BLOOMFIELD — The San Juan County Sheriff's Office has reopened its investigation into the suspected homicide of Leota Watson, a 36-year-old Bloomfield woman who was found dead 34 years ago.

In April 1980, Watson went missing and her body was later found in the backseat of her car, which had been abandoned in a box canyon about 1 1/2 miles from her house and set on fire.

Watson's children, Arlana Watson-Neilson and Brett Watson, have followed the case intently over the years and still hold out hope that it will be resolved.

"We had a hard time growing up," Arlana said. "I am not saying my mother was perfect ... but she kept food in our stomach, clothes on our back and a roof over our head."

Arlana Watson-Neilson holds a photo of her mother Leota Watson on Thursday at their home in Aztec. The picture also features herself and her brother Brett
Arlana Watson-Neilson holds a photo of her mother Leota Watson on Thursday at their home in Aztec. The picture also features herself and her brother Brett Watson. (Jon Austria — The Daily Times)

A San Juan County Sheriff's deputy was dispatched April 5, 1980, to investigate reports of a prowler near Watson's suburban home, located between Farmington and Bloomfield. according to a story in The Daily Times archive. While searching the neighborhood, the deputy found blood and bullet shells outside the front door of Watson's house and the door standing ajar.

Inside the home, he found blood on a bed and bullet holes in a pillow. Markings later found in the front yard seemed to suggest that a body was dragged — not carried — out of the house.

Where the body was taken remained a mystery for two weeks following the disappearance. The sheriff's office interviewed an expansive cast of characters who had known Watson, a 5-foot tall, 95-pound redhead who worked at Anne's Cafe in Bloomfield, which is now closed.

Cory Tanner, a detective lieutenant in the county sheriff's office, said Watson associated with some rough people.

"Nobody was clearly a suspect," Tanner said in an interview Wednesday. "But there were plenty of persons of interest."

A boyfriend, Gene Johnson, told police that he had last seen Watson at 2:30 a.m. on April 5. A friend told police that she noticed Watson's station wagon was missing when she drove by her home at 7:30 a.m.

The vehicle was eventually discovered by two teenagers — David Utley and Lee "Shorty" Messenger — on April 20, according to the archive. The boys were driving through the countryside in Utley's pickup truck when it got stuck in soft sand. The friends slept in their vehicle overnight and the next day Utley discovered the burned station wagon in a narrow canyon south of the San Juan River.

It took days for investigators to identify Watson's body, which had been badly burned in the fire. An autopsy determined that Watson's throat was slashed and she was shot two to three times in the head.

San Juan Sheriff's Office Capt. Shane Utley is David's brother. He said he was a close friend of Arlana at the time.

"We have evidence that is still sitting with the FBI," he said. "This case is solvable, we just need one or two more things to fall into place. I don't want people to forgot about Leota, I want it in the front of people's minds."

Arlana said her and her brother's lives fell apart after their mother's death.

"I just knew my mom was missing," she said. "I was picturing her tied up at the time. I was 10, you know?"

She said she felt the initial investigation into the murder was botched and suspects slipped through the cracks in the case. She said her mother had a girlfriend at the time of her death who she suspects was involved in the murder. Her mother also was rumored to be involved with a married man, according to the newspaper's archive.

"There is someone out there that knows," Arlana said. "Dead or alive, we need closure on this."

Crime Stoppers is offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who provides information that leads to an arrest. To contact Crime Stoppers, call 505-334-8477 or 1-800-222-8477. Callers can remain anonymous.

Steve Garrison covers crime and courts for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and sgarrison@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @SteveGarrisonDT on Twitter.