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Thirty years later, murder case closed, but little closure for family

SHARE Thirty years later, murder case closed, but little closure for family
I think the word ‘closure’ is overused, because in anything like this, that doesn’t exist. – Robin Miley

SALT LAKE CITY — Robin Miley will be the first to tell you that there isn't really a way to move past the loss of a brother.

Especially if you were the one to find his body.

Even if it's been more than 30 years.

"I still miss my brother, and my whole family, immensely, so there isn't any closure," Miley said. "I think the word 'closure' is overused, because in anything like this, that doesn't exist."

The Salt Lake City Police Department announced Thursday that it has closed its investigation into the death of Dennis Piernick. The decision came after police found the man they believe should be charged in the slaying — Rodney VanKomen — was already dead.

Salt Lake City police detective Carlie Wiechman said VanKomen died in a car crash in 2005. Miley called the news "frustrating and anticlimactic."

Piernick, 39, was found in his apartment at 927 E. South Temple on May 16, 1982 with multiple stab wounds around his head and neck, police said.

Miley said he was planning on taking his brother to breakfast that morning and called Piernick numerous times, with no answer. It was unusual enough for Piernick to not pick up the phone that Miley, his soon-to-be wife and brother drove over to the apartment. Miley knocked on his brother's door and it swung open.

"I stepped inside his apartment and I thought that crap only happened in the movies," Miley said of what he saw. "It was a really horrific scene. Dennis was extremely peaceful and extremely intelligent. … I couldn't imagine who could do that to him."

Miley told his fiancee to stay away and called 911. Police officers arrived within minutes.

"I'm so shaken up, I'm outside the building punching the wall, which was made of brick," Miley recounted. "I wasn't even aware of what I was doing. It was just so traumatic."

Piernick's would be the first death of many in the family that year, Miley said. In a span of 11 months, two more brothers and their father were killed in two separate plane crashes.

"I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy," he said.

As the years went by, he kept in touch with Salt Lake City homicide detectives. He had nothing but praise for them and the work they did, but he couldn't understand the brutality of his brother's death.

"Dennis was an extremely good person," Miley said. "He wouldn't hurt a fly. He went out of his way to help people, which could have been one of the reasons why he set himself up — if he did set himself up."

A new police investigator was assigned to the case in September 2011, Wiechman said. While re-interviewing a witness, the investigator learned that VanKomen, who would currently be 47, confessed to killing Piernick in 1983.

"This witness had drug issues and was fearful of VanKomen 30 years ago," Wiechman said. "In 1982, VanKomen was a 17-year-old runaway who frequently stayed with a friend who lived at Piernick's apartment complex."

Police detectives linked VanKomen to the slaying through a backpack, clothing and a pack of Camel cigarettes that were found at the scene, Wiechman said. An eyewitness also reported seeing VanKomen with Piernick an hour before Piernick was killed. Police said VanKomen was a suspect and potential witness at the time of Piernick's death.

"Based on the initial investigation and the new facts corroborated this year, homicide investigators now have probable cause to arrest VanKomen," Wiechman said. "However, the suspect died in a car crash in 2005."

She would not comment on what a potential motive might have been. Miley said he thinks money may have played a part, as $500 he said was in Piernick's wallet was missing when his body was found.

Wiechman said the detectives "want to make sure they have everything" and police are asking that anyone with information on VanKomen, relating to this case or any other potential case, call 801-799-3000. Anonymous tips can be sent by text message to CRIMES (274637) and should begin with the keyword "TIPSLCPD."

Still, the case is ultimately considered closed.

"It's pretty much the only resolution we can come to," Wiechman said. "We can't take it and try it in court. … The detectives feel that because they have all the information to solve a case against him in court, they're just going to close it because there's no other way to solve it."

E-mail: emorgan@desnews.com Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam