Could the rape and murder of Kristine Gable been avoided?

At first glance, the story sounds like something out of the first ten minutes of CSI: a swimming competition is going on at a Sugarhouse Boys and Girls club, leaving Fairmount Park overrun with adolescent competitors and their families. Three hundred yards away, in a public restroom, the mutilated body of a local woman is found. Suddenly, and without warning, the raucous activities of the day are invaded by a macabre, brutal scene that existed previously only in the minds of horror’s most twisted contributors.

Salt Lake City Police were notified on December 18, 2010 of suspicious circumstances at the aforementioned public restroom. Officers were already present at the park providing crowd control for the swim meet, and responded to the scene at around 2:40 PM. Inside the restroom was the body of a transient woman, Kristine Marie Gabel, 45. Paramedics were called to declare the woman deceased, and found a grisly image they won’t soon forget. Gable had been raped, strangled, and disemboweled by Michael David Vara, a local family man who had relocated to Salt Lake just two years prior to the incident. Vara is also the prime suspect in another rape that happened four days previously at Pioneer Park, also to a transient female.

As of today, Vara is being held on charges of rape with a foreign object, forcible sexual abuse, and aggravated murder in the Fairmount killing, as well as being charged with object rape—a first degree felony—in the Pioneer Park case.

Vara, 30, is certainly no stranger to violent accusations. In March, he was charged with aggravated assault after beating a man violently in the street. Vara’s victim suffered, among other things, broken teeth, a broken arm, and a cut ear. Prior to moving to Utah, Vara lived in San Antonio, Texas, where he had a rap sheet as ruthless as it is long. His most recent charge is injury to a child, but before that he had multiple counts of assault resulting in bodily injury, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and burglary, dating back to age eighteen.


After the arrest was made, Vara’s grandmother, Pauline Vara, confirmed that in Texas he had a violent temper and stated that he had a severe drinking problem. “He’s got a short temper, yeah, he does. That’s one of the problems. He was always drinking.” Vara’s grandmother was quick to say that he was always respectful of her but that she had been forced to kick him out of her house after his drinking got worse. Vara has two children from a previous marriage and possibly a common law wife in Utah, but their relationship ended after an altercation, Pauline Vara confirmed.

With all the evidence against him, Vara certainly seems like he’s going away for a very long time. But the question is, why did it take a savage murder to finally get him off the streets? With so many previous charges and convictions, spanning his entire adult life, it’s obvious that this man had a predilection towards violence. What factors allowed this man to get away with it after the first time? There are many arguments that can be made: a faulty court system, an overpopulated prison system, technicalities which allow manipulation of the system, and the general faults that come with any instance of over-inundation.

The one common factor among all these arguments is the shortcomings of the system, though. How many of Vara’s crimes could have been avoided if he’d been convicted every single time? One of the biggest arguments in favor of the criminal justice system is the deterrent effect that comes along with time served, but what happens when that effect isn’t applicable? What are society’s responsibilities towards those who may in fact be just plain sadistic and will never serve enough jail time to learn the error of their ways? And then comes the chilling prospect that even if he had been convicted for every single crime he ever committed, a full rehabilitation of his character and behavior might be plain impossible.

There are no easy answers, no perfect solutions. People will always find ways to cheat the system – which system they choose is irrelevant. Admittedly it is pompous, not to mention grossly insensitive, to speculate that if somebody – whether it be Vara’s grandmother, his various judges, law enforcement – had noticed the signs earlier, that this wouldn’t have happened. While hindsight is always 20/20, we’ll never know whether this terrible tragedy could have been avoided, had a different and perhaps more observant course of action been taken.

What can be gleaned from this unspeakable crime is the recognition that the system failed, at least in this particular instance. It failed Gabel, her family, and yes, even Michael David Vara felt the corollaries of its limitations. These flaws should be examined, discussed, and if at all possible, rectified. Tim Hansel was once quoted as saying “necessity is the author of change.” This murder and other cases like it constitute a very urgent necessity. The accompanying change, however, remains MIA for now.