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Forgotten murder: Police close ’81 cold case, apologize to victims’ families

Investigators long suspected man in killing of Kearns pharmacist but never made an arrest

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KEARNS — Police believe they have solved the mystery of who murdered a Kearns pharmacist 34 years ago, identifying the killer as a man they always suspected but never interviewed.

Buddy Conti, 45, was shot and killed Aug. 27, 1981, when the drug store he owned was robbed. Detectives now say that two men investigators identified long ago, Richard Gill and Clyde Dudley, were responsible for that robbery and Conti's murder.

Both Gill and Dudley have since died, with no charges ever having been filed and without police ever interviewing Gill, the suspected gunman.

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder said Friday that, over time, the case had essentially been forgotten through a series of missteps and mistakes.

"We must, frankly, offer an apology to the victims and their families for what can only be described as a failure to pursue justice in a timely and responsible way those many years ago," Winder said.

Conti and sales clerk Signa Atwood were working at the Kearns drug store, 4188 W. 5415 South, when an armed man came in about 9 p.m. demanding cash and pharmaceuticals. Police say Conti and Atwood complied, then were ordered out of the store and told to start running toward a field.

Conti stopped, however, and may have confronted the gunman. He was shot and killed as Atwood watched.

Dudley was interviewed by police shortly after Conti's death, telling investigators that he and Gill had been staking out the pharmacy and planning a robbery. Not long after that interview, Dudley killed himself in 1983.

Meanwhile, Gill fled Utah and was later convicted of armed robbery in Springfield, Missouri. After his release, he remained in Missouri where he died in June 2013 without ever being brought back to Utah to face charges.

Winder said there are several reasons that, while inexcusable, the investigation never advanced.

The case stalled without Dudley to provide testimony against Gill, who was locked up in Missouri. Eventually, the investigators familiar with Conti's murder were either transferred within the department or left, so by the time Gill was released from prison, no one was around to follow up on a forgotten order that had been filed to detain him for police in Utah.

Unified police detectives began re-examining the case about four months ago, detective Ben Pender said Friday. While there were some old leads to follow, investigators were mostly left to tie up loose ends and make decades-late apologies to the Conti and Atwood families.

"This has really had a really negative effect on their lives," said Pender, who has spoken to the families over the past several weeks.

Pender has also spoken to Atwood. "To this day you can still hear the pain in her voice," he said.

Detectives say it was Gill who pulled the trigger that night while Dudley, who was paraplegic, waited as a getaway driver nearby. The two had been watching the pharmacy for about a week as they planned the robbery, with Gill even going in the night before and electing instead to buy cold medicine when he saw there were still customers in the store, Pender said.

Investigators also believe Dudley's girlfriend at the time overheard the planning of the robbery, and a relative of Gill may have been positioned to provide backup and watched Conti's murder unfold, Pender said.

However, with no way to prove that anyone else may have been involved in Conti's killing and with both Gill and Dudley dead, the case has been closed.

Ultimately, the case was presented to the Salt Lake County District Attorney's Office, which determined that there would have been sufficient probable cause to charge Gill and Dudley with murder and aggravated robbery, felonies carrying potential sentences of up to life in prison.

One of the greatest mistakes made throughout the investigation, Winder and Pender agree, was allowing the Conti and Atwood families to go years without any communication from police. It's an error they don't want to repeat.

"They just want to know you haven't forgotten about them," said Pender, who has been reaching out to a number of cold case families.

Re-establishing contact with surviving family members is a priority for the detectives now working in the cold case unit, the detective said. Each of the department's 37 cases have been reviewed in the past year, he said.

Email: mromero@deseretnews.com

Twitter: McKenzieRomero