By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
part 2 of 2
The distance from Lakewood to Empire is less than fifty miles. But it must have seemed like a thousand to Detective Scott Richardson on February 23, 1995, when he, another detective, Byron Powers and Powers's attorney headed up I-70 to find Cher Elder's grave.
Thomas Luther had been convicted of first-degree sexual assault on January 26 in West Virginia. He had asked to be sentenced immediately and the judge had complied by handing down 15 to 35 years. Luther was sent to jail to await transfer to the West Virginia penitentiary.
While in jail, Luther wrote more than a hundred letters to Deborah Snyder, including one that revealed his own confusion about the monster within: "It wasn't sex at all. It was assault and anger, pure meanness from a subconscious level. This really scares me, Deb. I can't deal with the lack of self-control I have. I guess I really am dangerous if I can hurt people like this."
Luther would never be transferred to the state penitentiary. As he'd predicted, Richardson would soon be coming to get him.
Byron had finally told Richardson where Cher Elder was buried. Luther had talked about needing to bury the body deeper and cover it with rat poison so that animals wouldn't dig it up, he said. When he returned to the gravesite the week after Cher's murder, Luther didn't know that Byron and J.D. were following him, Byron said.
Now the two unmarked police cruisers turned off I-70 and followed highway 40 through Empire and up the winding road toward Berthoud Pass. After a couple of false alarms and pleading with Richardson to "not get grumpy with me," Byron found the spot where Luther's car had been parked on that dark night two years earlier. "There'll be two trails," he said, pointing up the hill. "One on the right, one on the left. We'll go up, left, and we'll run into it."
It was a lonely place. Beautiful but snowy, cold and windswept. To get his bearings, Byron went over to where he said he'd hidden in the trees watching Luther at his gruesome task. He pointed to a pile of rocks. "That's it."
The nude body of Cher Elder was found beneath the rock pile in a two-foot-deep grave. Her remains were positively identified through dental records.
The autopsy revealed that she had been shot twice in the back left side of her head with a .22-caliber held about three inches from her skull. It could not be determined if she had been raped. Despite Luther's assertions that she had a cocaine habit, there was no evidence of drugs in Cher's body.
On March 2, Richardson met again with Byron Powers. He turned on a tape recorder and the former boyfriend of Cher Elder began talking. He'd struck a deal in return for the body and his testimony. (Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas refuses to disclose the terms of that deal; however, Byron Powers currently resides in a halfway house--23 years before he was scheduled to get out of prison.)
"On the night in question," Byron began, he, Luther, his two half-brothers, his friend Gina and Cher Elder were at his apartment. Cher was angry because of Gina and left for Central City with Luther in his car.
When Byron and Gina returned to the apartment that night, his half-brothers were asleep in their bedroom. Cher's car was still parked in the lot. About 5 a.m., Byron said, he was awakened by voices. He found Luther and Dennis "Southy" Healey in the apartment. They left, and he went back to sleep.
When he woke again about mid-morning, Luther was asleep in the spare bedroom. Cher's car was gone. (It would later be found several blocks away.)
Byron said he believed at the time that Cher had simply run off, maybe to get even with him. He didn't know she had been killed until a few days later, when he overheard Luther talking to someone on the telephone, someone who wanted him to come remove a body because it was starting to smell.
"That's when Tom told me he killed her," Byron told Richardson. "He said she was going to tell on me and my brothers. He said that on the way back she started screaming that she was going to go to the cops."
Luther had stopped the car on a cold, windy overlook above Golden. Pulling Cher out, he shot her in the head and threw the gun in the river. Then he took the body to Southy's.
Luther had a theory about how to get away with murder, Byron said. "He said, `Just go into the mountains, dig a hole and put the body in there, and then get rid of the stuff in a river. You can't find anything in a river cause it always moves.'"
Cher was no snitch, Byron admitted. As his half-brother J.D. would later tell Richardson, "She was a total flat-out sweetheart. She never did anything wrong...One night she got mad because of Gina and she took off with Tom.
"And that was just a mistake, right there."
On March 7, 1995, a Jefferson County grand jury returned an indictment against Thomas Edward Luther, charging him with the murder, sexual assault and robbery of Cher Elder.