Ep 3: Nightmare on Top of a Nightmare

Joyce Yost had made a serious accusation.

She’d told police on the morning of April 4, 1985 that a man she didn’t know had raped her, kidnapped her and then raped her again. Clearfield, Utah police detective Bill Holthaus had found Joyce’s report credible. It was buttressed by physical evidence.

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The charging document filed with Utah’s 2nd District Court on April 5, 1985 accusing Douglas Anderson Lovell of the rape of Joyce Yost.

Holthaus identified and arrested a suspect, Douglas Anderson Lovell, within hours of first meeting and interviewing Joyce. Prosecutors in Davis County filed criminal charges against Lovell the following day.

That meant Joyce Yost would have to again face the man who’d assaulted her. What neither of them knew was that Lovell had hatched a murder-for-hire plot to keep Joyce from testifying.

Out on bail

Doug had, by Joyce’s account, threatened to kill her if she reported the rape. Yet a judge set bail at just $25,000. This meant Doug was able to convince his father, Monan Lovell, to secure his release by way of a property bond. 

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Doug Lovell’s father obtained a property bond to secure bail in his son’s rape case. If Doug failed to show up in court as ordered, his father would be responsible for covering the full $25,000 ordered by the judge.

Utah’s Second District Court scheduled a preliminary hearing in the case for June 12, 1985. Joyce would be expected to testify, presenting her account of the rape to a judge. Then, the judge would determine if the evidence supported moving the case to the next step, which is called arraignment.

Joyce confided in her ex-husband Mel Roberts that she feared taking the witness stand.

“We talked at length because she didn’t know what to do,” Mel said. “She was beside herself and I said ‘hang his ass.’”

Billy Jack

Doug, meanwhile, did not want to return to the Utah State Prison.

He’d previously served time there on an armed robbery conviction between 1979 and 1982. That case, in which Doug had acted as wheelman in a hold-up at the U-Save Market on 7th Street in Ogden, Utah, had hinged on the testimony of a lone female witness.

Joyce’s account of what Doug had done to her held similar potential to incriminate him. If heard by a jury, it would likely prove persuasive enough to tip the scales toward conviction.

Doug did not want to give her the opportunity to testify. He decided murder-for-hire was his best option for keeping Joyce quiet.

Billy Jack murder for hire
William “Billy Jack” Wiswell (left) and Doug Lovell play cards in this February, 1984 picture. Photo: Weber County Attorney’s Office

Doug had made connections during his time in prison. He called one of those friends, a man named William “Billy Jack” Wiswell, on the telephone toward the end of April. Doug told Billy Jack he needed help with a job.

Billy Jack was at the time living with a relative in Grand Junction, Colorado. Doug made the more than five-hour drive from South Ogden, Utah to Grand Junction the same day as the phone call.

On the return drive to South Ogden, Doug told Billy Jack the job was murder-for-hire. Doug needed Billy Jack to kill Joyce Yost. He offered $5,000 for the hit, payable after it was done.

Billy Jack accepted.

Stolen guns

Doug and Billy Jack drove up Ogden Canyon and into the pastoral mountain town of Liberty on the evening of May 4, 1985. They parked on a dirt road as the sun set, watching the nearby farm houses. 

The windows of one nearby house remained dark, leading the two men to believe it was unoccupied. They slipped in through an open door in the garage. Once inside, they located a collection of rifles and shotguns. Doug and Billy Jack took all of the guns they could carry.

A May 5, 1985 Weber County Sheriff’s Office report detailing the theft of several long guns from the home of Cody Montgomery, Sr.

They intended for one of those guns, a Winchester, to serve as the instrument of Joyce’s death.

Billy Jack took the Winchester to the apartment in South Ogden where Doug was then living with his wife, Rhonda Lovell. He used a hacksaw to cut the barrel and stock off the shotgun, making it easier to conceal and use in tight quarters.

Doug Lovell gun theft
Doug Lovell and William “Billy Jack” Wiswell obtained entry to this garage while searching for guns on May 5, 1985. Photo: Weber County Attorney’s Office

The two ex-convicts decided they would stash the remainder of the guns someplace safe.

