Police still uncertain about body

By Michael McFall, Staff Writer

Police might never determine whether a body found in Southern Utah, which could be U student Zach Ruble, was a victim of homicide, suicide or accidental death.

When Washington County Sheriff’s deputies found the freshman’s burned Kia Sorento near Zion National Park on Thursday with a body inside, they couldn’t classify the death.

Capt. Lynn Mitchell of the U Police Department said in scenes that have been torched by fire, forensic evidence quickly becomes scarce. Fire destroys fingerprints and evaporates bodily fluids, which could be potential signs of foul play. And fire, unlike a knife or firearm, is a weapon that has no discernible characteristic or owner.

The same lack of answers goes for the two similar deaths within the past three weeks. On March 9, a body was found in a burning car in a Big Cottonwood Canyon campground. On March 20, another body was found in a burning car two miles east of Saltair.

Police said they don’t have enough evidence to rule any of the three cases as related, but members of the public see it differently. Aaron Perry, a freshman in pre-medicine, said he finds it hard to believe that the three incidents aren’t somehow related. Other Utahns are murmuring that they could be serial homicides or suicides copycatting each other.

However, suicide by fire is a statistical anomaly. In the past nine years, there have only been a handful of suicides committed by lighting a car on fire, according to the Utah Department of Health.

But ruling in favor of either theory is still difficult, said Lt. Don Hutson of Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating the first two incidents.

“All we can do is retrace the steps and figure out what state of mind they were in,” Hutson said, referring to the people who died.

In recent history, the only similar case police could classify happened more than a year ago. In 2007, a man and woman were found in a torched car in downtown Salt Lake City. Police were only able to determine it was a suicide because the entire scene was captured on surveillance video.

But the recent three incidents have no witnesses. They were discovered in remote locations late at night or early in the morning.

“They may never be answered,” Hutson said.

[email protected]