Unsolved murders and Petito case leave dark cloud over Moab
Kyle Dunphey, Deseret News
MOAB, Utah (AP) — Every day for the past two weeks, Sean-Paul Schulte sits at the same picnic table at Swanny City Park in Moab, Utah.
He brings cookies, flowers, pictures of his family, meticulously painted rocks, and two pairs of black boots from his daughter, Kylen Schulte, and her wife, Crystal Turner, who on Aug. 18 were found dead in the La Sal Mountains outside of town.
He also brings a clue box.
“There’s really only been two bogus ones,” he told the Deseret News, referring to the roughly 40 tips locals have brought him. “There was one point I was getting clues as fast as I could process them. But It’s been two days with no major clues or breakthroughs, so I think I might be done.”
Cindy Sue Hunter had already been in touch with Schulte, who called her in June as the Pack Creek Fire burned almost 9,000 acres in the La Sal Mountains. He knew Kylen and Crystal were camping up there and was worried for their safety. The girls were fine.
On Aug. 17, when she again saw Schulte on Facebook imploring locals to help find the two women, whom he had not spoken to in days, Hunter felt compelled to help.
“I don’t know how I’m going to find them or what I’m going to do, but I’m going to go and I’m going to find your girls,” she told Schulte.
So the next day at around 7 a.m., Hunter packed up her car. She took a cooler full of water, and another full of fruit, veggies and nuts. She grabbed towels and blankets. And she brought a shovel, in case the couple needed help digging out their car.
Hunter first stopped at the McDonald’s, where Turner worked, asking her co-workers if they knew anything. She searched up by the Pack Creek area, then drove up into the La Sal Mountains to the Geyser Pass trailhead. On the way she stopped by every ravine, cliff and ditch to look for their car, before chasing down hikers to show them pictures of the women.
At one point she threw her car in reverse, backing up along the dirt road to chase down a group of hikers.
“They probably thought I was crazy,” she said.
Sean-Paul Schulte called, telling her about the “creeper text,” referring to a message one of the women had sent a friend about a suspicious and intimidating man near their campsite.
“And all of a sudden I just had a sense of urgency, like, ‘You have to hurry,’” Hunter said.
Hunter drove back down the rutted, winding Geyser Pass road. She stopped at more campsites, showing a group of women pictures of Kylen and Crystal. She drove across a cattle guard and caught a reflection of light to her left. She turned into a campsite and saw the couple’s Kia. She called the police. She saw the rabbit the two girls would often bring camping, locked in its cage, and apologized to it because she couldn’t remember its name. She called Schulte. She noticed a creek running near the car, and walked past a pile of plastic Gatorade bottles.
“And then I saw Kylen’s body in the creek.”
Hunter immediately turned away and went into shock.
“At that point, according to Sean-Paul, I started just rambling nonsense, talking about how pretty the creek was,” she said.
Hunter’s memory is foggy from that point on. She remembers Schulte screaming, telling her to “get the (expletive) out of there, get in your car, lock your windows, lock your doors.”
She remembers driving back up the road to wait for police.
And she remembers the officer walking up to her, his lips trembling, unable to speak as he threw his hands in the air in disbelief.
Hunter got home that night at about 6:30. She didn’t sleep for 10 days.
A search warrant would later reveal both women were found partially undressed in the creek, with multiple gunshot wounds.
The Deseret News has reached out multiple times to both the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, which is investigating the murder, and the Moab Police Department. Neither have responded.
The Salt Lake City FBI office said it is assisting with the investigation, but otherwise could not comment.
Fear and grief are gripping what is normally a fun, friendly and welcoming southern Utah community. Tourism hasn’t slowed down — last weekend, hotels were packed and on Sunday, an overflowing Arches National Park closed at 10:05 a.m.
But it’s clear the town is reeling from the loss of Kylen Schulte and Crystal Turner, who by all accounts were giants in the community.
Whether it’s a physical fear that the murderer is still out there — living in town or hiding in the La Sals — or a general darkness hanging over the mountains, it’s impacting the tightly knit community of roughly 5,000.
The Deseret News talked to dozens of Moab locals. Many of them were afraid, and most did not want to speak on the record.
Some didn’t want to give their name out of fear the murderer could identify them.
Several business owners and employees worried about retribution from Moab police or the Grand County Sheriff’s Office, which they accuse of mishandling both the murder investigation and the now high-profile domestic dispute between Gabby Petito and her fiance during their trip through the area.
“If I talk to you for your article, the next time I need to call the police they might not show,” an employee at a hotel said.
One person called the Deseret News in tears, saying they feared for their safety and asked to have their name withheld.
“When I get off everyone is in bed except for me, so that’s not great,” they told the Deseret News. “We don’t know if (police) think it’s someone in town or someone out of town. That sucks, walking by every house and being like, ‘You could be a murderer, maybe you could be a murderer.’”
Another person repeated that bartenders, waiters, hotel clerks and others who work nights in the service industry are scared to walk home after their shifts.
The fear is far-reaching, touching people who in the past would go into the mountains or drive far into the desert without a second thought. Some are staying home altogether — others are now first-time firearm owners.
“I’ve definitely heard more free-spirited types come into Moonflower and say, ‘Maybe I should get a gun, maybe I should protect myself,’” said Mason Hawkins, who worked at the Moonflower with Kylen Schulte.
One man said he won’t go hunting in the mountains with his son, an annual pastime. A teenager who works at a gift shop on Main Street says she can’t drive on La Sal Loop Road, her favorite part of the Moab area, without feeling uneasy.
