Retired Idaho police detective reflects on east Idaho murders

Retired police detective Victor Rodriguez, of Nampa, holds up a photo of the van Paul Ezra Rhodes stole after murdering Susan Michelbacher in March 1987 near Idaho Falls. Rodriguez was heavily involved in the manhunt and investigation of Rhodes for the 1987 murders of Stacy Baldwin, 21, Nolan Haddon, 23, and Susan Michelbacher, 34. Rhodes was executed for his crimes on Nov. 18, 2011. Adam Eschbach / Idaho Press-Tribune

NAMPA — Retired police detective Victor Rodriguez has boxes full of memories in his Nampa home. Not all of them are happy.

Among them is a box of memories from his time as a Bonneville County Sheriff’s Office detective in the 1980s, when he pursued — and eventually caught — serial killer Paul Ezra Rhoades. Rhoades ultimately was convicted of three murders in eastern Idaho, for which he was executed on Nov. 18, 2011.

But, Rodriguez said, Rhoades is believed to be responsible for several more in Salt Lake City, Pinedale, Wyo., and a small community in Colorado.

It’s a story that terrified eastern Idaho for three weeks in 1987, and it may soon reach a larger audience for the first time. M2 Pictures, a production company that creates documentary films for several popular cable channels, is bringing the case to life via a combination of re-enactments and on-camera interviews with those who lived it.

Rodriguez recently returned to Idaho Falls to film his interview portion. The re-enactments, he said, will soon begin filming in Alaska, where the weather will better approximate the winter of 1987. M2 Pictures offered him a chance to travel to the Land of the Midnight Sun and portray himself in the film, but he declined.

It’ll be several months before the documentary is ready for the general public. But for Rodriguez, it’s already brought back memories of one of his most remarkable cases.

“The whole community of Idaho Falls was turned upside down, and one of the reasons why is because it’s a fairly clean town,” he recalled. “It’s a good town; it’s a religious town. They never had any terrible, terrible crimes occur.”

That began to change with the brutal murder of 21-year-old Stacy Baldwin, a gas station clerk in nearby Blackfoot. She was savagely assaulted, Rodriguez said, then shot repeatedly with a .38 revolver and left for dead.

And she wasn’t the last. Over the next three weeks, two more would die, and another would narrowly escape with her life. Nolan Haddon, another young clerk who worked late nights, was shot with the same caliber and left in the store’s freezer.

A third potential victim — yet another late-night service employee — was kidnapped but managed to escape. She reported her assailant was a huge man with long, dark hair.

The final victim was Susan Michelbacher, a 34-year-old special education teacher, also killed by .38 caliber bullets.

Tying everything into a path that led to Rhoades didn’t happen overnight. But Rhoades wasn’t too bright, Rodriguez said, and he didn’t make it hard.

“He’s helping us all along, thinking he’s smart, but he’s not,” Rodriguez said.

Rhoades’ luck finally ran out when he fled in a stolen vehicle to Nevada. After running off the road and getting stuck in the median, he fled on foot when a trucker stopped to help, but not before dropping a .38 revolver and abandoning a box of ammunition — a box missing the exact number of rounds that had been used in the previous murders.

Rodriguez and his colleagues caught up with Rhoades in a casino in Wells, Nev. Rhoades never saw the outside of an incarceration facility again.

“Just think of all the lives we saved by arresting him,” Rodriguez said. “Someone would have been dead in Wells.”