July 4, 1961: Murder & the Enduring Mystery at Dead Horse Point …by Jim Stiles

CRESCENT JUNCTION, UTAH
JULY 7, 1961 10:30 PM MDT. (72 hours later)

In mid-summer, the days linger long in the high desert badlands of southeast Utah. On July 7, 1961, sunset came officially at 8:45 PM.  But near Crescent Junction, thirty miles north of Moab, streaks of crimson clouds hung stubbornly along the western skyline for another hour, far beyond the dark silhouettes of the Island in the Sky plateau, and Dead Horse Point, where all this madness had begun just 72 hours earlier. The heat lingered as well. At sunset, the thermometer still hovered near 90 degrees.

To reach the Junction from the south, travelers used old US Highway 160; the paved road climbed out of the Moab Valley and wound its way north between 2000 foot canyon walls, clung precariously around the edge of Dead Man’s Curve, until it finally emerged from the deep shadows and onto the barren, moonscaped badlands.

As the road approached its intersection with the major east/west highway US6/50, the land was flat and featureless and almost uninhabited. The last five miles were straight as an arrow. But Crescent Junction, a small gas station and café established in 1947 by Ed and Erma Wimmer, was like an oasis of sorts—one of the few points of civilization between Grand Junction, Colorado and Price, Utah.

From that lonely intersection, the views were almost limitless–from Grand Mesa in Colorado to the east, to the Henry Mountains and the Aquarius Plateau far to the west, and south to the Blue Mountains and beyond, the amount of country contained in one sweep of the horizon was staggering. On this evening, an hour past sundown, the afterglow from all these distant features was almost surreal; it seemed as if the light were emanating from the mesas and monuments and mountain peaks themselves— as if they had a life of their own. But the beauty on this particular night was deceiving. Somewhere out there, amidst the lovely, lonely vastness of the empty land, dark, unspeakable secrets and inexplicable horrors laid buriedSilent and bewildering.

Two FBI agents, called down from Salt Lake City to assist in the search, pulled to the southbound side of US 160, less than a mile from the junction, and stopped to stretch their legs and consider the situation. Both men climbed out of their black sedan and leaned against the rear bumper. Special Agent (SA) Dick Taylor lit a cigarette and drew deeply. There was still just enough lingering ambient light to see the smoke dissipate as he exhaled. But it was almost 10:30 PM. Soon it would be pitch black, except for the brilliance of the Milky Way. The waning moon wouldn’t rise for another four hours. For two men from the big city, the star field was impressive. They watched the skies, the fading light on the Book Cliffs and on the darkening mountains and table lands that surrounded them. The two agents talked quietly. They complained about the repressive heat. They marveled at the stars in the desert night and considered the cuisine at the nearby Crescent Cafe. They were especially impressed with the cook and Al Lange’s pie-making skills. But the idle conversation was just a momentary diversion. Mostly, they thought about the girl. Where was she? Where was Dennise Sullivan?

The agents were new to the investigation. They, along with hundreds of law enforcement officers and search and rescue volunteers, were frustrated. They had little hard information to go on. Facts were sparse. Speculation was rampant. It was the lack of any real movement in their investigation that had convinced Grand County’s Sheriff John Stocks he needed federal assistance. At this moment, the FBI had little to offer.

Staring out at the vast, unfamiliar terrain before them, the two agents thought of proverbial needles in countless haystacks. But this wasn’t a needle they were looking for. It was a terrified 90 pound, five foot tall, 15 year old girl, who had seen her mother executed right in front of her, along a lonely stretch of Utah Highway 313–the Dead Horse Point Road. It had all happened in a matter of seconds, for reasons no one could begin to explain. Why? They stared blankly into the night.

The FBI men occasionally saw lights blink on and off in the far distance, amid the mesas and canyons and rugged escarpments that composed this torturous landscape. One agent nodded to the other, noting the lights. They both sighed. The volunteers were still looking, they presumed. Good people. They really want to find that girl.

As SA Taylor stamped out his smoke, another light appeared in the distance. But this was different. It appeared to be a set of headlights, northbound on Highway 160, coming from Moab. They shrugged; it was probably a search and rescue volunteer, or even one of the local deputies. Or maybe just another tourist. Still their attention was drawn to the lights. They hoped for any new clue, any break in the case.

Since the extraordinary events of Tuesday evening—the Fourth of July of all days—law enforcement had worked the case with little new information, but they weren’t totally bereft of it. The shooter surely assumed he’d left two dead bodies by the side of the road, assuring no witnesses to his crimes. But he was wrong. Charles Boothroyd was still alive.

Boothroyd had not only survived, he remembered everything. Every horrid detail. He and Sullivan had been found by an oil well worker, Leonard Brown, who was headed back to his rig near Big Flat. Brown had just passed Aragon’s car a minute before he came upon Boothroyd lying in the roadway. Brown rushed both of them to the Moab hospital. Incredibly, an hour after the shootings, Boothroyd was conscious and able to give the sheriff an accurate description of the killer’s vehicle and a moment-by-moment account of the deadly encounter. He and Brown remembered the license plate’s state and prefix. Boothroyd and Jeanette had even spoken to the man earlier as they’d watched the sunset together from the Point. And Boothroyd recalled something else. He said the man’s name sounded like “Oregon.”

But now, three days later, no one had seen the car or the girl or the suspect. They had vanished. Law enforcement officers waited for a break. The community of Moab was devastated. Its citizens were desperate for news and asked, again and again, the one question everyone wanted an answer to: Have they found her yet?

Crescent Junction

The FBI agents, parked on the shoulder of the southbound lane, watched as the headlights drew closer. It appeared to be a passenger car. The vehicle moved slowly, almost cautiously past them. The two agents stared at the car and were incredulous. They both glanced at their notes. Yes. It precisely matched the description that Boothroyd had provided the sheriff. They looked at each other, almost doubting their own eyes…Is this possible? The FBI men raced for their sedan, started the motor and performed a skidding U-turn on the road shoulder, spraying dust and gravel as they raced to catch up with the light-colored 1955 Ford sedan. As they drew closer, the license plate number came into view.

Taylor looked at his notes again. It was a Utah plate. The prefix matched. “CJ.” A Carbon County, Utah license plate. My God, he gasped. This is the man we’ve been searching for since Tuesday night.

One of the agents called in the sighting to the Grand County Sheriff by 2-way radio and requested backup. The other agent, the driver, activated his emergency overhead red light and pulled up tight on the suspect’s rear bumper. The vehicle began to slow down. They were just south of Crescent Junction and the highway intersection. The Utah Highway Patrol had been maintaining a presence here since Tuesday night, not long after the first bulletin was posted.

Finally, the suspect vehicle began to pull toward the shoulder. The brake lights came on. They were approaching the stop sign and US 6/50. Both cars stopped in a swirl of dust, but as the agents climbed out of their car, they could see the man roll up his window and lock the doors. Across the street, at the gas station, two young men who were working the night shift, Ronald Engstrom and Bucky Taylor, saw the commotion and the red lights and stepped outside for a better view.

The agents approached the vehicle cautiously; SA Taylor came to the driver’s side window and called out to the suspect. “We are FBI. Please step out of the car.” The driver said nothing. The agent asked through the closed window, “Are you Abel Aragon?” The man, agitated, yelled, “Show me some ID!” The agent reached for his badge. He heard the man yell, “Prove it.”

Then Taylor saw the driver turn to his right and reach for an object on the passenger seat. Both agents, in that split second, must have known what was about to happen, and both reached inside their jackets for their service revolvers. But it was too late. The interior of the car flashed brilliantly in the darkness. The agents recoiled and briefly, the gunflash blinded them. In the next instant their vision returned and they peered inside the sedan, weapons drawn. The man, Abel Aragon of Price, Utah, had shot himself once in the right temple with a .22 caliber pistol. He slumped over the steering wheel, blood gushing from the head wound. He was already unconscious.

