Brutal Murders and Executions

Linda Sillitoe
History of Salt Lake County

When Theodore Robert Bundy found an apartment in Salt Lake City’s Avenues in September 1974, he was just another University of Utah law student. He settled in, attended classes, and socialized over liquor or marijuana despite joining the LDS church. Meanwhile, in Washington state, detectives investigated the disappearances of seven young women; their bodies began turning up in remote areas about the time women began to vanish in northern Utah.

Nancy Wilcox, a sixteen-year-old cheerleader in Salt Lake County, was likely Bundy’s first Utah victim, disappearing on 2 October. At the time, police chalked her up as a runaway, an assumption her family did not accept. High school senior Melissa Smith disappeared next. On October 18, she met her father, Midvale police chief Louis Smith, at a restaurant, coaxing two dollars for pizza and permission to stay that Friday night with a girlfriend. Nine days later, deer hunters found her bludgeoned body.

Laura Aime’s mother reminded her daughter of Smith’s fate when she set off hitchhiking on Halloween night in Utah County. But Aime’s body too was found in the wilderness. Then on November 8, Debra Kent disappeared from a Davis County high school parking lot during a school play. Though her body was never found, her fate became known due to a frustrated attack earlier that evening in Salt Lake County.

Eighteen-year-old Carol DaRonch was window shopping at the new Fashion Place Mall when an undercover police officer told her they had apprehended a man breaking into her car in the mall parking lot. Though her car seemed fine, he convinced her to ride with him to police headquarters. Once in his unkempt Volkswagen, DaRonch smelled alcohol on the “officer’s” breath and noted that he did not drive toward the police station; when he stopped the car, she tried to jump out.

Immediately, the man slapped a handcuff on one wrist. She struggled desperately, and the second handcuff clicked on to the same right wrist. Threatened by a gun and then a swinging crowbar, she screamed, scratched, and squirmed, finally erupting out the door. Hysterical and minus a shoe, she ran into the path of another car which stopped as the Volkswagen drove away. Her shaken account of a police officer and an attempted kidnapping gained sinister weight when Debra Kent’s disappearance was reported later that evening. The next morning, investigators found a handcuff key in the high school parking lot.

As the number of missing or murdered women mounted, Salt Lake County investigators combined efforts. The victims’ photographs bore a resemblance as maddening as the lack of clues and suspects. Intriguingly, after DaRonch survived an attack, young women stopped disappearing in northern Utah but began vanishing in Colorado.

Almost a year after the fearful autumn when one Friday night after another had brought tragedy, Utah Highway Patrol sergeant Bob Hayward abandoned his pursuit of drunk juveniles in Granger during the wee hours of an August morning and pulled over a Volkswagen whose driver seemed edgy. He turned out to be an articulate law student with a trunkful of odd items—rope, gloves, panty hose with holes cut for eyes, nose, and mouth, a pair of handcuffs, a flashlight, a box of garbage bags, and pieces of torn sheet. Ted Bundy was arrested for evading an officer and freed on $500 bond.

Bundy defended himself to local reporters amid wide coverage of women’s disappearances and deaths in western states. When no murder case could be brought against him, Salt Lake County prosecutor David Yocom tried Bundy for aggravated kidnapping, and DaRonch testified against him. Although Bundy exuded confidence on the witness stand, and the shy teenager’s memory of the event was uneven, Third District judge Stewart Hanson believed her. From the Utah State Penitentiary, Bundy continued to protest his innocence through the media.

In January 1977, Colorado claimed Bundy on murder charges. He escaped custody twice and fled to Florida. He was apprehended only after his savage attack on the Florida State University campus left two women dead and three others grievously injured, followed by a brutal sex murder of a twelve-year-old girl in Lake City.

Five years after surviving Bundy’s attack, Carol DaRonch Swenson appeared in a Florida courtroom in the penalty phase of Bundy’s first murder trial. The prosecution deemed her presence important to the jury although her written testimony was stipulated into the record. Before his eventual execution, Bundy told investigators where he had left Debra Kent’s body, but her remains were never found.

Ironically, Bundy left the Utah State Penitentiary just before it hosted the nation’s first execution in decades. After the United States Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional as practiced, some death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment while state statues were revised. Thus the diabolical Myron Lance and Walter Kelbach who had terrorized Salt Lake County during December 1966 escaped execution. In two instances they abducted a young employee from a service station in the south valley then mutilated and murdered him. They were caught after shooting up a downtown Salt Lake City bar, killing three other people.

Even as Bundy checked into a Colorado jail, convicted killer Gary Gilmore faced the firing squad as a nation watched. Gilmore, the sociopathic graduate of virtually every social program from foster homes to prison parole, had fatally shot two young businessmen during robberies in Utah County. Opinion favoring the death penalty remained strong, and many local residents and law enforcers saw his execution as simple justice.

Civil libertarians had no reason to support Gilmore personally, but found in his execution the revival of a barbaric custom in which the state deliberately took human life as punishment for the same. The court battle they waged—which Gilmore ironically opposed—drew a crowd of reporters, authors, filmmakers, and civil libertarians to the valley. So fierce did the contest for Gilmore’s story become, it established state laws and journalistic ethics regarding the ability of a felon to profit from crime.

The execution took on all the aspects of a literary cliffhanger as stays were granted and vacated, but Gilmore was executed before first light on 17 January 1977. His death set the precedent civil libertarians had feared; not only did executions continue in Salt Lake County, but rose nationally from two in 1979 to more than one hundred in 1988.