A Cure for the Common Cold Case
Linda Donelson pulled into her driveway at six o'clock on a wintry Monday evening in March. She'd just picked up her seven-year-old grandson, Caleb, from daycare, and he was eager to see his mom.
But before Linda could open the garage and go in the house, she noticed a piece of blue paper taped to the door. When she first saw the crest for the City of Aurora, she wondered what the officials wanted this time. They'd already required Linda and her husband, Everett, to replace their fence abutting Hampden Avenue earlier in the year. But the handwritten note simply told her to call a Denver number regarding her daughter, Sherri Majors. Another blue note with a similar message was taped to the front door.
Thinking Sherri had been in an accident, Linda rushed inside and dialed the number. The line was busy. After several more frantic attempts, a man's voice finally answered. It was the Denver coroner's office.
Linda begged the man for information about what had happened to her daughter, but he'd just started his shift and didn't know anything about a Sherri Majors. A few minutes later, the man called back: Sherri's body was in the morgue.
Fifteen minutes later, a Denver police detective called and told Linda that Sherri's body had been found that morning in an alley off 24th Street between Blake and Walnut. She had been beaten and strangled to death.
It took Denver police just two months to identify a suspect -- 51-year-old truck driver Chester Leroy Todd -- and to issue a national warrant for his arrest. But that was back in May 1996, and the case has since gone cold. After agonizing over their daughter's murder for seven years, however, the Donelsons are finally feeling some hope. A private investigator they met through Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons (FOHVAMP) says he's hot on the trail of Chester Todd -- and may nab the fugitive before Christmas.
Sherri Majors most likely met Chester Todd for the first time on the night of March 16, 1996.
Sherri had asked her parents to watch her three sons -- Caleb was seven at the time, and her twins, Mitchell and Joel, were five -- so she could spend the weekend with her boyfriend, Brian. She needed a break, some time off, and she and Brian needed to work on their relationship. The 27-year-old had moved back in with her parents two years earlier, after she and the boys' father had divorced, and she was struggling to support her children on her own.
Even though her parents didn't like Brian -- "He was abusive," Linda says -- the Donelsons agreed to care for their grandsons.
On Saturday night, Sherri and Brian went to the Happy Chinaman, a Commerce City restaurant and pool hall. But they got into an argument, and Sherri demanded to go home. Brian refused to take her. Upset, Sherri walked down the block to the Town Line Pub, where she called various friends for a ride. The Donelsons say Sherri probably had too much pride to call them. "She knew we didn't like Brian," Linda says. "In some ways, I'm glad she didn't call us, because I don't know how we could have lived with ourselves if we'd have said 'No.'"
Sherri didn't have much luck reaching anyone that night. Her friend Fred came home late to find a message on his machine, but by then, Sherri had probably already left with Chester Todd, a Town Line regular who had overheard her phone calls and offered her a ride. She had little reason to be leery of Todd, an older man with a kind face, particularly since he was a trucker. In her family, someone who drives a big rig is someone who can be trusted.
But on the morning of Sunday, March 17, an employee at a manufacturing company on Blake Street discovered Sherri's snow-covered body. When the Denver police responded, they couldn't find anything -- Sherri's body was concealed behind a cement barrier and visible only from a garden-level window inside the building -- and left. When the employee returned to work on Monday morning, Sherri's body was still there, and he called the cops again. This time, they found her.
The Donelsons and their grandsons were expecting to see Sherri that evening. Caleb, in particular, who was very close to his mother, was excited for her return. "I half expected her to call me Monday afternoon, because she'd do that; she'd call and ask what I wanted her to make for dinner, because she'd get home from work first," Linda says.
Of course, no such call came.
As soon as Linda and Everett learned that their daughter had been killed, Everett began having chest pains and had to be hospitalized for the night. The Donelsons decided not to tell the boys anything until the next day, when they could think more clearly. However, Mitchell, now thirteen, says he knew something was going on. He remembers seeing his relatives crying, but he thought it was about money.
After Everett was released from the hospital the following day, the boys' father, Jeff Majors, stopped by the Donelsons' house to comfort his sons and help break the news to them. Caleb, who is now fifteen, has a hard time talking about his mother's death, but the twins say rehashing it helps. "I started crying," Mitchell says of his reaction when he heard the news.
"Joel ran to his bed and hid under the covers," remembers Linda.
