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Dogged pursuit of story paid off

Deseret News reporter won the Pulitzer 44 years ago

Pulitzer Prize winner Robert D. Mullins of the Deseret News scans nomination presentation and reminisces over coverage of murder-kidnap story which won him journalism’s highest honor.
Pulitzer Prize winner Robert D. Mullins of the Deseret News scans nomination presentation and reminisces over coverage of murder-kidnap story which won him journalism’s highest honor.
Deseret Morning News Archives

Forty-five years ago, Bob Mullins, the Price Bureau chief for what was then known as the Deseret News and Salt Lake Telegram, was in his front yard celebrating the Fourth of July with his daughter, 4-year-old Gina Maria.

Mullins, a 36-year-old World War II veteran who had been with the paper for 10 years, was lighting sparklers when the telephone rang. Inside the house, his wife, Donna, answered a call from her husband's editors in Salt Lake City.

"Donna gave me the phone and they told me there was a murder, so I jumped in my car," recalled Mullins, who retired from the News in 1987 and now lives with Donna in Las Vegas. "That was kind of the end of the July Fourth celebration in the Mullins family."

And the beginning of a weeklong adventure of risk taking, fierce determination, indefatigable reporting, creative resourcefulness — and a little luck — that led to Mullins winning journalism's highest honor, the Pulitzer Prize.

Two hours after leaving Price, Mullins was in the Grand County sheriff's office and suddenly was an unwitting suspect in a murder, a dangerous wounding and a kidnapping near Dead Horse Point.

The suspect was known to be a stocky, dark-haired man driving a light-colored car with a license plate beginning with "CJ."

"Bob Mullins is short, built like a fullback and has black hair. He had a light-colored car," the paper noted in 1962. Then-columnist Steve Hale wrote that Mullins' license plate "bears a CJ prefix."

A Moab police officer watched Mullins carefully for two days. He invited Mullins to have a cup of coffee in a local cafe. "He was hesitant to talk too much," Mullins recalled.

Eventually, Grand County Sheriff John Stocks arrived. "I knew him and he knew me," Mullins said. That cleared up the suspicion.

'Stay down there'

"The sheriff told me about this truck driver who came upon the scene and reported (the crime) soon after it happened," he added. The driver, an oil-rig worker, was headed toward Dead Horse Point, and the suspect's car was going the other way, swerving a bit.

National media converged on southeastern Utah. As the FBI and other law enforcement agencies scoured the region, Mullins took photos and filed reports with the newspaper's Salt Lake office.

"I heard from him a lot when he was out chasing around, trying to find out what was going on," said Maxine Martz, a veteran reporter who retired in 1986. She was a skilled rewrite person who could piece together a vibrant story from notes dictated on the run.

During a lull in the story Mullins wanted to go home to Price, but managing editor Theron Liddle told him, "Stay down there."

A large team of reporters and editors worked the story, but the man on the scene was Mullins. He not only followed every step in person, but once even drove his photos to Salt Lake City and then drove back to the desert manhunt.

After driving all night, he was heading to the newspaper when he fell asleep at the wheel north of Orem. His car crossed two lanes before hitting the gravel of the roadside, which jolted him awake.

"It was all right," Mullins said. "I didn't have a wreck."

Reaching Salt Lake City, "man, I was tired," he recalled. "I tried to do a story and I think I fell asleep on the desk."

Liddle told him to go to the Hotel Utah, get a room and take a rest. After a nap there, Mullins was on his way back to Moab.

Reporter instincts

Police determined a man had flagged down visitors from Connecticut near Dead Horse Point.

The man pretended to need help with car trouble. But after they stopped, he pulled out a .22-caliber rifle and demanded money. Jeannette Sullivan, a divorced mother from Rockville, Conn., threw $250 on the road, made some comment about the man and turned to get into her car. She was fatally shot in the back of the head.

The man shot her companion, Charles Boothroyd, in the face twice. The Rockville resident was left for dead, but he survived to tell officers about the crime.

Sullivan's 15-year-old daughter, Denise, had stayed in the car. The terrified girl started the vehicle and tried to drive away, although she had never driven.

The gunman chased her down in his car, forced the car off the road and kidnapped her. Her body was never recovered.

"They had posses all over Grand County looking for him," Mullins said.

The suspect was Able B. Aragon, 35, an unemployed WWII Marine Corps veteran from Price who had earned the Navy Cross. He was known as a nice guy, a family man. He was missing, and his license plate matched the partial number that was reported.

About 10:30 p.m. on July 7, 1961, lawmen stopped the suspect's car at a roadblock at Crescent Junction.

When an FBI agent tried to question him, the suspect shot himself in the head with a pistol. Denise Sullivan and the .22-caliber rifle were not in the car.

Authorities transported him to the Moab hospital but told news media "it was just somebody (who) had an accident," Mullins said. His reporter's instincts, however, had him wondering why this accident victim was the center of so much attention.

"I thought I better go over," he said. "You can't have too many coincidences in a little area like that."

Mullins photographed the suspect as he was lifted out of the ambulance on a stretcher, a cloth over his face. The suspect died two hours after he shot himself, and the story broke that he had taken his own life. The picture of the ambulance scene ran on the front page.

Soon after the suspect's death, attention shifted to a remote area called Polar Mesa, a uranium mining camp near the Colorado border. A cook at Polar Mesa told officers she had talked to the suspect, who had been camping there.

Mullins drove the dirt roads to Polar Mesa, southeast of Moab. "Somehow I found the right turnoff," he said.

At the camp, officers found clothes belonging to the suspect hidden under a bush. They also found the .22 rifle and a short-handled shovel, but no sign of the missing teenager.

There were "a lot of ore mines down there," Mullins said. "They searched some of them, but they couldn't find her."

The operator

A radio-telephone setup connected Polar Mesa with the outside world, but it usually only functioned at night and in the early morning, when sunlight didn't interfere with the transmissions.

Mullins needed to contact the paper immediately, during the day, with an update on the discovery of the murder weapon. "They said nobody gets through in the daytime," he remembered. But having experience working radios, Mullins managed to reach an operator in Grand Junction, Colo.

"I was screaming my head off" trying to get her attention, he recalled. "I could barely hear her."

But she could hear Mullins, and he dictated information to her as fast as he could. "I told her to call the Deseret News" and relay the story, which she did.

"I never did get her name. . . . She was a great help to the Deseret News in getting the story out."

The rifle's discovery was reported in a bulletin inserted in a story by Mullins about searching Polar Mesa. It began, "A .22-caliber bolt action rifle, similar to one believed used in the kidnap-murder near Dead Horse Point, was found Monday at 10 a.m. on Polar Mesa."

The bulletin was in that evening's paper, Monday, July 10, 1961.

Columnist Steve Hale wrote later, "Because of Bob, that story got back to Salt Lake City before the local FBI office heard about the find."

For his work, the Pulitzer Prize for "local reporting against deadline pressure" was awarded to Mullins in May 1962.

Mullins remains grateful to those who helped with the story, including editors and writers who pieced together his dictations and others who worked with the photos. But he especially mentions the kindness of the unknown phone operator who relayed his information.

"The only reason I won the Pulitzer," said Mullins, now 81, "was I was able to get that woman on the radio."