Ep 8: Help Me, Rhonda

South Ogden police Sgt. Terry Carpenter’s April, 1991 breakthrough with Rhonda Buttars had re-ignited the investigation into the disappearance of Joyce Yost. It had also allowed him to piece together the path of Doug Lovell’s stolen guns.

Rhonda’s ex-husband, Doug, attempted to have two separate hitmen kill Joyce on his behalf during the summer of 1985. A major part of that plot involved a May 5, 1985 theft of multiple guns from a home in the rural town of Liberty, Utah.

Doug and one of his would-be hitmen, a man he’d met while incarcerated at the Utah State Prison named William “Billy Jack” Wiswell, had swiped several rifles and shotguns from a home there. Weber County Sheriff’s Office detectives were made aware of the theft at the time, but had not been able to link the theft to Doug or even identify him as a suspect prior to Rhonda’s confession.

Mother’s Day outing to Callao

Rhonda told Terry that she, Doug and Billy Jack had taken a trip over Mother’s Day weekend in 1985 out to a cabin near Callao, a small farming community in the desolate expanse of Utah’s West Desert. There, Doug and Billy Jack had buried all but one of the stolen guns.

Beretta shotgun
One of several guns stolen by Doug Lovell and William “Billy Jack” Wiswell in May of 1985 is pictured here. Doug and Billy Jack concealed this Beretta shotgun by burying it for a time near a cabin in the Deep Creek Mountains. It was later recovered. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Podcasts

Rhonda had later observed Billy Jack sawing the barrel off of that one remaining gun. Doug had wanted Billy Jack to use the sawed-off shotgun to kill Joyce, in order to prevent her from testifying in court about how Doug had repeatedly raped her on the night of April 3, 1985.

Billy Jack had instead disposed of the stolen and illegally modified shotgun by burying it a short distance west of Joyce’s apartment. He’d then skipped town without having carried out the killing.

Rhonda also informed Terry that her ex-husband had later returned to the cabin to exhume the remaining guns.

Tracing Doug Lovell’s stolen guns

Terry went to work tracking down as many of Doug Lovell’s stolen guns as he could. He soon learned from reading Weber County Sheriff’s Office reports that two of the stolen guns had briefly surfaced in October of 1985, after Joyce Yost had disappeared in August but before Doug was convicted of sexually assaulting her and detained in December.

A man identified in police records as “Scott” had called dispatch from a pawn shop called The Gift House on Ogden’s 25th Street on October 24, 1985 and asked to have serial numbers from a couple of guns checked.

The Gift House Doug Lovell's stolen guns
The Gift House pawn shop on Ogden, Utah’s 25th Street came up multiple times as police investigated the case of several guns stolen from a home in the town of Liberty, Utah in May of 1985. The stolen guns were later linked to Doug Lovell. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Podcasts

The dispatcher ran the serial numbers against NCIC, the FBI’s National Crime Information Center database. The serial number check revealed the guns in question, a Browning 22-caliber rifle and a Beretta 12-gauge shotgun, were both listed on NCIC as having been stolen from a home in the town of Liberty, Utah the prior May.

25th Street Pawn

Another of Doug Lovell’s stolen guns surfaced five years later, in June of 1990 at a different pawn shop. Police records obtained by Cold show an officer with the Ogden police department was conducting a check of pawn shop records when he discovered a business called 25th Street Pawn had purchased a Browning 12-gauge shotgun. The serial number on that shotgun also revealed it was among those stolen from the home in Liberty in May of 1985.

Stolen guns 25th Street Pawn
Weber County Sheriff’s detective Jeff Malan wrote this report detailing the recovery of one of Doug Lovell’s stolen guns from 25th Street Pawn in June of 1990. Investigators at the time had not yet connected Doug to the theft of the firearm.

