It’s Sunday, June 28, 2015 in Salt Lake City, Utah, and it is unseasonably hot, over 100 degrees. I’m grumpy and a little bit mopey today, and the heat just makes me not want to be outside.
I turn on some music and find some projects to keep me busy around the house. Eventually I turn on a few old cold case files online, listening to solved missing persons and murder cases years after the fact due to dedicated detectives, new information, or DNA results. I’ve always been fascinated by these stories, and I love a good mystery, so long as it has a good resolution.
My mind wanders a bit. I’ve been in Utah for four years now, and I find myself fascinated by its rich and complex history, the clash of community with religious culture. I begin wondering about unsolved cases here, and what they might be. I’ve grown familiar with some of the terrible murders that have taken place here over the years. There are some truly horrific stories that come out of this place: Mark Hofmann, Frances Schreuder, Gary Gilmore, the execution of Joe Hill, and, worst of all, the horrific Hi-Fi Murders. Ted Bundy even made some stops here. But what about the unsolved?
I find an attachment to the Utah police department’s website, a section of ‘cold case’ files, unsolved murders and missing persons. Brief photos and paragraphs about unsolved crimes with a number to call with tips. I spend a few hours reading through these sad stories, feeling intrigued, sad, and maybe a little tired at these tragic endings to human lives. Fontella Galloway, age 63, found raped and murdered in her home in 1969. Jan Marie Stavros, age 43, who went missing from her home mysteriously in 2001. Marty James Shook, age 21, who was murdered while hitchhiking in 1982. Rachael Marie Runyon, age 3, who was kidnapped from a playground and murdered in 1982. Carla Maxwell, age 20, who was brutally murdered while working a shift at a 7-11 in 1986. Othea Duncan Wamsley, age 43, who was kidnapped from the grocery store where she worked, killed, and dumped near a canal in 1976.
As I scroll through these cases, I find myself pondering the human condition, how we hurt each other, how we lie and cover things up. How easily we forget those who are lost. How fascinated we are by the salacious and the cruel.
I close my computer and run some errands, but my mind keeps wandering back to one case among the dozens I read. Maybe it’s the wording that intrigues me. Wallace Thornton. Age 25 at the time of his murder from multiple gunshot wounds. Body discovered in a field, frozen. No mention of family or loved ones, but a line that states “was known to have been involved in a lifestyle that brought concerns to him for his safety.” What kind of lifestyle? That word haunts me a bit, and I’m not sure why.
There are three photos linked. One is a face shot of Wallace, looking pleasant, content, blonde hair parted, eyes wide, a small smile on his face. Then two shots of the field where he was found.
As I fall asleep, I find myself wanting to learn more about Mr. Thornton.
(The following from website: https://secure.utah.gov/coldcase/casedetail.html?id=63
MISSING SINCE: 27-01-1975
CASE #: 75-4826
AGE: 25 (DOB: )
HEIGHT: 6′ 0″
ABOUT THIS CASE
This is a Unified Police Department cold case homicide. If you have information regarding this case please contact the Unified Police Department, 801-743-5900 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Case Synopsis: Wallace, age 25, was last seen or heard from on or around January 23, 1975. Wallace was known to have been involved in a lifestyle that brought concerns to him for his safety. Wallace’s body was found on the afternoon of January 27th by county highway workers at approximately 7800 South and 5200 West next to the road in a dry-farm field. Wallace died as the result of multiple gunshot wounds. The specific time of death was indeterminable due to freezing conditions but it is estimated he died several days prior to the discovery of his body.
“Hi, ma’am. How are you today?”
I stand in a back corner of the Salt Lake City library that I’ve never been to before. It’s over 100 degrees outside and it feels great to be in an air-conditioned room. A man who looks like he hasn’t showered or washed his clothes in weeks sits at a computer behind me, singing the lyrics to a Tina Turner song out loud, ear phones in his ears.
The woman behind the records desk is five feet tall and likely in her mid-sixties. Her hair is disheveled and she looks tired and a little grumpy. “I’m just okay. How can I help you?”
