SUMMIT COUNTY, Utah (ABC 4 News) – “It all began in 1984 when two hikers stumbled across a human skull in the Christmas Meadows area of Summit County. No one knew who it might have been. The missing person cold case sat in a file for years until two old detectives, as they describe themselves, came out of retirement and started asking questions. What they found out about the skull led them on the trail of a suspected serial killer through five states.
"It wasn’t until 2004 that we were able to piece all this stuff together," says Dean Carr, now the Undersheriff of Summit County, as he sits at his desk, a 3’ by 4’ map unfolded atop it.
Carr and his partner, retired Salt Lake County Chief Deputy Mike Wilkinson, began digging into the mystery of the Christmas Meadows skull shortly after they joined the Summit County Sheriff’s office as volunteers.
“The Sergeant came in my office, dropped a big box on the desk and asked us if we would start looking into some of the cold cases,” Carr says.
They had no idea they were about to embark on an investigative odyssey, tracking what would become one of the most notorious crime sprees of their 40-plus year careers.
The skull, they discovered, was that of a Wyoming man named Steve Scane. Once they had his identity, they were able to find out a lot more about the man and how he ended up as weathered remains in a field in northeastern Utah. Carr and Wilkinson determined someone had killed Scane.
“We believe he drove down into Utah, down into the Christmas Meadows area and dumped the body," says Carr.
How did they figure that out? A few scraps of paper, found near another murder scene in 1982 outside Reno, Nevada provided the clues these veteran detectives needed to launch their investigation. The papers were receipts, found in the stolen car of the man convicted in that Reno murder. His name was Tracy Petrocelli. He had been using Scane’s credit card as he travelled throughout the western United States. He had also been using the cards of other dead people.
“At the time he was arrested, he had all of his victim’s identifications in various forms on him," says Carr.
Astoundingly, no one had ever taken a look at the scraps of paper found in the stolen car Petrocelli was driving when he was arrested in 1992 in Las Vegas. If they had, they would have immediately connected him to four other murders.
“That’s what disappoints me the most about the law enforcement agencies back then,” says Carr as he looks downward in thought, obviously reluctant to criticize fellow law enforcement officers.
“They had the information and evidence on him at the time he was arrested. They had the gun. They had the victims’ identifications. They had the credit cards, the receipts, all of that kind of stuff. If they had taken the time to do more than just worry about their case and follow this up, all of this stuff would have been resolved back then.”
Using the credit card receipts and other clues, Carr and Wilkinson say they were able to draw a map of Petrocelli’s movements between late 1981 and early 1982. What they documented was a six-month killing spree that began in Seattle, moved to San Bernadino, California, through Las Vegas to Evanston, Wyoming where Scane was killed before his body was dumped in Summit County, then on to Colorado and back to Nevada where Petrocelli was arrested.
In addition to the Reno murder and the murder of the man whose skull was discovered in Summit County, Carr and Wilkinson say they have positively connected Petrocelli to three other deaths and strongly suspect him in three more beyond those.
All this has come about without the benefit of state-of-the-art forensic science or computerized investigative tools. These two career lawmen have relied on old-fashioned detective work. Their boss, Summit County Sheriff David Edmunds raves about their work.
"There are very few detectives that could have put the case together that they put together,” Says the sheriff. “It’s impressive and I think it’s a testament to just what old fashioned police work can do."
Patrocelli is on death row in Nevada on the Reno murder conviction, awaiting the outcome of ongoing appeals. Meantime, the work in Summit County continues, proving this convicted murderer is indeed a serial killer who ended the lives of as many as eight people, including the January 6, 1982 deaths of two young women in Colorado, Annette Kay Schnee and Barbara Jo Oberholtzer. Carr says he and Wilkinson have uncovered strong evidence that connects Petrocelli to the crimes. He says he firmly believes there are people who have information that will enable him and his partner to prove it.
“These criminals don’t operate in a vacuum,” says Carr. “They talk to people. They tell what they’ve done.”
The Summit County Sheriff’s office is standing by for any tips or leads that would assist law enforcers in Colorado and Nevada solve cases that have been unsolved for more than two decades and give the victims’ families and loved ones justice and closure.
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