The white Nissan pickup backed slowly down the dirt road toward the irrigation ditch just as the sun began to rise. Rocks and dry grass crunched underneath the tires as the truck neared the water, effectively obscuring any sounds from the truck bed where a man, his voice muffled by the tape wound around his head, lay wrapped in a pink blanket, his arms and legs hogtied with electrical cord.
Bridget "Missy" Zorn takes a quick breath and blots her dry cheek with a Kleenex as a Denver police detective stares at her impassively from the other side of a folding table. Then she plunges back into her description of the murder of Manuel "Roberto" Rodriguez. She speaks in a quick and quiet monotone, as if she's told the story many times before. A second officer, video camera in hand, records everything from behind the window of the interrogation room. Zorn's lawyer and a representative from the district attorney's office watch from across the room.
She was riding in the back of the truck with Rodriguez, Zorn continues. Her friend and lesbian lover, Meshel Turtle Sirio, was at the wheel. When the truck reached the bank of Church Ditch near Golden, the two women got out of the truck, dropped the tailgate and began arguing loudly as Rodriguez, a 27-year-old illegal immigrant from the Mexican state of Zacatecas, listened, wide-eyed, in terror.
"She asked me to throw him in [the canal]," Zorn says of Sirio. "She started screaming at me to 'Do it!' and I was screaming and crying, 'No!' I told her, 'No! Let's let him go!'"
Sirio, Zorn continues, was adamant that Rodriguez had to die. "She pulled on the blanket, and he fell out of the truck. He hit the side of his head. He hit a rock and he went underneath the water. I started screaming more because I didn't want to see it. I was crying." Zorn cries now, in front of the detectives, as she describes turning away to avoid watching the helpless Rodriguez sink below the surface of the dark water.
"Then," Zorn tells the officers, "she told me to drive. And she said if I ever left her, she'd kill me."
Zorn's interview, conducted on June 6, 1996, took less than two hours. Police arrested Sirio that same afternoon, nabbing her as she watched television at her sister's home in Brighton. They hustled her out the door while she was still barefoot.
Last month Zorn took the stand in a Denver courtroom and again told her spellbinding tale. And though there was no physical evidence linking Sirio to the crime--and despite Sirio's claim that she wasn't even in town when the murder was committed--jurors believed enough of Zorn's story to find Sirio guilty of kidnapping, robbery and first-degree murder. Last week Denver District Judge Larry Naves sentenced Sirio to life without parole plus 56 years, a sentence that guarantees she will die in prison.
"This is one of the most vicious things I've ever seen," Naves said, referring to the agony Rodriguez must have suffered as he lay, hogtied, while Sirio "smoked dope" and contemplated his fate. "It's horrifying to think what he must have been thinking when he died," added Naves. "I don't believe Ms. Sirio deserves to be outside another day."
The guilty verdict, however, satisfied almost nobody.
Zorn, who'd been granted limited immunity for her testimony, walked out of court a free woman, to the distress of at least one jury member and the victim's family. To them, the idea that the diminutive Sirio--who stands 4-foot-11 and weighed just over 100 pounds at the time of her arrest--could have overpowered Rodriguez and then forced her taller, bulkier lover (Zorn is 5-foot-2, 150 pounds) into assisting her, is absurd. Particularly because Zorn, 29, had been arrested for allegedly beating and harassing the 28-year-old Sirio during their four-year relationship.
"It was explained to the family that had it not been for [Zorn coming forward], the police probably would not have found who did it," says Rodriguez's sister-in-law, Nora Muniz. "But [the family] feels cheated. They feel that something should have been done to her, too."
"We thought both of them were equally guilty," echoes a juror who asked not to be identified. "But we couldn't convict both of them, because both of them were not on trial. I feel sorry for the victim's family," he adds. "They did not receive full justice on this at all."
Notebook papers covered with Meshel Sirio's crooked handwriting slide across the smooth table and drop to the floor as she nervously searches for the detail--any detail--that will prove her point. Her hands, as small as a child's, thrust the scribbled notes at a visitor as if the jottings can somehow prove her innocence and explain how she landed in the Denver County Jail. "This has got me close to a nervous breakdown," she says.
