Second Place – Investigative Reporting

Sydnee Gonzalez

Second Place
Brigham Young University
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Three murders, one gun

Families and former police search for answers 30 years after the murders of three young women, the disappearance of the gun that could connect them and an allegedly botched and politically charged investigation.

By Sydnee Gonzalez

When Leah Gallegos walked into her Salt Lake City workplace on the morning of May 16, 1985, her coworkers were talking about an unidentified girl on the news who had been left in a gutter near 1384 Jefferson Street and old Derks Field after being fatally shot and stabbed.

Gallegos’ first question was “what was the girl wearing?”

As her coworkers described what they had heard from the news, Gallegos’ mind flashed back to the night before when her 18-year-old daughter, Christine, had been leaving the house.

She went back to her desk and immediately called the Salt Lake City Police Department, worrying that her worst nightmare had become a reality. Gallegos asked the police to check for a front cap tooth on the girl. She assumed they would put her on hold while they checked. Instead, they hung up on her.

Gallegos’ work was just a few blocks away, so she walked down to the police station to find out more in person. She remembers being put in a room and being asked what kind of shoes her daughter had been wearing the night before. When she told the person questioning her, he threw a file with pictures of the dead girl on the table.

“That’s how I found out it was my daughter,” Gallegos said in an interview with the Daily Universe held in Astoria, Oregon, where she now lives.

She said the officer left the room after she starting yelling and screaming.

“When he came back, I was composed and from that day I have been,” she said, adding that she was treated as if the opposite were true.

“If I went down to the police station for something, they would — I don’t care who was walking down the hall — they’d scatter and go into different offices or anything just so they wouldn’t have to walk past me,” she said.

If someone called her with a lead and she turned it over to the police, she said she wasn’t taken seriously. She remembers one instance where a man called her and gave her a license plate number, an address and a name and told her she should check it out.

“I went and checked that out before I ever called the Salt Lake Police, just to find out if it’s real,” Gallegos said. “When I called them, they said, ‘Oh we checked it out and that’s not a real license plate number that’s not a real address.’ Well, why did I see it? Why was I able to take a picture of it?”

For many families of homicide victims, dealing with the police is difficult. In a 2011 study in the United Kingdom into the needs of families of homicide victims, 51% of the 417 surveyed individuals reported that the criminal justice system was the most difficult thing to cope with, second only to the effect on their health.

The study also states that the need for information is essential for families to be able to heal. Gallegos, however, said the police were not forth-coming.

According to Gallegos, the police gave her and the families of other victims a false excuse for not taking them seriously and involving them more in the investigation.

“Their explanation for blowing us off or not letting us in on the investigation is because we’d muddy the water,” she said.

She believes that is far from the reality of what was going on at the time, however. The gun used in Christine’s murder was connected by a ballistics report to the subsequent murders of two other young women — Lisa Strong and Carla Maxwell. Some of the same characters further tied the three girls together.

Gallegos said three men who worked in the SLPD — two members of the Crime Analysis Unit, Greg Chase and John Ilk, and East side larceny detective Frank Hatton-Ward — saw things from her perspective and tried to help solve the three murders.

“They knew there was a coverup,” Gallegos said.

Chase, who was working as an information intelligence specialist in the 80s and spent time investigating, agrees with Gallegos.

“They can’t cover up murders, and they have,” Chase said in an interview in Astoria, Ore. “It is a coverup — period, it was. There’s no excuse.”

Chase still has boxes of files on the three murders. The way the cases were handled has stuck with him for decades, and he still keeps in touch with Gallegos.

He said he believes the way the Salt Lake PD handled the cases goes back to the city’s desire to host the Winter Olympics.

Although the city wouldn’t host the Olympics until 2002, officials were ramping up to make a competitive bid to host the games in the late 80s. Part of this meant checking for crime problems in the areas near potential Olympic venues. What they found was a lot of homicides and felony-type gang activity.

“The city recognized they had a little bit of a problem,” Chase said. “The city wanted to invest to try and clean up some problems so they could get recognized and have a legitimate shot. Nobody wants to invest in a city if there’s a major crime problem, they’re not going to get it (the Olympics).”

The city formed the Unsolved Homicide Task Force, of which Chase was an original member, in July of 1986 in an attempt to get a handle on the situation.

Among the long list of unsolved homicides that the task force had, three names stuck out: Christine Gallegos, Lisa Strong and Carla Maxwell, whose murders Chase said were linked ballistically to the same gun.

Strong, 25, was shot and killed on May 12, 1986 — almost a year to the day after the murder of Christine Gallegos — as she was walking home from work near Kensington Avenue and 800 East in Salt Lake City.

Maxwell, 20, was murdered about a month earlier on April 25, 1986, while working at a 7-Eleven in Layton, Utah, as a store clerk.

As Chase investigated the cases under the direction of his boss, John Ilk, the same few names kept popping up, and they were all known associates of the Varios Chosen Few gang that ran in Salt Lake.

