‘I have hope’ — Family of Sherry Black marks 9 years since her unsolved murder

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The candlelight memorial in honor of the late Sherry Black at Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park, Nov. 30, 2019. Nine years ago, on Nov. 30, 2010, Black was murdered at the bookstore she ran with her husband, B&W Billiards and Books, at 3466 S. 700 East. Black's killer has never been found.

Millcreek • Late afternoon sunlight fell on the cemetery’s snowy quiet as family members gathered Saturday at Sherry Black’s gravesite to once again mark her unsolved murder.

It was the ninth anniversary of the day Black’s husband found the 64-year-old South Salt Lake bookseller, beloved wife and mother severely beaten and stabbed to death at B&W Billiards & Books, the family’s home-based business at 3466 S. 700 East.

Two dozen or so family members and friends hugged, grieved and shared personal stories about Black Saturday afternoon in the candlelight memorial at Millcreek’s Wasatch Lawn Memorial Park, to honor her memory and to keep her homicide in the public eye in hopes of generating new clues.

“It’s important after nine years to share how much we miss her," Black’s daughter, Heidi Miller, told relatives from at least four family generations, huddled together around the simple headstone at her mother’s grave, adorned with a fresh rose.

The daughter also voiced optimism the mother’s killer would be brought to justice.

"After nine years, I have hope,” Miller said. “I know that someday, I will get that call.”

Heidi Miller’s mother-in-law, Gail Miller, owner of the Utah Jazz, fought back tears as she praised Black and said that Heidi had continued her legacy as a loving and supportive mother.

“I am so proud of you,” Gail Miller told Heidi.

(Courtesy photo) Sherry Black

Others fondly recalled the life of the Orem native, animal lover and avid bowler. Black’s granddaughter Courtney Hawks called her “a special, special woman” and recounted memories of playing at her feet in the bookstore.

“She always had time for us,” Hawks said.

Nine years on, police have yet to publicly identify a suspect in the mysterious, early-afternoon attack.

Though the killer left behind his blood at the scene, there were no signs of forced entry nor evidence of anything stolen in the brutal Nov. 30, 2010 killing — though a police investigation continues.

An Armani Exchange belt, size 36 to 38, was also found near Black’s body on the store floor, featuring the letters “AX” on one side of the buckle and the numbers 323 on a sticker on the other side. The belt, police have said, does not belong to anyone in the Black family.

In addition to offering a $100,000 reward for information, Black’s family has maintained a website — SherryBlackinfo.com — offering the latest details on her case. They have also regularly featured her photo on area billboards in hopes of turning up new leads.

Investigators believe the assailant may have cut his hand while stabbing Black, leaving the blood evidence behind. At one point, the suspect’s DNA was entered into the FBI’s national database, but there has been no match, police have said.

Detective Ben Pender, a former South Salt Lake police officer who is now lead investigator on the case for Unified Police Department, said Black’s homicide is not a cold case.

“It’s worked every week,” Pender said Saturday. “It’s nonstop.”

Pender said his investigation has included keeping up on research about emerging DNA techniques that could shed light on the suspect’s identity. “We’re really trying anything and everything — and some really ‘out of the box’ things as well,” he said.

The detective said tips continue to surface regularly on the Black case. He urged members of the public to come forward with any new information — even if it might not seem directly relevant to the ongoing investigation.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A portrait of Sherry Black along with a DNA-based snapshot of a suspect in her murder, on display in 2017 at a news conference.

“I truly believe there is somebody out there that knows something about this case,” Pender said. “It could be one tip that, in somebody’s mind in and of itself doesn’t seem useful, but it’s the tip we need.”

In 2017, to coincide with the seventh anniversary of Black’s slaying, South Salt Lake police issued a composite image of what the man who stabbed her may have looked like, based on his genetic code and a technology called phenotyping.

Police said the suspect is likely an African American man with light brown to brown skin and black hair, though his age is undetermined and was simulated in the images. Based on analysis from a Virginia laboratory two years ago, the killer is also thought to have a larger-than-average brow, eyelids, nose and upper lip.

That facial mock-up based on phenotyping marked the first use in Utah of the technique, which has drawn skepticism from some researchers over its accuracy.

Pender said releasing the image brought a spate of new leads, though none has solved the case yet.

Heidi Miller said Saturday that a foundation started in Black’s name shortly after her death has focused on helping police learn that and other new forensic tools that might help them crack similar crimes — with some successes.

“It gives me peace and comfort,” Heidi Miller said, “that something productive and good has come from something so tragic.”

(Steve Griffin | Tribune file photo) Participants released balloons at the gravesite memorial for Sherry Black in 2011, a year after she was killed.

Through the Sherry Black Foundation, Miller said, and its new partnership with the nonprofit Institute for DNA Justice, the family has sought to spread and expedite the use of advanced DNA testing in police investigations.

The institute promotes the use of “investigative genetic genealogy,” which combines genetic analysis with family history information available through genealogy sites such as 23andMe and Ancestry.com to investigate crimes and identify remains.

Investigative genetic genealogy has gained unprecedented public visibility in recent years with the 2018 arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, the alleged Golden State Killer, using a combination of DNA and genealogy evidence.

Miller said recent training in the techniques among Boise police officers had led to charges in two cases, one of which had been inactive for 26 years. Similar training among police investigators in Utah’s Summit County, she said, recently led them to reclassify the death of a young woman first thought to have committed suicide as a staged homicide — and to file charges.

“Every week,” Miller said, “there’s another one caught. And another."