FACING THE MONSTER
part 2 of 2
The distance from Lakewood to Empire is less than fifty miles. But it must have seemed like a thousand to Detective Scott Richardson on February 23, 1995, when he, another detective, Byron Powers and Powers's attorney headed up I-70 to find Cher Elder's grave.
Thomas Luther had been convicted of first-degree sexual assault on January 26 in West Virginia. He had asked to be sentenced immediately and the judge had complied by handing down 15 to 35 years. Luther was sent to jail to await transfer to the West Virginia penitentiary.
While in jail, Luther wrote more than a hundred letters to Deborah Snyder, including one that revealed his own confusion about the monster within: "It wasn't sex at all. It was assault and anger, pure meanness from a subconscious level. This really scares me, Deb. I can't deal with the lack of self-control I have. I guess I really am dangerous if I can hurt people like this."
Luther would never be transferred to the state penitentiary. As he'd predicted, Richardson would soon be coming to get him.
Byron had finally told Richardson where Cher Elder was buried. Luther had talked about needing to bury the body deeper and cover it with rat poison so that animals wouldn't dig it up, he said. When he returned to the gravesite the week after Cher's murder, Luther didn't know that Byron and J.D. were following him, Byron said.
Now the two unmarked police cruisers turned off I-70 and followed highway 40 through Empire and up the winding road toward Berthoud Pass. After a couple of false alarms and pleading with Richardson to "not get grumpy with me," Byron found the spot where Luther's car had been parked on that dark night two years earlier. "There'll be two trails," he said, pointing up the hill. "One on the right, one on the left. We'll go up, left, and we'll run into it."
It was a lonely place. Beautiful but snowy, cold and windswept. To get his bearings, Byron went over to where he said he'd hidden in the trees watching Luther at his gruesome task. He pointed to a pile of rocks. "That's it."
The nude body of Cher Elder was found beneath the rock pile in a two-foot-deep grave. Her remains were positively identified through dental records.
The autopsy revealed that she had been shot twice in the back left side of her head with a .22-caliber held about three inches from her skull. It could not be determined if she had been raped. Despite Luther's assertions that she had a cocaine habit, there was no evidence of drugs in Cher's body.
On March 2, Richardson met again with Byron Powers. He turned on a tape recorder and the former boyfriend of Cher Elder began talking. He'd struck a deal in return for the body and his testimony. (Jefferson County District Attorney Dave Thomas refuses to disclose the terms of that deal; however, Byron Powers currently resides in a halfway house--23 years before he was scheduled to get out of prison.)
"On the night in question," Byron began, he, Luther, his two half-brothers, his friend Gina and Cher Elder were at his apartment. Cher was angry because of Gina and left for Central City with Luther in his car.
When Byron and Gina returned to the apartment that night, his half-brothers were asleep in their bedroom. Cher's car was still parked in the lot. About 5 a.m., Byron said, he was awakened by voices. He found Luther and Dennis "Southy" Healey in the apartment. They left, and he went back to sleep.
When he woke again about mid-morning, Luther was asleep in the spare bedroom. Cher's car was gone. (It would later be found several blocks away.)
Byron said he believed at the time that Cher had simply run off, maybe to get even with him. He didn't know she had been killed until a few days later, when he overheard Luther talking to someone on the telephone, someone who wanted him to come remove a body because it was starting to smell.
"That's when Tom told me he killed her," Byron told Richardson. "He said she was going to tell on me and my brothers. He said that on the way back she started screaming that she was going to go to the cops."
Luther had stopped the car on a cold, windy overlook above Golden. Pulling Cher out, he shot her in the head and threw the gun in the river. Then he took the body to Southy's.
Luther had a theory about how to get away with murder, Byron said. "He said, `Just go into the mountains, dig a hole and put the body in there, and then get rid of the stuff in a river. You can't find anything in a river cause it always moves.'"
Cher was no snitch, Byron admitted. As his half-brother J.D. would later tell Richardson, "She was a total flat-out sweetheart. She never did anything wrong...One night she got mad because of Gina and she took off with Tom.
"And that was just a mistake, right there."
On March 7, 1995, a Jefferson County grand jury returned an indictment against Thomas Edward Luther, charging him with the murder, sexual assault and robbery of Cher Elder.
