Holly Durben (Courtesy Heather Richardson)

Holly Durben (Courtesy photo Heather Richardson)

Holly Rae Durben

Homicide — SOLVED


Holly Rae Durben
29 YOA
2492 Highway 59
Shenandoah, Iowa
Fremont County
July 18, 2009


Holly Durben’s Case Featured on Oxygen Network

The Oxygen Crime News network featured Holly’s case June 6, 2020, in an episode titled “A Shot in the Dark.” The episode (Season 2, Episode 5) will be available online for the next 10 months and may be viewed on the Oxygen website.

The story, “Man Puts Fiancée In Choke Hold Before Staging Her Suicide,” by Aly Vander Hayden, explains how investigators, who initially ruled Holly’s fatal shooting accidental, arrived at the decision to charge Brian Davis with first-degree murder.  

Previous Updates

Brian David Found Guilty of First-Degree Murder

Holly Durben and her family have received justice.

On Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, Fremont County District Court Judge Timothy O’Grady found Brian Heath Davis, 35, guilty of first-degree murder in Holly’s 2009 death.

On Thursday, April 9, 2015, O’Grady sentenced Davis to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Read More About the Verdict

Iowa prosecutors say man staged girlfriend’s 2009 death as suicide

Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2015 | By Andrew J. Nelson / World-Herald staff writer

SIDNEY, Iowa — Imprisonment. Torture. Isolation. Battery. Holly Durben’s sister used these words in testimony Tuesday to describe Durben’s relationship with her boyfriend, Brian Davis.

Davis is charged with first-degree murder, accused of killing Durben in 2009 at the home they shared south of Shenandoah.

Durben’s death followed an incident the year before in which she told deputies Davis had tried to strangle her and had put a loaded handgun to her head. Her friends had encouraged her to try to leave Davis, according to the arrest affidavit.

Two days after her death, an autopsy was performed at the office of the state medical examiner. There was reddening on Durben’s neck and in her right eye, signs of possible asphyxiation, the affidavit states.

Read the full story at omaha.com.

Verdict expected Monday, Feb. 16, 2015 — View at kmaland.com

On Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2014, the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation announced in a press release that 34-year-old Brian Davis of Shenandoah had been arrested and charged with first-degree murder in the July 18, 2009 death of his girlfriend, 29-year-old Holly Rae Durben. The press release is as follows:

Shenandoah Man Arrested for 1st Degree Murder of Girlfriend

Shenandoah, IOWA — Today, October 29, 2014, 34 year old Brian Davis of Shenandoah was arrested and charged with 1st Degree Murder for the death of his girlfriend Holly Durben on July 18, 2009. Based on interviews of witnesses and crime scene evidence, investigators believe that Davis is responsible for Durben’s death. Davis is currently being held at the Fremont County Jail on a $1,000,000.00 cash bond.

Brian Davis mugshotCourtesy Iowa Department of Public Safety
Brian Davis, 34, was charged with First Degree Murder on Oct. 29, 2014, for the death of his girlfriend Holly Durben on July 18, 2009.

At 9:36 AM, on July 18, 2009, the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office responded to a 911 call from Brian Davis at 2492 Highway 59 south of Shenandoah. When Deputy’s arrived they located 29 year old Holly Durben deceased in the bedroom of her residence, which she shared with her boyfriend Brian Davis. The Fremont County Sheriff’s Office requested assistance in the investigation from the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation.

An autopsy was performed on Ms. Durben’s body at the Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner in Ankeny, Iowa. It was determined that Ms. Durben suffered a fatal gunshot to the head as well as other injuries.

For media inquiries, please contact Iowa DCI Special Agent in Charge Darrell Simmons at (office) 712-322-1585 or (cell) 319-929-2786.

It should be noted that a criminal charge is merely an accusation and all suspects are considered innocent until proven guilty.

Case Summary by Jody Ewing
Fremont County in Iowa

Fremont County in Iowa

Holly Rae Durben, 29, was pronounced dead on Saturday, July 18, 2009, after an emergency call brought Fremont County sheriff’s deputies to the rural Shenandoah home she shared with her boyfriend, 29-year-old Brian Davis.

Deputies found Durben lying on her back in an upstairs bedroom, a gunshot wound to her head and her left hand placed on a Winchester 12-gauge shotgun.

Davis had waited a number of hours before contacting authorities — leaving the home approximately one hour after her death and returning at a later time — and placed the 911 call at 9:35 a.m. He told the sheriff’s office dispatcher Holly had shot herself.

While investigators spent several hours gathering evidence from the scene, Davis was taken to the Shenandoah hospital where his blood-alcohol level registered at three times the legal driving limit. Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation agents interviewed Davis at the hospital, and he told them he’d been up late playing video games with a friend.

No gunshot residue was found on Durben’s hands.

During the autopsy performed two days after her death, the state medical examiner found reddening on her neck and in her right eye — signs of possible asphyxiation — in addition to the gunshot wound.

Her cause of death was listed as “undetermined.”

Though Davis insisted Durben’s death was a suicide, her family had reason to believe otherwise and had supporting evidence to back up their suspicions.

