1. Headline
  1. Headline

Video: Secrets in the Suitcase

NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
Dateline NBC
updated 6/18/2010 11:57:42 PM ET 2010-06-19T03:57:42
transcript

This report aired Dateline Friday, June 18

They kept it in the dark. Down the stairs.  In the basement, among the bolt cutters and the bags of white powder and the guns, the investigative leftovers of a small police department. Why they chose a lime green suitcase for it is beyond knowing now. But he'd see it down there every time he filed a piece of evidence, tucked in, all but forgotten, behind a door frame.  Like a silent accusation.

Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: And there it kinda sat in that room, starin' at ya. 

Brad Benson: Yes. Yes. For years.

In fact, since about the time Brad Benson got his start in the Woods Cross Police Department.

Brad Benson: I was always intrigued by this case.  Because-- you know, it was a cold case, homicide, that-- that had never been solved.

The lime green mystery.  Inside that suitcase was quite possibly all the evidence required to put a murderer away for life. If he opened it, God knows what would come slithering out. Though he never guessed just how bizarre it would turn out to be.

Back in the summer of 1980, it seemed, frankly, like one of those murders that happened all too commonly in other cities, though surely not here. Brad Benson was a rookie, a reserve officer, in a town that only rarely seemed to need much of a police department.

Brad Benson: I was kind of shocked, quite frankly, that we had something like that in Woods Cross.  I mean, I'd only been there a couple of years.  But I could never imagine that we would be investigating a homicide.

Keith Morrison: Murder in Woods Cross--

Brad Benson: Murder in Woods Cross--

  1. Stories from
    1. Gobble, Gobble! How Stars Spent Thanksgiving
    2. Proof That Kaley Cuoco Is a Party Planner Extraordinaire (PHOTOS)
    3. What Scares American Horror Story: Freak Show Star Michael Chiklis?
    4. Black Friday Shopping Inspiration: See What Style Editors Are Buying
    5. Ryan Knight Dies at 29

Keith Morrison: --it's unheard of.

Brad Benson:--yeah, it's unheard of.  That was our very first homicide, as a matter of fact.

Woods Cross was busily growing out from the fringe of Salt Lake City in those days: quiet, middle class, studded everywhere with - mostly - Mormon churches. And it prided itself on being a safe place to live - that's why people moved here. So it was a shock, that very first time Woods Cross encountered murder. It was the 6th of June, 1980.  A Friday morning.

911 call:

Steve Strom: Oh my god, this is 1653 South 1200 -- 1200 West 1653 South.

911 operator: What's the problem?

Steve Strom: In Woods Cross.  My wife's been killed.  I just got home from work. 

The event stands out in the collective memory here:

911operator: Ok...I'll...what's your name?

SteveStrom: Steve Strom...please.

911operator: Steve Strom?

SteveStrom: Steve Strom.  Please hurry.

Steve Strom was an overnight shift worker at a local aerospace parts company. So it was just before 8 a.m., he told first responders, when he came home to find his wife's body. She'd been severely beaten, the furniture in their bedroom had been pushed around as if in a violent struggle.

Coco Saltzgiver, Karin Strom’s sister: I was at work.  And my stepmother had called me. And she says, "Karin's dead."  And I just said, "What?"  She goes, "Karin's dead."  And I-- I said, "She can't be.  I just talked to her." (crying)

Karin Strom's sister Coco rushed to the crime scene. A friendly cop threw that jacket round her shoulders.

Coco Saltzgiver: I knew it was a crime scene, but, oh, God, I just wanted to hold her so bad. And then they brought her body out. And you're ---you're in such shock.  You're like, "She can't be in there." No, that's not my sister.  She's not in there." And then they took her away. 

Keith Morrison: Did you ever get a chance to hold her?

Coco Saltzgiver: No. No. 

Then the whole town got to know about Coco's big sister Karin. How pretty she was, how full of life and potential, how young.  Just 25 when someone got into her bedroom, tore the place apart, and strangled the life out of her.  What earthly reason would anyone have for killing Karin Strom?

Coco Saltzgiver: She was fun.  She was happy.  She was-- she had a lot of friends.  She was just a-- she was a good soul.

But even before that awful day came to an end, some friends of Steve and Karin Strom felt like they knew what must have happened.

Melody: I received a telephone call from my husband. What he said to me was "Well, it finally happened.  Steve finally killed her." 

