COLD CASE FILES: JH
JACKSON HOLE, WYO – COLD CASE FILES: JH ’80s Jackson Hole slayings unsolved, but not forgotten
The Lisa Ehlers’ murder happened in Sublette County. Technically, it’s their problem and, boy, did they make a mess of it. The Eric Cooper disappearance was a Town of Jackson case originally investigated as a missing person. When Cooper’s skull turned up near Signal Mountain in Grand Teton National Park, it was fuzzy as to who had jurisdiction. The Jackson Police Department continues to take the lead even when no one else seems interested anymore. Jon Rice’s homicide is a Teton County Sheriff’s Office case originally investigated under Roger Millward’s watch. The case is still considered “cold,” if not chilling.
New evidence has emerged in the past few years that has detectives hopeful they are closing in on a suspect or suspects. Investigators from both law enforcement agencies said time is running out on the possibility of ever being able to solve these crimes. It may be now or never. Authorities added they were optimistic this story might draw out someone who knows something — either a friend of a friend, an eyewitness, or a killer tired of living with blood on his hands.
Jon William Rice (deceased May 12, 1984)
Rod Everett was the vice president of First Wyoming Bank when Jon Rice was hired on.
“He was a really nice young man. I really liked him,” Everett remembered. “He rented a condo with a guy named Gary Gilbert. I asked what Gary did for a living and Jon said he doesn’t need to work; he comes from a wealthy family in Casper. I grew up in Casper and I had never heard of the family name. That made me a little suspect.”
Everett said a month or two after starting at the bank Rice opened a safe deposit box with Gilbert as a cosigner. He also remembers Lisa Ehlers opening a safe deposit box at the bank on Friday, May 11, the last day Rice was seen alive. “She had a box full of stuff,” Everett said. “We went through it after she was found dead but there wasn’t anything in it, really.”
Everett said Rice was a fitness nut who would often ride his bike to work from the Aspens, even in winter. A friend from the bank gave him a ride home Friday with plans to jog with him the next morning. That friend found the door ajar Saturday morning and Rice lying on the floor off to the side of the bed. The room was a wreck. Rice was dead.
A neighbor, Virginia Gainer, later reported to police that she heard a ruckus coming from inside the apartment sometime between midnight and three in the morning. She never heard a gunshot. No one did.
“With a .22, through walls, you’ll just hear a ‘pop,’” Sgt. Lloyd Funk said. “If you were sleeping it might wake you but without a follow-up noise you will probably just go back to sleep.”
Funk said EMTs moved a few items around trying to revive Rice, but the scene was recreated by investigators shortly after. A few things were certain: Rice’s hands and feet had been bound, his wallet was out and opened to his ID, and a .22 pump action rifle belonging to Gilbert lay on the mattress just a few feet from Rice’s body.
Rice was well liked and had a reputation as being somewhat of a ladies’ man. A love triangle was considered briefly but a week into the investigation Millward announced to Jackson newspapers that he was sure of two things: Drugs were involved and the killer would be caught soon.
Speculation at the time was perhaps someone had paid a visit to Rice’s condo looking for Gilbert. Gilbert had some reputation as being involved in the drug scene but no more so than Rice, who was also known to have at least used cocaine and marijuana. Police found traces of both drugs in the condo but not much.
Everett remembers Gilbert was away for a week or two when Rice was killed. He was in the Lake Powell area buying and trying out a new boat. Authorities contacted Gilbert after the murder. He was on his way back to Jackson via Casper. An investigator met him there for questioning and found nothing suspicious. His alibi later checked out.
“The speculation was [Gilbert] was dealing drugs, didn’t pay his bill, and they got the wrong guy,” Everett said.
Funk, who has followed up on the case since 2000, agreed Rice and Gilbert looked alike.
“Rice looked like his roommate,” Funk said. “I’ve talked to them both, and even though Mr. Gilbert feels like he does not look like Jon Rice, I think they did look very much alike. If you didn’t know them, you could mistake them, in my opinion.”
