‘Belligerently Drunk’ Ex-Roommate Admitted to Murdering College Student, Cops Say

·6 min read
Police handout / courtesy Anna Knutson
Police handout / courtesy Anna Knutson

For nearly 15 years, Anita Knutson’s family anxiously waited for North Dakota authorities to identify a suspect in the brutal murder of the 18-year-old Minot State University student inside her off-campus apartment.

That day finally arrived this week with the arrest of 34-year-old Nichole Rice, who was Knutson’s roommate and had previously told police she was out of town at her parents’ house at the time of the June 2007 murder. In a probable-cause affidavit obtained by The Daily Beast, however, investigators say Rice actually admitted to killing Knutson; the admission was said to come after Rice got “belligerently drunk” at a party in 2008 or 2009.

“Anita had a reputation for being kind, friendly, and likable. Nichole’s reputation is that she was hot-tempered and reactionary,” the probable-cause affidavit states. It also notes that prior to Knutson’s murder, one friend heard Nichole say to Anita: “One way or another, I’m going to get you out of this house.”

Rice, who was arrested at the Minot Air Force Base, where she works as a civilian, is facing a murder charge and being held at the Ward County Jail. Rice's attorney did not immediately respond for comment ahead of her initial court appearance on Thursday afternoon.

“Although most of the detectives who worked the original scene and investigation have retired, we have not forgotten about this case,” Minot Police Chief John Klug said in a press conference announcing the charges on Wednesday. “It was good to know that finally, the one case that we’ve had hanging out there that we just could not get to a solution was finally over.”

The arrest comes two months after Knutson’s sister spoke with The Daily Beast about the unsolved cold case that rocked rural North Dakota. While Rice had not been publicly named as a suspect at the time, Anna Knutson told The Daily Beast rumors swirled around her sister’s roommate shortly after the murder. The probable cause affidavit also notes that police were aware after Knutson’s murder that “there was a lot of tension between Anita and Nichole.”

“There was a conversation about Anita’s roommate about them just not getting along. Even now, there are a lot of questions about what their relationship was like,” Anna Knutson told The Daily Beast in January. “I do think it’s very weird. I did go to high school with the roommate too, I know her family. It’s just hard to imagine.”

Anna Knutson declined to comment on Rice’s arrest on Thursday, telling The Daily Beast that she was “not ready to talk with anyone.”

The Unsolved Pocket-Knife Murder of an Aspiring Teacher

While it took over a decade for investigators to accuse Rice of Knutson's murder, Chief Klug told The Daily Beast in January that the roommate had never been ruled out as a suspect.

“I think the turning point, in this case, was really just trying to pull all that information together and put it in an order that made sense,” he told reporters Wednesday.

Police say Knutson was found fatally stabbed, face-down on her own bed, by her father and two maintenance workers at around 5:12 p.m. on June 4, 2007. A robe covered her bloodied body, and the pocket knife that police believed was used to murder her was close by.

“The single window in Anita’s room, which was located just past the foot of her bed, was wide open and missing a screen. A pocket knife with dried blood on it was found on the bed, close to the wall and open window,” the affidavit states.

Her father, Former Butte Mayor Gordon Knutson, had gone to her apartment—about an hour from their tiny North Dakota down—after the teenager did not respond to her family’s calls all weekend while they were in Bismarck for her brother’s baseball tournament. Klug previously told The Daily Beast that the last time anyone heard from Anita was that Saturday.

The affidavit noted that Rice was among the four people who had keys to the apartment—and was not home when Knutson’s body was discovered.

Crime-scene analysis later concluded that Knutson had been dead for more than a day before her father burst into her locked apartment with the help of the two workers. While there was no evidence of sexual abuse or defense wounds, Klug noted that Anita was found wearing a robe. The affidavit says that Knutson’s purse and electronics were all left in her room, “suggesting theft was not a motive.”

Just 15 at the time, Anna previously told The Daily Beast that she learned about her sister’s murder when her brother abruptly picked her up at a friend’s house.

“I remember I got in the car and he had clearly been crying,” Anna said. “It was not a supernormal thing for my brother to do, and he wouldn’t tell me anything. So I just started naming people. Like, ‘Is it mom, is it our Aunt Karen, or Uncle Joe?’ ‘Is it Anita?’”

“And then he started crying and kind of looked at me and said, ‘She’s dead,” Anna continued. “I just remember the whole car ride, we sat in silence. It was about a 30-minute ride home.”

The grisly murder immediately prompted outrage across North Dakota as authorities scrambled to find her killer, which included taking DNA samples from everyone close to Knutson. Among those interviewed was Anita’s roommate, who told police she was at her “family’s farm by Velva when Anita was murdered,” the affidavit states.

“Statements received from Nichole were inconsistent and contradicted each other. Statements by members of her family were also inconsistent,” investigators added.

Among those inconsistent statements from Rice, according to the affidavit, was her claim that she and Knutson were best friends and that she had never complained about her roommate. A witness told police in September 2008 that, after Knutson’s murder, Rice referred to the deceased teenager as a “fucking bitch” and a “fucking little cunt.”

The same witness also said that she saw Rice at a Rusco bar on June 2, 2007—and that Rice told her she went back to her apartment after to get some clothes. Rice's parents, however, told police that she was at the family farm from June 2 until the morning of June 4.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Anna Knutson</div>
Anna Knutson

“There was never enough to arrest her but I would say she was always a person of interest in this case,” Klug said on Wednesday about Rice.

The affidavit notes that police also learned “information regarding [a] party attended by Nichole,” where she allegedly admitted to a man she was dating at the time that she murdered Knutson. Eventually, the mounting evidence prompted authorities to re-interview multiple people involved in the case, including Rice, in 2022.

Prior to Thursday’s arrest, the Knutson case brought lasting trauma to her family—and may have contributed to her brother’s demise. On April 9, 2013, Daniel Knutson died by suicide. Anna said that their sister’s death was particularly devastating for her brother and the incident changed him and “caused a lot of pain.”

“My heart goes out to the family,” Klug said at Wednesday’s press conference announcing the arrest. “I wish we could have solved this sooner, but at the same time, I’m glad to say that we have the person responsible for the murder of Anita Knutson in custody.”

If you or a loved one are struggling with suicidal thoughts, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741

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