The following is the second in a two-part series that was written and researched by The Utah Investigative Journalism Project in partnership with The Salt Lake Tribune. Read Part 1 here.
Anthony Adams, a gay, black socialist activist, was found brutally stabbed to death in his Salt Lake City Avenues apartment on Nov. 6, 1978. Forty years later, his murder is still one of Utah’s most perplexing cold cases.
Not only has it remained unsolved, but the investigation itself also has been subject to another mystery — what happened to evidence that allegedly went missing from his file? And his case is not the only murder in the late 1970s that remains an active investigation and has evidence problems.
Last January, Salt Lake City Police went to the media asking the public for help locating evidence lost in as many as 20 cold cases — including the knife used to kill Adams.
The department had previously told The Utah Investigative Journalism Project that the evidence was lost by a lab at the University of Utah, known as the Center for Human Toxicology, which processed police evidence in the late ’70s before the state crime lab opened.
After investigating the Adams case for 18 months, including filing numerous public records requests, the project learned from police last month that the previous claim of 20 compromised cases doesn’t hold up. The department now concedes it has no idea if the lab at the U. lost any evidence. Further, the department now says it has no clear picture of what evidence is still intact from its homicide cold-case files.
“We have never done a complete inventory of cold-case files,” said police spokesman and Detective Greg Wilking, who added that the department has always lacked the resources to do so — even today. While previous cold-case detectives looked at evidence from a handful of cases for items that could be DNA tested, nothing systematic has been done, and the department has no overview of what evidence has been lost, tested or possibly filed incorrectly from more than 100 cases.
As for the 20 cases police previously told the news media were missing evidence because of the university lab, Wilking now says that number could be 20 or “it could be zero.”
“We just don’t know," he said. “There’s just not the manpower and staffing to do it.”
In response to a records request, police did review cases that occurred around the time of the Adams killing and generated a report showing the status of evidence from murders from 1978 to 1984. Of those 17 cases, only three are noted as missing select pieces of evidence:
The Adams killing from November 1978.
The slaying of Doug Coleman, a gay man shot to death the same month as Adams.
The rape and murder of Mona Ulibarri, a lesbian, in April 1979.
The report also says that the evidence from two separate cases — one each in 1978 and a 1979 — was “disposed of” while a 1981 case is listed as having no evidence.
The missing knife
In the Adams case, the police had previously insisted the missing evidence — the knife used to kill Adams — was lost by the Center for Human Toxicology (CHT).
This claim is disputed by numerous sources knowledgeable about the procedures of the time.
Bryan Finkle was director of the center during the Adams investigation and said his lab never took possession of physical evidence.
“No, no, we wouldn’t do anything with physical evidence,” said Finkle, now retired. “We [dealt] strictly with toxicology.”
Finkle says the lab’s role in death investigations primarily dealt with testing organs for signs of poisons, or drugs and alcohol. In the ’70s, before the state crime lab opened, Finkle said police held onto evidence at a lab they had on the west side of Salt Lake City.
J. Wallace Graham started as Utah’s chief medical examiner in 1978, just coming into the job at the time of the Adams murder. Now retired, Graham confirmed the center didn’t take physical evidence like a knife. He said at that time only the FBI would occasionally accept such items for testing.
Marissa Cote, spokeswoman for the state crime lab, also confirmed through its director Jay Henry that the lab did not inherit any evidence from the center or elsewhere when it opened in 1983.
Retired Detective Ron Millard, who worked the Adams case, does not recall delivering physical evidence from that investigation in particular to the center, nor does he remember that lab, or, later, the state crime lab, holding onto evidence.
The police report in the Adams case, nevertheless, said “the reporting officer transported all the items of evidence placed in evidence room” and other evidence to the center.
The autopsy report provided to Adams’ family and shared with the project references swabs sent to the U. lab but makes no reference to a knife.
While there are no clear answers regarding the whereabouts of the missing evidence, among the possibilities is that it remains in police custody. Misfiling evidence is not unheard of and, in fact, in 2010, a detective looking into the Adams case noted in his report that upon perusing evidence from that file in the property room, he found items that “appeared to belong to another case and I booked them under the case number that was written on the package.”
