These Utahns hope to help solve old crimes by magnet fishing in Ogden’s rivers

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A pair of volunteers magnet fishing the Weber River on Saturday Aug. 31, 2019. Volunteers assisted the Utah Cold Case Coalition, hoping to find evidence in several cases.

The Weber River • It’s an idyllic Saturday morning along two rivers that run through Ogden. Bikers travel in pairs down the parkway. A group of teens play frisbee golf. Dogs run through a park.

There are a few anglers here, casting out their lines in hopes of landing a big catch. We’re here to go fishing, too — but we’re not out for trout.

We are looking for guns.

I’m tagging along with the Utah Cold Case Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to investigating unsolved crimes in the Beehive State.

Karra Porter, a Utah attorney who co-founded the coalition, has told me that there have been a number of murders near the Weber and Ogden rivers that are still unsolved years later. Many involve firearms, but those weapons have never been found.

So the group has decided to try an unconventional investigative method: Magnet fishing.

There’s no traditional fishing rod here and no lures. It simply involves tossing a powerful magnet attached to rope into the water in hopes of finding hidden treasure.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Magnet fishing the Weber River on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Volunteers assisted the Utah Cold Case Coalition, hoping to find evidence in several cases.

There are about 30 volunteer magnet fishers here, most are rookies like me. It’s a big enough group to allow us to fan out to more than two dozen locations near bridges and roads where Porter and another Utah Cold Case Coalition member, Jason Jensen, have targeted as possible spots where a criminal might toss a weapon.

A small group of us head to where we think we might have the best luck finding a murder weapon, a section of the Weber River just north of 24th Street where the remains of two people were found decades apart. In 1969, 19-year-old LeRoy Ortiz was shot in the back near here at a homeless camp known then as “Hobo Jungle.” Then, years later, someone found the legs of Savannah Hoskins, a woman who went missing in 1985, in the river.

Other volunteers head to a part of the Ogden River where Joyce Tina Gallegos’ body was found in 1982. She had been shot twice in the head.

Coalition members got the idea to go search the rivers after seeing a news story about a magnet fisher who pulled a loaded submachine gun out of the water in Massachusetts.

“I totally admit it’s a long shot,” Porter concedes. “There’s been instances where magnet fishers and scuba divers found guns, and I just thought [about] how we’ve got so many murders and crimes around those two rivers.”

It was indeed a long shot, but the event still drew a small crowd of Utahns who hoped they might play a part in helping to solve a crime.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Renee Van Tussenbrook tosses a magnet into the Weber River on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Volunteers assisted the Utah Cold Case Coalition, hoping to find evidence in several cases.

Many of the volunteer fishers heard about it through Facebook, where the coalition asked for the public to join them in their search.

Alex Gutierrez, who lives in West Ogden, noticed the event when a local true crime podcast shared it online. She listens to as many crime podcasts as she can, she tells me as she readies herself to chuck her magnet into the river. When she found out it was happening in her town, she knew she had to come.

Her husband, Remo Martinez, doesn’t share his wife’s passion for learning about crimes. But he has fond memories of playing near this river as a kid, so he came along with his wife.

With the old Swift building looming above us, Martinez wades into the river and tosses his three-magnet system into the water over and over. I do the same, chatting with Martinez about living in Ogden and how this area west of downtown has changed over the years.

My set-up is simple, nothing more than a bright orange rope attached to a magnet that is about the size of a coaster. And unlike other fishing gear I’ve purchased, it was pretty affordable — a $25 Amazon buy.

The magnet with a 350-pound pull force is heavier than I thought it would be, but it’s surprisingly easy to throw it into the deepest parts in the middle of the river.

With each toss, my magnet lands in the water with a thud. I pull it back slowly, feeling it drag along the rocks. Sometimes, the current plays tricks and it feels like a tug— maybe I’ve caught something? — but more often than not, I pull up nothing more than silt and rocks.

My big catch comes after Porter gets a tip from a local man who frequently comes to this part of the river to fish. We’re near an area where water is rushing over a cement infrastructure, a tiny waterfall that runs across the river. The man says underneath the rush of water is a small, but deep concrete canal. He tells me he discovered it after his dog got stuck there.

Porter’s eyes light up — that would be the perfect place for a gun to settle in the rushing water.

We crawl on our hands and knees through the cool water, feeling for the canal and then sending our magnets down into it.

As we slowly make our way across the river, I feel my rope tighten. It feels like maybe my magnet is just stuck, but as I wiggle my orange rope around, I realize I’ve caught something.

I pull out a half-foot piece of old rebar.

At least I’m cleaning out the river.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tribune reporter Jessica Miller magnet fishing the Weber River on Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. Volunteers assisted the Utah Cold Case Coalition, hoping to find evidence in several cases.

Turns out, none of us found anything more than a bunch of junk in these rivers. Some old wires, a few pipes, more rebar. But there were no guns found. No knives. Not today, at least.

But Porter got a tip from a man who lives along the river banks about another location that our group didn’t hit on Saturday.

So they’ll be back to the river soon, magnets in hand.

“We will be trying again,” she said.