A state trooper, who witnessed the scene from the junction, ran to the store and told the boys to call an ambulance. One of the FBI agents raced back to the Bureau vehicle, grabbed the microphone for the 2-way radio and called again for assistance. Pat Wimmer, the owner of the Crescent Jct. store, was also deputized by the sheriff; he sprinted to Aragon’s passenger door and broke out the window with the butt of his revolver. More than anything, they wanted to get into the trunk of that sedan. Wimmer reached past Aragon’s motionless body for the car keys. He fumbled at first but finally retrieved them from the ignition. Now looking for the right key in the darkness, he raced to the trunk.

Please…please let us find this girl, and let her be alive. He turned the key and opened the trunk.

There was nobody there.

Where was Dennise Sullivan?

Both agents waited for Sheriff John Stocks and the ambulance to arrive. Stocks took charge of the vehicle. He checked the front bumper of Aragon’s car. It was dented and scuffed, as if it had recently rammed another vehicle. This has got to be him, Stocks thought. He looked at the man, now drifting toward death and apparently taking with him secrets and motives and memories that no one else could begin to understand. They tried desperately to talk to Aragon, but he was unresponsive. The ambulance arrived, driven by Norman Miner, and he and John Stocks moved Aragon to a gurney. The trip to the hospital took less than 20 minutes, but there was nothing the doctors could do. Just past midnight, two hours after he shot himself, and three days after he murdered Jeanette Sullivan, wounded Charles Boothroyd and kidnapped Dennise, Abel Aragon died.

“A TRUE AMERICAN HERO”

No one can know if a man who puts a pistol to his own head ever hears the shot that kills him. Is there a split second when the sound of the blast precedes the eternal blackness to come? For Abel Aragon, it might have been the last gunfire he would ever hear, but it certainly wasn’t the first. Abel Aragon was familiar with weaponry and the taking of lives and the horrors of violence and death. But until just past 9 PM on Tuesday evening, July 4, 1961, no one would have thought to call him a murderer. Abel “Benny” Aragon was an American Hero. He was admired and respected by his friends, cherished by his wife and children, and honored by his country.

Abel Aragon
Abel Aragon

He was born in Fruita, Colorado in 1926 but grew up in Carbon County, Utah, a hundred and fifty miles west. Price, Utah lay in the heart of coal country. Like most young men in the area, Aragon began working in the mines when he was barely a teenager. He started out as a “rope rider” for the High Heat Coal Company. According to one retired miner, “rope riders did the most dangerous work in the mines, balancing precariously on the hitches between coal cars as they wound through darkened tunnels. When the cars were full, the rope rider would signal that it was time to return to the surface. All the while he would balance himself between the two cars, each carrying a ton and a half of coal when full.”

From an early age, Benny Aragon lived with, and even expected, danger. When the war started he joined the Marines. According to his draft card, Aragon was born on July 29, 1924. But in fact, he had fudged his age to qualify for enlistment.Like so many young men of his generation and in that critical time, Aragon would do whatever it took to join the fight. His actual birth date was July 6, 1926.

Many of his hometown buddies joined him, including his friend Chuck Semken. Within a year, he and Semken were sent to the Pacific. They saw action in one brutal battle after another against the Japanese army. It is difficult to explain or understand the kind of courage Aragon repeatedly demonstrated. It has been argued that there is a fine line between bravery and madness; in the savage fighting that Aragon experienced in the Pacific, that line was almost impossible to find.

Few of his friends and loved ones back in Utah had any idea what he and his fellow soldiers were enduring, as they fought their way across a vast ocean, one island at a time, pushing always toward Tokyo and an end to the war. But on March 15, 1945, an article appeared in the Carbon County weekly newspaper, the Sun Advocate. Here are portions of that story, as it was reported 75 years ago…

(Sun-Advocate Editor’s note: This dispatch was written before the Third Marine division, of which Sergeant. O’Brien and Private First Class Aragon are both members, embarked from its Pacific base to play a leading part in the savage battle for Iwo Jima).

A trained mortarman who turned rifleman to participate heroically in one of the roughest tasks in the battle for Guam has been awarded the Navy Cross, the navy’s second ranking battle decoration. The marine, 20-year-old Private First Class Abel B. Aragon of Price, Utah, was one of nine men who attacked Japs entrenched along the crest of a steep, barren hill near Chonito Ridge. He and two others reached the crest.

There, for four hours, Aragon repeatedly exposed himself to silence fire from nearby enemy pits and after being seriously wounded in the left hip, went without medical aid for two hours while continuing to fire on the enemy.  Aragon participated in two attacks on the enemy position. Enemy machine guns opened fire on the first wave of attackers when they moved within 10 yards of the crest, and the marines were forced to find cover in a small gully in the center of the slope.

Nine men made the second attack. Only Aragon, Sergeant Charles Bomar of Houston, Texas, and Corporal Buel W. Bray of Ada, Oklahoma reached the crest. Bray died there.

The Japs rolled grenades down on us when we got near the top,” Aragon said: I don’t know where Bomar went but Bray and I cut across the hill toward an abandoned foxhole. We were crawling on our hands and knees toward an abandoned foxhole. We were crawling on our hands and knees to avoid machine gun fire and a grenade would have exploded under my chest, but Bray warned me in time for me to roll clear. It went off behind me.

Another grenade stopped right beside my head, but Bray told me to start rolling, and I got behind a tiny knoll before it went off.

Just before we reached the trench, Bray saw two Japs in a fox-hole. He killed one with the butt of his rifle and I shot the other. I don’t know why Bray didn’t shoot–maybe he was too excited.”

The marines reached a foxhole 10 yards from the enemy. The Japs attempted to blast them out with grenades. Machine gun fire blazed persistently over their heads. Bray, trying to creep out of the hole, was killed, and it was only a few minutes later that Aragon was wounded–but he continued to fire into enemy positions until another company attacked the enemy flank and captured the hill.

Aragon was evacuated to a rear base hospital. He has since rejoined his company.

Aragon, son of Abel J. Aragon of Price, was a “rope rider” on a coal conveyor for the Uta-Carbon Coal company, Rains, Utah, before enlisting.

The Navy Cross Citation read:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Private First Class Abel Bidal Aragon (MCSN: 867254), United States Marine Corps Reserve, for extraordinary heroism and devotion to duty while serving with the 60-mm. section of Company A, First Battalion, Third Marines, THIRD Marine Division, in action against enemy Japanese forces on Guam, Marianas Islands, 22 July 1944. Assuming the duties of a rifleman in a nine-man group assigned the mission of assaulting a strongly-held enemy ridge, Private First Class Aragon proceeded up the ridge and succeeded in reaching this crest despite withering hostile fire which reduced his group to three men. During the next four hours on the ridge, he repeatedly exposed himself to enemy fire and, on several occasions, succeeded in silencing the fire from near-by Japanese pits. Although sustaining severe wounds in the left hip in one attempt, he continued to fire upon the hostile position for two hours. By his cool courage, fortitude and devotion to duty, Private First Class Aragon upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

*** *** ***

Aragon
Chuck Semken

Aragon survived Guam and went on to see combat in(and survive) Iwo Jima. Like millions of other young American men, Aragon was preparing for the invasion of the main islands of Japan as the summer of 1945 drew to a close. But then came the atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the sudden end of World War II. After years of brutal combat and incessant scenes of horror and death, Aragon was honorably discharged in December 1945 and suddenly, he was home.

Also returning to Carbon County, Utah was his friend and fellow Marine Chuck Semken, who, like his pal Benny, had somehow managed to survive the war. Semken went to work for the Price River Coal company, though eventually he left the mines for a life in law enforcement. He would become a Carbon County deputy sheriff.

