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The case of the kidnapped coed

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

The clamor only fueled more extravagant coverage. Gardner inspected the house on Spruce Street where Foster had stayed, contemplated her neatly made bed and visited her parents in Greeley. He extolled her as a "pure, sweet, wholesome girl" who would never have gone on a "petting party" to Lee Hill Road; he now believed it must have required at least two men to abduct such a "husky, healthy, outdoor girl." The theory was based in part on the sleuthing of the Post's second crime ace, Dr. Lemoyne Snyder, "the Sherlock Holmes of Michigan," a doctor and attorney Gardner had worked with on other projects. Gardner had persuaded Hoyt to retain Snyder, the author of a textbook of criminology and pioneer of many forensic techniques, including analyzing the breath of drunk drivers and the use of paraffin tests to determine if a suspect had fired a gun.

Snyder's interest in forensic science had started when, as a surgical resident, he treated the gangster Legs Diamond for a gunshot wound, but he had a tendency to stretch his theories to the breaking point. Working from highly dubious assumptions about the body's lividity and the amount of blood on the bridge, Snyder declared that Foster was still alive when she was thrown off the bridge — and could well have been raped there instead of on Lee Hill Road.

Many of Snyder's assertions were in direct conflict with the official autopsy findings by Angelo Lapi, the Denver medical examiner — and with basic principles of modern forensic pathology. The scarcity of blood along the stream bank, for example, despite the severe head lacerations, made it unlikely that Foster's heart was still pumping blood when the body was hurled from the bridge. But Lapi was either too awed by Snyder's reputation or too polite to openly challenge his claims, and the Post continued to present the two doctors' "findings" side by side, as if they were working in tandem on the case.

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.

Along with chewing over and frequently distorting the evidence, the newspaper took more than its usual degree of license in reconstructing Foster's last hours. Staffer Bernard Beckwith offered readers a highly fictional rendition of the "Case of the Shanghaied Coed," accompanied by cartoonlike drawings of Foster's abduction and assault. Not to be outdone, the Rocky Mountain News responded with its own ghastly re-creation of the attack, imagining Foster's cries for help and the killer's panic. The piece featured a close-up photo of "how the frenzy-filled eyes of the killer may have looked" and periwinkle prose worthy of the radio drama The Shadow:

"What dark and brutal desires lie within the hidden places of some human beings? What thoughts of perverted pleasures gnaw at the hearts of some human creatures? What terrible and godless passions lie within the bosom of some we pass, perhaps upon the street?"

The papers' own perverted pleasures and rank exploitation of Foster's death didn't escape protest. A group of CU students wrote a letter to the Post, expressing disgust at "the orgy of sentimentality and the picture picnic indulged in by the big city press.... There never has been and there never will be an ethical basis for turning a murder into a three-ring journalistic circus." The Post responded to the "Pollyannas" in a huffy editorial, insisting that Gardner and Snyder and the rest of the team were trying to apprehend the killer before he struck again.

"The importance of keeping this case before public attention until it is solved has been recognized by authorities of the University of Colorado themselves," the editorial declared. "There will always be those who believe the world may be made sweet by ignoring its tragedies. But we believe they are a negligible minority."

The sensationalism, the tasteless and inaccurate re-enactments of the crime, even Snyder's overreaching theories and Gardner's confident and frequently mistaken deductions concerning "the pattern of a savage assault by a crazed, deranged, hysterical sex fiend" — all of this wasn't unusual in certain venues of the media, then or now. (Replace Gardner and Snyder with Nancy Grace and her team of talking heads, and you have a hit show for CNN.) But thanks to the celebrated reputation of its crime aces and the newspaper's vast influence, the Post was able to achieve a level of involvement in the official murder investigation that went beyond simple access; at times, it began to resemble control.

GOT A CLUE? READ THIS, blared one item in the paper, encouraging average citizens to turn over any pertinent information to local police. However, the item continued, "if local enforcement officials can't be reached, bring the possible clues to the Denver Post." Avid readers Patsy Heitman and Loretta Sarich, two of the legions of amateur detectives scouring the area for clues, sought out Gardner and Snyder after finding a bloody Army surplus parka stuffed in a culvert not far from the Lee Hill Road crime scene. Snyder ran his own tests on the coat before turning it over to the Denver medical examiner. Other items uncovered by volunteer searchers, including the wrench and rope, went through similarly convoluted chains of custody between the official investigators and the newspaper's hired guns.

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17 comments
VivlianWozz
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Steve
Steve

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.

 
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