Cabin near Callao

Doug had spent some of his earliest years growing up on a farm in the central Utah community of Oak City, on the eastern fringe of Utah’s vast West Desert region. He’d also spent time hunting in the mountains of the West Desert, particularly the Deep Creek range near the isolated community of Callao.

An old wooden cabin in those mountains had become a favorite haunt of his. So he, his wife Rhonda and Billy Jack headed there over Mother’s Day weekend in 1985. Once there, Doug dug a hole in the ground and buried the additional stolen guns.

Doug Lovell murder for hire
Doug Lovell stands next to a stream in the Deep Creek Mountains near Callao, Utah on May 11, 1985. Photo: Weber County Attorney’s Office

A Utah Highway Patrol trooper spotted Doug and Billy Jack near the city of Nephi while they were on their return trip home. Billy Jack was emptying his bladder on the roadside. The trooper cited both men on suspicion of driving under the influence.

The trooper did not know, nor did he discover, that the two men had just returned from burying the stolen guns.

Murder for hire

Billy Jack set out with the sawed-off Winchester one evening in May of 1985. He walked north from Doug and Rhonda’s apartment toward Joyce Yost’s home, keeping the gun concealed in a fluorescent light tube box he’d fished out of a garbage bin.

Joyce was not at home when Billy Jack arrived, so he took up a position concealed beneath some bushes across the street.

Joyce Yost apartment bushes
William “Billy Jack” Wiswell concealed himself behind these bushes across the street from Joyce Yost’s apartment with the intention of killing her on behalf of his friend, Doug Lovell. Wiswell ultimately failed to carry out the murder. Photo: Weber County Attorney’s Office

“I just set there and wait,” Billy Jack would later tell police. “Drank a few beers, sit there and wait.”

Billy Jack did not see Joyce arrive home that night. He felt a pang of conscience and decided he could not kill a woman he’d never met and held no grudge against.

He buried the shotgun and then skipped town. But Doug Lovell had another friend he would next turn to in order to keep the murder-for-hire plot alive.

Locations of interest for Cold season 2, episode 3.

Hear what happened when Joyce Yost testified in court in Cold episode 3: Nightmare on Top of a Nightmare

Episode credits
Research, writing and hosting: Dave Cawley
Audio production: Nina Earnest
Audio mixing: Trent Sell
Cold main score composition: Michael Bahnmiller
Cold main score mixing: Dan Blanck
Additional songs: By Outrageous used with permission
KSL executive producers: Sheryl Worsley, Keira Farrimond
Workhouse Media executive producers: Paul Anderson, Nick Panella, Andrew Greenwood
Amazon Music team: Morgan Jones, Eliza Mills, Vanessa Rebbert, Shea Simpson
Episode transcript: https://thecoldpodcast.com/season-2-transcript/nightmare-on-top-of-a-nightmare-full-transcript/
KSL companion story: https://ksltv.com/459925/missed-opportunities-could-have-prevented-joyce-yosts-death/

Ep 2: A Case of Rape

Content note: This article includes discussion of rape and sexual assault. Free resources are available for survivors of sexual abuse and violence through the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network hotline at (800) 656-HOPE (4673).

A fresh pot of coffee gave its invigorating odor to the otherwise somber air at police headquarters in South Ogden, Utah.

Bill Holthaus, a detective for the police department in the nearby suburb of Clearfield, arrived there well before sunrise on the morning of April 4, 1985 to investigate a case of rape involving a woman named Joyce Yost.

“I got a call from South Ogden PD telling me that they believed they had a rape, or a woman reporting a rape that occurred in our city,” Holthaus said. “Would I come in and interview her?”

Joyce Yost rape dispatch report log document
The South Ogden police dispatch log from the morning of April 4, 1985. Highlights added by the Cold team. Photo: South Ogden, Utah police

Joyce wore a green velour jogging suit. The dress she’d been in at the time of the alleged rape was already gathered in a brown paper bag, taken as evidence by a South Ogden patrol officer at the time of her initial report.

