Wyoming has been, and probably always will have been, the easiest of these unbelievable unsolved murder articles to research and narrow down into ten examples. As the least populous state in the USA, it simply doesn’t have the numbers to compete with California, Washington, Florida or New York. Yet it also just doesn’t have the uncanny brutality evident in some places, like it’s southern neighbor – Colorado.
I spent most of grades 3-8 growing up in Wyoming, formative years which I look back upon with gratitude. Many people believe that the empty spaces, low population and rustic lifestyle of Wyoming – along with the damn winds – makes it an unbearable place. However as a kid it gave me lots of space to explore and develop a sense of mystery and awe. And the lack of people meant everyone was more willing to be helpful, because more help might not be on the way for quite awhile. As a result Wyoming folk are courteous, friendly and accepting. They aren’t the kind to do a whole lot of wanton, wayward homicide. So thanks for making my job easier, you consistently courteous Cowboys!
And yet despite its friendly team spirit, Wyoming is no stranger to a relatively proportionate share of brutality, deviancy and deadly passions. It has had potent moments of cruelty, violence and murderous intolerance, such as the unconscionable killing of Matthew Shepard at the hands of heartless homophobes in the otherwise fabulous college town of Laramie. Yet given the mindset of Wyomingites that incident somehow seems less out of character than our first story, which may have been a genuine accident that somebody just plain refuses to account for, which is so very un-Cowboy.
1. Danny Moser
The killing of 27 year old Danny Moser was very possibly, technically, not a murder – although it was most definitely a homicide. Nobody knows for sure what happened in the early morning hours of October 22, 2001 – before police found Moser bleeding and unconscious in the parking lot of The Wagon Wheel skating rink in Mills. Four days later he passed away in a hospital from the massive head trauma he received, without ever awakening to provide details regarding what happened to him. Police were left to conclude, given the evidence they had to work with, that it was a hit-and-run. Yet a more nefarious sequence of events leading to Moser’s discovery cannot be ruled out.
It is precisely this lack of answers which has made Moser’s death all the more difficult for his family. They have never stopped looking for answers, but that journey has been painful, and at times self-destructive. Even the knowledge of the maligned brutality of a loved one’s murder is not as hard to live with as lingering questions surrounding a less wicked surmise. Even when it may never be possible to know, and even when we know it destroys us to want to know so badly, it is almost impossible to fight the urge for knowledge in the hopes it will bring some sort of closure.
Danny’s ex-wife and daughter have struggled with mental health and substance abuse issues as a result of these unanswered questions. Perhaps just as insidious, though less obviously so, is how something like this can make your home no longer feel like your home. Moser’s former wife and the mother of his daughter, Chastity, longs to move elsewhere so that she does not have to be reminded of this tragedy every time she passes The Wagon Wheel. That is what made this case so interesting to me, because some of my very best memories happened in that skating rink during my childhood. To imagine that place through this tragedy and the minds of Moser’s loved ones, juxtaposed against my own shimmering memories of Bon Jovi, extra-jalapeno nachos and first kisses, somehow makes their sense of pain and loss all the more real.
2.Mary Lynn Andersen
In 1986 the Minnesota-based family of Mary Lynn Andersen became concerned that they had not heard from her in four years and filed a missing person report. Mary had moved to Gillette to be with her husband, Herb Shondel, who had informed her family that she was missing during a phone call made before the report was filed. Over the years the family thought of her often. The two year old daughter that Mary had left behind grew up with her grandparents and eventually used the internet to conduct her own investigation, including the submission of DNA to a database that helps match missing individuals with unidentified bodies nationwide.
In August of 1983 a woman’s decomposed remains were discovered by workers in an area gravel pit owned and operated by Campbell County; although her skull and teeth were not found and may have been disturbed/destroyed by infrastructure projects during the previous year. An autopsy revealed that the body belonged to a woman who had died roughly a year before. It was pronounced a homicide, but there were no clues at all to work from until 31 years later in 2014 when DNA was matched to a Minnesota family recently uploaded into a missing person’s database.
Herb Shondel died in 2002. The last recorded appearance of the 23 year old Mary occurred in a Gillette hospital in October of 1982 – just one year before her unidentified body was found in a nearby gravel pit. Now almost four decades later, while the Andersen family at least know Mary’s fate, there are many questions remaining and nobody who was close to Mary in the last days to answer them.