For Aragon, mining was still the dangerous occupation he had left behind in 1942, but now, after Guam and Chonito Ridge and Iwo Jima, nothing seemed as hazardous. On June 15, 1946, he married his high school sweetheart, Eva Escondon. They began to raise a family and would eventually have five children.

Aragon was liked and respected by the community. His children were well-behaved. He was conscientious to a fault. No one could find a harsh word for Benny Aragon. Life seemed good.

Carbon County Miners
Carbon County Miners

In early 1958, Aragon’s mettle was tested yet again. According to the Price weekly, the Sun Advocate:

Four Carbon county coal miners working in the Spring Canyon Coal Company mine were killed last Friday when a bounce of severe magnitude, that was felt miles away, and probably followed or was preceded by an explosion sent tons of coal and rock crashing down upon them. Three of the miners were buried under the fall while the fourth escaped being caught under the cave but was probably killed when the explosion threw him against some mining equipment.

A fifth miner, Charles Losik, 61, hoist operator about 100 yards inside the mine, escaped the explosion but was nearly overcome by the coal dust. He managed to get to a mine telephone and reported the accident.

The man who found Losik and led him to safety, according to later press reports, was Benny Aragon. Once again, the war hero had shown remarkable courage. And once again he was hailed by his community.

*** *** ***

But in the early 1960s, the coal industry in Utah began to suffer. The World War had been a boon to coal, but except for a brief bump during the Korean conflict, the demand declined steadily through the 1950s as the nation’s energy needs were met by cleaner and cheaper options, especially natural gas. Layoffs became a growing concern for the miners of Carbon County. Aragon had been laid off briefly in the summer of 1960, but had been called back. Finally, in February 1961, the curtain came down. There just wasn’t enough work to keep him on the payroll. The “reduction in force” felt permanent this time. Suddenly the war hero was unemployed.

Aragon found odd jobs, but not enough to survive. He applied for and received unemployment compensation with the Utah Employment Security Office, but he was now trying to provide for his family on a fraction of his coal miner earnings. In the spring, Aragon grew desperate. He traveled to Moab on several occasions looking for a job in the uranium mines. At one point, probably in June, Aragon met and was befriended by Loren and Genevieve Johnson who lived in a modest home at the far east end of First North in Moab. They had a small peach orchard and Genevieve offered to let Benny camp there. Years later, their daughter Gemie Martin, would recall that brief time in a poignant entry from an online public journal she kept…

Genevieve Johnson
Genevieve Johnson

“When I was seven years old, my parents let an unemployed man named Abel Aragon, from Price Utah, camp out in our peach orchard. Mr. Aragon, a decorated WWII veteran was looking for work in Moab, Utah where we lived. According to Mama, he was somewhat disgruntled that he had sacrificed for his country, but was unable to find the employment necessary to support his family after he returned. Mama seemed under the impression that he had some mental problems which she attributed to his war experiences. I am not sure how my parents became acquainted with Mr. Aragon, but they felt sorry for him and did not feel he posed any danger to their family.”

Neither of her parents thought he was a risk, but both could see how troubled the man was. Years later, when Genevieve Johnson died in 2011, her friends remembered her generosity. They wrote, “As a gentle and kind-hearted soul, she was truly a champion of the underdog. Her needs were always last on her list of priorities, while her wants most often involved filling someone else’s needs.”

She may have been the last person to show that kind of compassion for a man who was clearly coming apart.

Abel Aragon’s 15th wedding anniversary had been June 15, but he wasn’t able to celebrate it with his wife in the manner he had wanted. He was nearly broke. On July 1, Aragon believed he had secured work at a uranium mine, and even contacted his priest, John LaBranche, in Price, Utah, to tell him the good news. But the offer fell through. No one knows why.

On the Fourth of July, 1961, Abel Aragon was away from home, away from the picnics with family and friends, and the celebrations. He chose to spend the holiday alone, in what was then one of the most remote sections of Grand County, the state of Utah, and the American Southwest. In the late morning Aragon made his way north out of Moab Canyon on US 160, to the turn at Seven Mile Canyon and State Route 313. In those days, the road was narrow and winding and treacherous in places. It probably took more than an hour to reach the overlook at Dead Horse Point.

It was another hot day, though not as scorching as the days to come. The temperature in Moab only reached 91 degrees on July 4. Thunderstorms in the late afternoon were as erratic and unpredictable as ever. Moab registered .14 inches for the day. Some parts of the canyon country were drenched; others saw not a drop.

With those kinds of dramatic thunderstorms brewing across the canyonlands, the skies at Dead Horse Point must have been spectacular that afternoon. Aragon sat near the edge of the 2000 foot cliffs and watched the light change. He must have found himself thinking of his past, of his great accomplishments in the war, of his own belief that he was a good man, and wondering how everything could have gone so bad, so quickly. It would have occurred to him— this was July 4. His birthday, July 6, was in two days. He would be 35 years old. What did he have to show for all his years of hard work?

Aerial View of the Moab Valley
Aerial View of the Moab Valley

Aragon was out there, on the edge, alone for most of the day. Occasional tourists, who came and went during the afternoon, visited with him briefly and left. Many would remember him later. He seemed friendly and eager to talk.

Within an hour of sunset, a lone vehicle arrived in the Dead Horse Point overlook parking lot. It was a Volkswagen Beetle with Connecticut license plates. An older gentleman with wire rim glasses stepped out of the driver’s seat. At his side was a woman, perhaps in her late 30s. A young girl, a teenager, climbed out of the back and ran to the overlook to see the view. The threesome saw the man sitting by himself and waved hello. Benny Aragon walked over to Charles Boothroyd and introduced himself.

Boothroyd smiled and shook his hand, but thought, “What a strange name. I never knew anyone named ‘Oregon.‘”

“THE TRIP OF A LIFETIME”

Charles Boothroyd
Charles Boothroyd

Charles Boothroyd was an unassuming bespectacled foreman at the Merrow Machine Company in Hartford Connecticut. Merrow made sewing machines and Boothroyd had been employed there for 29 years. He was a grinder by specialty. Now 55, he was a widower. His wife had died three years earlier. But recently he had met and befriended a woman named Jeanette Sullivan at St John’s Church where they both attended regularly. Jeanette was known for her strong will and determination, especially her desire to make a good home for her two children after two failed marriages. Jeanette had two daughters, Dennise, 15 and Jean, 5. Dennise had just completed her freshman year in high school and was dating Boothroyd’s nephew, Harry Hansen, Jr. She was quiet and reserved but known, even at 15, for her kindness and generosity to others. A relationship grew among Boothroyd and the Sullivans that must have felt like an “instant family” of sorts. Charles and Jeanette began to spend more time together.

Though Boothroyd appeared mild-mannered, he had an adventurous streak, especially when it came to the American West. Starting in 1952, Boothroyd had journeyed across the country each summer, from the East Coast 2000 miles west to the Rocky Mountains. He had become particularly fond of the high desert badlands and canyons of southern Utah. Not long after his wife’s death, he had traveled to Moab, Utah with his nephew. He was also an amateur photographer and loved shooting pictures of the stunning scenery. Charles expressed something akin to awe when he talked about the lands around Moab; he had never seen anything like it.

The previous December, Boothroyd had begun to make plans for a return to southeast Utah, but now the possibility of bringing along some company occurred to him. He mentioned the idea to Jeanette, who was instantly enthusiastic. Daughter Dennise was thrilled. She had never been west of New England and she loved the idea of traveling by car all the way to the mountains and canyons of Colorado and Utah. She said it would be”the trip of a lifetime.” Jeanette made arrangements for her younger daughter Jeannie to stay with her grandmother in Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Jeanette and Charles felt the long hot two week vacation would be too much for a five year old, especially in an un-air conditioned Volkswagen Beetle.

