Bob. “She wasn’t there for the girls’ graduations and weddings. They were cheated out of that, and I was cheated out of her being there.”
Sell was convicted of both murders and was serving two life sentences in the Nebraska Department of Corrections. He died in prison in 2009. Having been eligible for parole since 1999, Sell’s death finally closed the book on a chapter of life that kept two families on the edge of their seats for decades. They are now completely assured that a ruthless killer will never again have an opportunity to put another family through what they have been through.
For the Dangler family, that means focusing their full attention toward honoring the legacy of a beloved wife and mom - and of the sheriff who’s tireless efforts brought her killer to justice.