The Deck - Rachael Runyan (5 of Clubs, Utah)

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Our card this week is Rachel Runyon, the five of clubs from Utah.

In the early 80s, a small town’s illusion of safety was shattered when one of its youngest

residents was kidnapped just steps away from her backyard.

And her abduction, along with some strange happenings that unfolded after, has haunted

the residents of Sunset, Utah for the last 40 years.

I’m Ashley Flowers, and this is The Deck.

It was lunchtime on Thursday, August 26, 1982.

Elaine Runyon had just finished cooking sloppy joes for her three young children.

Their yard had a gate with direct access to a playground, and for the first time ever,

she’d let them go by themselves while she cooked.

I mean, she could see almost the whole thing from her window, so now that the food was

ready, she called out that very window, letting them know that it was time for them to come

in for lunch.

That was the deal they’d made.

You can go to the playground, but you have to come home as soon as I call for lunch.

So when she called their names, she expected to see her three kids running to the house.

Five-year-old Justin, three-year-old Rachel, and one-and-a-half-year-old Nathan.

But there were no kids running toward the house when she called, so she stepped outside

to see where they were.

To her surprise, they were much farther away than they were supposed to be.

They were all the way across the big field next to the playground.

Elaine shouted again for the three to come eat lunch, and this time they heard her.

But as they were running back to the house, Elaine noticed it was only Justin and Nathan

responding to her shouts.

Elaine vividly remembers that day and that very moment, because that was when her life

changed forever.

When her two sons made it back to their yard, Justin’s eyes were wide with fear.

He goes, Mommy, I have some real bad news.

And he never said those words in his life, like, he was just quiet, and he just, he didn’t

talk like that.

So it was strange to hear that being said.

Justin told his mom that Rachel was in a blue car with a man they didn’t know.

Before racing, Elaine dropped to her knees to be face-to-face with the five-year-old


Elaine pressed her son for more information, and Justin said all three of them were playing

at the playground, building sandcastles, when a man approached them and asked if they wanted

to go get ice cream at Bobco’s, which is a local store.

Justin said, Rachel goes, I like bubblegum.

He goes, well, I’ve got some in my car.

Follow me.

And he didn’t grab her at that point.

He started walking, and so then she’s following, and then Justin’s following her, and then

Nathan’s behind her.

As they followed the man to his car, they were getting farther and farther from the

playground and their backyard, and Justin started to get a bad feeling.

And moments later, his fear was realized when the man did something unexpected.

He turned around, and he grabbed Rachel and put her over his shoulder, and he said to

the boys, we’ll be right back.

And they’re like, that doesn’t sound right, you know?

And by now she’s screaming.

And the guy put her in the car, and she was having her hands on the window screaming.

She did not want to go.

By now, Elaine was in a complete panic.

She rushed into the house and frantically called her husband, Jeff, who was at work.

She told him that Rachel had been kidnapped.

Jeff told her to call the police while he made his way back home.

Once Elaine called 911, officers were on the scene within minutes, swarming her living

room and backyard.

Elaine grabbed a picture of Rachel off the fridge and handed it to police, a visual guide

to help them find the little girl with curly blonde hair and blue eyes.

Elaine also described to police what her daughter was wearing when she was taken.

An outfit she’ll never forget.

It was a little sundress with matching bloomers.

She had tennis shoes and yellow smiley shoelaces.

And the floral pattern was like little green and white and flowers.

It was blue trim right here.

The police department in Sunset, Utah was small, but several officers were there and

ready to help find Rachel.

The first thing they did was try and get a description of the man and his car from

five-year-old Justin.

They also tracked down a 10-year-old boy who said he’d been at the playground and saw

the man and his car as well.

Both young boys described him as a tall black man, maybe 30 to 35, with a mustache driving

a blue Ford Pinto with woodgrain paneling down the sides.

Within 20 minutes, police had blocked roads in the area and were screening cars.

Officers were hopeful they’d find her.

It had only been about a half hour since Rachel was taken, and they were quick to take action

and were pulling out all the stops to get her back.

While police were out looking for Rachel, Elaine was conducting her own search.

