The Deck - Sherry Black (9 of Hearts, Utah) Part 2

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Our card this week is Sherry Black, the Nine of Hearts from Utah.

This is part two of her story.

If you haven’t yet, go back and listen to the previous episode because in that I told

you about the start of the investigation into a horrifying murder that rocked the community

of South Salt Lake in Utah.

When we left off, it had been more than a year since the murder.

And even though the police had the killer’s DNA, they had no suspects or motive.

But Sherry’s daughter, Heidi Miller, had just come across some information that she

hoped could change the trajectory of the entire investigation.

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

A friend had given Heidi a copy of a book called The Murder Room by Michael Capuzzo,

which details the creation of the V-Doc Society.

We’ve mentioned them on this show before.

They’re an exclusive group of active and former investigators and forensic experts

who review unsolved homicides.

Once she learned more about the V-Doc Society, Heidi called the lead detective at South Salt

Lake to suggest bringing them on board.

And she was excited to hear that the department had already taken steps in that direction.

Now, usually V-Doc didn’t look at cases that were less than two years old, but this time

they made an exception.

According to Nate Carlisle’s reporting for the Salt Lake Tribune, in March of 2012, a

small group of V-Doc Society members came out to Utah and spent a few days poring over

the evidence in Sherry’s case with the police.

Here’s criminologist Patrick Zerpoli, one of the former members who went out there.

I think the most important piece of all of this is that you have to understand, A, how

the offender gets there, and B, how does the offender know that she’s alone?

How do you know that someone’s not coming out of the house with a shotgun when they

hear her screaming?

So that tells you a lot, A, about the offender themselves, and then kind of tells you from

the beginning where your investigation needs to go.

Another big thing is, why is she a victim?

Why is, how did they come to say that on that day, at that time, Sherry Black is a victim?

Based on the evidence they reviewed, V-Doc members thought that the perpetrator was probably

a younger man, under 30, maybe even a juvenile, and it was likely that he lived near B&W Billiards

and Books, possibly within a few blocks.

V-Doc offering its expertise meant the world to Heidi.

The group couldn’t share many details with the Blacks about Sherry’s case, although

they did assure her that they thought it was solvable, and they gave South Salt Lake PD

a list of to-dos that they thought would further the investigation.

But months passed, then years, and it wasn’t getting solved.

In all fairness, South Salt Lake PD looked into dozens of potential leads and suspects

over the years.

People who lived in the area, students at a nearby high school, sex offenders, parolees,

other local killers, and even a man whose name will definitely be familiar to many of

you, Israel Keyes.

After the FBI determined Israel had traveled to Utah several times, the agency asked law

enforcement throughout the state to review their unsolved homicides and see if he could

be their guy.

But he wasn’t in Utah when Sherry was killed, and his DNA didn’t match.

And unfortunately, none of those other suspects panned out either.

Sherry’s family grew more and more frustrated with South Salt Lake’s investigation.

Here’s Heidi again.

I think they didn’t have all the resources or tools or knowledge that they needed on

a case that they hadn’t seen before.

Heidi also felt like the case had just kind of stalled out.

It seemed like the police were just waiting for a DNA hit in CODIS to just ball in their

laps rather than actively looking for the killer or meticulously working their way

through the to-dos left behind by the VDOC society.

Patrick said that he had gotten the same vibes, and he thought the early investigation was

lacking to some extent because of that languid mentality.

There’s a lot of things that, you know, weren’t done initially that could have been done or

should have been done initially.

I think in this case here a little bit, it kind of went down that road because once they

got a full DNA sample that we’re just going to wait for the phone call from the FBI saying

we matched the DNA.

So the Unified PD, a larger department with more resources, started helping South Salt

Lake PD in 2015.

That was when Detective Ben Pender took on a larger role.

We took measures to try and get the case taken from South Salt Lake and given to Unified.

Now it’s worth noting that cases don’t typically get transferred from one police

department to another.

And I doubt that it would have happened if Heidi Black wasn’t now Heidi Miller.

You see, even though she came from a humble upbringing, Heidi married into a prominent

influential family.