Joyce Yost and Bill Holthaus

“She was not the typical young rape victim that you see on television,” Holthaus told me of Joyce years later, during a conversation in May of 2020.

Joyce was, at the time in 1985, 39 years old. She was a mother of two adult children, as well as a proud grandmother. For years she’d been a fixture of the Ogden, Utah retail scene, selling Estée Lauder and other cosmetics at the ZCMI department store. She lived alone, having been twice divorced.

“She’d had a traumatic experience but probably not the first one in her life,” Holthaus said.

Clearfield police detective William "Bill" Holthaus
Bill Holthaus, seen here in an undated photograph, began his second career as a police officer in Clearfield, Utah after serving 20 years in the U.S. Air Force. Photo: Bill Holthaus

Bill Holthaus was in many ways Joyce’s contemporary. Both were transplants to Utah: Joyce from Minnesota and Bill from Michigan. Both had been raised as Lutherans and were not part of the predominant religious culture in Mormon-centric Utah. Bill was, at age 38, just two years into his police career.

He’d spent the prior 20 years serving in the U.S. Air Force, where he’d at times been required to interview subordinates about instances of sexual misconduct. He knew such interviews were often delicate.

“I did feel an empathy for her,” Holthaus said. “I thought that she was wronged. I did. But there’s certain questions you have to ask.”

Joyce Yost audio tape

Holthaus pressed the record button on a small audio cassette tape deck as he and Joyce sat down to talk. A young volunteer rape victim advocate from the YWCA named Jan Schiller joined them, sitting by Joyce’s side.

The detective started out by asking Joyce to walk him through what had happened to her the prior evening.

“I met a gentleman friend at the Pier 3 at approximately 7 o’clock for dinner,” Joyce can be heard saying on the tape recording.

The audio tape of Joyce Yost’s interview has never been shared publicly prior to its inclusion in Cold season 2.

“We had a couple of drinks and we had dinner and we danced a couple of times,” Joyce said.

Joyce Yost spent the evening of April 3, 1985 at the Pier 3, a now-defunct supper club in Clearfield, Utah. The Pier 3 sat in the building that is painted yellow in the right image from 2021.

The Pier 3 was a supper club located in a strip mall in the city of Clearfield, just west of Hill Air Force Base. Joyce described leaving the Pier 3 at approximately 10:15 p.m. with her friend. They said goodnight to one another in the parking lot and went their separate ways.

“Then I went on home, not realizing anybody was following me, not really paying attention to see if anybody was following me,” Joyce said.

Confrontation in the carport

Joyce told Holthaus that when she arrived at her apartment on 40th Street in South Ogden at around 11 p.m. she pulled her Oldsmobile convertible into her stall in the carport adjacent to the four-plex. At the same time, a small, red Mazda coupe pulled in just beside and slightly behind her.

“I wasn’t just with somebody that was being a little bit forceful that I was going to be able to get rid of.”

Joyce Yost

The driver of the Mazda exited his car and approached her, opening the door of her car before she even had a chance to do so herself. He wedged his body between Joyce and the open car door, preventing her from closing it.

“He says ‘I can’t believe I’m doing this,’ but he said ‘I noticed you at the Pier 3 and I was attracted to you and decided to follow you,’” Joyce said.

The man told Joyce he wanted to get a drink with her. She rebuffed the advance, suggesting they might instead get coffee another time. The man, who’d told Joyce his name was “Dave,” responded negatively.

Joyce Yost apartment carport evidence court exhibit
This police photo from 1985 shows the carport outside Joyce Yost’s apartment in South Ogden, Utah. Joyce’s parking stall sat between the two cars pictured here. Photo: Weber County Attorney’s Office

“He grabbed me by the throat and he was forceful and told me if I screamed or said anything that he would tear my throat open,” Joyce said.