Mary had epilepsy and suffered grand mal seizures on a weekly basis. Because of this she was unable to drive, work or even live independently. Herb Shondel was, judging by these pictures, a much older man. Did the disability of his young wife eventually overshadow the glamour of her youthful beauty and ways? Herb never reported Mary missing, which strongly indicates he did not want her disappearance discovered. Did Mary eventually become too much of a burden, and Herb killed her out of rage, desperation or misguided mercy?
It seems likely that whatever happened, Herb knew and took it to his grave. Although he may not have killed her. It is also possible that she died as a result of her epilepsy, and that Herb just disposed of her body because he became frustrated and fatigued by her needs. Although Campbell County officials ruled the death a homicide, there doesn’t appear to be any other reason for them to have done so except for the circumstances of her disposal. With that much decomposition, known disturbances and a missing skull – it would be nearly impossible to determine a cause of death outside of circumstantial evidence. It remains a distinct possibility that Mary was left in gravel pit, not to cover up a murder, but because the cost of healthcare and even death in our country sometimes leads to difficult choices and shady decisions.
3. Don Kemp
In September of 1982 Don Kemp arrived in Jackson Hole, driven by a new perspective on his life that came during recovery for a car accident that derailed his successful advertising career in New York City. He became disillusioned with the materialistic aspect of his former life, and was going to follow his passions, and moved to the beauty and solitude of the Teton and Wind River Range mountains to focus on writing a book about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
On November 15th Don was seen at a museum in Cheyenne, researching his book. Although he did not speak with anyone, besides being sighted, he left behind an attaché case containing some important belongings. Although this is not the last time it has been claimed Don was seen, on the following day his life became a mystery when his Chevy Blazer was found by a highway patrol officer on an off ramp in the middle of nowhere, still running, with contents (including medications) of the vehicle strung out all around it. There were also a single set of footprints leading off into the wilderness, leading investigators to believe Don had some sort of medical event that caused him to become disorientated and wander off into the harsh winter cold, where searchers on ground and in the air were unable to find any further trace of him.
Four years later his body was found a few miles away, which had been thoroughly searched, and it has been suggested that there were several anomalies. Strangely there a lack of evidence for any feeding animals having interacted with the exposed body, as well as a small hole which appeared to have been precisely bored into the skull. Most odd, however, was the fact that his body did not appear to have been dead for more than a year.
There is other evidence to suggest Don did not die on the day his vehicle was found abandoned and in disarray. He was seen by multiple people in Casper, including a bartender and at a historical exhibit for Abraham Lincoln. There were also phone calls by a man claiming to be Don, which seemed credible to the friends and family members who were receiving them, and were later traced to a man in a trailer who kinda looked like Don but claimed no knowledge of the man or phone calls.
The case is full of bizarre twists that include a possible attempt at obfuscation by walking backwards and a conspiracy theory which states Kemp was killed to prevent his Lincoln revelations from being made public. With so many strange facts it is no wonder that investigators have been unable to piece together the events of the last day, or years, of Don’s life. Some mysteries simply defy any attempt at understanding and resolution, and this might unfortunately be one of those.
4. Robert Lee Thornock
Sometime over Labor Day weekend in 1997 the body of an unidentified male was discovered in a creek bed near Bedford after a dog came home carrying the arm of the deceased, which had probably been exposed during recent excavation work at the creek. Within a week the body had been identified, using fingerprints and tattoos, as a man who had escaped a Utah jail back in February – Robert Lee Thornock. Investigators concluded he had died of a gunshot wound somewhere else, and the body had been dropped off near where it was eventually found.
On February 12, 1997 Thornock was booked on charges of forgery and fraud, as well as being a fugitive from the state of Idaho, at the Cache County jail in Utah. Jailers claimed that he escaped by squeezing through a security fence not long after. There is no other trace of him between his jailbreak and the discovery of his body.