A History of Violence

According to an Omaha World-Herald story published July 23, 2009, Davis had a history of multiple criminal charges and convictions, including a 1999 conviction for assault and causing serious injury. Domestic abuse charges were dismissed in 2008, and Davis had most recently been arrested in connection with a stabbing in Shenandoah the month before Durben’s death.

holly-durbens-cat-bennyCourtesy photo Heather Richardson
Holly Durben’s cat, Benny, whom Heather Richardson rescued from the home after her sister’s murder.

Ten months before Durben’s death, Davis held a gun to Durben’s head but she refused to press charges, said Durben’s older sister, Heather Richardson, in a March 2012 email to Iowa Cold Cases.

“There is no doubt we know Brian Davis murdered my sister,” Richardson said. “He has more recent charges since her death of false imprisonment and more domestic violence charges. He will kill again, he has no empathy, he hurts people to see their reaction, like a sick morbid curiosity.”

Richardson rescued “Benny,” Durben’s cat, from the rural Shenandoah home after her sister was killed.

Three years after Durben’s death, Davis was convicted of violating a protection order, and as recently as a month before his arrest for Durben’s murder was charged with domestic abuse assault with intent to inflict serious injury, the World-Herald reported in a story published Oct. 30, 2014. The latest victim, like Durben, refused to press charges and the case was dismissed.

Holly-Durben-with-dogCourtesy photo Heather Richardson
Holly Durben loved animals and volunteered with the Bellevue, Nebraska Humane Society. She is shown here in younger years with her dog, Dakota.

The day after Davis was arrested and charged in Durben’s unsolved murder, her brother-in-law, Charles Richardson (Heather’s husband) told World-Herald staff writer Andrew J. Nelson that family members had tried to persuade Durben to leave Davis.

“She was a very, very kind person who believed everyone had good in them. I think she was giving him more of the benefit of the doubt than he deserved,” Charles Richardson told the World-Herald. “It was heartbreaking because we felt that she was almost ready to leave … We almost had her out of there and then that happened.”

According to the World-Herald’s Oct. 30, 2014 story, the affidavit for Davis’ arrest provided details on what investigators found in their investigation of what happened the Saturday morning Durben died, which included but was not limited to:

  • The couple argued extensively the night before.
  • About 4 a.m., friends reported she sent a text message, asking if she could come over. At 4:30, a friend reached her by phone, and Durben was upset and crying. Davis got on the phone and said everything was fine, but also said he was going to take a bath and slit his wrists, the affidavit says. Then he hung up.
  • When friends called again Davis said everything was fine and denied saying he would cut his wrists. Davis would later tell DCI agents that he did not recall these calls.
  • About 9:35 a.m., Davis called 911 to say Durben had shot herself. While still on the phone, he walked onto U.S. Highway 59. He stopped two cars.
  • Davis told authorities they had taken the shotgun out and shot it, then unloaded it and stored it under the bed where it was normally kept. He said his friend left about 5 a.m.

Davis told investigators he later woke up hungry and called upstairs to see if Durben wanted any eggs. She declined, he said, but asked him to come upstairs.

The World-Herald reported that Davis said he was on the fourth step when he heard the shotgun blast, but in a later interview, Davis changed his story and said his friend had left at 6:15 a.m.

The friend told investigators that when he left the home around 8 a.m., Durben was in the kitchen and that the shotgun was on a chair in the kitchen, not under the bed upstairs as Davis had claimed.

holly-durben-with-nephews-jacob-and-drakeCourtesy photo Heather Richardson
Holly Durben with nephews, Jacob and Drake.
A daughter, sister, best friend, caregiver

Holly’s slaying came as a cruel end for a talented young woman deeply committed to making life better for others.

Heather Richardson called her sister’s murder “the worst experience of my life.”

Richardson was two months pregnant when notified of her sister’s death.

Holly had been like a second mom to her brother Shawn’s children, Ariel and Jacob.

Shawn Durben, a Navy veteran, was last known to be living in Anchorage, Alaska, but the family wasn’t able to reach him or make contact with him after Holly’s murder. They weren’t able to tell him she’d been killed.

holly-and-shawn-durbenCourtesy photo Heather Richardson
Shawn Durben and his sister, Holly, as teens. Shawn, a Navy veteran, went missing while living in Alaska and his whereabouts remain unknown.

Her death was made all the more difficult as the family worried about Shawn’s safety; his whereabouts are still unknown.

Richardson said the family retained some of Holly’s ashes so that if her brother were located, he’d be able to mourn his sister.

Holly not only loved Shawn’s children like her own, but also had a special love for animals and worked as a volunteer with the Bellevue, Nebraska Humane Society. She and her grandmother had helped nurse an injured deer back to health after it was hit by a combine.

Holly also was a gifted musician, played alto sax and had taught herself to play the bass guitar.

Her greatest passion, however, was caring for those with special needs, whether animals or human beings.

New prosecutor’s perspective makes difference in case

After Davis’ Oct. 29 arrest, Fremont County Sheriff Kevin Aistrope said the investigation into Durben’s death was reopened in late 2013 after current County Attorney James Burger took office. The new prosecutor’s perspective, the World-Herald reported, made the difference.

holly-durben-and-mother-ruby-durbenCourtesy photo Heather Richardson
Holly Durben and her mother, Ruby Durben.

