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More details emerge in body discovery, arrest

September 18, 2018

Merrilee Cox-Rafferty is shown with her dog in this photo from Facebook.

In what was called a “tragic end to a difficult case,” police say the body of a missing California woman was found in a shallow grave in a secluded area near northern Utah’s Blacksmith Fork Canyon, about 10 miles south of Logan, and a Hyrum man was arrested in connection with her death.

Stacy Robert Willis, 41, was taken into custody at gunpoint in the parking lot of Ridley’s Market in Hyrum late Friday afternoon, with several bystanders in the area.

Logan Police Gary Jensen said after the body of Merrilee Cox-Lafferty was discovered and linked to Willis, officers orchestrated a traffic stop and he turned into the Ridley’s parking lot near 800 East Main.

“It was not our best wishes, but it is how it happened, and we were able to do what we did,” Jensen said. “I know that is difficult for the public and sometimes even offensive, but I hope they will understand that we had what we felt was a dangerous man and that even if it felt like a heavy show of force, it was necessary to be safe in his capture.”

The investigation into Cox-Lafferty’s disappearance started with a missing persons report in Aug. 21, three days after she was last seen in the Logan area.

Cache County Sheriff Chad Jensen said there was concern about her whereabouts because she was known to have severe epilepsy, memory loss and mobility issues.

A few days later, Logan police picked up a stray dog that was later identified as the missing woman’s dog. Jensen said it was that discovery that raised red flags and led to more information about the missing woman, and the eventual arrest of Willis.

This week, investigators received information that led them into a secluded area between Logan Canyon and Blacksmith Fork Canyon.

Although the woman’s body has been found and an arrest made, police say the case remains under investigation in both Cache County and in Idaho.

The tie between Willis and Cox-Lafferty is unknown, and Jensen said part of the ongoing information is to discover the catalyst that led to the murder.

“There are several search warrants that have been served, there are several more that will come about and there is going to be a mountain of evidence that needs to be looked at,” Sheriff Chad Jensen said. “The medical examiner’s office is still a part of this case, and like the chief said, we do want to know the motive and we will get to the motive, but there is a lot of work let for the investigators in this case to put together.”

Jensen and Jensen say they are proud of their investigators and the patience and hard work that brought the case to a close after several weeks of difficult investigation.

“We feel like justice will now be placed in the hands of the Cache County Attorney’s Office and the court system,” Garry Jensen said. “We feel really strongly that we have done a good job and we have brought this case to an end with a very, very solid case to move forward now into the court system.”

Willis was booked into the Cache County Jail late Friday on suspicion of aggravated murder, obstruction of justice and possession of a dangerous weapon by a restricted person.

He is currently being held without bail.

A woman with him at the time of his arrest was detained and later released.

“This is a tragic end to a difficult case. Our hearts go out to the family as they learn of the loss of Merrilee,” Jensen said.

Willis recently served time in the Utah State Prison on a 2014 conviction of felony discharge of a firearm after a shooting incident in the parking lot at the North Logan Walmart.

Willis fired off three rounds after a verbal altercation with another man in the parking lot over an alleged debt. One of those rounds barely missed an occupant in the truck that he confronted.

When the man was sentenced, his defense attorney made every effort to have the man screened for mental health court, but his request was denied, due to the violent nature of the case.

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