COLD CASE FILES: JH ’80s Jackson Hole slayings unsolved but not forgotten
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – In the early morning hours of June 21, 1984, two WYDOT employees slowed as they approached a roadside pullout in the Hoback Canyon just north of Bondurant. Something out of place caught their eye. A Volkswagen Jetta sat idling, right blinker still flashing. What looked like a person was lying on the ground next to the car.
It was Lisa Ehlers. The 27-year-old newlywed was on her way to meet her husband, Peter, in Florida. Ehlers had left The Bunnery around 5:30 a.m. after saying goodbye to a few friends who worked there. The goodbye would be permanent. Highway workers found Ehlers face up in a pool of blood just 40 minutes later. She had been shot twice at close range with a large caliber handgun — once behind the ear, once in the chest.
News of the slaying shocked Ehlers’ friends and family, and put Jackson Hole on edge. Just 40 days earlier, Jon Rice had been found in his Aspens condo shot dead, execution style, once in the back of the head. His hands and feet had been bound. The place was ransacked.
Two murders in the span of little more than a month.
What no one knew then, and would not know for another two years, is bad news comes in threes. Just seven months before Rice’s murder, a man named Eric Cooper walked out of the Virginian Saloon and off the face of the Earth. He was never again seen alive. Police assumed he had just moved on until a hiker near Signal Mountain found the 23-year-old’s skull two years later on Aug. 14, 1986. The teeth were remarkably preserved, allowing positive identification of Cooper through dental records. It didn’t take Columbo to notice the single bullet hole in the back of the cranium.
Three homicides in eight months.
Elizabeth “Lisa” Ehlers
Though Ehlers was the final spoke in the triple homicides that rocked Jackson Hole in the mid-80s, it was her case that first started the ball rolling toward justice. Sublette County authorities announced on March 1, 2009 that they had arrested Troy Willoughby on first-degree murder charges, wrapping up a case that had gone cold for 25 years.
The only unsolved homicide in Sublette County was suddenly solved. Slam dunk. Sublette County Attorney Lucky McMahon convinced the jury to make sure the life sentence included no possibility for parole.
“Troy Willoughby has enjoyed an undeserved 25 years of freedom,” McMahon said of the time from Ehlers’ death until the Montana man was arrested — a span where Willoughby racked up 28 criminal convictions including six felonies, 19 misdemeanors and three probation violations.
The jury returned a guilty verdict faster than a Perry Mason TV case gets solved. Too fast, it turned out.
Willoughby walked away with a $1.25 million settlement after exculpatory evidence forced a retrial where he was found not guilty.
“That was horrible,” Lloyd Funk said of the botched trial. Funk, a sergeant with the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, had investigated the Rice murder. “I think Troy Willoughby did it. I think there could have been other people there besides [Tim] Bayse and Rosa [Hosking] who could have played a role in it. Then again, those guys were so high and whacked out of their minds that morning their stories [might not be credible.]”
Bayse was a friend of Willoughby’s who started singing when Sublette cops threatened to pin the murder rap on him. He claimed he and Hosking, Willoughby’s wife at the time, were there in the canyon pullout when Willoughby wasted Ehlers. Hosking confirmed the story. Willoughby’s son also said dad bragged about killing someone in the canyon 1984.
It was enough for authorities to make an arrest. After 17 hours of interrogation, Willoughby admitted to being in Hoback Canyon and seeing Ehlers’ car there even though he recanted that statement five days later, claiming he was at work on an oil rig that morning. His alibi came into question after a handwriting expert testified Willoughby’s signature on a drilling log book looked forged and a co-worker said he was paid a hundred bucks to sign Willoughby in on the morning of June 21, 1984.
Even as the Ehlers case was falling apart, random leads began pouring in on the Rice and Cooper homicides. New evidence, a tipster’s phone call, and CSI-type DNA analysis reworked with modern-day capabilities had investigators in the police department and sheriff’s office convinced they were closing in on an arrest.
And Funk wasn’t the only one who thought if cops could crack one case, the others would domino. Three things connected Ehlers to the Rice and Cooper murders: Drugs, Florida and Cabell Venable.
Funk remembers the scene in the early ’80s as a student at Jackson Hole High School. “The atmosphere in Jackson was a party town. It still is, but not like it was back then. A lot ties back in to drugs in all three cases,” he said.
Illegal narcotics fueled the local party scene in the 1980s. Jackson Police Officer Russ Ruschill was attending St. Mary’s Elementary School in Cheyenne when Cooper went missing. From case files and endless interviews, he pieced together a power of place that was Jackson Hole circa 1983-84.
“There was a very active drug scene and a very active anti-drug scene,” Ruschill said. “Whereas right now we don’t have the time or resources to work drug cases until we stumble across them, back then there was a centralized effort. The war on drugs today is nothing like the war on drugs of that era.”
Jackson Police Department Officer Andy Pearson is currently working the Cooper murder, a case reopened in 2010 by Ruschill. He was a high school senior in Big Piney when Cooper disappeared. “If you had been here 30 years ago it was a different town,” he said. “A lot of people had formed some really strong bonds, and they weren’t exactly Boy Scouts. They were all really crazy together.”
