How an accused murderer’s ex-wife helped solve the murder of Joyce Yost

May 4, 2021, 10:10 PM
ex-wife of doug lovell rhonda buttars helped secure conviction for murder of joyce yost...
This photo shows Doug Lovell's ex-wife, Rhonda Buttars, as she appeared just a month after the rape of Joyce Yost. Credit: Weber County Attorney's Office

Years went by after the presumed murder of Joyce Yost without answers as to how she died or sufficient evidence to pin the crime on the number one suspect, Doug Lovell. 

But as detailed in the latest episode of the COLD podcast, that changed roughly six years after the crime, when the lead detective on the case paid a visit to Lovell’s ex-wife, Rhonda Buttars. 

An appeal for help

South Ogden Detective Sergeant Terry Carpenter went to downtown Ogden, where Buttars worked, to talk with her on April 10, 1991. 

“‘We know that Doug killed Joyce. We know that you’re involved. We know that you helped him, to some extent. And provided that you didn’t pull the trigger, we can get you immunity,’” he told her. “And she says ‘Oh, he didn’t shoot her. He just stomped on her throat.’ And then she went ‘Oh,’ like, ‘I really blew it.’”

Carpenter realized he was on to something. He believed Buttars told him the truth, as she genuinely appeared relieved to tell someone what happened.

But, he could tell she was afraid to tell the whole story. She told Carpenter she was sure Lovell would kill her if she testified against him. After all, she knew what had happened to the last person who planned to testify against her ex-husband, Joyce Yost, who disappeared just before she would have identified him in court as her rapist. 

Answers, finally, in the murder of Joyce Yost

Carpenter went to the Weber County Attorney’s Office the next day to start building his case. Because Buttars was married to Lovell at the time of the murder, Carpenter needed to tread carefully. Utah law provided spousal privilege, meaning no one could compel her to testify. She needed to do that of her on free will, which she did just a short time later, with a promise of immunity from Carpenter. 

On May 1, Buttars spoke with Carpenter on-the-record about the night of Joyce Yost’s murder on either Aug. 10 or 11, 1985.

Buttars told Carpenter she drove Lovell to Joyce’s apartment sometime between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. As she dropped him off, she told Carpenter she knew “his intentions were […] to break in Joyce’s apartment to kill her.”

Lovell had told her that, she said. And this wasn’t the first time she had taken him to Yost’s apartment — Buttars said she had taken him there twice before, which is how he learned one of the windows had a broken lock.

Buttars returned home with their daughter and went to bed.

Accomplice to the crime?

Around 4 a.m., Lovell called Buttars to say he was “in the canyon.” He wanted to meet her somewhere so he could ditch the car he was driving.

When Buttars finally met up with him, she realized he was driving Yost’s car. As they drove home, he described what he had done.

“He got in her car and he said he made her drive up the canyon and they went up by Causey,” Buttars told Carpenter. “…Got out of the car, walked up this hill and it wasn’t very far off the road. And [he] grabbed her neck and was choking her and then I think he stepped on her neck and stomped on it and smashed it.”

Carpenter believed Buttars was telling the truth — but he didn’t believe that Lovell had told her a truthful story. Based on the amount of blood found in Yost’s apartment, Carpenter said he knew Lovell killed her in the apartment.

Buttars wasn’t sure where Lovell took the body, but said it was somewhere near Causey Reservoir — the same location where an anonymous caller reported finding human remains four years earlier. 

Lovell admits to killing Joyce Yost

As Buttars confided in Carpenter, she told him how Lovell would often call her from prison. The two agreed that Buttars would record these conversations whenever they happened.

Lovell also urged Buttars to come visit him. On June 16, 1991, Buttars decided she would go — but she wore a recording device under her clothes for Carpenter to listen in on the conversation.

He asked her whether she would testify against him if prosecutors charged him with the murder. Lovell assured her that he had never told anyone the truth about what he’d done.

Buttars implored him to tell the truth. He said he couldn’t do it — the consequences would be too severe.

“I committed a first-degree felony to cover another felony,” he told her. “It’s the death penalty. At the very least, they’re going to give me life without parole. If I cooperate with them, and go to them, they’re going to give me life without parole.”

He knew he would not receive mercy, either, he said.

“I planned to end Joyce’s life. That’s premeditated capital homicide,” he told her.

Lovell didn’t know it, but he just confessed to murdering Joyce Yost on tape.

Listen to the full episode

Season 2 of the COLD podcast will take you inside the no-body homicide investigation triggered by Yost’s disappearance. Audio tapes never before made public will allow you to hear Yost, in her own voice, describe the events which preceded her death.

You will learn why police suspected one man, Douglas Lovell, yet were unable to arrest him at the time. And you will see how some individuals and institutions gave — and continue to give — Lovell every opportunity to evade the ultimate penalty.

Hear Joyce Yost’s voice for the first time in the COLD podcast season 2, available to listen free on Amazon Music.

Free resources and help with sexual abuse are available 24/7 at RAINN.org.  You can also call 800-856-HOPE (4673).

Previous coverage: 

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How an accused murderer’s ex-wife helped solve the murder of Joyce Yost