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3 men missing nearly 5 months were likely murdered, police say

SHARE 3 men missing nearly 5 months were likely murdered, police say
Danny Kiko Gallegos, 35, Braden Parker Emerson, 23, and Levi Joseph Collins, 34, disappeared from Salt Lake City on Nov. 1, 2014.

Danny Kiko Gallegos, 35, Braden Parker Emerson, 23, and Levi Joseph Collins, 34, disappeared from Salt Lake City on Nov. 1, 2014.

Salt Lake police

SALT LAKE CITY — For nearly five months, they have been labeled as three missing men.

But Salt Lake police strongly believe they are investigating a case of triple murder, the Deseret News has learned.

A new search warrant affidavit filed in 3rd District Court outlines in detail the numerous other warrants, interviews and investigations Salt Lake police have quietly been conducting in the four months since Levi Collins, 34, Danny Gallegos, 35, and Braden Emerson, 23, disappeared.

The warrant, which was sealed after the Deseret News made inquiries about the investigation, also goes into detail about how an associate of Gallegos, Justin Christopher, may have information about the case and the fate of the missing men.

Sources close to the investigation tell the Deseret News that police are calling Christopher and his father, Richard Christopher, persons of interest in connection with the disappearance of the trio.

Salt Lake police Thursday declined to comment about the case. No charges have been filed or arrests made.

"My client never killed anyone," Loni Deland, Justin Christopher's attorney, said Thursday. "If police had enough evidence to prosecute him, they would have charged him already."

On Nov. 1, the three close friends told family members they planned to ride their ATVs near the "B" on Bountiful's mountainside.

But police don't believe they ever made it there.

On Nov. 2, Gallegos' aunt called police to report the three had left the previous day in a 2003 Chevrolet Tahoe that was pulling a trailer with an ATV on it, but they did not return and she could not reach either Gallegos or Collins on their cellphones. Davis County sheriff's deputies searched the foothills of Bountiful but found nothing.

The aunt also said she believed "something nefarious" had happened to Gallegos, explaining that "the word on the street" was that a man named PeeWee had "done something bad to Gallegos," another search warrant states.

On Nov. 3, a business owner called Salt Lake Animal Control to report that a barking dog was inside an abandoned Chevy Tahoe near the Jordan River surplus canal at 1740 W. 1500 South. The dog belonged to Collins.

But other items investigators found inside the car, including a "large" amount of blood, alarmed them.

A Salt Lake police detective "has been able to prove through DNA that Levi Collins and Braden Emerson were killed in the Tahoe," the new search warrant affidavit states. The detective also wrote that "it is highly likely that Danny Gallegos was killed inside of (an) old motor home" that was recently seized as part of the investigation.

The Deseret News has also learned that police have conducted two searches in Butterfield Canyon with cadaver dogs looking for the three men. No bodies were found.

Inside that Tahoe, officers reported finding a cut seat belt and enough blood in the driver's side of the vehicle that the person who suffered the injury likely would not have survived. A large amount of blood was also found in the rear passenger seat behind the driver as well as a bullet hole in the left rear passenger door and another cut seat belt.

Tests conducted at the Utah State Crime Lab revealed that the blood in the driver's seat matched that of Collins, police wrote.

Detectives scouring the area for any possible surveillance video eventually found a business that captured the SUV's arrival at the canal.

"The video depicts the 2003 Chevrolet Tahoe being followed by a white or silver newer model Chevrolet Camaro," the warrant states. "An unidentified individual exits the Tahoe. This individual is observed getting into the passenger seat of the Chevrolet Camaro. … The video is of poor quality and detectives are unable to make any type of identification of the individuals involved."

The trailer and ATV the three men were hauling that day were later located by police at an undisclosed auto shop where it had been dropped off for repairs. Detectives said they do not believe there was anything suspicious surrounding the auto shop, trailer and ATV.

The Tahoe is registered to a Taylorsville man, according to investigators. Police interviewed the owner of the SUV and said they do not consider him a suspect. Investigators also seized a bowling pin that had been found on the roof of the vehicle, as well as a duffel bag, "papers," a small amount of methamphetamine, and things listed simply as "items" in the warrant.

