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A fifty-year-old murder cold case in Moab, Utah, may soon be solved

The crime scene at Woody's Tavern in Moab, Utah. Anne Woodward was murdered there in 1973 and the case remains unsolved.
Courtesy of the Moab Police Department.
The crime scene at Woody's Tavern in Moab, Utah. Anne Woodward was murdered there in 1973 and the case remains unsolved.

In 1973 Ann Woodward was murdered at Woody’s Tavern in Moab, the bar she owned with her husband. The case has remained unsolved for more than five decades, but police now believe they’re close to finding the killer.

KZMU reporter Emily Arntsen has produced a three-part series "The Woody's Tavern Murder," which examines why the case has remained unsolved and its impact on the community and the family. She spoke to Jeremy Drexler of the Moab Police Department who was assigned to the cold case as well as Annie Dalton, Ann Woodward's granddaughter, and Tim Buckingham, a family friend, about the impact of the murder on the family.

46-year-old Ann Woodward was found murdered at Woody's Bar in Moab, Utah, on March 2, 1973. The Moab Police Department believes they may be close to solving the case.
Courtesy of the Utah Department of Public Safety.
46-year-old Ann Woodward was found murdered at Woody's Bar in Moab, Utah, on March 2, 1973. The Moab Police Department believes they may be close to solving the case.

Maeve Conran:  Let's go back 51 years and talk a little bit about what Moab was like then because it's quite different to what people might think of Moab in 2024. How the community was at that point is also an interesting part of that of the series that you go into. So, take us back to Moab in 1973 and Woody's Tavern and Ann Woodward. What was going on back then?

Emily Arnsten: Moab was a lot more conservative at the time. I obviously wasn't alive or in this town, but based on what people have told me, the Mormon Church had a lot greater influence than it does today. But there was also at the same time a large mining community and a large group of people who were transient workers and maybe not religious. So Woody's was kind of the local watering hole for a lot of those people.

It's my understanding that Woody's was maybe a little feistier than it is today. There were go-go dancers, there was gambling that happened there so, Woody's Tavern, to my understanding is that it was kind of, it was run by people who were not from Moab. Maybe had a more fun-loving spirit and it was kind of just the local watering hole. One of a few bars in town - the same way it is today.

Conran: What you've just described there is also explored in the context of attitudes towards Ann herself, because Ann and her husband ran Woody’s, but the fact that there was this woman who was fun-loving, who was working in a bar, that was kind of frowned upon as well, especially by maybe the Moab establishment.

So talk a little bit about those attitudes towards Ann.

Arnsten: This is based on what her granddaughter told me and what a friend of one of her sons had told me about her personality. But basically she was unlike some of the other more traditional women in town. She wasn't Mormon, she was a Catholic. She was not from Moab either. And she ran a bar in a place where a lot of people maybe didn't drink.

"Being in Utah and owning, running a bar, you know, Moab has the Mormon community and people probably just pass judgment because of being in the business," said Tim Buckingham, a family friend.

Arnsten: She liked to play cards. She was a pretty avid card player. Things that maybe people at the time, and even still today, consider vices.

Both her granddaughter (Annie Dalton) and the family friend (Tim Buckingham) speculate that this had a lot to do with the local law enforcement's response or lack thereof to this crime and sort of why this went unsolved for so long.

"I think that when something that horrific happens in a town like this, to convince yourself that it could never happen to you, to feel safe in that, you do what you can to distance yourself from the person that it happened to. That's most of what I got, the sense of people who were trying to come up with stories that made sense," said Annie Dalton, Ann Woodward's granddaughter.

The crime scene at Woody's Tavery in Moab, Utah, March, 1973.
Courtesy of the Moab Police Department.
The crime scene at Woody's Tavery in Moab, Utah, March, 1973.

Conran: Well, take us back to that night in 1973, and I suppose, the next morning when Ann's body was discovered, but she was essentially, she was locking up one night at the tavern is what her husband and family thought was happening. But then when she didn't come home and her body was found the next day, take us back to that night.

Arnsten: Nobody knows for sure, but she was working at the bar. It was a Thursday night and members of the family believe that when she was locking up, she asked a friend to stay at the bar and he stuck around while there was maybe another person loitering outside and this friend, she let him out the front door. And when she was going to leave out the back door and lock the back door, that was when the perpetrator attacked her and she was strangled with her trousers. It's believed that she was also raped, so they couldn't know that for certain based on just how the case was handled. They don't know that for sure.

So then on Friday morning, when she didn't come home, her husband went to the bar to look for her. When he got there, he called the Grand County Sheriff who was Heck Bowman at the time. He was friends with Heck Bowman and so that was the first person he thought to call, even though technically the bar, Woody's, is outside of the Grand County Sheriff Department's jurisdiction just because of where it is. It would be typically the Moab Police Department's jurisdiction and that ended up playing kind of a big role in how the case unfolded and how the response to the crime was kind of botched and mishandled.

Conran: So it was this lack of communication or miscommunication between the sheriff's department and the Moab Police Department that seems to have messed things up. And there's speculation as to whether it was deliberate, whether there was an attempt to cover things up, or whether it was just incompetence. What did you discover?

Arnsten: Mostly seems like it was incompetence and a lack of communication between the departments. Jeremy Drexler (the Moab police officer who has been assigned the cold case), based on a lot of notes from that time, can say that there was some bad blood between the Moab Police Department and the Grand County Sheriff's Department. They didn't really get along. They couldn't work together.

