How a former Driggs lawman with a bullet in his side captured a triple murder suspect - East Idaho News
'A true act of heroism'

How a former Driggs lawman with a bullet in his side captured a triple murder suspect

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Editor’s note: This is the ninth in a series of stories about former lawmen in eastern Idaho.

RIGBY — Mel Jones saw the trail of blood as he approached the suspect’s car on a small country road about half a mile east of Driggs.

It was around 5 a.m. on Aug. 28, 1971, and the 44-year-old man — who passed away in 2016 — had been the Driggs city marshal for three years. He happened to have a doctor in the car with him that morning as he responded to reports of a shooting. In the next few moments, Jones would need medical attention after taking a bullet point-blank just below his left rib cage.

Jones had arrived home a little after 4 a.m. after working the late shift. Shortly after climbing in bed, he heard gunshots. He initially assumed it was someone shooting deer down by the creek, his son, Vern, tells

Several minutes later, Jones got a call from a neighbor saying he had a man at his house who’d been seriously hurt in a shooting.

“Mel … got dressed and strapped on his gun, which was something he rarely did, and left the house,” Mel’s daughter-in-law, Jean Jones, writes in a family history.

Jones and the town doctor, Kitchener Head, arrived at the neighbor’s house a short time later, where 18-year-old Richard De Luna — who’d been shot in front of his left ear — was holding a bloody cloth to his face.

De Luna was one of four boys from Texas working for a farmer in the area. They’d been celebrating the completion of the pea harvest. De Luna explained to Mel that he and the other three boys, his cousins who now lay dead in a gutter, were parked on the side of the road when a vehicle pulled up beside them. A man got out and shot all four of them in the head.

The suspect, later identified as Michael Wren Rennpage, had a passenger in the car with him. It was his girlfriend, Joyce Diane Frye. Rennpage had apparently tried to kill his stepdad in Tetonia the evening before. Rennpage and Frye had come from California in a Ford Bronco they’d stolen from a man who picked them up while they’d been hitch hiking. They took him hostage and killed him in a remote area before traveling to Tetonia.

Vern says he and his dad, whose duties as marshal included doing maintenance work for the city, had been mowing the lawn at Driggs City Park that afternoon when his dad saw the Bronco drive through town at a high rate of speed.

“It was a 25 mph speed limit and they were way over that. (Dad’s) pickup was on the other side of the park and he said, ‘I wished I was closer to my truck. I’d give him a ticket,'” says Vern.

The Bronco stood out because it was custom-made, Vern says. Mel made a mental note to keep his eye out for it.

Rennpage’s stepdad had a hunch the Bronco was stolen, the written account says, and when he confronted his 23-year-old stepson about it, Rennpage tried to kill him.

“He was unsuccessful because his stepdad was able to escape into a nearby grain field and hide,” according to a written history from the Jones family. “Rennpage and Frye then left in the Bronco on a mission to ditch it and steal another vehicle that night to flee once again.”

The De Luna boys had run out of gas that night, which is the reason they happened to be on the side of the road and became victims in the couple’s plan.

De Luna brothers
A photo of the De Luna brothers, who were shot and killed in the shooting. | Taken from an old newspaper clipping provided by Jean Jones

After the boys had been shot, the couple reportedly dragged them out of the car, pulled their shirts off and stole their wallets. Richard remained conscious during the whole thing, but he played dead for fear of getting shot again.

The couple left the boys’ bodies in the gutter and backed the car away, only to realize it was out of gas. They pulled the Bronco closer and syphoned gas out of it before hiding the Bronco in a gravel pit farther up the road. It was during this time that Richard snuck his way to the neighbor’s house a quarter mile away, and that’s when Mel was notified of the shooting.

“(Mel and Dr. Head) put (De Luna) in (Dad’s) pickup, and as they were driving up the road where (Rennpage) was at, (De Luna) crawled off the seat and got on the floor,” Vern says. “(De Luna) was just shaking.”

Mel stopped his pickup parallel to the vehicle Rennpage and Frye were in. He pulled out his flashlight and started looking around. He approached the passenger side of the vehicle and asked if they knew anything about the shooting. Meanwhile, Dr. Head was on the driver’s side and could see blood inside the car.

