Teri Orr: Crime stories, family secrets and a forgotten safety deposit box
I didn’t expect most of the things that happened to me in the last days of this decade. Some were — triple-flip surprises.
Since this space doesn’t allow for all the stories, I’ll unpack one. It started the day I finally decided to go to Wells Fargo and retrieve the contents of my safety deposit box. I had opened it about 10 years ago when my mother was in a home for dementia and I was handling her paperwork. I rented a big box and threw all her papers in there along with a treasure. It is an old black metal strongbox from the 1800s. Inside are 20-plus glass slides. And on those slides are images of Abraham Lincoln and his life. General Grant — and a Native American chief I haven’t yet identified — images of the log cabin where he grew up. The deathbed scene with his family and some generals standing around the bed. They are rather amazing. When my half-sister and I discovered them we decided to investigate their origin — when we had time. … So I gave her several — maybe a dozen of the 80 slides — of critical scenes with images of people who looked important. These don’t appear to be early photographs-daguerreotypes — they are most likely hand-painted Magic Lantern slides.
In the middle of my mother’s failing health — my sister passed away. Her difficult son decided to sell her home and all the contents without consulting me about any of the possessions that belonged to my mother’s estate. I decided to walk away from the drama. And I just forgot about it — slides and all.
Fast forward and my daughter asked me not too long ago — where did those Lincoln slides ever end up? And I remembered the safe deposit box — so I went to Wells Fargo and said I wanted to empty it — close it up. And the lovely woman who has helped me through personal and professional mazes for years asked me politely — “Which one?” … I cocked my head … “Which one? I only have one.” And she looked at her computer and said … “Actually you have two — one you opened in 2009 and the other — in 1999.” I was dumbfounded. For one thing, Wells Fargo was First Security Bank back in 1999 and that bank was on Park Avenue across from Jans. They must have moved those safety deposit boxes over when they built the new bank. And I did remember I had had a box with saving bonds for my kids’ education but I cashed those out when the kids went to college.
As a full-time journalist back then, I sometimes put notes and tapes in that box. Park City was the Wild West and I was interviewing drug dealers and undercover FBI agents and just “sources.” And since people went missing in those days and were later found floating in lakes and had fatal “heart attacks” the day before testifying — I was advised by my worldliest friend at the time, Ira Sachs, to put the tapes in a safety deposit box. And so I did. But after taking out the savings bonds for the kids’ college, I forgot entirely about the box.
The bank officer asked if I still had a key. And I laughed. “If I didn’t know I had the box — I am pretty sure I don’t know where I would have a key.” So the bank officer said she would arrange to have the box drilled open. Which seemed rather dramatic to discover there might be nothing in there but maybe a rotted rubber band. But drilling into the box seemed exciting and since the bank had failed to notify me of its existence for two decades they volunteered to pay for the drill. They arranged for me to be there to watch the process and then — in great ceremony — they put me in a closed room to look at the contents.
Inside were three tapes — those tiny little cassette tapes — minis — all the rage back in the late ’80s. Also inside the envelope were a series of letters on yellow legal paper from — Draper, Utah — Point of the Mountain prison. They were from Preston Mitchell, who was convicted of killing a Park City resident, former airline pilot Fred Duncan, but may have been involved in other deaths. I had covered the story and over a three-year period watched it unfold into other stories and other cases. Before Mitchell left the jail in Coalville for Draper, I had been allowed to be locked into his cell to interview him for three hours. I then wrote a series of articles for the Salt Lake Tribune.
There was another trial for Mitchell a few years later when they proved an error in the first trial. The prosecution knew I had those tapes and they asked for them to be placed in evidence. Again, I asked Ira what I should do. He told me I had a choice — between an ethical dilemma and a moral one. And I confessed, I didn’t know the difference. He said “ethically you have a right as journalist to not reveal your source. Morally, if there is something on those tapes that incriminate him — the family of the victim deserves to know that.”
He offered to take the tapes out of the country for safekeeping. I said it was all too crazy. I would just put them in a safety deposit box and if they were needed I would decide then. As it turned out the information I had about other crimes never came up and the evidence produced to retry him was enough to send him back to the prison. By then — 1988 — he had been transferred to Texas. Where, later his father would arrange to have a helicopter land in the prison yard and for a few hours — spring his son in a dramatic escape.
I never did reveal that Mitchell had also been a confidential informant with the FBI at the time of Duncan’s murder.
It was kinda crazy to be looking at those contents of an old safety deposit box from the ’90s that had been ignored for decades.
And yes, I am now researching the Lincoln slides and the handwritten journal with yellowed newspaper and magazine articles from 1909 — 100 years after Lincoln’s birth — that came with the strongbox — but that is a story for another Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the director of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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“It was just the heads of the animal characters of the zodiac brought to life. It was dizzying to look up and see them all and to meander between the animals.”