Still missing: Utah County's unsolved cases

2004-11-14T00:00:00Z Still missing: Utah County's unsolved casesDaily Herald Daily Herald
November 14, 2004 12:00 am  • 

N.S. Nokkentved

A Provo woman disappeared without a trace 25 years ago, after driving her brown Honda sedan up on Mount Timpanogos and getting it stuck in a ravine.

For years the unsolved, suspected homicide case lay dormant, but now law enforcement officials are again looking for answers.

Utah County Sheriff Jim Tracy has reopened the case of Mary Katherine Miller of Provo, who vanished in June 1979. Her car was recovered from Mount Timpanogos, but Miller has never been found.

Her daughter said she still longs to know what happened.

"It's as important to me today to know what happened to her as it was back then in 1979," said Miller's daughter, Kelly, who was 19 at the time of her mother's disappearance.

The original investigation into Miller's disappearance was incomplete and left questions Tracy would like answered.

"In my opinion, it was not handled well," he said.

The sheriff's office will review reports, evidence and witness statements. Officers will interview two people involved in the case -- one in Arizona, the other in Salt Lake City. And they hope to search the area where the car was found: for clues, for a body, for a resolution.

Miller is one of four women who have been reported missing from Utah County communities since 1979, and whose disappearances remain unexplained. They are the kinds of cases that keep detectives awake at night.

Pamela Page of Springville vanished while jogging in April 1984; Peggy Sue Case of Spanish Fork disappeared in July 1988; and Kiplyn Davis of Spanish Fork never came home from school on May 2, 1995.

Of the three cases, only Page's body has been found.

The cases, known in law enforcement circles as "cold cases," have left family members grieving and wondering, searching for answers and hoping for peace and closure.

"Cold cases are not at the top of the list," Tracy said. But periodically reviewing cold cases is something Tracy wants to do as sheriff.

Though the hip, primetime CBS crime drama "Cold Case" neatly resolves decades-old murders in an hour, the chances of solving actual cold cases are slim. But recent developments in technology have improved investigators' abilities to recover DNA and fingerprints and other evidence from crime scenes. And in some cases, as time goes by, people who know something may be more willing to talk, Tracy said.

That all makes the cases worth revisiting, he said.

This summer, folks in Utah and across the country watched with morbid fascination and horror as Salt Lake police and volunteers raked through 3,000 tons of fetid garbage, aided at times by dogs trained to find cadavers, looking for the remains of Lori Hacking, a suspected murder victim missing nearly 2 1/2 months.

Salt Lake police had been tipped off about where to look for the body by her husband, Mark Hacking, who is charged with her murder.

"Had he not said anything to his brother, would we have found the Hacking girlfi" asked Lt. Carl Johnston of the Spanish Fork police. Hacking confessed to his brother that he had killed her and dumped her body in a dumpster, police say.

Hacking reported his wife missing on July 19. Her remains were found buried in a mound of rotting garbage in the Salt Lake County landfill on Oct. 1.

A sense of relief washed over area residents when her remains eventually were uncovered.

"I knew what a sick feeling that is to not know where your daughter is," said Tamara Davis, mother of 15-year-old Kiplyn, who disappeared in 1995.

"One of the hardest things is not having a body to bury," Davis said.

The Hacking case renewed focus and raised hopes for the families in the four unresolved cases in Utah County.

But the case also brought out a sense of frustration, as did the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping. Smart was abducted at knifepoint from her bedroom in June 2002 and found alive the following March.

"I'm glad they found her," Richard Davis said. But he confessed he felt a little jealous. The Hackings and Smarts are well-to-do, influential families, and both cases received a lot of local and national media attention. Kiplyn's case and other Utah County cases raised little interest.

"Why is one life presumed to be worth more than anotherfi" asked Kelly Miller. She is angry, not at the attention their cases got -- they deserved it, she said -- but at the lack of attention her mother's case received.

But in the Hacking and Smart cases, the Salt Lake police had crime scenes to investigate, Johnston noted. In the four Utah County cases, police had little to go on. In three cases, they had no body. In the fourth case, police found enough remains to identify a missing woman, but not enough to determine a cause of death.

All four remain unresolved.

Across the country, the FBI lists about 800,000 people missing. Most of them are children, and many return within a few hours. But the FBI's National Crime Information Center lists 47,842 active missing adult cases, as of July 30, with 30,622 of them missing one year or more.