Sirio has never been in jail before, but she's no stranger to trouble. "She was a very fast child, you might say, always being able to do as she pleased," recalls Ruth, a longtime friend who asks that her real name not be used. As a teenager, Sirio went to school only when she was forced to by the courts. She left home at the age of thirteen to live with her lesbian lover Babette, a woman five years her elder who quickly assumed the dominant--and sometimes violent--role in the relationship. "Babette would always have these 'reasons' for hitting Meshel--like, 'She was talking back,'" Ruth recalls.
That relationship was fraught with more problems than domestic violence. The two hadn't been together long, Ruth says, when Babette gave birth to a son. Sirio doted on the baby and treated him as if he were her own. Years later, however, when Babette became pregnant a second time, Sirio was not so forgiving. "That hurt her real bad that Babette was messing around with men on the side," says Ruth, "and Meshel said that she'd get her; she'd show her. And she got pregnant."
Sirio's relationship with the baby's father remained serious just long enough for her to tattoo his name, Joe, on her hand. Then she went back to Babette, says Ruth, "because Joe abused her, too."
Sirio struggles to remember when she first met Missy Zorn. "I'm bad with dates," she says. "Maybe five or six years ago." She does, however, remember the place--a lesbian bar called the Nineties. Sirio says Zorn was unpleasantly surprised to learn that Sirio had a daughter, Angelica, the product of her heterosexual fling.
Soon after, however, Zorn moved into the apartment Sirio had in a housing project on Denver's northwest side. Almost as quickly, Sirio says, Zorn revealed a jealous nature. "Missy couldn't handle the idea that Babette came around," Sirio says. "But I was in that relationship for ten years, and [Babette] helped raise my daughter." Sirio says Zorn began making threats. Then, she says, the violence set in.
"The more we lived with each other, the more she started drinking and the more she'd hit me," Sirio says. "And she'd say, 'Oh, I blacked out, I won't do it again.'"
Zorn would later tell Denver prosecutors she was convicted of attacking Sirio in 1993, a crime for which she was sentenced to one year of probation and ordered to attend classes on domestic violence. Friends say Meshel got a restraining order against Missy after that. But it didn't put a stop to the beatings.
"I been there when Missy beat Meshel up," says a friend of the two women who asks not to be identified. "We were at Matchmakers [a gay bar], and Missy just started pounding on her. Missy beat her up even with a restraining order on her."
Police records show that Denver officers arrested Zorn on domestic-violence charges again in September 1994. They don't indicate whether she was convicted. Zorn, however, told prosecutors she had been arrested for assaulting Sirio on four occasions and that all but one of the cases were dismissed.
Whenever she and Zorn fought, says Sirio, Zorn would move out and stay with her mother. "She was constantly coming and going," Sirio says. "But she would call me and we'd make up, or somehow, some way, I would call her, and we would go for a talk."
Friends say the fact that Zorn had the upper hand in the relationship was obvious in how Sirio began to treat Angelica. Sirio had always been protective of her daughter, and she resented it when anyone would try to interfere by correcting the little girl or telling her how to behave. "Once Missy got into her head," says a friend who asked not to be identified, "I'd start hearing Meshel say, 'Angelica, do as Missy says. Angelica, don't talk back.' And that was not like Meshel at all."
The realization that she sometimes put her lover ahead of her little girl tears at Sirio now as she sits in jail. "She didn't like my daughter at all," she says, crying. "She was jealous. At times I would take [Angelica] to my mom's house so I could be with Missy. That hurts me so much! How could I do that to my baby? How could I even let somebody do that to me?"
Manuel Rodriguez, known to his friends as Roberto, arrived in the United States in 1991. His family is reluctant to discuss just how he made the trip. "They have ways of smuggling people over here," his sister-in-law Nora Muniz says carefully.
