As they walked along the banks of the Weber River, they could see something bobbing up and down in the water.
The objects — there were two — were long and pale. The residents couldn’t quite tell what they were, but they had a suspicion when they called the police: “It looks like a pair of human legs.”
In the 34 years since officers fished the floating limbs from the current, there have been many guesses as to whom they belonged. For a while, much of that was based only on the light purple nail polish left on the toes. But the rest of the body was never found, and the 1985 case went cold.
Until last month.
After decades of sitting in the department’s archives, Ogden police Lt. Brian Eynon pulled out the file when the Utah Cold Case Coalition requested a copy. It piqued his interest, so he asked the Utah Department of Public Safety to do some additional DNA testing.
All he had was one toenail. “And it was moldy,” he said.
It was enough. The department was able to get a positive identification and determine the legs belonged to Savannah Hoskins — a missing woman that detectives had long suspected was the ID, but were unable to confirm before now.
“We just didn’t have enough evidence at the time,” Eynon said in a video posted on the DPS Facebook page last week about the discovery. “In the ’80s, the scientific process and DNA processes just weren’t enough.”
Hoskins, who had lived in Ogden, was reported missing July 3, 1985. Days later, the group of residents saw the legs floating in the river just north of 24th Street.
According to an article written the next day in the Standard-Examiner, police first thought the legs belonged to a victim from a Memorial Day rafting accident.
“The legs appeared to be those of a white female, said Detective Joe Chesser of the Ogden Police Department, and were cut off at the top of the thigh and apparently dumped in the river,” the piece said.
Police later figured that the water — and the dismemberment of the body — could have changed the color of the skin, and they started to settle on Hoskins as the victim based on when she went missing. Without DNA and the rest of her body, though, they never positively named her, and she continued to be considered a missing persons case for three decades.
Because of that, officers also never arrested the main suspect in her death: Hoskins’ husband. He has since died. But, according to Karra Porter, co-founder of the Utah Cold Case Coalition, now that there’s an identification of the legs, he could be charged posthumously.
Porter said prosecutors are considering such charges to give the family closure. It’s uncommon, though it has happened in other cold cases.
“To really seal the deal, you need to run the DNA,” she said.
For years, Porter has believed the legs belonged to Hoskins, and she started a website called “Who killed Savannah Hoskins?” to try to figure out more of what happened. The biggest questions that remain for her are: How did Hoskins die? Was she beaten or did she overdose? Did her husband dismember the body to hide the evidence? Were others involved? And where is the rest of her?
“She is supposedly buried in the vicinity,” Porter said. “But cadaver dogs haven’t found anything yet.”
Hoskins was 34 years old at the time of her death and employed as a sex worker. Before she married, her name was Mamie Savannah Chess. And she graduated from Ogden High School.
She was the mother of five. Her grandchildren, who are alive today, have recently been pushing for the case to be reopened. And one of them submitted DNA to be compared to the toenail.
Porter said: “We’re just very happy that the Ogden police department looked into this again.”