part 3 of 3
In March 1993, Heather Smith was 27 years old and working at her father's company. She had many girlfriends and welcomed admiring looks from men attracted to her face and a body that had once made her a nationally ranked swimmer.
Her friends thought Heather led a charmed life. She seemed so strong, so self-confident. They didn't know she'd battled bulimia since she was fourteen years old and her swimming coach had scolded her for not doing better. She'd gone to an all-you-can-eat buffet with the team that night, gorged herself, then walked to the restroom and stuck a finger down her throat.
They didn't know that brave, strong Heather was afraid of the dark.
Heather's friends were aware of one problem in her life: her ex-boyfriend, Jason. She had been attracted to his dark good looks and mysterious airs--he'd even told her that he had friends who exacted revenge on those they didn't like, but he wouldn't elaborate. During their four-year relationship, Jason had grown increasingly possessive and abusive, once ordering Heather out of his car in a dark, downtown Denver alley until she begged to stay. Another time when she threatened to leave him, he held a gun to his head and said, "Now you know what I have to live with every day."
She'd dated other men, nice guys who adored her, but she always wound up going back to Jason. During one of their good periods, Heather made the mistake of borrowing $7,000 from him so that she could buy a small house near Washington Park. That was in January 1991. The relationship ended for good a short time later and now, two years later, Jason was demanding his money back, stalking Heather and threatening her.
She told two friends about the threats. "If anything ever happens to me," she said, "give Jason's name to the police."
By April Heather was determined to pay Jason back. She decided to sell her car, a sporty little Ford Escort, in order to do so. Her advertisement ran in the newspaper on Sunday, April 11, 1993, and again the following day, but the ad failed to generate a single call. Then her phone rang about 8 p.m. that Monday night.
"Is the car still for sale?" a man asked.
"Yes," she answered. He asked about the color of the car and the price, which she thought odd because both were included in the ad. When he asked if he could come see it, she told him she wasn't feeling well and would prefer to wait until the following day. But he was insistent. "It has to be tonight," he said.
Heather gave in and gave him her address. If she could sell the car, she could get Jason out of her life forever.
Heather was a little uneasy about the man coming over. It was dark and beginning to sleet. She noticed that her neighbor, Rebecca Hascall, was home, so she walked over to let her know what was going on and to take Rebecca a souvenir program she'd picked up at the Colorado Rockies inaugural opening day.
While they were talking, Heather saw a man walk past Rebecca's house and turn toward her own house. "That must be him," she said as she went out the door. "I'll be back in five minutes."
The man was standing on her front porch by the time Heather approached. He looked like a normal guy, about six feet tall, dressed in a green jacket and blue jeans. What she could see of his hair under a blue baseball cap appeared light in color. He was decent-looking, with blue eyes, though there was something peculiar about his nose: His nostrils didn't flare out--she noticed things like that. She also noticed that he had a little roll of fat beneath his chin, a chin framed by a neat, well-groomed beard.
Heather thought he seemed more like a four-wheeler or truck type and wondered why he wanted her little Escort. "You looking for yourself or a wife or girlfriend?" she asked.
"Myself." He started walking to the car parked at the curb across the street. "You can look at it," Heather said, "but I'm not going to drive anywhere tonight."
She went around to the driver's side and got in. He opened the passenger door and sat down. Deciding she was being overly cautious, Heather turned on the car. She showed him the radio and her carefully kept maintenance records. All the while, she waited for him to ask questions. But he just kept running his fingers along the dash, poking a button here, twisting a knob there. He had thick fingers, she noticed, as though he worked with his hands.
"The only things wrong with it are a few cosmetic items," Heather told him. "A piece of plastic is missing under the hatchback."
As though on cue, he said, "I want to look at the back," and got out of the car. Heather turned off the ignition, walked around to the rear and opened the hatchback. She was leaning into the car when she felt a heavy blow to the back of her neck. It was as if she had been hit with a baseball bat.