Her husband was the CEO of the company that owned the Utah Jazz at the time, and a lot

of other businesses in and around Salt Lake.

So people knew who they were.

It gave them more power than an average family in this situation normally has.

They leveraged the weight of the family name to have the case change hands and to keep

investigators focused on it, even as time passed.

So Detective Pender met with Sherry’s family regularly to share developments.

And it wasn’t long before he had a big one for them.

In August of 2015, an exhibit at an annual training conference caught his eye.

Parabon Nanolabs had recently unveiled a new forensic tool that could take someone’s

DNA sample and generate a composite sketch of them, from their skin, eye, and hair color,

all the way to their face shape.

Predictions came with varying confidence levels, since you can’t know exactly what a person

looks like just from their DNA.

I mean, also, anyone can change their appearance, especially someone who knows that they’re

wanted for murder.

And there were understandable concerns that the technology could lead to racial profiling.

But some of the composites that they had done were incredibly accurate.

And Detective Pender figured they had nothing to lose.

Police already knew Sherry’s killer was multiracial, but Parabon’s test could break his ancestry

down even more and give them some insight onto what he might look like.

So a few months later, investigators sent Parabon a DNA sample from the crime scene.

The lab did their thing, and in February of 2016, police got results.

The tests showed that the killer’s roots were approximately 46% West African, 34% Northern

European, and 5% South African.

And I’m not sure where the other few percentage points go.

Since no one knew how old he was, the company made three composites, what he might look

like at 25, 38, and 52 years old.

Parabon was nearly certain that the suspect had light brown or brown skin and black hair,

and they were 100% sure that he didn’t have blue or green eyes.

So okay, great.

Anyone who matches that?

To find out, unified investigators re-canvassed the neighborhood, revisited old suspects,

interviewed and re-interviewed family, and followed up on tips as they came in, including

suggestions from the VDOC Society.

Some leads seemed promising, but ultimately, none of them led anywhere.

Detective Pender was stumped.

It was one of his first cases that he’d worked in which there was no identifiable motive

to speak of.

He thought there had to be something that they were missing, some sort of connection

between Sherry and the killer that they just couldn’t see.

So according to Deseret News reporter Pat Reavey, in November 2017, on the seventh anniversary

of the murder, investigators released the Parabon composite to the public.

Police cautioned the public that the images were just approximations of what the killer

could look like, not photos of the actual suspect.

But I don’t think a lot of people realized that because they were immediately flooded

with tips.

Sherry’s family had also announced that they were increasing the reward money to $250,000,

which I’m sure contributed to the influx of callers.

They followed up on every tip that they got, but when the dust cleared, they weren’t

any closer to finding their killer.

So in 2018, Detective Pender reconnected with Parabon for a new DNA-related investigative

avenue, genetic genealogy.

That was the same year that Parabon started offering that service, spurred on by its popularity

after it was used to capture the Golden State killer.

So Detective Pender thought that it was worth a shot.

Parabon’s researchers gave him a list of 300 to 500 names, all of whom were distant

relatives of the suspect.

I would reach out to them and see if they would be willing to transfer their private

genealogy over to GEDmatch and upload it to the public so we could use it for this case.

Most everyone turned him down, but he did have some success, especially after he started

traveling the country target testing people, which basically meant that genealogists would

identify relatives of the suspect and he would show up at their doors asking for DNA samples.

I’m worried if I called that they would talk to family or friends and be encouraged

not to cooperate.

So I just took gambles.

This method paid off.

Almost everyone that he approached agreed to give a DNA sample.

Now, it wasn’t necessarily narrowing down the search pool because they’d cross one

name off the list only to add five more.

But in the fall of 2020, nearly 10 years after Sherry was killed, he got a call that changed


A new profile uploaded to GEDmatch strongly linked the suspect’s DNA to a woman in California.

After doing some research, the genealogist thought she was a closer relation to the suspect

than anyone they had come across.

So Detective Pender hopped on a plane and headed out to see her as soon as he could.

