Could There Finally Be Justice for Joni? - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

NewsChannel 5 Investigates:

Could There Finally Be Justice for Joni?

Joni Bell Nolan Joni Bell Nolan
Ricky Nolan Ricky Nolan
John Bell John Bell
Tullahoma Police Chief Paul Blackwell Tullahoma Police Chief Paul Blackwell
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It's been more than a decade since a young bride died under suspicious circumstances.

During that time, police just gave up.

But tonight, there may finally be justice for Joni Bell Nolan.

Investigators have now reopened the case following questions first raised by an exclusive NewsChannel 5 investigation.

And the family's talking only to our chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.

"So did you ever think this day would come?" Williams asks Joni's father, John Bell.

"I was beginning to doubt it," he answers.

For 12 years, investigators had told John Bell just to let it go, to leave questions about his 30-year-old daughter's death buried with her.

"Every time we'd bring it up, we'd get it shot down."

So when he and his wife recently got word that her case would finally be reopened, he says, "When we got through crying, we were tickled to death."

As NewsChannel 5 Investigates first revealed last year, Joni died just four months after her marriage to Ricky Nolan -- a man who, her family believes, killed her.

"She was murdered," John Bell told us back then. "There is enough evidence to prove she was murdered."

Joni's death came after the newlyweds had been inside the Tullahoma American Legion, drinking at the bar, when they got into an argument and took it outside.

The next thing anyone saw, Joni was on the ground. Other patrons rushed to her side.

"They had this little blond-headed girl in between them, trying to hold her up and she had blood coming all down her face," patron Garry Scott remembered.

Police reports show that Joni whispered to a security guard that Nolan had hit her and that it was not the first time.

Witnesses say her new husband promised to take her to the hospital. Instead, he took her home. And by the time her family got her to an emergency room, it was too late.

"We never did get to talk to her no more," John Bell said.

While the autopsy concluded she died as a result of blunt force trauma -- a blow to the head -- funeral director Greg Kilgore said he was so shocked by all the bruises all over Joni's body that he called police just to make sure they were treating it as a violent crime.

"It's like somebody had been, you know, someone who had been in a fight -- a one-sided fight," Kilgore told Phil Williams.

"My conclusion when we looked at the body -- and it was backed up by the medical examiner's report -- somebody beat this girl to death."

Phil asked John Bell, "Did her husband come to the funeral?"

"No," Bell answered.

Joni's dad filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Nolan, who never showed up in court to defend himself.

Still, prosecutors refused to charge him.

"There was a period of time in this case where, unfortunately, there were no witnesses," District Attorney General Mickey Lane told us.

At the Tullahoma Police Department, our NewsChannel 5 investigation discovered that Joni's case had long been forgotten. In fact, they did not even bother to keep the file.

But now there's a new police chief -- and a new hope."

Veteran police officer Paul Blackwell took over the Tullahoma Police Department back in July -- and decided to see if his team could put the pieces of the puzzle together.

"It's not necessarily a whodunnit because we know who most of the players are in the case," Blackwell tells Phil Williams.

"It's a new set of eyes, and if we've missed something before, we're going to look at it this time. And if there's something that we didn't think of or if there's another person that wasn't interviewed, we're going to try to find those people and interview them."

And John Bell's persistence is now helping Chief Blackwell's investigators, who've rebuilt their file from the evidence that Joni's dad accumulated over the years.

"If we feel comfortable we've given a good case to the prosecutors, then we believe we've given justice to Joni and to the family," Blackwell says.

"So you think there will be justice for Joni?" Williams asks.

"I do believe that."

John Bell tells Williams, "We've got some hope now, and the hope comes from what you folks did and the fact that there's been a change in City Hall in Tullahoma."

And Bell hopes his daughter will, one day soon, finally be able to rest in peace.

"I believe that she's going to get that justice."

Investigators think that someone watching this may help them finally figure out, one way or another, what happened to Joni.

If you have information, they want you to call Tullahoma Crimestoppers at (931) 461-8888. And, they note, any critical information could lead to a reward.

As for Ricky Nolan, Williams says his team has tried, for more than a year, to find him. But Nolan has moved around a lot and used a bunch of different names.

Still, the NewsChannel 5 Investigates team would like to talk to him to get his side of the story.

Back to NewsChannel 5 Investigates

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