While a Salt Lake police officer and two associates believe that several unsolved killings of young women could have been committed by members of a local street gang, the lead detective on the homicide task force holds firmly to his theory that the killer is in the Idaho State Penitentiary.
After thousands of man-hours of investigation and costs running into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, Salt Lake Police Detective Jim Bell says the evidence points to Paul Ezra Rhoades - a serial killer on Idaho's death row for three murders in southeastern Idaho."Myself, I'm 100 percent sure Rhoades is the man," Bell said. "We've been trying since day one to eliminate Paul Rhoades as a suspect and we can't do it."
Fueling Bell's suspicion is that once Rhoades was apprehended for killings in Idaho, the Utah killings stopped. "If Paul's not the guy, who is? The killer is not going to stop. He's going to keep going."
But patrolman Frank Hatton-Ward and former crime analysts Greg Chase and Jon Ilk say they have come up with information that many of the homicides, mainly in 1985 and 1986, were the work of several local gang members, one of whom, James Sherard, is serving a life sentence in Utah State Prison for capital murder.
Hatton-Ward, Chase and Ilk believe Bell and the task force have ignored their information. The three have been trying unsuccessfully for months to interest other law enforcement agencies. This week, their attorney drafted a petition asking a federal judge to order an investigation.
Bell said he hasn't ignored the possibility of another serial killer. Such killers have been in Utah, but all of them have been eliminated as suspects, he said. All except Paul Rhoades - that is.
"We have a very, very extensive time chart on Paul Rhoades and we can't eliminate him on any of the cases," Bell said. "We've asked his family for work records, anything to prove he was somewhere else when these crimes occurred. But they can't do it."
Ilk, the former director of the now-disbanded police department Crime Analysis Unit, said his unit found no link between Paul Rhoades and the Wasatch Front killings.
"(Bell) doesn't know what he's talking about," Ilk said. "I saw absolutely no link whatsoever. Paul Rhoades is a shooter. We have shootings, but we also have stabbings. There were pornographic overtones to Paul Rhoades' killings, but we don't see that in ours. Paul Rhoades killed his victims where they were found; our killer dumps their bodies after they've been killed somewhere else."
Bell is not releasing a lot of details about the Utah killings, except to say they were very similar to the Idaho murders.
What exactly did investigators find in Idaho?
According to Idaho Falls police detective Dennis Shaw, Rhoades left his distinctive print on each of his Idaho crimes, which included three murders, a rape, two attempted shootings, two attempted abductions and a number of attempted robberies.
In each of the cases, the crimes were linked to Rhoades either by witness identification, by hair and fiber analysis, and/or slugs from Rhoades' .38-caliber handgun. Idaho detectives have assembled an incontrovertible web of evidence linking Rhoades to the rash of violent crimes.
"Rhoades left a trail of evidence wherever he went," said Shaw.
That's not the case in Utah. Salt Lake detectives - who have worked Rhoades as the prime suspect since his arrest in Idaho in March 1987 - have been unable to put Rhoades in Salt Lake City on any of the days of the Utah killings.
But they can't prove he wasn't in Utah, either.
Every serial killer has his own distinct personality that distinguishes him from other serial killers. In Rhoades' case, he was obsessed by hard-core pornography and lingerie. There were horrifying pornographic overtones in the killing of the two Idaho women. Rhoades' third Idaho victim was a male convenience store clerk.
Rhoades exhibited an immense anger against all three victims, shooting them repeatedly with his handgun. He would often continue shooting them after they lay mortally wounded and helpless. "There was tremendous overkill," said Shaw.
Rhoades also stalked his victims and killed them at random. His victims were night clerks, women in unlocked vehicles, women alone late at night. He would usually take them to areas he was familiar with and kill them.
The crime scenes were all disorganized, and the killer made no attempt to cover his tracks or move the victims after they were killed. It was the distinctive pattern of Rhoades' shoes that led to his arrest.
Bell is convinced Rhoades has a serious criminal history in Salt Lake City - one he doesn't want cops to know about. Rhoades vehemently denied ever being in Salt Lake City.
But following news reports that showed Rhoades' photo, an anonymous phone caller told detectives that Rhoades had been in Utah off and on his whole life. One witness said Rhoades had even been in town a couple of nights before one murder.
Shaw also located a receipt in Rhoades' car that was traced to a woman at the LDS Business College in Salt Lake City. She has no idea how it got there and had never heard of Rhoades.
Detectives received another phone call from a man who said Rhoades was hitchhiking in Idaho in 1986 and that he gave Rhoades a ride to Salt Lake City. Rhoades stayed the night at the man's house - about three blocks away from where one woman was later murdered.
Also across the street was a convenience store - the scene of a 1985 robbery-shooting. The victim told police she knew he was going to rape and kill her, so she took off running down Seventh East as he fired several shots at her. One shot struck her in the back.
Coincidence? "Wherever Paul goes he lives on convenience stores," said Bell. "The majority of killings occur in or near convenience stores. And he's familiar with the area."
The witness, however, could not identify Rhoades.
"There were too many coincidences, said Bell. "Why's he denying being here when we've got him here over and over again since the early 1970s? He used to come here to rock concerts and cruise State Street."
The most damning evidence, said Bell, is that after Rhoades was arrested, there were no more .38 caliber murders. Anywhere. "And believe me, we're looking. We're calling everybody, and the killings just stop."
But Hatton-Ward, Ilk and Chase counter by saying that the killings stopped also after Sherard was arrested in January 1987.
A detailed background check into Rhoades revealed that until 1984, Rhoades was seen as a lovable teddy bear of a man. Then, Rhoades' personality changed radically, fueled by an increasing appetite for drugs and pornography.
"It strikes me as more than coincidence that Rhoades gets heavy into drugs in 1984 and that's the same year girls start turning up missing in Salt Lake City," said Bell.
While unsolved cases of missing and murdered women go back before 1984, the distinct serial killer pattern doesn't begin to emerge until 1984, said Bell.
In mid-1986, after police became increasingly concerned about the growing number of unsolved cases, Salt Lake detectives quietly began calling around the West to see if there were other cases that could be related.
The Salt Lake Homicide Task Force was organized to look into 25 unsolved killings in the western states that fit the same pattern. The task force generated approximately 7,000 suspects - some of whom looked promising.
One by one, the most likely suspects were eliminated. "It's not like we looked at absolutely everyone," Bell said. "But (after March 1987) we spent all our efforts on Rhoades because that's where our best leads were going."
Does Bell have enough evidence to take Rhoades to trial on the Salt Lake homicides?
"We have some very, very, very, very good circumstantial evidence," he said. "Yeah, circumstantially, I'm ready to take the case to court."
No charges, however, have been filed.