Even defense attorney struggles to understand double homicide suspect

Apr 30, 2024, 5:00 AM | Updated: 6:34 am

crime scene log haven gun...

FILE: The murder weapon Michael Patrick Moore confessed to using to kill Jordan Rasmussen and Buddy Booth. Deputies found it in the sump with the use of a strong magnet at Log Haven Resort, March 5, 1982. (Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office)

(Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office)

Editorial note: Edward K. Brass is Amy Donaldson’s spouse and is the only surviving member of the defense team for Michael Patrick Moore. Multiple members of The Letter team interviewed Brass, including Amy Donaldson.

SALT LAKE CITY — For Utah defense attorney Edward K. Brass, the decades have not diminished how ominous it was to meet with clients at the Salt Lake County Jail that no longer exists.

“The old jail was in the basement adjacent to the courthouse, and it was difficult to get in and out of,” Brass said. “(The entrance) was very dark, reeked of oil and gasoline.”

The structure confronted attorneys with two underground entry points, unreliable fluorescent lighting, and a sour stench. Years later, Brass could still summon the memory of the odor. He found the smell as uninviting as the hulking metal doors that blocked both entrances.

“It had very heavy doors, and if one of the doors was left ajar, you could get stuck in an elevator or stuck in a visiting area for a long time,” he said.

Utah defense attorney brings star power to death penalty case

After Michael Moore’s parents learned their only son would be facing the death penalty for confessing to killing 32-year-old Jordan Rasmussen and 24-year-old Buddy Booth, they hired a very well-known defense attorney in Utah. Their choice: a chain-smoking, fast-talking, absolutely fearless man named Robert Van Sciver.

Van Sciver became locally famous for his legal knowledge, his flair for the dramatic and his hair.

“It was parted on the side,” Brass said, “but he was going bald and he was very vain about that. And so he would spend an inordinate amount of time every day, literally sort of knitting his hairstyle together – and using hairspray to make sure that it stayed in place.”

And Van Sciver brought the same kind of meticulous care – and confidence – to every courtroom fight.

“(He was a) very confident man, very capable trial lawyer,” Brass said. “I learned a lot from him. He was absolutely fearless. He’d take on any case. He was not afraid of anyone — he was a very brave guy.”

As an attorney practicing for around five years, working alongside veteran Utah defense lawyer Van Sciver made this Brass’s second death penalty case. He did whatever his mentor needed.  And sometimes that meant writing legal briefs. Sometimes that meant visiting new clients in the jail.

A tough place to try and get to know someone

The room where attorneys met with their clients made up the worst aspect of those jail visits. It was a room the size of a walk-in closet, secured by a heavy, unwieldy door that locked the second it slammed shut. The room trapped attorneys in the visiting chamber with no way to communicate with the outside world.

It was a tough place to try and get to know someone.

“There was a mesh screen. You know, a wire mesh screen with heavy gauge wire, so that you couldn’t see the face of the person you were talking to. (That) for me is a huge disadvantage,” Brass said.

“I can’t really tell what kind of emotions a person is showing without being able to see their face. …It’s an important component in judging whether or not you’re getting accurate information, I think.”

Related: The Letter podcast debuts second season on 1982 murders

Ed could only make out the rough contours of Michael Moore’s face as they began to talk.

“My memories of the first meeting were … this is a pretty ordinary guy,” Brass said. “That Michael is just a guy off the street. And didn’t seem like a person that had a lot of problems outwardly. Just seemed like a totally normal person.”

Ed knew the basic facts, and he knew about Moore’s confession. But he hoped to learn about Michael’s background. Get his perspective, and try to understand what led him to kill two people – one of whom he didn’t even know.

A baffling double murder suspect

The more Ed learned, the more baffling it all was.

Police arrested Michael Patrick Moore when he was 25 years old. He was born and raised in Salt Lake City — the only child of devout Catholic parents. He attended private Catholic schools and dreamed about attending medical school one day.

