Cadaver dogs scoured a ravine behind a remote Weber County cabin last month, searching for a possible gravesite in a 36-year-old cold case.
The dogs were looking for the remains of missing South Ogden woman Joyce Yost. She disappeared in August 1985, 10 days before she was scheduled to testify at trial against Douglas Lovell in a rape case. Lovell at first denied involvement in Yost’s disappearance but during plea negotiations in 1993 admitted killing her.
Lovell told police during those plea discussions that he’d buried Yost in a shallow grave along the Old Snowbasin Road east of Ogden. Police searched the spot Lovell indicated but found no trace of Yost’s remains. As a result, the plea deal collapsed and Lovell received a death sentence.
Lovell appealed and was granted a jury trial in 2015. His defense team called an expert witness who theorized animals might have exhumed and scattered Yost’s remains in the eight years between the murder and the police search of the Old Snowbasin Road site.
However, Yost’s family and many law enforcement officers who’ve worked the Yost case believe Lovell lied about the location of gravesite. They’ve suggested he might have instead taken Yost to the cabin his father owned on the night he killed her.
Joyce Yost cadaver dog search
The search by cadaver dogs of the land surrounding the cabin came in response to information shared by KSL’s “Cold” podcast. “Cold’s” second season chronicles the Joyce Yost case.
Retired South Ogden police Sgt. Terry Carpenter led the Yost investigation during the ’90s. He told “Cold” the cabin was in an area Lovell was known to frequent, but Lovell’s father Monan Lovell had refused to provide consent for police to search the grounds.
“His dad swears up and down that he did not go up onto the property,” Carpenter said.
Police never pursued a search warrant for the Lovell cabin property, believing they lacked sufficient evidence. That fact was publicly disclosed for the first time in “Cold.”
Monan Lovell died in March 2014 and the cabin has since changed hands. The new owners allowed investigators access to the property this year for the purpose of the cadaver dog search on July 9 and 10.
Weber County Search and Rescue enlisted the help of a nonprofit organization that specializes in detection of clandestine gravesites for the search. Colorado Forensic Canines traveled to Utah for the operation, with Weber County and the Utah Cold Case Coalition helping cover the group’s lodging expenses.
“Their dogs are trained to look specifically for small amounts of odor, small particles, small pieces of bone,” the county’s search and rescue team commander Bryan Bennett said. “Human decomposition is what it is.”
The Lovell family cabin
Monan Lovell was one of the first people to purchase a lot in the Sunridge Highlands development in the mid-1970s. The Lovell family at first parked a camper trailer on the lot.
Weber County tax records show Monan Lovell built his cabin on the 2-acre lot near the headwaters of the Middle Fork Ogden River in 1979. At that time, Doug Lovell was in prison on an aggravated robbery conviction. The Utah Board of Pardons and Parole released Lovell in early 1982, after the cabin was completed.
Doug Lovell first met and sexually assaulted Joyce Yost in April of 1985. Later that summer he hired a former prison associate named Tom Peters as a hitman, hoping to have Yost killed before she could testify.
In later court testimony, Lovell’s ex-wife Rhonda Buttars described going to the cabin on the night he’d arranged for Peters to kill Yost. The visit was meant to provide Lovell with an alibi, as his siblings were also at the cabin that night.
“While we were up at the cabin he listened to the radio … because he wanted to see if it would be on the news that Joyce died,” Buttars testified.
Peters failed to carry out the contract killing. Years later he told police Lovell was paranoid about the cabin. Peters believed Lovell might have taken Joyce Yost there himself.
“His father’s place is the thing that keeps getting me,” Peters said in a police interview recording obtained by “Cold.” “He asks me about three or four times if I’d ever been up to his dad’s cabin.”
‘Seven years of leaves’
The ravine behind the cabin holds a dense grove of aspen trees. Investigators have theorized Lovell might have chosen to bury Yost in the ravine, both because of his familiarity with the area as well as the concealment provided by the leafy trees.
Circumstantial evidence also supports the idea Yost’s gravesite sits in a wooded area.
Lovell’s ex-wife Rhonda Buttars received immunity for agreeing to assist investigators as they pursued the capital murder charge against Lovell in the early ’90s. Her efforts included twice wearing a hidden recording device into the Utah State Prison, capturing Lovell making incriminating comments.
In the second of those recordings, made on Jan. 18, 1992, Buttars pressed Lovell for details about the location of Yost’s body. Lovell admitted to at first feeling nervous someone might find the gravesite. But in a copy of the recording obtained by “Cold” Lovell is heard saying he no longer feared someone would stumble upon Yost.
“Do you know what seven years of leaves are? A lot,” Lovell said.
Checking the box
Conditions at the time of the July 2021 cadaver dog search were not ideal. Bryan Bennett, the search and rescue team commander, said high temperatures and a lack of wind limited the effectiveness of the dogs. The thick understory also proved a challenge.
“The dogs and handlers have had to navigate all this deadfall and the undergrowth and the steepness of the terrain,” Bennett said.
The dogs did not indicate on any suspected gravesites during their search. However, investigators have not ruled out returning to reexamine the same ground when conditions are more favorable. They might also expand the search area to include other places near the cabin not previously inspected.
“We’ll put people on their hands and knees if we have to,” Bennett said. “Somebody comes up with a lead that says this is a probable area, you have to check the box.”
Listen to the full season
Season 2 of the “Cold” podcast will take you inside the no-body homicide investigation triggered by Yost’s disappearance. Audio tapes never before made public will allow you to hear Yost, in her own voice, describe the events which preceded her death.
You will learn why police suspected one man, Douglas Lovell, yet were unable to arrest him at the time. And you will see how some individuals and institutions gave — and continue to give — Lovell every opportunity to evade the ultimate penalty.
Hear Joyce Yost’s voice for the first time in Season 2 of the “Cold” podcast, available to listen free on Amazon Music.
Free resources and help with sexual abuse are available 24/7 at RAINN.org. You can also call 800-856-HOPE (4673).