Boothroyd, Dennise Sullivan, and Jeannette Sullivan
Charles Boothroyd, Dennise Sullivan, and Jeannette Sullivan (left to right)

On June 30, the three of them piled into Charles’ green VW Bug and headed west. In those days, the Interstate highway project was in its infancy and many long stretches across Indiana, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado were two lane roads. The going was slow and hot in that little car. But on July 3, the weary threesome rolled into Moab. They surely toured the Arches and explored the river road, both upstream and down, throughout the morning and afternoon. It was scenery the likes of which neither Dennise nor her mother had ever seen or even imagined. Boothroyd, while no expert, must have enjoyed his role as tour guide for the woman he hoped to marry, and the young girl he had come to think of as a daughter.

Charles also wanted to take Jeanette and Dennise to Dead Horse Point and he had hoped to travel down the nearby historic Shafer Trail on the Island in the Sky Plateau. The State of Utah had just designated Dead Horse Point as a state park in 1959, but now, two years later, access to the point was still limited to a rough, dirt road. Amenities were scarce—that summer, the state had installed a few picnic tables and grills—but there was no ranger on duty, nor was there a phone. And that’s what Boothroyd loved about the place. He was anxious to share all this remote beauty with Jeanette and Dennise, but it was getting late in the afternoon of the third, and he knew there would never be enough time to see it all before dark, so they made plans for Tuesday, the Fourth of July.

They rose early, had a quick breakfast and then drove north on US 160. Boothroyd had come to Arches before the new road had been completed in 1958, and he may have pointed to the old entrance road as they approached their turnoff. Just a few hours earlier, Benny Aragon had followed the same route. Boothroyd turned west on 313. He drove past the turnoff to Dead Horse Point and kept traveling south on the unimproved dirt road that led them to the top of the Shafer Trail. They all got out and looked at the switchbacks and twists and turns that the old cattle trail made as it descended more than 2000 feet, to the White Rim. Jeanette and Dennise probably thought Charles was crazy. And in a Volkswagen?

But Charles was feeling adventurous. Later, Boothroyd told a reporter that they drove “35 or 40 miles” on that dirt track, before it finally got too rough and steep. They decided the VW had been tested to the limit and that it might be safer to turn around. They started the long hot drive along the White Rim Trail to the base of the Shafer Trail, then up the torturous switchbacks to the rim of the mesa. At the base of the worst section of road, Charles and the Sullivans stopped to talk with a couple coming down the switchbacks in a British Land Rover. Charles must have wondered if his little VW Bug was up to the task, especially in the one hundred degree heat. But he had confidence in his machine and he would have felt triumphant when they reached the mesa top.

Now it was early evening. Perhaps later than 7 PM. The Boothroyd/Sullivans followed the mesa top road north to the Dead Horse Point turn. Another three miles brought them to the parking lot and the Lookout, with its stunning vista views of the canyon country. Boothroyd let the engine idle a moment in the intense heat, then shut it off. The silence overwhelmed him. As Charles climbed out of the Bug, he saw the solitary figure coming toward them.

DEAD HORSE POINT. JULY 4, 1961. 9 PM

The Boothroyd/Sullivan family had arrived just in time to prepare for a magnificent sunset. Today the skies were full of towering cumulus clouds and storms threatened over the La Sal Mountains to the south. They could see flashes of lightning 30 miles away. Sometimes the distant rumble of thunder made its way to the Point. The lower lying clouds were aglow as the sun began its slow descent over the Orange Cliffs.

Benny Aragon, Charles Boothroyd and Jeanette Sullivan chatted amiably for almost an hour. Aragon explained that he had grown up in the canyon country and was intimately familiar with much of the vast territory they could see from the Lookout. They talked about the other tourists they had seen that day. Aragon had encountered several who came and went during his long hours at the Point. As they talked, Boothroyd realized they’d met some of those same people.

Dead Horse Point
Dead Horse Point

Charles probably shared the story of their day’s drive down the Shafer Trail in the little two-wheel-drive VW. Likewise Aragon spoke of his many adventures and explained some of the lore behind the “Dead Horse Point” name given to this magnificent viewpoint.

As far as we know, Aragon never mentioned his service in the war, or his work in the coal mines. Nor did he refer to his recent financial problems and lack of work, as he had confided to Genevieve Johnson. Perhaps he didn’t want to complain in front of the girl. Maybe he no longer had the energy.

The last remnants of the day’s sun finally disappeared behind the clouds and the distant canyon rims and plateaus. Boothroyd said goodbye to their new friend. He and the Sullivans walked back to the Beetle, started up the tired hot engine and began the 33 mile drive back to Moab. Abel Aragon nodded farewell and once again found himself alone. Darkness was coming soon.

Boothroyd had traveled no more than two or three miles when he glanced in his rear view mirror and saw a vehicle gaining quickly on them. It appeared to be the Ford sedan belonging to the man they’d just met. The Ford whizzed by them and Charles and Jeanette wondered what the rush was. But soon Aragon’s tail lights dimmed and vanished as he raced ahead. It was almost 9 PM. Dusk.

Boothroyd didn’t see another car light for 15 minutes. But about eight miles from the junction with Highway 160, he spotted a car by the side of the road and instantly recognized it as the ’55 Ford sedan. He must be in trouble, Boothroyd thought, and pulled over to offer a helping hand. Aragon had lifted the hood of the car and appeared to be playing with the wiring. Boothroyd could see the man jiggling the wiring.

“Can I help?” Boothroyd asked.

“Generator trouble, I think.” Aragon wondered if he could borrow a flashlight. Boothroyd walked back to the car, retrieved the flashlight and returned to Aragon who slammed the hood and walked to the driver’s door. He reached into the Ford and pulled out a .22 caliber bolt action Stevens rifle and aimed its barrel at Boothroyd’s head. Boothroyd was incredulous.

“Is this a hold up?” he asked, stunned beyond belief.

Aragon nodded. “I want your money.”

Jeannette Sullivan and daughter Dennise
Jeannette Sullivan and daughter Dennise

By now Jeanette Sullivan had exited the Volkswagen and was about to join this completely unexpected turn of events. She was furious. The exchange between Aragon and Sullivan was never told in full by Boothroyd. But he said that his fiancé was livid. Aragon demanded Boothroyd’s wallet, which contained all the cash for their two week vacation—about $250. He told Boothroyd to place the wallet on the ground. Charles immediately complied. But in the next moment, Jeanette bent over and retrieved the wallet from the sandy road shoulder. She opened it up and saw the stash of bills. She pulled from it a small amount of the cash, perhaps as little as twenty or thirty dollars. She threw the bills on the ground, kept the wallet and the remainder of the $250 firmly in her hand. She turned her back and walked toward the VW. Aragon screamed at her to stop.

Boothroyd remembered later that Sullivan turned again and said icily, “You’ve got your money. Now what else do you want?” Abel Aragon replied, “I guess I will decide that.”

Jeanette Sullivan muttered something, and turned to leave, one last time. Abel Aragon aimed his rifle at the back of her head, less than ten feet away, and fired one shot. She pitched forward into the sand and gravel. Aragon quickly worked the bolt action and turned it on Boothroyd, who now stood paralyzed, just a few feet from him. Charles saw the barrel of the rifle swing toward him, heard the bolt action again, and raised his hands in front of his face.

Aragon fired once more. The bullet struck him in the face, just below his right eye. Boothroyd collapsed on the ground but he was still conscious and instinctively trying to assume a defensive posture. His hands still struggled futilely to protect his head. Boothroyd remembered later that as he lay writhing on the ground, Aragon realized Charles was still alive. Standing over Boothroyd, Benny fired yet again, at almost point blank range. The second .22 slug struck him in the face, in almost the same location. Boothroyd saw flashes of light inside his own head. The world began to spin wildly out of control, Charles could no longer see or hear or even think. Everything was happening so fast. Boothroyd crumpled into a fetal pose, shrinking, trying to become a smaller target. Then Boothroyd stopped moving. He had lost consciousness.