The man then proceeded to sexually assault Joyce. She fought back, breaking some of her acrylic fingernails in the process. She lost one of her earrings. The buttons down the front of her dress were also torn from the garment.

“I realized I was in a rape situation,” Joyce said. “I wasn’t just with somebody that was being a little bit forceful that I was going to be able to get rid of.”

Joyce Yost’s voice

Jan Schiller, the rape victim advocate, did not say much during this interview. She hadn’t needed to, as Joyce had been composed, thoughtful and articulate.

“I was just so impressed with her,” Schiller told me decades later. “She really had a voice during that interview.”

Joyce went on in the tape recording to describe how the man had sexually assaulted her in her car, then dragged her to his car and shoved her head down into the passenger footwell. Joyce said he’d claimed to have a gun and threatened to shoot her if she put up any further struggle.

The sexual assault of Joyce Yost and its immediate aftermath played out at a variety of venues across southern Weber County, Utah and northern Davis County, Utah.

The man then drove to his house in Clearfield. On the way, Joyce’s other earring fell, unnoticed, onto the floor of the Mazda.

Once at the house, the man blindfolded Joyce, took her inside and repeatedly assaulted her again.

Over the space of the next hour or so, Joyce engaged the man in conversation. She succeeded in gaining his trust and in convincing him to let her go. Joyce promised the man she would not report what he had done if he would just return her home. He eventually agreed, giving her a blue men’s shirt to wear in place of her ruined dress.

A Case of Rape

On the drive back to her apartment, Joyce said the man told her he was normally a nice guy, the type who sends roses.

Joyce had called her sister Dorothy Dial upon arriving home at around 2 a.m. She’d expressed fear, not only that the man might return to harm her also but that police might not believe her account.

“Even now 35 years later, most women still don’t report the rape,” Schiller said.

Joyce Yost and sister Dorothy Dial
Joyce Yost (left) and her sister Dorothy “Dot” Dial (right) remained close throughout Joyce’s life. Joyce called Dorothy after being kidnapped and sexually assaulted on the morning of April 4, 1985. Photo: Joyce Yost family

A 1974 made-for-TV-movie called A Case of Rape had left a strong impression on Joyce. The fictional film starred actress Elizabeth Montgomery as a woman who is twice raped by an acquaintance and then suffers public humiliation during the resulting criminal trial.

Joyce told her sister she did not want to go through a similar experience. Dial said if Joyce didn’t call police, she would. With this encouragement, Joyce agreed to file a report with South Ogden police.

The supporting evidence

At the conclusion of the interview, Bill Holthaus went to Joyce’s apartment. He saw her car sitting in the carport with the driver door still open. He looked inside and noted the fragments of her broken fingernails, as well as a single earring and Joyce’s keys.

Former Clearfield, Utah police detective Bill Holthaus discusses what he saw when he examined Joyce Yost’s car on April 4, 1985, after taking Yost’s report of a rape and kidnapping at the hands of Douglas Anderson Lovell.

Joyce had attempted to stab her attacker in the eye with her keys during the initial assault in her car. She had missed and had instead struck the man on the side of the nose, causing a laceration. He had responded by pummeling her.

Holthaus photographed Joyce’s injuries, which included contusions on her neck and chin, with a Polaroid camera.

The detective then left Joyce and returned to Clearfield, intending to knock on the door of the home where Joyce had said the man had taken her.

Arrest of Doug Lovell

Holthaus was about to exit I-15 when he spotted a red Mazda RX-7 matching the one Joyce had described getting on the freeway headed southbound. He radioed for backup and then pulled the Mazda over.

The man at the wheel of the Mazda had a cut along the side of his nose. Holthaus could also see a single earring in the passenger footwell of the car as he looked in through the open window. It was the match to the other earring he’d previously seen in Joyce’s car.

Doug Lovell rape mugshot April 4, 1985
Detective Bill Holthaus arrested Douglas Anderson Lovell on suspicion of rape just hours following Joyce Yost’s initial report. Photo: Davis County Sheriff’s Office via Utah State Archives

“So we took him into custody right there,” Holthaus said.

