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Police analyzing DNA from 2 men in 1976 death

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Kathy Harmon

Kathy Harmon

After the rapist carried the 22-year-old woman's body in the dark 300 yards up the still-frozen slopes of Emigration Canyon, he dropped her in the snow.

That's where he left her blue jeans.

He dragged the 115-pound, half-nude body the rest of the way — 96 more yards between skiffs of sagebrush up to the top of the hillside overlooking Dell Valley, just north of I-80.

When the man drove away from the strangled and bruised body of young Joy Kathleen "Kathy" Jones Harmon early that bitter 14-degree March morning in 1976, he took at least 33 years — and counting — of absolute freedom with him.

But he left something, too: his genetic signature, soaked into the waistband of the pants he unabashedly discarded at the scene, inside out. Detectives also discovered the man's DNA beneath Kathy's fingernails as apparent evidence of her struggle to fight off her choking attacker, according to court documents.

He didn't take cash in Kathy's jeans pocket, police say. He ignored a necklace hanging over her thin jacket on her fully clothed upper body. He left rings on her hand — one of which represented her just-budding 6-month-old marriage to George Harmon, a meat wrapper, truck driver and chapter president of the notorious Sundowners bike gang, who went by the name "Easy."

Sheriff's investigators confirmed that Harmon was out of town the night of the slaying.

Salt Lake County sheriff's detectives hit one dead end after another and eventually closed the case.

But even when the cold case was reopened a couple years ago, due to its useful DNA evidence, modern-day detectives still needed a suspect with which to compare the new-aged genetic fingerprint.

That opportunity came two months ago when a woman from the past called detectives. She told them her then-20-year-old boyfriend in 1976 came home one night with scratches on his face and an excuse that his sister caused them.

The woman met with detectives and recounted a harrowing three-decade-old alleged memory of her boyfriend coming home a week after the scratching incident "quite upset" and "crying," according to a new search warrant filed in 3rd District Court.

She told detectives her boyfriend "told her that he had been with his friend (name withheld) and the two of them had picked up a girl at a party in Salt Lake City … then took this girl up Emigration Canyon where they had sex with her … and left her there," the warrant states.

The woman said she remembers her boyfriend told her "she had been found, and he felt bad," according to the documents.

A man reported spotting Kathy's badly abused body four days after she was last seen alive, which was at Better Days Bar in downtown Salt Lake City. Kathy and her friend slipped into the neighborhood pub for a few drinks that quiet Tuesday night on March 2.

"They were the only ones in there for a while," bar owner Van Brown told the Deseret News this week. "I sat with them for a while. We just talked. She seemed kinda down."

Kathy's friend split before midnight but not before giving Kathy, who wasn't ready to leave, her thick winter coat for the walk home. It was only six blocks from the neon lights to her front door, but it was late and temperatures downtown only hovered around 21 degrees that night. So she asked Brown, a longtime, trusted family friend, for a ride.

"I said 'All right,' " Brown remembered. "But she had to wait till I closed up; that was the deal."

Brown vanished to the kitchen to scrub dishes. And when he returned to the floor of his small 10-stool bar she was gone — forever.

No one noticed her slip into the night, but she did make her way home: Her purse and the heavy coat were found in her apartment the next day, the search warrant states.

The only other major clue to Kathy's activities between her apartment and her ultimate abandonment that night — which remains a key part of today's investigation — is shrouded in the testimony of a neighbor who described a vivid early morning scene in front of Kathy's place.

A tall, thin man in his 20s stood at the passenger door of an idling blue Volkswagen Beetle.

It was something, but it was also incredibly broad: The Beetle was an extremely common vehicle then. Its production passed Ford's Model T record a few years earlier.

An investigation was launched, but it immediately became entangled in the chaos of a similar killing. The same day Kathy's body was spotted on the hillside, Salt Lake police discovered the beaten, raped and strangled body of 24-year-old Carolyn Sarkessian. Assumed connections between the two slayings spread quickly that winter. A link, though, was later determined to be impossible.

Gayle G. Benavidez, a repeat convicted rape offender, was convicted for Sarkessian's murder in 2004 after results of a state-issued mouth swab shattered his alibi.

Some were still suspicious of Benavidez, however, but not perhaps the woman who contacted police in February. She agreed to marry the man who allegedly confessed of sexual rendezvous in the woods all those years ago.

And although they're still married today, it's turned into estrangement for at least the past couple of years, according to sources close to the family.

Within days of hearing the woman's allegation, a judge signed off on a search warrant to collect a saliva swab from her husband at his residence in Taylorsville. Detectives took photos of the house's exterior, and the woman's husband, now 53, while carrying out the search warrant.

According to witnesses, the wife, who does not live at the Taylorsville address with her husband, was also there when her husband was swabbed.

"There was an ambulance and police cars everywhere," one witness said. "She (the wife) was being treated (by paramedics) because she was having an anxiety attack."

Photos taken during the bizarre scene may include images of the man's Volkswagen van or a broken-down yellow Volkswagen Beetle.

But Salt Lake County Sheriff's Lt. Don Hutson confirmed that the yellow Beetle, which sits on the side of the man's house, is not the same vehicle that the wife owned in 1976 — a vehicle she told detectives her then-boyfriend drove "from time to time," according to court documents.

Detectives also took a saliva sample from the man's friend in 1976, whom the wife also alleged may have been involved.

No arrests have been made in the 1976 death. Hutson said it would be weeks, and perhaps months, for the DNA evidence to be properly analyzed from the two men.

E-mail: jhancock@desnews.com