Aragon stood numbly over the two lifeless bodies. It was Chonito Ridge all over again.

Dennise Sullivan
Dennise Sullivan

But the girl…Dennise had stayed in the car when Charles first stopped to assist Aragon. At first, she may have been slightly annoyed at the delay. It was almost dark, she was hungry and looked forward to a good meal and a soft bed. Then, in a matter of seconds her world disintegrated in front of her. She watched in terror as Aragon took aim at her mother and fired into the back of the head. She could see the blood. This was the man who just 30 minutes earlier had seemed so kind and friendly. And then there was Charles, shot twice and apparently dead as well. Suddenly this 15 year old child was completely on her own. Alone in the middle of nowhere. Dennise climbed from the back of the VW and into the driver’s seat and started the engine. She had never driven a car in her life. But somehow she got it in gear and lurched forward.

Aragon by now was no longer Benny Aragon. Who or what he had become will forever elude us. He stood there in the approaching darkness, surveying his kills, lost in his rage. What next? Then he heard the Volkswagen start and saw it pull onto the roadway. Benny didn’t even have time to gather his loot (the wallet and most of the cash was later recovered).

The girl is getting away. She’s a witness.

Aragon leapt into the front seat of his sedan and punched the accelerator, spraying rock and gravel as he raced to stop the girl. On the ground, incredibly, Boothroyd was slowly regaining consciousness. Still dazed and in pain, he saw Aragon roar away and realized that his VW was gone as well. He tried to stand but he fell back down on the pavement. He was bleeding profusely from his face and hands. He could barely see out of his right eye and wondered if he were blind, or if the bullet had penetrated his brain. He looked over his shoulder and saw Jeanette. She was motionless. Boothroyd was sure she was dead.

At that moment, Leonard Brown, a rig foreman who was living on site at a Brinkerhoff well near Grandview Point, was driving back to his trailer after a day in Moab. He had gone to town for the Fourth Of July festivities, to call his children and, as he told it later, “to clean up a bit” after a long week at the drill site. He had left the Highway 160 turnoff and traveled west on Rt 313 when he saw an eastbound car coming at him at a high rate of speed. Brown thought nothing of it and assumed it was a tourist eager to get back to Moab for the evening. But he had not traveled any farther than 200 or 300 yards, when he saw the green Volkswagen by the roadside. Still, it didn’t cause alarm. He certainly didn’t sense a connection. If it had been in trouble, he reasoned, the car Brown had just passed would have offered assistance. That’s the way people were out here. And so he didn’t give it another thought. Nothing sinister ever happened in these rare parts.

Charles Boothroyd
Charles Boothroyd

But eight miles west of the Highway 160 junction, near the Bartlett Flat turnoff, his headlights illuminated a bizarre sight. A man lay in the middle of the road, his face and hands and shirt sleeves were drenched in blood. The man continued to hold his hands close to his face, as if he were trying to hold his head together. To Leonard Brown, it looked as if the man had been in a very rough fist fight. Brown pulled over and jumped out of his car, and ran to assist him.

“What in the hell has happened here?” Brown yelled. Boothroyd was able to speak, but just barely. Charles said he’d been shot and robbed. Brown, by coincidence, had a radio telephone in his car, which under normal conditions allowed him to stay in contact with his bosses in Colorado. But now he punched in the numbers to call the Grand County Sheriff. As he waited for the call to go through, Brown heard a moan coming from the scrub brush beyond the roadway. Stunned, he asked Boothroyd, “Is there somebody else out here?”

All Boothroyd could say was, “I tried to move her.”

Leonard Brown found Jeanette Sullivan a few feet off the highway. She was still alive but unconscious. He could see blood oozing from a wound in the back of her head.

Brown completed the call to Moab but decided there wasn’t enough time to wait for the sheriff. Somehow he moved Sullivan to the backseat of his car and helped Boothroyd, who was now growing more incoherent, into the front seat. Brown and his critically injured passengers set off for Moab. A few miles later, Boothroyd saw the VW, where it had been run off the right side of the road, and told Brown to stop.

Charles said, “I hope the daughter is alright.” It was the first Leonard Brown had heard of a third victim. They both saw damage to the rear bumper and to the driver’s side door. Brown got out and shined a light into the VW. There was nobody there.

It was easy to surmise what had happened— Dennise had tried to escape in the VW, but had no driving experience; she had managed to travel less than a mile before Aragon overtook her and rammed the small car from behind, then hit it broadsides. She lurched to a stop and tried to get away, into the darkness, but Aragon grabbed her before she could get very far and dragged her back to his Ford. He may have thrown her into the trunk, or he may have tried to keep her restrained next to him on the front seat. Nobody knows.

To his horror, Brown now realized that the Ford sedan he had passed earlier, just a few hundred yards before he saw the VW, was the killer’s car. Had Brown left Moab just three minutes earlier, he may well have come upon the two vehicles as Aragon attempted to drag Dennise from the Volkswagen. He thought of his Moab friends who had earlier delayed his departure when they encouraged him to stay in town with them. That delay saved my life, he thought.

He knew he would have stopped and tried to intervene. And like a cold chill down his spine, he also realized he most likely would have become the fourth victim of this insane man, who was now at large, somewhere within a few miles in this forbidding country, in the middle of the night, with a terrified 15 year old girl.

The Road to Dead Horse Point
The Road from Dead Horse Point, near Bartlett Flat

*** *** ***

Leonard Brown drove as carefully as he could over the rough and only partially paved road toward the Highway 160 junction. In the backseat, Jeanette Sullivan was motionless and Brown feared she was dead. But Boothroyd, despite his horrific wounds, was conscious and reasonably alert. Both men wondered how he could possibly have survived two gunshot wounds to the face, fired at close range. It had been his reflexes and sheer luck that saved him. The bullets that hit Charles were fired from a .22 caliber rifle. A larger caliber slug would have killed him. And, at the instant Aragon fired, Boothroyd realized Aragon was aiming for his head and instinctively drew his hands in front of his face. The bullet struck his right index finger, and shattered the bone before it entered his right cheek. The deflection reduced the slug’s velocity and caused it to slightly ricochet; instead of penetrating the bone, it lodged in it. Now, despite all that, he watched the road and prayed that Jeanette was still alive, and that no harm would come to Dennise.

Charles Boothroyd
Charles Boothroyd

When they reached the highway junction, a car was parked nearby and a man was standing beside the front door. Brown saw the vehicle and swung his headlights directly at the man. “Is that him? Brown asked. “Is that the guy?” But it wasn’t. Boothroyd shook his head and Brown pulled back on the highway and sprinted the last ten miles to the Dr. I.W. Allen Hospital in Moab. The doctor on duty, Dr. J.R. Alexander, pronounced Jeanette Sullivan dead on arrival, and turned his attention to Boothroyd, who was lucid and wanted to talk. By now Sheriff John Stocks had arrived with his deputies. As the medical staff bandaged his wounds and prepared him to be transported to LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, Charles Boothroyd was able to provide a detailed minute-by-minute account of the last two hours. He told them about Dennise, that she had clearly been kidnapped, and he described her abductor. The man was short and stocky—perhaps 5’7″ and 170 pounds—and he believed the shooter was between 35 and 38 years of age. He remembered the car. It was a 1954 or 1955 light-colored Ford sedan, with Utah plates. He had somehow even managed to remember part of the license plate–the prefix. It was “CJ.”

