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Rural Utahns shaken by ’01 homicides

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Living in small-town Utah typically means a slower-paced lifestyle. No I-15 congestion. No light rail. And traditionally it has meant no big-city crimes.

But that changed for several small Utah towns in 2001. It was a year in which some rural residents found that no matter how small or how remote their town, it's sometimes not enough to shelter them from big-city problems.

In 2001, law enforcement officers in Richfield, Roosevelt, Fairview and Grantsville found themselves investigating homicides for the first time in years:

Amy Mariam Davis, 78, was murdered in her house in Richfield May 2, marking the first homicide there in more than 40 years.

Mina Pajela, 54, was found dead in a car in a parking lot in Pleasant Grove April 25. It was the first murder in that city since 1988.

Virgil Barney, 67, picked up a hitchhiker in Nevada and was later found murdered in Millard County Feb. 22 near the I-15/ I-70 interchange, marking the first homicide in that county since 1996.

One of the highest-profile murders of the year came from one of Utah's smallest towns. Two hunters, Brad Gross and Kelly Carter, were shot and killed outside Dutch John near Flaming Gorge Dam Oct. 21.

Lehi lost one of its police officers in 2001. Officer Joe Adams, 26, was shot and killed while making a routine traffic stop Aug. 3.

And in Roosevelt, the town had its first homicide in years — and the victim was Police Chief Cecil Gurr.

Maybe nowhere was a homicide, let alone a double homicide, more unexpected than in Dutch John where the population hovers around 200 in the summer and drops to just 50 or 60 in the winter. The deaths of the two hunters were the town's first recorded homicides.

"A lot of people say that's the first time ever they locked their doors that night (Gross and Carter were killed)," said Emmett Heath, Dutch John resident and manager of Green River Outfitters.

"It was such a blow to our ego to live in a town where we had to lock everything up," Dutch John resident Bill Rogers agreed.

Many Dutch John residents said they saw Lewis and Michael Heffelfinger, the men charged with shooting hunters Gross and Carter, walking around town, looking for a ride, all day prior to the murders.

While Heath and other residents said they don't believe it's a sign that big-city crime has moved in permanently, they say they'll probably give hitchhikers a suspicious second look.

About an hour down the road from Dutch John, the town of Roosevelt suffered its own tragedy with the shooting death of Gurr.

Gurr, who was off-duty when he responded to a report of a domestic dispute, was killed July 6. The homicide shook the entire town.

"I don't think a town is ever the same after something like that," said Irene Hansen of the Duchesne County Chamber of Commerce. "It doesn't matter how many good people come after; it's never the same." At the front desk of the Roosevelt Police Station is a framed letter written by a young child the day after Gurr was killed. "He risked his life for our town," the letter states. "I don't know how our town can survive without him.

"Now that he is gone, the streets don't feel safe anymore. Our town will never forget last night."

To remember all of the officers who died in 2001, many Roosevelt residents burned blue lights in their windows during December. A Christmas tree in the senior citizens home included a tribute to Gurr.

And during a recent blood drive, the turnout was 50 percent greater than any previous drive. Residents had Gurr and the Sept. 11 tragedy on their minds, Hansen said.

Hansen said while tributes to the former police chief are nice, in the end it's still hard to comprehend what happened. "We didn't think things like that could happen here. It takes away your innocence."

Such events like the homicides are a test of a community's ability to rebound, he said. "Our community has overcome and will overcome things yet to come."

In Lehi, Adams was shot and killed while making a routine traffic stop. It was the first homicide in Lehi in four years, Sgt. Jeff Swenson said.

"Our caseloads went up dramatically just from (2000) to (2001). It just goes to show it ain't the small town anymore," Swenson said.

The death of Adams left Lehi residents with the realization that their city is growing rapidly, Swenson said. And with the increase in population comes an increase in crime.

In Pleasant Grove, where officers investigated the Pajela homicide, police officer Cody Cullimore said he believes all of Utah's small towns are losing a little bit of their innocence.

"We've had a lot of comments from people that this is supposed to be a smaller town," Cullimore said. "It's just part of growing up, I think."

Some Richfield residents also began locking their doors for the first time in 2001 because Davis' murder was the first homicide in Richfield in decades.

"We're losing our small-town atmosphere," Police Chief John Evans said. "I hope it's a long time before we have another one."

Homicides not only drain a small town emotionally but they typically tax the resources of the local police department.

In Daggett County, where Gross and Carter were killed, the sheriff's office has just one full-time investigator. For two consecutive months that investigator worked on nothing but the double homicide, Sheriff Gaylen Jarvie said.

In Roosevelt, the police department does not have a designated homicide unit as is typical of most police departments in Salt Lake County. "Everybody does a little of everything," Roosevelt Police Chief Steve Hooley said.

Police departments and sheriff's offices in rural areas typically use other agencies to help them in big cases such as homicides. In Roosevelt, agencies such as the Uintah County Sheriff's Office and the West Valley Police Department helped with the Gurr murder investigation.

In Daggett County, the sheriff's office received assistance from the Utah Department of Public Safety, the Utah Attorney General's Office and the Sweetwater County, Wyo., Sheriff's Office.

Jarvie downplayed the extra workload of the double-homicide investigation, noting that his office works closely with the Sweetwater County Sheriff's Office, an agency that handles an average of five to six homicides a year. He recalled one homicide that occurred 300 feet outside Manila on the Wyoming side of the border. Though it was recorded as a Wyoming homicide, the 400 to 500 residents of his town were also affected.

The murder of Gurr has not deterred the officers of the Roosevelt department from doing their jobs or made them reconsider their career choice. If anything, the officers walk a little taller and stand a little prouder now, Hooley said.

The officers of the Roosevelt Police Department and those from other rural towns in Utah have all known in the past that their towns were just as capable of tragic homicides as any big city. But for many small towns in Utah in 2001, "that's now reality," Hooley said. "We're all forever changed."

E-mail: preavy@desnews.com