She rushed to Bobco’s, the store that the man had said he would take the kids to for

ice cream, hoping that maybe by some stroke of luck the man had actually taken Rachel


The panicked mom asked employees if they’d seen a little girl with the man, but no one


Police were also hitting a wall.

The minutes had turned to hours, and there was no sign of Rachel, her kidnapper, or the

blue car.

It was late that night when police accepted the fact that the kidnapper had somehow gotten

out of town before the roadblocks were in place, so they made plans to launch a full-scale

investigation the next morning.

Jeff and Elaine Runyon knew that they should try to go to sleep that night, but they couldn’t

stop thinking about all the horrible things that man might be doing to their daughter.

The first thing officers did the next morning was to have a sketch artist work with Justin

and the 10-year-old witness to create a composite sketch of the kidnapper.

You can actually see that sketch on our website,

And while police worked, Elaine and Jeff were doing anything they could think of to bring

their daughter home.

They held fundraisers to raise the reward for Rachel’s return, they hung up flyers,

and the Sunset community really rallied around them.

A local grocery store printed thousands and thousands of flyers for the Runyons to distribute,

and a nearby KFC even put pictures of Rachel on their buckets of chicken.

Everybody was trying so hard to think of what they could do to help, to make it better,

to bring her home.

As Rachel’s abduction started to hit the news in northern Utah, the city of Sunset

announced that it would offer a $20,000 reward for Rachel’s safe return, and the money

the Runyons raised was enough to double it.

At the time, the Sunset Police Department was a seven-person agency, so even with officers'

best efforts, their investigation wasn’t thorough enough to satisfy the Runyon family.

So Jeff rented a plane to fly over the area and search for his daughter himself.

When nothing turned up with that search, he took his shotgun and combed through the hills

on foot, but still there was no trace of Rachel or her kidnapper.

By Monday, August 30th, four days after Rachel’s kidnapping, the Runyons started to doubt that

they would ever see their daughter again.

An article ran on the front page of the Daily Herald that said the family feared the worst.

Friends were quoted in that same article and recalled that Jeff and Elaine still weren’t

eating or sleeping because they were so distraught and they were so focused on finding their


They didn’t think that Rachel was being held for ransom because A, they hadn’t received

a ransom note of any kind, and B, they weren’t rich by any means.

Jeff told the Bellingham Herald that they were, quote, everyday ordinary people living

paycheck to paycheck.

The Runyons started to develop a new theory about what could have happened to their daughter

and it broadened their search area to the entire country.

They worried that perhaps Rachel had been taken and sold in an illegal adoption or human

trafficking ring.

As the days dragged by, investigators were also becoming more convinced that Rachel’s

kidnapper had taken her out of state.

Now it’s not clear where the adoption or out-of-state travel theories came from, but the Runyons

set out to get national attention for their daughter’s case because of this.

Eleven days after Rachel was taken, Jeff and Elaine appeared on NBC’s The Today Show begging

anyone with information about their daughter’s disappearance to come forward.

They also issued a nationwide plea for anyone adopting a young girl in the next year or

anyone who so much as saw a new girl in the neighborhood to be certain that she was not

their little Rachel.

In an interview with the Kansas City Times, Elaine said, quote,

“‘Somebody knows this man.

Somebody knows this girl.

If you see anyone pulling a child or fighting with a child, ask her, are you Rachel Runyon?

Who is your mommy?’

For weeks, this is all the Runyons could do, plead with the public, hang up flyers, and

get as much media attention as possible.

Then, late in the evening on September 19th, almost a month after Rachel’s disappearance,

a phone call came in that would end the search for Rachel and begin a whole new nightmare

for the family.

It was their bishop on the other end.

He and the mayor of Sunset wanted to drop by the house because they had an update on

the investigation.

Now the Runyons knew a house call that late at night meant it had to be significant news

in Rachel’s case.

They said, you know, we found Rachel and I’m like, and?

You know, I’m still hanging on to hope she’s alive and they said, a small child’s body

has been found and I’m like, body?

I just couldn’t compute, like, does that mean she’s dead or it’s a body and she’s okay,

you know?