At a press conference announcing the indictment, DA Thomas praised Richardson for his "dogged determination." The detective, weary and emotionally drained, said, "You come to know your victim very well. She was more like a friend. There is a feeling of victory but a sad ending."
Cher's mother told the press she was glad the search was over. "Even though it may not be what you wanted to find, at least you can start dealing with something. You can't start a grieving process until you know for sure."
The next day, Heather was sitting in her psychiatrist's office when the doctor handed her a newspaper. "Did you see this?" Reading the article on Cher Elder, the doctor had noted the date of her disappearance and wondered if there might be a connection.
People were always handing Heather newspaper clippings, wondering if she had noted the latest violent episode, wondering how she was doing. Physically she was much better, except for a pain in her neck. On good days she felt emotionally strong, more like her old self. She'd begun to come out of her shell, re-establishing contact with her friends.
And a year after the attack she'd begun to date Dr. Bob Read. That hadn't been easy, either: He was married at the time, though he assured her that it was over, and there were questions as to the appropriateness of a doctor dating a former patient. But Read had fallen in love with the courageous young woman, and she had found a man with whom she felt safe.
Wanting to do something with her life that made a statement, Heather started working at the Belle Bonfils Blood Center--the facility that had supplied the 87 units of blood, several times the amount found in a normal adult, needed to keep Heather alive--first as a part-time receptionist, then as a blood-drive coordinator. And she volunteered once a week at the Denver Victims Service Center, to help others work their way to recovery from violent crime.
Heather had her bad days, too. And nights...since the attack, her dreams had been filled with images of being chased. Recently she'd dreamed that she was walking down a sidewalk when she saw the man in the green jacket waiting behind a wall. "If I can just get past him," she told herself in the dream, "I'll be okay." She kept walking as he watched her. Just as she thought she had made it to safety, she looked down. Her chest was covered with blood. She woke in tears.
In her psychiatrist's office, Heather now read the story headlined, "Dogged Work Nets Body, Key Suspect." She turned the page and saw a photograph of Luther. It was the face of her monster. "It's him," she said softly. "It's him."
Heather called Detective Scott and told him about the picture. "Okay," he said. "Let's get this thing solved."
It had been almost two years since Scott had looked at Heather's file. When he opened it and found the composite that the sketch artist had drawn from Heather's description, he was shocked: The artist's rendition looked like he had drawn it with Luther in the room.
Still, Scott wasn't satisfied. He arranged to get a more recent photograph of Luther. In this picture the beard was gone, as were Luther's glasses, and he wasn't wearing a hat.
Scott mixed this photograph in with some others of similar-looking men. When Heather looked through the photo lineup, she picked Luther out immediately.On March 10, Scott presented Heather's case to detectives Eaton and Richardson in Lakewood.
Eaton returned to Summit County from that meeting more determined than ever to solve the Oberholtzer and Schnee murders. The Idaho man remained a suspect, but his instincts told him to pursue all the leads concerning Luther.
"Go for it," said Morales, now the sheriff of Summit County.
In May an agent for the Colorado Bureau of Investigation found Laurie Wagner living out of state with her husband. She told him she didn't want to get involved; she said she was still afraid of Luther.
A few days later an investigator contacted the detective who'd submitted Wagner's gun for testing more than a decade before. Yes, he remembered, the test had come back negative. After that, he said, they hadn't kept after Luther about the Oberholtzer and Schnee cases, he said, "because we could not determine he was here at the time of the murders."
Eaton also located John Martin, a former Summit County inmate who was now in a New Jersey prison for embezzlement and writing bad checks. Thirteen years before, Martin had told the then-undersheriff of Summit County that he'd heard Luther brag about murdering two girls. The undersheriff had taken notes but said "there wasn't time" to pursue the matter back then.
Eaton went to New Jersey to interview Martin in July. The 55-year-old convict wanted to know what had taken so long.
When Martin met Luther in jail, "I told him I was in for assaulting a cop," Martin said. Impressed, the younger man had talked. Luther was full of brag. He told Martin that he had "beat and fucked" the girl with a hammer, but she was afraid for her life and wouldn't testify.
"He said he got off on hurting women--that it was better than drugs or booze," Martin recalled. "`Fuck them and then kill them,' that's what he said. He said he had assaulted a lot of women and killed a few.