The man, soon identified as Douglas Anderson Lovell, had a different story to tell about what happened on the night he met Joyce Yost.

Hear how Joyce Yost’s family responded to her sexual assault in Cold episode 2: A Case of Rape

Episode credits
Research, writing and hosting: Dave Cawley
Audio production: Dave Cawley
Audio mixing: Dave Cawley
Cold main score composition: Michael Bahnmiller
Cold main score mixing: Dan Blanck
KSL executive producers: Sheryl Worsley, Keira Farrimond
Workhouse Media executive producers: Paul Anderson, Nick Panella, Andrew Greenwood
Amazon Music team: Morgan Jones, Eliza Mills, Vanessa Rebbert, Shea Simpson
Episode transcript: https://thecoldpodcast.com/season-2-transcript/a-case-of-rape-full-transcript/
KSL companion story: https://ksltv.com/459836/previously-unheard-audio-reveals-joyce-yosts-terrifying-story-to-police/

Ep 1: The Type that Sends Roses

The only Joyce Yost picture most people have ever seen, if they’ve seen any at all, is an image captured on film shortly before her disappearance in August of 1985.

Joyce had sat for a series of professional portraits that summer at a photo studio in Ogden, Utah where she was then working with her daughter, Kim Salazar.

One of the last photos of Joyce Yost prior to her disappearance in August, 1985.
One of the last photos of Joyce Yost prior to her disappearance in August, 1985. Family members provided this Joyce Yost picture to police and the media. Photo: Joyce Yost family

This Joyce Yost picture was the one appeared in news paper stories and TV reports about her disappearance.

“They weren’t her favorite pictures of herself at all,” Joyce’s son Greg Roberts told me. “But there’s not a lot of other ones we have.”

“Binky” from Bemidji

Joyce was born on January 3, 1946 to George and Hulda Figel. She was the third of three children in the family, though her older sisters Dorothy and Edna were 19 and 18 years her senior, respectively.

Joyce Figel (right) with her sisters Edna (center) and Dorothy (left), date unknown. Photo: Joyce Yost family

Joyce earned the nickname “Binky” as a child, thanks to her fondness for that particular brand of pacifier.

The Figel family lived on a farm on the outskirts of Bemidji, Minn., a college town near the headwaters of the Mississippi River. Joyce was still a child when her parents divorced, leaving her to be raised by her mother and sisters.

When in junior high school, Joyce met a boy named Mel Roberts.

Mel, who was three years older than Joyce, remembered her as a “typical northern Minnesota country girl” who took great care to keep up her physical appearance.

“She was always dressed to the nines, hair was always impeccable.”

Mel Roberts

Mel graduated high school and enrolled at Bemidji State College while still dating Joyce. He hadn’t been there long before his younger girlfriend delivered some life-changing news: she was pregnant.

The announcement came as a shock to Joyce’s mother, Hulda Figel.

“We were all raised Lutherans and she was gonna put her in a Lutheran home and give the baby up for adoption,” Roberts said of Figel’s reaction.

Mel proposed a different solution. He would drop out of college, find a steady job and marry Joyce.

Family album of Joyce Yost pictures

Mel Roberts and Joyce Figel wed in January of 1962.

Joyce Yost and Mel Roberts at their wedding
Mel Roberts and Joyce Figel at the church on their wedding day in 1962. Photo: Joyce Yost family

Mel began knocking doors at businesses in the hopes of finding work. He ended up in the office of a manager at a metal stamping company.

“He said ‘do you have a girl pregnant?’ And I looked at him like he was on Mars,” Mel said. “Come to find out his son was in the same circumstances. Similar age to me. And honest to God, I think that’s probably why he hired me.”

Their first child, a daughter they named Kim, arrived that May. Joyce was, by that time, 16 years old. Mel was 19. He, his young bride and their baby girl relocated to an apartment in Minneapolis.

