The Justice Files: Police politics blamed in 1979 cold case murder

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SALT LAKE CITY:  Gilbert Arenaz grew up trusting the police department.

But the 1979 murder of his sister, Rachelle, caused him to rethink that bond.  What’s startling is Arenaz is a police officer himself.

In 1979, Arenaz was a freshman entering West High School.  His sister was 16 years old and a year ahead of him.  But one night she disappeared after leaving home against her mother’s wishes.  Her body was found the following year.

“It becomes the pivotal moment in my life where I go into law enforcement,” said Arenaz.

Rachelle’s nude body was found in a field near the Salt Lake Airport.  It was decomposed and dental records were used to identify her.

“Obviously, it changed my world,” Arenaz said.  “I know the pain my family is going through and I don’t want other families to do that.”  

That’s why he became a police officer; to help others and perhaps solve his sister’s murder.

In 1988, he joined the Salt Lake Police Department and rose through the ranks.

He eventually was promoted to the homicide and had access to his sister’s file.  But something was wrong.

“I thought all along my sister’s case was actively being investigated and that it just went cold (case),” he said.

He soon learned her case file like many others disappeared because it was reclassified.

“What I found out is that my sister’s case was reclassified from a homicide to an unattended death,” Arenaz said.  “I was totally blown away.  How could this happen?”  

According to Arenaz, his superiors in the late 1980’s told him that there was no proof his sister was murdered.  He said they implied she simply ran away, stripped off her clothing and died.

“That just insults my intelligence,” he said.

He claimed that in the mid 1980’s, those in charge didn’t want unsolved murders on their record.

Arenaz said by moving those crimes to the unattended deaths category, it looked good for the department’s statistics.

In addition, he claimed the files of the “unattended deaths” were destroyed, including his sisters.

“When police reclassified it from a homicide to an unattended death, it gave the evidence room the green light to throw out the evidence,” he said.  “It simply went into a dumpster.”

So began his own investigation.  He arranged for detectives to interview possible suspects.  They also reinterviewed Bridgette Garcia who was with Rachelle the night she disappeared.  But those were dead ends.  All the while, he asked his superiors to re-classify Rachelle’s case to an unsolved murder.  It didn’t happen.

“i was told if I knew whats best for my career, i would let things lie,” Arenaz said.  “And I told them ‘this is my sister.  I’m not going to let things lie.’”

His career with Salt Lake police ended shortly after that.  Arenaz claimed the administration also tried to de-certify him as a police officer.

“I was devastated,” he said. “My world was rocked. Are you kidding me?  Not only have I lost my career, my sister’s case was not being looked at.”

He said he appeared before the Police Officers Standards and Training board for a hearing and was exonerated.

He was hired by the Salt Lake County sheriff’s office.  But his sister’s case was still on his mind.  He tried getting out police agencies to investigate but learned agencies don’t interfere with another department’s caseload.

When Rocky Anderson became mayor he turned to him for help.  Prior to being mayor Anderson represented other families who had similar complaints.  Anderson got him a meeting with the new police chief who listened to his complaint.

“He said they did you wrong, they treated you wrong,” Arenaz said about the chief’s meeting.

And the new administration hired him back.  But Arenaz chose to be in a different area and was assigned to the Salt Lake airport.

“This has nothing to do with current administration or the men and women of the Salt Lake police Department,” Arenaz said.  “They are fine hardworking individuals committed to justice and transparency.  Things like that would never occur now.  And I am proud to serve with them.  This was a culture of old-time policeman in the late ’70s and ’80s.

Arenaz called it a lost opportunity to solve his sister’s murder when the files were destroyed.  

“My sister was victimized by some monster,” Arenaz said.  “And then she was re-victimized by those meant to service justice.”

The Salt Lake police department issued this statement in response to the claims made by Arenaz: 

“It is hard for us to speak to decisions that were made in the distant past.  The people who made those decisions left the department years ago. If classifications were changed, the reasons for the change is only known to those who made that decision. Personnel issues made in past administrations are also not something we can explain. We know, after a review in the mid-2000’s that some deaths were re-classified as Homicides. Our investigators continue to look at these cases and process evidence with the science and technology that is available now.  The Salt Lake City Police department is committed to using whatever techniques and resources that are available to our detectives to try and bring justice in every case we have not been able to solve. Cases are continually looked at with a new set of eyes and the constant advancement in technology. Our detectives never consider a case closed until it is solved.”

In addition, the department offered this latest information regarding the murder of Rachelle Arenaz: 

“During the mid-2000s the department conducted a review of suspicious deaths and homicides. During that review, the death of Rachelle Arenaz was reclassified as a homicide. Since that time three separate investigators have worked on the case and evidence in our custody has been processed for DNA, but the case has not been solved. Ms. Arenaz’s death remains an open investigation, anyone with information about her death should contact the Salt Lake City Police Department.

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