Heather's first thought was that the man was going to rape her and was trying to knock her out first, perhaps to shove her into the open hatchback. She stood up and reached with her right hand for her neck. She felt the rush of warm blood.
"Rebecca! Rebecca!" she screamed, surprised even in her terror by the strength of her voice. Stunned, she wouldn't later recall the feeling as her assailant struck again...and again...and again...and again. She fell to her side, collapsing over onto her stomach.
Everything was a blur. The man bent over her like a vampire. Then Rebecca was running toward her, screaming her name. "Go call 911. I'm bleeding," Heather told her friend.
Suddenly, the world came sharply into focus. It was as if she was more aware then than at any time in her life. She could feel air passing in and out of a wound in her back and realized that the weapon had punctured her lung. Sleet was falling, striking the wet street and making little ripples like stones being thrown into a pond. The ripples danced in the light from the streetlamp above. With her face on the ground, she noticed how the light reflected by the ripples was turning pink.
And then she was somewhere else, talking to her mother about a project she had done as a senior in high school. Its subject was after-death experiences, and her mother was telling how she had gone through such an ordeal shortly after the birth of Heather's younger brother. Mrs. Smith had been on the operating table when she was pronounced clinically dead; she remembered floating above her body and then moving toward a bright white light. A voice in the light had asked, "Are you ready?" But she had three small children who needed her and asked to go back. "I made a conscious choice to live," her mother had told Heather.
A conscious choice to live. Her mother's voice echoed in her mind. Heather knew that she, too, wanted to live. She made a choice to do so.
Rebecca returned and began applying pressure to her wounds. Then the police arrived, followed by the ambulance. The paramedics assessed the situation and performed what they refer to as a "scoop and go," not trying to stabilize her at the scene--there wasn't time--but instead rushing her into the ambulance and racing to Denver General Hospital.
Heather, who had given a quick description of her attacker to the first police officer on the scene, kept talking in the ambulance as a paramedic tried to get an intravenous line into her neck. She had lost a lot of blood and needed the fluids as quickly as possible. But Heather thought that if she just kept talking, she couldn't die. She talked about the attack. About how much she wanted to live. She told the paramedic her blood type and tried to tell him how to contact her parents. Exasperated because she kept moving as she talked, the paramedic finally ordered her to shut up.
The world faded to black. Then above her head there was a bright light. Heather thought of her mother's story. "Oh, my God," she thought, "this is it." But she willed herself to open her eyes. The bright light was from the grid in the ceiling of the ambulance. The last thing she remembered was the doors of the ambulance being flung open at the emergency entrance to Denver General Hospital. Then she was gone.
Rebecca had stayed behind, talking to the police, when Heather was taken away in the ambulance. Yes, her friend had an ex-boyfriend who had made threats. No, she'd never seen him, but his name was Jason. Finally, the police let her go to the emergency room. Rebecca was covered with blood and looked like a victim herself, but she didn't notice. She was racked by guilt. She had let Heather go out alone. Alone to meet that monster.
Heather's family and friends had gathered in the waiting room. Her older brother, Trig, had to be pried from his sister's side so the doctors could work. The other brother, Schuyler, was already on his way to the airport in California. Rebecca's boyfriend met her at the hospital. No one was saying much or even crying. They were too stunned. Such things happened--but to Heather?
After a while, Rebecca was persuaded to go home and shower. She made her boyfriend stay in the bathroom while she washed the blood off. She had seen the movie Psycho too many times to bathe alone this night. And then she rushed back to the hospital, arriving just as a nurse came out of the Intensive Care Unit.
The news wasn't good. The doctors didn't think Heather was going to make it. "If anybody wants to say goodbye, now would be the time," the nurse said.
When it was her turn, Rebecca went in to the cubicle where her friend lay beneath a heavy blanket. Heather's beautiful face was so swollen that her head seemed as big as her shoulders. Her eyes were open but rolled back until nearly all that showed was white.
Rebecca grabbed her hand. "You're doing great, Heather," she told her. The guilt welled up again and she couldn't find any words that meant anything.