On the way, he did some research of his own and learned that she lived with her adult


But based on everything they knew so far, he didn’t think the son was the culprit,

and the son’s own kids were too young.

When he showed up, the woman and her son both agreed to give DNA samples.

But even as they talked, he couldn’t tell how they were related to the suspect.

No obvious connections jumped out until Detective Pender asked the son a question.

Hey, any chance you have an older child out there?

And it turned out that about 30 years ago, the son’s high school girlfriend had gotten


She ended up moving to Salt Lake City, and he never met the boy that she gave birth to.

But he did have a baby photo of him with the child’s name written on it, Antonio Spencer.

This was the strongest lead police had ever gotten.

After I left, I got on the phone with the genealogist, told her what I came up with,

and we were just going crazy.

But right away, they hit a snag.

Even though they found Antonio’s mother easily enough, there was no sign of Antonio.

But through more research, they discovered that the boy had been adopted when he was

a child after the state removed him from his mother’s care.

His name had been changed to Adam Antonio Spencer Durboro.

And by the time they tracked him down, he was 29 years old and living in Orem, Utah,

about 35 minutes away from South Salt Lake.

In his hotel room that night, Detective Pender conducted a marathon research session.

He wanted to learn everything he could about Adam, and what he found was disturbing.

Adam’s adopted father, Joseph Paul Durboro, had served time in prison for sexually abusing

children and distributing child sexual abuse material, which included photos of one of

his adopted daughters.

The Durboros had 10 foster-slash-adopted kids in their care at the time of Joseph’s 2002

including Adam.

And get this, KSL reported that none of the children were removed from the home because

social workers didn’t think that Joseph’s wife knew about her husband’s misdeeds.

In high school, Adam was in a program for what Detective Pender referred to as, quote

unquote, troubled youth.

And Pender saw that Adam had some pretty serious stuff on his juvenile criminal record.

When he was 14, he was arrested for attempted rape and aggravated assault for an incident

involving a girl under 14.

He ultimately pled guilty to attempted kidnapping.

And then when he was 16, he was convicted of aggravated assault after threatening someone

with a piece of broken glass.

Now those are felonies, and even as a juvenile, Adam was ordered to provide a DNA sample.

But frustratingly, it didn’t happen, although it’s not clear why.

Despite a concerning juvenile record, Adam didn’t have much of an adult criminal record.

Two shoplifting convictions, one from about a month before Sherry’s murder and one a

couple of months after.

So his fingerprints were on file.

But remember, the poor quality prints collected from Sherry’s crime scene hadn’t yielded

any matches.

Pender also saw from the court records that Adam’s biological mother had picked him

up after his first shoplifting arrest, and her apartment was a little over a mile from


So he could have been familiar with it.

And then there was his Facebook account, where he went by the name Jace Ranting.

Detective Pender thought some of Adam’s older photos bore an uncanny resemblance to

Parabon’s 25-year-old suspect composite.

And some of his posts were alarming.

For instance, on the second anniversary of Sherry’s murder, he posted a meme, this cartoon

drawing of a guy sitting in a bloody bathroom holding a saw.

And the caption was, quote, don’t upset me.

I’m running out of places to hide the bodies, end quote.

Despite all of this, Detective Pender didn’t want to get his hopes up too high.

But this guy was looking better every second.

And when he got back to Utah, he and other investigators immediately started tailing

Adam, who was working at Walmart and living with a roommate.

They waited for a good time to grab his DNA.

And on Wednesday, October 7th, they got their chance when they saw him use and then throw

out a drinking straw.

Late that afternoon, Detective Pender took the straw and the other items they collected

over to the crime lab for testing.

One of the forensic scientists who’s been working the case, she indicated she was going

to stick around, at least kind of just get started on it.

And they said, probably two to four days, we’ll have an answer.

It didn’t take long.

A text from the forensic scientist woke him up at around 2 a.m.

She told him it was a match.

Their decade-long search was finally over.

But their work was far from finished.

And my work was put on pause.

You see, I started working on this story in January of 2019.

I met Heidi through her foundation, which I’ll talk about in a little bit.

It turns out that she and her daughters were crime junkies.