Miller now is grateful Sheriff Tracy thinks her mother's 25-year disappearance is important enough to give it resources and attention, she said.

N.S. Nokkentved can be reached at 344-2930 or at nnokkentved@heraldextra.com.

Mary Katherine Miller

The evening of June 19, 1979, Mary Katherine Miller and her daughter, Kelly, had dinner together at the former Price's Ice Cream in the Riverside Plaza on State Street in Provo.

Kelly, who was 19 at the time, never saw her mother again. When she didn't come home the next evening, Kelly Miller became concerned.

"Her not coming home was very uncharacteristic," Miller said.

She reported her missing to Provo police on June 20, but police would not consider a missing person report on an adult so soon, Miller said. Thinking her mother would turn up, Miller left town on a planned trip to Idaho.

Katherine Miller, 46 at the time, had been a registered nurse for 20 years. She was among the first graduates from a new bachelor's degree program in nursing at Brigham Young University in 1950.

She and Kelly's father had divorced when Kelly was 2.

Kelly Miller, now 44, works as a financial adviser and has a marketing job on the side. She has a 12-year-old daughter of her own. She still aches to know what happened to her mother.

She won't give up looking for an answer. She doesn't want to die and meet her mother on the other side and have to admit that she didn't make an effort. But the toll of that effort is written in her eyes -- eyes that show a depth of emotion, haunted by a longing to know, by a life interrupted and consumed by unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, questions.

When Miller got back from Idaho, her mother still had not turned up. She filed a missing person report with Provo police on July 5, and police put out an "all points bulletin" that same day.

Then, on July 16, a man and his wife riding a motorcycle came across her mother's late-model Honda Civic on a remote dirt road leading from the Timpooneke Trail Head on Mount Timpanogos. They found her purse, keys and identification in the car.

They reported it to the Utah County Sheriff's office on July 16. Law enforcement officials launched a search for Miller the next day.

Earlier, on June 27, the car had been reported abandoned in a ravine on the east face of Mount Timpanogos. But county officials didn't know it belonged to Miller, who had not been officially listed as missing at the time.

The next day, July 17, the two motorcyclists reported the abandoned car to Provo city, where it turned out a childhood friend of Katherine Miller worked. When she heard about her missing friend's car, the woman convinced the police department to look into the case. Police joined the sheriff's office in a search for Miller that eventually covered 600 square miles of rugged backcountry.

Officers interviewed two sheepherders in the area where the car was found. The herders told police that the woman apparently had gotten the car stuck and had asked them for help.

They reported seeing her June 23, walking away from the area where her car was stuck. But the car was in a different location when the couple on the motorcycle found it.

One of the herders told police the other man had intended to steal the car and take it to Arizona, where he lived on an Indian Reservation.

Police suspected the two of having something to do with the woman's disappearance, but without a body, officers had no evidence of a crime. No charges were filed.

Kelly Miller has ruled out suicide, although she knew her mother was upset at the time of her disappearance. The car's glove box was full of used tissues when it was found. Her mother suffered occasional bouts of melancholy, but she was not suicidal, Miller said.

She might have gotten herself into a risky situation, but she would not have killed herself.

Besides, if Katherine Miller had killed herself, her body would have been found. The area was widely used for sheep grazing, and today is regularly combed by hunters, hikers and campers.

Somebody would have found something.

At first, Kelly Miller expected someone would find her mom. She simply couldn't believe they wouldn't, she said. Slowly, the realization grew that this was a case that might never be solved, that her mother might never be found. But it was hard to believe.

"How does this stuff happenfi How can someone disappear off the face of the planetfi" Miller asked. Those questions still gnaw at her.

The FBI got involved for a short time. She hired a private investigator.

Nothing.

A couple of years went by before she could accept that her mother was dead. She sold the car years ago. Her mother's house was sold, demolished and since replaced by a row of tan stucco condos across the street from a park.

Four or five times, she's received phone calls from police officials that a body had been found, but the descriptions and her mother's distinctive dental work never matched. Finding a body -- even knowing she was killed -- would bring peace and closure, she said.

After Katherine Miller had been missing seven years, Kelly had her mother declared legally dead.

"It doesn't lessen the need to find out what happened," Miller said.

