SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah) – Joe Santi was declared dead 13-years after he was last seen.

He disappeared in 1977 but his body has never been found. It still baffles his childhood friend and relative Robert Etzel.

“(He was) flamboyant,” said Etzel. “If he was in a crowd he stood out (and) always provoked.”

In the 1970s Santi was at the top of his world. A photograph showed him at a groundbreaking ceremony for the Royal Inn in downtown Salt Lake City. He was its owner. The hotel would later become the Shilo Inn on the corner of West Temple and 200 south.

“I was staying at the hotel,” recalled Etzel. “Joe was picking up the tab.”

Both grew up in Price where Santi would later become the owner of the Price theater and a drive-in.

But Santi made bigger money in uranium mining, hotels and jewelry.

“He would always worship the yankee dollar,” said Etzel.

Despite making grand deals, like building the Royal Inn there was one problem with the businessman.

“Joe didn’t have that kind of money so he must have been riding on somebody’s shoulders,” said Etzel.

On January 22 1977, Santi disappeared.

Several of his relatives, including his estranged wife, came by his apartment on 300 North looking for Santi. But he wasn’t around.

“When we found out Joe disappeared we went to Salt Lake to pay our respects to Mary (wife),” said Etzel. “(It) was more like a wake.”

A week later, Santi’s family filed a missing persons report with Salt Lake City police.

According to the 1977 report police were “investigating a missing person who is presumed dead.”  The officer also wrote that Santi was “missing under suspicious circumstances.”

For months, newspapers in Price and Salt Lake ran stories about Santi’s disappearance. A business partner posted a $10,000 reward for any information about Santi’s whereabouts. 

Police even had to dispel rumors that Santi’s body had been found. Then there was a theory that his disappearance was tied to his brother’s alleged fraud stock scheme.

“The ex-wife, he was separated from his wife for about six months, she suggested he was kidnapped and maybe murdered,” said Jason Jensen with the Utah Cold Case Coalition

His property was soon auctioned off. Banks were after Santi. He was deep in debt. 

“He (allegedly) embezzled $300,000 from the Royal Inn, later renamed the Shilo Inn,” said Jensen.

Even his life-long friend was aware that Santi was living on borrowed money.

“I imagine Joe over extended himself as you don’t build a hotel like that on an IOU,” Etzel said.

It’s been 53-years since Santi disappeared. His wife and daughter have since passed away. But Etzel who is well past 80-years old, still wonders what happened. But he knows Santi will never be coming back.

“Whatever happened with Joe was done on purpose,” said Etzel.

Friday, Santi’s story continues with a friend who was with him the day before he disappeared. He was worried about Santi’s transactions that day. And the Utah Cold Case Coalition may have a possible development after learning of human remains discovered out of state.

Click here to download the ABC4 Utah News app for the first alerts on your phone. Sign up for the ABC4 Utah breaking news and daily newsletters.