How a prisoner’s ex-wife broke open the cold case of Joyce Yost

May 11, 2021, 10:10 PM
doug lovell with billy jack co-conspirator in joyce yost cold case...
FILE: Doug Lovell, right, with "Billy Jack," a man he tried to hire to kill Joyce Yost to prevent her from testifying that Lovell had raped her. Photo: Weber County Attorney's Office

Six years after the presumed murder of Joyce Yost, the case remained cold. That is, until the ex-wife of the man accused of raping her agreed to help investigators. 

But the first round of recordings Rhonda Buttars made inside the Utah State Prison, capturing a confession from Doug Lovell on tape, were too poor quality to hold up in court. 

In the latest episode of the podcast COLD, host Dave Cawley details how the break in the cold case murder of Yost came about, including the work to get Lovell to confess on tape a second time, plus gathering corroborating information from others who knew about Lovell’s plans to silence Yost. 

The kiss of death

South Ogden police Detective Sgt. Terry Carpenter spent hours painstakingly listening and relistening to the audio recording made when Buttars first wore a wire into the prison. Even after sending a copy to the FBI for enhancement, Carpenter was able to make out the names of the men who Lovell hired to kill Yost, his rape victim.  One of those men, Tom Peters, is also on tape, which was recorded by Carpenter on his second visit to the prison to speak with Peters.

At some point during that conversation, Peters addressed the cold case, telling Carpenter how badly he felt when he learned Lovell wanted to kill Yost.

“I remember when we found out about her . . . Because he’s already raped her once and then to go again and, in barely a year and now he’s going to kill her, you know? So I thought, ‘That poor woman.’ . . . A nightmare on top of a nightmare,” Peters said. 

Peters said he would help Carpenter if the sergeant could get him transferred to other duty, outside of the prison and away from Lovell. Peters said that Lovell had recently approached him from behind in the chow hall, kissing him on top of the head. 

The kiss of death, Peters called it.

Habeas corpus

What caused Lovell’s appellate attorney, Robert Archuleta, to drop out as Lovell’s lawyer in September 1991 is unknown. But it happened after Judge Rodney Page granted permission for Archuleta to review a pre-sentence report, which included information from primary detectives in the Yost case and their own takes on the evidence.

Now without an attorney, Lovell sought representation from a fellow inmate, William Babbel, who was already helping Lovell on his writ of habeas corpus, a federal appeal of his sentence.

Babbel also spoke with Sgt. Carpenter. Who quickly learned that Babbel didn’t care at all for his “client” Lovell.

“I’m an inmate’s inmate, but this guy’s dirty as hell, and anything that he says that I think you can use, you’re going to get,” Babbel told Carpenter on tape.

He told Carpenter in the recording about possible clues Lovell dropped — about Yost, Utah, a small town where Lovell spent time and a possible connection between Lovell and Sheree Warren, another missing woman from Roy, Utah.

“He said that somebody had come out and talked to him about this Joyce Yost coming up missing, and he was concerned that he was gonna be questioned on this Sheree Warren’s disappearance, too,” Babbel said. “I said, ‘Well, can they stick you with that?’ And he said, ‘No, they can’t stick me with any of it.'” 

Babbel suggested to get Lovell talking about Joyce Yost, Carpenter needed to get her name mentioned in conjunction with Warren’s in the news. 

Cracking the cold case of Joyce Yost

On Jan. 17, 1992, multiple news articles appeared in Utah newspapers, saying police had reopened the investigation into the Yost cold case. An Associated Press article quoted Carpenter as saying, “We have some new leads in the case but it isn’t appropriate for me to discuss them.”

The next day, Carpenter met Rhonda Buttars, Lovell’s ex-wife, outside the prison, to equip her once again with a wire. He had a better tape recorder this time. He needed better audio with more specific wording of a confession. 

Carpenter wanted to know the location of Yost’s body. And he wanted it on tape.

The discussion between Buttars and the prisoner eventually landed on the news coverage.  Lovell intimated that there was no way the police or anybody else could know anything about the location of Yost’s body. He suspected the article was planted because he believed that investigators had bugged Buttars’ phone. 

“I think that they surfaced this story out hoping that — that I would get on the phone and say, you know, something that might be, incriminate me,” he told her. 

They discussed Lovell’s writ of habeas corpus, the reason Lovell believed the story was a plant, Lovell’s new inmate attorney and whether leaves can hide a human body. Then Lovell had a request for Buttars.

It involved lying for Lovell on the stand in court.

Listen to the full episode

Season 2 of the COLD podcast will take you inside the no-body homicide investigation triggered by the disappearance of Joyce Yost. 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).

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How a prisoner’s ex-wife broke open the cold case of Joyce Yost