Just hanging on to every last, you know, hope that you could even have.

The Runyons were told that a family was out for a Sunday drive and a little hike up a

mountain canyon about 20 miles from Sunset when they got to a stream and they saw what

they thought was a doll in the water, covered partly by some brush.

But it hadn’t been a doll.

It was a young girl whose hands and feet were bound with nylon rope and it looked like she’d

been there a while.

As the bishop and mayor sat with the Runyons, investigators were almost positive it was

Rachel, but they needed to formally identify her before releasing the information to the


But identifying the young girl proved to be challenging.

She matched the basic description of Rachel, but she was so decomposed that many identifying

markers were no longer there.

And further complicating things was the fact that Rachel didn’t have any dental records

for comparison.

Police tried comparing fingerprints, but that also proved to be difficult because of the

amount of time that the girl had been in the water.

After a few days of trying fingerprinting and other tests, the examiner knew that there

was only one other option, having Rachel’s parents make the identification.

Police were hesitant to let them view her, but Elaine and Jeff wanted to bring an end

to their waiting.

So they braced themselves, and when they saw her, there was no doubt in their minds that

it was their Rachel.

Elaine was heartbroken as she confirmed the clothing was her daughter’s.

And though there were no dental records, a mother knows, she recognized Rachel’s tooth

that was pushed forward and the other one that was chipped.

It was her baby girl.

Even though her identity was confirmed, her cause of death and date of death were proving

to be even more difficult to determine.

Investigators knew that she’d been in that creek for quite some time, perhaps even since

August 26, the day she was kidnapped.

But pinpointing it exactly was something that they wouldn’t know for sure until they

caught her killer.

There were no markings or wounds on Rachel to indicate that she’d been shot or stabbed,

so many people assumed she’d been strangled or suffocated.

But they could never prove that because of the state her body was in when she was found.

It’s also unclear if she’d been sexually assaulted.

Newspapers at the time reported conflicting information, but Elaine told our reporting

team that as far as she knows, police never said that Rachel had been sexually assaulted.

On September 23, four days after her body was found, Rachel was laid to rest.

Hundreds attended her funeral and remembered the young life that was unfairly stolen from

them, even though it had barely begun.

Rachel was remembered as the sweetest little girl you’d ever meet and just as cute as

could be.

She’d even recently won a beauty pageant and been crowned Little Miss Sunset.

She actually was a very quiet little girl.

She wasn’t one that ran around bawling all the time.

She just was really an angel on earth.

The Runyons were ready to turn their grief into action immediately after identifying


At her daughter’s funeral, Elaine told the crowd that Rachel didn’t die for nothing.

She said that she was determined to make sure something positive came out of her little

girl’s murder.

And it didn’t take long for Elaine’s promise to come true.

Rachel’s case acted as a catalyst for change in the community.

Parents across Utah started compiling identification packets for their children in case their kids

ever went missing.

Within a month, the parents of more than 30,000 children had their fingerprints, blood type,

and dental records recorded in case tragedy ever struck.

Parent Teacher Association chapters across the state were reviving child protection programs,

and almost every law enforcement agency in Utah introduced new school programs teaching

kids not to trust strangers.

While Rachel’s family was making a difference in Utah, police were knee deep in the dozens

of tips that were pouring in.

Even though Rachel’s body had been found in neighboring Morgan County, the Sunset Police

Department retained jurisdiction, with Lt. Phil Olmsted spearheading the investigation.

One of the tips that came in came from a man who said that he knew the motive behind Rachel’s


He claimed that she’d been killed for a snuff film, which is a recording of an actual murder.

The term was coined in the 70s following the Manson family murders and the theory that

those killings were recorded.

But law enforcement investigating Rachel’s case didn’t think much of the claim and kind

of brushed off the tip.

But things just got more strange.

Not long after Rachel’s funeral, her father Jeff was visiting her gravesite and saw something

that truly freaked him out.

Laying on Rachel’s headstone was a single black rose.

The rose hadn’t been there on the day of the funeral, and Jeff found it ominous.

