SALT LAKE CITY — When her son disappeared four years ago, Judi Collins says, "I knew in my heart that my baby was gone."
Three friends, Levi Collins, 34, Danny "Kiko" Gallegos, 35, and Braden Emerson, 23, all went missing on Nov. 1, 2014, after announcing they were going out for an afternoon of ATV riding. The bodies of the three men have never been found.
"Four years, two months, and 17 days we’ve been waiting for justice," Collins said.
Now, more than four years after the three Salt Lake men were presumably killed, the families came one step closer to finding answers when a longtime suspect was formally charged on Friday with murdering them.
Richard Christopher, 53, of Salt Lake City, was arrested Friday and charged with three counts of aggravated murder, a first-degree felony, among other charges in a complicated multimurder mystery.
"Even when this case faded from the media spotlight … I want you to know that we've continued to work this case. Hundreds of hours were poured into this case so that we could bring justice," Salt Lake Police Chief Mike Brown said.
"And hopefully we bring some closure to the families of Levi, Danny and Braden."
Judi Collins told reporters at an emotional news conference Friday that waiting has been difficult for all of the families. "Until you lose a child, you all don’t know what we’re going through."
She has spent the past four years missing her son, who she described as a "mama's boy" and a father of four young children.
"If you were to meet him, he had a big heart. Loved his family and he loved his friends, and he never, never left a room or a home without saying, ‘Love ya, I love you, I love you more,'" Collins recalled.
Two days after the men went missing, a business owner called Salt Lake Animal Control to report that a barking dog was inside an abandoned Chevy Tahoe near the Jordan River surplus canal at 1740 W. 1500 South. The dog belonged to Collins.
Inside the vehicle, detectives found a "large" amount of blood — so much that the person who suffered the injury likely would not have survived. DNA testing indicated the blood was from Collins and Emerson. Police believe both were murdered inside the Tahoe.
For years, rumors continued to focus on Christopher and his son, Justin Christopher.
The Christophers were the owners of JC Custom Jewelry, 230 W. 200 South. Justin Christopher also helped Gallegos — a drug trafficker and FBI informant — launder money, according to numerous search warrant affidavits.
Gallegos went to the Christophers' jewelry store on Nov. 1, 2014 — the day he and his two friends disappeared — with $200,000 cash for the purpose of buying a house, according to charging documents and warrants. Investigators believe the three men stopped by on their way to Bountiful where they had told family members they were going to ride ATVs that day.
The jewelry store closed its doors three days after the three men went missing.
According to charging documents filed Friday, a witness identified only as "J.C." told police that Richard Christopher shot Gallegos at the jewelry store and then went outside to the Tahoe, where Collins and Emerson were waiting for Gallegos.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill would not confirm Friday whether J.C. is Justin Christopher. But Justin Christopher's attorney relayed a similar story in federal court in 2017 and said his client helped dispose of the men's remains.
Richard Christopher asked Collins and Emerson for a ride to his RV, J.C. told police, and then shot them inside the vehicle when they got there, the charging documents state.
J.C. helped Richard Christopher dispose of the bodies, and the men broke into a large animal crematory in Utah County, the charges say.
Gill said J.C. used to work at the crematory and the men broke in after business hours.
Afterward, the men "drove to a campground in Davis County and burned the remaining evidence and items belonging to the victims," the charges state. Police later found those items, as well as "small human bones" in the campsite where the witness told police he and Richard Christopher went.
Gill confirmed that J.C. will not face criminal charges in connection with the deaths because of an immunity agreement he was given in exchange for his testimony at trial.
Investigators believe the motive for the killings was the large sum of money, as well as personal belongings, according to Gill.
The district attorney said the charges took so long to file partly because the men's bodies were never found. He became emotional as he thanked the family for their patience.
"I know how hard this has been for all of you," Gill said, his voice breaking. "And how much it’s been weighing on all of you. Thank you for your patience, thank you for your trust, thank you for your faith. And we’ll start on that first step of measure of some justice for you today."
Judi Collins said she appreciates investigators' work on the case.
"It's been a long four years, two months, and 17 days, but I want to give kudos to all these guys up here for doing everything possible that they could," she said.
Richard Christopher pleaded guilty in June of 2016 to being a restricted person in possession of a firearm and was sentenced to 44 months in federal prison.
During sentencing in 2017 for Justin Christopher in federal court for his part in the crimes, his attorney, Loni DeLand, made reference to that day, stating his client no longer wanted to help his father.
"My client had decided that he no longer wanted a part of that. He wanted to withdraw. He didn't want to do any more money laundering," Deland said, according to the transcript of the hearing.
"As the argument went on and Kiko began to insist and threaten that my client go through with this and purchase this house, my client's father walked up, with no foreknowledge by my client, and put a bullet in the top of this man's head. Then he went out and made arrangements to kill the other two people that were sitting out in the car."
He also told the court that Justin Christopher led Salt Lake police "to where the remains, the bones would be, but they were burnt to the extent that they couldn't determine from the DNA — they couldn't determine it was a human bone."2 comments on this story
Justin Christopher was indicted in federal court with conspiracy to launder money and a second count of money laundering. He was accused of using his jewelry business to launder money for Gallegos, including the cash purchase of a Lamborghini worth an estimated $145,000. He was sentenced to time served and was placed on 36 months of probation.
In addition to three counts of aggravated murder, Richard Christopher was also charged Friday with aggravated robbery, a first-degree felony; obstruction of justice and three counts of desecration of a dead body, second-degree felonies; and possession of a firearms by a restricted person, a third-degree felony.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly identified Justin Christopher as Justin Christensen.