Steve killed her?

Was his frantic voice on that 911 call the equivalent of crying crocodile tears? Brad Benson, remember, was a rookie back then; didn't take part in the investigation.  But before long, his colleagues seemed to feel that Steve was, indeed, the murderer. And they had their reasons.

Brad Benson: Well, there was some reports of domestic violence in his past. 

In fact, it turned out, Karin had left Steve. Why was she even in the house that night? A couple of months after Karin's death, Steve was arrested and charged with his wife's murder. 

Keith Morrison: What did Steve Strom do?

Brad Benson: Well, yeah, of course, he denied it.  He denied bein' involved.  He fought the case tooth and nail.

Keith Morrison: And those investigators remained convinced that their man was Steve--

Brad Benson: Yes. 

But as the trial approached, back at the beginning of the 1980s, none of the evidence from that chaotic bedroom murder scene could be tested for DNA; the technology just didn't exist then. What they had instead was a circumstantial case, the testimony of friends and family, who would say that Steve was sometimes verbally and possibly physically abusive, that Karin wanted out.

Brad Benson: There was black eyes and bruises that were witnessed by some of their coworkers and friends. 

But it wasn't enough.  Not much more than hearsay, according to the assigned trial judge.  Who dismissed the charges, and released Steve Strom to go on about his life. Strom lost his friends, his credibility. Perhaps only this friend still believed in him.

Dick: I mean, everybody was just sayin', "You did it.  You did it, you did it, you did it, you did it."  You know?  And they chased him.  They followed him everywhere he went.

Keith Morrison: The cops?

Dick: Yep.  I was with him. 

And that was that. Nobody satisfied.  Certainly not Karin's sister coco, who believed in her heart - like so many others - that Steve had gotten away with murder. And that, decided Coco, could not stand. Her big sister had been there for her growing up, and now coco would do what she could to fight for justice.

Coco Saltzgiver: Twenty-seven years.

Keith Morrison: Twenty-seven years and it never left your mind?

Coco Saltzgiver: How could it?  It's --- it's shocking.  And it's your sister, somebody you loved dearly.  It's like, you, you go and think about it and then you give up.  And then it's there again.  You know?  It - it never goes away.

Just like the lime green suitcase. Through all that evidence, felt no emotion at all as it sat there gathering dust all those years.

But now, as he contemplated imminent retirement, Brad Benson, now a detective sergeant, had come to believe - or to hope at least - that new technologies would finally give mute evidence a voice, and make the case that couldn't be made back in 1980.

Brad Benson, in press conference: We are fairly confident that if there is DNA that it will come back to somebody that we are familiar with. 

But you know what they say about assumptions. Because, as Benson was about to discover, just beneath that apparently obvious surface was a very strange story indeed.

It was June 2006. Twenty-six years - almost to the day - since Coco Saltzgiver's sister Karin Strom was murdered in Woods Cross, Utah. The crime had never been solved, though some evidence at the time seem to point toward Karin's husband, Steve Strom. And who knows why these things come about? Coco happened to be in Utah to attend a funeral. She happened to be driving through Woods Cross. And, on a whim, really, decided to stop at the local police department to ask what finally happened to that case.

Coco Saltzgiver: I says, "Ma'am, where would I find some information on the homicide that's never-- "  She goes, "Oh, do you mean Karin?"  And I says, "Okay, you people are freaking (laughs) me out here."

Within minutes, Coco was on the phone with Detective Brad Benson. 

Coco Saltzgiver: And he goes, "You want to know what's funny? And I said, "Oh, please.  (laughs) This is gettin' better and better."  And he said, "I took her case out six months ago and started looking at it again.

Just coincidence, of course. Wasn't it?

Coco Saltzgiver: And I thought, "Wow."  I says, "Maybe somethin's really gonna happen this time." 

By this time, Benson had followed a trail round a corner of the storage room from the old green suitcase to a makeshift plywood shelf, where he discovered boxes and boxes.  Chock full of evidence.  

Brad Benson: They had-- fingernails-- that-- they didn't know what they contained back then.

Keith Morrison: But they saved 'em anyway.

Brad Benson: They-- they saved 'em. Consequently, they became one of the-- the best pieces of evidence that we had.