Right after the murder, the company Linda had been working for moved its operations to Indiana, and she used her severance money and time off to launch her own pursuit. She bought a computer and e-mailed information about Todd to a fugitive Web site, then sent a letter to America's Most Wanted, which aired a segment about Sherri's murder in August 1996. The show's host, John Walsh, said that the five-foot-ten, 200-pound Todd frequents casinos, plays guitar and might try to pass himself off as a musician in clubs. Linda taped the show and sent copies to weigh stations across the country. The popular television program ran Todd's photo a few more times until July 1999.
"Early on, I was consumed with finding him," Linda says.
When detectives learned from other bar patrons that Todd lived out of his truck, Everett suggested that one of his relatives make an announcement over their CB radio asking other truckers to be on the lookout for him. But he says the detective told him not to interfere.
Todd was reportedly headed west with a load of meat in his refrigerated trailer, but when he hadn't shown up three days after the delivery was due, the company expecting the shipment offered $500 over the airwaves for whoever found the missing trailer. Two hours later, both the rig and the trailer were spotted abandoned at a truck stop in Sioux City, Iowa. Sherri's blood, hair and an earring were found in the trailer.
Greg Tyner has personal reasons for wanting to see killers behind bars. When Greg was just eighteen, his father shot his mother in the head. His dad evaded police for a while, but he was eventually captured and sent to prison, where he died.
Shortly after that, Tyner and his wife divorced, and he began having to track down his two children, because their mother continually moved around with them. He discovered that his children were being molested by two of his ex-wife's boyfriends, and by the time he could get them out of harm's way, he knew he was going to make a career out of finding bad guys.
He became a private investigator in California, where he worked white-collar-type cases for several years. In 1996, he came back to Colorado, his home state. It was a fortuitous move for his crime-fighting career.
One evening this past spring, Tyner came across www.unresolvedhomicides.org, the Web site for Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons (FOHVAMP), a two-year-old Colorado nonprofit. As he scanned the site, which reads like an FBI Most Wanted list, but with victims instead of fugitives, he was simultaneously impressed and appalled. He'd never seen such an organized group of civilians united to solve cold cases, but he was shocked and angered by the number that were unresolved. Eighty victims, ranging in age from just one year to sixty, are currently listed on the Web site, and students at the University of Colorado at Boulder have identified another 400 unsolved homicides from the past three decades (see "Student Aid"). A study conducted by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation found that between the years 1997 and 2001, 245 homicides out of 816 -- or 30 percent -- went unsolved in the state, slightly better than the national average of 36 percent, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports. Last year 16,204 murders were committed in this country.
Once Tyner realized how big the problem was, he knew he had to help. So he called FOHVAMP's executive director, Howard Morton, and offered his services free of charge. Morton was naturally skeptical of the offer, so he called Tyner's references. "They all checked out," he says.
Tyner could understand the hesitation. "Being in the business myself, I hate to admit it, but there are more shysters than not who will prey on the vulnerable," says Tyner, whose practice consists largely of investigating cheating spouses and embezzlers.
The State of Colorado doesn't regulate private investigators, even though the Professional Private Investigators Association of Colorado (PPIAC) has been trying for years to convince the legislature to license the industry. Lawmakers turned down a bill last year that would have introduced standards to the profession after numerous private investigators opposed it. "Anyone can call himself a private investigator in Colorado," notes PPIAC president Rick Johnson, who is unfamiliar with Tyner's work. (Tyner is not a PPIAC member.) "The buyer really has to beware in this state."
But in California, where private investigators must meet strict criteria in order to obtain the requisite license, Tyner says there are "still a bunch of knuckleheads, so a lot of regulation doesn't necessarily help."
Because Tyner's background checked out, Morton decided to make a deal with the private eye: He would initially take a few cases without pay, and the families would cover his expenses, such as long-distance calls and mileage, if they could afford it.
A few families agreed, and Tyner recently began looking into some of the crimes, including the Littleton bowling-alley murders (employees Erin Golla and James Springer Jr. and bowler Robert Zajac were shot to death at the AMF Broadway Lanes in January 2002) and the case of Michael Reichert, who was fatally struck on the head in October 2000 in a Colfax parking lot. But since there is already a suspect in the Sherri Majors case, he's focused most of his efforts over the past few months on finding Chester Todd.
Shortly after Sherri's death, Linda and Everett Donelson joined Parents of Murdered Children, where they met Morton, whose eighteen-year-old son, Guy, was murdered while hitchhiking between Flagstaff and Phoenix.
In March 2001, Howard and his wife, Virginia, decided to create a local answer to the national support group. So along with Lieurance and Shirley Sullivan, whose daughter Polly was murdered on Christmas Day 1998 but whose killer remains at large ("Silent Night," December 23, 1999), they looked into forming a nonprofit for families like theirs. By the time FOHVAMP became official, in October 2001, the group had thirty members. Now there are 132.
