A trio of current or one-time Salt Lake Police Department employees "acted as self-appointed junior varsity detectives" in bungling an investigation of several Utah slayings, department officials said in court documents filed Wednesday.

That salvo responds to a petition filed by the three demanding the Utah Court of Appeals order the department to explain why it ignored leads the three uncovered in several Utah murders.They said the department, which once convened the Salt Lake Homicide Task Force to investigate the slayings, has ignored their findings.

But in an ofttimes biting 89-page response, the department motioned for the petition to be dismissed and the petitioners be sanctioned, saying the contentions "appear to be nothing more than attempts to vindicate private interests."

Patrolman Frank Hatton-Ward and former crime analysts Jon Ilk and Greg Chase said they have leads into at least five cases of women slain in Salt Lake City and along the Wasatch Front during 1985 and 1986 by members or associates of a local gang.

Hatton-Ward is still with the department, Ilk, who headed the department's disbanded Crime Analysis Unit, left the department last July for health reasons, and Chase, who was a member of that unit, recently left the department for a job with the Utah Department of Corrections.

However, Detective Jim Bell said he's "100 percent sure" the women's killer is Paul Ezra Rhoades, a serial killer on the Idaho State Penitentiary's death row.

Despite Bell's confidence, Hatton-Ward and his colleagues filed a "writ of mandamus" May 2 demanding the court to order department officials to explain their failure to follow up the leads.

But in a response drafted by City Attorney Roger F. Cutler, the department said it had exhausted all review of the trio's probe - an investigation bungled by the three to such an extent that further investigations are at risk.

"In the opinion . . . of the police administration, (the trio's) frustrated ambitions to be recognized as detectives have clouded good judgment and . . . prejudiced the investigation," the department said.

"The Salt Lake Police Department has, in good faith and extreme patience, considered all of the theories," the department added. "All have been found wanting."

Fred Wasilewski, attorney for the three police employees, did not return phone calls to his office by press time Thursday.

Department officials said the independent investigation led to Hatton-Ward leaking important information to convicted murderer James Sherard, including details of killings only the actual killer would know.

"Inappropriate or unskilled investigative techniques can prejudice the innocent and make conviction of the guilty difficult or impossible," Assistant Police Chief Ed Johnson said in an affidavit.

The investigation by Hatton-Ward and his colleagues was born out of "an attempt to establish credentials as detectives," the department continued, saying the three were frustrated with jobs in the department's lower echelon.

The department was also critical of the trio's "try-it-in-the-press modus operandi." News media reported plans to file the department employees' petition three days before it was filed. *****

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Whay the police department wants the petition dismissed:

-The petition doesn't belong in the appeals court; instead it should be in the lower circuit or district court.

-Under separation of powers doctrine and other concepts, courts can't compel police departments to conduct investigations.

-Those who filed the petition have nothing at stake in the investigation "other than offended egos."