The case of the kidnapped coed

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

There were several problems with Walker's story. Who was this blond man, and how could Foster (who'd never been known as "Hunky," her friends insisted) be on such cozy terms with him only moments after the rosary service she'd just attended? The train station closed an hour before Foster supposedly got out to make a call from there, and no such call was ever received at the house on Spruce Street. Walker initially told police that he'd sold his gun, then admitted stashing it and Foster's textbooks near Coal Creek Canyon, but this was only after volunteers equipped with metal detectors had located the items.

Walker submitted to Keeler's polygraph three times. While reporters watched the needles jump and dance, Keeler asked him if he'd raped Foster, if he'd put her body in his trunk, if she was still alive when he threw her off the bridge. He denied each allegation. Walker's head wound had become infected, and he was running a 103-degree fever at the time he underwent the tests, but that didn't alter anyone's faith in the magic box. "The unshaven suspect showed a violent emotional reaction," the Rocky reported. KEELER SAYS WALKER'S STORY FALSE, the Post declared, referring to Walker's litany of denials as a "confession."

Walker knew his story sounded implausible, but he stuck with it. He called Keeler "an evil-thinking man who tries to trap people when they are in trouble" and refused to undergo more tests.

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.

He had no money to hire an attorney, but after the polygraph debacle, he caught a break. James Burke, a former Denver district attorney, agreed to take the case out of concern for "fair play and justice." Trying to fight the daily dosage of Post venom, Walker agreed to provide a sanitized version of his life story to the Rocky. He admitted a previous marriage and being "framed" for insurance fraud and serving a four-month stretch in federal prison.

The Post reported that Walker had two previous wives. He was still married to the second one at the time he met Eleanor — who, legally speaking, was his common-law wife. And the Post soon unearthed a more disturbing slice of his criminal record, a 1947 arrest in Oregon on a complaint that he'd made "lewd advances" toward two young girls while driving a delivery truck for a local florist. There was no claim that he ever touched the girls, and no charges were filed in the case; the police chief simply told Walker to leave town. The Post's headline — OREGON POLICE DISCLOSE GIRLS, 11 & 12, MOLESTED — didn't have room for such petty details, though.

After almost three months in jail, Walker was released on $25,000 bail. COCKY MURDER SUSPECT TURNED LOOSE, the Post shrieked. Its photographers dogged him as he hit the barber shop, purchased a "flashy tie," spent twenty minutes in a liquor store copying down whiskey brand names, and had a steak dinner with Eleanor, who apparently no longer dreaded him. In a maneuver reminiscent of the Perry Mason classic The Case of the Curious Bride, the Walkers went through a second (and now legal) wedding ceremony. The move "wiped out the possibility that the 27-year-old woman might testify against her husband," the Rocky explained.

Eleanor was, in fact, just about the only person other than Joe and his attorneys voicing a belief in his innocence. Aware that Chilson was planning to seek the death penalty in the case, Burke approached three major radio stations — KOA, KLZ, KFEL — in an effort to buy advertising time so the defense could tell its side of the story to potential jurors. All three refused. Burke and his co-counsel were refused service in Boulder restaurants and cursed and spat upon on the street.

In a last-ditch effort to halt the media lynching of his client, Burke asked Boulder District Judge George Bradfield to find the Post in contempt of court, citing the paper's "interference" with the official investigation and the relentless barrage of "false articles calculated to inspire mob violence against the defendant." Bradfield denied the motion. Instead, in late April of 1949, Joe Sam Walker went on trial for the murder of Theresa Foster, facing a jury of twelve men and one woman who'd heard about little else for the past six months.

The two-week trial had none of the razzle-dazzle of the press inquisition that had preceded it. Chilson marched through a blizzard of hair, blood and fiber evidence that tied Walker to the scene and to the murdered girl. The presentation fell far short of the degree of certainty found in modern DNA evidence; a toxicologist testified that hairs found on the bloody gun grip and in clotted blood on Foster's hand "resembled" Walker's hair, but not that they were his. Curiously, no work was done to match the semen (known as "glandular secretions" in family newspapers in those days) found in Foster's panties to Walker's blood type, even though Burke pressed for such tests, claiming that they'd prove his client didn't rape the victim.

The results from Keeler's polygraph weren't admitted into evidence, but Walker's own statement to police about the mysterious blond man was read into the record, over Burke's objections. And the prosecution's final witness proved to be the most devastating of all. Elaine Wadsworth, a waitress at the Nifty Nix Drive-In, described how she had served Walker and a young woman shortly after ten in the evening on November 9, around the time Theresa Foster disappeared. Walker had a beer; his companion, "a chunky blonde girl wearing glasses," had coffee.

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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.