A Cure for the Common Cold Case

Greg Tyner is a man on a mission.

Shortly after Sherri's death, Linda and Everett Donelson joined Parents of Murdered Children, where they met Morton, whose eighteen-year-old son, Guy, was murdered while hitchhiking between Flagstaff and Phoenix.

In March 2001, Howard and his wife, Virginia, decided to create a local answer to the national support group. So along with Lieurance and Shirley Sullivan, whose daughter Polly was murdered on Christmas Day 1998 but whose killer remains at large ("Silent Night," December 23, 1999), they looked into forming a nonprofit for families like theirs. By the time FOHVAMP became official, in October 2001, the group had thirty members. Now there are 132.

To join FOHVAMP, a family has to have a loved one who has been missing or dead for two years with no resolution and must have a Colorado connection, meaning either the victim was from this state, disappeared here, was found here or has family members residing here. Members don't pay dues, but they are encouraged to make contributions, which, along with a U.S. Justice Department grant, help maintain the organization's Web site.

All in the family: The Donelsons have hope that the 
man who murdered their daughter -- and their 
grandsons' mother -- will be caught by Christmas.
John Johnston
All in the family: The Donelsons have hope that the man who murdered their daughter -- and their grandsons' mother -- will be caught by Christmas.

But for all their efforts and organization, the Web site has yet to result in any arrests, and Morton is not even sure whether any good tips have come in. Basically, the group acts as a conduit to the police. "We're not trying to be Dick Tracy," Morton explains. "We're just trying to generate leads."

But the fact that the Web site is getting hits -- more than 12,000 people have visited it since June, when the organization started keeping track -- helps the families. "Its shows them that something's being done," Morton says.

As far as the police are concerned, Sherri Majors's case is solved: They know who did it and told Linda and Everett that when Todd slips up someday, they'll get him.

"Do I have a detective working full-time on it? No. I have eleven detectives that handle between 55 and 100 homicides every year, so we can't concentrate full-time on any one case, but we do periodic reviews of cases," says Lieutenant Jon Priest, commander of the Denver Police Department's homicide unit. "Nobody might be working on Chester Todd this week or this month, but we have a nation of detectives looking for him electronically.

"I know that's not particularly comforting to the family," he adds. "They don't care about the 100 other cases out there; they care about theirs. But we solve cases that are five, ten, fifteen years old all the time. We have forty warrants out right now for people who are at large. One dates back to 1968. We don't stop working on cases simply because we get new ones."

Right now, Greg Tyner, not the DPD, is the one giving the Donelsons hope for closure. But like so many families looking into a loved one's cold case, Tyner and the Donelsons have had to start from scratch to find Sherri's killer because the police department is reluctant to release its investigation files.

"The Denver Police Department has been thwarting my investigation," Tyner says. "The police won't give me or the family access to the file. I've had to start from the ground up, but a lot of the witnesses aren't around anymore. And they won't verify any information with me.

"I've called them with leads, but they won't call back to say whether they've followed up on any of them," he continues. "I don't think they want this case solved outside of their department. I think their biggest fear is that I'll bring this guy in and they'll look bad. But I couldn't give a crap who finds him. I'd just like to see him behind bars before Christmas."

Priest, however, says the police can't just hand over information to a private investigator. "We have an obligation to maintain the integrity of the case filing by limiting the exposure of it to the public," he says. "We have to protect the rights of the defendant, even though the family looks at it like 'Fry the bastard.' We can't just sic some private investigator on this guy so we can bring him in, because that would make him our agent, and then he'd be restricted by the same guidelines as the police department."

For example, if a private investigator working in concert with a police department does something illegal to capture a fugitive or to obtain evidence, it could compromise the arrest or cause that evidence to be inadmissible in court.

"A lot of times, private investigators can eliminate and generate leads for us. We can certainly say we have looked into something, but we don't need to share stuff with them to satisfy their curiosity," Priest continues. "It's not that we're being uncooperative; it's that we have to weigh every decision very carefully."

Despite the lack of information from the police department, Tyner has gotten many leads on Todd, who goes by at least two different names and has been married twice. But the fugitive lives a transient lifestyle that makes pinpointing his exact whereabouts difficult. "He's one of the hardest types of people to find. Even the most private people sign their names to stuff, like vehicle registration, insurance and rental agreements. Someone who can evade those things for so long has no ties to society. He's been in various areas of the country for up to a year, but he keeps on the move, staying in motels," Tyner says.

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