One old Salt Lake Tribune article about Moore said schoolmates called him ‘the shadow.’ Friends said Moore always wore suits to school, and never played sports. On Sundays, the Moore family arrived first at their Catholic church and always sat in the front pew.

Everyone described Michael as extremely intelligent. He even volunteered to help his coworkers study for their chemistry and calculus classes. He worked at Log Haven for seven years, rising from groundskeeper to general manager.

Friends said the job helped transform him from shy to outgoing and friendly.

Brass couldn’t piece together a picture of this man that made sense. Most of the people in his situation have life-long struggles with drugs, alcohol and at least some criminal issue. Moore did not.

“All of a sudden, he’s involved with killing two people,” Brass said. “That was hard to wrap your head around at first.”

Related: Sense of dread precedes second 1982 Millcreek Canyon murder

It wasn’t just Michael’s lack of criminal history that made his actions so hard to understand. It was his demeanor as they discussed what happened at Log Haven the morning of the murders.

“He was always very calm,” Ed said, “Very calm, and very well-spoken. Very bright.”

As he tried to conjure up a picture of Michael through the heavy mesh screen, it was almost as if he wasn’t talking to a person who’d snuffed out the lives of two young fathers. Or, a person who now faced the possibility of a firing squad.

“The thing that stunned me the most was that after talking about the fact that he killed two people, he thought that the police would see it his way and he was gonna get released,” Brass said. “He still thought that when I saw him (days later). There was just no question in his mind; he was going to be released.”

How prosecutors viewed their suspect

While the defense team struggled to understand why Moore murdered two men at Log Haven, prosecutors saw no such ambiguity.

crime scene photo log haven double murder utah defense attorney

FILE: The laundry van where the bodies of Jordan Rasmussen and Buddy Booth were found at Log Haven Resort, March 5, 1982. (Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office)

“Michael Moore’s story was that he was in fear of his life. He had been told ‘You’re in danger with these folks,’” recalls prosecutor TJ Tsakalos. “And I’m going, ‘well, where is it that you would be so afraid that you had to take the gun for …the meeting that you called, and then shoot two people over it?’

“…I couldn’t get into his head as to why he was thinking the way he was thinking. …I came up with the term chameleon. I thought he could change colors to manipulate you. So my theory was, he made it up to try to justify what he did.”

None of them had to wait long for answers. Just six months after the murders, Michael Moore sat in a courtroom above that labyrinth of tunnels to the jail trying to convince a jury he didn’t deserve to face a firing squad for what he’d done.

“This homicide occurred in March and we were trying it by August the same year,” Tsakalos said. “This was on a fast track. It got done.”

Never a question of guilt or innocence

While the stakes don’t get any higher than a death penalty case, in this instance, there was never a question of guilt or innocence.

In fact, both sides would rely on the same basic facts.  Michael Moore shot Jordan Rasmussen after driving him up the canyon on the morning of March 5, 1982. And then he killed Buddy Booth when he arrived while Michael was trying to dispose of Jordan’s body.

Then there was a long list of physical evidence, and, of course, that detailed confession.

Defense attorney Ed Brass said the Utah legal team knew they were fighting long odds.

“I think that we had the pair of twos as far as playing the poker hand goes,” he said.

And everyone knew the real fight was whether the 25-year-old should face a firing squad or spend his life behind bars. Prosecutor John T. Nielsen called it a ‘slam dunk’ death penalty case. Both families supported the efforts to send Moore to the firing squad.

“I remember seeing Michael Moore across from me,” said Buddy Booth’s widow Carla Maas. “ And him just looking at me. And it kind of – it scared me. It made me very nervous.”

And then prosecutors showed her the clothes her husband wore to work that day.

“It was bloody,” she said. “It was really tough. And all I could do was cry.”

And yet more than sadness spawned her tears.

“I was angry,” Maas said. “(And) was furious because …Why would he kill an innocent man? … I didn’t think he deserved to be on this earth…for killing two people. I felt that he deserved to die, as well.”

Listen to episode 3 of “The Letter” now.

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Even defense attorney struggles to understand double homicide suspect