OGDEN — On a quiet Thursday evening, dozens gathered in the basement of an Ogden library. Some were there to learn; others were there to share their heartbreak.
The main branch of the Weber County Library was the site of a discussion on cold cases from the Weber County area, the event hosted by the Utah Cold Case Coalition.
The coalition, founded by an attorney, a private investigator and a former journalist, hosted the event to not only spread the word on nearby cold cases, but offer a place for family members to share their stories of lost family members.
“There are benefits to independent investigations by the public, and that’s what we’re here for,” said Jason Jensen, a co-founder and private investigator.
Prior to the coalition’s founding, there was no database of cold cases in the state. However that changed when the group pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 160, nicknamed Rosie’s Bill in memory of Salt Lake City girl Rosie Tapia who was sexually assaulted and murdered in 1995 when she was only 6 years old. The bill became state law in 2018.
Rosie’s Bill required the state to establish a cold case database, which is now up and running. However, the coalition’s work hasn’t stopped there. Nor will it stop anytime soon. Karra Porter, a co-founder and an attorney based in Salt Lake City, said there is around 600 cases of missing persons or unsolved murders in the state, and the number keeps growing.
“When we first did this, we were able to track down 206 of these cases,” Porter said. “Then we realized, ‘no, there are 400,’ and now it’s up to 600 cases. So there were hundreds of cases that weren’t actually on anybody’s radar for missing or murdered people or remains.”
Last Thursday, the focus was aimed at unsolved cases out of Weber County.
Cases like that of Jeffery Bancroft, who was shot in 2008 while driving on Wall Avenue, were at the center of the event. In the early morning hours of Oct. 24, 2008, police were called to the scene of a single-car crash, but later learned that the driver, Bancroft, was shot once before the car collided with a building. Nearly 11 years after his death, Bancroft’s killer has yet to be charged with the murder.
Some cases that were discussed were much older. Over 50 years ago, the body of 19-year-old Ogden man Leroy Ortiz was found in a river in what is now Marriott-Slaterville, and was shot in the back. Family members who attended the Thursday event said Ortiz was days away from a boxing match in Las Vegas, as he was a Golden Gloves boxer.
Other cases are not quite as straightforward, with all that’s missing is a killer.
In 2013, Ryan Bush’s body was found in a California commercial waste facility. The cause of Ryan’s death, or even where he died is still unknown. Bush’s mother, Tina Ross, told the Standard-Examiner in 2017 about her struggle with coming to grips with her son’s mysterious death.
“I just want people to remember,” Ross said in 2017. “Maybe someone will be like, ‘I remember this, someone told me about this.’”
Some cold cases discussed Thursday have been reexamined recently.
Last year, the Weber County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that they believe the murders of two Weber County girls, 21-year-old Joyce Gallegos, and 14-year-old Gabriel Distefano, could be connected. Both were killed in the same week of August 1982 from gunshot wounds.
Gallegos was reported missing a little more than a week before her body was found floating in the Ogden River, and police say Gallegos died from two gunshot wounds to her head. Distefano was missing for more than a month before her “badly decomposed” body was discovered wrapped in yellow plastic in a Harrisville ditch on Sept. 16, 1982. Distefano died from a single gunshot wound to the head.
These cases, and hundreds of others around the state, have yet to be solved. But that’s why the Utah Cold Case Coalition is around.
Porter said that within the next year, the group hopes to establish the first private crime lab in the country that will offer nonprofit DNA testing on cold cases, rape kits and innocence challenges. The lab would help local police departments test material that they haven’t been able to afford to test for years.
“When you’re the only game in town, you can charge what you want,” Porter said.
The group is also selling playing cards with information on unsolved cases printed on them. Porter says the coalition wants to distribute the cards to jails and prisons.
“Once somebody said ‘you know, maybe you should let these go,’ and I said ‘the families don’t,’” Porter said. “Our goal is to get these things solved.”
If you or someone you have any information about the aforementioned cases or other unsolved cases in Utah, you can contact the Utah Cold Case Coalition anonymously by calling 801-258-3313.