But what of Rice’s ID? Whoever shot Rice likely knew exactly who he was before he pulled the trigger.
“That’s always been something that has been speculated — that a hit man broke into the apartment looking for Gary Gilbert and Rice says, ‘I am not Gary Gilbert’ and begs for his life,” Funk said. “Rice’s wallet was open. His ID was lying out. Maybe he was trying to prove who he was.
“The place was ransacked so whoever was there was looking for something. Gilbert was a neat freak and Rice was a slob, but he wasn’t a slob to that point. There was stuff that was taken apart that indicated that someone was looking for something. Gary Gilbert’s room was torn apart also.”
Murder in the heat of passion is one thing. But a man who ties up a victim and methodically puts a bullet in the back of his head from close range is a stone cold killer. It sounds like someone who kills for a living or is at least no stranger to violence.
Jim Williams originally investigated the Cooper case. He was interviewed by phone at his present job with the Medford Police Department in Oregon.
“I’ve been doing this job for a ton of years, and I want to tell you that none of those people were involved in anything in my mind that rises to the level that would bring in a professional killer, a hit man. I just don’t see it,” he said. “If there was anything like that, the Rice case would come closest to it. I think there was some evil behind that … and some violence.”
“Gilbert had a bunch of weapons in his room that had been pulled out from under the bed,” Funk remembers. “A hit man could have done it, but typically a hit man is going to have a stolen gun that’s not from the scene, that can’t be tied back to him. True, somebody had knowledge of the gun and how to use it. But a hit man is always going to have their own gun.”
Cpl. Andy Pearson, who is the lead investigator on the Cooper homicide, doesn’t think either murder is the work of a hit man. At least not Cooper’s slaying, which bore similar characteristics to the Rice murder: A .22 caliber slug to the back of the head, left side.
“I don’t believe this was some guys from back East that came out here in trench coats. This wasn’t that kind of thing,” Pearson said.
But detectives uncovered a paper trail that showed Rice was looking into corrupt lawyer Cabell Venable on behalf of the prosecuting attorney. Some say Rice may have had physical evidence on Venable. During the investigation, detectives were chilled to learn that a business acquaintance of Rice’s was also shot dead, in Florida, on the same day.
The St. Petersburg Times reported Stanley Kerr, a real estate agent who owned land in Red Top Meadows, was killed by a hit man hired by Kerr’s wife, Rosemary, and her lover, Wayne Cady. All three were eventually convicted. The hit man said he was promised “land out West” for the killing.
A week or two after Rice’s murder, Gilbert withdrew $30,000 out of the safe deposit box he shared with Rice and split town. Funk said the money legitimately belonged to Gilbert. “That was looked at by detectives at the time and all that money checked out,” he said. “It came down to some apartment complexes that were in a Gary Gilbert trust or family name back in Casper.”
Eric Cooper (deceased unknown, missing Oct. 14 1983, found August 14, 1986)
Detectives had all but given up trying to find Eric Cooper in late 1983. They won’t admit to it, but they had to have been sidetracked somewhat by the pair of homicides that would occur in May and June of the following year. Plus, people like Cooper went missing all the time.
Sgt. Russ Ruschill, who reopened the Cooper case in 2010, called Cooper a “bro-bra” of the ’80s — just a guy trying to piece together a few jobs so he could hang out in the Tetons. People like Cooper drift in and out of the scene. They lose their job, their pad, their girlfriend, and they’re off to the next ski town. Cooper lost more than that.
But a homicide is the last thing cops were looking for, according to Pearson. “The thought was he left,” he said. “But the family had major concerns.”
“So much so they hired a private investigator,” Ruschill added.
It took three years and a young Australian boy to crack the case. The boy uncovered a human skull while picking huckleberries one August day in 1986. Detectives found bullet fragments rattling around in the skull. One investigator on scene, Bill Miller, was sure he had found his German hiker who had gone missing in 1981 — a case Miller worked and was never able to solve. But dental records showed the remains belonged to Cooper.