Bensen sent those preserved fingernails off to the lab, along with other testable pieces of evidence. And then, as he and Coco waited for the results, Benson continued to dig into the murder file… and into the life of Karin Strom.  What happened to make her a target of somebody's murderous rage? She was born in Salt Lake City, Utah.  An eldest daughter, Coco's big sister. And, in this state, in some ways, she was distinctly unusual.

Coco Saltzgiver: We grew up Catholic in Utah.  My dad's side of the family was Mormon.  My mom was Catholic.

Keith Morrison: So you were-- you knew what it was to be a minority.

Coco Saltzgiver: Absolutely.  Absolutely.

And she was popular, and pretty. A natural dancer who, once in high school, was rarely without a date on Saturday night. And when she got her first car, her adored yellow Camaro, life couldn't get any better. 

Coco Saltzgiver: She loved that car.  I loved that car.  (laughs) We used to go ridin', just cruisin' in that car. That car was-- she was so happy when she got that. 

That she got married so soon - just 18 and right out of high school - seemed reasonable at the time - at least to Coco, it did. 

Coco Saltzgiver: Living in Utah? (laughter)

Keith Morrison: Kind of happens...

Coco Saltzgiver: Yeah.  That was nothing --- nothing new.  So I just figured, well, Karen did it, too, you know?  

She and Steve Strom were in love, after all.

Coco Saltzgiver: I didn't know Steve that well. He didn't talk, very quiet. 

This is karin's high school friend, Melody Fairbourne.

Melody Fairbourne: She really did love him and enjoyed his company.

But then, it was about 7 years in, when the bad times started to outweigh the good. The problem, said Melody, was Steve - who could be, she said, a mean drunk.

Melody Fairbourne: When he would start drinking, he would start verbally degrading her.

And there had been rumors of some physical abuse. Perhaps for that reason, maybe something else. Karin decided to file for divorce. Even though... 

Coco Saltzgiver: She loved him.

Keith Morrison: Really?

Coco Saltzgiver: Oh, yeah.

Keith Morrison: Even though she wanted to leave him but she loved him?

Coco Saltzgiver: Yes. I know it's beyond-- (laughter) yeah.  I know.  But she did.  She loved him.

So it was complicated. Karin seemed to move on, started seeing someone else. 

Melody Fairbourne: I was thinking that she had finally broken away.

But just over a month after she filed her divorce papers, Karin returned to the house in Woods Cross.  Her puzzled friends assumed must be temporary, a goodbye visit. But an exultant Steve told his pal Dick Cantonwine it was all going to work out.

Dick Cantonwine: He was happy that she was coming back.  'Cause he-- he loved her.  I mean-- when she was gone, he was down in the dumps.

Keith Morrison: Just miserable about it?

Dick Cantonwine: Yeah.

On June 5, 1980, the record showed, Karin and Steve spent the evening together.  They ate out, returned home, and then, just after midnight, about 12:15 a.m., Steve left to go to work the graveyard shift at an aerospace parts company. Steve told police how Karin walked him to his car, all lovey-dovey, then said goodnight and walked back into the house. She passed her yellow Camaro parked in the driveway, and closed the door behind her. 

He claimed he called her later that morning to wake her up for work.  No answer.  Called again, let the phone ring 20 times, still no answer.  So, he said, he clocked out at about 7:30 the morning of the 6th and drove home.  Karin's camaro was still parked in the driveway when he arrived. Or that was his story, at least. And now, all these years later, detective benson read about his colleagues' frustrated attempts to mount a case against steve strom.

And waited with karin's sister coco for the results of dna tests conducted on karin's preserved fingernails. Waited to be able to say, finally...got him.

Around Woods Cross, Utah, and among the suburbs and the city on the shores of the great Salt Lake, the story of Karin Strom was ancient history now; an artifact long lost to public memory. There was just the green suitcase, the soon-to-retire detective, and the one person for whom a burning need lived on, every day, for more than a quarter century.

Keith Morrison: How important was it for you to find out what happened?

Coco Saltzgiver: Very.  Because I wanna know why. Why would you take somebody so beautiful?  She wasn't raped, you know?  There was-- it wasn't a robbery. They just plain killed her. And it's like why?

And, of course, who? What happened behind that bedroom window here in this middle class neighborhood in the summer of 1980 is not really in doubt and wasn't from the beginning.  There was a violent struggle, that was obvious. And a woman was dead, strangled.  A little checking revealed there was no forced entry to the house. A little more checking indicated that this was a woman in the middle of marital discord and so the answers to the questions who did this thing and why seemed perhaps to have fairly obvious answers.

