Salt Lake City police now have enough evidence to arrest a suspect in a 30-year-old cold case murder but the suspect died seven years ago.
On May 16, 1982, police found Dennis Piernick, 39, dead with multiple stab wounds to the head and neck in his apartment at 927 E. South Temple.
Piernick was gay, and so were some of the witnesses, and leads in the case ran cold because some feared coming forward "given cultural norms at the time," police said Thursday in a news release.
Decades later, times have changed and witnesses found the courage to speak up.
In 2011, a new detective was assigned to the case who re-interviewed some witnesses and learned of a confession made long ago.
But it was too late for an arrest. The main suspect in the homicide, Rodney VanKomen, 40, died in a car accident in 2005.
Piernick's half brother Robin Miley, of Wyoming, said police told him two months ago they were tracking a viable suspect. Then, on Tuesday, police drove to Wyoming to tell Miley that the suspect was deceased.
"It is kind of a disappointment this son of a bitch is dead," Miley told The Tribune on Thursday.
It was Miley who discovered Piernick's body. He had arrived to take Piernick to breakfast, but as he knocked on the door it was already open. Miley found his half-brother face down on the floor and called police. He punched his fist into the brick apartment wall in frustration, as officers arrived.
Piernick had several stab wounds to his head and about 15 near his neck and throat.
"It's something I don't wish on my enemies," Miley said of "finding a loved one murdered and seeing nothing but their blood everywhere ... including the ceiling."
In 1982, VanKomen was a 17-year-old runaway who frequently stayed with a friend who lived at the same apartment complex as Piernick. Investigators considered VanKomen a potential witness and suspect at the time.
Detectives since learned that VanKomen confessed to a friend that he murdered Piernick. The witness, who had drug issues and was afraid of VanKomen, did not convey that to police at the time.
Miley said investigators told him the "friend" was VanKomen's girlfriend, who told police VanKomen "had showed her the knife [used in the murder] and said they had to get rid of it."
Investigators found other clues linking VanKomen to the case, including a backpack, clothing and a pack of Camel cigarettes left at the scene.
Also, an eyewitness places VanKomen at the scene an hour before Piernick was killed. Police aren't commenting on whether this was a hate crime.
But Miley said VanKomen was always breaking into homes and stealing money. He believes Piernick was killed over $500 he had that night, money that was missing the next morning.
"To think that he killed my brother for 500 bucks, it just nauseates me," Miley said, adding that Piernick was kind and giving and opened his apartment to VanKomen to stay with him on a few occasions.
Miley credits the work of multiple homicide detectives who worked hard over the past three decades to solve the case. He said one detective died Wednesday of cancer and wasn't able to see the official closure of the case.
"Those guys back then, they busted their butt to do what they could," Miley said. "They didn't have the technology that they do now."
According to an online memorial page dedicated to Piernick, he graduated from Weber High School in 1961. Miley said Piernick was very intelligent, could speak seven languages, studied at University of Oxford in England, had a PhD in physics and was a part-time astronomy professor at the University of Utah.
Although the case is closed and the investigation over, Salt Lake City police want to bring additional closure to the victim's family.
Police are encouraging anyone with information on VanKomen or details of the case to call 801-799-3000. Tips may remain anonymous and also sent by text message to CRIMES(274637).
But Miley said that when it comes to closure, "there is no such thing, not in a situation like this, because I think about [him] everyday."