"People were upset from the get-go like, ‘Why can't you solve this case?’ They were saying ‘Oh, well, there's this animosity between the sheriff's department and the police department,’ and they blamed each other and so nothing got done. It was just totally swept under the carpet, I think," said Jeremy Drexler with the Moab Police Department.

Arnsten: You know, also, Moab was even smaller than it is today. Whether the local law enforcement had the training and the wherewithal to be able to respond to a crime like this, there are also people that I've talked to about this story who just think that maybe it was incompetence and not actually just knowing the best protocol for how to handle a crime scene like this.

But something that everybody has said was that kind of the crime scene the next day, it was kind of like a party and there were people coming in and out, there was nothing was taped off. What eventually happened is that a box of evidence from the crime scene got lost for 50 years. How it got lost, why it got lost, we can only speculate. But it was in an old storage unit of the Grand County Sheriff's Department for over 50 years, unmarked.

"It was actually on a shelf back next to some geiger counters. So the evidence was not labeled as evidence, I guess you could say. It's just a beat-up cardboard box with dust on it," said Drexler.

Arnsten: So many police officers in Moab have tried to solve this case. This is not the first time the case has been reopened. And every time that this case has been reopened no one at Grand County Sheriff's Department has been like, ‘Oh, you know what? Actually, we have all this evidence from that case. Here you should have it. And that could help facilitate this investigation.’ It's so this evidence was just lost for a really long time until Jeremy Drexler found it in September.

Conran: Well, and this is pivotal, because Jeremy Drexler, who is now the assigned officer on this cold case, feels that he has evidence that could actually solve it.

Arnsten: Yeah, so this box of evidence had clothes that the victim, Ann Woodward, was wearing that night, and it also had a few other things from the bar that night. I think there were some drinking glasses.

"And fingerprints and clothing and anything that the medical examiner's office would take off her body and take as evidence. So you're talking hairs, fibers, DNA, and stuff like that," said Drexler.

Arnsten: He sent it to the state forensics lab and it is undergoing DNA testing. And so basically what happens is the lab will create a DNA profile for Ann based on whatever materials are in the clothes, whether that's a hair or some kind of skin fiber that they can find. And they will also make DNA profiles for whatever other pieces of DNA they find. So if they find hairs that are not Ann's on Ann's clothing, for example, they will run that DNA through their database.

If that person already has a criminal record in the DNA database, it could be an easy match. And if not, they will have to create a DNA profile for that person based on the evidence that was collected at the crime scene. If there are still no matches, Jeremy says that he can get a warrant to exhume the bodies of his suspects to double-check if the DNA matches. That would be an extreme case, but he says that it’s not unheard of.

"I'm very confident that with what we have, we will be able to say this is the person that changed the Woodward family life on March 2nd, 1973," said Drexler.

Conran: And are these suspects that had been suspected by other investigating officers, or is this just part of Jeremy Drexler's new investigation?

Arnsten: I believe that these are suspects that have been suspects since the beginning. There are three top suspects right now. Two of them were men who were living in Moab at the time as minors and they were not from Moab, but they lived here temporarily. And the third suspect - I don't know if this person was originally on the list of suspects - the third top suspect is Ted Bundy.

Jeremy was saying he didn't want to rule out Ted Bundy just because Ted Bundy did spend a lot of time in this area around the same time there were a few murders. There was at least one murder in Grand Junction. There was a murder in Capitol Reef and a murder near Price, Utah, I believe, that all occurred in the early 70s that involved Ted Bundy and so he is also on the suspect list.

Jeremy also said that there was some cause to believe that he had been in Moab around that time.

Conran: Now, cold cases and true crime stories are hugely popular when it comes to podcasts or radio series, and I think it's very easy to forget that these are humans behind all of these stories. And I think one of the things that really impressed me about your coverage of this is that the impact of this on the family was really front and center. And in fact, it was speaking to Ann's granddaughter that got you interested in this. And so I think that's an element that's often forgotten when cold cases are covered.

So you talked to not just Ann's granddaughter, but also family, and friends and really dig into the widespread impact when something like this happens, not just the murder, but the fact that it was unsolved. So what did you hear?

Arnsten: Yeah, I think that's a good point. And that was something that I definitely tried to use discretion when I was reporting this case. I know Annie (Dalton) personally. It's a small community and I know a lot of people who were affected by this in some way, you know, they're much older but, this happened a while ago, but in some ways, it also didn't happen that long ago. And so that was something that I definitely tried to be sensitive to.

It was really heart-wrenching to talk to Annie, to talk to her granddaughter, just about the effect that this did have on her family.

"It was this thing that my mom carried that was grief and loss, and she ended up passing away from COPD. They say that you carry grief in your lungs, and I've always felt like it was just grief that she never was able to process," said Annie Dalton.

Arnsten: Annie was born after her grandmother died, but she still is affected by this murder just in terms of the downstream consequences of what happened to her. And it just has trickled down, you know as she put it sort of generational trauma that has been passed down through her family.

"So they were all carrying this burden in different ways and it never got resolved. It's a tragedy that just keeps being tragic over and over," said Dalton.

Arnsten: It brought a lot of trauma and sorrow to that family. There were suicides and substance use and abuse and so I had a very heartfelt and sad, but great interview with Annie and we were both crying in this interview. I think it's different reporting in a small town and just knowing these people. It has a different feel than maybe reporting on true crime and the victim is so long dead and you don't know their family and it's, you know, it's more about the salacious details. This felt a lot different.

Copyright 2024 Rocky Mountain Community Radio.

This story was shared via Rocky Mountain Community Radio, a network of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico including KDNK.

Maeve Conran