Hunt for man wanted in Utah killing ends in Idaho, motive remains a mystery

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SALT LAKE CITY — The hunt for a man accused of gunning down a motorist in northern Utah for no apparent reason ended Friday in Idaho.

Jonathan Mendoza Llana, 45, of Los Angeles, was taken into custody about 3:15 p.m. "in the vicinity of the intersection of I-86 and Raft River / Yale Road," according to Idaho State Police. No one was injured during the arrest, police stated.

He was located about 10 miles from where his vehicle crashed into a canal, according to the Utah Highway Patrol.

"He managed to break into a house overnight and steal a side-by-side ATV," the UHP stated.

Llana was wanted for allegedly shooting and killing Dennis Gwyther, 50, of Salt Lake City, while he and another man were driving from Salt Lake City to Boise on Wednesday night. Gwyther's passenger suffered minor injuries and was released from the hospital Thursday, police stated.

Questions remained Friday about the details of the case, notably what Llana’s alleged motive was.

“We don’t know if it was random," Utah Bureau of Investigation Sgt. J.T. Jensen said at a news conference held Friday night. “But we do believe it was unprovoked.”

Jensen said Llana is currently being held and questioned in Cassia County Jail in Idaho and is expected to be brought to Utah early next week.

While he said Idaho authorities hadn’t filed charged against Llana yet relating to breaking and entering the home, stealing the ATV and fleeing the scene, Jensen said they likely will soon.

Jensen stressed that Gwyther and the passenger, who he believed was out of the hospital and recovering from minor injuries, did nothing wrong and it was a “senseless act of violence.”

He said the alleged shooter acted with a “complete disregard for human life,” but there’s no indication the shooting was prompted by road rage or a hate crime.

Jensen said he doesn’t recall seeing any identifying markers on Gwyther’s vehicle, such as a bumper sticker, that would have set it apart from other cars.

Llana has a lengthy criminal history throughout the country, according to Jensen. He didn’t give any additional details, but did clarify this was the first time Llana had committed a crime of this nature.

Jonathan Mendoza Llana, 45 (Photo: Idaho State Police)
Jonathan Mendoza Llana, 45 (Photo: Idaho State Police)

Multiple firearms were recovered from Llana’s vehicle and officials are still investigating which gun was used to shoot at Gwyther’s car.

Investigators believe Llana has family ties to Idaho, but don’t think he has connections to Utah, Jensen said. They believe he was simply traveling through Utah, he added, and said investigators knew he had been on the road for the past several weeks.

The lack of motive and seeming randomness of the crime worries investigators.

“We’re very concerned for public safety,” Jensen said, noting investigators don’t yet know if Llana had shot at other cars before Gwythers.

Following the Wednesday shooting, the Box Elder County Attorney's Office had formally charged Llana by Thursday afternoon with aggravated murder and attempted aggravated murder, both first-degree felonies.

Gwyther was driving near Snowville in the Rattlesnake Pass area and had just gotten around a slowdown in traffic caused by a semitrailer passing another big rig, when a silver Volkswagen Jetta pulled up next to him and the driver opened fire, according to the Utah State Bureau of Investigation.

Llana fired multiple shots into the vehicle, according to charging documents. Gwyther died at the scene.

Officers put out an "attempt to locate" alert to other agencies in Utah, Idaho and Nevada, telling them to be on the lookout for a silver Jetta with a "unique antennae" and an out-of-state license plate. Idaho State Police spotted the vehicle, and after initially pulling over, the Jetta took off and chase ensued.

The Jetta crashed into a canal in Cassia County near Burley, Idaho, where I-84 and I-86 meet. The driver of the Jetta ran after crashing in the canal before police could catch him.

Thursday, Utah authorities said they felt "confident" that law enforcers had Llana contained and knew the general area where he was at. The area was described as mostly open fields with some residential homes.

Utah Highway Patrol Sgt. Nick Street said the Department of Public Safety helicopter was used to assist in the search. Thursday night, crews used the helicopter's thermal imaging camera in attempt to find Llana.

Street said the search had been slow because officers were being very cautious about their movements for fear that Llana might be waiting to ambush them in a field.

Thursday night, a notice was sent out to most Western states for law enforcement to be on the lookout for Llana in case he broke the perimeter in Idaho. Detectives were also combing through both the suspect and victim vehicles, looking for additional forensic evidence, Street said.

Gwyther is survived by Matt Gwyther. The two were married the day same-sex marriage became legal in Utah.

"He was a strong advocate for LGBTQ rights and used his connections to help wherever he could. His life was tragically taken while commuting to his job as a flight attendant based out of Boise. We are still in shock and have not processed much as the suspect is still at large and investigation is pending. We want him caught and swift justice," according to a statement from Gwyther's family.

SkyWest Airlines, Gwyther's employer, also issued a statement following his death.

"We were shocked and saddened to hear of the tragic death of Dennis Gwyther, a team member and flight attendant. We express our sincere condolences to his family and friends and support law enforcement personnel in their investigation."


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