To join FOHVAMP, a family has to have a loved one who has been missing or dead for two years with no resolution and must have a Colorado connection, meaning either the victim was from this state, disappeared here, was found here or has family members residing here. Members don't pay dues, but they are encouraged to make contributions, which, along with a U.S. Justice Department grant, help maintain the organization's Web site.
But for all their efforts and organization, the Web site has yet to result in any arrests, and Morton is not even sure whether any good tips have come in. Basically, the group acts as a conduit to the police. "We're not trying to be Dick Tracy," Morton explains. "We're just trying to generate leads."
But the fact that the Web site is getting hits -- more than 12,000 people have visited it since June, when the organization started keeping track -- helps the families. "Its shows them that something's being done," Morton says.
As far as the police are concerned, Sherri Majors's case is solved: They know who did it and told Linda and Everett that when Todd slips up someday, they'll get him.
"Do I have a detective working full-time on it? No. I have eleven detectives that handle between 55 and 100 homicides every year, so we can't concentrate full-time on any one case, but we do periodic reviews of cases," says Lieutenant Jon Priest, commander of the Denver Police Department's homicide unit. "Nobody might be working on Chester Todd this week or this month, but we have a nation of detectives looking for him electronically.
"I know that's not particularly comforting to the family," he adds. "They don't care about the 100 other cases out there; they care about theirs. But we solve cases that are five, ten, fifteen years old all the time. We have forty warrants out right now for people who are at large. One dates back to 1968. We don't stop working on cases simply because we get new ones."
Right now, Greg Tyner, not the DPD, is the one giving the Donelsons hope for closure. But like so many families looking into a loved one's cold case, Tyner and the Donelsons have had to start from scratch to find Sherri's killer because the police department is reluctant to release its investigation files.
"The Denver Police Department has been thwarting my investigation," Tyner says. "The police won't give me or the family access to the file. I've had to start from the ground up, but a lot of the witnesses aren't around anymore. And they won't verify any information with me.
"I've called them with leads, but they won't call back to say whether they've followed up on any of them," he continues. "I don't think they want this case solved outside of their department. I think their biggest fear is that I'll bring this guy in and they'll look bad. But I couldn't give a crap who finds him. I'd just like to see him behind bars before Christmas."
Priest, however, says the police can't just hand over information to a private investigator. "We have an obligation to maintain the integrity of the case filing by limiting the exposure of it to the public," he says. "We have to protect the rights of the defendant, even though the family looks at it like 'Fry the bastard.' We can't just sic some private investigator on this guy so we can bring him in, because that would make him our agent, and then he'd be restricted by the same guidelines as the police department."
For example, if a private investigator working in concert with a police department does something illegal to capture a fugitive or to obtain evidence, it could compromise the arrest or cause that evidence to be inadmissible in court.
"A lot of times, private investigators can eliminate and generate leads for us. We can certainly say we have looked into something, but we don't need to share stuff with them to satisfy their curiosity," Priest continues. "It's not that we're being uncooperative; it's that we have to weigh every decision very carefully."
Despite the lack of information from the police department, Tyner has gotten many leads on Todd, who goes by at least two different names and has been married twice. But the fugitive lives a transient lifestyle that makes pinpointing his exact whereabouts difficult. "He's one of the hardest types of people to find. Even the most private people sign their names to stuff, like vehicle registration, insurance and rental agreements. Someone who can evade those things for so long has no ties to society. He's been in various areas of the country for up to a year, but he keeps on the move, staying in motels," Tyner says.
However, Tyner believes sketches of a suspect in two East Coast murders match Todd's description, and he has reason to believe that Todd killed two women before Sherri and two more after her. Priest says if that's true, his department doesn't know anything about it.
Tyner has narrowed down some locations where Todd might be staying but doesn't want to divulge them publicly lest the details jeopardize his hunt. He will, however, say that he's getting closer every day. If local police won't arrest Todd once Tyner figures out where he is, someone will. Throughout his many years of investigative work, Tyner has built up a network of colleagues on whom he can call when the time comes to apprehend Todd. "I don't care if he gets whacked on the head, shoved in a trunk and dropped off at a police station," Tyner says. "He needs to stand trial."
And if the man who killed Sherri is, in fact, Chester Todd, it would be at least his second time committing murder. Todd was convicted in 1967 of shooting a sailor to death in Illinois and was sentenced to more than thirty years in the Joliet Correctional Center, a maximum-security prison. He was paroled after serving fifteen years.
