Femmes Fatale

Lesbian lovers Meshel Sirio and Bridget Zorn did everything together. But only one of them is going to prison.

The white Nissan pickup backed slowly down the dirt road toward the irrigation ditch just as the sun began to rise. Rocks and dry grass crunched underneath the tires as the truck neared the water, effectively obscuring any sounds from the truck bed where a man, his voice muffled by the tape wound around his head, lay wrapped in a pink blanket, his arms and legs hogtied with electrical cord.

Bridget "Missy" Zorn takes a quick breath and blots her dry cheek with a Kleenex as a Denver police detective stares at her impassively from the other side of a folding table. Then she plunges back into her description of the murder of Manuel "Roberto" Rodriguez. She speaks in a quick and quiet monotone, as if she's told the story many times before. A second officer, video camera in hand, records everything from behind the window of the interrogation room. Zorn's lawyer and a representative from the district attorney's office watch from across the room.

She was riding in the back of the truck with Rodriguez, Zorn continues. Her friend and lesbian lover, Meshel Turtle Sirio, was at the wheel. When the truck reached the bank of Church Ditch near Golden, the two women got out of the truck, dropped the tailgate and began arguing loudly as Rodriguez, a 27-year-old illegal immigrant from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, listened, wide-eyed, in terror.

"She asked me to throw him in [the canal]," Zorn says of Sirio. "She started screaming at me to 'Do it!' and I was screaming and crying, 'No!' I told her, 'No! Let's let him go!'"

Sirio, Zorn continues, was adamant that Rodriguez had to die. "She pulled on the blanket, and he fell out of the truck. He hit the side of his head. He hit a rock and he went underneath the water. I started screaming more because I didn't want to see it. I was crying." Zorn cries now, in front of the detectives, as she describes turning away to avoid watching the helpless Rodriguez sink below the surface of the dark water.

"Then," Zorn tells the officers, "she told me to drive. And she said if I ever left her, she'd kill me."

Zorn's interview, conducted on June 6, 1996, took less than two hours. Police arrested Sirio that same afternoon, nabbing her as she watched television at her sister's home in Brighton. They hustled her out the door while she was still barefoot.

Last month Zorn took the stand in a Denver courtroom and again told her spellbinding tale. And though there was no physical evidence linking Sirio to the crime--and despite Sirio's claim that she wasn't even in town when the murder was committed--jurors believed enough of Zorn's story to find Sirio guilty of kidnapping, robbery and first-degree murder. Last week Denver District Judge Larry Naves sentenced Sirio to life without parole plus 56 years, a sentence that guarantees she will die in prison.

"This is one of the most vicious things I've ever seen," Naves said, referring to the agony Rodriguez must have suffered as he lay, hogtied, while Sirio "smoked dope" and contemplated his fate. "It's horrifying to think what he must have been thinking when he died," added Naves. "I don't believe Ms. Sirio deserves to be outside another day."

The guilty verdict, however, satisfied almost nobody.
Zorn, who'd been granted limited immunity for her testimony, walked out of court a free woman, to the distress of at least one jury member and the victim's family. To them, the idea that the diminutive Sirio--who stands 4-foot-11 and weighed just over 100 pounds at the time of her arrest--could have overpowered Rodriguez and then forced her taller, bulkier lover (Zorn is 5-foot-2, 150 pounds) into assisting her, is absurd. Particularly because Zorn, 29, had been arrested for allegedly beating and harassing the 28-year-old Sirio during their four-year relationship.

"It was explained to the family that had it not been for [Zorn coming forward], the police probably would not have found who did it," says Rodriguez's sister-in-law, Nora Muniz. "But [the family] feels cheated. They feel that something should have been done to her, too."

"We thought both of them were equally guilty," echoes a juror who asked not to be identified. "But we couldn't convict both of them, because both of them were not on trial. I feel sorry for the victim's family," he adds. "They did not receive full justice on this at all."

Notebook papers covered with Meshel Sirio's crooked handwriting slide across the smooth table and drop to the floor as she nervously searches for the detail--any detail--that will prove her point. Her hands, as small as a child's, thrust the scribbled notes at a visitor as if the jottings can somehow prove her innocence and explain how she landed in the Denver County Jail. "This has got me close to a nervous breakdown," she says.

Sirio has never been in jail before, but she's no stranger to trouble. "She was a very fast child, you might say, always being able to do as she pleased," recalls Ruth, a longtime friend who asks that her real name not be used. As a teenager, Sirio went to school only when she was forced to by the courts. She left home at the age of thirteen to live with her lesbian lover Babette, a woman five years her elder who quickly assumed the dominant--and sometimes violent--role in the relationship. "Babette would always have these 'reasons' for hitting Meshel--like, 'She was talking back,'" Ruth recalls.

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