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Why this unique red dust could be a crucial clue in cold case of missing Bismarck woman Shelly Julson

'Clinker' found on the engine block of Michele 'Shelly' Julson's abandoned car in 1994 may be linked to an early sighting in rural Burleigh County, North Dakota, the Dakota Spotlight true crime podcast reports.

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James Wolner, host of Dakota Spotlight standing on a road surfaced with red "clinker"—commonly referred to as "scoria"—in Western North Dakota.
James Wolner / Forum News Service
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When Michele Julson disappeared from Bismarck on August 2, 1994, law enforcement didn't exactly have an abundance of clues to follow up on.

The most encouraging development occured six days later when her car was found parked at a local hotel—the Comfort Inn. They dusted for fingerprints without results but weeks later, when the blue Ford Thunderbird was returned to her father Wes Julson, he spotted a potential clue: clinker dust under the hood.

Listen to Episode Number 10 — Follow the Red Dirt Road

Clinker—commonly referred to as "scoria"—can be found throughout western North Dakota and is occasionally used as a substitute for gravel on country roads.

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In episode 10 of Dakota Spotlight, working off of new information from both a retired sheriff's deputy and a local geologist, host James Wolner asks the question: Could the clinker dust be related to an early (and almost forgotten) reported sighting of Michele's car in rural Burleigh County?

That is mostly farmland and pasture land up there ... I would say there would be plenty of places that something could be hidden.
Ray Dingeman, retired Burleigh County sheriff's deputy

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Retired sheriff's deputy Ray Dingeman patrolled Burleigh County's rural roads for 25 years. Having recently listened to Dakota Spotlight's reporting on missing Shelly Julson, Dingeman contacted host James Wolner with pertinent information about a specific, remote area of the county
Contributed / Ray Dingeman

Ray Dingeman knows rural Burleigh County roads very well. Today he teaches criminal justice at United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck but previously he worked as a sheriff's deputy when he patrolled throughout the county for 25 years. After listening to Dakota Spotlight season 7 and learning that red clinker dust had been found on the engine block of Julson's car, Dingeman contacted Wolner to share his recollections and knowledge of rural Burleigh County.

Dingeman noted that, in 1994, some rural roads in the northwestern section of the county were covered with clinker. He specifically pointed Wolner to an area near the town of Baldwin which lies just 12 miles north of what was Julson's place of employment: The Burnt Creek Club (now named "The Crossroads Tavern" at 1205 Northstar Dr. in Bismarck).

Dingeman says the remote and rural area in northwestern Burleigh County wouldn't be a bad place to try to hide something — such as a body.

"That is mostly farmland and pasture land up there ... I would say there would be plenty of places that something could be hidden," he said.

Dingeman's information prompted Wolner to re-examine the Julson cold-case file after he remembered reading a reference to a reported sighting of Julson's car near Baldwin.

And sure enough, there was.

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Excerpt from Detective Dennis Walls report on Shelly Julson case
Contributed / Bismarck Police Department

About Dakota Spotlight, Season 7: 'Call Me Shelly — The Mysterious Disappearance of Michelle Julson'

In this season of Dakota Spotlight, creator, host and Regional Emmy Award-winner James Wolner looks into the cold case of 26-year-old Michelle "Shelly" Julson, who vanished from Bismarck, North Dakota on Aug. 2, 1994. Granted exclusive, unprecedented access by police to the cold-case file, Wolner presents a play-by-play review of the initial investigation and further examines the strange events surrounding Shelly's life and her disappearance.

With the aid of new interviews with Shelly’s friends, family and retired police investigators, Wolner dives into the shadows of Shelly’s world at the time — Bismarck’s bar and gambling scene — and tracks the movements of several persons of interest. All in an attempt to answer the biggest questions of the case: What happened to Shelly? Where is she now?

Gallery - Browse with arrow on right

People in this episode

(In alphabetical order)

  • Ray Dingeman: Former Burleigh County sheriff’s deputy
  • Edward C. Murphy: State geologist at North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources
  • Carrie Small: A local farmer, reported a potential sighting of Shelly’s Ford Thunderbird (3 miles east and 4 miles north of Baldwin, North Dakota) on Aug. 5, 1994 
  • Dennis Walls: Bismarck Police Department sergeant who was the initial and lead investigator on the Julson case

People in previous episodes

(In alphabetical order)

  • Chris Aziz: Bartender at the Elbow Room. Witnessed Shelly with two men Sunday night.
  • James Becker: Shelly's friend
  • Kim Borner: Shelly's friend
  • Russ Bryant: Investigator for Burlington Northern Railroad
  • Officer Rob Carvell: Bismarck Police Department officer and patrolman, who responded to the Julson missing person report 
  • Bill Connor: Bismarck Police Department investigator
  • Walter Czerwinski: Retired Burlington Northern employee
  • John Drath: Wes Julson’s co-worker and acquaintance of Shelly
  • Clifford Emmert: Bismarck Police Department investigator
  • Jack Erhardt: Kevin Woodworth's foreman at Miller Insulation
  • Sheila Heil: Shelly’s boss and co-worker at Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation
  • Darrel Helbing: One of two railroad workers kicked out of The Comfort Inn swimming pool at 3 a.m. on Aug. 3, 1994. The men were in the company of two unidentified women and a third man in a cowboy hat.
  • Larry Helfenstein: Shelly's friend
  • Tony Hulm: Shelly's latest on-again/off-again boyfriend, and a bartender at Burnt Creek Club
  • Linda Julson: Shelly’s mother
  • Michele "Shelly" Julson: a 26-year-old blackjack dealer and mother of 3-year-old Jaden, she went missing on Aug. 2, 1994.
  • Wes Julson: Shelly's father
  • Mitch Maher: One of two railroad workers kicked out of The Comfort Inn swimming pool at 3 am on Aug. 3, 1994. The men were in the company of two unidentified women and a third man in a cowboy hat.
  • Robin Mostad: Shelly’s co-worker at The Elbow Room
  • Bonnie Munsch: Shelly's friend and coworker, worked with Shelly at the Burnt Creek Club the night before Shelly vanished. Bonnie felt Shelly did not seem her usual self that night.
  • Holly Ness: Shelly’s friend
  • Tarileen Olson: Blackjack dealer at Fort Abraham Lincoln Foundation
  • Mike Quinn: Agent at North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation
  • Amy Sansburn: Claimed she partied with Shelly at WE Fest.
  • Don Schaffer: Bismarck police officer and patron at Burnt Creek Club. Shelly told friends Schaffer had been harassing her at work.
  • Rick Snell: Did not return to work at Great Lines after Aug. 2, 1994 
  • Tammy Sumner: Shelly’s babysitter
  • Troy Schaner: Bismarck police officer who helped North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation's aerial search for Shelly's car
  • Nick Sevart: Bismarck Police officer
  • Carol Thomas: Assistant manager at The Fleck House hotel near The Elbow Room bar
  • Julie Thompson: investigator with the Bismarck Police Department.
  • Jaden Woodworth: Shelly's son, 3-and-a-half years old when she went missing
  • Kevin Woodworth: Shelly's former boyfriend and Jaden's father
  • Richard Woodworth: Jaden's paternal grandfather and the last person to acknowledge having seen her when she dropped Jaden at 104 American Ave.
  • Jenny Yantzer: Barmaid at Burnt Creek Club. Shelly speculated that Jenny was responsible for hangup phone calls and damage to her car.  Jenny has denied any involvement. 

Jeremy Fugleberg is editor of The Vault, Forum Communications Co.'s home for Midwest history, mysteries, crime and culture. He is also a member of the company's Editorial Advisory Board.
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