A perimeter sweep was ordered. The grid search turned up shards of clothing, along with other evidence police won’t divulge, in a makeshift grave 70 yards away from where the skull was found. As in all investigations, hindsight had Pearson and Ruschill wondering why cops didn’t document certain aspects and failed to follow up on others.
Still, boxes of evidence were collected, tested and saved. With newer technology enabling crime lab techs to extract DNA from the minutest pieces of hair, blood, saliva and tissue samples, additional tests have been done at an FBI lab in Virginia.
“Evidence that was collected in ’86 up on Signal Mountain, we still have. It’s in an evidence room right here. We have all that stuff packaged,” Ruschill said. “If we had a reason to pull DNA from it then, yes, we could. DNA was a footnote in a biology textbook in 1983. Now it’s a forensic Super Bowl.”
DNA on 30-year-old samples is completely within the realm of possibility.
The problem is, unlike fingerprints, there is no existing nationwide database to compare DNA results to. A suspect would have to be identified and asked to comply with a buccal (cheek) swab, for example, or court-ordered to submit.
Cold case warms up
The case went cold until 2000 when Williams received an anonymous tip. It turned out to be bogus, but detectives dusted off case files with renewed interest. Then came the bombshell: While clearing out old unclaimed safe deposit boxes during ownership transfer from Community Bank (originally First Wyoming Bank where Rice worked) to Bank of the West in 2005, workers found a .22 caliber handgun in one of them.
It was a run-of-the-mill, cheap firearm locked away in a bank vault for more than two decades. It cost more to keep it there than the gun was worth. Police tracked it to a defunct pawnshop in Florida. Forensics on the pistol is inconclusive. Without a partially intact slug there was no way to match the gun up with the fragments in either Cooper’s or Rice’s head.
“The slug was mangled by impact. All we have are fragments, nothing you can get rifling off of,” Pearson said, referring to the unique boring pattern the inside of a muzzle scores onto a bullet as it spins out of a rifle or pistol barrel. “I know they have suspicion they have the weapon in the Rice case. Is it the same weapon as ours? I doubt it. I would bet the Sheriff’s Office has got the weapon from there’s. Is it the same killer? I doubt that, too, but I wouldn’t be totally shocked.”
When Funk heard about the .22 found at the bank his interest piqued in a case he had long given up on. “It is odd,” he said. “Believe me, when they said a .22 was found in a safe deposit box, I was all over it but I got all my questions answered at the time and was satisfied this wasn’t our gun.”
Pearson and Funk both believe a .22 was used simply because the caliber is a popular one. Some professional killers, however, have been known to prefer the lightweight round just because the slug will often splinter to pieces on impact with bone, making identification virtually impossible.
Cold case turns red hot
Detectives again hit a wall until a call came into dispatch in 2010. The caller said he had information regarding Cooper’s killer. It was put through to Ruschill.
“This guy calls out of the freakin’ blue and says, ‘Hi, I know who killed Eric Cooper.’” Ruschill remembered. “He was calm and sounded legit. He knew enough information to be credible. He starts rattling off this fantastic story, but I was like, ‘Holy crap, this guy knows all the players. He knows the people. Very interesting.’”
What did he say?
“He tells us a fairly fantastic tale,” Ruschill said. “Essentially, he knows who killed Cooper and throws out a name. We were able to confirm this guy ran around Jackson in the early ’80s and associated with some of the people we were interested in on this case. In fact, we had actually put Cooper and my witness in the same jail cell together about a month before his disappearance.
“He had a remarkable memory for some details. He claimed Eric was killed up in Catholic Bay in the park and transferred back to Hoback Junction where he was chopped up with a band saw and scattered throughout the valley. Which was kind of interesting to us because we only had his head.”