As Head told Mel what he saw, Mel told Rennpage and Frye to get out of the car and place their hands on the hood.

“Dr. Head’s standing over with Rennpage, (who secretly had a gun under his jacket), and he asks him, ‘Do you have any ID?’ Dad said, ‘No, no! Don’t do that!'” says Vern.

As Mel ran around the car, Rennpage pulled out his gun, and shot Mel.

“Dr. Head ducked behind the pickup at that point and rolled into the barrow pit,” Vern’s wife, Jean, explains. Read Dr. Head’s account of the incident here.

Mel, who Vern describes as being exceptionally strong, grabbed Rennpage and threw him over the hood of the car. Mel took the gun and hit Rennpage over the head with it.

The blow knocked out Rennpage and “split his skull,” according to Vern.

At that point, Jones’ deputy and other law enforcement officers arrived. Rennpage and Frye were taken into custody and Jones was taken to the hospital.

Frye and Rennpage
Joyce Diane Frye, left, and Michael Wren Rennpage. | Courtesy Jean Jones

Jean says authorities called the mortuary to use a hearse to drive Mel to Idaho Falls because ambulances were not used at the time.

“They had to wake up a gas station attendant to fill up the hearse before they could take him,” Jean says, laughing. “The nurse that rode with Mel … (had) the window rolled down and her hand up in the air all the way to Idaho Falls so the IV drip was elevated.”

How everything turned out

Mel survived the surgery and was back on the job about two weeks later, Vern says. Doctors later said that if the bullet had been an inch lower in either direction, it would have killed him.

Mel went on to serve another 18 years as city marshal, but there were some long-term side effects of his injuries.

For several years after the shooting, Vern says his dad, who was quite active, had very little energy. For a while, he lived a sedentary lifestyle, which caused him to gain about 60 pounds.

Eventually, his energy level returned and he lost the weight.

mel jones and his pickup
Mel Jones during his sedentary years after the shooting. | Courtesy Jean Jones

Rennpage’s trial was held in Rexburg a short time after the shooting. Ultimately, he was sentenced to life in prison. He’s in the Idaho State Correctional Institution to this day. Though Frye was an accomplice to a murder, she somehow avoided any significant jail time and only served three years of parole, according to an old news report. The Jones family isn’t sure whether she’s still alive.

“She disappeared and we never heard anything about her again,” says Jean.

Dr. Head is now in his 90s and still living in Driggs today, the Jones’ say. Richard De Luna lives in Idaho Falls. He doesn’t have any children, but has “lots of nephews and nieces who love him,” according to his niece, Melissa De Luna.

de luna pic
Richard De Luna at his Idaho Falls home. | Courtesy Melissa De Luna

More than 50 years later, Jean doesn’t feel the case was handled the way it should’ve been.

“They notified Mel that he would possibly be subpoenaed (to testify) in court. He never even went to the trial,” she says.

“(Frye) should’ve served time,” Vern adds. “But there’s nothing we can do about it now.”

Rennpage mug
A mugshot of Michael Rennpage in 2018. | Courtesy Jean Jones

The case made national headlines, and Jones’ encounter with Rennpage was the subject of multiple magazine articles. Though Mel had a long career in law enforcement, Vern says his remaining years of service were typical of what you’d expect in a small town and were pretty quiet, overall.

Mel was 62 when he retired in 1989. He was 88 when he died on Feb. 16, 2016. He was battling throat cancer and dementia at the time, but Vern says it was the dementia that killed him.

As Vern reflects on his dad’s legacy, he says that though Mel was a soft-spoken man who never went looking for a fight, he always stood up for what he believed and would not allow others to walk on him.

“He told us boys, ‘I better never hear of you starting trouble.’ But he (also) said, ‘I better never hear of you not standing up and facing trouble. You don’t start it, but you better finish it.’ That’s what he lived by,” says Vern. “He was an amazing guy.”

ellen and mel
Mel Jones, right, with his wife, Ellen. | Courtesy Jean Jones

mel and ellen
Mel Jones with his wife the day before he died. | Courtesy Jean Jones


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