“It’s this small town that I could run around in, raise havoc, without having to worry,” said Payton Gregory, who grew up in Moab. “But now that this stuff is happening, I can’t go camping, I can’t walk around at night.”
“Moab looks like a super happy, small little town. Stuff like this doesn’t happen here,” she said.
Moab City Councilwoman Tawny Knuteson-Boyd said the grief in town doesn’t stop at law enforcement. They are her friends and colleagues, she told the Deseret News, and many of them are sympathetic to what locals are feeling.
“They’re struggling. They have to put on very brave fronts, which is what they’re trying to do, but they are struggling,” she said. “They don’t escape the same grief just because they are law enforcement. They are still part of our community.”
When the news broke that Gabby Petito, who was tragically found dead in Grand Teton National Park on Sunday, was stopped along with her fiance, Brian Laundrie, outside of Arches National Park, Moab became integral to the missing persons case captivating the country.
Two days before Schulte and Turner were killed, police pulled over Petito’s van after a 911 call detailed a man “slapping the girl … they ran up and down the sidewalk. He proceeded to hit her, hopped in the car, and they drove off,” according to audio of the call.
Moab police issued a statement on Thursday saying they will investigate how officers responded to the situation. Whether dispatchers conveyed the claims that Laundrie was hitting Petito is unclear.
The two were questioned separately — body camera footage shows Arches visitor and resource protection supervisor Melissa Hulls speaking with Petito for over one hour.
“She had a lot of anxiety about being away from him,” Hulls told the Deseret News in an exclusive interview. “Because they were both compliant and apologetic and gave us stories that matched, we didn’t feel like either of them were trying to pull the wool over our eyes or be deceiving in any way. It made more sense to separate them for the night.”
The two were back on the road in days. Weeks later, Petito was reported missing.
The incident brought a brief national spotlight to the murder of Schulte and Turner, as conspiracy theories flourished on Reddit boards and Facebook, emboldened after the Grand County Sheriff’s Office said investigators were “not ruling anything out.”
They were quick to ask, did Laundrie kill Schulte and Turner? Many pointed out the 911 call was placed near the Moonflower, where Schulte worked.
The department would later declare the two incidents unrelated, but the online rumor mill is still churning.
“Their timelines lined up for a couple days,” said Sean-Paul Schulte. “There was this big deal about Brian and Gabby getting in a tussle in front of the Moonflower. And Kylen is the kind of person that would step out and say, ‘Hey, stop, you guys be nice.’”
Schulte — and many in Moab — wanted the incidents to be related. They wanted Brian Laundrie to be a suspect, and hoped that a connection could lead to closure, or at the least federal reinforcements sent to assist the small, rural sheriff’s department. It would have marked the first real lead in the case.
“I was kind of hoping the whole Gabby and Brian thing would tie this into a multistate, multilevel thing that would bring the FBI in and take control,“ Schulte told the Deseret News.
“But keep in mind, I’m a dad in a park who has taken in 30 or 40 clues. And none of them have had anything to do with Gabby and Brian. They’re real clues from real people, locally, about what the hell is happening up on that mountain.”
Many Moab locals are sad and afraid. And many are angry.
Signs are posted all over town demanding a public apology and letter of resignation from Grand County Attorney Christina Sloan.
“I hereby ask the question: How much in dollars and cents are the lives lost worth?” the sign reads, a reference to the sentiment around Moab that police and city officials are tight-lipped about the murder in an effort to keep the stream of tourists alive.
Weeks have gone by with what residents say is little communication between the Grand County Sheriff’s Office and the public. It’s best summed up by an anecdote from Sean-Paul Schulte.
About a week ago, some locals brought him a set of keys recovered from the crime scene. Schulte told the Deseret News the keys had membership tags on it that should make identifying the owner easy.
“They were closer to the road and pushed in the mud a bit. They looked a little weathered like they might’ve been sitting there a month, now which is about how long those keys would’ve been sitting there,” Schulte said. “They didn’t look like they’ve been sitting there for three years and they didn’t look like they’ve been sitting there one day.”
Schulte says he took the keys to the sheriff’s office. He hasn’t been told if they are completely unrelated to his daughter’s murder, or if they are being used to identify a possible suspect. He doesn’t know if the department even still has them, or if they’ve been turned over to the FBI.
“I don’t know what those keys beeped back as, the FBI doesn’t call me back and say, ‘Good job, dad at the park, you found Joe Blow,’” he said. “My point is, those keys could have been from the actual murderer and rapist.”
Schulte stressed he sympathizes with the sheriff’s office. He knows they’re understaffed, and he believes they are trying their best. But the lack of answers is agonizing.
“I don’t even know where these clues are going, I wish I knew that the clues I’m turning in were immediately being handed over professionally by a team of investigators. But it seems to me they are being handled by a shorthanded, small-town entity,” he said.
“It doesn’t seem to me like things are happening fast enough.”
Every single Moab resident that spoke with the Deseret News knew who Schulte and Turner were. Some knew them from Moab’s vibrant LGBTQ community. Others frequented the Moonflower or McDonald’s. Many saw them riding around town on Turner’s Harley-Davidson.
“Their love just shined bright and everybody looked at them,” Sean-Paul Shulte said. “You couldn’t help but look at them and go, ‘Wow, what’s going on with these two?’ One tall, young and beautiful, one short and a little bit older, leathered up and toughened up. One cares about flowers and butterflies and the other cares about Harleys and medium rare steaks … everybody just loved the Harley. You’d have little Crystal in the front, you’d have Kylen on the back, a foot taller. And if you saw from the rear you’d think Kylen was riding by herself.”