Stocks looked at his deputies. That’s Carbon County. He instructed his office to prepare a description of the man, the girl, the vehicle, and the events of the evening, and put it on the teletype as a BOLO (Be On the Look Out). He ordered roadblocks on all roads leading into Moab and out of it. The State Highway Patrol extended the roadblocks to Green River, but there was no sign of the car that night. The suspect had close to a two hour head start; there were hundreds of miles of jeep and mining roads, dozens of abandoned mine shafts and shacks, scattered throughout the countryside. The suspect and the girl could be anywhere.

As Boothroyd spoke to the sheriff, he remembered another detail. During his short conversation with the man at Dead Horse Point, before his world had gone mad, it occurred to Charles that the shooter had introduced himself by name. Now Boothroyd passed the information along to Sheriff Stocks—that the man’s name sounded like “Oregon.”

Chuck Semken
Chuck Semken

Calls were made to adjacent counties, to law enforcement agencies throughout the area, in Utah and Colorado, and to the FBI in Salt Lake City. But the first call must have gone to the Carbon County Sheriff’s Department in Price. The “CJ” prefix directly linked the crime vehicle to the county that lay just 100 miles north. Perhaps the suspect was headed in that direction. Soon, all law enforcement officers in the Price area were called in to assist. Among them was Deputy Chuck Semken. As the deputy read the report and the BOLO, he saw the reference to the odd name. Oregon? Semken stared at the word for a few moments. Odd, he thought. That almost sounds like Benny. His old war buddy, Abel Aragon. He read the vehicle description; it matched Benny’s. Semken must have tried to convince himself that he was wrong. That the conclusion he was racing toward could not possibly be the right one. That Benny Aragon could never be part of something as horrific as this. But he was a good cop and he had to follow the facts. He took his hunch to the sheriff. Hours later, after checking with Aragon’s wife, the investigation had its prime suspect. The physical description matched, so did the car. Even the motive—robbery—made a sort of grudging sense to those who knew how desperate the man was for money. But the rest of it… it was incomprehensible. Impossible. And yet the cold, brutal facts were leading everyone to an inescapable conclusion.

But where was he? And where was Dennise Sullivan?

THE SEARCH

From the moment Leonard Brown passed Aragon on the road on Tuesday evening, no one had seen a trace of the 1955 Ford or Aragon or Dennise. Despite multiple roadblocks and alerts to all law enforcement agencies within 500 miles, despite a call to the Air National Guard, who put planes in the air on Wednesday morning, and despite a request to the FBI to join the investigation, the suspect and his kidnap victim had vanished. Not a single clue had turned up. The Grand County Jeep posse, a volunteer organization from Moab, sent over a hundred vehicles into the barren backcountry in search of the missing Ford. Their leaders, G.A Larsen and C.E. Aldridge sadly reported that they had found nothing.

Grand County Sheriff John Stocks
Grand County Sheriff John Stocks

On Thursday, the Grand County Sheriff received a call from a gas station attendant in Moab. He said a woman was there, asking about her husband. The woman seemed distraught and the attendant thought she might be referring to the suspect. Law enforcement arrived within minutes and it was indeed Eva Aragon. She was frantic, worried that the man involved was Benny, but she hoped against hope that she was wrong. She conceded to the deputies that her husband owned two weapons— a rifle and a pistol. Both were .22 caliber. The information cemented their suspicions, and now they knew he was armed with more than just the rifle. But they still had no idea where he was.

Thursday passed. All day Friday, the search continued, with not a single new clue or lead. And then came Friday night, and the improbable confrontation with the FBI at Crescent Junction, and the one last gunshot that ended it all for Abel Aragon. Dennise was not in the car. Sheriff Stocks said, “There’s only one person in the world who knows where she is…and he’s dead.” The veteran sheriff had no idea what to do next.

*** *** ***

The first “break” came on Saturday. Bill Beck, a miner, was in Moab on Saturday afternoon to pick up a truck he had left at a garage a couple days earlier to be serviced. Beck had been doing some prospecting on Polar Mesa, a very inaccessible plateau and a once active mining district in the shadow of the La Sal Mountains. It was a hard 35 mile drive from the mesa to Moab. There were no telephones on Polar Mesa and Beck was just now learning the details of Tuesday night’s shootings. As he read the description of the suspect, it all sounded familiar to him and he got in contact with the sheriff.

Google Aerial of Polar Mesa
Google Aerial of Polar Mesa

On Wednesday morning, at 2 AM, just five hours after the shootings, a man had approached Beck near his trailer on the mesa. No one has ever explained why Beck was awake at that hour of the night, or why Aragon would have seen him. But the man saw Beck and asked if he might do a favor for him. Beck said he would. Aragon handed John Beck a letter and asked if he would mail it for him. The stamped envelope was addressed to Eva Aragon in Price, Utah. Beck agreed to mail the letter. Aragon thanked him and disappeared into the night. The next day Beck drove to Moab, dropped off the truck at the garage, and completely forgot about the letter. On Saturday, when he realized that the mysterious 2 AM stranger on Polar Mesa might be Aragon, and called the sheriff, the sealed envelope was still sitting on the front seat of his truck. In it was a small amount of cash and a note to his wife, telling her to use the money to pay some bills.

Law enforcement was already headed for Polar Mesa. Deputy Tom Wells, unaware of Bill Beck’s revelations, was checking out a wrecked car on the switchbacks. He had surely taken the same route that Aragon had followed on Tuesday night. Aragon would have only stayed on the main highway for seven miles, until he crossed over the Colorado River bridge and turned left on Highway 128. The river road was dirt and gravel in those days, but few traveled it, especially at night. He would have made his way along the river for 13 miles, to the junction with the Castle Valley/La Sal Loop road where a right turn would lead him into the mountains. Eventually he would have left the loop road and followed the steep switchbacks, eventually topping out on the Mesa.

According to reports from that week, about twenty people were living up there in the summer of 1961. Polar Mesa had been an active mining area, specifically for uranium, going back to the early part of the 20th Century. One mining report from 1952 explained that, “The uranium-bearing Salt Wash member of the Morrison formation is exposed on the mesa sides and in part on the top.” Interest in the Polar Mesa deposits exploded in the 1950s, in the wake of Charlie Steen’s discovery. The mesa was crisscrossed with jeep tracks and mine shafts. Abandoned trailers still dotted the flat top.

As Deputy Wells contacted some of the mesa residents regarding the unrelated wrecked car, he suddenly realized that the significance of his investigation was about to expand dramatically. The murder suspect that law enforcement had sought in vain since Tuesday night had been there. In fact, their suspect had conversed with some of the people he had just interviewed. Mrs. Nathan Ince told Wells that she thought their killer had been on the mesa for a few days. She had even shared coffee with him on a couple of mornings. News of the killing and kidnapping had reached some of the Polar Mesa residents on Thursday, though the information was sketchy. Aragon had even asked her if there had been any new leads and,curiously, according to Ince, he expressed an interest”in the murder of those two people.” It had not occurred to Aragon that anyone could have survived Tuesday night.

Ince knew that Aragon had occupied one of the abandoned trailers, but that on both Wednesday and Thursday evenings, she had seen him leave the trailer around 8 PM. She never noticed what time he came back. And once he came to Mrs. Ince and asked her if she had “heard a girl scream.” Ince had heard nothing but,in retrospect, she wondered if he was testing her. Ince and others who lived on the mesa had thought Aragon’s sudden arrival and subsequent behavior “was suspicious,” but none of them linked his actions to the July 4 crimes. No one could remember when they saw him for the last time. He most likely left his Polar Mesa hideout after dark on Friday night, and slowly retraced his route back to the river road, to US 160, and to his fateful, fatal confrontation at Crescent Junction.

Now almost all efforts to find Dennise concentrated on Polar Mesa. If there were clues to be found, they would be here. Law enforcement officers and civilian volunteers combed the area. On Sunday afternoon, July 9, a 20 year old man, Dale White, found clothing—two pairs of men’s work pants and a red and brown work shirt—believed to be Aragon’s. They were stashed between two large rocks and partially concealed by tree foliage.

