Tooele County sheriff's deputies are investigating whether a father and his two young children whose charred bodies were found early Thursday died in a double murder-suicide.
Results of autopsies being performed on the bodies could give investigators some answers as early as today.
"The cause will be determined by the state medical examiner's office," Tooele County sheriff's spokesman Wade Mathews told the Deseret Morning News.
A gasoline-drenched SUV exploded into flames in a remote
part of Tooele County early Thursday morning. Once the extremely hot fire was put out, the body of Christopher Jessop, a 30-year-old Army contractor, was found sitting between his 4-year-old son, James, and his 3-year-old daughter, Mariah, in the back seat. Sheriff's deputies said Jessop had his arm around Mariah.
"I am hoping the children were already dead," Tooele County Sheriff Frank Park said. "I would not wish anyone had been burned to death."
The sheriff said gasoline had been poured on the Jeep Liberty and used as an accelerant for the fire. The Jeep was parked at a gas pump at the Pony Express station on state Route 196 on the Skull Valley Goshute Indian Reservation.
A truck driver was northbound on S.R. 196 around 1:30 Thursday morning when he reported feeling a "whoosh" and spotted flames. By the time he was able to turn his dump truck around, deputies said the SUV was engulfed in fire.
The trucker drove back to the landfill, where a 2,000-gallon water tanker truck was parked. Garth Bear was working at the landfill and was the first to arrive on the scene of the explosion.
"My initial reaction was to put the thing out," said Bear.
It took him 10 to 15 minutes to douse the flames. Meanwhile, fire departments miles away were called to help.
"It's bad because this is far away from emergency services," Bear said. "It takes 20 to 30 minutes before Dugway can respond."
Fire departments from Dugway and Terra responded to help extinguish the blaze. The force of the explosion torched bushes as far as 30 feet away and charred the station's overhang. The entire pump station was blackened, its north side hollowed out.
Looking inside the torched vehicle, Bear spied the bodies.
"I saw the initial body lying on the back seat and noticed the little body lying on the back seat, too," he said.
The sheriff would not conclusively say the deaths were a murder-suicide and said foul play is still a possibility.
Because of the extreme nature of the fire, police remain unsure at this time if any of the victims in the Jeep were dead before the explosion. Mathews confirmed a weapon was not found at the scene of the deaths.
Sheriff Park said Jessop had been separated from his wife and had picked up his children on Wednesday. He had dinner in Salt Lake City that night with his brother. He worked and lived on the U.S. Army's Dugway Proving Ground facility.
Deputies have been speaking with his wife, who was being comforted by family members and clergy. Attempts to reach family members for comment Thursday were unsuccessful.
In February, a man's body was discovered in the back seat of a burning car near the Delle exit in Tooele County. Another man was apparently meant to die in the fire but escaped. He had burns on more than 50 percent of his body.
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