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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.
Joe Sam Walker's trial for the murder came after months of news stories "calculated to inflame," the Colorado Supreme Court ruled.
Colorado State Archives
Joe Sam Walker's trial for the murder came after months of news stories "calculated to inflame," the Colorado Supreme Court ruled.

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.

His arrival was heralded in huge headlines in the Denver broadsheet: CRIME ACE URGES PUBLIC AID IN C.U. CASE. In the first of his many dispatches for the Post, Gardner explained that he'd been retained "to assist the authorities," not to solve the case on his own: "I am to try to present to readers of the Denver Post the situation as it might appear to the eyes of Perry Mason, the fictional lawyer-detective who has solved so many cases in my books."

That, as Mason might have put it, was just bunk. Hoyt was paying Gardner an outrageous sum for a few days' work — more than most reporters made in a year — and he expected results. The frantic coverage would soon turn into a media assault unlike anything the state had ever seen, a blitz that would generate more than 230 articles in the Post in less than six months — and taint the criminal trial to come.

Hoyt wanted to catch a killer, and his newspaper would take credit for doing just that. But the paper's reckless approach to the Foster case would echo through the years, result in a belated scolding by the Colorado Supreme Court, and leave the true investigators of the murder haunted by one of two horrible possibilities.

One, authorities got the wrong man. Or two, they got the right one, and the Post's conflagration of fact and fiction ended up setting him free.

*****

At the time he accepted the Post assignment, Erle Stanley Gardner was the most widely read living author on the planet. Sales of his Perry Mason mysteries, available in paperback for a quarter, were topping seven million copies a year — and this was well before the long-running television series starring Raymond Burr. He described himself as a "fiction factory," capable of cranking out a hundred thousand words a month and an entire novel in a few days, usually dictated to a loyal team of typists.

With his books, movie and radio adaptations, along with other interests, Gardner didn't need to accept newspaper work. He viewed the scoop-happy industry with a mixture of pity and contempt, and resented being treated as a "trained seal" by editors. But he enjoyed the opportunity to delve into true-crime cases, consult with real detectives and test his own powers of deduction. It was a chance, however brief, for the bespectacled Gardner, pushing sixty at the time of the Foster murder and bearing an uncanny resemblance to a high-school principal, to become his handsome, cunning alter ego, the dashing Perry Mason.

Just hours after his arrival, Gardner met with DA Chilson, Boulder sheriff Arthur Everson and Denver detectives working on the Foster case. They greeted him like star-struck fans and quickly agreed to provide a VIP level of access to their files and other information. Half a dozen Post reporters took over a floor of the Hotel Boulderado while Gardner, a photographer and others went out to search for clues. They began where the body was found, along Highway 93 — "the lonely road where the murderer had transported the body of the ravished, mutilated coed," Gardner wrote.

Gawkers lined the wooden bridge above the creek. The police had found bloodstains on the bridge, indicating that the killer had unloaded the corpse from a car and dropped it into the creek below. Gardner found a peculiar half-moon stain on the railing and immediately theorized that Foster had wounded her assailant by biting his hand — his left hand, no less: "We couldn't exclude the possibility that the hand of the murderer, badly bitten by the plucky girl in her last desperate struggles, was bleeding from a deep wound made by her strong young teeth."

In hot pursuit of this chimera, Gardner decided to follow a blood trail that a sightseer had found two miles from the bridge. It was exactly the sort of "sinister train of red drops" one would expect from a sex-crazed fiend with a wounded left hand, "looking for a place to dispose of some incriminating evidence," he declared. The trail disappeared into a canyon, but the crime ace made sure that samples were collected and rushed back to Boulder for testing.

It turned out to be animal blood.

The crescent-shaped stain on the bridge, which could have been just about anything, was the first of many red herrings Gardner analyzed, emphasized and ultimately discarded. In Perry Mason's adventures, the clues always turn out to be vital pieces of the puzzle. But the Foster case generated a surplus of clues, many of which led nowhere. At the crime scene north of town, searchers found a rope and a wrench, in addition to the busted gun grip; all had traces of blood, hair or fibers that appeared to link them to the crime. Was Foster beaten with the wrench and the gun, then strangled with her coat and the rope? All that was missing was a lead pipe, a candlestick and Colonel Mustard.