Keith Morrison: What was your assessment, then, as to what probably happened that night?

Brad Benson: I believed that there was some sort of-- domestic dispute.  And-- that things had got outta hand.  And that's what led to her death.

And everything in the case file certainly seemed to back up that point of view.

Keith Morrison: Was there anything else that went to motive as far as Steve was concerned?

Brad Benson: Not-- nothin' other than the-- the divorce that was currently goin' on.  It sounded to me, like, that-- she maybe leaving him for another man.

Keith Morrison: Ah.  So jealousy comes into play, as well.

Brad Benson: Could be s-- yes.

Keith Morrison: Couldn't do anything about it, though.

Brad Benson: Well, back then, we didn't have DNA.  So-- short a confession, there wasn't anything-- anything they could do.

But now there were those fingernails. The chaos in the bedroom where she was murdered made it obvious that Karin had fought back against her attacker...and thus probably unknowingly collected that person's DNA profile by scratching him before she died. Benson spoke to Steve Strom - now in his 50s - to let him know he'd reopened Karin's case.  Would Steve provide a comparison sample of his own DNA?

Brad Benson: I told-- Steve that he-- if he came up and provided those samples, that it could do just as much good with eliminating him as a suspect as it could actually point the finger at him.

He agreed.  And within 48 hours drove to Utah from his current home in Nevada - and freely gave up a sample of his DNA. But was he worried? Oh yes he was, said his friend Dick Cantonwine.

Dick Cantonwine: He says, they're gonna try and hang me again. They just-- they were focused in on him from day one.  And they just wouldn't let go.

And less than 2 weeks after Benson submitted the samples that could finally identify a murderer a result. And Benson looked at the name, and...

Brad Benson: Well-- I was a little confused at first.

Confused? Once Benson absorbed the news, he picked up the phone and called Karin's sister coco.

Coco Saltzgiver: He goes, "Are you ready for this?" He said, "Coco, the DNA came back."  And I said, "It did?" And he goes, "Ed Owens."  And I said, "Who is Ed Owens?"

And suddenly what once seemed a case of tying up old loose ends had been blown wide open.

Funny thing about public attitudes. How a common suspicion can harden over time into something like perceived truth. Those few who still remembered the 1980 murder of Karin Strom had two and a half decades to solidify their suspicion of husband Steve. And now DNA revealed that cells under Karin's fingernails belonged to someone else altogether. Belonged to a man named Ed Owens.

Coco Saltzgiver: I had no idea who he was.  My family doesn't know him.  None of Karin's friends know him. The only association to Ed Owens is Steve.

Keith Morrison: Shocking. What is the relationship between Ed Owens and Steve?

Coco Saltzgiver: They worked together.

Or at least, they both worked at the same machine at e-systems, an aerospace parts manufacturer. Ed worked the swing shift and Steve took over the machine on the graveyard shift. Ed was new in town...and Steve befriended him.

Dick Cantonwine: He didn't have any friends. And Steve was that kind of guy that, you know, would kind of take somebody under his wing because they had same interests.  They liked guns and hunting and four wheeling and things like that.

Keith Morrison: Did he seem to like the guy?

Dick Cantonwine: Yeah, he thought he was pretty good...you know.  

Keith Morrison: Just a guy he worked...

Dick Cantonwine: -- Little different, but you know.

Keith Morrison: Little different?

Dick Cantonwine: Yeah.  He tried so hard to be your friend. And he just went at it the wrong way.  And so we kind of thought that was a little weird, you know...

Keith Morrison: So his social skills were a little defective somehow?

Dick Cantonwine: Yes, Yes.  And, you know, and you'd just look at him and say, "Wow. Is he all ... is he playin' with a full deck?"

Still, something like a friendship had developed.  They'd gone four-wheeling together, and once Steve and Karin took Ed and his wife Patricia on a double date. But really, casual acquaintances. So how would Ed Owens' DNA end up beneath Karin's fingernails?

Good question. When Detective Benson went through the file, he discovered that in fact Ed Owens had drawn a mention in the original investigation. So Benson, all these years later, tracked him down. 

Brad Benson: He was listed as a person of interest, or possibly a witness.  And I wanted to go over his statement.  And make sure that we had everything correct.

