The case of the kidnapped coed

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

Several of the items would later prove to have a direct bearing on the case, raising questions about other potential evidence that never made its way to the police lab. Months later, Sarich would testify that she'd also found a bloody handkerchief, a hat and other clothing, along with a blood-soaked piece of cardboard with what appeared to be a suicide note on it — and presented those to Post reporters, too. But the reporters took the parka, she said, and told her the other items were useless. She threw them away.

Yet the constant front-page coverage of the murder, the endless appeal for clues and more clues, finally had its desired effect. On Sunday, November 21, twelve days into the hunt, an agitated young bookkeeper named Eleanor Walker showed up at the front desk at the Boulder sheriff's office and said she believed that her husband had "killed that girl."

Joe Sam Walker, a 31-year-old sheet-metal worker who lived in Eldorado Springs, had come home late the night Foster disappeared. His clothes were bloody, and he had a bad wound at the top of his head, which he claimed he'd gotten in a fight with another man. In subsequent days he'd burned his bloody clothes and washed out and repainted the trunk of his car. He also told his wife he'd disposed of a .45 pistol and a parka, similar to the one found by Sarich.

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.

News reports described Eleanor as afraid of her husband. They claimed that she'd been held a virtual prisoner in her house for several days and had escaped only by feigning a toothache and insisting she had to go to the dentist. These assertions would soon be disputed by Eleanor herself, but the police interview concluded with her being transported to the hospital in a state of emotional collapse. Her husband was arrested that night and questioned into the wee hours.

The papers went wild. Gardner prepared his final article, which implied that Joe Walker was as good as tried and convicted. He praised Hoyt for urging him to "keep turning on the heat" and credited the Post with breaking the case wide open.

"Without the aid of publicity, the murderer in this case would, in all probability, never have been apprehended," he wrote. "The fit of sex madness which seized the murderer of Theresa Foster, which turned him into a killer, was an emotional storm which appeared suddenly out of an otherwise clear sky. Only the eyes of his startled victim would ever have seen the expression of demoniacal cruelty and blood lust when the mask of his normal existence was ripped aside and this fiendish sex madness gripped him."

Walker's arrest "is an outstanding tribute not only to the power of the press, but to the responsibility of the press," he added. He could now return to his ranch in California, knowing that his work was finished, that the case was in the capable hands of the justice system: "It is no part of the duty of the press to try a case in the newspapers."

Like so much else concerning the death of Theresa Foster, Perry Mason was wrong about that, too.

Asked to account for his actions on the night Foster was killed, Joe Walker told the police a preposterous story. It was the kind of hastily cobbled plot twist a worn-out writer of mysteries might have dreamed up. In fact, it sounded a lot like Gardner's theory about two men being involved.

Everybody knew Walker was lying. They knew it because the Denver Post told them so.

Gardner and Snyder had persuaded Hoyt to hire yet a third expert, Leonarde Keeler, one of the developers of the crime-fighting wonder of the age: the lie-detector machine. Although its results were deemed not admissible in court, by 1948 the Keeler Polygraph had been used in several high-profile criminal investigations, including the Cleveland torso murders. That year, Keeler had even appeared as himself in the fact-based film noir Call Northside 777, in which crusading reporter Jimmy Stewart frees an innocent man convicted of killing a police officer. When Walker was arrested, Keeler quickly made arrangements to be on hand with his magic box, along with a fleet of reporters, for the days of interrogation that followed.

Walker told the police that the night Foster was killed, he consumed "six or seven" beers at the Nifty Nix Drive-In on the outskirts of Boulder. A hitchhiking couple flagged him down as he drove along Broadway. He offered them a ride. The man was blond, short and stocky, maybe in his mid-twenties; the woman was a bit younger. She called him "Doug" or maybe "Doc." He called her "Hunky." They were holding hands.

The man drank steadily from a pint of whiskey and offered Walker a slug or two. The woman argued with him about needing to get home. At one point Walker stopped at the train station so she could call home from a pay phone. Then they headed north, the whiskey-sipping young man giving directions to Walker.

When they got to Lee Hill Road, the man said he wanted to drive. Walker refused. They got into an argument and then began trading blows outside the car. The man found Walker's .45 in the glove compartment and used it to club him in the head until he fell unconscious on the road. When he came to, the man was gone. The woman was dead, her half-nude body hanging out of the car trunk. Panicky and "scared stiff," Walker stuffed the body into the trunk and drove south. He disposed of her off the bridge and tossed her clothes after her. Then he went home and tried to wash away his part in it all.

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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.