Dan Winbourne
Dan Winbourne

There were tire tracks and footprints everywhere. The distinctive waffle-style tread on Aragon’s work boots was easily recognized and identified, as were the tire tracks from his Ford. Sheriff Stocks said the tire tracks “went all over the place.” That same afternoon, another Moab resident, Virgil Beauchamp, found something else. Aragon’s tracks were clearly discernible, but alongside his tracks were those of a smaller individual. Conservation officer, Dan Winbourne was called in to examine the footprints. A seasoned tracker, Winboure followed the tracks for more than a mile. He noted that the smaller set of tracks stayed very close to the larger set, as if the person were being kept in check. At one point, the scuffle of tracks suggested a struggle had occurred. But eventually Winbourne lost the trail. There is no information now to indicate the specific location of those tracks or the direction they were taking.

The following day, July 10, Winbourne made the most significant discovery of the investigation. Left under the thick low hanging branches of a juniper tree, Winbourne found a .22 caliber bolt action Stevens rifle and a short handled shovel. The rifle was sent to the FBI laboratory where tests later confirmed it was the murder weapon.

Now the search intensified. From the beginning Sheriff Stocks put his deputies on 24 hour service, hoping he could find the girl before time ran out. No one complained. And he was intimately familiar with Polar Mesa; he had been a mine superintendent there in the 1930s. Stocks pressed into service over one hundred volunteers to scour the area. Multiple shafts had been constructed on the mesa over the last 30 years. Now, miners familiar with the old mines volunteered to re-locate and search them. One recalled an abandoned air vent to another abandoned mine that few were aware of. A five man crew from URECO located the vent but found nothing.

On Tuesday, July 11, the sheriff heard from a man in Price. His name was Adolph Herrera and identified himself as a friend of Aragon’s. He said that he and Benny had worked mining claims on the mesa a few years earlier and wanted to help. Herrera toured the mesa with law enforcement but he was unable to provide any additional information.

A few days later, Sheriff Stocks himself thought he might have found a clue, in a very different location. Fourteen miles upstream from the Colorado River Bridge, he had found footprints in the mud along the river bank. It appeared as if someone had dragged an object to the water’s edge. He called for assistance and consequently, the river was dragged for days, at various locations, by Moab boat club skipper M.J. Henningson and search leader Eben Scharf. Skin diver Jack Taylor offered his services and searched various locations. Again, their efforts yielded nothing.

The investigation moves to the river...
The investigation moves to the river…

*** *** ***

In the days since the murder/kidnapping, the story had spread across the nation. It was front page news on daily newspapers coast-to-coast, and was reported in national television newscasts. Every wire service sent reporters to Moab. Life magazine carried a story in its next issue and sent a photographer as well. Eventually, Robert D. Mullins, who reported the story for the Deseret News, won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the July 4 murders

The publicity led to hundreds of calls and scores of “tips,” from as far away as Chicago, Connecticut and North Carolina. One caller suggested the murders were linked to similar homicides in Nevada that had occurred the previous year. A man visited the sheriff’s office in Moab and asked for a piece of Dennise’s clothing or a blood sample. Later a deputy explained that the man was convinced he could find the girl “via some adaptation of the ancient ‘witchcraft stick.'”

One report was more specific. A couple, only identified in news reports as “the Petersons,” were camped at “Day’s Cabin,” on the night of July 4. The cabin was located near the Castle Creek crossing of the road to Polar Mesa. Late on that Tuesday evening, they both claim to have heard a gunshot and a car door slam. They reported their experience to the sheriff’s office, but again, the tip led nowhere.

As the second week of the search drew to a close, hopes of finding the girl were fading. A frustrated Sheriff Stocks told reporters, “All we can do is check and re-check that seventy mile strip of land between the murder and Polar Mesa…I hope we can find the girl, if only to give her a decent burial.” By the third week of July, all hope of finding Dennise Sullivan had faded to nothing, though over the next few months, searchers continued to scour the area for clues. Tourists who visited Moab had heard the story, and throughout the summer, the most commonly asked question was, “Did they ever find the girl?”

*** *** ***

On Saturday, July 8, the body of Jeanette Sullivan was transported to Salt Lake City by hearse. Three days later, her casket was placed on a train to Boston, Massachusetts, where it was met by her parents, William and Grace Beaver, on July 11. She was buried on July 13 in Fall River, MA at the St Stephen’s Episcopal Church. The family had considered delaying the funeral, in hopes that Dennise’s body might be found and the two could be buried together, but they were advised that it was now unlikely that the girl would be found.

Charles Boothroyd spent three weeks in LDS Hospital and endured several surgeries to repair damage to his hand and face. He was allowed to be interviewed by reporters a week after the shooting. And toward the end of July, his son flew out to be with him and to take him home. They drove back to Connecticut, 2000 miles, in the same Volkswagen Beetle.

On Wednesday, July 12, a Requiem Mass was held for Abel “Benny” Aragon at the Notre Dame de Lourdes Catholic Church in Price, Utah. He was buried in the Price City Cemetery. That week, Alex Bene Jr, the editor of the local paper, the Sun Advocate, wrote a poignant editorial about the week’s revelations, which had shaken the community to its core. In part he wrote:

Another tragedy which screamed headlines throughout the land has struck southeastern Utah not only for the Sullivan family of Connecticut but for a Carbon county family. We do not condone the actions of Abel Aragon in this instance but what are we going to allow to happen to the innocent family left by Abel Aragon. How are we going to explain to our children so that they will not make heartbreaking remarks to the children of this family?

We can only ask ourselves the question: “Why do such things happen to an apparently normal person?” When a man, who has served his country valiantly in time of war, has saved other people’s lives, has loved his wife and children and tried hard to provide for them, to give them a good home, and to rear them to be religious law-abiding citizens, commits murder, can such a person be in his right mind?

The Aragon family needs the tolerance and understanding of everyone in the community. Can’t we all try to ease their pain in giving them the compassion and understanding they so desperately need?

Earlier, he had told the Deseret News that, “[Aragon] had become despondent, couldn’t find work in the mines…it was the only thing he knew.”

ONE YEAR LATER & BEYOND

No trace of Dennise Sullivan was ever found. In July 1962, Salt Lake Tribune reporter Dan Robinson looked back at the events of a year earlier. He contacted some of the men who were deeply connected to what had already become an enduring mystery. What happened to the girl?

A posse of searchers
A posse of searchers

Sheriff John Stocks still agonized. He feared Dennise had most likely been thrown into the river and felt sure she would never be found. But he was clearly still haunted. “I don’t know what we could have done differently. Cooperation from everyone was wonderful. It’s a sad thing…”

Bates Wilson, the superintendent at Arches National Monument had also been an active participant. In fact, early rumors suggested that Aragon may have tried to escape into the Arches. Bates remembered that it was “a terrible time…I have a daughter about the same age as Dennise, and I couldn’t shake the thought that the girl might be tied up somewhere in the heat, without water or food. That’s why we checked every shack and abandoned mine we could find.”

Leonard Brown, the man who had passed Aragon’s car on the road and had found Boothroyd and Sullivan, told the Tribune, “I still can’t shake what happened and I still cannot believe the girl was in that car when I passed the car, just minutes after the shooting.”

For years, tourists to Moab would ask about Dennise…did they ever find the girl? And locals would hike into the highlands near Polar Mesa to search for any sign that might have been missed.

Gemie Martin would still remember, decades later. It was her mother, Genevieve Johnson, who had offered Aragon a place to camp in their peach orchard, just days before the incident. Martin wrote recently:

“My parents did not talk much about this incident within my earshot, but I was aware of it. I began having nightmares and was noticeably more anxious than normal during the day. Mama began to question me in order to determine what my problems were. I confided to her that I was worried about being kidnapped. I remember her assuring me. ‘You don’t have to worry about being kidnapped; your parents are poor.’