To my mind it seems pretty hard to get around the obvious conclusion here, which is that Thornock was killed by employees of the Cache County jail and then disposed of two and a half hours away in Bedford, Wyoming. It seems incredibly unlikely that Thornock was able to escape from jail so easily and go undetected by authorities. There is no evidence he was sighted by witnesses. You would think there would be a trail of crimes he would have had to commit to fund his escape, but there is nothing like that connected to the case. And to get from the jail in Utah to Bedford, unless he took a wildly indirect course, he would have had to have traveled through Idaho, where he was also a fugitive. Why would he escape to an area so close to two states where he was wanted, how did he get there, and who killed him and why? If my theory is incorrect then a combination of ineptitude, coincidence and bad luck would have had to been present in miraculous amounts. If you buy the official story please contact me immediately – I have some ocean front property to sell you in Cody at a real good price.
5. Thomas Jenkins & Edna Richards-Jenkins
On September 24, 1911 two teenage girls were doing errands at the Red Bank Ranch on an otherwise peaceful Sunday evening when they were startled by a disturbance in an open barn whose door should have been closed near the unusually dark Canyon House cabin, which was owned by former Wyoming Governor William Richards. The two girls became extra alert after seeing a man flee from the barn, and after finding what they suspected to be a human body beneath a nearby tree, they ran off to report their discoveries to men at a nearby ranch.
The bodies, it turned out, belonged to the former statesman’s daughter Edna, and her newlywed husband Thomas Jenkins. Both apparently dead of gunshot wounds. Less than a week later the area newspaper declared that a local jury had ruled their deaths a murder-suicide. However William Richards, who had been on an extended hunting trip when the grisly discovery was made, was telegraphed Monday and returned home on Tuesday. He did not accept the verdict given by the coroner’s jury, and conducted his own investigation.
Richards concluded that the deaths must have occurred on Friday night, two days before the bodies were found, given the known habits of the victims and the state of household affairs. He also had reason to believe there was no strife between the newlyweds, as he had received cheerful letters from his son-in-law during his hunting trip, and there had been no problems before. There were also valuable things missing from the home, such as money and jewelry; as well as unexplained bullet holes and the girls’ testimony of the man fleeing the barn.
There were numerous other discrepancies that could not be explained by the murder-suicide theory, and officials were forced to reverse their official verdict, concluding the deaths were the outcome of murder by some unknown person(s). There were a handful of suspects, and one arrest made, but never any credible accusations of guilt which were held up with a conviction. William Richards died almost a year later, while investigating farming and ranching possibilities in Australia, and with his death the driving force behind finding the killer of Edna and Thomas no longer pushed investigations forward. The case continued to be a source of conversation and speculation for decades to come, but after 109 years it is pretty implausible we will ever know what horrors that befell the tragic young lovers.
6. Jamie Kamai
While most of the incidents I have written about so far all provide pretty good reasons for understanding why they have not been solved, the death of Jamie Kamai is maddening because it seems so unlikely that it hasn’t been, given that it happened in broad daylight in a busy area with numerous witnesses.
Jamie was driving his children to their babysitters on the morning of July 21, 2001 when he noticed he was being aggressively followed by a pickup truck. After several miles of this, Jamie had enough, and stopped his car right in traffic to confront the man about his behavior. When he approached the truck the driver shot him twice, neither immediately fatal. Jamie then returned to his car to get away from his attacker, but the man got out of his truck, followed Jamie to his car, and shot him once more in the back while the two children and nearby witnesses watched in horror.
Yet somehow authorities were unable to piece together a clear picture of what occurred from testimony. They initially told media the truck was black, and it would take over a year for them to process footage which showed that the pickup truck was actually red. In fact the state of Wyoming’s website still refers to the truck as black nearly two decades later, validating the family’s claims that authorities have failed to make genuine efforts to bring Jamie’s murderer to justice. One piece of evidence they did manage to obtain was a sketch of the suspect, which is so distinct it should have led to an avalanche of leads.
Perhaps the most promising pieces of information came from a woman who had been getting tattooed. A few days after Kamai’s murder, the woman returned to the shop where she was getting her body art done, only to find it had completely shut down in the past few days. When she checked in at another nearby tattoo shop she was told that the guy who closed up had done so because he was the one who shot that kid, and had fled town. Yet somehow, even though investigators were able to track down the tattoo artist suspect, they were unable to make a case against him. Nor have they presented any strong evidence in other potential suspects they have explored. Whether the cause be apathy or ineptitude, the inability of police to wrap this one up is a frightening demonstration of the different levels of public service Cheyenne citizens are provided based on social class and socioeconomic standing.