Keith Morrison: They'd put him on record back then.

Brad Benson: Yes.

Back in 1980, Steve Strom told police that when he arrived at work at 12:45 a.m. June 6th, Ed Owens wasn't there as he should have been to turn over the machine they both worked on.  He finally did show up, said steve, a little after 4 in the morning,  drunk and throwing up...claiming he left work at 8pm and went out to party at a local bar. Also in the old file?  Statements from some of Steve's co-workers, who told police they saw scratches on Ed's hands and face in the days after Karin's murder. 

And the cops back then even took pictures of Ed. Collected blood and hair samples. 

And now that some of the DNA under Karin's fingernails turned out to be a match for that sample collected from Ed Owens. Benson's belief about what happened the night of Karin's murder took a sudden U-turn.

Brad Benson: I believe that it was-- more or less an opportunity with-- with Ed, that-- he'd gone to the bar that night-- from work at eight o'clock, just like the logs show.  That-- he probably drank more than usual.  And-- he decided that he wanted to go out and-- and--

Keith Morrison: Get into trouble?

Brad Benson: Get into trouble.  I think he went there with the intentions of-- raping Karin.  And-- she fought back.

Keith Morrison: He waited till Steve had gone to work?

Brad Benson: Yes. 

And Ed knew exactly the time Steve went to work because their shifts overlapped. 

Keith Morrison: How would he get into the house, though?  There was no sign of forced entry.

Brad Benson: Well,  this is little old Woods Cross, you know, back in 1980.  A lot of people didn't lock their-- their doors back then. There was no forced entry.  We don't know if the door was locked for sure-- when Steve left for work that night or not.       

Keith Morrison: So he would have basically barged in on her and started an assault immediately?

Brad Benson: That's what we believe, yes.

Keith Morrison: And created havoc as she fought back against him?

Brad Benson: Yes.

Keith Morrison: But why would he kill her?

Brad Benson: Well, that would be the only way that he could be assured that-- the finger wasn't going to be pointed back to him.

But now years later the DNA pointed directly at Mr. Owens. Soon after Detective Benson informed Owens that the case was being re-opened, Ed left town, leaving nothing but a note behind for his wife Patricia, containing things like bank account numbers.

Keith Morrison: How do you explain behavior like that?

Brad Benson: Guilty person.  That's the only way I can explain behavior like that. 

And then a few weeks later, another surprise. Ed Owens showed up...and turned himself in. And in short order, he was charged with Karin's murder. 

Brad Benson: I kind of got the gut feeling that to a certain degree he may be relieved to have this happen.

As owens awaited his day in court, an apparently relieved Steve Strom appeared briefly on local tv.

Steve Strom: It's nice that they're looking at evidence, instead of listening to hearsay, and gossip, and lies. 

And for the first time, Coco began to believe she would finally understand what happened to her sister Karin.

Keith Morrison: Will it help you to have a resolution of this case?

Coco Saltzgiver: Oh, absolutely.  And it's not how people say, "closing the book."

Keith Morrison: You never close the book.

Coco Saltzgiver: You never close that book.  But it's -- it's an understanding.  And I know you'd never understand the universe and everything that happens in it.  But with my sister.  I just want to know why.

But - that last bit about not understanding everything? As we spoke she could have no idea. The trial date was close, the state's case was ready. And then? Michael Studebaker, Ed Owens' defense attorney, was driving to work when his cell phone rang.  It was his own forensic expert. 

Michael Studebaker: And said, "You're not gonna believe what we just found under the fingernails." And-- I literally had to pull over because it just-- I was-- my mind was just spinning.

It was the DNA. Like a legal magic wand, it seemed, that test had changed everything in the Karin Strom murder case. And now Ed Owens, a man who would have escaped detection forever without DNA, was about to go on trial for murder. And then, a remarkable, or at least extremely curious, discovery. The material under Karin's fingernails was Ed Owens' DNA all right, there was no dispute about that. The curious thing was the type of DNA: It was seminal fluid.    

Keith Morrison: What did you think when your heard that?

Michael Studebaker: I thought there's semen under his fingernails, that sure doesn't show murder. That shows consensual relations at the best.

Ed must have had sex with Karin, said the defense attorney. Naturally, Detective Benson also heard about the discovery of semen.  But his reaction was considerably different. 