‘Hallelujah, we’re poor,’ I remember thinking. I immediately felt more secure, wrapped in the protection of our poverty. Mama did not tie the reason for my fear to the kidnapping of Dennise Sullivan, who was likely taken because she was a witness to the murder and attempted murder. It wasn’t until I was several years older that I realized I could be kidnapped for reasons other than ransom.”

*** *** ***

Two thousand miles away, in Rockville, Connecticut, Charles Boothroyd remembered the first anniversary of the July 4 murders as well. He was interviewed by Daniel Cuff of the Deseret News for the Associated Press. He had finally returned to his job as a machinist for the Merrow Machine Company. His life in most respects had returned to normal. He had traded in the battered Volkswagen, and replaced it with another one. The nightmares were not as frequent and he had finally been able to sleep without medication. He could no longer ponder the ‘what ifs.’ Earlier he had revealed to a reporter that he and Jeanette often talked about marriage and had even considered getting married during the vacation. “That’s why we wanted to bring Dennise along,” he explained.

Now all that was gone and he was trying to move on with his life. But it never went away completely. “I think about it sometimes,” he said, “and I get the feeling I should go out there and look for her, or try to find her grave.”

He thought for a moment. “But people don’t realize how big the country is out there.”

EPILOGUE: The terrible events of July 4, 1961 were still being discussed regularly by Moabites when I came to Utah in the late 1970s. Over the years, I learned bits of information from those who remembered and even participated in the search, including a brief chat with Carbon County Deputy Chuck Semken. When I began to search for more information, the old Times-Independent microfilm reports from July 1961 were an excellent starting point. But access to newspaper archives across the country, and other online documents, via the internet, dramatically expanded my understanding of that long week in July 1961. 

But I am still searching for more facts. While I believe this is the most thorough and comprehensive narrative assembled with regard to the July 4, 1961 crimes, it is nowhere near complete. My efforts to access the old law enforcement reports from the Grand County Sheriff’s Office were unsuccessful. I am currently in the process of filing a Freedom of Information Act request with the Federal Bureau of Investigations and may seek a similar avenue with Grand County, Utah. 

Also, if there are readers of this article who remember the events, especially if they participated in the investigation or the search, I would love to hear from you. Write to me at: cczephyr@gmail.com

Regarding this story, I have attempted to follow the timeline as accurately as possible, based on the dozens of news reports that I was able to access. In July 1961, reporters from newspapers and magazines across the country descended on Moab in search of a story. Though the best sources of information came from local and regional media outlets, small tidbits and clues from publications as far away as New England, and overlooked by others, helped connect the dots and clear up questions that had baffled me. All quotes and dates and times and locations were derived directly from those 60 year old news stories. However, I have had to occasionally resort to literary license when the various reports of the time conflicted with each other. If you were there and you see a mistake in my narrative, I want to know about it and correct it. I would greatly appreciate your constructive criticisms and contributions. Thanks… JS

Jim Stiles is Founding Publisher and Senior Editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr.

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16 comments for “July 4, 1961: Murder & the Enduring Mystery at Dead Horse Point …by Jim Stiles

  1. Lynn
    June 1, 2021 at 9:56 am

    Great story, excellent writing Jim.

  2. June 1, 2021 at 5:07 pm

    There are so many forms of murder: https://www.yelp.com/city/crescent-junction-ut-us Buhbye, Crescent Junction.

  3. Martha Karen Stilson
    June 2, 2021 at 5:53 am

    Remember it plain as day, and still wonder about the girl….always hoping some day they find her….it was a sad thing for Moab…..remember everyone upset and wondered who it was….

  4. Kay
    June 2, 2021 at 9:58 am

    Jim, I was living in another state at the time of the murder and knew nothing about this terrible event until I sat glued to the screen the morning of June 2, 2021 and read your article. The way you write and the way you use facts and dates to tell a story is an inspiration to me.

    Kay

  5. Evan
    June 2, 2021 at 11:58 am

    How sad! My first-ever view of southern Utah came from an October ’81 Dead Horse Point sunrise, where I had arrived at an empty state park at midnight and slept on a picnic table right by the brink of the cliff. The sun woke me to one of the more spellbinding views I had ever experienced. Never occurred to me how vulnerable I might have been. By the late 80s, there was no more sleeping on picnic tables for me. Another vestige of another world.

  6. June 3, 2021 at 5:45 pm

    Very compelling and superbly written! You no doubt are aware that Dennise is listed in the NamUs database as MP#8784 which does give contact info for the investigating agencies, see https://www.namus.gov/MissingPersons/Case#/8784/details
    May her remains someday be found.

  7. Gemie Martin
    June 6, 2021 at 9:57 am

    Wonderful article Jim. Even though I was only 7 at the time, and quite traumatized at the events, I remember it like it was yesterday.

  8. Marjorie Haun
    June 6, 2021 at 5:01 pm

    Jim, your account is well constructed and the retell places readers in the midst of this 6 decades-old tragedy. It’s funny how this story has lingered in the minds of Moabites who lived through the days, weeks and months or horror and heartbreak. Moab lost its innocence then. You’ve done great work revisiting this haunting chapter in our common history.

  9. Kathleen RAFFOUL
    June 7, 2021 at 1:47 pm

    Having read all the Ellen Meloy books, I have since always wanted to visit Moab and the area. This article adds another dimension to my vision of Moab. Since my health has declined, I will never see it; but reading about this adds to my fascination about Moab and yearning to see it. Thanks for this sad and disturbing account of a hero turned killer. Other lives destroyed by the horror of war and the tragedy of unemployment. Very well written.

  10. June 8, 2021 at 3:55 pm

    Poignant. If this were fiction, it’d be a read tough to put down. The author’s attention to detail, “getting it all right”, covering the bases, the pacing — i’d enthusiastically say “it’s a good read” — but, due to the subject, the lingering uncertainty, and, yes, the horror — I really don’t know what to say, but tried … good job, Jim !

  11. John Molloy
    June 10, 2021 at 6:41 pm

    What a riveting tale, well-told.

  12. Dr. Steve Lacy
    June 13, 2021 at 9:19 pm

    Jim,
    I wrote a small book in 1979 “What Ever Happened to Denise Sullivan?”
    My name Dr. Steve Lacy

    • Jim Stiles
      June 14, 2021 at 7:57 am

      Hi Steve…Thanks. I had not heard of your book until a few days ago, when someone mentioned it on a fb page. If you know where I can get a copy, let me know. Also, we don’t permit personal contact information to be posted on the comments. Sorry. Jim

  13. June 17, 2021 at 11:47 am

    Jim,

    I read the story and was amazed by it. You did an excellent job of putting the known facts together and making a good readable story from them. Keep up the god work.

    M. Dean Blanck

    P.S

  14. July 14, 2021 at 2:05 pm

    I remember it, how terrified we felt. moab radio, kura announcer news man , Les Erbs if i remember right, or Dixie Barks, owner would keep us updated. I also remember how horrible those roads were in 1961..narrow, dirt, steep, curvy, just plain scarey to me. I still look up at the rocks coming south in to town and wonder if that poor little girl is up there somewhere. Can’t believe no one has stumbled upon her in 60 years of tourists everywhere.

  15. July 25, 2021 at 3:59 pm

    For years and years after the murders, Moab parents would tell their young daughters when they went out dates, “remember Dennise Sullivan”. Girls at Moab slumber parties would tell spooky Dennise Sullivan stories, as would river runners around campfires. Folks on the street would sometimes say things like good-day and “remember Dennise Sullivan”. At that time it appeared her spirit would never find a home.

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