Could upside-down dental records tie ’83 Utah cold case killing to missing Provo teen?

Robby Lynn Peay’s headstone at the Provo City Cemetery in Provo on Wednesday. Provo police are investigating whether a 40-year-old case of a missing 17-year-old is connected to the case of a man shot to death at Arches National Park in 1983. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

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PROVO — On a small headstone in a corner of the Provo City Cemetery, is the name of a boy who, as of Friday, has been missing for 40 years.

But there is no body buried in the ground under that marker.

Meanwhile, in Moab, the body of “John Doe” — the victim of a suspected homicide — lays under a patch of grass at the Sunset Memorial Gardens Cemetery. There is no headstone to mark the grave, though it is recorded in the cemetery’s computer database which has a map of all the people buried. It is the only John Doe in the cemetery.

Now, Provo police are trying to determine if the remains of John Doe should be moved to Peay’s empty gravesite.

Detectives strongly suspect that John Doe is actually Robby Lynn Peay, 17, of Provo, who hasn’t been seen since 1982. This week, police received information that they hope will put them a step closer into solving the cold cases in both Grand and Utah counties.

“Everything looks like the same,” Provo Police Lt. Chris Chambers told KSL.com, while stressing that the match had not been 100% confirmed as of Friday.

If John Doe is who Provo police think it is, it will bring a four-decade-old missing persons case to an end and hopefully help Grand County with its nearly 40-year-old cold case homicide.

On Oct. 7, 1982, Peay ran away from a youth treatment center in Salt Lake City. Because his home was in Provo, the Provo Police Department was called to handle the missing persons case.

Chambers said after Peay ran away, detectives received information that he was still communicating with other people, even though police could not locate him. One person who detectives believe Peay was with was a 56-year-old man with whom he was having a relationship with, according to Chambers.

“We believe that they were living together,” he said.

Police put Peay’s name into a national database for missing people as well as a federal database for missing and exploited children. Peay’s dental records were submitted to those databases as well — something that helps police identify people or remains that are found.

Utah's cold case website describes Robby Lynn Peay, who was 17 when he was last seen in 1982.
Utah’s cold case website describes Robby Lynn Peay, who was 17 when he was last seen in 1982. (Photo: Utah Department of Public Safety)

On Feb. 12, 1983 — about four months after Peay ran away from the youth center — a male body was recovered from the Three Gossips area of Arches National Park. Dubbed John Doe, the male died from being shot in the back of his head, Chambers said. The “physical characteristics of John Doe are very similar to Robby Peay,” but a positive match could not be made because of decomposition, according to a search warrant affidavit. Police put John Doe’s dental records into the national database, and while they were similar to Peay’s records, they did not match.

However, Chambers noted that about the same time John Doe was found, Provo police stopped hearing about any communications that Peay was having with others.

In October of 1990, Peay’s adoptive mother began the process of having him declared deceased, according to court records. Today, in a corner of the Provo Cemetery, near the fence that separates the public sidewalk from the cemetery grounds, is a headstone that states “In memory” of Peay, and also has his birthdate, followed by “Missing since Oct. 7, 1982.”

Upside-down dental records

Over the years, Chambers said Provo police have reviewed their cold cases by looking at John Does found across the country and comparing them, looking at things such as height and weight, to determine whether a John Doe might be one related to one of Provo’s cases.

In 2018, a Provo officer who was recovering from surgery and couldn’t go out into the field was assigned to look over some of the department’s older cases. He looked at the Peay case again after a body with Peay’s characteristics was found in another state. But while that body turned out not to be a match, Chambers said it was during that time that a forensic dentist also took another look at Peay’s records and made a significant discovery.

“It was discovered the original dental X-rays were entered (in the database) upside down. And so the forensic dentist said, ‘Hey this is not right’ and he corrected them. And with that correction, we got a hit that was even more indicative that it could be a match to the case in Grand County,” Chambers said.

Once Peay’s dental records were corrected and resubmitted, Chambers said, “The match to dental records (of John Doe) was greater than 90%.”

But it still was not enough for the state medical examiner to conclusively say John Doe is Robby Peay, according to Chambers.

“That’s when we started thinking, ‘This is going to be our guy,’ so we started working it more actively,” he said.

In order to make a definitive match, Chambers said detectives need to compare DNA.

Their first hope was to find a family member of Peay and do a familial DNA test in order to make a comparison with John Doe. But Peay was adopted when he was 11 months old, according to police. And despite their efforts requesting that Peay’s original birth certificate be unsealed, a judge turned police down.

“We’ve been fighting for several years to find DNA and get his adoption records unsealed,” Chambers said.