When Frank Hatton-Ward, a larceny detective on Salt Lake City’s east side, stopped by Chase’s desk one day, he saw the names Chase was coming up with in connection to the murders and offered to help. He knew some of the names Chase was generating and had the connections to get them to talk with him.

An internal battle of wills played out over the next few months as the leads Chase, Ilk and Hatton-Ward came up with were ignored. Chase said any claims by detective Jim F.G. Bell, SLCPD Homicide Unit supervisor Don Bell or the Salt Lake PD that Chase had never given them names of suspects are false.

“They were all made aware of everything I was doing,” he said. “It’s a lie, 100% a lie.”

At one point, Chase’s chart documenting how Varios Chosen Few gang members and associates were connected to the murders was confiscated. Chase never saw the chart again, but he said he was able to place multiple gang members near or at locations where the murders took place.

Several detectives that were part of the SLCPD Homicide Unit, including Jim Bell, started investigating Paul Ezra Rhoades as a suspect. Rhoades was serving time in Idaho for multiple murders.

“The problem is, they had to have their serial killer. They had to have their Ted Bundy,” Chase said, adding that detectives would speculate about who would play each of them in a movie adaptation about the crimes.

Meanwhile, Chase, Ilk and Hatton-Ward were following their gang theory. In January 1987, Timmy Robinson, who associated with members of the gang, handed Hatton-Ward a pawn slip for a .38 caliber gun, the same kind that had been used in the killings, and told him it had been used in a murder. Ilk instructed Chase and Hatton-Ward to give the pawn slip to the task force detectives.

Chase remembers detective Jim Bell throwing the slip into his desk drawer and saying, “Whatever, I’m looking at Paul Ezra Rhoades.”

Previous to that point in time, Chase had told Bell that the killer couldn’t be Rhoades because there were time card punches placing him at his place of work in Idaho during the murders.

“There is no way Rhoades is the killer of those girls,” Chase said. “I didn’t mind the fact that that they were looking at Rhoades, but at some point when it wasn’t fitting — you couldn’t place him in Utah, you certainly weren’t placing him during the times of those murders — it doesn’t fit. You got to look elsewhere.”

Despite this evidence, Bell continued pursuing Rhoades and in 1989 he told members of the media he was “100% sure” Rhoades was the killer.

While Bell and other detectives were busy pursuing Rhoades, the gun vanished. It had already been sold by the time Chase and Hatton-Ward were able to get to the pawnshop themselves after being turned away by Bell.

Years later, Chase tracked the gun to California when he was working for the FBI’s Violent Crime Task Force. But before law enforcement could get their hands on the gun, it was stolen during a house burglary. The house owner reported the gun was the only thing the burglar took.

What followed after the disappearance of the gun was a series of petty jealousies, animosity and anger from the detectives that was covered extensively in the local press. The uproar was originally directed towards Hatton-Ward but eventually grew to include Chase and Ilk, according to Chase.

“It was very hard. Up until that time, I didn’t feel like I was ever an outcast,” he remembers. “They’d (the detectives) come down and talk to me about everything. And then once this started going and I started looking more into another direction that wasn’t their Ted-Bundy type, I was now an outcast.”

On April 25, 1988, acting Salt Lake Police Chief Ed Johnson announced the Crime Analysis Unit, which Chase, Hatton-Ward and Ilk were working on, was to be disbanded despite support from the city council and a city report recommending the unit be expanded by two additional employees.

“We lost our careers, we lost our jobs, we lost how we fed our families,” Chase said. “We got pushed out and we got destroyed for being right, for just having a difference of opinion. It wasn’t about solving murders; it was about politics.”

Interest in the cases languished until 1994 when a multi-jurisdictional homicide task force was formed by Salt Lake County Sheriff Aaron Kennard. Salt Lake City Chief of Police Ruben B. Ortega, however, stated that he would not be involved in the task force and did not want it investigating any Salt Lake City crimes. In response, Kennard claimed he wouldn’t investigate the murders of Gallegos or Maxwell unless Ortega asked for help.

After years without any resolution for families of the victims, they turned to civil rights attorney Ross “Rocky” Anderson, who would later become the mayor of Salt Lake City, for help.

“The failures by Ortega to move on the investigations was a sign of his arrogance and disdain for the families and friends of the victims,” Anderson said in an interview with the Universe.

Anderson pushed local authorities to solve the murders in the late 90s. His attention to the cases caused then-District Attorney David Yocom to call a special grand jury to examine the murder of Strong, which resulted in the conviction of Forrest Whittle, a Varios Chosen Few gang member, for her murder. After he was elected mayor, Anderson also started a cold case team to investigate the other killings.

Whittle is now serving a life sentence, but The Rocky Mountain Innocence Center is trying to prove his innocence — something both Anderson and Chase believe to be misguided.