“I’m looking for issues of the Salt Lake Tribune from the first two months of 1975.”
“Please fill out that form and I’ll get you the microfiche.”
As I fill out my name and request information, I make small talk. “It sure is hot outside.”
“I hate it!” Her response is sharp and startles me. “It’s June, for God’s sake. I can’t take heat like this all summer.”
I give her an appeasing glance as I hand over the paper. She brings back the microfiche for the two months requested and shows me how to load them into the viewing machine, how to print, and how to sharpen the image.
I think I’ve used microfiche before, back in high school perhaps, but now here I am scanning old newspapers for information on an unsolved murder. I feel like some kind of investigative reporter. Truly, I’m not sure what I’m looking for. I can be innately curious. I have a writer’s brain that won’t let go of ideas sometimes.
The information on Wallace Thornton’s murder in 1975 was scant and full of curious holes. It says he was last heard from on January 23, 1975, and that his body was found in a frozen field by county highway workers on January 27; he may have been dead, from multiple gun shot wounds, for several days, but it was cold so they weren’t sure how long at the time. It also mentioned him being involved in a potentially dangerous “lifestyle.”
I begin searching through the newspaper one page at a time, scanning headlines and articles. I begin on January 23 and go all the way through about February 5. There is no mention of Thornton as a missing person the first several days, and no mention of his body being found on the 27th, which seems strange, as it seems a noteworthy discovery, a 25 year old male dead in a field, murdered.
The paper is comprehensive. Sports, lots of ads, reports on stocks and weather and politics. Fashion tips (“Springy curls, big look in hairstyles”), recipes, reports about the Relief Society being concerned about the pending Equal Rights Amendment.
And the paper isn’t afraid of salacious or violent stories. I read about 18 year old Mark Chandler Austin in Provo who killed his 16 year old wife, Catherine Lorraine Duke, her 7 month old “fetus” in her arms, both stabbed. I read about the brutal killing of 2 Mormon missionaries, Gary Darley and Mark Fischer, killed in Austin, TX by taxidermest Robert Kleasen, age 42, who cut up the bodies with a band saw. I read about the Los Angeles Slasher’s ninth victim, a man with his throat cut, and how they had no suspects.
But no mention of Thornton, not until the 29th, where his name flashes in the funeral announcements.
“Sandy. Funeral services for Wallace Mayo Thornton, 25… who was found dead in West Jordan Jan 27, 1975 of causes pending medical examination… Born April 4, 1949 Salt Lake City to Mayo and Florence Nielson Thornton.” It goes on to mention that he had been married and divorced twice. That he was a truck driver. That he was LDS. It mentions two daughters as well as his brothers, sisters and grandparents.
Dead of causes pending medical examination? Multiple gunshot wounds seems somehow mentionable. I’m baffled by this omission.
I keep searching the paper. Only one more mention, on the day of the actual funeral, simply stating where the funeral and burial were to take place. No more mentions of this in the two weeks after his death.
As I wind the microfiche back up, I feel more curious than ever. What happened to Thornton? Why wasn’t it reported on?
I decide maybe my next stop will be the police station.
I feel funny pulling up to the police building in western Salt Lake City. I run it through in my mind: I’m sure I have been to police stations in the past, yet I can’t recall when. With my work as a social worker, surely, to request a record of an arrest on a foster parent or biological parent. But this is definitely among my first times in one of the buildings.
This is a big one, it feels a bit like a distribution center. It’s enormous and full of rooms. I walk in the main door, and thank goodness for air-conditioning because this week in Utah continues to be unbearably hot.
A good-looking cop in his forties greets me, in uniform, his sleeves rolled up to show tattoos of Chinese characters on both his forearms. He instructs me to set my things down on a belt, empty my pockets, and walk through the metal detector. I ask him about his day and he mumbles something back, hands me my things, and sends me down the hall.