"He thought he was a real ladies' man. Said he could always talk to them and make them feel safe. `They drop their defenses and I have them at my mercy.'"
Luther had also talked about killing two Summit County women, Martin said. "A `sweet young thing' named Ann or Anna and a second older one who put up a hell of a fight. The second woman's name was... Babs...or Jackie O." Martin tried to remember, then brightened. The woman's name was similar to that of a judge who had once sentenced him in Pennsylvania. (Investigators located the judge, whose name was Barbara Obelinas.) Luther claimed to have killed the younger woman first, Martin said, then drove the older woman around for a while before killing her, too.
Eaton left the New Jersey prison excited but cautious. He knew that inmates were born liars, always trying to make a deal. And Martin wanted Eaton to write a letter indicating his cooperation to a judge who was considering some pending bad-check charges.
The Summit County detective contacted FBI Special Agent Bruce Kamerman in New York, whom Martin claimed to have helped in a number of cases. How reliable had Martin been? Eaton asked.
"Outstanding," the FBI agent replied. "Unbelievable." He'd helped the feds solve a series of bank and armored car robberies in New Jersey--and put a murderer behind bars for the state.
"Heck, I'd let him marry my daughter," Kamerman laughed.
The trial of Thomas Luther for the murder of Cher Elder is set to begin January 16. Jeffco DA Dave Thomas has said he plans to seek the death penalty if Luther is convicted.
Both sides are now preparing for battle. The prosecution had indicated it would introduce as evidence "prior similars"--the rape and assault of Mary in Summit County and Bobby Jo in West Virginia--to prove that Luther's motive was simply that he liked to hurt (and therefore kill) young, petite, pretty women with shoulder-length hair who reminded him of his mother.
But Luther's chief defense attorney, Boulder lawyer Lauren Cleaver, opposed the introduction of such evidence. "The lack of similarity between Cher Elder's death and the two sexual assaults in Summit County and West Virginia are striking," she wrote, adding that it would be improper to use prior bad acts to convict him of another.
In a decision issued December 8, Judge Christopher Munch, who will preside over the case, agreed with Cleaver, ruling that the prosecution cannot submit evidence regarding Luther's rapes in Summit County or West Virginia. While the three women involved "bear a striking resemblance" to each other, Munch said, the prosecution had not persuaded him that there was enough evidence outside of Luther's "bad character" to make a case that he sexually assaulted or beat and choked Elder. Nor had the prosecution demonstrated it could prove Luther attacked women because they reminded him of his mother.
Cleaver also contended that her client's rights to due process had been violated by law enforcement personnel, particularly Detective Richardson, in an effort to "get Tom Luther at any cost." She had wanted the court to exclude statements "allegedly made by Luther."
But in his ruling, Munch noted that the prosecution is not precluded from entering some evidence, including Luther's alleged remarks that he would kill the next woman he sexually assaulted so that she could not identify him. At trial, the prosecution will have to contend with the fact that many of its chief witnesses, particularly Byron Powers, are criminals who got deals to turn on Luther. And Cleaver is sure to note that five people--including Byron, his half-brother J.D. and his friend Gina--initially indicated that they'd seen or heard Cher Elder after the time that police contend that she was killed. Some of Luther's friends contend that Luther may have been covering up for his old cellmate's sons.
Luther pleaded not guilty to the charges in the Elder case in June; he is currently in the Jefferson County jail. Westword offered him a chance to tell his story, and he discussed it with his attorney.
"It wouldn't be wise," Cleaver responded. "It's a death penalty case, and we're avoiding any publicity. Somehow in death penalty cases, talking to the press always comes back to haunt us."
But it's a fascinating case, she added, hinting that the real story behind the police investigation would come out during and after the trial. "It'd make a great book," she said. "I will tell you one thing: He's not guilty of this."
Reached in Vermont, Betty Luther snapped, "No comment. I believe in my son."
Detective Scott Richardson, whose interviews with Luther are included in the court files, declined to discuss the case with Westword. "I'd be happy to sit and talk to you all day about Tom Luther," he said. "After the trial. We got a grand jury indictment, so we'll give him his day and go on from there."
It was Richardson who escorted Luther from West Virginia to Colorado last April 23.