Rodriguez came from a poor farm family and wanted a better life for himself. When he arrived in Colorado, he was reunited with a sister and three brothers. Once he landed a job, he began sending money on a weekly basis to the family members who remained behind in Zacatecas.
Rodriguez's job skills were as limited as his English, but he knew enough to get work as a dishwasher and busboy. He sometimes worked two jobs to get ahead, but he lived a far-from-luxurious life, sharing a rundown apartment at 17th and Julian in west Denver with several roommates. His entertainment was pretty much limited to the occasional dance at bars catering to Hispanics.
If Roberto had a girlfriend, says Muniz, she didn't know about it. "I'm not real sure about that part of his life," she says. "I never met anybody he was dating, and he never really said."
Whenever Rodriguez got paid, he enjoyed treating his friends and buying drinks for the crowd. Sometimes his generous nature backfired. "About two years back," says Muniz, "Roberto was at a dance and he was buying drinks for people, and a couple guys saw that he had money. When he walked out, they followed him and beat him up."
After that incident, in which Rodriguez was critically injured, his family began trying to persuade him to return to Mexico. "We felt he should go back, because he was a kind of free spirit," says Muniz. "I said something was going to happen because he was just too trusting with people. He'd lend money out and they'd burn him. We'd say, 'Don't show people you have money.' I guess that's what happened this time."
Certainly that was the prosecution's theory of the case--at trial, the state accused Sirio of picking up Rodriguez at Max Sanchez's, a bar on Federal Boulevard, and taking him home with the intent of robbing him. "I think they [Sirio and Zorn] ran out of money to get cocaine that night," says the juror. "So the effeminate one went to the bar to pick up an illegal alien. I can just imagine the conversation--'Go pick up somebody, and we'll rob him.'"
And though the juror says he thinks Rodriguez may have left the bar with Sirio hoping for a little sex, "he didn't get lucky--he got killed."
The summer of 1995 was the beginning of a tough stretch for Meshel Sirio. The death of her aunt, with whom she had been extremely close, sent her into a tailspin of drinking and drugs, friends say. Even Sirio concedes that her drinking became a problem during that time. "I accumulated a DUI," she says, "and I got the court dates mixed up and I missed a hearing. I knew I had a warrant out for failure to appear.
"Me and Missy weren't together at the time," she adds. "But we were still seeing each other on and off on the sneaks."
In May 1996, partly in an attempt to shake Sirio out of her doldrums, her parents say they took her and seven-year-old Angelica to Lon Hagler Lake State Wildlife Area near Loveland for a camping trip. For the family, fishing and camping were almost as much business as they were pleasure--Meshel's mother, Mary Lou Sirio, used the trips to test out the sleeping bags and tents she designs and sews for a local company. Mary Lou, who appeared as an alibi witness for her daughter at trial, says she remembers the date of the outing particularly well because the family was in the mountains on her father's birthday.
Meshel says she broke camp early on the evening of Saturday, May 18, leaving Angelica behind so the girl could enjoy one more night at the lake with her grandparents. It also provided Sirio with an opportunity to spend some time with her friends. Before driving away, Sirio says, she asked her mother for some money--she got about $30--so she could go out that night.
"I got back [to the west-central Denver projects where she'd moved in 1993] about 7:30 or 8," Sirio says, "and I got dressed to go out. I heard a knock on the window and I opened the door, and all of a sudden, Missy was standing there. I told her I was getting ready to go out, and she said, 'Can I come in and talk to you?' She busted out crying, and she said, 'I did something really bad, and I hope God will forgive me.'"
According to Sirio, Zorn then sat down on the sofa and told her that a man had tried to rape her. "She said, 'I hit him on the head and I threw him in the river.' I didn't know whether to believe her or not. I was confused. I didn't know what to think. I thought maybe she was telling this as a way of squirming her way back into my life."
The two drank from a bottle of rum and then passed out. When she awoke Sunday morning, Sirio says, she found Zorn outside, drinking beer with a neighbor. Later that day, Sirio says, she drove to Brighton with Zorn to pick up Angelica from her parents, who had returned from the lake.