They were familiar with the show that I had just put out about the Burger Chef murders

called Red Ball.

And Heidi hoped that I’d consider her mom’s case for a second season.

Within a month, I was out in Utah meeting with her and Detective Pender, the whole Miller

family in fact.

We thought that the 10-year anniversary would be a great time to put everything out into

the world.

But then they had their man.

When I got word of an arrest, I just put everything on pause.

I mean, the goal of the show was to help bring attention to the case in hopes of solving


But now it was solved.

So my only new goal was to not f*** that up.

I sat on everything I had and watched the case unfold with the rest of the world.

On Saturday morning, October 10th, police arrested Adam at Walmart, where he was about

to start a shift.

On the way to the police station, Adam told Detective Pender that he was pretty sure that

he knew what this was about.

And if he was right, he wanted a lawyer.

They had enough evidence to arrest Adam without a confession, but this was their chance to

get Sherry’s family the answers that they had been wanting for years.

So just for clarification, police do have to stop questioning a suspect once they ask

for a lawyer, but they are allowed to keep talking to them, even though it can be tricky

legal territory.

So Detective Pender decided to take another gamble.

At the station, he told Adam that he understood he wanted a lawyer, so he’s not going to

ask him a single question.

He just wanted to fill him in.

Pender said they knew he killed Sherry Black, but what they all didn’t understand was why.

He told Adam that he learned a lot about him recently, and he was sorry about everything

that he’d been through.

It seemed like he had done a good job of turning his life around.

I mean, after all, it had been years since he had even a minor mishap with the law.

With that being said, he couldn’t imagine how difficult it had been for Adam to carry

this secret for a decade.

The way he saw it, Adam had two choices.

Come clean, give himself and Sherry’s family some small peace of mind, or just keep holding

everything in.

I talked to him for about five to seven minutes, and then I stopped.

I didn’t ask any questions.

I just stopped talking.

We sat there for a couple of minutes in silence.

Then Adam started to speak.

We got a copy of the video recorded interview through a records request.

When you guys stopped me today, I mean, I haven’t done anything else in my life, but

I definitely felt some relief, which sounds odd.

I mean, if it’s for so much readers, why not just come forward, right?

But it’s just been one of those things where it’s like, I have so many people in my life

now that I just didn’t want to.

That’s so selfish.

It’s been a long 10 years.

I shouldn’t say this is blood and wire, but honestly, it’s just something that you need to know.

I went into that store, and I had no intention at all to do anything.

It was a bookstore.

I love books.

It was just, I don’t know, I just, I was just looking through.

There’s no one else in the store, and it had been a rough week, I remember that.

He told detectives his mom had been worried he was headed down a bad path.

He had been living with proctor parents, what Detective Pender described as kind of like

foster parents for troubled youth, but they didn’t think he was making progress either.

That November, they had gone on vacation without him.

I just, I was so angry.

I just, I don’t know, I just lashed out.

It just happened.

She was there, and I just, it’s a mistake that I wish every day that I had never, ever made.

I was young.

I was stupid.

I was so angry.

I was so confused.

It wasn’t personal.

It wasn’t planned.

It was spontaneous.

I’m sorry that I did it, not just that I didn’t incorporate it, but I am sorry that I did it.

I wish I could take it back.

Detective Pender told him he really wanted to continue their discussion, if Adam wanted

to change his mind and formally agree to waive his Miranda rights.

If not, they would have to terminate the interview.

Adam decided he wanted to keep talking.

Well, I had an MRE at the bookstore, Adam.

Adam said that he was in the area that day because he had a therapy appointment.

He was staying with another family while his proctor parents were away, so he took a bus

from their house, got off somewhere, and just started walking around.

And then he spotted the sign for B&W Billiards and Books.

He had been in the area before, just passing through, but never realized that there was

a bookstore there.

He said he had some time before therapy, so he went in to look around.

Sherry was at the cash register.

He asked if she had a particular book series, something in like the fantasy or sci-fi genre,

and she told him she didn’t sell those kinds of books.

But he decided to browse anyway, but nothing caught his interest.