Today, she remains unsettled. Sometimes it still seems there is a slim, very remote chance that one day her mother will come back, will walk back into her life and pick up where she left off.

"People don't just disappear, not without a trace," Miller said. "Not a hair of her head has been found anywhere."

Pamela Page

About 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 21, 1984, Pamela Ellen Page went running on the streets of Springville with her brown-and-white basset hound, as she often did.

Her husband, Rick Page, normally rode his bicycle along with her. This day he was delayed and Pamela started without him. He would catch up on his bike. When he noticed his bike had a flat tire, however, he decided to follow in the car.

He followed her usual route along 400 South to 1300 East and then back on Center Street. He found the dog waiting on Center Street near 1000 East. But he couldn't find her. He said at the time that if Pamela got into a car, the dog would follow for about a block and then sit down and wait.

He got worried and called police.

Page's call launched a search, said Lt. Dave Caron of the Springville police, who was a patrolman at the time.

The search eventually would involve 80 friends and family, local and county law enforcement officers, and a helicopter from Hill Air Force Base that scanned Utah Lake and the foothills to the east.

Police interviewed people who thought they'd seen her, Caron said. But nobody had seen her struggling with anyone.

She just vanished.

"We can trace her steps to a certain point and then -- that's it," Caron said at the time.

Pamela Page was 26. Her son, Adam, was 3.

When people disappear, it's often teens who have run away or they are taken by a parent in a custodial dispute. Rarely do they just disappear, Caron said.

Then, about a year later, someone called police to report finding some bones in Hobble Creek just outside the city. Page was the only missing person at the time, so officials were pretty sure whose bones they were.

Looking for more remains, county sheriff's deputies searched upstream of the city limits; city police searched downstream, Caron said. They found the bulk of her remains snagged in brush near the high school, he said.

"I remember standing in the creek, trying to make sure nothing got away," Caron said. "That was a long, miserable time."

The search for Page was over. Police identified the remains through dental records. But they didn't find enough of her to determine a cause of death, he said.

"We can't even establish for sure that she was murdered," Caron said.

She apparently died in Hobble Creek Canyon. She may have gone with friends willingly. It may have been accidental. It may have been homicide, he said.

"We don't know," he said.

Police have a list of three or four suspects. But they have no reliable witnesses, he said.

"It's one of the great frustrations of police work," he said.

Everyone wants closure.

For Page's family, the Lori Hacking case brought back memories of the day the family got the phone call that Pam's remains had been found.

"We just breathed a sigh of relief," sister-in-law Darrellyn Bates said. "We were able to put at least that part behind us."

But her death remains a mystery.

Peggy Sue Case

On July 9, 1988, Peggy Sue Case went to a party in Spanish Fork with her boyfriend. She never came home. Case, also known as Peggy Sue Ellsworth, was 28 at the time.

Her parents, Richard and JoAnn Ellsworth of Payson, and a fellow employee at the Ensign-Bickford Co.'s Trojan explosives plant in Mapleton, reported her missing on Wednesday, July 13.

Case had left a company party on July 9 with her boyfriend, Michael Kufrin, said Spanish Fork Police Lt. Johnston. They went to a private party where witnesses reported some hostilities between the two, and they left that party together.

"That was the last time she was seen," Johnston said. Police have been working on the case ever since, he said.

Police suspect Kufrin was involved in her disappearance. He now lives in Illinois. But police have no evidence of a crime, Johnston said.

"We can't say a murder has been committed without a body," he said.

Case's family is reluctant to talk about the case, reluctant to dredge up painful memories.

"Every time a woman's body is found, it brings the pain back," JoAnn Ellsworth said.

In the 16 years since Peggy Sue disappeared, the family hasn't heard anything, Ellsworth said. She fears the family will never know what happened to her.

She steels herself against false hopes, in order to avoid the pain when they are dashed. But, like other family members, she seeks closure.

"Where do you go for her birthdayfi Where do you go for Christmasfi" said Pam Wilson, Peggy Sue's older sister.

She expressed sympathy for the families of other missing women and wished them peace. Without closure, "that's all they have," Wilson said.

DNA tests on family members were done earlier this year to help with identification of a body. The Spanish Fork police still get calls from other police agencies when unidentified bodies are found. None have been Case. She may not be in Utah.

Usually bodies rise to the surface if they are not buried deeply. A hand or a foot will be found, leading to the body, Johnston said. Every year, police get calls from hunters who find human remains in the backcountry.