As for the reason Jamie was murdered in cold blood in the streets of Cheyenne, nobody is quite clear. Family and friends say he had no enemies and was not one to make them. Another possibility is road rage, but Kamai’s loved ones believe it was a case of mistaken identity. Jamie had loaned his car out the night before, and it is possible that whomever he let drive it had enraged the driver of the red truck, who was so set on violent revenge he did not wait to confirm the identity of the man he shot – and then had to ensure Jamie’s death to eliminate him as a witness. This makes Jamie’s death even more meaningless, and Cheyenne investigators should be humiliated that they have let his killer continue to walk free.
7. Davida Peterson
One of the benefits of having a job as a clerk at a propane filling center is that you can rest assured that serious injury and a violent death are probably not going to be much of an issue for you. But just when you start thinking like that the world throws a scumbag curveball at you without having the courteous to even warn you to duck. The senseless murder of Davida Peterson on May 8th, 1999 in Rock Springs by the barrel of a cowardly thief is proof that the cosmic forces behind irony have absolutely no scruples or shame whatsoever.
A customer discovered the nearly lifeless body of Davida around 8:30 that Saturday night, long after the assailant had fled. Amazingly she held on for almost an entire year before succumbing to the gunshot wounds inflicted upon her by the deplorable wretch who needlessly killed her. Although investigators have gathered some pretty solid evidence, there remain a few loose ends that must be tied up before a solid case can be made in a courtroom. Hopefully someone who has those final pieces will step forward so that the inhumane slimeball who did this can be reckoned with.
8. Ben Bradley
Human beings are so dependent on our illusions of certainty that we can back ourselves into positions which prevent truth from prevailing. The case against the killers of 28 year old Ben Bradley was thrown completely off track by a single unfounded certainty that should never have been claimed.
Ben was last seen in Rock Springs on June 2nd, 2006, where he also attempted to call his parents in California. The tall, athletic, handsome snowboarder was hitchhiking up to Jackson Hole to hit the slopes with some friends for his birthday. Four days later his friends alert Ben’s parents that they have not seen him yet, and are getting worried. Bradley’s parents immediately fly to Rock Springs and begin a search and flyering campaign throughout western Wyoming, but with no luck. On October 1st his body is discovered by sightseers near Boar’s Tusk, twenty five miles north of Rock Springs.
Just days before Ben’s body is discovered, a man delivers Ben’s missing backpack to local authorities, claiming he found it while boating. His story quickly unravels, implicating three of his known associates, and investigators and prosecutors prepare a strong case for the June 2nd murder of Ben Bradley. It is an open and closed case, but just before the trial begins one of the defendants is able to prove he was in jail out of state on June 2nd. The case is immediately dismissed.
Four months had passed between when Ben was last seen and heard from, and when his body was found. It is entirely possible that Ben was in the Rock Springs area for a few days before he somehow ended up partying with his killers. There is no good reason that the case had to be made for June 2nd, except that the old human longing for certainty, which probably prompted investigators and prosecutors to rest their case on that single date – perhaps hoping to strengthen their case with absolute facts. The only hope for a retrial now is new evidence, and family and investigators are hoping that the missing custom snowboard of Ben Bradley can finally prove a connection.
You remember what I said about the strength of character of Wyomingites at the beginning of this article? Well that thins out considerably around Rock Springs. That area is full of hardened, desperate remnants of the long gone glory days of oil and coal in the area – and these conditions have been producing violent criminals for half a century. Since it is unlikely that Ben was killed for his snowboard, his only missing possession, it seems likely he just ended up getting mixed up with a group of men who just decided they didn’t like him. Fancy snowboard boy from Cal–eee-forn-yuh! This is exactly the sort of victim that self-loathing losers playing too hard at tough guy love to hurt, to gain some sense of strength or masculinity through violence against those they fear for actually having those attributes. Bullies, more so than the rest of us, never really grow up.
9. Shawny Lee Smith
Whoever killed the Cheyenne resident Shawny Smith must have believed that dumping her body just over the state line into Colorado would complicate investigations, and since the case has gone cold for over seventeen years, unfortunately, they were right.
