LOGAN — The body of a woman who had been missing for nearly a month was found Friday and police arrested a man who they say murdered her.
Searchers located the body of Merrilee Cox-Lafferty, 37, about 8 miles "off the pavement" in Blacksmith Fork Canyon. Investigators said it was the woman's dog that ultimately helped them solve the case.
Stacy Robert Willis, 41, of Hyrum was booked into the Cache County Jail Friday night for investigation of aggravated murder and other charges in connection with her death. Logan Police Chief Gary Jensen described Willis as a dangerous man with a violent history.
Cox-Lafferty had last been seen in the Logan area. She was reported missing Aug. 21, three days after arriving in Utah from California to visit family members.
After her disappearance, the Cache County Sheriff's Office put out an alert at the time that described her as having severe epilepsy combined with memory loss and mobility issues, and driving a car with California license plates.
"The case soon became suspicious as detectives worked through leads of her disappearance," Jensen said.
But it was the discovery of Cox-Lafferty's dog that "turned this case in the right direction," he said.
Logan police investigators "took custody" of a stray dog and posted photos of it on Facebook. People came forward and identified the dog as belonging to Cox-Lafferty.
“The dog was pivotal. It offered us some information that we just simply didn’t have and may not have had had we not taken custody of this animal and ultimately release it to people that knew more about Merrilee and her circumstance,” Jensen said, declining to elaborate.
The chief did not say how they believe the woman died nor what led detectives to Willis.
"They were previously acquainted," Cache County Sheriff Chad Jensen said of Cox-Lafferty and Willis. "She came here to help another friend move. Being friends with Mr. Willis, she made a connection when she got back to the valley. They were known acquaintances."
Deputies began searches in the canyon for Cox-Lafferty earlier in the week after receiving information that her body may have been in the area. They later received additional information that helped pinpoint the exact location Friday.
Her vehicle was located in Boise and search warrants have been issued in Idaho and Utah, including at Willis' home in Hyrum.
Willis was pulled over and arrested in the parking lot of a Hyrum business without incident.
"We do not know the motive and we will get to the motive," the sheriff said.
In addition to aggravated murder, Willis was also booked into jail Friday for investigation of obstruction of justice, criminal mischief, possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person, possession of a controlled substance and possession of drug paraphernalia.2 comments on this story
Willis was convicted of felony discharge of a firearm in 2014 after firing two shots at a couple trying to pull out of a Walmart parking lot in North Logan. Police say Willis flagged down the couple, pulled up parallel to their truck and accused the driver of owing him money — all while holding a gun in his lap.
The driver, who told police he had never met Willis, drove off, then later backed into Willis' vehicle when he followed him. Willis fired fired two shots at the truck, with one bullet entering through the rear window and exiting out the windshield.
Utah court records show that Willis also has convictions for forgery in 2003, escape from custody in 2000 and possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance in 1999.