During Christmas break her junior year in high school, Jennifer Servo called her mother out of the blue from an Army recruiting center in Kalispell.
“You need to come down here and sign the papers so I can join,” Sherry Abel recalls her daughter saying.
Servo, a Columbia Falls native, was always a free spirit, a fierce talent that never got a chance to fully blossom. She was murdered on Sept. 16, 2002 in Abilene, Tex., less than two months after starting her first television reporting job out of college. The murder remains unsolved, though detectives and family members have long suspected her ex-boyfriend who had moved with her to Texas. The boyfriend, a 34-year-old former Army ranger named Ralph Sepulveda, did not attend Servo’s funeral and has not spoken to the family since the murder.
Servo was found bludgeoned and strangled to death in her Abilene apartment. ABC Primetime recently aired a segment on the case, focusing on Sepulveda and Brian Travers – a friend and brief lover – as the main suspects. Abel, in an interview, called Travers a “very nice young man; a sweetheart.” She says there is no way he is the killer. Abel said detectives told her they are 99 percent sure Sepulveda is the murderer and that he is still the primary suspect.
Flathead family members and friends, five years removed from the tragedy, recently described the Jennifer Servo they knew so well: ambitious, endlessly energetic, caring, funny and utterly unique.
Servo told her mother that a Pauly Shore movie called “In the Army Now” had inspired the military idea, but the truth, as Abel acknowledges, runs much deeper. The truth is that Servo always wanted to choose her own path, to challenge herself, to dedicate her life to helping others – to make people believe in the unlikely. She was full of surprises.
So the summer between her junior and senior years in high school, the 17-year-old cheerleader-turned-soldier began basic Army training in Missoula.
“You never knew what she was going to do or say,” Abel said. “But if she made up her mind, by God, she was going to do it.”
Long before Servo dreamt of becoming the next Katie Couric, her idol, she splashed around in Flathead Lake and dreamt of being a fish. She was always drawn to water. If there was a swimming pool nearby, Servo was there. She worked at Big Sky Waterslides in Columbia Falls every summer and later, when her mother and stepfather joined the North Flathead Yacht Club, she learned to sail. In college, she returned one summer to work at Marina Cay in Bigfork.
“She loved Flathead Lake,” said Katrin Frye, a friend and former KAJ reporter.
Servo was born for the camera. From an early age, family members say she had an innate ability to get the reaction she wanted out of people, to amuse herself by entertaining others. When she was 5 years old she insisted on a pink leotard as her daily fashion choice. Occasionally she would throw on a clown costume and zip around the quiet Columbia Falls neighborhood on her bike.
Christa Slaten, Servo’s older sister, looks back at her sister’s goofiness and wonders how much of it was designed to get her attention, to impress her. She understands now that she was her sister’s childhood hero.
“I didn’t realize until later that she viewed me differently than I viewed myself,” Slaten said. “Whether we knew it or not, we were always leaning on each other.”
Norman Olson, Servo’s father, said his daughter was creative from a very young age. She played the flute and later the baritone saxophone. He has boxes full of writings and books she constructed – stories with illustrations that utilize the whole range of the crayon box. The music made sense, Olson said, as she was named after a song, Donovan’s Jennifer Juniper. Olson calls it “a whimsical song of love.”
“She was just a magical little girl with a great work ethic and equally great aspirations,” he said.
As a freshman at the University of Montana Servo cleaned hotel rooms to earn a little spending money. She also had a full class schedule and monthly duties for the Army Reserve. By the time she was a senior, she worked at both of Missoula’s television news stations, did the KUFM Evening Edition for Montana Public Radio and excelled in UM’s Radio/Television professional journalism program. At UM Servo won a couple of prestigious awards but never lost track of her goal of becoming the best of the best, not just the top of her class.
“I remember being blown away by all of the outside projects she had going on,” said professor Denise Dowling, “when some of the other students could barely keep their heads above water with the regular classes.”
Dowling said Servo had an incredible natural knack for TV journalism.
“She was just one of those people who really sparkled on camera,” Dowling said. “That’s not something we can teach. You either have it or you don’t. She had it.”
Servo loved to travel and she always kept meticulous journals everywhere she went. Even vacations were a balance of work and play with Servo. Frye recalls a trip they took together to New York over Christmas break in their final year of college. Servo had so much she wanted to do, so on one single day they commuted from Nyack to the city, went to the Letterman Show, the Broadway performance Rent, Tiffany’s and Grand Central Station – all things Servo had dreamt of doing for years.
“It was such a good day,” Frye said.
Despite being exhausted from the hectic day, Servo still had the energy to scribble down in detail the day’s events.
“Where did she find the time (for her journals)?” Frye said. “I never knew.”
After Servo’s death, Abel uncovered her journal from El Salvador, where she spent two weeks purifying water for an Army joint task force team. The journal has a cover page with a photo of her on the hood of a Hummer with the ocean stretching out behind her. It’s called The Jen Chronicles. The grammar is nearly flawless and the content is engaging – it is clear she wasn’t writing only for herself.
In one part of the journal, Servo wrote how the threat of renegade guerillas couldn’t stop her from getting to the ocean: “I guess there are a bunch of terrorists camped out next to Forward Camp … We had about 10 Salvadoran guards with us at our site, I wasn’t worried. I was like, ‘terrorist, shmerrorist, I’m going to the beach!’ So I did.”
Abel spent nearly two weeks with her daughter the July before she was murdered. First they spent a week together at Abel’s stepson’s wedding in Oregon. It was the last time the family was together with Servo, the last time Slaten saw her little sister. After Oregon, Abel drove down with Servo to Texas to help her get settled in at her new job. They found Servo’s “dream apartment,” complete with cable TV, a dishwasher and, of course, a swimming pool in the complex.
On one of the last nights Abel spent with Servo, the two christened the apartment with a candlelit spaghetti dinner.
“We put a tablecloth on her Army trunk on the floor,” Abel said. “We had no furniture.”
Around that time, Slaten went into labor. Not being able to be with her sister tortured Servo, Slaten said. Servo would call, crying and making plans to visit. They settled on plans to meet up at Christmas.
Servo never met Mallory, her niece. But Slaten recalls the night Servo died. Slaten had heard the news and was packing her bags to go to Montana. She kept waiting for Mallory to wake up and cry, as she had every night before, but she never did. From then on, Mallory slept soundly through each night.
“I always felt Jen was there with her – her guardian angel,” Slaten said.
The murder case’s lack of resolution is agonizing for family and friends, but Abel said detectives recently spent a full week on the case, the first time they’ve done that in years. That means they have new leads, though beyond that Abel can only wait, as she’s been doing for five years.
Servo’s ashes were spread in Flathead Lake the summer following her death. Frye recalls standing with Servo’s family lakeside near the North Flathead Yacht Club. The container, which was designed to float and slowly disintegrate, began its journey out to the farther reaches of the lake but suddenly tipped over and sunk. Frye remembers how her stomach turned, how fast it all happened.
“It was so abrupt,” Frye said. “But in retrospect, if you think about it, it was kind of appropriate.”
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