"Hey," she said, trying to smile through the tears. "One of the cops was pretty cute...just your type."
To her everlasting surprise and joy, Heather squeezed her hand. Rebecca burst into tears. Heather wasn't going to die.
Heather held Rebecca's hand that night for ten minutes before she would let go. The next day, Rebecca went in to see her, and she was awake. Weak but alive.
"I'm so sorry, Heather. I should have never let you go out there by yourself."
Heather shook her head. "You saved my life," she whispered. Rebecca burst into tears again.
Eight days after the attack on Heather Smith, Detective Scott Richardson visited Byron Powers, the boyfriend of Cher Elder. Rumor had it that Cher's disappearance had something to do with her being a police informant; Richardson, a fifteen-year veteran of the force, didn't believe it.
"Cher Elder is the first victim I ever found that the deeper I dug the cleaner she is," Richardson would later tell one of the hoodlums he interrogated. "Usually you start with a choir girl, and then you find out she's runnin' dope, prostitutin' and a hundred other things. But with Cher, nothing. She was a twenty-year-old girl who was gonna start college. She didn't fit, she didn't belong and she wasn't a snitch. There was no reason for her to be killed. Zero."
Cher was a small-town girl who'd fallen in with thieves and drug dealers without even knowing it. Now the scumbags were playing dumb. Nobody knew anything. She'd just up and disappeared.
Richardson didn't believe that, either. And then he caught a break: A casino in Central City came up with a videotape that showed Cher Elder on March 27. Now the detective wanted to know all about the older guy with her.
Richardson is a tall man, intense, and even some of his fellow officers find that his confidence borders on arrogance. But those who've known him long also know him as a dedicated cop who'll hang on to a case until his cold, dead fingers are pried from the file.
As he spoke with Byron Powers, he softened his style to ask about the relationship with Cher Elder.
"We were just friends," Byron said, correcting the detective's reference to Cher as his girlfriend. "I had sex with her, but that doesn't make me her boyfriend."
Cher had gotten angry that night because of his new girlfriend, Gina. Byron and Gina left Cher and went drinking; when they came back that night, he said, Cher's little Honda was gone from the parking lot. Byron and Gina had passed out, but sometime the next morning, he said, Cher had poked her head in the door and said, "Bye." When Byron finally got up, he found two notes from Cher. One said, "Call me. We'll talk."
"The other said something like, `Now you know why I haven't been with a guy for four years,'" Byron told the detective, relating a story about Cher having hit her last boyfriend in Missouri with a skillet. He didn't know why.
Byron said he didn't even realize Cher was missing until her family and friends started calling. "I'm worried, too," he told Richardson.
Then why, the detective wanted to know, was he acting so nervous?
While Byron squirmed, Richardson pulled out the videotape and ran it. "Recognize him?" Richardson asked about the man with Cher.
"I've never seen that guy before," Byron lied. But he recognized him, all right. It was Tom Luther, his stepfather's old cellmate. Hell, he'd known Luther since he was a kid visiting his old man, who was in prison for shooting a man eight times over a drug deal.
Switching subjects, Byron told the detective he was a disabled Gulf War veteran. He'd suffered head injuries that led him to mess up during his Army stint--larceny, deserting, all sorts of things. He'd gotten a medical discharge, honorable. "They said I was psycho," he said. "That I didn't know right from wrong."
That, Richardson believed.
The detective grew impatient. This punk knew more than he was saying. Byron picked up the vibes.
"I sense that you're gettin' kinda pissed off," Byron said, "and I don't want you mad, because you're probably my best chance to find where Cher is and make sure she's okay." Now that he thought about it, maybe there was something about her saying she was going to visit the home of some drug dealer she knew in Central City.
After Richardson left, Byron picked up the telephone and called Tom Luther.
That afternoon, the phone rang at Richardson's desk.
"This is Tom Luther."
"Hi. How are you?" the detective answered, confused. He'd never heard the name before.