Mel Roberts, Joyce Yost, Kim Salazar and Greg Roberts
Mel and Joyce Roberts holding their children, Kim and Greg, likely on the day of Greg’s baptism in 1963. Photo: Joyce Yost family

Joyce soon became pregnant again and in June of 1963, she and her husband welcomed their second child: a son whom they named Greg.

Sun goddess

Mel and Joyce Roberts led busy lives, even at such young ages. He worked full time during the days while she watched the children. They made friends with their neighbors in Minneapolis, but found their responsibilities left them little time for socializing.

“We didn’t even know what day it was back then,” Roberts said. “You look back on how you survived and it was pretty amazing.”

Joyce Yost ironing board sunbathing
Joyce enjoyed spending time sunbathing or, as in this undated photo, doing her laundry in the sun. Photo: Joyce Yost family

Mel remembered Joyce as a dedicated mother. He said she would sometimes drag the ironing board out onto the lawn so she could press the laundry in the sun.

“She was a sun goddess,” Roberts said. “She’d lay out in the sun when it was 40 degrees out.”

Joyce’s divorce

The strain of their situation began to mount.

“I would work during the day and then she had a job in the evenings,” Mel said.

Joyce mostly waited tables. She didn’t make much, finding her earning power limited due in part to her having dropped out of school. Yet she was diligent in her efforts to help provide.

“Had we not been so young, I’m pretty sure the relationship would have been far more successful,” Mel said.

“He loved her then and he loves her now. He’s always loved her. If they hadn’t been so young, they would have had a great life together.”

Kim Salazar, née Roberts

Mel and Joyce divorced after only a few years. They remained cordial, however. Mel had grown close not only with Joyce but also with her sisters. Yet Joyce’s sisters had each relocated away from Minnesota, leaving her with little support in her home state.

Mel remembered Joyce struggling during the years following their split.

“Struggling financially and I think she was struggling emotionally as well,” Mel said.

The Vietnam War was underway and the U.S. Army drafted Mel. By 1968 he was deployed to Korea, leaving Joyce without a reason to remain in Minnesota.

Joyce’s move to Utah

Joyce’s oldest sister, Dorothy “Dot” Dial, had by that point in the late 1960s moved to Utah and settled in the city of Clearfield, just west of Hill Air Force Base. Joyce decided to make a fresh start by following Dorothy to Utah.

“We were just barely school age,” Joyce’s son Greg Roberts said. 

They lived for a time with Dorothy before Joyce found a place of her own in the neighboring community of Sunset.

Joyce Yost, Kim Salazar and Greg Roberts in Utah
Joyce and her children, Kim and Greg, lived in Sunset, Clearfield and Roy, Utah during the 1970s. Photo: Joyce Yost family

Joyce had not been in Utah long before she met and married her second husband, a man named George Yost.

“Her and George bought a home together,” Greg Roberts said. “George had a big Buick Electra 225. We could swim around the back of there.”

George Yost, Joyce Yost and a Buick Electra 225
George and Joyce Yost pose in front of their Buick Electra 225, date and location unknown. Photo: Joyce Yost family

Joyce’s marriage to George Yost lasted only a few years. She and her children, Kim and Greg, found themselves on the move again after the divorce. They lived for a time in the city of Roy, where Kim and Greg attended school.

Joyce worked constantly to support herself. She secured a position selling cosmetics at the ZCMI department store in downtown Ogden during the day and supplemented her income working as a cocktail waitress at night.

“All the time we were growing up, she worked two and three jobs at a time,” Joyce’s daughter Kim Salazar told me. “We never wanted for anything except maybe her.”

That want would only intensify after Joyce Yost disappeared.

Hear how a mysterious barrage of roses relates to Joyce Yost’s disappearance in Cold episode 1: The Type that Sends Roses.