Two other cold cases missing key pieces of evidence also involve gay community members killed within months of Adams’ homicide.
A report provided to the project shows cigarette butts were found missing from the case file of Doug Coleman, found shot to death in an empty railroad car on the west side of Salt Lake City on Nov. 30, 1978.
Unlike in the Adams investigation, police quickly zeroed in on a suspect: a man who lived in the same building as the victim and owned firearms that he pawned soon after the murder. Ballistics would later match one of the pawned guns to the one used to kill Coleman, though another part of the file seemed to question the validity of the test.
Police also identified another suspect they theorized may have stolen the guns from the initial suspect and who suspiciously left town soon after the shooting.
This suspect returned to Salt Lake City several weeks later and proved evasive in questioning by police, though he did tell them he followed the word of God in the things that he did. He threatened officers that if he was incarcerated, it would cause “the greatest drought in history” and the officers “would never see snow or rain again.”
While the man was arrested and institutionalized in the University Medical Center’s psychiatric ward, he was never charged. Nor did prosecutors ever charge the man who owned, then pawned the weapons. Cold-case detectives reviewing the file in the early 2000s appear to have decided that the evidence resolved this case, though no action was taken as both suspects were dead by that time.
Mona Ulibarri’s case raises even more questions.
Ulibarri’s body had been discovered in the Jordan River in April 1979, and her vehicle abandoned nearby had been set on fire.
Notes about the evidence provided in the Ulibarri case indicate only fingernails collected from the scene are now missing. But the original police report said that semen was recovered from Ulibarri’s body, suggesting that if there was still a sample in evidence, it could potentially be tested against offender databases or samples from the numerous witnesses who were seen drinking with Ulibarri the night she was killed.
Asked about this, Salt Lake City police denied that such evidence was even possible to recover in 1979 from a drowned body. When shown the section of the report stating that the Medical Examiner’s Office in 1979 had in fact tested and confirmed the semen sample before returning it to police, spokesman Wilking said a detective, newly assigned to the file, would have to look into it.
When asked if Mayor Jackie Biskupski felt this evidence issue was a matter worth attention, spokesman Paul Murphy said the mayor “does support making sure cold cases are investigated and justice is served.” However, Murphy said his understanding was that there was no funding problem affecting cold-case investigations.
Karra Porter with the Utah Cold Case Coalition says these kinds of problems are exactly why her organization was formed. The group is pushing to get more funding and attention into cold-case investigations and, in the 2018 legislative session, successfully pushed a bill to create a centralized cold-case database for the state. The organization also offers $3,000 for tips that help solve cold cases and provides grants to law enforcement.
Nationwide, Porter said, “a lot of evidence [exists] from the, ’70s, ’80s and even the ’90s — a lot of that’s never been run through any kind of database.”
While police may prioritize the cases from last week or last year, Porter says these old unsolved cases often result in new victims. She points to the murder of Sharon Schollmeyer, killed a year before Adams in the same Avenues apartment complex. Schollmeyer’s murderer was caught and convicted in 2016, thanks in part to DNA testing. The killer, Patrick McCabe, had molested underage children in the years after he raped and murdered Schollmeyer, Porter said.
“Not only did the family not get any closure for 40 years, this man was out there and able to commit other horrible crimes in the meantime,” Porter said. According to the Schollmeyer case file, the DNA evidence was gathered in 2013 but not entered into a national database until 2016.
No matter how old, a crime of violence still haunts surviving loved ones — and, for that matter, police officers who worked the cases. Porter says her coalition can bring resources to bear, whether it’s paying for DNA testing or having an expert do ballistics on old shell casings.
“If [police] don’t have resources, at least reach out to us,” Porter said. “If you need $1,000 for a photographer to take photos of a bullet casing for the day, email me, and you’ll have it in 24 hours.”
Porter says the coalition doesn’t aim to second-guess law enforcement, rather to aid investigations.
But the indication that police don’t know what evidence they have troubles her.
“If someone is not aware of what evidence is in their cold-case files," she said, “that would suggest they are not actively working that case.”
Part one of this two-part series can be read here.
Eric S. Peterson is the founder and a director of The Utah Investigative Journalism Project, a nonprofit based in Salt Lake City.