The Runyon family thought if the flower wasn’t left by someone who was mourning Rachel’s

loss, maybe it was put there by the killer.

And a few days later, another black rose was mysteriously left on Rachel’s gravestone.

As suspicious as the roses were, police couldn’t figure out who was leaving them.

If it were me, I would have set up some kind of surveillance to stake out Rachel’s grave

and see who was leaving the flowers, but as far as we can tell, that never happened.

It’s also unclear if police ever checked with local flower shops to see if anyone had been

purchasing single black roses multiple times.

I mean, to be fair, maybe they thought it was just some kid playing a prank, or maybe

they felt like they had bigger fish to fry in their investigation, because around the

same time, officers were starting to consider a possible serial killer connection to Rachel’s case.

In 1983, a man named Arthur Gary Bishop confessed to several kidnappings and murders near Salt

Lake City from 1979 to 1983.

So officers in Sunset couldn’t help but wonder if he’d also targeted Rachel.

Bishop was known to lure his young victims from public places before sexually assaulting

and killing them.

The only difference was Bishop’s other known victims were all boys between the ages of

4 and 13.

Police still questioned him about Rachel, but he denied having any involvement in her murder.

And after that, Rachel’s case went cold.

The tips that were once pouring in were now barely a trickle, and Rachel’s name disappeared

from the headlines.

It seemed like Rachel’s killer had vanished into thin air.

There was simply no trace of him.

That is until 1985, two and a half years after Rachel’s death, when police got a strange call.

Someone phoned in to tell police that they’d found a disturbing message scrawled across

the men’s restroom wall in a 24-hour laundromat that was just a few miles from the Runyons'


Officers responded to the laundromat right away to see the message for themselves, and

it made their skin crawl.

The writing was in all caps and read, quote,

And below those words was a drawing that made the message even creepier, an upside-down

cross surrounded by three sixes.

Police cut out the portion of the wall that contained the message to keep it for evidence,

but there wasn’t much they could do with it.

It wasn’t like someone was caught in the act of writing the message, and security cameras

were nowhere near as prevalent as they are today, so it’s likely that the writer of

the message wasn’t even caught on camera.

So finding this didn’t really get law enforcement that much closer to catching their killer.

But it did give investigators another viable theory to work with.

Lieutenant Olmsted discussed his theory on NBC’s Unsolved Mysteries.

With the upside-down cross and the triple six, it indicates to us that there could very

well be a satanic cult involved in the kidnapping of Rachel Runyon.

Investigators held on to the theory of possible cult involvement, but it was just that, a


There was nothing else to go on.

And by the way, if you research any murder from the early 80s, you’re likely to find

out that somewhere along the way, police considered satanic cult involvement.

It was a popular, vague, and widespread theory for almost all homicides back then.

Anyway, after the graffiti was found, things in Rachel’s case went quiet again.

It wasn’t until 1989 that things really started to pick back up.

In April of that year, detectives got a tip from a woman who said that she knew who killed


In fact, she was related to the killer.

This woman said that it was her brother who’d committed the murder.

And what’s more, the woman’s story hearkened back to a tip from six years earlier in the


She claimed that Rachel’s torture and murder had been videotaped and made into a snuff


Because this woman confirmed a story that they’d already heard, and one that they

hadn’t made public at that point, investigators thought that she seemed credible.

So they struck a deal with her.

They would pay her as a confidential informant, and she would arrange for their undercover

agents to buy a copy of the alleged snuff film that her brother made.

According to reporting by the Salt Lake Tribune, agents tried three separate times to purchase

the film, but each time the deal fell through for one reason or another.

With each failed attempt, police grew more suspicious of their informant, and after the

third try, authorities charged her with theft by deception and obstructing justice, both

of which she ended up pleading guilty to.

She also recanted most of the information she’d told police.

But police still held on to the snuff film theory.

When Rachel’s case was featured on that episode of Unsolved Mysteries in 1989, it

was the main theory discussed.

The episode even showed the dress that Rachel would have likely been wearing in the film,

if anyone were to find it.

And after that episode aired, the floodgates opened.

Somewhere around 150 tips came pouring in from all over the country.