Episode credits
Research, writing and hosting: Dave Cawley
Audio production: Nina Earnest
Audio mixing: Trent Sell
Additional voices: Richie Steadman (as Doug Lovell)
Cold main score composition: Michael Bahnmiller
Cold main score mixing: Dan Blanck
KSL executive producers: Sheryl Worsley, Keira Farrimond
Workhouse Media executive producers: Paul Anderson, Nick Panella, Andrew Greenwood
Amazon Music team: Morgan Jones, Eliza Mills, Vanessa Rebbert, Shea Simpson
Episode transcript: https://thecoldpodcast.com/season-2-transcript/the-type-that-sends-roses-full-transcript/
KSL companion story: https://ksltv.com/459341/the-cold-podcast-returns-where-is-joyce-yost/

Corpus Delicti

One of the most enduring questions to linger long after the disappearance of Susan Powell was this: why had prosecutors not charged Susan’s husband Josh Powell with her murder?

Introducing the second season of the Cold podcast: Justice for Joyce. Hear it for free on Amazon Music starting April 7.

The filing of formal charges against Josh would have allowed West Valley City, Utah police to arrest and detain him, potentially preventing the subsequent events that culminated with the Feb. 5, 2012 murder-suicide in which Josh killed his sons, Charlie and Braden Powell, while also ending his own life.

I heard this question often in the months following the conclusion of Cold’s first season. It came from listeners on social media, from people attending conferences where I was speaking about domestic abuse and even from members of law enforcement unaffiliated with the Powell case.

Former West Valley City, Utah police detective Ellis Maxwell, the lead investigator on the Susan Powell case, told me during our interviews for Cold’s first season that he understood why people still raise questions like this.

“There’s a lot of people in the country, in the world that wanted answers,” Ellis said, “from the media all the way down to the Cox family because believe it or not, they didn’t know a whole lot more than anybody else.”

A circumstantial case

The problem that police faced in the Powell investigation was a lack of definitive evidence.

Josh Powell’s actions in the hours and days following the discovery of his wife’s unexplained absence on Dec. 7, 2009 — including his evasive statements in interviews, his possession of Susan’s cell phone, his destruction of probable evidence and his still-unexplained 18-hour vanishing act in a rental car — made him the prime suspect in her presumed murder.

“You can’t say that Josh is responsible for her disappearance based off of any of that because we don’t have any witnesses, we have no confession and we have no body.”

Ellis Maxwell

Without the recovery of Susan Powell’s body, however, and the facts it might reveal about when, where and how she died, detectives were unable to present prosecutors at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office with a conclusive story about how Josh might have carried out the crime.

Body of evidence

“When you have a physical body that is the subject of a homicide, it’s placed in time and space,” District Attorney Sim Gill told me. “That body creates a narrative tale of logical possibilities.”

If there are too many logical possibilities, it becomes unlikely that a prosecutor will be able to secure unanimous agreement among a jury that any one person is guilty of a murder.

Susan Powell, her sons Charlie and Braden, and her husband Josh Powell pose in this July 24, 2008 photo at the International Peace Gardens in Salt Lake City, Utah. Photo: Josh Powell personal files

“When you don’t have that physical body, when that forensic piece is missing, there is a whole host of logical possibilities and if I have more than one logical possibility in any realistic sense, I have reasonable doubt,” Gill said.

That’s not to say a body is an absolute necessity in every single homicide prosecution.

Had prosecutors charged Josh Powell with the murder of his wife, they would have likely done so in Utah’s Third District Court.  It’s useful then to look at the existing body of case law in Utah’s state court system involving no-body homicides.

The case of Rudy Rebeterano

There is no definitive list of no-body murder prosecutions in the state of Utah but a review of archived news reports and court decisions has revealed at least three such cases which resulted in convictions prior to Susan Powell’s disappearance in 2009. The earliest of those was State v. Rebeterano.

The Rebeterano case involved the disappearance of a man named Mike Johnston. He had been at a bar in the city of Brigham City on the night of July 21, 1981 when he met a woman named Debbie Griffiths. They’d spent time socializing together, both at the bar and at another person’s home.

Johnston escorted Griffiths back to the motel where she was staying with her ex-husband, Rudy Rebeterano, at about 5:30 a.m. on the morning of July 22. Rebeterano was waiting for them there.

A fight erupted between Johnston and Rebeterano, during which Griffiths fled and contacted police. Griffiths would later say she saw Rebeterano carrying a large bundle out of the apartment, which he placed into the trunk of Johnston’s car before driving away in that vehicle.

This August 16, 1981 story by former KSL reporter Lynn Packer details the investigation into the suspected death of Michael Johnston at the hands of Rudy Rebeterano in Brigham City, Utah. Video courtesy the KSL TV archives.

Police arrived a short time later and entered the apartment. They located fresh blood, which was of the same type as Johnston’s. Officers found a white bedsheet missing from one of the beds. A kitchen knife, which Griffiths had seen Rebeterano using to peel potatoes the prior evening, was also unaccounted for.

Johnston’s car turned up later that same day a few blocks away from the motel. Blood stains were present on the rear bumper and in the trunk. A little over two weeks later, a maintenance worker found a blood-stained knife on the roof of the motel.

Rudy Rebeterano submitted to a polygraph examination. The examiner asked Rebeterano “did you stab Mike” and “did you cut Mike with a knife.” Rebeterano answered “no” to each question. The polygraph results suggested those answers were not truthful.

Rebeterano was then arrested, charged and convicted of second-degree murder.

Corpus delicti

Rebeterano appealed his conviction, challenging both the admissibility of the polygraph as well as the very notion that Mike Johnston was dead. Police had not then, and have still not today, located Johnston’s body. This, Rebeterano’s lawyer argued, meant the prosecution had not met the burden of proof. Corpus delicti had not been established.

Corpus delicti is a Latin phrase which translates to “body of the crime.” In legal circles, it’s understood to mean the facts must establish a crime has occurred before a person can be tried for that crime.

Entrance to the historical Utah Supreme Court chamber at the Utah Capitol
The entrance to the historical Utah Supreme Court chambers at the Utah Capitol on Dec. 16, 2020. Oral arguments in cases before the high court were heard here, prior to 1998. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL/Cold

The Utah Supreme Court in its review of Rudy Rebeterano’s appeal said “apparently no case in Utah has decided whether production of a corpse is necessary in a homicide case to prove the corpus delicti.” The high court justices examined the law, both in Utah and across the United States, before finding that production of a body was not mandatory for establishing corpus delicti in a murder case.

“The mere disappearance of a victim would not ordinarily be sufficient to support a conviction,” Justice I. Daniel Stewart wrote, before going on add “…even though the evidence was circumstantial, it was sufficient to establish that Mike Johnston was intentionally killed by criminal means.”

In other words, the Rebeterano decision established that under Utah law murder can be proved without a body, so long as the totality of the circumstances surrounding the person’s disappearance shows the crime has occurred.

Cold season 2

The Rebeterano case is not the focus of Cold season 2. But that April, 1984 decision from the Utah Supreme Court did set precedent. It established the framework for what would come a little over a year later when a woman named Joyce Yost disappeared from her apartment in South Ogden, Utah.

A young Joyce Yost, née Figel, holds a cat in this undated image. Photo: Joyce Yost family

Season 2 of the Cold podcast will take you inside the no-body homicide investigation triggered by Joyce Yost’s disappearance. Audio tapes never before made public will allow you to hear Joyce, 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. You will see how some individuals and institutions gave, and continue to give, Lovell every opportunity to evade the ultimate penalty.

And together we will explore the most critical question: is there such a thing after all this time as justice for Joyce Yost?

Hear Joyce Yost’s voice for the first time in the Cold podcast season 2, exclusively on Amazon Music.

Episode credits
Research, writing and hosting: Dave Cawley
Audio production: Dave Cawley
Audio mixing: Dave Cawley
Cold main score composition: Michael Bahnmiller
Cold main score mixing: Dan Blanck
KSL executive producers: Sheryl Worsley, Keira Farrimond
Workhouse Media executive producers: Paul Anderson, Nick Panella, Andrew Greenwood
Amazon Music team: Morgan Jones, Eliza Mills, Vanessa Rebbert, Shea Simpson