Discovery of a human skull in the juniper-covered foothills in Millard County apparently adds another footnote to the murder case Sheriff Ed Phillips can't stop thinking about.
The 1985 slaying of Sharon Sant has been solved and a killer, George Wesley Hamilton, is in prison. But Phillips knows Hamilton didn't act alone, and it bothers him no end that a man who admitted he helped chop up her body is walking free."It's the one that I always go back to," Phillips said Tuesday. "It's the one that, in my mind, remains unfinished."
Sant, a 19-year-old Southern Utah State College student, disappeared Aug. 1, 1985, while hitchhiking from Cedar City to Fillmore to attend a friend's funeral. Two weeks later, a Utah Department of Transportation worker discovered her mutilated torso - minus head, hands and feet - at the Cove Fort rest area.
Searchers spent weeks combing the area for the missing body parts, but none were found.
Last week, however, a deer hunter came across a sun-bleached skull Phillips is "all but 100 percent sure" belonged to the dead woman. The skull, minus the mandible and with a single tooth still in its socket, was found within a quarter-mile of the homicide scene.
The skull also shows evidence of the type of blunt trauma investigators know Sant suffered.
The skull was sent to the Utah medical examiner's office, where Phillips hoped a forensic odontologist could match Sant's dental records to the tooth, Phillips said.
However, medical examiner investigator Rudi Riet said Tuesday that no dental records exist. He hopes to have an expert match the skull to photographs of the woman.
"But otherwise, we're fairly convinced, considering it was found a stone's throw from where the torso was found," he said. The age and size of the skull is also consistent with Sant.
Also found in the area was a small piece of bone that might belong to a human hand or wrist. Phillips said searchers will return to the area to look for animal burrows.
"There's a lot of pack rats in that area and they may have carried a tooth or other bones down into their holes," he said. "We're going to dig them up and look."
If the skull is positively identified, it will be turned over to Sant's family.
For Phillips, the discovery revives his frustrations with the case. In some ways, justice was served by Hamilton's conviction - though not to the sheriff's liking. He believes the sheer brutality of the crime warranted the death penalty.
But that's not the worst of it.
In January 1986, two itinerant workers, Hamilton and Robert Bott, were arrested. Witnesses placed the woman in Hamilton's truck and the pair began to talk - blaming each other for the crime.
But prosecutors made a mistake, and Bott's admission that he molested the woman and helped dismember her body were ruled inadmissible. Bott later refused to testify against Hamilton, forcing the state to reduce those charges. Because they couldn't otherwise prove Sant had been raped, they could not seek a death penalty against Hamilton.
Later, Hamilton was granted a new trial because of a juror's error. He was retried and convicted in 1989. Bott, originally from Montana, disappeared.
Phillips wishes he could find new evidence against Bott.
And fingerprints on a beer can found at the murder scene implicated a third man, although he was never charged.
"There's a lot of unanswered questions," Phillips said. "I guess finding this skull answers one."