"Okay, and you?" Luther responded. "The Eerebout boys called and told me you guys had a picture of me...I figured I better give you a call...The reason the boys were playing stupid is I was recently released from the joint."
Luther went on to explain that "the boys" didn't trust cops or the justice system--after all, they'd been raised by a convict. He himself had had "bad experiences" with prison guards and also the cop who arrested him in Summit County. "He said I made a statement I never made," Luther told Richardson. "He said I made a confession I never made."
Richardson finally figured out who had called him--the guy in the casino video. "I'm not gonna jack with you," he tried to assure Luther. "All I'm concerned about is finding Cher, making sure Cher's okay."
Luther admitted that he'd gone to Central City with Cher Elder. She was angry about Byron's new girlfriend and he was trying to "calm the situation," give her a shoulder to cry on. He knew where this call would lead. "As soon as you run my credentials...I'm gonna be like a suspect on your missing person," he told Richardson. But he had nothing to hide, he added, and if the cops wanted, they could come talk to him.
Late that afternoon, Richardson and his partner were sitting in the house in LaPorte that Luther shared with Deborah Snyder, a psychiatric nurse he had met while still in the joint.
Richardson pulled out a tape recorder for the interview. Luther pulled out one of his own. Both men were on guard, testing for weaknesses.
Luther told how he'd ended up in Central City with "Shari." On the way back, he said, he'd turned off the highway and gone to a little parking spot on the mountain above Golden. It was cold and windy, and he'd smoked a joint.
"What kind of sex did you have on that hill?" Richardson asked. The men were interrupted when Luther's girlfriend walked in; Luther asked her to "take a walk around the block." After she left, he answered the detective's question.
"Kissing, petting, a little quick intercourse thing...in the car." Afterward, he said, Cher was upset. She'd done it to spite Byron and now regretted it. She'd thrown up in the car. Luther had taken her back to Byron's apartment; she'd poked her head into his room "and said something like, `See ya, kiss my ass.'"
"Why didn't you come forward?" Richardson asked.
Because of his past, Luther said, referring to his arrest in Summit County. "You know I was suspected of every murder, everything that happened in that fuckin' county up there for a year and a couple years before that," he said. "They hassled my girlfriend to death over the Oberholtzer and Schnee murders...two girls murdered a month before I was arrested." He described his attack on Mary as "more of an assault than sexual assault, but you know how they do things."
He'd been screwed by the system, Luther said. He was due for mandatory parole after about six years, but ten hours before his release, the legislature passed a new sentencing law, he told Richardson, and he had ended up serving "ten years, ten months and three days."
"Would Byron hurt a woman?" Richardson asked.
"Naw," Luther answered. "Maybe another guy...self-defense."
"Why is a man your age hanging out with these kids?"
"When I went to the penitentiary, I was a kid myself," Luther replied. He had known the Erebout boys since they were little. They were good kids, he said, they hadn't really lied to the detectives...They were just trying to protect a friend...convict code, honor among thieves, all that.
"Bullshit," Richardson said. "He denied knowing you...I've never seen such a defensive group of people over a missing person in my life."
"Well, you keep shooting them little innuendos," Luther countered. Cher had a serious drug problem, cocaine, and was probably just holed up with some dealer, getting even with Byron, he said.
The detectives concluded the interview and went outside. They wandered over to Luther's car. There was a brand-new shovel in the back, as well as a power saw inscribed with the name of a man who'd reported his tools stolen in a burglary. A burglary in which Byron and his brothers were suspects.
Before the detectives left, they said they might want to return to ask more questions. If they did, Luther replied, he'd want a lawyer present.
By the time Heather Smith arrived in the emergency room, she had lost two-thirds of her blood. Her attacker had cut her vertebral artery, one of four that supply blood to the brain. He had also stabbed her once in the middle of the back, and then three more times down the right side of her back. One of those cuts had punctured her lung. Another had struck her liver, lacerating a major vein.