He told the detectives that he wandered into a little side room off the shop, the stock

room, and Sherry came back to see if he was all right.

I was just stewing, just, you know, just kind of silently fuming, I guess.

She was concerned.

She walked over, asked if everything was fine.

He said that he told her he didn’t need any help.

She smiled at him and turned to walk back into the main area of the store.

And that’s when Adam saw the shears.

There was a pair of scissors nearby, and I picked it up, picked them up, and I hit her.

I just hit her on the back of the head.

I don’t know why, just so angry and just so, she, she staggered, so I hit her several times.

Adam told the detectives that certain details of that morning were crystal clear, but not others.

Like, he said he didn’t recall stabbing her in certain parts of her body.

I only remember just, just aggressively just hitting her in the back of the head.


So when you say you’re aggressively hitting her, I mean, we’re talking about the number

of times.

It was, it was repetitive.

It was fast.

And I was just whittling on her as hard as, as hard as I could, I know.

Adam told the detectives that he remembered punching her in the chest, hitting her over

the back of the head with the glass bottle and using the scissors to try and quote, cut

her throat open.

He said that she was face down on the ground and he flipped her over.

By then she was dead.

He told them he didn’t really know why he pulled down her pants or why he lifted up

her shirt, but he said he had never seen anyone naked before and that maybe he’d been curious.

And then he went on to explain some of what he did to her post-mortem.

Now remember, still, even 10 years later, the fact that she had been stabbed with scissors

was not public knowledge, neither was the sexual assault.

So police knew that he was telling the truth.

At some point, Adam says that he saw he was bleeding from his right hand.

I ran out of that store.

I’m surprised nobody saw me.

I was just running.

I don’t remember if I had blood on my face or anything, but I just ran.

I didn’t stop until I got to my therapist’s office.

I didn’t realize what I had done until I was in the bathroom just struggling.

There were some things that either he didn’t remember or he wouldn’t admit to, like the

belt, for instance.

He had seen the news reports about police finding it at the scene, but he said he doesn’t

remember taking off his belt or even owning a belt like that.

He said that he wasn’t sure of the date that he killed her, although he knew it happened

in November 2010, probably on a Tuesday, and he also wouldn’t admit to biting her breast.

Adam said that he never told anyone what he had done, though occasionally he would check

for updates in the news, but usually he just tried to pretend that the whole thing never


When he heard about the DNA testing with Parabon in 2017, he figured it was only a matter of

time before he was caught.

But he said that he had made so many positive changes since that awful day, and he didn’t

want to lose everything he had, so he just kept hoping for one more day of freedom.

But there was still something that detectives didn’t understand.

After his interview, Adam wrote a letter of apology to the family.

Then he was sent to jail to await trial on aggravated murder and aggravated burglary


I think they originally believed that he had stolen something from the bookstore.

After his confession, police made the phone call that they had been waiting to make for


The sheriff contacted the family and asked them to come to the office that we needed

to have a meeting with him.

I just said, we’ve got him and he’s in jail.

It was an emotional meeting for everyone involved, but there were still plenty of unanswered


Detective Pender told us that he was never able to verify if Adam actually did have a

therapy appointment that day.

His details on the location of the office were hazy and police couldn’t find any records

to back it up.

And of course, the biggest question was, did Adam kill anyone else?

Police asked him and he said no.

Just based on his history and stuff and what I found after his arrest, you know, I think

it’s unlikely he was involved in anything else, but obviously I’m not a positive.

Police did look into whether he was connected to at least two other unsolved homicides,

but his DNA didn’t match the perpetrator’s in either case.

Adam ended up pleading not guilty to Sherry’s murder and was appointed a public defender.

Now his case was on hold for a while because of COVID-19 and it seemed like they might

be heading toward a trial, but to everyone’s relief, Adam changed his mind and eventually

pled guilty to the murder charge in October, 2021.

Now the judge had some discretion when it came to Adam’s sentence.

He could either send him to prison for 25 years to life, or he could send him to prison

with life without parole.