For now, Tyner is happy to be back doing what he loves most. "I made a really good living from investigating white-collar crime, but it was the important cases like these that I didn't have time for. I know what it's like to have someone you love taken from you, but I can't fathom how you move on when the person who did it is still out there," he says. "I'm doing it now because if the police won't, who will?"
Howard Morton is trying to raise money so that FOHVAMP can employ Greg Tyner full-time next year. If Tyner can break a case like Sherri's, Morton thinks individuals and foundations will be more inclined to donate.
FOHVAMP is also planning to put up billboards featuring up to a dozen specific cases in the hope of generating more leads. A portion of a $25,000 U.S. Attorney's grant will make it possible to post rewards for information leading to an arrest in those cases. But before any billboards go up, Morton needs to figure out what contact number to provide. Last November, Michael Reichert's family put up a billboard on Colfax, near the scene of his murder, offering $50,000 to anyone who could crack the case. But after six months went by with no tips, they removed it.
Morton thinks he knows what the problem was: The billboard directed people to call Denver Metro Crimestoppers, a nonprofit that accepts anonymous tips but doesn't cover the line 24 hours a day. "You get a recording after regular business hours," Morton says. "No one who wants to remain anonymous is going to leave a message on a machine!"
Denver Police detective Steven Antuña, who acts as a liaison between the Crimestoppers board of directors and police agencies, says he understands Morton's frustration but explains that no one ever calls the tip line between midnight and 6 a.m. Tipsters, he notes, "sleep when the rest of us sleep."
However, Antuña acknowledges that boardmembers are discussing the possibility of expanding the hours beyond the current 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. period when he, a cadet and a sergeant take calls. Although the Denver Police Department and Crimestoppers are separate entities, the department helps staff the line and is trying to supply it with additional officers. Beyond that, Crimestoppers would have to hire an answering service to take calls or enlist the help of volunteers.
Still, the fact that no tips at all came in on the Reichert case surprised Antuña. "I thought it was unusual because of the amount of the reward; $50,000 is a lot of money," he says. "Maybe the only person who knows what happened is the suspect."
While Crimestoppers tries to figure out whether to expand its hours, Morton is trying to find hope for families who have had theirs dashed too many times. He's applying for more grants and would someday like to see every state have its own convicted-murderer registry. "You can see if a convicted sex offender lives next door to you, but not a murderer," he says.
And Tyner has created a brochure for FOHVAMP, which he dedicated to his mother, to help families continue their own investigations. In "How to Manage Your Own Cold Case," Tyner cautions members about hiring psychics, provides a fee structure for private investigators so they know about fair pricing, and offers tips on how to obtain records related to the case.
The Donelsons, however, are just trying to live their lives as best they can.
Sitting in her immaculate Aurora home on a recent Tuesday night with her husband and twin grandsons, Linda flips through old photo albums. There's Sherri in her sister's wedding, wearing a lilac bridesmaid dress. Sherri standing with her hands on her hips, her blond hair framing her pretty face, Farrah Fawcett style. Sherri with her beloved dog, Princess, who bears a striking resemblance to her sons' new mutt, whom they also named Princess. And Linda's favorite: Sherri in a swimming pool holding baby Caleb.
Linda and Everett never thought they'd be raising teenagers at this stage of their lives, but the boys' father isn't very involved, and they wanted to make sure that Caleb and the twins remembered their mother.
"I get disappointed and angry with the police about why they can't do more. Maybe the case isn't high-profile enough for them," Linda says. "We were watching something on television recently about the Elizabeth Smart case, and Caleb said, 'Those people are rich; that's why the police helped them.' You take a common Joe and Jane like Everett and I, and not much gets done."
"We were very fortunate to have had the detective we had," Everett points out. "She laid a really good case and got the warrant, and so many of the cases in FOHVAMP don't have that. We got to bury our daughter, and there are a lot of people who don't get to do that, either. Everything's been done in our case but finding the guy. It just gives you a big old pit in the stomach."
But he and Linda aren't getting their hopes up too high. They've gone down that road before. "I'm just going to let Greg handle it. My purpose is to raise these three boys. I appreciate what Greg and Howard are doing, and I pray something comes of it, but Chester Todd has been out there for seven years, and I'm not going to suddenly focus on finding him, because if I did that, I'd be back to the place I was right after Sherri died, and I'm not going to do that to myself."
Although Linda is more adamant about seeing her daughter's killer captured, she has mixed feelings about enduring a trial. She wonders how she'd cope if Todd was caught and then acquitted. "Then it would be over, and we'd really have no closure."
But Mitchell is looking forward to the day he can face his mom's killer in court: "I want him to see the kids whose mother he took away."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Westword's biggest stories.