Still, finding a body is largely a matter of luck if officials don't know where to look, he said.

Johnston cites a case from a few years ago, when a young boy had disappeared. He was found after three or four years, inside a sleeping bag about 75 feet from a paved road.

"I can't say anyone's dead without a body," Johnston said.

He hasn't given up hope of finding Case, and it wouldn't be too late to file charges -- homicide has no statute of limitations, he said.

"If we were able to come up with a body, we'd be able to make an arrest immediately," Johnston said. "It's very frustrating."

Kiplyn Davis

On the morning of May 2, 1995, Kiplyn Davis walked to school. It was a cool, rainy spring day. She attended her morning classes and went to lunch with her classmates. But she didn't show up for any afternoon classes. And she never came home.

She was 15 at the time.

Karissa Davis was 9 when her sister Kiplyn disappeared. She recalls getting worried when Kiplyn was not home when came home from school.

"I started getting scared," she said. Her sister was always home when she came home from school. Kiplyn still hadn't come home when her father got home. The two went to the high school to ask whether anyone had seen Kiplyn.

No one had seen her sister, said Karissa, now 19.

"We knew by 5 p.m. when she wasn't home something was wrong," Richard Davis said.

Her parents reported her missing to local police, who treated the case at first as a runaway, Davis said. But he knew right away something was wrong.

"It wasn't like Kiplyn to run away," he said. She was happy. She loved life. She was getting her driver's license, and her older sister was getting married. She had a lot to live for, he said.

"I knew she was somewhere," Davis said.

But something ugly happened, he said. She left personal items in her locker at school, things she would have taken if she knew she was leaving.

A photograph on a shelf in the front room of the Davis home shows Kiplyn's blue eyes and freckles set off by long, curly red hair. It is the same young face that appeared on posters seeking information about her disappearance.

To this day, no one knows what happened to her.

For Kiplyn's mother, a sick feeling grew as she began to realize that something bad had happened.

Within a few days, Tamara Davis knew something had gone terribly wrong, she said. But as much as six months after the disappearance she still held onto a hope that Kiplyn was alive and would come home.

"We still don't know what happened," she said.

The family got little help from local officials, Richard Davis said. And there wasn't the widespread Internet access there is today, which has made it possible to publicize disappearances and missing children.

Karissa suggested they make posters to put up around the local communities.

Tamara Davis learned about the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and contacted the organization for help. They helped get Kiplyn Davis on national missing children lists, including the Utah Department of Public Safety's Bureau of Criminal Identification Web site, which lists 24 missing persons.

Some are runaways. Some just never showed up for work. Some are feared abducted by non-custodial parents. And some, like Kiplyn, simply vanished without a trace. Most of them are females or children. Ages range from children less than 2 years old to a 64-year-old, one of only two adult males.

The FBI also got involved for a couple of months, Davis said. And Kiplyn is listed among the FBI's Kidnappings and Missing Persons Investigations.

"We have an idea what happened," Richard Davis said. But he can't divulge any details.

Four years after she disappeared, the family held a memorial service and put up a marker at an empty grave in the Spanish Fork City Cemetery.

"It's a place where you can go to be close to them, a place to put flowers," Tamara Davis said, an undercurrent of emotion in her voice.

The marker carries Kiplyn's picture, and lists only her July 1, 1979, birthdate. She would be 25 now.

Each day, the family prays this will be the day they find her. Every new lead gives them hope, and they chase it down. But, so far, they have all been dead ends.

"Every new lead that comes in, we're always hoping that will be the lead that breaks the case," said Lt. Steven Adams of the Spanish Fork Police.

Those leads include rumors, calls from people who have seen someone who looks like Kiplyn, or someone who remembers something they haven't reported, he said.

Recently, for example, he got a call from a woman in Wyoming who recognized a young woman who came into her shop as someone she had seen on an Internet site for missing children.

It turned out to be a look-alike, Adams said.

"We can't give up," Richard Davis said.

"She's on our minds every day," his wife said.

Now with winter approaching, it may be several months before any new leads appear. With frozen ground and snow cover, it's hard to find a body.

But, then again, hunters in the field might come across her bones.

The Davises haven't given up.

"We keep a light on on the porch for her," Richard Davis said. "It's been on for nine years."

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A1.

Copyright 2015 Daily Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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