'Divine Intervention': How a Bible led to justice for murdered farmer Earl Olander

When the 90-year-old was found murdered in his rural Minnesota home in 2015, investigators had very little evidence and no leads.

ByJohn Quinones, Andy Awes, Cari Strassberg, Matt Lombardi and Ivan Pereira ABCNews logo
Friday, November 11, 2022
Police receive surprise tip in unsolved murder of Minnesota farmer
On May 9, 2015, investigators received a tip from someone cleaning an apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, claiming he found a Bible containing two $1,000 bonds with Earl Olander's name and address.

CARVER COUNTY, Minn. -- When 90-year-old farmer Earl Olander was found murdered in his rural Minnesota home in 2015, investigators had very little evidence and no leads for weeks.

That all changed when a family Bible belonging to Olander was discovered and led to police cracking the case and arresting the men responsible. Some of the investigators told "20/20," which is exploring the case with a special episode on Nov. 11, that the break was divine intervention.

"You're always looking for that one nugget, that one thing that comes in that allows you to solve the case," Jim Olson, a retired sheriff with the Carver County Sheriff's Office who worked on the investigation, told "20/20."

Olander was found dead inside his house on his farm in Carver County, Minnesota, on April 11, 2015, with his hands and feet bound by tape. The 90-year-old had been a farmer on the property all of his life and was still baling hay even in his old age, according to his friends and neighbors.

Earl Olander was found dead inside his life long Minnesota home in 2015. (LifeTouch)

Even though he lived a modest life, investigators looking for a motive for his murder soon discovered Olander had millions of dollars to his name, from inheritance and his years of farming, according to investigators.

"You could tell that the suspects had spent a significant amount of time in the house going through all the drawers and cupboards," Chris Wagner, the former lead investigator for the Carver County Sheriff's Office told "20/20." " Money has always been in a lot of crimes that you're looking into."

Chris Wagner, the former lead investigator for the Carver County Sheriff's Office speaks with "20/20" about the 2015 murder of Earl Olander.

Detectives had little evidence left at the scene, with shoe prints left by the suspects as the only major clues.

For weeks, investigators said they were frustrated with tips and leads that went nowhere, but then they received a call on May 9, 2015, from a person in St. Paul. Barry Kyles told police he found a Bible inside an apartment he was paid to clean. The Bible had a savings bond with Olander's name on it, according to Kyles.

Kyles searched for Olander's name on the Internet and quickly discovered that he had been murdered, and that there was a reward. Olson told "20/20" that the Norwegian Bible was over 100 years old and belonged to Olander's family.

A Bible belonging to Earl Olander helped lead investigators to his killers, police said.

Investigators turned their attention to Edson Benitez, who lived in the apartment that Kyles cleaned. When questioned by detectives, Benitez first claimed that a friend who moved to Mexico gave him the Bible, but investigators pressed on when the details of his story didn't add up.

Benitez would eventually come clean and admit that the Bible was stolen. He told detectives that his friend Reinol Vergara called him up a few days before Olander's murder because he needed help with something. Vergara was a painter who worked on Olander's house, and knew the farmer had a lot of money, Benitez told investigators.

Vergara was suspected in an unsolved burglary that took place at Olander's neighbors' home earlier in 2015. Vergara also worked for the neighbors.

Benitez said he waited in his car while Vergara went into Olander's house with a black duffel bag that allegedly had duct tape and a gun, according to investigators.

Twenty minutes later, Benitez said Vergara returned to the car and asked him to come inside and help look for the money. Benitez said when he got inside he saw a man with his face covered with a blanket and hands and feet tied with duct tape.

Earl Olander was found dead inside his lifelong Minnesota home on his family farm in 2015.

The man was struggling on the ground when Vergara struck the man with the gun, Benitez told investigators.

"He said to the old man, 'You're going to die?'" Wagner asked during the interview.

"Yeah, 'You're going to die," Benitez said.

"He threatened to kill him?" Wagner asked.

"Yeah," Benitez answered.

Benitez told investigators that the man was still moving when he and Vergara left the house with the items.

Police arrested Vergara and questioned him, but when asked about the attack, Vergara claimed he never struck Olander during the incident and that there was a third person.

"There was an awful lot of finger-pointing that was going on in this case," Olson told "20/20."

Jim Olson, a retired sheriff with the Carver County Sheriff's Office, speaks with "20/20" about the 2015 murder of Earl Olander.

Cell phone records and a match to their shoe prints further implicated that the pair were at the house at the time of the burglary and murder.

Vergara and Benitez were both charged with four counts of murder. The pair pleaded guilty to one of those charges and were sentenced in 2016 to 37 years in prison.

Edson Benitez and Reinol Vergara pleaded guilty to killing Earl Olander in 2016. (Carver County Sheriff's Office)

Investigators today are confident that there was not a third person involved.

"After law enforcement exhaustively investigated the murder and followed up on every lead, there was no reliable or credible evidence that a third person was involved in the murder of Earl Olander," the Carver County Attorney's office said in a statement to "20/20."

Maria and Bill Boecker speak to "20/20" about the death of their neighbor Earl Olander.

Olander's friends and neighbors told "20/20" that they're grateful that justice was able to be served because of that Bible.

"To me, there are no coincidences. There are only 'God-incidences,'" Bill Boecker, Olander's longtime neighbor, told "20/20."