SALT LAKE CITY — Unified police detective Ben Pender said when he confronted Victoria Blackcrow Clown about what she knew about the death of Lester Lloyd Janise, she seemed relieved to finally talk.
"As (the interview) went on and on, I could see it had been weighing on her. I actually showed her a picture of Lester, and that was kind of the turning point. Once she was shown that photograph of Lester things kind of changed," he said.
On Tuesday, Pender, Salt Lake County Sheriff Rosie Rivera and Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced that two women had been charged and arrested for the 2009 killing of Janise, 62, a man described as "a spiritual leader among the Native Americans."
"Today is a really good day for us," Rivera declared.
Jerah Jean Santos-Ramirez, 29, of Las Vegas, and Clown, 28, of Lawrenceville, Georgia, were charged Nov. 5 in 3rd District Court with murder, a first-degree felony, aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony, and obstructing justice, a second-degree felony. Arrest warrants for $1 million were issued for each woman.
The warrants were sealed, however, as detectives had to travel out of state to arrest the two women.
"Law enforcement believes that the element of surprise … may make it safer" when the warrants are served, according to the motion to seal the charges.
Ramirez was booked into the Salt Lake County Jail over the weekend. Clown was booked on Nov. 17, according to jail records.
Pender said multiple trips were made to Georgia, South Dakota and Las Vegas to make the case come together. It was his trip to Georgia on Oct. 26 when he had a four-hour interview with Clown that sealed the investigation.
Clown, who Pender said was a friend of Janise and looked up to him, was in a place in her life where she was ready to talk.
"I think in these cases time is on our side sometimes, and this is one of those cases where it was on our side," he said.
Janise, a member of Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, "was a spiritual leader among the Native Americans," Rivera said. He also served in the U.S. Army in Vietnam and earned two Purple Hearts, one after being injured by a land mine explosion that nearly killed him, according to his family, the sheriff said.
"That's important. This guy went and fought for us," Rivera said.
Janise's elderly sister, when told the news of the arrests, was pleased her brother, who served his country, would receive justice, the sheriff said.
"She's very happy that we solved this. But she's also a little bit hurt he fought in a war and this is how his life was taken," Rivera said.
On Jan. 13, 2009, police were called to 7895 S. Candlestick Lane (80 East) to perform a welfare check after apartment managers hadn't heard from Janise for a while and noticed newspapers were collecting on his porch, according to charging documents.
"Upon making entry into the apartment, officers noticed the strong smell of decomposing flesh and found the body of Lester Janise slumped over on the couch. There were two belts around Mr. Janise's neck" the charges state.
Investigators believe Janise had been dead since about the end of December 2008.
Family members told police that Janise had traveled to South Dakota to attend his brother's funeral in December 2008 and returned to Utah with two women, as well as the women's children, according to the charges.
Clown and Santos-Ramirez are sisters, police said. Janise was a friend of their mother when he lived in South Dakota.
When they all got back to Janise's Midvale apartment, Santos-Ramirez disappeared for four days, leaving her four children in the care of Janise and Clown, charging documents state. The children ranged from a newboren to about 5 years old, police said.
When she returned, Santos-Ramirez and Janise got into an argument for over an hour regarding the abandonment of her children, according to court documents. Santos-Ramirez then told Clown that she "needed a ride out of there" and "had an idea to knock Mr. Janise out," but she was afraid he would call police after he woke up, the charges state.
Not long after that conversation, Clown said, she heard "scuffling and fighting noises coming from the living room," the charges state.
Santos-Ramirez then told Clown they needed to leave. As the women and their children were leaving, Clown saw Janise lying on his side on the couch, according to court documents.
Detectives with the former Midvale Police Department interviewed Clown and Santos-Ramirez in February 2009 in South Dakota. They told investigators that Janise had given them permission to take his van and drive it back to South Dakota, the charges state. Both women claimed Janise was alive when they left his apartment on Christmas Day.
No arrests were made at that time. But after Midvale police became part of the Unified Police Department, Pender started looking at the case again in 2014. He started collecting results from the State Crime Lab that weren't available in 2009 and interviewed new people. By the time he questioned Clown in October, Pender said he already had a good idea of what had happened.
When asked if he believed Clown's story that she was in another room when Santos-Ramirez managed to allegedly strangle Janise with two belts, Pender said most of her statements have been consistent, though she may have left out some information.
"I don't think she's being 100 percent honest, but I think she confirmed a lot of the things we already knew in the case," he said.Comment on this story
As for a motive in the case or why the women didn't just leave the apartment, police did not have an answer on Tuesday. Gill said additional evidence would be revealed at trial.
Gill praised the work of Pender and the cold case unit, saying fresh eyes and a fresh perspective helped break the investigation. And solving cold cases like this is important for the victims' families, because when they remain unresolved, "They leave an open wound for the victims' families, and they provide no opportunity for closure to our community when that violence occurs."