SPANISH FORK — The death of a Provo woman who had been missing for three years is being investigated as a possible murder, police said Thursday.
"This is an active homicide investigation," Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy said.
“We’re calling it a homicide investigation under suspicious circumstances. … We don’t know exactly how or why she ended up in Hobble Creek Canyon. Those are the things we’re trying to find leads on.”
Tracy stood together with Provo Police Chief Richard Ferguson and FBI Supervisory Special Agent for Utah Eric Lerohl to confirm that Elizabeth Elena Laguna Salgado's remains were found in the canyon on Friday. Because of where the body was located, the Utah County Sheriff's Office will now take over the lead in the investigation from Provo police, who were investigating the missing person's case.
"This is just terrible," a very emotional Rosemberg Salgado, one of Salgado's uncles, said Thursday. "I can't believe there are so many evil people in this world that would do that to another human being. We will find you whoever you are. We will find you."
After three years of searching, the break in the case to find Salgado, 26, came from a chance bathroom break.
A man driving through Hobble Creek Canyon above Springville had to pull over and relieve himself on Friday. He walked about 30 yards off the road into some bushes, according to authorities. It was there where he came across "a skull and clothing," said Utah County Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Cannon. He immediately called police.
On Tuesday, the Utah State Medical Examiner's Office, using dental records, confirmed it was Salgado.
"After 40 years in law enforcement and the sheriff’s office, we’ll take any break, anytime," Tracy said of the chance discovery. "Some days it's better to be lucky than be good."
Authorities declined to reveal Thursday the exact location of where the remains were found, only to say it was about 15 miles away from where Salgado was last seen.
"It was off the road and it was not in an area you would find hiking on a trail,” Tracy said. "We had not searched that area before. There was no indication she was ever in Hobble Creek."
The man who discovered the remains was interviewed by police. And even though Tracy said he would likely be interviewed again, investigators do not consider him a person of interest.
A cause of death has not yet been determined. The body "was exposed to the elements for years, it appears," the sheriff said.
Tracy confirmed that other items of evidence were collected at the scene to help positively identify Salgado. He declined to say what those items are, or if her cellphone and purse that Salgado was believed to be carrying three years ago were found. The sheriff said his detectives planned to return to the area to look for additional evidence.
"We have persons of interest that we have interviewed and will continue to interview. We are not naming anyone as a suspect at this time,” Tracy said. He declined to say how many persons of interest were being looked at or whether any of them are family members.
Early on in the case, police said inconsistencies and the outcome of polygraph tests with two of Salgado’s uncles resulted in them being excluded from police updates to the family.
Salgado, 26, of Chiapas, Mexico, was in Utah to study English after completing an LDS mission. She had been living in Provo for just three weeks when she disappeared on April 16, 2015.
She was last seen leaving class at the Nomen Global Language Center, 384 W. Center, in Provo, in the middle of the day. But she never made it back to her home just 2 miles away at the Branbury Apartments, 449 W. 1720 North.
Salgado regularly called her family. But family members say all communication stopped that afternoon.
Elizabeth Salgado had talked to her older sister every day since she went to Utah. The two were very close and used messaging apps to stay in touch. They had been chatting back and forth on April 16, the day she disappeared.
"I love you. What are you doing?" Sara Salgado asked her sister.
"I just left school," she responded about 2:30 p.m.
Just over 30 minutes passed before Sara Salgado saw the message and responded, "Cool. Have you arrived?"
The app, which indicates whether a message has been read, shows that Elizabeth Salgado never got her sister's message.
Over the past three years, there have been numerous searches to try and find Salgado, as well as an ever-increasing reward offered.
The search took investigators to her hometown in Mexico, where her parents currently live, and to the areas in Mexico where she served as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, according to police.
Family members in California were notified in person by sheriff's deputies of the discovery on Wednesday. Some family members in Mexico were notified by phone of the discovery, but Tracy said investigators were still trying to locate some family members Thursday.
"We want justice for Elizabeth and we are going to find them. We have the FBI and great investigators. And whoever did this, we are going to find them," Rosemberg Salgado said. "We will not stop until that person or people that were involved (are found)."
The emotional uncle said his niece came to Utah to create opportunities to better her life.
"She only wanted to, she only wanted to open doors for herself. She only wanted to learn English and become a better person," he said in tears. "She wanted to get married in the temple with a good guy and and she had so many dreams and she was so happy to be in Provo. I can't believe someone killed her."
After years of questions, Rosemberg Salgado said the discovery is painful.
"We wanted some closure, but we just didn't want this kind of closure," he said. "We wanted to find her alive. That was our hope."
Elizabeth Salgado did not have a car so investigators believe someone would have had to take her into the canyon. Provo police also noted that she had only been in Utah for three weeks and didn't know many people.9 comments on this story
Now that her remains have been found, investigators say they can start working backwards to figure out how she got there. Police are asking anyone who, in hindsight, may have seen something suspicious in Hobble Creek Canyon three years ago to contact them.
Ferguson said as far as looking for clues as to what happened, "our eyes are wide open," and promised that authorities would "bring whoever is responsible for her death to justice."
"While this is not the outcome that the family and our community was hoping for, the sheriff’s office, Provo police and the FBI, continue to focus now … on solving this case,” Tracy said.
Contributing: Alex Cabrero