Investigators tracked down the owner of the Camaro. He told them he had loaned two of his vehicles to Justin Christopher. Police have not named the owner of the Camaro as a suspect or a person of interest.

"On Saturday, Nov 1, 2014, Christopher asked (the owner) if he could borrow his red 2003 Ford truck. … (The owner) stated Christopher was acting abnormal. (He) stated Christopher eventually returned the truck to (him) and recommended he clean the bed of the truck with bleach," the affidavit states.

"Upon its return, the truck’s fuel tank was almost empty and there was between 500 and 600 miles on the trip odometer," according to the warrant.

When police searched the truck, they found "totes, shovels, chains and tow straps, along with a bottle of bleach and we also collected some blood in the bed of the truck," the warrant states.

When Christopher returned the Camaro to the owner, Christopher said "that he got caught up in a murder and reiterated that (the owner) needed to clean the bed of the truck with bleach," the warrant states. He then told the car owner "not to drive the Chevrolet Camaro for a period of time."

The car owner again described Christopher as "acting abnormal and appeared to be nervous," according to the affidavit.

Detectives served a search warrant on the Camaro and found "a .40-caliber Sig Sauer handgun. This gun has what appears to be a small drop of blood on the left side of the slide. There is blood evidence found inside of the Camaro on the passenger seat and the passenger side door," investigators wrote.

Christopher lived in a motor home with his father on the west side of Salt Lake City, according to police. Christopher also reportedly rented an apartment that Gallegos lived in.

Police questioned Christopher on Nov. 3 about Gallegos' whereabouts. He told them Gallegos was an "acquaintance," but said he didn't know where he was, the affidavit states.

Gallegos "was making and receiving numerous telephone calls throughout the day on Nov. 1, 2014. All telephone activity abruptly ended at 1:31 pm," the warrant states. That last call lasted 83 seconds and was to Justin Christopher. He was supposed to meet with Christopher that day to give him $200,000 cash for him to purchase a home for him in Christopher's name, according to the affidavit.

When police went to the motor home where Justin and Richard Christopher live to question the men, they learned from employees at neighboring businesses that the father and son "had suddenly moved and taken their motor home the weekend of Nov. 1, 2015," the affidavit states.

The men reportedly sold the motor home. Salt Lake police were eventually able to find it on Feb. 11 in North Salt Lake.

Investigators learned that Justin Christopher had purchased another motor home with $41,500 cash, according to the affidavit. On Nov. 20, a SWAT team helped detectives execute a search warrant on that motor home. The men initially did not comply with police orders to exit the home, the warrant states. Inside the motor home, "numerous guns, ammo, money, a bloody pillow case and other items such as phones and computers were seized and booked into evidence."

Later, the owner of the two vehicles called police again and told them he found items in his trash can that did not belong to him.

"The items were a shoe box with a black Smith and Wesson gun case inside. The gun case is empty. There was also a plastic bag with two pairs of gloves inside that appeared to be newer (because the new tags were found with them). The gloves had dirt and a grease like substance on them," according to the warrant.

Richard Christopher is being held in the Salt Lake County Jail for investigation of being a restricted person in possession of a firearm. The U.S. Marshals Service has also placed a hold on him, according to jail records.

In November, a federal complaint against Justin Christopher was unsealed. The two-count complaint in U.S. District Court alleges that he had assisted Gallegos with using his business, JC Custom Jewelry, to launder money, provided a storage unit for him, had accompanied him to drop off marijuana, gave him a yellow Lamborghini and was going to help him buy a house. Gallegos was identified in the complaint as being a "drug dealer" who became an informant for the FBI in July of 2014.

Christopher's jewelry store closed shortly after the three men went missing.

According to the new search warrant, Richard Christopher told another man "that they have closed their jewelry store (JC's Custom Jewelry) because they got involved with some bad people."

On Jan. 22, officers served a search warrant on a cellphone found in one of Justin Christopher's vehicles that resembled the type of phone Gallegos had when he disappeared, the warrant states.

The family of Collins released a statement to the Deseret News upon learning of the new information. They said that they love Collins, whom they recently held a memorial for, and miss him and urge anyone who has information that might help Salt Lake police make an arrest in the case to call detectives at 801-799-3000.

Email: preavy@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam