With help from crowdsourcing, experts, DNA donations, a new database and a cash reward, a group has set its sights on a tough challenge: solving the more than 200 unsolved murders and disappearances in Utah.
For the first time ever, reward money will be offered toward solving each of those cold cases, founders of the Utah Cold Case Coalition — a nonprofit made up of lawyers, investigators, volunteers and companies — announced Tuesday.
Karra Porter, a Salt Lake City lawyer and one of the coalition’s founders, said the rewards will start at $3,000 for information that leads to a conviction — or, she said, “a conviction in our minds” — that resolves one of these cases.
“The vast majority of cold cases have never had any reward,” Porter said, adding that experts have said many unsolved crimes are sometimes the result of “the inability of families to generate interest in their cases.”
Porter is not worried about the lure of a cash reward drawing oddballs or bad tips. “We can screen calls pretty well,” she said. “What’s better? Having some calls that don’t pan out or no calls?”
Porter and the coalition’s co-founders, private investigator Jason Jensen and former Salt Lake Tribune reporter Tom Harvey, gathered Tuesday with family members of victims of several unsolved crimes in an attempt to raise public awareness during “Cold Case Month” this August.
Among the developments in solving cold cases, Porter touted “Rosie’s Law,” passed unanimously by the Utah Legislature and signed by Gov. Gary Herbert earlier this year. The new law — named for Rosie Tapia, a 6-year-old girl killed in 1995 on Salt Lake City’s west side — establishes a statewide database for all murders and disappearances that have gone unsolved for at least three years.
“We want as much information as possible to input into that database,” Porter said.
It was Tapia’s case that prompted Porter to help launch the coalition. “It opened my eyes to the need for more public outreach on these cold cases,” she said.
Members of Tapia’s family were present at Tuesday’s announcement. They were joined by relatives of:
• Ryan Bush, a 20-year-old Ogden man who disappeared in 2013 and whose body was found eight days later in a recycling facility in Los Angeles.
• Bobbi Ann Campbell, a 24-year-old Draper woman who went missing in 1994, reportedly when she died of a drug overdose. The people with her hid the body.
• Joyce “Tina” Gallegos, a 21-year-old woman who was last seen alive in 1982; her body was found 11 days later in the Ogden River, with two gunshot wounds in the head.
• Diana Ramirez, 34, a receptionist at a mental health facility in 1986, whose killer was never caught.
• Christopher Robertson, a 38-year-old carpenter in Price, whose naked body was found in 2011 in a sewer access hole, an estimated three weeks after he died.
• Cody Ray Rodriguez, 20, whose gunshot death in a Rose Park apartment in 2008 was ruled a suicide, but the family has gathered forensic information indicating otherwise.
For some cold cases, Porter said, a solution is tantalizingly close. In one case, she said, there is a lead on where a body is buried, but the rural jurisdiction doesn’t have the money to rent ground-penetrating radar. In other cases, the coalition needs volunteers who can read medical records or work as a sketch artist.
Harvey urged people who have had their DNA tested for genealogical websites to donate their genetic information. He said the website GEDMatch.com has used such DNA profiles to solve violent crimes.
Nonprofessional crime solvers are also getting involved in cold cases through the internet, said Tricia Arrington Griffith, who runs the nationally known online true-crime forum WebSleuths.com from her home in Wanship, near Park City.
“Crowd-sleuthing is the 21st-century version of ‘America’s Most Wanted,’” Griffith said.
She said WebSleuths, one of the largest true-crime online forums, is a place where amateur detectives — along with retired law-enforcement professionals — can spitball about cases, hash over crime scenarios and give fresh perspectives that detectives on the case haven’t considered.
Some law-enforcement agencies welcome outside help, Griffith said, while others are reluctant. “It’s just different eyes looking with different talents."
One prominent example of amateur sleuthing Griffith cites was Michelle McNamara, a popular crime blogger who was compiling data on a dozen California murders in the ’70s and ’80s. McNamara connected the dots to someone she dubbed “the Golden State Killer” and was chronicling her findings in a book, “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” when she died suddenly in 2016. Her husband, the comedian Patton Oswalt, worked with other sleuths to finish the book, which was published in February. Sheriff’s deputies in Sacramento County arrested a suspect in April.