SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — There are about 900 miles by car between Sioux Falls and Jackson, Wyoming.
Jon Rice took that journey, with a few turns, in the 1980s. Rice was 26 when he was found dead in his condominium on May 12, 1984.
Rice was shot, execution style, including once in the back of the head, multiple media reports said.
His hands and feet were bound.
Although theories and speculation swirled around the death, particularly after at least one other person was killed in a similar manner, the case has not been solved.
Scott Blount said Rice was one of his best friends. “He was my best friend growing up,” Blount said.
Blount was having lunch in a restaurant in Casper, Wyoming, when his friend told him Rice had been found dead that morning.
“I’ll never forget it,” Blount said. Blount’s friend didn’t really know Rice but knew of him through a banking network.
Blount had planned to spend a week with Rice in Jackson Hole the following weekend.
Law enforcement appeared to be quick to calm the public about the circumstances of Rice’s murder.
“I just want to emphasize, judging from all outward appearances, the murder does not appear to be to have been committed by a homicidal maniac,” Teton County Sheriff Roger Millward said in a May 17, 1984, story in the Jackson Guide newspaper.
The case has been reopened at least once since 1984.
“It’s still an open investigation,” said Clayton Platt, a sergeant in investigations for the Teton County Sheriff’s Office in Wyoming.
Platt declined to provide additional comments or details on the case.
The office still gets tips from time to time, Platt said.
Abandoned theories, questions remain
Rice was killed with a hollow point bullet from a .22 caliber rifle, according to multiple media reports.
Early in the investigation, law enforcement was convinced Rice’s murder was drug related. Teton County Sheriff Roger Millward said in a May 24, 1984, story in the Jackson Hole Guide said he believed the murder was drug related because traces of marijuana and cocaine were found in Rice’s condominium.
Jeff Maschino, a high school and college friend of Rice, said he heard about the drug theories and other speculation. The drug theory did not fit.
“With his personality, that just wasn’t going to happen,” Maschino said of Rice being involved in drug trafficking.
Adding to the speculation and rumors around Rice’s death were the deaths of Eric James Cooper and Lisa Miles Ehlers. All three were killed in an eight-month span between October 1983 and June 1984.
Cooper and Ehlers were also shot execution-style. Ehlers was found on the side of the road on June 21, 1984, on her way from Jackson to Florida. Cooper was killed on Oct. 14, 1983. His skull was found by hikers in the mountains in 1986.
Blount said he is aware of various theories and speculation.
Roughly two years after Rice’s death, Blount said a U.S. Marshal interviewed him about the case.
“No one interviewed me initially after the murder,” Blount said.
When the U.S. Marshal learned Blount had planned to be at Rice’s for a one-week stay the weekend after his death, the marshal wanted to interview him, Blount said.
Some in law enforcement believed Rice’s roommate Gary Gilbert may have been involved or that Gilbert’s drug involvement led to Rice’s death.
The Casper Star-Tribune reported on July 7, 2007, that Rice had been killed with a .22 caliber rifle owned by Gilbert but Gilbert was out of town when Rice was shot.
Although a May 22, 2002 story in the Guide said the drug theory was abandoned, in a March 20, 2006 story in the Casper Star-Tribune there were law enforcement who pushed the theory of a link between all three murders and a drug connection.
Sublette County Undersheriff Jim Whinnery told the Star Tribune he didn’t know if Ehlers’ case was tied to Cooper’s. Former Jackson lead investigator Jim Williams told the Star Tribune that he did not think the three murders were linked.
Law enforcement did arrest a man for Ehlers’ murder but his 2010 conviction was overturned when it was discovered that the prosecution withheld evidence from the defense. The man was tried again in court but acquitted by a jury, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.
Gilbert was convicted later of trafficking heroin and cocaine, according to a 2007 story in the Star-Tribune.
A driven personality
Rice graduated from Washington High School in Sioux Falls in 1976.
Maschino met Rice during his sophomore year in high school.
Rice had a beautiful personality and friendly with everyone, Machino said.
He was aggressive and driven, Maschino said. “He always wanted to be No. 1,” Maschino said.
When the two graduated from high school, Maschino entered the military.
Rice attended Utah State University and eventually he went to the University of South Dakota in Vermillion.
“He was a great guy,” Blount said of Rice.
Maschino landed at USD a little more than four years after high school graduation.
“I remember running every day with him down at the U. Five to ten miles every day, we’d run out to the river and run back,” Maschino said.
Maschino had run cross country. Rice wanted to beat him because of Maschino’s running experience.
Media reports said a jogging friend found Rice dead in 1984. Rice was scheduled to run a road race that day.
From Sioux Falls to Wyoming
Maschino said it was no surprise Rice moved to Wyoming and the popular ski area of Jackson and Jackson Hole in the 1980s.
Rice loved to ski and he loved the outdoors, Maschino said.
A May 22, 2002, story in the Jackson Hole Guide said Rice had worked at the First Wyoming Bank for two years before his death in 1984.
Jackson was a small town in 1984. The population was about 4,500 people in 1980. The population swelled in the winter as tourists came to ski but was also busy during the summer season. Today, the city of Jackson and the Jackson Hole valley are home to multi-millionaires. Celebrities such as Harrison Ford and Sandra Bullock have had homes in Jackson Hole.
The population of Jackson is more than 10,000.
Blount said Rice saw a better opportunity at the bank in Jackson. And it allowed him to live in the mountains that he loved.
Back in 1984, it was more affordable for people to work at a restaurant or other job because housing and the cost of living in the area was much more affordable than today, Maschino said.
Maschino has a brother in law who lives in Jackson Hole valley. Maschino has been to the area several times but has never sought out where Rice lived or worked in 1984. The city and area has changed too much, he said.
The First Wyoming Bank where Rice worked in Jackson no longer exists. Websites offer homes for sale for well over $1 million and dozens of seasonal rentals.
Maschino hopes the case can be solved, even after more than 30 years.
“I read something in the news yesterday and I thought of it,” Blount said of Rice’s death. The news story said DNA had led to solving a 30-year-old case, he said.
“I don’t know if anyone left any DNA at the crime scene,” Blount said. “I often wonder…”