Two weeks ago at a Woods Cross motel, a group of mostly rural investigators from Utah and three neighboring states sat down to talk about old murders.
Each of the 20 or so lawmen sifted through the grisly circumstances of the unsolved slayings, 13 in all, involving the dumped bodies of women. The grim litany covering cases in Utah, Nevada, Wyoming and Idaho went on for nearly two days as a group of Utah experts listened intently.The details of each case were added to a butcher-paper chart on the wall. In the end, the cluttered chart was 20 feet long and contained two revelations.
The first was confirmation of a long-held suspicion that at least one serial killer - and more likely two - had murdered most of the women. At least one suspect was identified.
The second, less sensational but to the participants perhaps as significant, was the surprising efficacy of the fledgling Utah Criminal Tracking and Analysis Project, which hosted the meeting.
"I came out of that meeting feeling upbeat about this case for the first time in eight years," said Millard County Sheriff's Sgt. John Kimball.
Kimball has been haunted by the discovery in March 1990 of the decomposed and nude body of a woman found along a desolate stretch of Interstate 15. The woman, who has never been identified, had been shot and her body seemingly posed in a sexually suggestive manner.
The UTAP conference not only reinforced a long-held belief the crime was the work of a serial killer but underscored the likelihood that the same killer dumped and posed the bodies of women found along Interstate 70 in neighboring Juab County in March 1991 and along a rural road outside St. George a month later.
Moreover, the conference gave Kimball something he hadn't had before: a good suspect.
"I can't say enough about this concept," Kimball said.
UTAP, brainchild of Provo Police Chief Greg Cooper and Utah attorney general's investigator Mike King, is rapidly being acknowledged as a unique tool in law enforcement circles both in and out of Utah. It is also something of a curiosity, a hybrid.
In the turf-conscious world of law enforcement, task forces elicit groans from any detective who has had to navigate those ego-charged and bureaucratic waters. But UTAP isn't just a task force. It is a smorgasbord of expertise unavailable in any one place outside of the FBI laboratory in Quantico, Va.
Indeed, the project is closely modeled after the FBI's Violent Criminal Apprehension Program, or VICAP, where Cooper worked for five years and where he supervised its famed Investigative Support Unit. The unit's criminal profilers have been celebrated in the movie "Silence of the Lambs" and a variety of television and movie knockoffs since.
Launched just seven months ago with the blessing of virtually every law enforcement agency in the state, UTAP has brought together a committee of diverse talents - from forensic psychiatrists to death-scene investigators - to help with those cases that keep detectives awake at night.
"The idea was to make this available to anybody who wanted the help," said Cooper. "The idea was to solve crimes, not take credit for solving crimes."
And that, perhaps more than anything else, is what makes the project unique. While it has structure, it has no agenda and no budget. While Cooper and King coordinate its board of experts and meetings, they have no legal jurisdiction. UTAP can only go where it's invited.
"We have leaders but no authority," said King. "The whole idea here is to facilitate cooperation and communication between agencies. Rather than fostering reliance on outside agencies, we think (UTAP) gives us a little independence."
"This is a pretty laid-back operation," added Rudi Riet, a UTAP expert and chief investigator for the Utah Medical Examiner's Office. "Nobody should be intimidated."
By contrast, most task forces have a lead agency and all of the accompanying egos, politics and petty jurisdictional squabbles.
"That's what I like about this concept, it's that the jurisdictional lines aren't there," said Millard County's Kimball. "A lot of time there's friction between the rural county agencies and the Wasatch Front. That's missing here."
Cooper and King say that, while UTAP emulates VICAP, it was intentionally set up to avoid the FBI's notorious here-we-are-to-save-the-day reputation among other agencies.
It has trained 40 lawmen from throughout the state to act as liaisons between local police agencies and the project. They are usually the first contact for a detective and help screen cases and guide investigators through the process.
Like VICAP, a case detective must fill out a detailed questionnaire about the case, which is then sent to King and Cooper. If it's accepted - so far none has been rejected - a committee of experts will be chosen and each given a copy of the entire case file.
"We'll go over it for a couple of weeks before we meet with the detective," Cooper said. Those meetings are fairly formal - the investigator presents his case to the panel in a meeting that often lasts four hours or more.
"The officers don't always think they've had a great afternoon," Cooper said. "It's pretty comprehensive."
The crime scene is analyzed, evidence is examined and the case is profiled by Cooper, who is trained to discern an offender's personality traits and motivations from a crime scene.
"Sometimes it's simply telling them they're doing all they can," said Riet. "Sometimes we'll see something they haven't done. Sometimes, in some of these old cases, there's new technology that might be of use."
King said no detective has ever walked out of the meetings without some new avenue of inquiry, evidence or a tack for interviewing a suspect who hasn't cracked.
The project has reviewed some 20 cases in the past seven months, including the 13 regional murders. Cooper said they are almost all "old and cold" murders or what he calls "equivocal deaths" - when the manner of passing is questionable.
None of the cases has been solved - yet. Cooper and King said there are at least two unsolved rural Utah homicides where arrests are imminent as a direct result of new leads and evidence plumbed by UTAP.
Kimball, who had been a virtual one-man task force traveling the West trying to catch his serial killer, is optimistic for the first time in nearly a decade.
"I couldn't do any more myself," he said. "I'd looked at all the crime-scene photos I could stand. I wasn't above asking for help, and I got it."