"On the way to Brighton," Sirio says, "Missy tells me, 'Please don't say anything to anybody.' She's trying to convince me to go back with her. And she said, 'Don't forget what I fucking did to him; I could do it to you and Angelica.'"
When she walked in the gate of her mother's yard, says Sirio, she was already crying. "Missy went and sat on the picnic table and started talking to my sister," she claims. "I went in and told my mother I needed to talk to her. I said, 'Mom, Missy said she killed this man, and I don't know what to think.' I said, 'Does that make me an accessory?' And Mama looked at me and said, 'I think that does make you an accessory.' She said, 'Have you told anybody else?' She said, 'Why don't you go to the cops?' I said, 'I got a warrant for my arrest [on the traffic charges], and I don't want to go to jail.'"
When Zorn entered the house, Sirio claims, Zorn could see that she had been crying and deduced that Sirio had been talking to her mother about the murder. Sirio says Zorn became enraged and that they left a short time afterward, with Angelica and Sirio's sister, Denine, in tow.
"We were arguing in the truck," Sirio says. "I stopped at a McDonald's to get some food, and--boom!--she smacked me in the lip. I started bleeding. Angelica jumped out of the truck, and she was scared. I said, 'Missy, I'm tired of you hitting me; I'm going to call the cops, and I'm going to tell [about the murder].'
"There was a phone, and I went to call 911. She said, 'Watch! Just watch!' And she grabbed the phone and said, 'You're gonna pay for this!' And she split, running."
Sirio says she didn't see Zorn again until her preliminary hearing for the murder of Roberto Rodriguez.
Missy Zorn couldn't be reached for comment for this article. But the story she told the detectives in the interrogation room--and later repeated at trial--was worlds away from Sirio's. It begins on Friday, May 17, 1996, when, Zorn claimed, Sirio wasn't camping by a lake, but with her.
"I met Meshel on Friday evening," Zorn told the detectives, "and we drove to Brighton with her daughter to drop her off. Meshel gave a friend a ride back to Denver. He bought us some beer and we dropped him off. We still had five beers, and [Meshel] had a little coke. I said we should stay home, but she wanted to go out."
According to Zorn, she stayed behind at Sirio's home to listen to music while Sirio went out on the town. In fact, she told jurors, she was literally trapped in Sirio's residence. Sirio had locked the deadbolt behind her, leaving Zorn stuck unless she broke a window to get out. Zorn said she decided to wait for Sirio to come back instead.
Sirio didn't return home until about midnight, Zorn said. Accompanying her was a man dressed in a light shirt and dark pants and wearing a cowboy hat. "She had more drugs," Zorn told police. The three of them sat in the kitchen, drinking shots of Amaretto. Sirio, Zorn said, was also smoking crack.
"Meshel asked him for more money to purchase some coke," Zorn told the detectives soberly, "and he said no. Then Meshel said she was going upstairs to change her clothes."
While Sirio was out of the room, Zorn claimed, she chatted with the man, even though she found his broken English hard to follow. "He said his name was Roberto," she said, "and that he worked at an IHOP."
At that moment, Zorn claimed, Sirio came up behind Rodriguez and hit him on the head with a hammer. "I jumped up, and I was screaming and crying," Zorn said, her voice shaky. "The table got knocked over, and I was telling her to stop. She demanded money and he gave her a little, but she wasn't satisfied. She threatened to hit him again unless he gave her some more.
"They struggled for the hammer," Zorn continued, and the three of them fell into a pile together. Sirio again gained control of the hammer, Zorn told the officers, and ordered Rodriguez to remain on the floor.
"Meshel reached in the junk drawer and got a phone cord," she said. "She said to me, 'Tie him up' and that if I didn't do what she said, she'd kill me."
In the taped interview, Zorn claimed that after she had trouble tying Rodriguez's hands, Sirio took over. "She finished tying him up, and I told her to leave him alone. She told me to shut up. She taped his mouth. She said she had to kill him or he would come back and kill her and her daughter."
