Is there an elderly child killer on the prowl in Denver?
The way Jim Benish tells it, if local law enforcement agencies don't manage to solve two and possibly three notorious, decades-old child murder cases, it won't be because they don't have enough evidence.
"They have all the information that I have," says Benish, a former Thornton police officer and author of a recent book, Closed Eyes: Who's Killing Our Children?, billed as "The Story of a Serial Killer Loose in Colorado." "If they don't have it all, they know it exists."
In 1993, Benish, then assigned to Thornton's homicide squad, decided to take a fresh look at what was already an ice-cold case: the 1984 murder of seven-year-old Tracy Neef, who was abducted on the way to her elementary school. The files he reviewed had information about a possible suspect, a local man with a history of misdemeanor sex offenses, whom Benish believed had been too hastily ruled out.
As Benish dug deeper, he found similarities between the Neef homicide and the 1993 abduction of an Englewood boy named Michael (who was found alive in Adams County sixteen hours later) as well as the abduction and killing of five-year-old Alie Berrelez that same year. Trace evidence, witness descriptions and other clues all pointed to a welder whom Benish identifies as "David."
Benish interrogated David before his retirement -- a transcript of the interview makes up a hunk of the book -- but wasn't able to elicit a confession. Evidence went missing and leads were left unpursued for years. Finally, he decided to try to nudge public interest in the long-buried cases with his own account. "I just got the feeling there hasn't been any good, old-fashioned police work in these cases," he says, speaking by phone from his home in Arizona. "There's a lot more they can do. All of these cases are solvable. They just have to keep an open mind and follow the evidence, wherever it goes."
Benish calls Closed Eyes a novel, largely because of some highly speculative passages giving the pedophilic killer's supposed thoughts while selecting his victims and disposing of the bodies. It's also a self-published work; the review copy sent to Westword is riddled with typos and inadvertently divulges David's last name, a problem Benish says he's corrected in later printings. A late chapter attempts to tie David to the killing of JonBenét Ramsey, too, largely on the geography involved (he was once questioned by police about exposing himself at a playground a few blocks from the Ramsey house) rather than any pattern in the actual circumstances of the crime.
"I was reluctant to put that in," Benish says, acknowledging that his suspect may not fit the Ramsey homicide. "But my suggestion is that they ought to at least look at this guy. He needs to be considered a person of interest."
The Ramsey case has had more than its share of spin doctoring and fall guys, as noted in our 2006 account of the John Mark Karr fiasco, "Made For Each Other." Still, Benish's book, for all its limitations, does present a revealing (and depressing) picture of how scattershot the investigation of even a child's murder can be -- agencies don't share information, don't systematically follow up every lead, fall prey to what Benish terms the "tunnel vision" of developing one theory and one suspect and missing other valuable clues.
Benish might have some tunnel vision himself where David is concerned. He hasn't talked to the man since their inconclusive interview sixteen years ago, but he says David was arrested for another sex-related offense in Colorado in 2006. He is now sixty-five years old.
Will the cops take another look at Benish's suspect now that his book spells out the case against him? The author isn't sure. "The police agencies are all protective of their own jurisdiction," Benish says. "It's difficult, even as an investigator, to get information out of them -- or to give them information. They don't take kindly to the suggestion that they are headed down the wrong path."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.