Brad Benson: I didn't believe that the whole sample was semen, based on the scratches that Mr. Owens had on his arms and hands and face.

Keith Morrison: This was not--not a lovey-dovey sex scene at all. 

Brad Benson: No. no.  It was a knockdown, drag out fight. 

And this man, Troy Rawlings, was taken by surprise, too.  Rawlings is the county attorney, the prosecutor.  He'd been about ready to present his case in court when the news about semen hit. 

Troy Rawlings: We didn't expect that, Keith.

Keith Morrison: No kidding.

Troy Rawlings: No kidding.  That was a curveball.  But instead of that curveball making us abandon our attempt to hit that pitch, we just decided, "You know what?  We need to learn to be better curve ball hitters."

Except what happened next didn't seem so much like a hit for the prosecution...more like a strikeout. County attorney Rawlings dropped the charges without prejudice, dismissed the case. Ed Owens was released.

Keith Morrison: Free as a bird.

Troy Rawlings: I took some heat over it.  There's no doubt about it. 

In December of 2007, Ed went home to be with family just in time for the holidays. 

Ed Owens: Relieved. Glad it's over.

And his family appeared before the cameras to say they had never doubted his innocence. 

Owens’ wife: We've always stood by Eddie, saying that we knew he didn't do it. Anybody that knows Eddie knows he wouldn't do it.

Steve Strom, watching all this, was horrified.  Or so said his friend, Dick Cantonwine.

Dick Cantonwine: He just went to pieces again.  He says, they haven't got enough on him, so they're gonna come looking for me again.  He says, It's going to start all over. 

Oh, the prosecutor tried to assure the public he wasn't giving up on making a case against Ed Owens.

Troy Rawlings: We were still confident Ed was the guy.  We just didn't wanna go off half-cocked, go to a jury trial -- look stupid, quite frankly.

But frankly, it was, in most people's opinion over.

Keith Morrison: It was dead as far as a lot of people were concerned.

Michael Studebaker: Yep, as far as I was concerned, it absolutely was. 

Keith Morrison: Your man was free to go. 

Michael Studebaker: He was. 

Winter settled in then, and the snow piled up on ski runs around Salt Lake City. The Karin Strom murder case faded out yet again, as another season went by, and the snow melted and the city bloomed into another summer. And her killer, whoever that might be, remained free.   And the prosecutor did take some heat... From people who might not have been aware of what his team was up to: an exhaustive reexamination of all the evidence. Which, sometime in the summer of 2008, produced what was - shall we say, a 'tiny' discovery?  Two barely perceptible spots - indications of blood - on Karin's underwear. Miniscule spots - major implications.  That blood matched the DNA profile of Ed Owens. 

Troy Rawlings: I think that Karin was fighting him off, and scratching his hands. He's got her pinned down with one hand.  He's trying to sexually assault her with another hand that she's cut and scratched, and that that's how the two drops of blood get on her panties.

Now Prosecutor Rawlings was more confident he could convince a jury that far from having consensual sex with Karin. Ed tried to rape her - and killed her in the process. Which would explain the semen found under Karin's fingernails.

Troy Rawlings: Our view is that the most consistent explanation is she's trying to prevent him from -- from sexually assaulting her. 

And so in the dog days of August, 8 months after he'd withdrawn the murder charges against Ed Owens, Rawlings re-filed his murder case.

Ed Owens: I didn't figure that they would ever refile charges again, but, evidently they want to try again. 

It was March of 2009. Finally, the event had arrived almost 29 years after the murder of Karin Strom. It was the eve of Ed Owens' trial in Farmington, Utah. And coco was overcome with emotion.

Coco Saltzgiver: (cries) "Oh God, don't let me fail Karin." I loved her so much that I want her to know the monster got you and now I'm facing the monster and I'm going to get him.

But... Who was the monster? As the trial began, the defense attorney offered his theory to the jury: that Ed and Karin had been having an affair, the semen got under her nails earlier, before the night of the murder, a night when he wasn't even there.

Troy Rawlings: Where was Ed the night of the murder? I'll tell you were Ed was.  Ed's a drunk. He went to the bar.  He closed the bar. But he was not at the Stroms’ house murdering Karin Strom.

The defense wanted the jury to believe that it was an angry and jealous steve who grabbed karin by the neck and choked her to death, an entirely different story than the one told by the prosecutor.