A Weber County Sheriff’s Office detective made contact with the man who had pawned the Browning shotgun. The detective’s notes, also obtained by Cold, show the man who’d pawned the shotgun had obtained it from a woman with whom he was living. She’d received the gun from her teenage son, who had in turn received the gun from his his father prior to his parents’ divorce. The boy’s father had purportedly purchased the stolen shotgun from The Gift House in 1986.

The discovery linked at least three of Doug Lovell’s stolen guns to The Gift House. But the first two — the Browning rifle and Beretta shotgun — had still not been recovered.

Ron Barney

South Ogden police Sgt. Terry Carpenter had learned from Rhonda Buttars the two guns which had first surfaced in the October, 1985 call from The Gift House had subsequently ended up in the hands of one of Doug Lovell’s old hunting buddies, a man named Ron Barney.

Doug Lovell friends hunting
This photo, provided to South Ogden police by Rhonda Buttars, was marked on the reverse side “Ron, Rick, Pat, Bill at Callao first day of bow hunting Aug. 84.” The men pictured were friends of Doug Lovell. Photo: Weber County Attorney’s Office

Terry had visited Ron at his home in Logandale, Nevada on May 23, 1991.

“I asked Mr. Barney if he had any knowledge about Doug burying some guns and Ron paused for probably 10 seconds and stared at the table, then says, ‘well yeah, he did tell me about some stolen guns. He buried then someplace but I’m not sure where he buried them,’” Terry’s official report on his interview of Ron Barney said.

Ron did not volunteer at that time that he was in possession of two of Doug Lovell’s stolen guns.

“We finally says, ‘well, we’ll give you so long and then if we have to charge you, we’ll charge you with possession,’” Terry said in an April, 2021 interview for Cold.

A year later, in May of 1992, Terry served Doug with a capital murder charge at the Utah State Prison. The Weber County Attorney’s Office had by that point gathered sufficient evidence to tie Doug to Joyce Yost’s presumed death, even in the absence of her body.

Las Vegas Metro Police stolen guns
Archived records obtained from Las Vegas Metro Police in Nevada by way of a public records request confirm Ron Barney possessed two of the guns stolen by Doug Lovell in May of 1985. Highlights added by the Cold team.

A week and a half later, Ron Barney surrendered a Browning 22-caliber rifle and a Beretta 12-gauge shotgun — his friend Doug Lovell’s stolen guns — to Las Vegas Metro Police.

“No charges were ever filed against him and the guns surfaced,” Terry said.

Finding Billy Jack

Terry had by that point in the summer of 1992 located three of the stolen guns. But he had not been able to find or interview Billy Jack. He at last made that connection in July of 1992, just days before Doug was scheduled for a preliminary hearing on the capital murder charge in Utah’s 2nd District Court.

“There was a ton of time and effort and energy and a lot went into that,” Terry said.

Billy Jack was at that time residing in Grand Junction, Colorado. Terry traveled to Grand Junction to confront and interview him. In a written report, Terry noted Billy Jack was “apprehensive” about talking and “is very fearful of Lovell getting out of prison and coming after him or sending someone to kill him.”

Billy Jack also expressed concern that he might face criminal charges for his role in the plot. Terry had assured Billy Jack that was not his intent.

“I had no intention of charging him with anything,” Terry said. “He didn’t do anything, other than assist with the burglary.”

Billy Jack told Terry how he’d buried the sawed-off Winchester shotgun in a cardboard box beneath a pine tree to the west of Joyce Yost’s apartment after refusing to follow through on the murder-for-hire plot. Terry asked if he’d shown Doug the spot.

“I pointed it out one day when we was driving by it,” Billy Jack said, according to a transcript of the interview obtained by Cold. “If Doug never got it, it’s still in that cardboard box, I believe.”

Hear what Ron Barney had to say about the stolen guns in Cold episode 8: Help me, Rhonda

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/help-me-rhonda-full-transcript/
KSL companion story: https://ksltv.com/462464/recording-between-investigator-douglas-lovell-surfaces-in-yost-case/
Talking Cold companion episode: https://thecoldpodcast.com/talking-cold#tc-episode-8