The next day, Denver's daily newspapers ran Cher Elder's obituary. It said simply that she was a twenty-year-old waitress at the Holiday Inn, a graduate of Purdy High School in Missouri who "enjoyed cross-stitch, reading, art, photography and writing poetry." Her parents, stepbrothers and stepsisters grieved for her.
So did the Lakewood detective.
If Luther did not kill Cher Elder, as his attorney maintains, or anyone else, he is simply a self-professed, brutal sexual predator dogged by the unfortunate coincidence that wherever he goes, young women disappear...and die.
But even if Luther beats the rap in Jefferson County, he will not be a free man. He still must serve 15 to 35 years in West Virginia. And he may have to answer allegations about other murders...in Colorado and elsewhere.
At a meeting in Jeffco attended by detectives from several law-enforcement agencies, investigators disclosed that an informant had claimed Luther and another man killed and raped a woman in a Denver apartment and left the body covered with an American flag. A Denver detective present at the meeting said his department had an unsolved homicide fitting that description. Further investigation discovered that human hair found on the victim was microscopically similar to Luther's hair, according to police documents.
In Pennsylvania, Corporal Freehling has been keeping track of Luther. He still hasn't been able to identify the woman found in December 1993. And there's something else nagging at him: another girl reported missing in April 1994. She was a twenty-year-old model on her way from Oklahoma to a car show in New Jersey. She got as far as Newport, Pennsylvania, off I-81, where she called a friend from McDonald's. That was the last anyone ever heard from her.
Her clothes were discovered in a Newport motel; her car five miles as the crow flies from where that other girl's body was found six months earlier.
"She vanished into thin air," Freehling said. "I wonder...was Tom Luther in the area at that time?"
In Summit County, they believe they're closing in on the killer of Bobby Jo Oberholtzer and Annette Schnee. Morales and Eaton have met with the district attorney to discuss the possibility of bringing charges against Luther; the DA told them to keep working on it.
Eaton has tracked down most of the inmates who pointed the finger at Luther. Like Martin, they're still telling the same stories. But Laurie Wagner has grown uncooperative and will no longer meet face to face with investigators.
Eaton is working on other evidence, too, but he won't reveal what it is.
Last April, Eaton attended a seminar on sexual predators. The speaker was Robert Pennel, the Washington prosecutor who followed and then wrote the book on serial killer Ted Bundy. Cops, good cops, can't help but stay after the monsters who hunt women, Pennel said. No matter how many hours, how many years it takes, no matter what the personal toll, they hang on until they get their man.
The words reminded Eaton of Detective Richardson, a man he'd once considered "arrogant." Now he thought of him as one of the best homicide detectives he'd ever met--in large part because he cared about the victim and wouldn't let go until he caught the man who'd killed her.
But Eaton also saw himself in Pennel's words. Someday soon he hopes to make that journey to the top of Hoosier Pass and then down the other side to Sacramento Creek, to let the spirits of Bobby Jo and Annette know that he kept his promise.
His boss, Sheriff Morales, also looks forward to that day. In the meantime, he takes pride in the fact that Tom Luther hates him. "I'd be offended if he liked me," he says. "No matter what else happens, he is the enemy. Thirteen years ago, he raped and brutally beat a woman up here, and still there is no closure.
"There never will be...until the day, after he is convicted in a court of law, they execute him."
Rebecca Hascall thinks the healing process is somewhat akin to piecing together a broken vase. From a distance it might look the same, but up close the cracks still show, and it will never be as strong as it once was.
It had taken more than two years and a frightening hallucination for Rebecca to put the pieces of her life back together. Over a year after the attack, she had been driving home when she looked down to see her shirt was bright red with blood. In her mind she knew it wasn't real, and when she looked down again it was gone. Still, she was shaken. Pulling up in front of her house, she was too terrified to get out of the car. She sat and cried for an hour before she worked up the nerve to make a mad dash for her house. Checking to make sure her gun was tucked safely under her pillow, she cried herself to sleep.
The next day, she went to work and the same thing happened: She looked down to see her chest covered with blood. She was cracking up--and she knew it. Fortunately, Rebecca had been going with Heather to the Victims Assistance Service Center, where the counselor explained that Rebecca was also a victim.
Now the counselor consoled her. Hallucinations were part of post-traumatic stress syndrome. Apparently Rebecca was suppressing something that needed to come out. To find out what it was, the counselor hypnotized Rebecca, and then asked her to recall the night of the attack.
