Retesting evidence gathered from homicide investigations in the 1970s and early 1980’s could help close about 20 cold-case homicides in Salt Lake City — but the evidence is missing.
The University of Utah’s Center for Human Toxicology tested forensic evidence — such as bloody knives or fingernail scrapings — for the Salt Lake City Police Department up until 1983, when the state opened its own crime lab.
After testing, the evidence would immediately have been returned to police, according to Dennis Crouch, who was a technician at the center during the late 70s and early 80s, and later became laboratory director and a research associate professor in the U.’s College of Pharmacy’s department of pharmacology and toxicology.
But the police department has “no record of any stuff coming back from up there,” SLCPD Detective Greg Wilking said Wednesday.
Detectives discovered that evidence was missing while recently re-examining the 1978 fatal stabbing of a 25-year-old black gay political activist named Anthony Adams.
Following the slaying, a spokesman for the Socialist Workers Party, of which Adams was a prominent member, said Adams may have been murdered for his political views and his sexuality, according to a 1978 Salt Lake Tribune article.
The article, published nearly two months after the murder, quoted party representative Sid Stapleton as saying police had been ”lax and ineffective” in pursing the investigation into Adams’s death.
Another article called on the U.S. Attorney’s Office to investigate. Socialist Workers Party spokesman Clemens Bak said police were not “pursuing this case with the attention which a political crime of this type would merit.”
The same article noted that SLCPD Chief Bud Willoughby had met twice with party leaders and gay community spokesmen to deny that police were ignoring the murder.
The killing played a part in forcing underground what had then been a burgeoning gay community in Salt Lake City, according to amateur historian Ben Edgar Williams.
“We were a very vibrant community until Tony Adams’ murder and that sent a lot of people right back into the closet, slamming that door,” Williams said on Tuesday. “Not until 1981, ’82, did things start to pick up again.”
Police found a bloody butcher knife in the bedroom where Adams was stabbed, and it is one of the now-missing pieces of evidence that had been sent to the University for testing.
A doctor at the U.’s Center for Human Toxicology tested the blood on the knife and confirmed it was Adams’ type, according to Wilking.
“That was about the only test that they really could do at that time,” Wilking said. “Basically, they were testing to see if the blood was that of the victim or possibly that of the suspect.”
Nowadays, the knife could be swabbed for other DNA and uploaded to a national database that might find a match.
Other than the knife, Salt Lake City detectives know they are missing “various things from 20 different homicide investigations” that occurred between the 70s and early 80s, Wilking said. But he could not immediately say specifically which other cases they were.
Crouch, who is now retired, said the center didn’t have any formal agreements or contracts with the police regarding testing, adding that the center generally didn’t store evidence for the police.
But not much evidence was sent to the center in the first place, Crouch said, because at the time, technicians couldn’t glean much from the tests that were available.
Testing could determine blood type, as well as the presence of drugs and toxins, Crouch said. “That was the state of the science at that time,” he added.
Wilking said the department is not missing any evidence from before the 1970s because police officers didn’t collect or keep what they didn’t have technology to test.
“Something from the 50s, 40s, they may not have saved anything in terms of forensic evidence because they just didn’t have forensic evidence back then,” Wilking said.
“We just want to know what happened,” Wilking said of the missing evidence. “If anybody has any idea where this stuff went.”
Anyone who may have information about the whereabouts of the evidence is asked to contact the SLCPD at 801-799-3000, and ask to leave a tip for homicide.