Troy Rawlings: As Karin Strom was struggling for her life, what she was doing was collecting the evidence that now testifies to you who her killer was even after she's dead.  And what that evidence tells you is that her killer is Ed.

After a 7-day trial, it was now in the hands of the jury. And the detective who brought this cold case back to life was sweating.

Brad Benson: You just never know what a jury's gonna do.

On the first night, the jury deliberated until 9:30 p.m., and then announced they were going home.

Keith Morrison: Boy, oh boy.  The--the wheels of justice do grind slowly, don't they?

Brad Benson: They do. My thought was holy cow, we're gonna be doing this all over again. 

Could be. Because when the jurors went home that night, they were deadlocked. 

Keith Morrison: How difficult was it to come forward and say you weren't so sure?

Vic: It wasn't difficult for me, because if you're going to hand down a guilty verdict you better be able to erase all reasonable doubt. 

Here they were, responsible public servants, no idea that all their deliberation about guilt or innocence was about to be turned on its head by an unlikely public confession, a poisonous accusation - and a tale almost too wild to be believed.

Keith Morrison: And you think people will believe that?

Ed Owens: Well, if they don't, they'd don't.   

Karin's sister Coco tossed all night. Detective Brad Bensen barely slept. The night the jury went home without a verdict...

Brad Benson: I was sick.

Keith Morrison: Now it looked it might be what, a hung jury?

Brad Benson: Yeah.  Well, that was pretty much the only alternative as far as I was concerned. 

Oh, there was another alternative, as everyone would soon know... But the jury, on the morning of the second day, was preoccupied instead by a determined holdout.

Keith Morrison: What were you concerned about?

Vic: I had to be able to put Ed Owens in that home murdering her that night. 

His lingering doubts were eventually dispelled, and the defense's efforts to pin the murder on Steve were rejected.

Byron Beck: I-- I think we all agreed that, yeah, he was abusive. But the motive, I don't think we questioned whether or not he had motive there.

And so, before noon, the second day of deliberations, a verdict. 

Court Clerk: We the jury impaneled to try the issues in the above-entitled matter, do hereby find the defendant Edward Lewis Owens guilty. (Loud gasp in the courtroom)

Guilty.  The sound you hear is Ed Owen's distraught family.

Outside the courtroom, they dodged reporters, and then insisted later that the jury had simply gotten it wrong. Even the family, to judge by their statements, unaware of one more wild, improbable and impending twist. Almost two months after the verdict, a May morning, 2009, Ed's sentencing day. Waiting in the wings to make a pre-sentence statement, a woman who would offer evidence that Ed once raped and very nearly killed her a few years before karin's murder. And then suddenly her statement was canceled. The judge made an announcement: Ed Owens had something important to say.

Ed Owens: Mr. Strom had asked me to kill his wife on several different occasions, and then he finally offered me half of her insurance money to do it. Actually, what I did was I went over to warn her and tell her that he wanted her killed. As it turned out there was an argument between her and I, and I ended up strangling her and killing her.

A confession!  All of Ed's denials had been a lie. But it was a confession accompanied by a poisonous accusation: that Steve Strom, Karin's husband, asked Ed, offered to pay him to kill his wife. And as the killing was an accident, said Ed, he was guilty of manslaughter, not murder. Unlikely and outrageous as the allegation seemed, Detective Benson went right back to work.

Keith Morrison: And you have to investigate that?

Brad Benson: Yes.  So the saga continues.

And meanwhile, in the visitor's room deep in a prison in Draper, Utah, we sat down for a chat with the admitted killer, and now accuser, Ed Owens.

Keith Morrison: You killed her. 

Ed Owens: Yeah. But he's the one that wanted her dead. Okay.  I know.  I don't have any proof of that, you know. But if I'm gonna go down, why not take the other person involved, you know?

Keith Morrison: Whether he was actually involved or not.

Ed Owens: If he wasn't involved, I wouldn't say this. Like I said, th-that's what he wanted me to do.  Is he wanted me to kill her for half the insurance money.

And then the story gets a little convoluted.

Keith Morrison: Did he ever pay you any money?

Ed Owens: Nope.  I wouldn't have taken it.  Wasn't the idea.  I wasn't -- I had no plans of killing her.  None.  None at all.

No, it was an accident, he says. And as he tells this story, keep in mind that killing by strangulation requires prolonged force - several minutes of force: sustained, determined choking.