It was exactly what law enforcement hoped would happen.

Belief was brought back into the heartbreaking case that had been sitting on their shelf

unsolved for the past seven years.

Every lead that came in, police investigated as best they could.

But as promising as some of the tips seemed, none of them panned out in the end.

So investigators were once again back to the drawing board.

And they were at that drawing board for decades.

While the investigation was stalled, Elaine was still hard at work fulfilling the promise

that she made at Rachel’s funeral, that something positive would come from her death.

In 2002, the Rachel Alert was created, which was a child abduction alert system for Utah.

It actually laid the groundwork for what would later be standardized across the nation as

the Amber Alert system.

For a long time, it seemed like the story ended there.

But thankfully it didn’t.

37 years after Rachel’s kidnapping and murder, private investigator Jason Jensen started

looking into her case.

And what he unearthed shocked everyone.

And it led police to their most promising suspect yet.

In late 2019, Jason’s wheels started turning.

The Utah Cold Case Coalition, which he co-founded, had just helped solve a 1970s cold case in

which police were looking for a black man as their suspect.

But as it turned out, the actual killer was Hispanic.

This made Jason wonder about another infamous Utah cold case, Rachel Runyon’s.

He wondered if investigators had gotten tunnel vision on her case as well and mistakenly

assumed that their killer was a black man.

So on Christmas Eve, Jason decided that he couldn’t keep this theory to himself any


He reached out to Elaine and asked a question no one had asked before.

I said, hey, Miss Runyon, is there any possibility that your son may have witnessed a Hispanic

male instead of an African American?

And to Jason’s surprise, she got back to him the very same day.

After checking with her son Justin, Elaine responded saying that her son no longer thought

the man was black and just remembered him as having a dark complexion.

When you think about it, he was five years old.

He was Rachel’s older brother, and he witnessed her being abducted.

And he said to his mother that he was black.

Well, you know, a five-year-old’s experience with other ethnicity is going to be very limited

because this is a Caucasian family in Sunset, Utah, where other than at the Air Force Base,

you know, we’re talking a community where there’s very little diversity in 1982.

Well, in 2019, when I contacted him, he was 42.

So his experience has completely altered, you know, and broadened in his life experience.

So he ended up saying to me that he was never happy with the composite sketch that was released.

Not only was Justin unhappy with the person portrayed in the sketch, but he said a key

facial feature wasn’t drawn correctly.

Something that might have made all the difference in the investigation.

He recalled vividly that the man who took his little sister had a very pronounced gap

in his mustache.

So Jason and the Runyon family had the composite sketch redrawn to better reflect the man Justin

saw on August 26, 1982.

For some reason, the new sketch still didn’t include a gap in the mustache.

So local news station, ABC 4 Utah, took it upon themselves to make an alternate version

of this composite, this time with the gap.

You can actually see pictures of that sketch on our website as well.

Now that they were armed with a more realistic composite of the killer, Jason and the Runyons

wasted no time.

They made a post on the official Rachel Runyon Facebook page showcasing the new sketch and

announcing that the suspect description had changed.

They were now looking for a man with dark complexion and a mustache gap.

As soon as that information got out there, it wasn’t 15 minutes that a key witness came

forward and said, hey, guess what?

My parents talked about turning in my uncle because they thought that he killed Rachel,

but my mom talked my dad out of it.

The guy that this person is talking about is a convicted child molester who we’re going

to call Lane, and then going forward, we’ll bleep his name.

And we’re doing this because this theory isn’t widely agreed upon by everyone involved

in the case.

She said that her dad was going to report as the possible suspect, but the mom talked

him out of it saying, oh, you’re just prejudiced because you don’t like him because he’s a,

you know, a child molester.

But then said, but they’re looking for an African-American anyway and not African-American.

So she succeeded talking him out of reporting him.

As promising as this lead seemed, there was a problem.

Lane had died just two years before his relative came forward and reported her suspicions.

But the more Jason looked into Lane, the more he became convinced of his involvement in

Rachel’s murder.

He was in and out of prison his entire life with convictions for theft, aggravated battery,

and possession of controlled substances.

