In her short career as an up-and-coming on-air reporter, 22-year-old Jennifer Servo had covered murders before, but she never got to cover what would become one of the most baffling unsolved murders in Texas — her own.
Servo was found bludgeoned and strangled in her apartment in Abilene, Texas, in 2002. It was a murder with all the details that would have intrigued a reporter like Servo: good-looking ex-lovers … betrayal … sex … mystery … and, of course, a beautiful victim with big dreams. Her mother says Servo wanted to be the next Katie Couric.
"She said she was going to someday fly us, in her private jet, to New York City," said Sherry Abel. "And, a big black limousine would come pick us up and take her to her penthouse apartment."
Getting to that penthouse was going to take a while. Servo's audition tape landed her a job in the tiny media market of Abilene, Texas. Her starting salary: $7.50 an hour.
Servo wasn't going to Abilene alone. She had recently met Ralph Sepulveda, a former Army ranger, tall, dark and handsome, and from Servo's family's point of view, maybe a little bit too dangerous.
"He was a lot older than her," said Servo's sister Christa. "He was 34, and she was only 22. And he was a little more rough-looking. He had tattoos all over his arms."
But Servo had recently ended her first long-term relationship and Sepulveda represented something different from her old boyfriend. "Ralph was more the bad boy, wild child, charming guy," said her best friend Dara Riordan. "He captured her heart."
The two had only known each other for a few weeks when they impulsively decided Sepulveda would give up his life in Montana to come with her to Abilene, despite her family's objections.
'This is Jennifer Servo Reporting Live'
In Abeline, Servo's career got off to a fast start. "You could see early on that Jennifer had the tools it was going to take to move on to bigger and better things," said Downing Bolls, anchor of KRBC News.
But her relationship with Sepulveda was heading downhill. According to her family, Servo discovered that he had a fiancee when they met, whom he had promptly broken up with. They say she also found out he had a child whom he never saw.
"That was really upsetting to her," her sister Christa said. "That was pretty much a deal-breaker for her."
And Jennifer Loren, her colleague and friend at KRBC, said Servo told her something disquieting. "She did say that he had wanted to choke her while they were having sex, and she did not like that at all."
So three weeks after Sepulveda gave up his old life and his fiancee and moved 1,600 miles across the country to be with Servo, her family says she kicked him out.
Riordan said that Sepulveda was upset, but not angry. "I know that he came back over to her apartment and try to rekindle it and get a second chance out of her about a week after the initial breakup. But she said, 'I just can't do it.' And he said 'OK,' and that was it."
Sepulveda moved to another apartment complex in Abilene and found a job, and as far as anyone knew, seemed to be moving on.
People at KRBC say Servo seemed like a different person. She fell in with her new friends from the station, worked hard and played hard. One of them was someone who wanted to be more than friends. His name was Brian Travers, a 23-year-old weather forecaster at the station, with all-American clean-cut looks. Travers said they were briefly intimate, but that, "she said she's not going to let any guy come in her way, so she had told me that she just wanted to just be close friends."
According to Riordan, Servo "felt like he was very into her and she didn't want to hurt him."
The Night in Question
After doing the news Sept. 15, 2002, Servo and Travers picked up a coffee table from a friend's apartment, and then stopped at a Wal-Mart for a late-night shopping run. Along the way, Travers says Servo told him she thought they were being followed.
"She's like, 'I'm pretty sure, Brian. That's the same car.' And I was like, 'You're just imagining things,'" he said. Servo declined when Travers offered to walk her to her car, but he insisted.
After Servo dropped off Travers at his apartment, phone records indicate that she drove back to her apartment and then called ex-boyfriend Dave Warren, a weather forecaster working in Montana. "We talked about seeing each other in Dallas in December, which was three months away," Warren said. "She never said anything about anyone following her home."
But sometime after Servo hung up with Warren, someone climbed the stairs to her apartment and murdered her. After two days of unreturned messages, the station's news director called the apartment complex manager to check on Servo. She was found bludgeoned and strangled — there were no murder weapon and no signs of forced entry.
Early attention focused on the two men who had been in her life in Abilene: Sepulveda and Travers. According to lead Detective Jeff Bell of the Abilene Police Department, "those two guys were the ones who we knew had a personal relationship with Jennifer."
Police say the two men's reactions to the news of her death were completely different. According to Bell, Sepulveda was very controlled and never asked how Servo had been murdered. Travers, by contrast, was very distraught.
Police won't go into specifics, but the DNA of both Sepulveda and Travers was found in the apartment. However, Sgt. John Reid of the Abilene Police Department points out that, "if someone that has business in the apartment, has been there, invited several times in the past … if their DNA shows up in the apartment, it really doesn't mean a whole lot."
Travers hired a lawyer almost immediately and cooperated fully, although he didn't mention the suspicious car incident for several days. Sepulveda, who also cooperated initially with police, eventually stopped talking to police and moved away.
Forensic psychiatrist Michael Welner cautions that no behavior is "normal" when someone close has been murdered. "It's so easy for a forensic psychiatrist like myself to say, well, you're not supposed to act that way when someone that you knew well was murdered. How many of us know what it's like to be a murder suspect? Very few. Do they go get a lawyer? Sometimes. Do they run? Do they clam up? Sometimes."
Police had not ruled out other persons of interest, including the possibility of a stalker. According to colleague Loren, Servo had shown her an article about newscasters who had been stalked just the week before her death, but some friends were troubled by the story of the mysterious car.
If Servo and Travers had seen someone following them, would she really have been so blase about walking to her car alone and then driving back to her empty apartment?
Riordan says that doesn't sound like her friend. "I was told that they were being followed by some car and that he offered to walk her and that she said, 'don't worry about that.' And to me that was not the truth if it was the same Jen that we knew."
Travers says that's what happened and that her car was parked right at the bottom of the stairs to his apartment and that you could see her car from that vantage point.
Police say that Travers has not been completely excluded, but that he has "moved down a little bit on the list of potentials in this case, just because of the cooperation level and everything that we've gone through the investigation and checking into him."
Travers, who agreed to be interviewed by "Primetime," denies any role in Servo's death and Loren, their mutual friend, quickly agreed. "He's like our sweet, adorable, couldn't-hurt-a-fly, Brian. There's no way."
Sepulveda would not talk to "Primetime," but he has a clean Army record — no previous crimes. And in the weeks before the murder, Servo's friends say there was no contact between the two.
"I talked to her the day before she died," said Riordan. "And she had not heard or seen him in three weeks."
But what about the stories of choking during sex while they were together? Riordan reluctantly admits that she heard this from Servo too, but says, "Strangling someone and rough sex are two completely different things. I think that um, however passionate, fireworks, whatever you want to call Jen and Ralph's personal intimate life — was it a dangerous deal? I, I don't think so. She never felt threatened by it or scared."
But for Servo's mom, everything comes down to the memorial service she held for her daughter. She says more than 300 people showed up, but there was one person conspicuous by his absence. "There were no condolences, phone calls, a card and no Ralph at that ceremony," Abel said.
Police say Sepulveda remains their primary person of interest. And just a few weeks ago, they traveled to Seattle to question him yet again. Five years after the murder, they are still actively investigating, but for relatives and friends, the lack of resolution is hard.
"I want the person who did this to face what they've done. It's not fair for them to be out living their life," said Servo's sister Christa.
Riordan says she sometimes thinks back to a murder Servo once covered in Montana. In Servo's final stand-up, she said, "Yesterday the sheriff told us they're following a number of strong leads, and are just a phone call away from an arrest."
That murder, like Servo's, remains unsolved.