Zorn told detectives that Sirio left her alone with the bound man, who was still conscious, while she left the house to make a phone call. She tried to comfort Rodriguez, she said, even suggesting that she try and escape to call police, but he told her, "No policia, no policia." Even though Sirio was out of the house, Zorn didn't take that opportunity to leave. She justified the action to police by telling them she thought Sirio was testing her to see if she would attempt to flee.
Soon after Sirio returned to the house, Zorn told detectives, someone came to the door. Zorn said she could hear voices but decided it would be dangerous to call for help. Apparently, the late-night caller was a drug dealer Sirio had asked to make a house call--an assumption Zorn made because Sirio returned to the kitchen carrying cocaine.
"She said, 'You're going to have to do some with me," Zorn told detectives. "She more or less threatened me into doing whatever she wanted."
Five hours passed, Zorn said, while Sirio smoked crack and became "anxious and antsy." Zorn told police she wanted to let the man go but that Sirio ignored her pleas. Sirio then wrapped the man in a pink blanket, Zorn claimed, and ordered Zorn to help her get rid of him.
According to Zorn, Sirio then used the blanket to help drag Rodriguez to her pickup truck and forced Zorn to help put him in the truck bed. Sirio then allegedly got behind the wheel and ordered Zorn to ride in the back with Rodriguez.
"I tried to talk to him and tell him everything would be okay," Zorn said of Rodriguez, but Sirio could hear her through the window, "and every time I tried, she would yell at me."
Zorn claimed that Sirio drove west on U.S. 6 toward Golden, then turned off on a dirt road that led to what Zorn thought was Clear Creek. After Sirio pulled on the blanket and sent Rodriguez tumbling into the water, the women drove away, Zorn said.
From that point on, Zorn's description of events closely parallels that of Sirio's, but with two major exceptions: She claims that they went to visit Sirio's home on Saturday morning, not Sunday, and that later, on the way to see Sirio's father (who was reportedly working in Keenesburg that day), Sirio tossed Rodriguez's belt, hat and identification out the truck window. When Zorn jumped out of Sirio's truck and fled from the McDonald's parking lot, she claimed, she did so because Sirio was threatening to frame her for the slaying.
Within two days of Rodriguez's death, Zorn retained Denver attorney Duane Montano and told him she had information about a murder. Montano then began delicate negotiations with prosecutor Lamar Sims of the Denver District Attorney's office, attempting to exchange information in return for immunity for his client. He didn't give Sims the name of his client or that of the dead man, but he did say that the man had been dumped in a creek near Golden.
Sims complied with the request, answering by letter that if "your client agrees to testify, truthfully, in all hearings and trials arising out of this investigation...no charges greater than a class-four felony, e.g. 'Accessory After the Fact,' shall be filed against her."
For weeks the agreement remained moot, because Rodriguez's body hadn't been found. But on Wednesday, June 5, Golden mail carrier Mark Walters was walking his regular route when he noticed a foul odor coming from beneath a bridge near the 700 block of Arapahoe Street. "As I crossed over the canal," he wrote in a police report, "I saw a body in the canal up against the debris gate." Rodriguez, still hogtied, lay face up in the water.
Denver police now had a name to go with Montano's proffered deal. The defense attorney brought Zorn to police headquarters the following morning. Later that day she showed detectives where she and Meshel had dumped the body and pointed out the area where she believed Rodriguez's hat, belt and ID could be found. They never were.
After that fatal weekend with Zorn, Sirio moved some of her belongings from her home in the projects and began staying in Brighton with her family. She says she was afraid to go back to her place because Zorn would find her and hurt her.
Sirio was with her sister Denine on June 6 when the Brighton police showed up with a warrant for her arrest. Sirio claims she was confused and hysterical. A friend says Sirio had been smoking crack earlier that day. At any rate, when Denver detective Steve Shott arrived to take her to Denver, Sirio blurted out, "I'm not taking this alone. Bridget is an accessory. I want her arrested tonight."
Those words--which Sirio later insisted were the result of her confusion and her misunderstanding of the legal term "accessory"--would come back to haunt her. Her statement, along with Zorn's testimony at trial, was the only real evidence against her.