During a series of utterly gut-wrenching victim statements at Adam’s sentencing in February

of 2022, Sherry’s loved ones asked the judge to make sure he never got out.

One by one, they talked about how the murder had affected them.

Heidi said she didn’t just lose her mother that day, but her dad too, because of his

overwhelming grief.

Michael told the judge that instead of having his beloved wife, he had the horrific memory

of how he found her in the stockroom.

And here’s one of Sherry’s granddaughters, Courtney.

She helped anyone she could, any way she could.

And here’s the real irony of all of this.

She would have been an advocate for this perpetrator if only he’d chosen a different path.

Instead, he preyed upon her.

He brutally took out all of his anger and frustration and hatred and rage on her, like

she was nothing, and she was not nothing.

Now there was some sympathy for Adam, initially, at least.

Here’s Detective Pender again.

I mean, not that what he did was okay, but, you know, I had some empathy for him that

he had a rest life.

But once I started monitoring his jail calls, you know, it was just all about video games

and books.

And as long as he could make phone calls and talk to his friends and get some food to eat,

he seemed just fine.

And it’s not a matter of even what he said, it’s what he didn’t say.

He never once said, you know, I really feel bad for what I did.

Even the judge said that he felt bad for both sides of the courtroom.

The egregious nature of the crime called for life without parole.

Afterwards, Heidi told reporters that they could finally begin to heal.

And part of that healing process, long before Sherry’s case was solved, was the formation

of the Sherry Black Foundation.

The foundation’s goal is to create safer communities by using their resources to remove

barriers in the criminal justice system in order to advance investigations.

In a statement after Adam’s sentencing, Heidi and her husband Greg said that they would

continue to work through the Sherry Black Foundation to educate law enforcement on investigative

techniques and support advanced DNA testing to help bring resolution to victims’ families.

And their work with the foundation is one of the reasons Heidi and her family still

wanted us to tell her mother’s story, even after it was solved.

We’re going to link out to their foundation in the show notes so you can learn more.

But there is another big reason that they wanted us to tell the story, and that’s because

of genealogy.

Sherry is one of genetic genealogy’s many success stories.

And while studies have shown that about half of America is in favor of this method, it

also has raised significant privacy concerns.

But like decks of cold case cards, it’s meant to be another tool in law enforcement’s belt.

Not the only tool.

And there are a lot of misconceptions out there about it.

According to New York Post reporter Eric Spitznagel, only two commercial DNA databases can generally

be accessed by law enforcement.

And the best-known one, GEDmatch, requires users to opt in if they want their DNA profile

compared with kits submitted by police.

A lot of people don’t know that, so I hope that’s a big takeaway from this episode.

There are so many family members out there like Heidi waiting for answers that other

members of the true crime community can actually help solve by opting in.

So that’s what they’re asking you to do.

You can check our blog post for more information, including instructions on how to opt in if

you’re interested, and if you’ve already taken a genealogy test from any company listed

on the instruction page.

And if you haven’t yet taken a test, the foundation that Heidi founded, the Sherry

Black Foundation, has been working with a company called Family Tree to offer promo

codes for their Family Finder kit.

You can visit and use promo code THEDEC, all caps in one word, to redeem.

You can upload your results to GEDmatch and opt in for yours to be used by law enforcement.

And there’s also another way you can join me in supporting the Sherry Black Foundation.

On Thursday, April 27th, at University of Utah’s Kingsbury Hall, there’s going to be

a live panel discussion on Sherry’s case called The Bookstore Murder, A Journey for Justice,

The Sherry Black Story.

I will be on that panel, and all proceeds from the event will go to the Sherry Black


I hope I’ll see you there.

For more information and to purchase your ticket, head over to

Again, we’ll put that link in the show notes.

To learn more about the Sherry Black Foundation, check out our blog post for this episode at

You can also visit to learn more.

And lastly, you can find information about GEDmatch, Family Tree Ancestry, and the event

in Salt Lake City in the show notes and the blog post.

The Deck is an audio Chuck production with theme music by Ryan Lewis.

To learn more about The Deck and our advocacy work, visit

So what do you think, Chuck?

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