SALT LAKE CITY — A 37-year-old cold case murder investigation has now been closed by the Salt Lake City Police Department.
On Thursday, investigators announced that the prime suspect in the Aug. 23, 1976, death of Charles R. Collings is dead, and the case is now considered “exceptionally closed."
Police believe Steven Andrew Coombs, 69, killed Collings in a field at 454 W. 200 South. Coombs was 33 in 1976. Coombs died in 2012. But if he were alive today, detectives would be asking the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office to file charges against him, said Salt Lake police detective Cody Lougy.
In 1976, Coombs and Collings — both transients — along with Wilford Murphy were drinking in a field together. An argument over their alcohol came up, and Coombs allegedly attacked Collings from behind while he wasn't looking.
"Sadly, my father was in a place he shouldn't have been, doing things he shouldn't have been doing. He was killed probably over $2 cheap wine. But there's always a background story," his son, Jim Collings, told the Deseret News Thursday from his home in California. "When you're drunk and crazy and hopeless, there's a lot of stupid things that go on."
Collings said his father served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and came back suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
"I think they called it 'shell-shocked' back then," he said.
His father started to drink heavily when he returned from the war, and he soon found himself in and out of jail, treatment centers and homeless shelters. He ended up in Utah after another attempt to get treatment.
While solving the case of his father's death stirs up old feelings, Collings said his family is not angry.
"My sister is upset over it, and my brother is a little stunned by it. But there's a reason for everything. I don't know if at that time it would have been good for a trial going on, it was already hard enough," he said.
Jim Collings is a veteran of the Vietnam War and said he also returned with PTSD. He said he doesn't know if Coombs was also a war veteran, but, if he was, he would have compassion for what the man may have been going through.
Coombs was considered a chronic alcoholic and transient. In a 2007 Deseret News article, police said Coombs had been taken to the Salt Lake County Jail hundreds of times for public intoxication. Between 2002 and 2006, officers were called out to deal with Coombs more than 1,000 times. More than 600 of those calls led to him being arrested. On some occasions, he was arrested twice in the same day.
Months after Charles Collings' body was found, Murphy gave information to police about the killing. Murphy died in 1992.
Lougy said there were apparently issues with witnesses back in 1976, but said Thursday he wasn't sure why charges weren't filed back then.
Jim Collings wonders the same thing.
"It seems incredibly odd that a case that was that solvable at the time didn't get solved. So there has to be a reason for that," he said.
Collings said the medical examiner told him that when his father died, his blood-alcohol level was nearly three times the legal limit. Despite the tragic way his father's life ended, Collings believes his father was still ultimately responsible for his actions, primarily his drinking.
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