The proliferation of dead ends was exacerbated by the Post's pleas for the public to report any suspicious characters, from young men with wounded hands to neighbors washing out the trunks of their cars. Encouraged by the paper's drumbeat and the lure of the $10,000 reward, tipsters deluged the cops with hunches, false alarms and pure hooey. The Denver Police Department fielded an average of 200 such calls a day — calls about a man with deep scratches on his face trying to trade in a DeSoto with dark splotches on the upholstery, calls about a lumberjack with bloody boots, calls about drunks making incriminating statements in bars and toughs in cars trying to pick up CU girls.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Wadsworth knew Walker well. He was a regular at the drive-in, quite a drinker, and, by his own frequent declaration, unhappily married. He'd once asked Wadsworth if she wanted to go on a date. She'd declined.

Her story was a fatal blow to Walker's claim of picking up a hitchhiking couple after he left the Nifty Nix. But it also blew holes in what Gardner and his fellow fantasists at the Post had written about Theresa Foster and her presumed abduction, how she would never have gotten into a stranger's car without a terrible struggle. If the waitress was telling the truth, then Foster wasn't as boy-shy or timid as her hagiographers made her out to be. She could have simply committed an eighteen-year-old girl's error of judgment, trusting in the good intentions of a handsome older man who offered her a ride and a cup of coffee on a cold night.

The jury got the case late on a Saturday afternoon. They were back two days later with a verdict: guilty of second-degree murder. Judge Bradfield sentenced the defendant to a term of eighty years to life in the state pen. From the Rocky: "A shudder passed visibly through Walker as he stood on the stand. Then he dropped his head as though struck."

Less than a month after the verdict, two CU students were attacked next to Boulder Creek while out on a blind date. The assailant struck Doris Weaver in the head with some kind of metal pipe. Weaver escaped, but her companion, Roy Spore, had a leg in a cast and couldn't easily flee or fend the man off. His body was recovered from the creek the next day, his skull fractured in several places. Weaver was unable to provide much of a description of the attacker. It was the second student slaying in the history of the school — and the second in less than a year.

Like Foster, Spore was an engineering student. Like her, he'd been badly beaten in the head — "with what must have been insane fury," one reporter wrote. As in the Foster case, authorities offered up a reward.

But the vicious bludgeoning of a male student wasn't nearly as interesting to the press as the violation of Theresa Foster, and the case was never solved. As for the hefty reward in the Foster case, the regents later discovered they couldn't authorize the payment of $10,000 without a court order. What was left of the fund was eventually split among eight people.

Hunters Boom and Blood and waitress Wadsworth each got a check for $138.50.

*****

Like every other inmate, convict #25633 started out on the rock pile at the Colorado State Penitentiary. But he was an easy man to like, and his good behavior earned him a job tending warden Harry Tinsley's garden. Tinsley considered him a model prisoner and thought he'd be a good candidate for clemency after he'd served a decade or so.

For years after the trial, Eleanor Walker continued to insist on her husband's innocence. "Find Spore's murderer and you will have the person guilty of both crimes," she told reporters. In 1956, she divorced Joe and disappeared.

In 1957, a caravan of reporters and shutterbugs went to Cañon City to watch a psychiatrist inject Walker with sodium amytal, or "truth serum" — another crime-fighting wonder of the age. Under the influence of the drug, Walker denied killing Foster and described the blond man once more. The psychiatrist told reporters that while "psychopathic liars" had been known to beat the drug, he believed Walker was telling the truth.

This fit in neatly with the efforts of Walker's attorneys to reopen the case. One of the original defense investigators, R.J. McDonald, revealed that he and Walker had tracked down a possible suspect while Walker was out on bail before trial. The man was a CU graduate student at the time and a known "sex deviate," McDonald explained. Although the man had dyed his blond hair after the Foster murder, Walker had identified him as the "Doug" who got into the car with Foster. The suspect was still living in Boulder at the time of the Spore killing, McDonald added.

