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FACING THE MONSTER

"He said he got off on hurting women--that it was better than drugs or booze," Martin recalled. "`Fuck them and then kill them,' that's what he said. He said he had assaulted a lot of women and killed a few.

"He thought he was a real ladies' man. Said he could always talk to them and make them feel safe. `They drop their defenses and I have them at my mercy.'"

Luther had also talked about killing two Summit County women, Martin said. "A `sweet young thing' named Ann or Anna and a second older one who put up a hell of a fight. The second woman's name was... Babs...or Jackie O." Martin tried to remember, then brightened. The woman's name was similar to that of a judge who had once sentenced him in Pennsylvania. (Investigators located the judge, whose name was Barbara Obelinas.) Luther claimed to have killed the younger woman first, Martin said, then drove the older woman around for a while before killing her, too.

Eaton left the New Jersey prison excited but cautious. He knew that inmates were born liars, always trying to make a deal. And Martin wanted Eaton to write a letter indicating his cooperation to a judge who was considering some pending bad-check charges.

The Summit County detective contacted FBI Special Agent Bruce Kamerman in New York, whom Martin claimed to have helped in a number of cases. How reliable had Martin been? Eaton asked.

"Outstanding," the FBI agent replied. "Unbelievable." He'd helped the feds solve a series of bank and armored car robberies in New Jersey--and put a murderer behind bars for the state.

"Heck, I'd let him marry my daughter," Kamerman laughed.

The trial of Thomas Luther for the murder of Cher Elder is set to begin January 16. Jeffco DA Dave Thomas has said he plans to seek the death penalty if Luther is convicted.

Both sides are now preparing for battle. The prosecution had indicated it would introduce as evidence "prior similars"--the rape and assault of Mary in Summit County and Bobby Jo in West Virginia--to prove that Luther's motive was simply that he liked to hurt (and therefore kill) young, petite, pretty women with shoulder-length hair who reminded him of his mother.

But Luther's chief defense attorney, Boulder lawyer Lauren Cleaver, opposed the introduction of such evidence. "The lack of similarity between Cher Elder's death and the two sexual assaults in Summit County and West Virginia are striking," she wrote, adding that it would be improper to use prior bad acts to convict him of another.

In a decision issued December 8, Judge Christopher Munch, who will preside over the case, agreed with Cleaver, ruling that the prosecution cannot submit evidence regarding Luther's rapes in Summit County or West Virginia. While the three women involved "bear a striking resemblance" to each other, Munch said, the prosecution had not persuaded him that there was enough evidence outside of Luther's "bad character" to make a case that he sexually assaulted or beat and choked Elder. Nor had the prosecution demonstrated it could prove Luther attacked women because they reminded him of his mother.

Cleaver also contended that her client's rights to due process had been violated by law enforcement personnel, particularly Detective Richardson, in an effort to "get Tom Luther at any cost." She had wanted the court to exclude statements "allegedly made by Luther."

But in his ruling, Munch noted that the prosecution is not precluded from entering some evidence, including Luther's alleged remarks that he would kill the next woman he sexually assaulted so that she could not identify him. At trial, the prosecution will have to contend with the fact that many of its chief witnesses, particularly Byron Powers, are criminals who got deals to turn on Luther. And Cleaver is sure to note that five people--including Byron, his half-brother J.D. and his friend Gina--initially indicated that they'd seen or heard Cher Elder after the time that police contend that she was killed. Some of Luther's friends contend that Luther may have been covering up for his old cellmate's sons.

Luther pleaded not guilty to the charges in the Elder case in June; he is currently in the Jefferson County jail. Westword offered him a chance to tell his story, and he discussed it with his attorney.

"It wouldn't be wise," Cleaver responded. "It's a death penalty case, and we're avoiding any publicity. Somehow in death penalty cases, talking to the press always comes back to haunt us."

But it's a fascinating case, she added, hinting that the real story behind the police investigation would come out during and after the trial. "It'd make a great book," she said. "I will tell you one thing: He's not guilty of this."

Reached in Vermont, Betty Luther snapped, "No comment. I believe in my son."
Detective Scott Richardson, whose interviews with Luther are included in the court files, declined to discuss the case with Westword. "I'd be happy to sit and talk to you all day about Tom Luther," he said. "After the trial. We got a grand jury indictment, so we'll give him his day and go on from there."

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