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We Are Capitol Hill

When Stephen Elliott was murdered in an Alfalfa's parking lot last year, it shocked neighbors right down to the bone. Down to the bone, that is, for about 72 hours.

More accurately, however, Isabel's skirt had been splashed by her father's blood, a fact that was conveyed by eye witnesses. There was also blood on her left arm, and there were speckles of blood on her socks. Isabel was hardly "sitting there covered crimson in her daddy's blood" as one News columnist surmised. Witnesses also saw Isabel crying outside the car, so there was little reason to believe she was dead.

On April 20, 1999, the daily newspapers hit the racks, and hard facts were left at the curb. Though Elliott had been described as the "nicest, nicest man" by a neighbor, the Post hinted that there was more to his murder: "The mystery surrounding a Capitol Hill killing deepened Monday as police searched for leads in the shotgun shooting of a man whose 5-year-old daughter was sitting beside him."

"We're checking all the angles," said Denver police lieutenant Frank Conner. "We don't know if it's a hit, a carjacking that went bad, or what." The quote was meant to assure the community that the cops were doing everything they could without making a rush to judgment, but the we're-looking-at-everything angle emphasized their efforts to create a rationale for the crime. Befuddled by the apparent randomness of Elliott's murder, residents and reporters hoped there was more to it. Councilman Ed Thomas, whose district includes Capitol Hill, chipped in with, "I pray that it's not a random crime, but anyone who would execute someone in front of a 5-year-old girl, well, it's unconscionable."

The victim's family: Stephen Elliott's daughter, Isabel, with her mother, E.J. Yodder.
The victim's family: Stephen Elliott's daughter, Isabel, with her mother, E.J. Yodder.
Someone to talk to: Elliott and Isabel having high tea at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.
Someone to talk to: Elliott and Isabel having high tea at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

After all, no one wants to believe that men go around shooting people in the neck on Saturdays.

But they do.

E.J. didn't mind the misinformation; she understood that her silence had allowed the facts to be garbled. On each of the days following the shooting -- Sunday, Monday and Tuesday -- the requests for interviews mounted. E.J.'s silence provoked reporters. Eventually she did talk to them, on the condition that they wouldn't use her name or pictures of her daughter. She didn't know if the shooter could identify Isabel, and she didn't want her daughter to be forever known by strangers in Capitol Hill as the girl who saw her father get shot. E.J. talked because the story could turn into leads.

But less than 72 hours after the murder, E.J.'s phone stopped ringing. Two teenage students had walked into Columbine High School and killed twelve of their classmates and one teacher. Consumed by the tragedy in her own life, E.J. didn't hear much about the massacre. "I didn't really know what happened," she says. "There was a kid, a shooting, a school. It didn't register.

"All I knew is that it swept everybody off my doorstep."

And with them might have gone the best chance of finding the suspect. Bob, the Alfalfa's employee, had met with police artists at 2 a.m. on April 18 to draw up a composite of the shooter. Fliers reached Alfalfa's and Capitol Hill lampposts late that day. Why the composite didn't make it into either daily paper by the next day is unclear -- but after April 20, newspaper space was hard to come by. On April 27, a full ten days after the killing, the Post printed the drawing. Detective Don Vecchi was quoted as saying "He may still be in the area."

From the start, police had easily narrowed down the killing to a robbery gone bad, says Lieutenant Jon Priest. But residents and reporters were having none of it. In an effort to dispel the idea that the murder could have just easily happened to anyone, speculation mounted.

Suspects and theories include:

E.J.: After the police interrogated her for four hours, she complied with their request to take a lie detector test, which she passed. E.J. figured she was a suspect. By the questions the cops asked her, she realized that her alleged motive was money, or revenge for a relationship gone bad. But Lieutenant Priest points out that E.J. is financially sound and that she and Elliott had a relatively comfortable family life even after the breakup.

MarketScape: Investigators sealed off Elliott's York Street home and spent three and a half weeks thumbing through his papers and belongings (they finally allowed E.J. and Isabel back in, but only after E.J.'s lawyer got involved). They also confiscated his personal computer -- which they still haven't returned, citing the fact that the case is still active. ("It's my understanding you can download what's on the computer and then return it," E.J. says. "I'd like the computer back.") The fact that witnesses had made note of the killer's coolness suggested a hired man had done the job. But, Priest notes, Elliott was considered nothing less than a brilliant computer engineer, a one-in-a-million talent. His stake in the company wasn't up for grabs; it was willed into a trust for Isabel.

Gang initiation: E.J. and some of Elliott's friends believe that a wannabe gang member selected Elliott as the target for his rite of passage into a gang. Alternatively, the killing was a result of a game called Unlucky Seven, wherein wannabe gangsters play a game of dice to determine the fate of the nearest man: Roll a seven and kill the seventh person who exits the building. But, Priest notes, the suspect was in his late twenties to early thirties; gang initiation usually takes place earlier.

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