Standing above a pulpit filled with microphones and TV cameras, Cache County Sheriff's Lt. Von Williamson officially named Cody L. Nielsen a suspect in the Trisha Autry homicide case on Friday afternoon.
The Cache County Attorney's Office has filed no charges against the 28-year-old man. However, charges are expected to be filed early next week.
Nielsen was arrested Tuesday and arraigned on charges of first-degree felony rape on Thursday in a case not related to the Autry murder. He is alleged to have raped a 15-year-old Hyrum girl. Nielsen admitted in an interview to having sex with the teen, according to a sheriff's office press release.
The girl told sheriff's deputies she was walking home from school when Nielsen pulled over in a green pick-up and introduced himself as "Sam." She said Nielsen offered her a ride home, but said he needed to stop by his work first. He reportedly drove her to the Predator Research Center in Millville, then drove to a "wooded area" nearby where he raped her.
Nielsen is being held in the Cache County Jail without bond on this charge. A preliminary hearing in the case has been set for 9 a.m. on May 30.
The rape occurred in May 2000 one month before Autry disappeared and in the same general vicinity where her partial remains were found. Medical experts identified Autry by her dental records. Her remains were unearthed by authorities at the bottom of a 10-foot pit at the predator center on Monday.
"The primary similarities are fairly apparent," Williamson said. "We've got a 15-year-old-girl from Hyrum as a victim in the rape case. Mr. Nielsen is from Hyrum, as was Trisha Autry, the victim in the homicide. That similarity, linked with Mr. Nielsen's connection to the facility, is what really started raising our eyebrows."
The Herald Journal learned, through sources independent of the sheriff's office, that Nielsen operated a backhoe at the Predator Research Facility where he was employed in 2000. The center is owned and managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Utah State University.
The state medical examiner's office has yet to send the sheriff's office any additional information besides the positive identification of Trisha Autry, Williamson said.
Cache County Prosecutor Scott Wyatt said it was "likely that the two (Autry and Nielsen) knew each other" and investigators are looking into that connection.
The sheriff's office has received various tips from the public due to media coverage, Williamson said, an experience he described as a "snowball effect."
"Based on that information and the interviews we've conducted, we have established a link between Cody Nielsen and Trisha Autry. We are still working to establish the exact nature and extent of that link," he said.
Williamson denied having any knowledge that Autry and the rape victim had been friends.
Even though investigators 46 from local, state and federal offices have used means such as ultraviolet light to locate more evidence (bodily fluids and hair) and search dogs, nothing more has been found at the crime scene.
They planned on finishing the investigation at the research center Friday night and turning it back over to the USDA and USU, Williamson said.
One of the last times Autry was seen was the morning she disappeared on June 24. Autry, then 15 years old, was thought to be seen getting into a small, red car in Hyrum.
Wyatt also said it was unlikely the Internet had anything to do with Autry's death. It was initially suspected she met someone online, agreed to meet and then disappeared.
The sheriff's office will take that theory, public tips and the evidence it has accumulated thus far into consideration as the investigation continues this weekend and next week.
"We're pretty much into a part of the case and, as frequently happens with cases like this, it tends to slow down," Williamson said. "… it's something that has to be done very methodically, step by step in order to successfully bring this to a resolution. We are confident that we're going to be able to do that."
The sheriff's office has not ruled out the possibility of other suspects.