Rebecca remembered the man crouching in the street, looking at her. She was afraid, but her friend needed her. She'd gone to call 911 and then rushed back with towels to place on the wounds. Then Rebecca's memory went blank. The counselor urged her to look beyond...and then Rebecca recalled the paramedics rolling Heather over onto her back and the sight of Heather's bloody chest.
"I was holding all the wrong places," Rebecca cried. "I thought I had killed her." For over a year, she had been living with the guilt of believing she'd almost let her friend die.
Rebecca got rid of the gun. Even though she replaced it with a security system, she felt she was reasserting her beliefs over her fear. But she remains fragile.
One night this October, a knock on the door startled Rebecca. A woman stood on the porch. In the old days, Rebecca would have opened the door, invited her in. Now she left her standing there in the porch light.
"I have a book I need to give to Heather," the woman said. "Does she still live next door?"
"Heather doesn't live around here anymore. You can leave the book, and when I run into her, I'll give it to her."
"Well...could I use your telephone?"
"No," Rebecca answered. She felt bad, but she was afraid. He had done that to her.
"Do you have a portable telephone you could hand me?"
"Just leave the book," Rebecca repeated. "What is it, anyway?"
"Well," the woman said. "It's not really a book...it's an Avon catalogue Heather ordered."
Finally the woman walked off into the night. Rebecca rebuked herself for being paranoid. She decided to call Heather.
"Did you order an Avon catalogue?"
Rebecca explained, and they laughed: Some poor Avon lady now thought Rebecca was crazy as a loon. But both women remembered that Luther had been known to send girlfriends on his errands before.
Last Thursday, Thomas Edward Luther was arraigned in Denver District Court and pleaded not guilty to charges of attempted murder and first-degree assault in the case of Heather Smith; the trial is not scheduled to begin until after the Elder trial.
"It's a bogus case," says Cleaver, Luther's attorney, of the Heather Smith charges. "That's not what's exciting in Mr. Luther's life."
"I have the best evidence there is," responds Detective Scott. "My victim is still alive. There's a whole lot of credibility when a victim can get up on the witness stand, point to the defendant and say, `That's the man.' And Heather will be a great witness."
Heather isn't as confident. She's sure she has the right man--but she's afraid. Ever since she identified Luther as her assailant, she's been waiting to find out why he couldn't be the man. For someone to say he's too short. Or has an alibi.
So far, they haven't. But even so, Heather does not look forward to being interrogated by Cleaver on the witness stand.
She has moved from the little house near Washington Park. There were too many dark memories there, and it no longer felt safe. But otherwise she constantly pushes herself. She entered the Bolder Boulder race to prove she could regain the athlete's confidence she once took for granted. At home she reads murder mysteries to test the limits of her fears. And she dreams of revenge.
Luther tried to kill her. Now she'd like to return the favor. Stab him five times and see if he has the courage and strength she showed.
Still, sometimes it seems like the suffering will never end. This past summer she had to undergo another operation: The blow to the back of her neck two years ago had fractured her C7 vertebra, the same vertebra that was fractured when Luther attacked Mary in Summit County.
Heather knows all about Mary. She met her this fall through mutual friends. After a phone conversation, they got together at a restaurant. Having heard what happened to her, Heather was surprised by how strong and cheerful the smaller woman looked.
Mary admitted that she still fears Luther. The beating cost her some of her hearing, and she is tormented by headaches. She has been told that if he is convicted for the murder of Cher Elder, she may be called during the death-penalty phase to testify about what he did to her.
Despite how he'd hurt her, Luther hadn't ruined Mary's life. She'd gone on, gotten married, and now has a family. "I made a choice to live," she told Heather. "Just like the choice you made." She was happy. "And you will be, too."
The monster had not ruined her life. She could still fall in love. Have children. Enjoy the moonlight and stars that shine through the dark of night.
Mary had been willing to take the stand and point her finger at Thomas Luther before. She would be willing to do it again if it might protect another woman.
Someday soon, Heather will do the same. She will go into the courtroom and confront the man she believes attacked her.
If Thomas Luther is the monster she believes he is, she will face the monster, point her finger and say, "That's him. That's him."
end of part 2
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.