“Our office brought it to him … We had several, several meetings on it,” Aistrope told the World-Herald. “All the evidence was there. He just looked at it with a new eye.”

Although the Iowa DCI also cited new evidence in the case, they declined to elaborate on specific evidence due to the ongoing investigation.

“I’m glad it gives the family some closure,” Aistrope told the World-Herald News Service. “It’s been a long investigation, and we’re just glad to have it done.”

Richardson and her family hope to see justice served in Holly’s death.

“She was my best friend,” Richardson said.


On Monday, Feb. 16, 2015, Fremont County District Court Judge Timothy O’Grady found Brian Davis guilty of 1st degree murder in Holly’s death. Sentencing was scheduled for Wednesday, March 4, 2015.

First-degree murder, a Class A felony, carries a mandatory life sentence without the possibility of parole.

In his conclusion, Judge O’Grady stated:

Courtesy Sandy Parmenter, Hamburg Reporter
Judge Timothy O’Grady

“When the symmetrical bruises on Durben’s neck are considered along with the evidence described above, discussed above, including the staging of the death scene, and Davis’ contrivances with rescue personnel, his contrivance at the hospital, his contrivance during interviews, and the significant inconsistencies in Davis’ statements, I am firmly convinced that Durben did not kill herself.

I am firmly convinced, despite the uncertainty in the medical evidence, because I have been able to consider all of the evidence including specifically Davis’ own statements. I am firmly convinced that Brian Davis choked Holly Durben and then shot her.

The evidence proves beyond a reasonable doubt that on July 18, 2009, Brian Heath Davis choked, then shot Holly Rae Durben. That Holly Rae Durben died as a result of being choked and shot. That Brian Heath Davis acted with malice aforethought, and that Brian Heath Davis acted willfully, deliberately, premeditatedly and with a specific intent to kill Holly Rae Durben.

It is therefore, ordered, adjudged, and decreed that Defendant, Brian Heath Davis is guilty under count I of Murder in the 1st Degree….”

~ Judge Timothy O’Grady, The Hamburg Reporter, Feb. 17, 2015

On Thursday, April 9, 2015, Judge O’Grady sentenced Brian Davis to life in prison for Holly’s death.

About Holly

Holly Rae Durben was born May 30, 1980 in Honolulu, Hawaii, the daughter of Daniel Ray and Ruby Claire (Cornelius) Durben. She passed away on Saturday morning, July 18, 2009 at her home near Shenandoah at the age of 29 years, 1 month and 18 days.

Holly graduated from Bellevue East High School in 1998. She then attended college working towards a degree in communications, and currently worked for Chat Mobility/Radio Shack in Shenandoah.

Holly had a special love for animals and worked as a volunteer with the Bellevue, Nebraska Humane Society.

She also enjoyed listening to music, playing alto sax and bass guitar, roller blading and scuba diving. She also had a passion for caring for people with special needs.

holly-durben-and-grandmother-deerCourtesy photo Heather Richardson
Holly and her grandmother, Fern Cornelius, with a deer the two helped nurse back to health after it was hit by a combine.

Survivors included her mother, Ruby Durben of Bedford, Iowa; her father, Daniel R. Durben and his wife, Billie, of Port Washington, Ohio; two sisters, Dana N. Kinney of Bellevue, Nebraska, Heather Richardson and her husband Charles of Niota, Tennessee; a brother, Daniel S. Durben of Virginia Beach, Virginia; along with many other relatives and friends.

Memorial services were held at 6 p.m. Friday, July 24, 2009, at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Shenandoah with Rev. Mahlon Bekedam and Rev. Randy Allman officiating. Visitation with the family present was held following the service at the Emmanuel Lutheran Church, with a private family burial scheduled for a later date.

The Kirsch Funeral Chapel of Shenandoah was in charge of arrangements.

The family suggested that memorial contributions be made to the Bellevue, Nebraska Humane Society or to DOVES.


7 Responses to Holly Durben

  1. Heather Richardson says:

    Thank you for telling Holly’s story. The Iowa justice team did an amazing job with her case and I will be forever grateful to and for all of them!

    • Jody Ewing says:

      You are most welcome, Heather, and thank *you* for sharing the information and photos with us! County Attorney James Burger, the DCI and Judge O’Grady indeed did an amazing job and reminded Iowa the justice system can and does still work.

      Please stay in touch and let me know if you ever hear about the whereabouts of your brother, Shawn. Thinking of all of you!


      • Heather Richardson says:

        We did find my brother Shawn end of 2020 at the height of the pandemic and we convinced him to come home. He is living with my older sister Dana, as is our mom.

    • Brandy Haffner says:

      Heather was your brother Shawn ever found? Prayers to your family.

  2. Kim says:

    Holly Durben’s boyfriend, Brian Davis, has been arrested and charged with first degree murder in her death. Link here:

  3. I pray for justice.

  4. Ariel Durben says:

    Well I want to know who did this to my aunt Holly… :(

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