A true-crime story a decade in the making — about how the murder of South Salt Lake bookstore owner Sherry Black was solved — will be told later this month on the stage of Kingsbury Hall.
“The Bookstore Murder: A Journey for Justice” — set for Thursday, April 27, from 7 to 9 p.m. — will feature a panel of investigative crime experts who worked on the case. The event is “geared toward true-crime enthusiasts,” according to a news release.
A spokesperson for the event said the show is designed “to help educate the general public on the importance of becoming a ‘genetic witness’ — by uploading their DNA from family search websites to a separate site specifically accessible to genetic genealogists who help identify … perpetrators of violent crime.”
All of the proceeds from the event will go to The Sherry Black Foundation, which was established by Heidi Miller, Sherry’s daughter, and Heidi’s husband, Greg Miller. Tickets to the show can be purchased at ArtTickets.Utah.edu.
The facts of the case
One of the experts scheduled to talk is Ben Pender, the Unified Police Department detective who solved the case. Pender was born and raised in South Salt Lake, though he didn’t know the Black family at the time of the murder.
“It was in my community when that occurred in 2010,” Pender said.
Sherry Black sold used and rare books from a home business, B&W Billiards & Books, in South Salt Lake. Her husband, Earl, made custom knives and pool tables there.
On Nov. 30, 2010, at 1:43 p.m., Earl Black called the police, after finding Sherry’s body — beaten and stabbed — in their home.
The case went unsolved until October 2020, almost exactly 10 years later. Ultimately, finger and palm prints, and traces of the suspect’s blood, led investigators to arrest Adam Durborow, who a year later pleaded guilty to murder. Durborow was sentenced to life, without the possibility of parole.
Pender said he remembers getting really involved in the case in March 2018, eight years after Black’s death. South Salt Lake police had been working the case with help from other agencies, and it was transferred eventually to UPD, and Pender was assigned as lead investigator.
Pender said he and his team started at the beginning, canvassing the neighborhood and interviewing family members.
Near the beginning of his investigation, Pender said, he remembered attending an earlier training in Washington, D.C., with a company called Parabon.
“They were offering what they called phenotyping,” Pender said. “What they would do with it is take the DNA and provide information, statistics about what this person may look like now.”
Phenotyping was first developed in 1987, and the technique helped unmask the Golden State Killer a serial rapist and murder in California, who was arrested in 2018. (The Golden State Killer case was chronicled in Michelle McNamara’s book “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark.” When McNamara died before completion, her sleuthing friends and her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, finished the book.)
The images of the suspect in the Black case were shared with local media. Police received many tips, but Pender said they never got information that led to an arrest.
Genealogy as crime-solving tool
It was another tool that broke the case — one with which Pender was familiar.
“Growing up, my mother was a genealogist,” he said, and he became familiar with the study of ancestry. Pender had heard that it could be used to solve crimes.
He reached out to Heidi Miller, Sherry’s daughter, and Heidi’s husband, Greg Miller — who was, at the time of Sherry’s death, CEO of the Utah Jazz. (His parents are Gail and the late Larry Miller, who owned the team for many years.) Pender wanted to know if Greg and Heidi Miller could connect him with the upper leadership at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
At the same time, Parabon started working with genealogists to help solve crimes. Pender was paired with one, and it took them 2½ years to use DNA from the original crime scene to find Durborow.
“The best way I can kind of describe it is: You have this very large tree and several different branches on this particular tree,” Pender said. “So we needed to figure out which branch of this tree was going to lead us to the person who may have had involvement in this case.”
Eventually, a technology formed to help others do the same: investigative genetic geneaology — “the science of using genetic and genealogical methods to generate leads for law enforcement entities investigating crimes and identifying human remains.”
IGG was instrumental in solving Black’s case, Pender said — so much so that, without it, the case would still be open.
It’s not an easy task, he said. Well-known genetic databases, like Ancestry or 23andMe, are private labs, meaning law enforcement can’t look at their records. The only thing the team could determine is if someone had tested.
The genealogist would provide names to Pender — several hundred of them. Pender would then contact each of them, explain what his team was working on, and see if the person would consider uploading their information to GEDMatch, a public database.
In this year’s session, the Utah Legislature passed, and Gov. Spencer Cox signed, SB156, called the “Sherry Black bill,” which set guardrails for police to search optional genetic testing databases for investigations of violent crimes.
Pender said it was gratifying to solve Black’s case — but he added that UPD has 34 cold-case homicides, and 14 adult missing persons cases, still unsolved.
Heidi Miller, Sherry Black’s daughter, said sharing the importance of this technology is at the heart of the April 27 panel.
Sherry Black, Miller said, was kind, thoughtful and selfless. Waiting 10 years to have answers to her murder, she said, was difficult.
“Especially in the beginning, it’s just all you’re thinking about: How to solve this case, we have got to find this person,” she said. “Even over the years as that begins to be not your everyday, it’s still weighing on you and it’s still out there. Every time you re-engage with the police, it would take me back to that dark place.”
Miller said she remembers people saying that hopefully the family would be able to find closure. " I would think there’s never going to be any closure, even if we find a person,” she said.
When the Golden State Killer case was solved using genetic genealogy, Miller said she knew in her heart they would solve the case, no matter how long it would take, because they had DNA.
Her message to families and loved ones who might be going through something similar to what hers did: Never give up hope.
“Give yourself permission to feel all the feels. It’s rough and nobody can teach you or tell you how to go through that,” she said. “After a couple years, I had to find joy again, I had to re-engage in life … by finding something good from the bad. That’s helped me heal.”
John Masiker, a bookdealer friend of the Blacks, said he misses Sherry dearly. Masiker said Sherry and Earl helped encourage him, a single parent of an infant daughter. He said he is glad they found the suspect, and that the investigation might be able to help others, but it’s bittersweet.
“For me, once she was gone, nothing could bring her back,” he said. “It just leaves a hole. … Time heals all wounds to a degree, but there’s no way you get over that kind of a loss. A person like [Black] can’t be replaced.”