I pass a wall of pictures of fallen officers, men killed in the line of duty over the past 100 years. I see plaques for men who have won awards, photos of community leaders. There are a few officers in the hallways having quiet conversations. I have always had a lot of respect for the police. I know a few personally, both in my family and friend circles, and know how hard they have to work, even in the smallest of towns. Few people are happy to see a policeman–they are either interfering with a crime or arriving after something terrible has happened, and they are rarely thanked for their hard work.
I make my way down to the records room, where a man with a red-headed girl stand in line in front of me, waiting for a file they have requested. The girl looks back at me, then away quickly, then back again. I finally wave and she ducks her head, shy, her face turning bright red. She’s unkempt in a dress she has probably worn for several days in a row. The man she is with, presumably her father, has grease-stained arms and clothing, likely working as a mechanic by day, I think.
After a few minutes, I step up to the window. A beautiful brunette woman asks how she can help me. I explain that I’m seeking information, if it is available to the public, on a 40 year old unsolved murder. She looks baffled. I’m guessing she gets a lot of strange requests for various records, but not many like this. She instructs me to fill out a request form, that requires my name and address, the case, and a few other basics.
The woman then takes the form and asks me to wait for a moment. She gets on the phone behind her desk and stays there for several minutes in an animated conversation. I can’t hear her, but suddenly I wonder what I’m doing here, getting involved in something that has nothing to do with me. Is she calling the homicide detective about me? The case is forty years old, but surely there is a homicide detective still assigned, with a room full of cases in cardboard boxes.
The woman finally returns to the window. “Thank you for waiting. This was an unusual request, so I had to call the assigned homicide detective.”
Oh, crap, I think.
“Even though this case is decades old, there is no statute of limitations on homicides, so it remains an unsolved murder. Records requests are usually for basic police reports or minor crimes. We don’t allow copies of higher status cases out there for several reasons. If you were a family member, you might be entitled to some basic information. As it is, we wouldn’t want to put you in any danger or get you involved.”
I think through everything she has said and it all makes sense. She asks if I want to pay ten dollars to get an official statement from the detective basically saying he can’t give me anything, and I decline. She tells me to have a nice day, and as I walk to my car, I realize my name and request will now be filed in Wallace Thornton’s unsolved homicide file.
A few days later, I realize I’m not done yet. I don’t know why my thoughts are on this case, but I feel drawn to it, like I’m supposed to help somehow. Or maybe I just can’t let go of an idea once I’ve latched on.
I call the local newspaper, the Salt Lake Tribune, and ask if there is a way to do an online database search for Thornton in the past four decades. They give me access to an online search database, and I punch in his name. I see, again, the death announcement and the funeral announcement that I had seen a few days ago when I did my microfiche search in the library. Then I come across one additional article, on the same day as his death announcement, that actually mentions his murder. How had I missed this my first time through?
The very short article showed up on January 30, 1975, next to a one panel cartoon with a father and son driving, and seeing a billboard that reads “Double up, America!” In the cartoon, the father explains, “That refers to carpooling! It’s got nothing to do with co-ed dormitories at school!”
The article reads, spelling mistakes included: “Death Study Continues. Sheriff’s detectives in Salt Lake County continued their investigation Wednesday, following up numerous leads in the death of a man, whose frozen body was found Monday. Wallace Maya Thornton, 25, 5400 S. 3rd West, had been dead about two weeks when Salt Lake County Highway Department employes spotted his body near 7800 South at 6000 West. The victim had been shot three times and lawmen said several suspects are due to be questioned.”
The search of decades worth of newspaper never mentions Thornton again. He’s forgotten, and it makes me sad.
As I go to bed, I turn on Solved, a television show that discusses the closing of cases and details the detective work involved. It randomly shows a story based in Wood’s Cross, Utah, and tells how Lt. Brad Benson opened a 25 year old case that had laid dormant for decades. Karin Strom had been violently murdered, and decades later Brad used DNA from under the fingernails to tie the crime to Edward Owens, who was arrested and convicted. It is possible, it does happen.
Where is justice for Wallace Thornton?
I’m not done yet.