They'd opened her up to find her belly full of blood from the liver wound. After a while, they had to stop operating on her. Heather's body temperature had dropped to a dangerous level and her blood had stopped clotting as a result. Continuing might have killed her, so all they could do was pack her belly with absorbent material and try to get her warmed up. If she lived, they could finish their work later.
But no one expected her to live.
Heather came to in the recovery room. She was unaware that she was still split open. The world was fuzzy. There seemed to be something in her eyes. Then she became aware that her father, a tall man, was leaning over her. With a rush, she realized what that meant: I'm alive. I'm alive. Her mind rejoiced; she couldn't remember ever having been so happy. But then the world faded back to black.
When they removed the packing material the next day, the surgeons found that Heather had stopped bleeding. They could finish their work. She wasn't out of the woods yet, but every minute she held on was a milestone to her recovery.
Heather surprised them all. She not only stayed alive, she recovered at an amazing pace. But the more conscious she became of her surroundings, the more fear of her attacker replaced her fear of death. It was a fear she recognized: the fear of monsters.
She felt a little better in the Intensive Care Unit, where a deputy was posted because a gang member was also in ICU. Even if the deputy wasn't there for her, his presence comforted her. But Heather was recovering so quickly that the hospital moved her up to the seventh floor.
There she found fear all over again. The Denver Post had run an article with her name and address, as well as Rebecca's. All Heather could think about was that her attacker was still out there and might come back for her. A friend insisted that she be listed at the hospital under an alias. Still, every time the elevator opened outside her room, Heather waited for the footsteps to pass her room. She kept expecting that some day the bearded man in a green jacket and blue baseball cap would be standing there, looking at her with his blue eyes.
Her mother remained at her side during the day. Every night her dad or a brother stayed with her until she fell asleep, then took up his post in the waiting room down the hall.
It didn't help when Heather finally saw what the monster had done to her. When she got strong enough, she went into the bathroom and looked in the mirror. She found a harrowed-looking woman with a throat swollen like a balloon and a hunchback. An angry red scar ran from her right collar bone and plunged toward her breasts. Pulling up her gown, Heather traced the line of staples and stitches that marched down her belly. She got back in bed and began to cry.
Eight days passed from that evening when she was rushed to the hospital. Heather demanded to be released, but the resident surgeons didn't want to let her go. Initially, they'd predicted a hospital recovery period of three to four months--if she lived at all. But Heather had experienced none of the complications, such as infection, often associated with such severe wounds. She continued to insist that she be allowed to leave. The residents deferred to Dr. Bob Read, the attending trauma surgeon.
Read went to talk to Heather. As far as he was concerned, she was a medical miracle...and a testament to the teamwork that makes Denver General one of the best trauma hospitals in the world. Now, as he looked at her, he shook his head and smiled. Work in the emergency room long enough and a surgeon gets a feel for a patient's will to live. This girl was way off the scale.
Most people who had lost that much blood, who had suffered not one, but several potentially fatal wounds, would have never made it. Heather owed her survival to her youth, her athlete's body and to the fact that on that night, everything--from Rebecca applying pressure to the wounds to the paramedics' quick action to the surgeons' skill--had gone right. But most of all, Heather owed her life to Heather.
Read admired her courage. Her scars would heal, at least the outward ones. The rest would be up to her. So if she wanted to go, he saw no reason to keep her. "Okay. You can leave," he told her.
The next day Heather went to the Denver Police Department to give her statement to assault investigator Detective Paul Scott. He'd already started working the boyfriend angle. They had interviewed her friends, and everything pointed to this guy Jason. He hadn't done the stabbing, but the detective figured he'd put someone else up to it. She was hurt so badly, the file on Heather Smith was opened as a homicide case.
Now here she was. Scott, a 25-year veteran who thought he'd seen everything, was flabbergasted. This was one tough lady.
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After giving her statement, Heather sat down with the police sketch artist and helped him compose a picture of the man who'd attacked her. They worked on it for hours until Heather said it was right.
"That's him," she said. That was her monster.
Next week: Tracking the monster.
end of part 3