So Ruschill was left with more questions to answer: “Did an animal drag the head there? Did someone pull his head off? Or did someone leave only his head there?” Ruschill asked himself.
“What if they cut his head off and dumped it there, and then left his leg in the Gros Ventre, and brought another piece over here?” Pearson said.
Who does that?
“Killers. People trying to hide evidence,” Pearson responded. “Face it, if you found just an arm bone in the woods would you know what it was? If you found a leg bone would you know what it was?”
Ruschill attempted to secure cadaver dogs through the FBI but red tape snarled the process. His suspect ended up having the next best alibi to being dead. He was incarcerated at the time of the Cooper disappearance. Ruschill did, however, reopen the case and took yet another closer look at Polaroids taken near Signal Mountain.
That’s when he was able to match a scrap of t-shirt with a summer concert event at Bryan Flats attended by only a few dozen fans.
On another hunch, Ruschill ran the VIN to Cooper’s late-60s muscle car. “I wondered, ‘Did anybody work his car? Did anyone throw Luminal in the trunk, and if we did where are the results because we can’t find it.’” No registration history turned up anywhere in the United States or Canada on law enforcement databases.
So Ruschill just Googled the number. Bam! Cooper’s 1969 Dodge Coronet was for sale in Australia for $32,000. Lacking resources to bring it back stateside, it was another dead end.
Rumors that Cooper was involved in illegal narcotics surfaced back then and now. W. Keith Goody represented Cooper and numerous locals who were busted for smoking a jay back in the day.
“I was probably the last person to see him alive,” Goody said. “He was a nice kid, maybe too sure of himself. One of the last things I remember him saying was he was going to try to handle ‘this’ himself. Maybe he was going to snitch on somebody, and they found out. Maybe he was going to the cops to cut a deal. He was a kid so he probably would shoot his mouth off and if somebody got wind of that somebody who was going to be fingered by him even if it was a minor thing, well you never know. He walked out of my office and nobody ever sees him again.”
Goody remembered Cooper was disabled in some way. He had cognitive issues, a speech impediment and a slight limp. He believes it was from an old motorcycle accident. He can’t remember, exactly.
Funk said Cooper and Rice might be tied together more believably than Ehlers.
“The one connection that is the most solid is the Cooper and the Rice case,” Funk said. “The social status thing is a little off, though, because Rice was more into the social status of Ehlers. Cooper was more on a lower social status with the people he hung around with. He hung around some real bad eggs back in those days.”
Pearson believes he may be closing in on a possible suspect, but he would not show all his cards.
“I have a sneaking suspicion this [certain] person did it. I even think I know why,” Pearson said of his prime suspect. “And he’s not stupid. If I call him in, and I don’t have a good hand, he’ll walk. I’m only going to get one shot. I’m not saying he’s a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon or anything like that, but he’s not stupid. If he did this, he’s not been caught in 30 years for the worst crime you can commit. There is a reason for that.”
Does this person have a law enforcement background or military training?
“No, nothing like that,” Pearson admitted. “More like bad guy training.”
Would this person be capable?
“Certainly coachable,” Pearson said.
Of killing or hiding evidence?
“Yes,” Pearson answered.
Pearson hopes this newspaper story will jog a memory or speak to a heart.
“I firmly believe there is somebody in this town that knows something,” he said. “They’ve spent their whole life either scared or not wanting to get involved. But come on, man, this dude was killed. He was just a young man. I don’t care if you’re scared or not, you can’t let that happen.
Somebody knows who killed this guy, and they are just sitting there while his family is without him.”
“Someone knows something,” Williams agreed. “No matter who Eric Cooper was in the ’80s, or Elizabeth, or Rice. They were all sons and daughters of somebody. You have families that have been absolutely destroyed, and there is no closure. It’s time to tell the truth, to let out the secret. We need to be able to put Eric Cooper, Jon Rice and Elizabeth Ehlers to rest.”
PHOTO CREDIT: Teton County Sheriff’s Office