Run-ins with the law didn’t stop there.

In 1970, he was convicted of sexually assaulting his kid’s babysitter.

Also in 1970, he allegedly assaulted his neighbor, though it’s not clear if there were charges

ever filed for that assault.

And then in 2005, was arrested again for sexual abuse of a minor.

One of the things that struck me, given the fact that, you know, people will ask me, well,

why do you think that he killed Rachel?

Well, typically, specifically sex offenders, they will escalate their crime the next go


It’s like, okay, my mistake, my bad.

My mistake was I left a witness when I raped before.

So the next go around, they kill their victim because they don’t want any witness.

But oftentimes you see that escalation where this first offense, they went and did serve

time because of the rape offense.

The next time it’s a murder charge.

Jason did some digging and discovered that **** had been released from prison in 1981.

And he didn’t return to prison until 1986, which meant that he would have been a free

man during Rachel’s 1982 abduction and murder.

Not only that, Jason said there’s something else that makes **** a promising suspect in

his mind.

Something big.

**** had a blue Ford Pinto with woodgrain paneling on the sides, the exact kind of car

that Rachel was seen getting into with her kidnapper.

According to **** family, he kept that car behind his parents’ home, which was a stoplight

away from the police station and two stoplights away from the Runyon’s home.

**** wasn’t in jail.

He stayed in his parents’ basement.

The entrance was behind the home, so he would always park his Pinto behind the house.

So it makes sense that no authorities ever saw the car, which matched the descriptions

of the kidnappers to a T.

Also bore a striking resemblance to the updated composite.

Jason said that the nose in particular was quote, almost a perfect match.

Even the poofy hair was spot on.

And what’s more, **** was also known to sport a mustache with a pronounced gap.

And there was something else about **** that matched the suspect profile Jason and the

Runyons had compiled.

They were sure whoever killed Rachel was from the area.

And what makes them so sure is what the kidnapper said to the three kids before he abducted


The man told the Runyon kids that he’d take them to Bobco’s to get ice cream.

But Bobco’s was a locally owned grocery store.

It wasn’t like a chain or even a popular ice cream shop that lots of people knew about.

It was just like a regular mom and pop grocery store that happened to have a little ice cream

shop inside, something an outsider wouldn’t know.

But even with all of these little details lining up and pointing to **** as the killer,

investigators needed more.

All the evidence so far was purely circumstantial.

The criminal record, the kind of car he owned, where he lived, the fact that his family at

one point seriously considered reporting him as the possible kidnapper.

It couldn’t have all just been coincidence.

And Jason knew police would need something more concrete to be satisfied that **** was

their guy and close the case for good.

Something like a confession, which again was impossible because their suspect was long


Or maybe DNA.

Jason jumped on that idea and reached out right away to ****’s daughter, who lived

just 10 minutes southeast of Sunset.

I explained to her that we had a tip that matched and that was saying that **** may

have been responsible for this murder and that a DNA sample would rule him out if there’s

not a match.

So she agreed to submit to a DNA test for us.

Once Jason had the DNA from ****’s daughter, it was time to test her DNA against the DNA

found at the crime scene.

Now it’s not clear where that DNA came from, whether it was from clothing or swabs.

It’s also not clear how well preserved the DNA was.

But regardless, in 2020, the sample Jason collected and the samples that law enforcement

was holding onto were all sent to Intermountain Forensics, a nonprofit forensic DNA testing

lab in Utah.

And that is where the case stands today.

The results of the tests are still pending, and it’s unknown how much longer it’ll

be till the Runyon family gets answers.

For Elaine, the waiting game has been excruciating.

We just like to have the closure.

We deserve the closure.

For 40 years, the Runyon family has been waiting for the answers they deserve.

And although there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel, they know that nothing

is guaranteed.

The DNA results from the lab could bring them right back to square one.

And I can’t imagine having to sit with that fear for years like the Runyons have.

Their family deserves closure, and Rachel deserves justice.

If you have any information about the 1982 abduction and murder of Rachel Runyon, please

speak up.

Call the Sunset Police Department at 801-825-1620.

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