SOUTH SALT LAKE — Unified police believe they have solved the case of a woman who was stabbed many times and killed in her own home 24 years ago.
Investigators announced Friday that they believe Gary Dean Hilfiker, 56, killed 71-year-old Flora Rundle in 1989. Hilfiker is already serving time at the Utah State Prison for another murder in 1992.
The Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office on Friday charged Hilfiker with first-degree murder, a first-degree felony.
Rundle was found dead in her South Salt Lake home, 3518 S. 300 West, on Oct. 22, 1989, by family members who hadn't heard from her for a few days. "The front door to her home had been forced open. An autopsy found the 11 stab wounds to Flora Rundle’s chest and back to be the cause of death," according to court documents.
Police at the time said the brutal number of wounds was "overkill."
Prosecutors say Hilfiker — a cab driver who had taken Rundle to her home on several occasions because taxis were her main form of transportation — broke into her home, stabbed the woman to death during a struggle and took several hundred dollars from her purse.
New charging documents indicate that Hilfiker admitted going to her home with a knife intending to steal money from her.
Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said Hilfiker was a suspect in 1989, but there was not enough evidence then to arrest him.
He was convicted in another case a couple of years later, however, and was sentenced to five years to life in prison for stabbing his girlfriend, 38-year-old Marsha Haverty. She was also stabbed 11 times and then Hilfiker set her body and the house on fire. During a 2010 parole hearing, Hilfiker said he had been on a three-day alcohol and crack cocaine binge on April 24, 1992, before the murder. He said he became a born-again Christian in 2001.
A parole board member that year said he would recommend Hilfiker spend at least 25 years in prison.
That prison stay may now be longer.
In January, Unified police investigators ran DNA evidence preserved from Rundle's death into a national database and came up with a match to Hilfiker.
The case was reopened in 2013 thanks to a $300,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice to investigate cold cases. Winder said that money has allowed his department to assign additional investigators to cold cases and gives them more money to expedite the process of testing DNA samples, which can be expensive when private companies are used.
If not for the grant, Winder said Rundle's case may have gone unsolved even longer.
Another key has been the advances in DNA technology in recent years.
"To think that the DNA, this test could have been done and we could have solved this 20 years ago, is not necessarily the case. They have the ability now to process much smaller amounts of DNA," said Unified Police Lt. Don Hutson, head of the department's violent crimes unit.
But even with the advances in DNA research, Winder stressed that it also took good detective work and lots of working hours to put together a case that will result in a successful prosecution. He said prioritizing which cold cases to work on first was not a shot in the dark.
"You don't just have an individual suddenly have an epiphany one day and go run the sample. You take these cases in a holistic approach. So what you do is you assign a case agent. You have this shelf of these tragedies sitting before you. Meanwhile, you've got new tragedies arriving every day that detectives are managing," he said. "This is not predicated solely on the DNA evidence.
"I think people think this is like some forensics show where we go out and get a light that's blue and run it over here and the doggone thing is solved. There are human beings behind these cases," Winder said.
Hutson concurred that solving a cold case is more than a matter of running batches of DNA through national databases.
"I wish we could just send all these samples out (to the different labs) and tell them to 'test everything for anything you can find.' The problem is that gives you absolutely no direction and doesn't get you closer to solving the case. You have to make a determination (asking how) this piece of evidence fits into the actual crime that occurred. And is that going to lead us to the suspect if we find their DNA on that item?" he said.
Detectives also have to figure out whether there is a plausible reason for a person's DNA to be present, Hutson said.
Winder praised the detectives who preserved evidence 20 years ago who made it possible for DNA tests to be conducted today, as well as those who have kept it preserved while in storage for the past two decades.
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