FLAGSTAFF, AZ - A 71-year-old man has been arrested in a cold case dating back to 1981 in Coconino County.
Coconino County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Gerry Blair said the suspect was arrested for second-degree murder in Oregon on Thursday.
Blair said solving the case hinged on the work of retired law enforcement officers who volunteer their time and energy to investigate cold case homicides, providing closure for surviving relatives and prosecution where possible.
Blair said in this case, 51-year-old Jerry Arnold Heath left Fort Worth, Texas to drive to his home in Lompoc, California on August 18, 1981.
He apparently called his wife to tell her he was headed home, but when he didn’t arrive she reported him missing on August 24.
Heath’s vehicle was found two days later along the westbound lanes of Interstate 10 in Yuma County. Authorities found blood inside the car.
Heath’s badly decomposed body was found on September 7, 1981 by a 16-year-old girl camping with her family in the Flagstaff area.
An autopsy determined Heath was killed with a single gunshot to the head.
Blair said that many possible leads were developed and investigated, but no suspects were identified or taken into custody.
Blair said that Joe Sumner, who retired from the National Park Service in 2007 as a criminal investigator, joined the Coconino Cold Case Unit in 2008.
In this particular case Sumner submitted latent fingerprints collected from the victim’s vehicle to the FBI crime lab at Quantico, Virginia for reexamination.
FBI investigators received an identical match with known prints of the man who became the suspect.
Sumner continued investigating and developed leads causing him to believe that the suspect may be still alive and living in the Medford, Oregon area.
Blair said Medford Police Department officers found the suspect and helped with the investigation pending the arrival of Coconino Sheriff’s Office detectives and Cold Case investigators.
On Thursday, February 13, 2014 sheriff’s detectives interviewed the suspect who made statements implicating him in the crime.
Detectives are looking into the “strong possibility” that Heath picked up the suspect who was hitchhiking. They believe the suspect then robbed and murdered Heath.
Blair said the investigation is ongoing and the extradition procedures are forthcoming.
ABC15 is not releasing the name of the suspect as he has not yet been formally charged.