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Justice for Joni

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Joni Bell Nolan Joni Bell Nolan
John Bell with his daughter John Bell with his daughter
Ricky Nolan Ricky Nolan

NewsChannel 5 investigates a death with remarkable similarities to the Janet March case.

Like Janet March, it's been a decade since Joni Bell Nolan died.

But unlike the March case, Joni still hasn't found justice.

In fact, our investigation discovered no one is even looking for her killer.

Our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams has been following the trail.

Like Janet March, Joni's husband was also the prime suspect.

And, just like the March case, her family filed a lawsuit against her husband, and a court ruled that he was responsible for her death.

"She loved her family, loved people," her father, John Bell, recalls.

Joni's wedding was never the fairy tale that her father had dreamed it would be.

"I said, 'Joni, something's wrong here.  This guy has got something to hide,'" Bell tells Phil Williams.

Her fiance, Ricky Nolan, told stories about himself that the family says didn't quite check out.

Still, he was the man the 30-year-old woman wanted to marry.

"She asked me, 'Dad, are you going to give me away?'" Bell tells Phil Williams, choking back tears.

"And you said?" Williams asks.

"I said, "Yeah."

Reluctantly, he did. 

But four months later,  Joni would be dead -- the family believes at the hands of her own husband.

"I gave her away to a man who didn't care about nobody, had no feelings for nobody, no respect for nothing," Bell says.

In fact, it wasn't long after Joni's wedding in March 1995 that the family began to suspect that it wasn't all wedded bliss.

"Everybody had seen a bruise on Joni except me, and Joni wouldn't have -- she didn't want me to see a bruise on her."

Then, one night in July 1995, Bell says Nolan called him to come pick up his unconscious daughter at her home.

"I said, 'Richard, what's wrong with her?' Bell says, recalling Nolan's immediate response. "'Now, Mr. Bell, I didn't hit her, I didn't hit her.'

"I said, 'I didn't say you hit her, I said what's wrong with her?'"

Bell says Nolan claimed Joni had been drinking and had passed out in the parking lot of a nearby market.

"His story was he wasn't even with her?" Williams asks.

"Yeah, he wasn't with her at all," Bell answers.

The Bells took their daughter home and put her into bed.

But when she didn't regain consciousness, they rushed her to the hospital.

"When we got there, they called us into a little room," Bells says, again choking back tears. "This doctor told us she was already brain dead."

An autopsy concluded that Joni died of "blunt trauma" -- a blow to the head.

Still, as funeral directors prepared her body, they weren't prepared for what they saw.

"I can close my eyes and still see certain bruises on her body," says funeral director Greg Kilgore.

"They were on the tops of her feet, they were on her arms, her thighs -- just about anywhere you would want to mention, she had bruises on it."

Investigators later determined that Ricky and Joni had really been at the American Legion in Tullahoma, sitting at the bar, drinking.

There, they got into an argument and headed outside.

The next thing anyone knew, Joni was on the ground, with blood on her face, along with what appeared to be the print from a knuckle.

Police reports show that Nolan told investigators that his bride somehow just fell "in the middle of the road."

He told another patron, Garry Scott, something else.

"I said,  'What happened?'" Scott recalls. "He said, 'Well, some girls attacked her, knocked her down and she hit her head on the curb.'"

John Bell says, "He told six different stories to six different people.  All of them is a lie."

Later, as witnesses tended to Joni, police reports show she whispered to a security guard "he hit me" and that it was "not the first time."

Witnesses says Nolan promised to take her directly to the hospital.

But he didn't.

And by the time her father got her there, it was too late.

"We asked them not to disconnect her 'til our kids got there."

After Joni's death, the man who had vowed his undying love for her just a few months earlier didn't show up at the funeral.

Now, 11 years later, her father says he has made a vow to his daughter...

"I made a promise to the whole family. It ain't ever gonna die, as long as I'm alive."

It's a vow that he plans to keep.

Ricky Nolan, who has been in and out of jail, denied hitting Joni.

But when the Bells filed their wrongful death lawsuit, he never even bother responding.

We tried for months to find him to get his side of the story, but he seems to have just disappeared.

In the Janet March case, the detectives never gave up.

But, in Joni's case, they gave up on this case long ago.

In fact, we discovered that Mr. Bell's efforts are now the butt of jokes around the Tullahoma police department.

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