Between the date of her arrest and her March 1997 trial, Sirio told two versions of events about the weekend in question. In the first, Sirio claimed to friends and to her attorney that Zorn attacked Rodriguez with a hammer because he'd tried to rape Sirio. Later she claimed that she hadn't been home that weekend at all, the story she is sticking to today.
Zorn's story changed, too. According to an investigator with the district attorney's office, Zorn claimed in an October interview that she'd gone to Sirio's house late on the night of Friday, May 17, simply to pack up some boxes. In this version, there was no mention of driving to Brighton to drop off Angelica.
A woman who knows Zorn and Sirio through the lesbian bar scene claims that Zorn told her yet another version of events. In that account, Zorn reportedly said that "Meshel was going down for her. She said that Meshel had hit [Rodriguez] and that he didn't go down and that he turned to attack Meshel. And when that happened, [Zorn] got the hammer. She said she had to do something because he was going to kill her.
"I asked her, 'How come you're not in trouble?'" the woman says. "And she said it was because she wasn't the actual one to kill him and that she was the first one who went to the cops."
Even prosecutors apparently found Zorn's story lacking in some important details. Just days before she was to go to trial, they approached her attorney, Rob Berger, to explore the possibility of a plea bargain. The reported terms of the arrangement were simple: The state would allow Sirio to plead guilty to second-degree murder--a charge that carries a possible sentence of 48 years--if she would testify against Zorn. Berger relayed the news to Sirio, who refused to negotiate. She preferred to plead not guilty.
At trial, Sirio's attorneys, Berger and Ron Hahn, hoped to prove to the jury that she was incapable of carrying out such a crime. She, not Zorn, was the battered partner in the relationship, they argued. Zorn had never been intimidated by the younger, smaller woman.
As part of the defense, Berger and Hahn called to the stand Denver psychologist Kathryn Jens, who described what she'd been able to determine about the dynamics of Zorn and Sirio's relationship.
Based on Zorn's size and demeanor, Jens testified, she believed that Zorn had been the aggressor in the relationship. "Her lack of emotion in the police interview made her appear shallow," says Jens, who viewed the videotaped interrogation. "I couldn't feel her fear when she talked about being afraid of Meshel and of not taking any action."
Sirio, by contrast, "seemed sort of docile," Jens tells Westword.
Jens's testimony helped Sirio, but only to a point. According to the juror who spoke with Westword, he and other jurors believed that Zorn was capable of intimidating her partner. But they didn't believe Sirio's alibi--that she was at the lake with her parents--despite the testimony from Sirio's mother. And they were left horrified by pathologist Amy Martin's testimony that Rodriguez was alive when he went into the water.
"They hogtied that man and let him lay there for five hours," says the juror. "And when they dumped his body, he was still alive. They're both evil, evil women."
The decision to convict Sirio of first-degree murder was an easy one, the juror adds. The panel deliberated less than two hours before returning a verdict. "We had no doubt that they were both guilty," he says. "There was no question in the minds of the jury that this woman [Zorn] was guilty of murder. Unfortunately, we couldn't do anything."
The juror says he was particularly disgusted by Zorn's contention that she felt threatened by Sirio. "If she didn't have a history of beating the crap out of [Sirio], I might have believed it," he says. "But when Missy talked about them all wrestling for the hammer and falling down together and Missy supposedly being too afraid to help the guy and Meshel yelling and Missy hovering in the corner and whimpering, I wanted to throw up."
As for Zorn, Berger claims that the language of the DA's immunity agreement has hamstrung the state's ability to charge her in connection with Rodriguez's death. Prosecutor Phil Brimmer says, however, that his office has not yet decided what to do about Missy Zorn. Will she be charged as an accessory? Will his office try to get her for murder?
"What we're going to do now," Brimmer says, "is evaluate what evidence is available to us and weigh that with what we believe to be Bridget Zorn's participation in the murder. At that time, we'll make a decision about charging Bridget Zorn.
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.