Police say they have solved the murder of a woman who was stabbed to death 24 years ago in South Salt Lake.
Family members of Flora Rundle, 71, found her body inside her home Oct. 22, 1989, after they hadn’t heard from her for a few days, Unified Police wrote in a news release Friday. Rundle had been stabbed 11 times and suffered blunt force trauma, according to court records.
Detectives at the time could find no suspects, police wrote. UPD last year received federal funds to reopen the case and found DNA evidence that was collected from Rundle, police wrote. The profile matched that of Gary Hilfiker, a 56-year-old who is serving a sentence for an unrelated homicide in 1992, police wrote.
Investigators learned that Rundle typically used taxis for transportation, and that Hilfiker was a cabdriver who had driven Rundle several times, police wrote. Hilfiker, interviewed in prison, admitted to killing Rundle, police wrote in court documents. He said he took a knife to her home and broke in to steal money, investigators wrote. He said he was confronted by Rundle, so he stabbed her and took "a couple hundred dollars" from her purse, police wrote.
Prosecutors have reviewed the case, and Hilfiker has been charged with criminal homicide, a first-degree felony, in Rundle’s death. If convicted, Hilfiker could face the death penalty or up to life in prison; Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said in a news release that he had not yet decided whether to seek the death penalty.
The case was one of several cold cases that have been reopened since UPD received a federal grant for $300,000 to investigate old cases that may be solved with new DNA technology. For example, scientists can obtain DNA information from much smaller amounts of biological material than they could just a few years ago, said Capt. Don Hutson. Hutson would not specify what evidence was taken from Rundle, or what technological advances allowed investigators to isolate Hilfiker’s DNA. He would only say that the evidence used to identify Hilfiker was originally collected by detectives who couldn’t have known it would eventually provide usable DNA; the potential for DNA evidence was recognized by investigators who reopened the case last year with new funding.
"Twenty-five years ago, detectives were gathering up those samples presciently," Sheriff Jim Winder said, noting that it also was fortunate that the evidence was preserved well enough for samples.
"I’m proud of that," Winder said.
He estimated the department has 35 homicide and missing person cases that are considered "cold" — that is, they have been stalled for about two years or more. Reopening those cases involves thorough scrutiny of evidence not just for potential DNA but also whether DNA information would help identify a suspect and indicate guilt, Winder said.
"We wish they could just test anything," Winder said, but that would overburden the crime lab with "shots in the dark."
Hilfiker previously was convicted of murder and aggravated arson in the 1992 death of Marsha Haverty. Hilfiker stabbed the 38-year-old woman up to 10 times in her Salt Lake City home, poured kerosene over her and set her ablaze. In a parole hearing in 2010, he told the Board of Pardons and Parole that he killed Haverty, who was his friend, in a drug-fueled, "discombobulated state" when she tried to talk him out of killing himself. Hilfiker said he was despondent after a failed romance, and in trying to talk him out of suicide, Haverty and Hilfiker began arguing over Hilfiker’s drug use. Hilfiker said he stabbed Haverty and lit her body on fire out of panic after he realized she was dead.
Hilfiker then said he had become a born-again Christian in 2001.
The board had set his parole date for 2022.
Tribune reporter Jessica Miller contributed to this report.
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