Shawny was brutally raped, beaten and either left for dead or outright murdered on February 8th, 2003. Her badly abused body was found a short time after by a Colorado rancher who spotted her lifeless frame while doing routine chores. It didn’t take long for local sheriff officials to realize that their victim was a Wyoming resident, and the case was passed onto Laramie County investigators. Except for an autopsy report, no details of their investigation have been made public, and it is hard to discern if any effort at all has been made to bring justice to the murdered mother of two who lived in a trailer park known for violence and other products of poverty. Like fellow Cheyenne resident Jamie Kamai, it appears that Smith fell below the line of social status which triggers actual concern and intensive efforts by the local law enforcement.
The autopsy report itself revealed that Shawny’s attacker had been uncommonly vicious, leaving her entire body with evidence of a severe, prolonged beating. There were some minor bones broken in her throat, but nothing was revealed which would specifically have killed her. Most likely she died of exposure on the cold, windy plains while convulsing with pain in her shattered, hypothermic body. Perhaps the killer believed she had died from the violence which left her throat damaged, or maybe they actually wanted her to suffer as long as possible. And this vile specimen of humanity, aided by silence, oversight and incompetence, has totally gotten away with it.
10. The Rawlins Rodeo Murders
Over a period of seven weeks in the summer of 1974, four young females went missing in Rawlins, three of them while attending two separate rodeo events. Due to Rawlins rough proximity to Utah and Colorado, and the similarities between victims, many people believe the Rawlins Rodeo Murders were enacted by infamous serial killer Ted Bundy. However there is no evidence Bundy was in Wyoming at this time, and the only real foundation for this theory is speculation.
The troubles began on the Fourth of July, when two teenage girls went missing after attending the Little Britches Rodeo together – Carlene Brown and Christy Gross, both aged nineteen and similar in appearance. The car they arrived in was found some time later over two hours away in Worland. Brown would never be seen again, dead or alive, and Gross’ skeleton was found nine years later in the nearby town of Sinclair.
One month later on August 4th, fourteen year old Deborah Meyer left a family member’s home planning to walk to catch a movie at a nearby theatre, and was never seen nor heard from again. It is not known if she ever even made it to the movie theatre, where newly released films like Death Wish and Open Season might have been playing.
On August 23rd, Jaylene Baker, aged ten, was visiting the Carbon County Rodeo in Rawlins with a friend. At some point the two became separated, and Jaylene went missing. Her body was later found in a nearby field.
The first two girls to disappear were quickly labeled runaways by local police, as was the custom of the era, for some reason. When Meyer went missing a month later the town still didn’t panic, because of course, probably another damn runaway! But when the younger Jaylene went missing, the public started paying attention, and organized searches coalesced almost immediately. At this point investigators began to take seriously the possibility of a single serial killer working in their area, but lacking witnesses, a confession and modern forensic techniques – the case has laid dormant for nearly half a century, except for the discovery of Gross’ remains nine years after the grisly summer of 1974 in Rawlins had long concluded.
In 2012 a Montana-based investigator attempted to collect DNA to help solve the case. Unfortunately there was no way to gather it except from the surviving family member of the victims, and it turns out Brown was adopted, and nothing is known of her genetic origins. Given that no updates have appeared since, it seems improbable that the case will be definitively solved in the future. Yet there is a pretty good theory as to who was actually responsible for these four girls disappearances and deaths.
Royal Russell Long was tried for the deaths of two girls who disappeared in Oklahoma in 1981 after being hired by Long as carnival assistants, but a lack of strong evidence failed to yield a conviction. He was later charged in the kidnapping of a young South Dakota woman in 1984, whose body was never found. He died in prison in 1993 serving his sentence for that crime, and it is unknown if DNA was extracted from him, since it was still such a recent forensics tool at the time. So why is he a strong suspect? Long, a carnival worker and truck driver, was living in Rawlins at the time. The circumstances of the Rodeo Murders are similar to other murders attributed to him, such as the well-disposed bodies and similar age and appearance of the victims. And because Royal spent so much time on the road, it is almost certain that there are other murders, unknown and unattributed, which he committed to satisfy his perverse lust for snuffing the life out of young women.