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COLD: How the Joyce Yost investigation became a death-penalty case

Police searched along Old Snowbasin Road, near this spot, for Joyce Yost's body in 1993. Photo: Dave Cawley

For the murder of Joyce Yost, Doug Lovell faced the death penalty in Utah, a state with deep connections to capital punishment.

Utah became one of the first states to reinstate capital punishment after the 1972 Supreme Court decision put most death penalty laws on hold in the US. 

In Episode 9 of “COLD,” host Dave Cawley connects the dots between that first post-moratorium death-penalty case in Utah, and how it set the stage for the trial of Lovell for the murder of Joyce Yost. 

The death penalty in Utah

When South Ogden police Sgt. Terry Carpenter served Doug Lovell with a charge of capital homicide, there were no blurred lines about what the prosecution was seeking. If a judge or jury convicted Lovell in the murder of Joyce Yost, he could face the death penalty. 

In Utah, the death penalty was a very real possibility. It was one of the first states to seek the death penalty after the federal moratorium on executions in 1972. The moratorium originated from the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Furman vs. Georgia. In that case, attorneys argued the death penalty was inconsistent with civilized standards and, in the cases covered by Furman vs. Georgia, was unconstitutional because all of the defendants were Black.

The Supreme Court agreed.

But it didn’t take long, just one year, for the Utah Legislature to change the state’s capital punishment law. From then on, judges or juries would have to balance specific aggravating and mitigating circumstances before sentencing a defendant to death.  With this, Utah hoped to re-establish capital punishment in the state while also satisfying the Supreme Court’s requirements. 

The first case Utah prosecutors secured a conviction on using the new law involved a crime known as the Hi-Fi Shop killings in Ogden. In it, two men were convicted and sentenced to death under the state’s new law. One of the defense attorneys in the Hi-Fi case, John Caine, would also later represent Doug Lovell in the Joyce Yost murder case.

With a nod to the Supreme Court ruling, Caine outlined Lovell’s “mitigating circumstances” in attempt to help his client escape the death penalty.

Death penalty sought for Joyce Yost murder

Caine cited kindness as a mitigating circumstance for Lovell. Lovell’s attempts at kindness toward the family of Joyce Yost and his personal “progress” as he waited in prison for his trial figured prominently in the argument. He also argued it would not be fair to punish Lovell for a crime in which his ex-wife, Rhonda Buttars, who was an accessory, received no punishment at all. 

All of those, Caine argued, added up to mitigating circumstances in the case against Lovell.

Caine argued the inmate showed kindness toward Yost’s family when he finally agreed to accept a plea bargain. Lovell had said he would plead guilty and lead investigators to Yost’s remains. In exchange, he’d be spared the death penalty and instead receive a sentence of life without the possibility of parole.

search for joyce yost body in leaves

Doug Lovell told police he left Joyce Yost’s body covered by leaves just off Old Snowbasin Road in 1993. Leaves still cover the ground in the area today, but they never found her. Photo: Dave Cawley

Lovell took Carpenter to a location along the road leading to the Snowbasin Ski Resort where, he said, he’d deposited the body of Joyce Yost in 1985. Carpenter and a team of investigators spent weeks scouring that mountain location during the summer of 1993.

But to this day, the body of Joyce Yost has never been found.

Judge, jury and executioner

By design, putting someone to death in the United States isn’t easy. Although judges and juries can follow the law, human emotions play a part, too. Despite criteria met, despite the nature of the crime, despite the feelings of the victim’s family or the public, the death penalty can always be taken off the table.

Lovell’s failure to return Yost’s body invalidated the plea agreement. Under Utah law, Lovell had the choice of whether a judge or jury would decide his sentence. He picked the judge, Judge Stanton Taylor, to whom he wrote a letter in ahead of his sentencing hearing.

In the letter, Lovell admitted to causing pain to Yost’s family and wrote that he’d tried to bring Joyce Yost back to her family, but couldn’t explain why Yost wasn’t where he’d claimed to have left her. He told Judge Taylor about the parts of his childhood that he believed led to his becoming a killer. 

Lovell also wrote that he had changed and that he wanted to help troubled kids.

The letter did not appear to sway Judge Taylor. 

“He says, ‘In all my years on this bench, I’ve never given out the death sentence,’ Randy Salazar, Yost’s former son-in-law recalled. “And I remember his voice cracking, and — and I remember him telling Lovell, ‘I sentence you to death.'” 

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 learn 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.

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