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Dismembered, Headless Body of College Student Found Buried Along a Utah Highway
A sheriff investigating the murder of a 19-year-old woman he'd worked with called it "the worst case of mutilation" he'd ever seen.
On August 16, 1985, a roadside crew working in the outskirts of Cove Fort, Utah stumbled upon a gravesite. During the methodical excavation by law enforcement, a human torso was unearthed.
“The head, hands and feet had been cut off,” Deputy Sheriff James Masner, Millard County Sheriff’s Department, told Buried in the Backyard, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen. “It was the worst case of mutilation I have ever seen.”
The gruesome discovery along the I-15 Interstate highway was made amid the search for 19-year-old Sharon Sant, who’d gone missing about two weeks earlier.
Raised in Fillmore, Utah, about 30 miles from the gravesite, Sant was pursuing a career in police science. “She had found her passion,” said her friend Leslie Christensen.
After working as an intern with the local Sheriff’s Department, Sant began studies in police science at Southern Utah State College in Cedar City, Utah, about 90 minutes from Fillmore.
On August 1, she and Christensen had planned to attend a funeral for two high school friends. But Sant never arrived. Calls to family and friends and a Cedar City PD wellness check turned up no leads.
The Millard County Sheriff’s Department was alerted to the situation. Sant was one of their own. “This is our friend,” said Sheriff Ed Phillips, Millard County Sheriff’s Department.
Sharon Sant Goes Missing While Hitchhiking
Sant was hitchhiking from Cedar City to Fillmore, officials learned. While hitchhiking was common, it was perilous. Alarms went off, according to Det. Robert Dekker, Millard County Sheriff’s Department.
Law enforcement put up a roadblock to interview drivers headed north on I-15, but no information emerged. Then, on August 15, the mutilated body was found in the shallow grave.
Drag marks in the dirt had alerted the Department of Transportation crew to the crime scene. The body was transported to the medical examiner’s office in Salt Lake City.
Investigators searched the area for the victim’s head, hands and feet but didn’t find them. Beer cans were found between the body and the road, along with a beer bottle with blood on it. A blood-stained chopping maul was also recovered.
“All these items were photographed and logged into evidence and subsequently processed for fingerprints,” said Masner.
The medical examiner determined that the maul was used to mutilate the body and found signs suggesting a sexual assault. The cause of death was listed as unknown, according to Buried in the Backyard.
Unearthed Mutilated Body Confirmed to Be Sharon Sant
Based on an x-ray showing evidence of broken ribs, a forensic anthropologist confirmed the victim as Sharon Sant.
Millard County sheriffs recognized that finding the killers would be a challenge. “This person or persons could have come from anywhere,” said Dekker. A broadcast bulletin was released to solicit possible leads.
A call from law enforcement in Virginia initially seemed to be a break in the case. A man had told authorities that he was picked up hitchhiking in Cove Fort, Utah and driven to Virginia.
The driver joked that he had picked up a girl in Utah, killed her and left her body under a tree. The driver, according to the witness, had women’s underwear in his vehicle. The passenger took down the license plate as a precaution.
Although the timing and location lined up with the Sant investigation, detectives were unable to match any evidence in the driver’s car to the brutal murder and mutilation.
“We knew we had to keep digging on Sharon’s case,” said Dekker.
Five months after Sant’s murder, sheriffs enlisted the public’s help by sharing evidence found at the crime scene.
“There was an article in the newspaper out of Salt Lake City that shows Sheriff Phillips holding the maul,” said Masner. “I believe the caption was ‘he split her like a log.’”
The terrifying headlines turned up fresh leads. A Cedar City gas station owner reported that he observed that a local named George Wesley Hamilton had a new maul in the bed of his truck.
Detectives interviewed Hamilton at the ranch where he worked in Buck Horn Flat, about 20 miles from Cedar City. He denied knowing anything about the Sant case and claimed he worked all day on August 1.
Investigators interviewed the ranch owner who confirmed that Hamilton, along with another hired hand, Robert Bott, used mauls to gather and split wood to be sold.
George Wesley Hamilton and Robert Bott become suspects
Drag marks near the shallow grave were spread out, which indicated the presence of two people. Sheriffs focused on Hamilton and Bott. The rancher told officials that the two men were not working on August 1.
Investigators spoke with a woman working at a supermarket in Parowan, Utah. The two men had bought beer, she said, and were with Rita Weatherby, Hamilton’s live-in girlfriend, who initially confirmed the witness’s account. But when investigators questioned her a second time, she said that Hamilton and Bott threatened to hurt her if she didn’t confirm their alibi.
Detectives returned to the supermarket witness with a photo of Sant. The woman told them that the person she had seen with the suspects was, in fact, Sant. But the revelation wasn’t enough to charge Hamilton and Bott.
Instead, investigators turned to the evidence collected near the burial site. A fingerprint on the inside of the neck of a beer bottle matched Hamilton’s right index finger; Bott and Hamilton were charged with murder and aggravated kidnapping. Under intense questioning, Bott cracked.
“Bott was told that if he laid everything out on the line … he would probably not spend the rest of his life in jail,” said Masner. Believing that he would receive a more lenient sentence for cooperating, Bott detailed the events of August 1.
In Bott’s version of the events, the men picked up Sant in Cedar City and took her to the ranch in Buck Horn Flat, where she was sexually assaulted. Hamilton murdered her and together they mutilated her body, according to Buried in the Backyard.
Prosecutors encountered a legal setback in court. Because Bott believed he’d be granted immunity for his testimony, his defense attorney successfully argued that Bott’s admission was inadmissible. Bott was released from custody.
Without Bott’s testimony, Hamilton was charged with second degree murder. How did rape escalate to murder and dismemberment?
Christensen said she and Sant grew up outsiders in the predominantly Mormon community. She believes her best friend’s willingness to fight back played a life-and-death role.
“There’s no way she kept quiet,” Christensen said. “They chose to silence her in the most horrific way.”
Hamilton is currently serving a life sentence in Utah State Prison. Bott could not be prosecuted.
As a result of Sant’s case, a state law was passed making the desecration of a human body a felony.
To learn more about the case, watch Buried in the Backyard, airing Saturdays at 8/7c on Oxygen.