Ed Owens:I didn't...I didn't purposely strangle her, okay.  She kept slappin' at me, you know.  And I was trying to grab for, like, her shoulders, you know. I was just shakin' her, you know, trying to - you know, tellin' her, "Will you listen to me? Listen, damn it," you know.  Just kept going' on and on.  And next thing I know, she's on the floor. 

But sexual assault and murder?  Never, vowed Ed. But what about that woman who claimed he'd raped her and left her for dead back in 1973.  Who was all set to tell her story in court? It was Ed's "confession" that prevented her testimony.

Keith Morrison: Did you have any problems sexually in 1973?

Ed Owens: What are you talking about?

Keith Morrison: All of a sudden, when she was gonna come and testify, you had a statement you wanted to make. 

Ed Owens: The girl in 1973, all right?  All right, she described the guy as six foot, six foot, two.  I'm five ten.

In 1973 Ed was charged with kidnapping, robbery, rape and assault with intent to commit murder.  According to the case file, the young woman was hitchhiking, Ed picked her up, drove her to an isolated place, raped her, stabbed her with a screwdriver and then tried to choke her to death. And though the woman positively identified Ed and the car he was driving, he was acquitted. Ed was out on parole at the time of that incident - after another young woman accused him of raping her back in 1969.

Keith Morrison: What about the one when you were 18?

Ed Owens: That one, you know, you coulda-- had they done it with a date rape type thing.  Yeah, I was probably guilty then.

He was charged then with rape, kidnapping, and robbery.  Pleaded guilty to robbery.  The other two charges were dismissed. But that was then.  Now, he was claiming that Karin's death was an accident, and a murder for hire plot.  But the more we asked for evidence to back up his claim, the more reticent he became.

Keith Morrison: What kind of evidence can you provide that there's any truth to that story?

Ed Owens: You know, it's an ongoing investigation.  And we-- we're just not talkin' about it right now. 

Keith Morrison: You mean there's more you haven't told me is what you're tryin' to tell me.  Seriously, you got more evidence you haven't told me?

Ed Owens: I don't know.  (laughs) Could be.

Turns out, he didn't. Although, there was an insurance policy on Karin's life, an investigation revealed that Ed's story was not credible and Steve Strom was not involved with Karin's murder. And Strom, burned by suspicion over the years, would not agree to do a videotaped interview. And so it was Dick Cantonwine who spoke for him, who told us about the damage from which his friend is trying to heal.

Keith Morrison: But when the suspicion was lifted from his shoulders, I mean, he must have been thrilled.  Wasn't he?

Dick Cantonwine: Pretty much.  But still, he just relives that over and over and over.   

And Detective Benson, who finally confronted the mystery of the murder at the start of his career, is looking forward to retirement, now that the old green suitcase has finally yielded up its secrets.

Brad Benson: I think 30 years in law enforcement's probably enough.

Who killed Karin Strom is no longer a mystery.  And that mattered deeply to the sister who kept vigil all these years.

Coco Saltzgiver: (touches gravestone) I miss you. I'll always miss you, but I'm going to put this ugliness behind. I love you. We did it, sis, we did. 

Once, there was a day to ride in her yellow Camaro. And then a day to defend justice in her memory. And both are what sisters do.

Ed Owens will be 82 years old when he will be eligible to see the Utah board of pardons and parole.  Karin would have turned 55 this year.

© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments

More on TODAY.com

  1. TODAY

    Black Friday survival guide: 7 apps to help you shop

    11/28/2014 12:05:43 PM +00:00 2014-11-28T12:05:43
  1. Star Wars / YouTube

    ‘There has been an awakening’: See the new ‘Star Wars’ trailer

    11/28/2014 4:46:51 PM +00:00 2014-11-28T16:46:51
  1. Andrew Kelly / Reuters

    video Black Friday shoppers flock into stores

    11/28/2014 12:17:55 PM +00:00 2014-11-28T12:17:55
  1. Courtesy of Courtney Rowland/Nei

    6 awesome turkey sandwiches to make with your Thanksgiving leftovers

    11/26/2014 1:57:02 PM +00:00 2014-11-26T13:57:02
  1. TODAY

    Watch this flight attendant rock Lorde’s ‘Royals'

    11/28/2014 4:05:10 PM +00:00 2014-11-28T16:05:10