Grand County Sheriff Steve White and Lieutenant Kim Neal are assisting investigators in a nearly six-decade-old cold case murder and kidnapping in rural Grand County. It was July 4, 1961 when an unknown assailant shot and killed 40-year old Jeannette Sullivan, shot her fiancée, 53-year-old Charles E. Boothroyd in the face, and abducted Jeannette’s 14-year-old daughter, Denise Sullivan.
In reports from The Times-Independent from 1961, Denise was on vacation with her mother and Boothroyd when they encountered an adult male who claimed he had car trouble. The adult male then demanded money from the adult couple and displayed a gun. After shooting both adults, he forced the child into his vehicle and drove away.
According to White, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is sending an investigator and a set of cadaver dogs to Polar Mesa this week to continue the search for facts and clues related to the disappearance of Denise.
“We were contacted by the investigators about four months ago asking if we could help look into this case from 1961,” White said. “They said they feel, given some information they have come across, that they wanted to go back out there and look at the old mine shafts and some of the area encompassing Polar Mesa. We’re working with them closely and on May 24 and 25 we will be out there searching with them using a ground crew and the dogs.”
The area near the old airstrip and cookhouse will be the focus of the search; evidence discovered in 1961 indicates that Denise was, at some point, in the area of Polar Mesa.
A shooting in the desert
According to independent cold case researcher Meaghan Good, Denise resided with her mother and four-year-old sister in Rockville, Conn., in 1961. Jeannette was divorced and worked as a seamstress. That year Boothroyd asked them to go on vacation to Utah during the summer. Jeannette and Denise agreed to join him, leaving the younger child at home with Jeannette’s parents. The travelers were driving in Boothroyd’s olive-green 1960 Volkswagen.
The three reportedly met a man near Dead Horse Point, more than 20 miles outside of Moab. Boothroyd later said he was heavyset, with black hair and a dark complexion.
“He spent two hours with them, telling them the history of the area while they took pictures. He drove away in a tan sedan without telling anyone his name. Boothroyd and the Sullivans planned to spend the night in Moab and it was getting dark, so they too left at this point,” Good said. “Just a short distance down the road, around the bend, they saw the man they had spoken to pulled off to the side of the road, lying underneath his car. They stopped to ask if he needed help and the man said he was having engine trouble and asked for a flashlight. When Boothroyd gave him the flashlight, the man threatened all three of them with a .22 caliber rifle and demanded money.”
Boothroyd is reported to have laid his wallet on the road and Jeannette removed $250 from her purse, threw it on the ground and started to walk away, but the man shot her in the back of the head and shot Boothroyd twice in the face. Boothroyd survived his injuries, but Jeannette was killed almost instantly.
According to Good, the shooter rolled her body into a nearby ravine and left Boothroyd lying on the ground. Denise attempted to drive Boothroyd’s car away, but the man chased her in his own vehicle, ran her off the road after half a mile, dragged her into his own car and drove away.
An oil rig worker two miles away heard the gunshots and the sound of cars driving off and went to see what was wrong. He reportedly passed the abduction car speeding down the road and then the wrecked Volkswagen, and then drove on and found Boothroyd still conscious by the roadside. Boothroyd told him what he’d seen and the oil worker called for assistance on his radio.
Two hours passed before an ambulance arrived to take the wounded man to the hospital, and law enforcement officers came shortly after that. They launched an extensive search of the area for any sign of Denise or the kidnapper.
Roadblocks failed to spot any vehicle or man matching the description. Grand County deputies, under the direction of the late Sheriff John Stocks, searched the multitude of roads between the rivers on the possibility the murderer and Denise had doubled back. Utah Highway Patrol units from Green River and Moab extended the search but to no avail.
The suspect in the case
The prime suspect in the case was Price resident Abel Benny Aragon, an unemployed coal miner whose vehicle matched the description of the abduction car. When the FBI stopped him for questioning at a Crescent Junction roadblock on July 7, Aragon shot himself in the head with a .22 caliber pistol. He was rushed to Allen Memorial Hospital in Moab, but died two hours later from his wounds.
Aragon was a Marine veteran who was awarded the Navy Cross for heroism during World War II, and he had no criminal record. Witnesses reported seeing him alone at 2 a.m. on July 5, about four hours after the shooting at Dead Horse Point. He allegedly stopped a truck driver, gave him an envelope and asked him to mail it. The envelope contained money and a note addressed to Aragon’s wife, telling her he loved her and their five children. It didn’t mention any crimes.
Five hours after the shooting, Aragon was seen at a mining camp at Polar Mesa, where he had stayed several times before. When authorities searched the area on July 10, they found some of his clothing. Nearby, under a rock, they found the .22-caliber rifle that had been used in the shooting, and hidden in the brush was a shovel identified as Aragon’s.
Authorities determined from the paint scratches and other damage to his car that it was the same vehicle that rammed into Boothroyd’s car and forced it off the road. They also found a set of Aragon’s tracks, and a smaller set parallel to them, believed to be Denise’s. They never found any trace of Denise herself, however.
Researcher Meaghan Good contributed details from her research to this story.