The case of the kidnapped coed

How the Denver Post and Perry Mason ruined a Colorado murder case

Two rabbit hunters found her.

She lay face-down, half-buried in the snow beside a frozen stream twelve miles south of Boulder, legs pulled up as if curled in sleep. She appeared to have been dumped there from a bridge fifteen feet above that carried motorists along state highway 93.

She was young and had once been pretty. Now she was blue and blood-smeared, with numerous gashes and cuts on her head — "battered almost beyond recognition," as one reporter would put it. Her jacket was tightly wound around her neck. Her sweater was pulled up, her bra intact, but below the waist she wore only loafers and bobby socks; her panties and slacks had been tossed a few feet away. Yet even in her altered state, a fellow would have to be a complete ignoramus not to know who she was. The newspapers had been screaming about her for the past 24 hours.

Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason mysteries, was hired by the Denver Post to help solve Theresa Foster's murder.
Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason mysteries, was hired by the Denver Post to help solve Theresa Foster's murder.
The torrent of publicity in the case generated fear and outrage, encouraged amateur sleuths — and muddled the evidence.
The torrent of publicity in the case generated fear and outrage, encouraged amateur sleuths — and muddled the evidence.

It was 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, November 11, 1948. The hunters were named Leonard Boom and Edward Blood. Boom and Blood. There would be plenty of both in the months to come.

Two nights earlier, Theresa Catherine Foster, an eighteen-year-old engineering student at the University of Colorado, had attended a rosary service on the Boulder campus. She'd left shortly after ten on foot, heading downtown on well-lit Broadway — her usual route to a faculty member's house on Spruce Street, where she did a few household chores in exchange for lodging.

She never got there. The professor's family discovered her absence the next morning and contacted the police.

Her parents said it wasn't like Theresa to disappear like that. A sturdy, dependable girl, the ninth of eleven children, she'd grown up on a farm outside Greeley, milking cows and hunting, and barking orders at hired hands. She was also an honor student, religious and a bit boy-shy, though she did have a high-school sweetheart named Bobby. She didn't swear or smoke, and she certainly wasn't the type to get into a car with a strange man — not willingly.

The next morning, sheriff's deputies found a grim tableau along a stretch of Lee Hill Road, a notorious "lovers' lane" four miles north of Boulder. A farmer had discovered so much blood in a ten-foot area along the road that he thought someone had slaughtered one of his calves there. Searchers collected bits of hair and scalp tissue, a broken grip of a .45 automatic, and a distinctive ring and white scarf, which Elizabeth Foster soon identified as belonging to her daughter. Theresa, it seemed, had put up a hell of a fight.

"I know she's dead," Mrs. Foster told reporters. "It's just something a mother can feel."

And now here was her body, in another county and a good twenty miles from the crime scene discovered the day before. The autopsy examination revealed, among other injuries, fifteen scalp wounds and three skull fractures. She'd been raped, bludgeoned and possibly strangled with her own coat — a horrible death by anyone's standards, but particularly for one so young. It was the first student homicide in the 72-year history of the university, and the first murder in Boulder in nine years.

The slaying quickly became not only the talk of the town, but its most urgent, obsessive conversation. The university's regents offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Officials weighed curfews and warned female students not to walk alone at night. Law students combed the campus for clues. District Attorney Hatfield Chilson called for assistance from a cadre of law enforcement agencies, including the Denver homicide squad.

While much of the community reacted with fear, revulsion and anger, others sensed opportunity. Hours after the lurid details of Foster's murder began oozing out of Boulder, Palmer Hoyt and his top editors at the Denver Post were already mobilizing their own massive response to this front-page sex crime. They didn't know where the coverage would lead, but they knew it was going to be big.

Hoyt had been named editor and publisher of the profitable-but-arthritic "Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire" two years earlier, after a distinguished career at the Oregonian. He's generally credited with dragging the Post into the twentieth century, shedding the shameless hucksterism of the Bonfils and Tammen era and purging news stories of editorial comment. But Hoyt was also a former writer of pulp detective yarns, and he liked a good, gruesome crime story as well as the next money-grubbing member of the press. He was convinced that the Post could perform a great public service — and do quite well for itself — by launching a campaign to catch Foster's killer.

Back in the violent, gin-soaked 1920s, Bonfils and Tammen frequently hired highly touted "experts" to help cover sensational murder trials: an astrologer to prepare the killer's horoscope, or some egghead eager to provide off-the-cuff psychoanalysis. But those were mere stunts. Hoyt liked the idea of bringing in someone credible and widely known, a true authority on legal evidence and the latest scientific methods of crime detection. Someone with connections and a proven byline.

The Post brain trust quickly realized there was only one man for the job. A call was put in to his New York publisher, the terms negotiated, and barely forty hours after Foster's body was found, two editors met Erle Stanley Gardner at the airport and whisked him to the Brown Palace for an early-morning briefing. Gardner was a self-taught attorney who'd never finished law school; in the 1930s, he'd abandoned his practice to become a prolific writer of pulp novels under various pseudonyms. After the usual arduous apprenticeship, he'd hit upon the character that made him a fortune: Perry Mason, the most famous lawyer in fiction.

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I found the end of the article poetic myself. A fascinating account - I think it would be fun to be able research and write something like this! And the Denver Post was so helpful in those days.

Another Amateur Detective
Another Amateur Detective

Is that the end of the article? Not much of a conclusion - and an old man who knew lots of details was not listened to. The End.