Dinner Date with a Killer? 1973 Cold Case Murder of Young Montana Couple Has Just Been Solved

The brutal double murder of Linda and Cliff Bernhardt, a well-liked young couple from Montana remained a mystery for nearly 5 decades

Photo: Yellowstone County Sheriff's Office (2)

On Nov. 6, 1973, Cliff and Linda Bernhardt, both 24, had planned to go to her parents’ house around the corner from their new home in Billings, Montana, but they decided to cancel.

Linda called her mother, June Reich, and told her they planned on staying in that night instead, the Duluth News Tribune reports.

Linda whipped up hamburger casserole for her and her husband, a strapping construction worker who’d served as an Army sergeant in the Vietnam War — a man she’d known since junior high when they first became sweethearts, the Billings Gazette reports.

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Police believed she set the table not for two people, but for three.

No one knows who — if anyone — came to dinner that night at their tidy ranch near the Yellowstone River, or what happened after that last phone call to her mother. But when Linda’s mother went to check on the couple the next morning, she came upon a horrifying scene.

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She found Cliff lying face down in a pool of blood one of the home’s four bedrooms. Police believe he had been hit on the head from behind and strangled, the Gazette reported.

Linda had been beaten, hit on the head, sexually assaulted and strangled, and was left to die naked and facedown on the floor in another bedroom.

Investigators couldn’t help but notice the house was unusually frigid: The windows had been left open and the heat was turned all the way down, making it cold enough for a bowl of ice cubes found next to Linda’s body to remain frozen — and for the time of death to be hard to pin down, police later speculated, the Gazette reported.

The killer also stole a collection of odd souvenirs: all of Linda’s lingerie and some of her shoes in her green suitcase, the Gazette reports.

But the killer left one critical thing behind: DNA on Linda’s purple pants, the Missoulian reports.

“These two young people didn’t deserve what happened to them,” Scott Goodwin, a volunteer with the sheriff’s office cold case unit said, USA Today reports.

Police had few leads to go on while investigating the double murder of the well-liked couple.

With no signs of forced entry, investigators speculated that their killer knew them. They also wondered if the Bernhardts planned to share their last meal with their killer since investigators found 3 plates at the table, the Missoulian reported.

The case went unsolved for nearly five decades until recently, when investigators used advances in DNA and genealogical technology to identify the suspected killer.

On Monday, 45 years after the Bernhardts died, authorities announced the suspect is Cecil Stan Caldwell, who worked alongside Linda at one point at a grocery store warehouse, the News Tribune reports.

A father of two adopted children and two stepchildren with no criminal history who died in Billings at age 59 in 2003, officials believe Caldwell may have targeted Linda — though they don’t know why.

Former deputy Dean Mahlum, who worked on the case in 1973, said he hopes the news will give some comfort to the couple’s families.

“I don’t know if you ever get closure,” he told the Billings Gazette, “but at least a final chapter for these folks.”

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