In 2020, a hair sample from Peay’s baby book was submitted for DNA testing, according to police. But in August of this year, Chambers said detectives were told by the lab doing the testing that it wasn’t enough to get a proper DNA sample to compare.

The remains of an unidentified body found shot to death in Arches National Park in 1983 are buried under a patch of grass in the Sunset Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Moab on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022. There is no headstone to mark the site. Provo police are trying to figure out if the body belongs to a teen who went missing in Provo 40 years ago.
The remains of an unidentified body found shot to death in Arches National Park in 1983 are buried under a patch of grass in the Sunset Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Moab on Friday, Oct. 7, 2022. There is no headstone to mark the site. Provo police are trying to figure out if the body belongs to a teen who went missing in Provo 40 years ago. (Photo: Pat Reavy, KSL.com)

Because of that, after now exhausting all other efforts, Provo police in September made another request that Peay’s original birth certificate be unsealed.

“After going through all those hoops, we resubmitted a warrant to the judge and they approved it this week,” Chambers said.

After years of trying, Provo police this week received the original birth certificate with the names of Peay’s biological parents. But there were no birthdates with the parents. Now, he said detectives are working to find Peay’s biological parents.

“It’s proving to be a lot harder than we anticipated,” he said, noting that there are people with similar names across the country, and detectives aren’t even sure if Peay’s parents are still alive. “It’s hard when it’s this old because the records just aren’t kept the same way.”

Chambers said his detectives are keeping investigators in Grand County updated on what’s happening with their missing persons case. If they officially conclude that John Doe is indeed Robby Peay, officials in Grand County can then proceed with its cold case homicide investigation.

The Grand County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to KSL.com’s requests for comment.

Plenty of rumors

After Peay went missing, Chambers said his office received information that he may have fled to Colorado where he was living under an assumed name. The name police were given was confirmed to be the same name Peay had used on a fake ID that he had used to purchase alcohol, he said. But police could never confirm whether Peay went there.

“We could never prove he was living under an alias in Colorado,” he said.

In 1993, Chambers said police received an anonymous tip that Peay and two others were playing a version of “Russian Roulette” after he went missing. But rather than each person pointing a gun at themself, they put the gun to the back of another person’s head and pulled the trigger. According to the tipster, Peay was killed and his body buried near Timpanogos Cave.

“That’s never been substantiated,” Chambers said, while noting that police still don’t know who the anonymous tipster is. “The evidence didn’t match that.”

While that rumor was dispelled, another discovery in 1993 made Peay’s disappearance even more suspicious. His pickup truck was found underwater near Page, Arizona, in Antelope Canyon near Lake Powell. Because of drought conditions, the pickup truck was spotted under the water.

Robby Lynn Peay’s headstone at the Provo City Cemetery in Provo on Wednesday.
Robby Lynn Peay’s headstone at the Provo City Cemetery in Provo on Wednesday. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

In his office, as Chambers scrolls through Peay’s original police report — all 587 pages of it — he finds the pictures of the truck that was recovered. A rope or wire is tied to the steering wheel.

“It appears that the truck was launched into the lake after fixing the steering wheel in place,” according to police.

Chambers does not know how long the truck had been in the water, only noting it had been there sometime between 1982 and 1993. When police found the registered owner of the truck, that person confirmed that he had purchased the truck for Peay after Peay ran away from the treatment center and kept it in his name so police would not find Peay, Chambers said.

Also found in the truck were pictures of Peay.

Missing man

Robby Lynn Peay
Robby Lynn Peay (Photo: Utah Department of Public Safety)

Chambers says not only did communication that Peay was allegedly having with others stop around February of 1983, but the older man he may have been living with also disappeared. That man, originally form the Netherlands, was believed to have returned to Holland, and according to a police report from 2019, investigators were still trying to track him down. Chambers is unsure whether police have been able to make contact with him or if the man — who would be 96 this year — is even still alive. He is not calling the man a “suspect” or even a “person of interest,” but says “he’s definitely someone we want to talk to.”

“We’d definitely like to figure out if he was with (Peay) and what other information he can provide for us,” Chambers said.

In addition to photographs of Peay found in his submerged truck, police have also found letters written by the man to Peay. Chambers was unsure if those were also found in the truck or at an apartment.

As for why his department is putting so much effort into a missing person’s case that is now four decades old, Chambers said it’s for the victim’s family.

“We just want to give closure to it. We don’t like having cases that are sitting out there and knowing that there are families that haven’t had closure. And so if we have information we can go off of, we’re taking the time to go off of it and follow every lead until we just can’t follow anything else anymore,” he said.

If anyone has information about the disappearance of Peay, they are asked to contact the Provo Police Department at 801-852-6210.

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Pat Reavy is a longtime police and courts reporter. He joined the KSL.com team in 2021 after many years of reporting for the Deseret News

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