But truth-serum experiments were no more admissible in court than Keeler's polygraph, and the men who'd put Walker away responded tartly when reporters asked about clemency for him. "In my 32 years as a cop, I was never more sure of any man being guilty," now-retired Denver detective Nick Carter said. "He killed Theresa Foster. I'm sure he did. There was never any evidence any other person was involved."

In the mid-1960s, Governor John Love commuted Walker's sentence from eighty to forty years. Under the sentencing scheme at the time, he would be eligible for parole as early as 1967. But Walker didn't dare apply for parole. By that point, he was engaged in a ferocious legal battle to have his conviction overturned, and his new attorneys feared that parole could jeopardize his chances of getting a full hearing on his claims that he hadn't received a fair trial.

In the summer of 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision that threw out the conviction of Sam Sheppard, a Cleveland doctor charged with killing his wife, on the grounds that overwhelmingly prejudicial press coverage had violated his constitutional rights. (The Sheppard case is often credited with being the inspiration for the hit television series The Fugitive.) Three months later, Walker's attorneys summoned Palmer Hoyt to a court hearing, in an effort to prove that the publisher and his minions had done the same thing to their client.

Now nearing the end of his 24-year reign at the Post, Hoyt testified that he'd hired Gardner, Snyder and Keeler as a "public service" and paid them a grand total of $4,555.15. He denied that the Foster coverage had done much to boost readership: "I know we were trying to get circulation in Boulder, and we didn't do good on this."

Walker attorney Francis Salazar contended that the Post "went far beyond the bounds of any newspaper in history.... The Denver Post took it upon itself to lead the mob."

The Colorado Supreme Court agreed. In 1969 the court voted 6-1 to vacate Walker's conviction, concluding that the Post had gone much further than the press in the Sheppard case "by actually injecting itself into the investigatory process." The paper had distorted evidence, presented speculation as fact and dubious detective work as infallible, described events that never happened, and generally whipped up publicity "so extensive, so slanted and prejudicial, so calculated to inflame, and so all-pervasive" as to make a fair trial for Walker impossible.

Walker was now a free man. Boulder District Attorney Stanley Johnson declined to seek a new trial. Many of the original witnesses were either dead or living elsewhere, and Johnson suggested that "justice perhaps has already been served" by Walker's twenty years in prison.

Walker didn't think of it as justice. He sued the Post for two million dollars. Nothing came of it.

In prison, with nothing but time on his hands, he'd learned how to repair watches. He drifted to Aspen, Grand Junction and then Texas, plying his trade. He volunteered little about his past. In 1982, he was suspected of theft at the Waco department store where he worked and was quietly dismissed.

A month later, facing eviction from his motel, he hanged himself with a belt nailed to a door. He was 65 years old.

Walker was buried in Waco at county expense. Some secrets of the Foster case were buried with him. His strange journey remains a cautionary tale of media excess that Boulder's police agencies, at least, have taken seriously. A generation after Foster's death, CU was sent reeling by another unthinkable murder, this time in the heart of the campus: the 1966 rape and slaying of student Elaura Jaquette in an organ recital room in Macky Auditorium.

"It was such a shocking thing," recalls Alan Cass, the longtime campus historian who was the stage manager at Macky at the time and has extensively researched both cases. "There were a lot of parallels with Theresa Foster's death. In both cases, the victim felt at ease with the perpetrator, and then tragic things happened."

But in the Jacquette case, Cass notes, police kept tight control of the crime scene and the evidence. A bloody palm print ultimately led to the conviction of custodian Joe Morse for the crime — and no loose ends.

Echoes of the Foster case continued to reverberate in Boulder long after Walker's death. In 1998, while the town was consumed with the ongoing tabloid saga of another pretty female who'd been struck on the head, strangled and sexually assaulted — a six-year-old girl named JonBenét Ramsey — an elderly man walked into the sheriff's office in Hobbs, New Mexico, and began talking in detail about the Theresa Foster murder.

The man had lived in the Boulder area in his youth. He seemed to know a great deal about the case. Authorities suspected that he had mental-health issues and wanted to be reassured that he hadn't been involved somehow in the homicide.

He was, they decided, just another amateur detective. Someone confusing fact and fantasy, desperate to solve the mystery.

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17 comments
VivlianWozz
VivlianWozz

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Mikoe Wozz

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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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