Older but Bitter

Sixty-eight-year-old Wanda Crawford hasn't killed anyone yet. But authorities say it's not for lack of trying.

However she had wound up there, Crawford didn't much like San Carlos. And though her marriage to Darnell might not have been idyllic, she apparently discovered that she preferred life with him to life inside prison. On December 6 of last year, CBI agents allege, Crawford approached fellow inmate Desiree Archuleta with an idea that she hoped would set her free: She offered Archuleta $10,000 to kill Selina De La Rosa. Before shooting her, Crawford wanted the killer to force Selina to write a suicide note implicating herself in Stephanie's abuse.

Archuleta, 21, is no murderer. She's serving three years on a burglary rap. But CBI agents say she thought over the offer for a while, anyway. Three days later, however, Crawford reduced the offer to $5,000. By then, Crawford had decided, Stephanie would have to die, too.

On December 10, whether inspired by Crawford's penny-pinching or her own conscience, Archuleta told prison-based CBI agent Ron Jones all about Crawford's scheme. And when Archuleta next spoke with Crawford, she was wired for sound.

In a probable-cause affidavit, Jones wrote that he listened in as Crawford offered Archuleta $5,000 for the murder-for-hire. Archuleta accepted, per the CBI's instructions, telling the older inmate that her cousin, "Mario Lara," would do the deed. (The part of Lara would be played by CBI agent Luis Torres.) Crawford told Archuleta that her husband would meet with Lara and give him $200 to buy a "clean" gun.

Crawford phoned her husband the following day to make the arrangements, the affidavit says, and James Darnell agreed to meet Lara on December 14 at the Country Kitchen restaurant in the town of Security.

On the specified date, the affidavit says, Darnell handed Torres an envelope containing $210 and then drove him to a bank, where Darnell withdrew a $1,000 "down payment" for the crime. After that, Darnell drove his white Thunderbird past the De La Rosa home to show Torres where the family lived and to point out what kind of cars they drove. Torres said that Darnell was surprised to see Troy's car in the driveway as well as Selina's.

Ordinarily, Darnell told Torres, Troy wasn't home at that time of day. But if Troy happened to be home when Torres arrived to kill Selina and Stephanie, Darnell said, Torres was to murder him, too.

Darnell was arrested a short time later when he drove the agent back to the Country Kitchen. Crawford was quickly moved out of San Carlos to the maximum-security penitentiary in Canon City, where she was locked down in her cell 23 hours a day.

After the arrest, Jones wrote in an affidavit, he questioned Darnell about the murder plot. "James Darnell told me," Jones wrote, "that he and his wife, Wanda Crawford, had been planning the murders of Selina and Stephanie De La Rosa for about two weeks.

"Darnell told me," Jones's affidavit continued, "that he was tired of living alone and that Wanda Crawford was tired of living in prison."

Selina had noticed the white Thunderbird slowly cruising by her house about 1:45 that afternoon. "This is a little neighborhood," she says, "and I knew it didn't belong." But she was getting ready to take Stephanie to a play group at the Colorado School for the Deaf and the Blind, and she didn't give it much more thought.

An hour or so later, while Selina and Stephanie were still at the school, Troy arrived at the classroom accompanied by a pair of investigators from the state Department of Corrections. They took Selina aside and told the De La Rosas the story of Crawford's plot.

"At first," Selina says, "I started laughing. I thought there was a hidden camera or something. I didn't understand. It took about a half-hour for it to sink in." But when she finally realized the seriousness of the situation, fear set in. "I didn't know if [Darnell] would make bail and then come out and get us," she says. Selina took Stephanie and left town that same day, missing a candlelight vigil outside Memorial Hospital that was designed to call attention to the plight of abused children.

The De La Rosas had planned to attend the vigil as a family. Troy went alone.

El Paso County authorities charged Darnell and Crawford with two counts of attempted murder, two counts of solicitation to commit first-degree murder, two counts of conspiracy and one count of retaliation against a witness. Two months later the De La Rosas went to court on the civil suit.

Crawford was brought in from prison for the civil trial, but as in the criminal proceedings, she chose not to testify.

Although state law forbids plaintiffs in a civil suit from asking for a specific dollar amount, attorneys can guide the jury by presenting evidence about a person's medical bills and wage-earning potential. The De La Rosas' attorney, Steve Ezell, figured that sum to be in the range of several million dollars.

"That was based on a range that depended on life expectancy," Ezell says, "and how long a child in [Stephanie's] condition could live was disputed. The other side argued that she would not live long--less than twenty years."

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