Sheriff: Utah man convicted of '98 double murder may have more victims

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 21 2012 8:17 p.m. MDT

File photo of Sinbad the Lion with John Pinder John Pinder's ranch. Pinder is serving two life sentences for killing two people in 1998, but new court documents indicate he is being investigated in two other murder cases.

Douglas C. Pizac, AP

DUCHESNE — He's already serving two life sentences for kidnapping and killing two people more than a decade ago, but investigators in Duchesne County believe John Pinder may have more blood on his hands.

Duchesne County Sheriff Travis Mitchell has told a federal judge his agency must continue to keep three weapons and a Pierre Cardin tote bag seized after the 1998 murders of Rex Tanner and June Flood for two reasons. First, because Pinder is still seeking to have his murder convictions overturned, and second, because the items are being held "in connection with ongoing investigations of at least two additional cold murder cases."

Mitchell provided this explanation for continuing to retain the tote bag, a Remington rifle and two pistols in a declaration filed in U.S. District Court, where he is being sued by Pinder's parents. 

Robert and Virginia Pinder filed their lawsuit in 2011, seeking the return of 14 rifles, nine shotguns, three handguns, two crossbows, and a large but unspecified amount of ammunition seized from their Duchesne County ranch during the execution of a search warrant in 1998.

The Pinders are also seeking the return of other items seized from the ranch by the sheriff's office, including “all family photographs.”

In his declaration to the court, Mitchell specified whether each item sought by the Pinders was disposed of or remains in the sheriff's evidence locker. Many of the seized weapons belonged to other individuals and were released to those individuals, the sheriff wrote. Others belong to John Pinder, not his parents, Mitchell noted, and at least one gun on the Pinders' list — a 9 mm pistol — was destroyed because it had been "illegally altered to be 'rapid fire.'"

The sheriff's 50-page court filing also included copies of reports from the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office in Idaho, which assisted in searching for John Pinder and his girlfriend, Barbara DeHart, following the Oct. 25, 1998, murders of Tanner and Flood in Duchesne County.

Pinder, now 54, kidnapped the former ranch employees from their home with the help of ranch hand Filomeno Valenchia Ruiz. The two men took Tanner and Flood to the Pinders' JJNP Ranch west of Lake Canyon, where they killed them and then used explosives to try to dispose of their bodies.

DeHart's daughter and estranged husband told Kootenai County deputies that DeHart and Pinder arrived in Idaho shortly after Tanner and Flood were killed.

DeHart's daughter said her mother told her Pinder "has killed some people, at least four, and that two were females who are buried in a car on John's ranch in Utah," the Kootenai sheriff's reports state.

"(The daughter) stated Barbara said John had killed someone and the body was thrown in the Strawberry River in Utah," the reports state.

DeHart's estranged husband also told Idaho investigators that she told him, "I hope they don't find the vehicle with the two bodies in it, which is buried on the ranch," the report states.

Investigators in Utah have never been able to corroborate those claims. 

The man also told authorities that DeHart told a friend Pinder had killed his estranged wife, a claim that later proved false. The woman, who has since divorced Pinder, is still alive. 

Pinder and DeHart eventually returned to Utah and surrendered to authorities.

Pinder — who gained notoriety in Duchesne County before the killings because he owned an African lion as a pet — claimed at trial that Ruiz acted alone and that he lived in fear of him. A jury, however, convicted Pinder of 11 felonies, including two counts of aggravated murder. He was sentenced to serve two consecutive life sentences with the possibility of parole.

His first parole hearing is slated for November 2028.

Ruiz, 48, pleaded guilty to two counts of murder, a first-degree felony, in a plea deal with prosecutors that led to the dismissal of eight other felony charges against him and secured his testimony against Pinder. He was paroled in October 2008.

To date, all of Pinder's appeals have been denied, but he still has a petition for post-conviction relief pending in 4th District Court.

Mitchell declined to comment Tuesday on the "cold murder cases" he mentioned in federal court filings, citing the pending lawsuit and the ongoing nature of the investigations. 

E-mail: gliesik@desnews.com

Twitter: GeoffLiesik

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