“To me, and the judge and jury, the right guy went to prison for the Lisa Strong murder. No doubt about it. The sad part isn’t that this innocence law group is representing him, the sad part is that he hasn’t been brought up on the other unsolved cases — yet,” Chase said.

Like Leah Gallegos and Chase, Anderson believes there was a coverup.

“These cases were mishandled because of sloppiness, laziness, incompetence, dishonesty and the fact that certain detectives went public with their baseless ‘theory’ and they were sticking to it,” Anderson said. “Ego drove this disaster as much as anything, it seems. And the fact that the homicide victims did not come from powerful, prestigious families.”

This type of police work extended beyond just these three cases, according to Anderson.

“I think there was a clear pattern of the SLCPD turning a blind eye toward many homicides, even to the point of labeling obvious homicides as ‘unattended deaths’ instead of homicides so they wouldn’t have so many unsolved homicides on their stats,” Anderson said. He recalled instances of police officers who had told him of cases like these as well as the Elizabeth Smart case.

After all these years, he hopes that the cases will finally be solved.

“The victims, families, and friends – and our community – deserve justice,” Anderson said. “They deserve answers. And the perpetrators deserve to be held to account.”

Chase also believes it’s time for those responsible to be held accountable, including the police.

“They (Gallegos, Strong and Maxwell) deserve better,” Chase said. “These guys sit there with their pensions, and they got paid, they got their cost of living and everything. I don’t think those girls got a cost of living or had a nice pension.”

Don Bell (not to be confused with the aforementioned Jim Bell), the supervisor of the SLCPD Homicide Unit and by extension the task force, believes the detectives working the three cases aren’t at fault for the cases not being solved. He said one detective, Don Campbell, thoroughly investigated Chase and Hatton-Ward’s theory but wasn’t able to produce any viable leads. Chase, however, refuted this, saying Campbell never followed up on his Chase and Hatton-Ward’s theory.

“I can assure you that I don’t know of any detective investigator, including those within the task force, who would not want to solve every case they had been assigned,” Bell said in an email interview with the Daily Universe.

“Being a detective investigator normally requires having a rather large ‘ego.’ Believing in yourself and trusting your ability is almost a ‘must-have.’ If you receive any information, from any source, that might assist you in solving your case, you will most certainly follow up. You will never simply ignore it, no matter where the information originated,” Bell said.

He said an important consideration to make when reviewing these cases is how far science has come since the murders in the mid-80s. DNA, for example, didn’t become a law enforcement tool until three to four years after the killings. “Today it would be much easier and quicker to do what took weeks and months back then.”

The ballistic match linking the cases may also not be as strong as originally thought given improved testing methods. “Bottom line may indicate all three homicides may not be related as once thought,” Bell said.

Don Bell acknowledged some of the interpersonal misunderstandings that have been highlighted by the media and by Hatton-Ward’s whistleblower case in 1992 after the SLCPD fired him for insubordination and other grounds.

“As is always present in these scenarios, those not selected to be on a task force have conflicts with those who were,” Bell said.

He said “bad feelings” did exist when he took over the task force and that one of his assignments as supervisor was to “put a stop to the internal bickering.” He said the real issue ended up being not about who was the better investigator but that those on the task force got more overtime pay hours and did not have to respond to regular after-hours callbacks, issues he was able to resolve.

Hatton-Ward, specifically, may have created a different dynamic.

“I feel this terminated officer simply got caught up in believing he should have been assigned to the department’s Detective Bureau as a permanent detective investigator. That specific title ‘detective’ seemed very important to him,” Bell said.

He added that Hatton-Ward’s desire to solve the cases was pure. “I personally believe the officer had a sincere belief that he had important evidence or what he felt was actual evidence and he felt the task force investigators discounted his theories.”

Looking forward

It’s been 24 years since Whittle was convicted of Strong’s murder and 35 years since Christine Gallegos was killed. Like the trail of the gun, Christine and Maxwell’s cases are considered to be “cold” by officials.

Despite all this, Leah Gallegos hasn’t given up hope. In fact, she said she thinks the cases will be solved within the next 12 months.

She has partnered with Utah Cold Case Coalition founder and investigator Jason Jensen to finally bring closure to the cases.

The same names Chase originally came up with are the individuals Jensen is investigating now.

“We’re spot on the money,” Jensen told the Daily Universe. “It’s just a matter of getting the right witness to come forward.”

He said there are lasting effects from how the police originally handled the cases because anyone that is charged would have the perfect defense that it was Paul Ezra Rhoades.

“Somebody’s got a perfect defense, right? The prosecutor has to prove not only the case against the guy that they charge but also prove as an element of the crime of the prosecution that it wasn’t Paul Ezra Rhoades,” Jensen said. “It’s just not a popular case to try and prosecute.”

Leah Gallegos said it’s time for the SLCPD to acknowledge how they handled the case.

“I expect an apology from them,” she said, “and not just for me but to all the families that they have done this to.”


This article, in its original form, can be found here: View Story