“Everything goes back to Florida,” Police Chief Todd Smith once told the Casper Star-Tribune when he was working the murder cases.
Connections to Florida pop up like weeds in the three open murder cases. An associate of Rice was executed in Florida on the same day Rice was found shot in his condo. A .22 caliber pistol, thought to be the murder weapon in the Cooper case and possibly the Rice murder, was found in a safe deposit box in 2006 at the bank where Rice worked. It was traced back to a Florida pawnshop.
Ehlers and her husband spent winters in Panama City, Florida. According to Funk, Peter Ehlers worked for a man named Hamilton Gray Kenner of Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. “Kenner owned a [shipping company] named Clipper Fleets that was rumored to be pretty deep into the drug trade,” he said. Ehlers and Kenner formed a restaurant group in Jackson. Cabell Venable was their lawyer.
The Highlander, Cabell and other conspiracy theories
“Yeah, the Florida connection,” Funk pondered, trying to recall the gist of three decades worth of case files included in boxes piled waist-high in the SO’s evidence room. “I think Cabell might have had some connection with that. Cabell was an attorney over the restaurant group that Peter Ehlers was a part of. Cabell was big time into drugs, too.”
Venable was into something. Maybe everything. The high-profile Jackson attorney was indicted on charges he bilked several locals out of approximately $1.5 million. He was eventually convicted on one count, disbarred and left the area to practice law in, guess where? Florida. Venable died of a heart attack while in Spain in 1999. He was 57.
In Jackson’s heyday, Venable reportedly operated a bar on the outskirts of town where gambling and drugs were on the menu, nightly. Detectives placed both Ehlers and Rice at Venable’s notorious late night soirees, but never together. Ehlers told friends she did not know Rice when she learned of his murder.
Rice’s roommate told investigators that the trio had all met once at the bank Rice worked at weeks before Rice was slain.
Ruschill, however, doesn’t buy a Venable connection. “That’s a conspiracy theory,” he said. “The rumor was Venable was a coke-dealing attorney. Yes, he likely dealt drugs in the ’80s, allegedly. A lot of people thought Venable was capable of doing these murders for drug deals gone bad, but there is no forensic evidence whatsoever that connects Venable other than he might have done drugs in the ’80s. There’s no connection. We haven’t gone down that road. It’s not even a road.”
And there were other alleged conspiracies.
“Which one would you like to talk about? We’ve heard them all,” Pearson said.
How about corrupt cops? Some say a few bad eggs had made their way into the police force and were helping to funnel drugs in from North or South Dakota.
“The Dakotas were huge. The connection there is Dan Davis and Pat Sharkey,” Funk said. Davis and Sharkey were both convicted on federal drug trafficking charges in 1985. “They were big into what was then speed. It was just getting started up. They were getting in tight with the Hell’s Angels and outlaw motorcycle gangs. Somehow [Rice’s roommate] was tied into that — knowing them or having met them or something. That’s how the Dakotas are pulled into this.”
“Corrupt cops? Yep, heard that one,” Pearson said. “We are working on that. There’s all kinds of theories, all kinds of speculation: a dope deal gone bad, a money deal gone bad, a robbery, an accident, a love triangle, or a combination of all of them.”
“We chased some bad cop leads,” Jim Williams remembered when tracked down at his current gig at the Medford, Ore. police department. Williams reopened the Cooper case in 2000 after receiving an anonymous tip that never panned out. “There was certainly the conspiracy out of Florida with [Lisa Ehlers’] husband. We chased all those down as best we could but it comes down to time lost and memories gone and people dead now. And then, especially with [Cooper], is the police conspiracy theory. We ran into that quite a bit, but it stemmed from most peoples’ absolute distrust with law enforcement in the ’80s. I think the Rice homicide is probably the greatest whodunit.”
Williams also admitted he and other detectives working the case kept coming back to the Highlander Bar, a rowdy nightclub with a seedy reputation currently home to The Rose. Owner Mark W. Jones had a lien filed against his club in 1984 by the IRS for unpaid taxes. He disconnected his phone and skipped town. By the following year, the Highlander was no more.
“It was an interesting era, things happen,” Williams said. “And the Highlander seemed to be a magnet in all these cases. We did interviews and recreated Eric Cooper’s night of disappearance and were able to talk to a few individuals that were the last to see him … at the Highlander.”
Police say they’ve narrowed their list of suspects to two in the Cooper case and may soon be ready to announce an arrest. Recently obtained evidence includes a .22 pistol, a scrap of t-shirt Cooper may have been wearing when he was killed, and DNA test results just back from the crime lab in Utah.
“I have a guy I truly think did this,” Pearson said. “And the thing is I know him. I’ve known this guy since I’ve been in the area.”
Funk admits the Rice case has gone cold but he is eager to see what the police department digs up with Cooper.
Meanwhile, the Ehlers’ family had closure torn from their grasp and is no closer today to finding peace. Worse, a confidentiality clause signed by the state as part of the lawsuit settlement brought by Willoughby could lock up important evidence in the Rice and Cooper cases should they be connected.