Natalie Vasquez was raised in Chamisal, a shabby village set among the piñons and red rolling hills of northern New Mexico, a poverty-stricken stepchild to the wealth and culture of nearby Taos and Santa Fe. The centuries-old settlement, beset by the problems of a modern age -- drugs, welfare, dropouts -- has become a cradle of evangelicalism in a land shaped by Roman Catholic missionaries.
Contradictions were a part of Natalie's life. They would also prove intrinsic to her brutal death at the age of 24. A religious young woman who strove, as a friend said, to live for God, Natalie was strangled, beheaded and dumped like so much refuse in a canyon west of Boulder.
The year 1991 would prove pivotal to many residents of Chamisal. That was when Troy Hancock said God called him to New Mexico.
Hancock, the son of an itinerant preacher, was reared amid the fiery sermons and zealous prayers of revival meetings. The Word flows through his veins. And when he opened a storefront church in Española, thirty miles from Chamisal, he brought with him that charismatic style of worship.
Hancock is of the Apostolic faith, which adheres to a strict interpretation of the Bible. He and other members of the faith are instructed to be gentle, meek, sober and temperate. They eschew drugs and alcohol and prefer that members not own a television. Gender distinction in attire is considered "God's will": Women are to appear "chaste and non-sensual," meaning no makeup, long hair gathered in a bun, modest skirts, no slacks. They call one another "Brother" and "Sister."
Though the lifestyle may seem bland, the services are just the opposite. Sermons are boisterous affairs, punctuated by shouts, tears and choruses of 'Amens!' At any time, a member of the congregation might be moved to dance, to speak in tongues or to run laps around the pews. A congregant might also choose to stand and preach.
Troy's new chapel, christened with the incongruously grand name of Souls Harbor Revival Tabernacle Church, quickly drew members from Española, Chamisal, Pojoaque and other small towns in the area.
Mary Mondragon's family was among the first to join.
Mondragon (whose daughter Lisa would later become Natalie Vasquez's sister-in-law), had known Troy's father and heard him preach, which is what drew her to Souls Harbor. "I knew the testimony," she says. "I knew his father. I said, 'That's the church for me.' I knew he preached the truth."
Also joining the church early on was Enselma Vasquez, her husband and their children. Natalie was the oldest of her brood.
Enselma's roots are planted firmly in Chamisal's sandy red soil; her ancestors settled in the area in the 1600s, she says, a fact that allowed her family a certain matriarchal status. And for years, the Vasquez home served as an unofficial gathering place for the local kids.
"Whenever they had problems, [the youth] would come to me," Enselma says.
Enselma was a loyal member of the church for several years after Troy Hancock and his wife, Janet, arrived. "I was always the first to make tamales when a visiting pastor would come," she says. But, coincidentally or not, as her unofficial role as counselor to the young people began to fade, Enselma's relationship with the Hancocks began to suffer.
Troy, who was only in his late twenties when he moved to Chamisal, established a youth group at the church and began leading group meetings there. He threw open his home to the teens, welcoming them to visit, use his trampoline, play board games.
"He was real close to [the young people]," says Mondragon. "They had a love for him, for the way he treated them."
Enselma, though, saw Troy's influence in a darker context.
"He would preach to the kids that he wanted them at his house, and if there was any counseling, that it should be with him and his wife. That was one of our biggest problems with the Hancocks, that I didn't like what they were doing," Enselma says.
"[The Hancocks] said [the young people] didn't have to obey their parents if they didn't want to," she continues. "Troy would say, 'Natalie is eighteen, she can make her own decisions.' I said, 'As long as she's under my roof, she will do what I say.' I said I have my own way of discipline.
"They wanted total control of the kids and didn't want nobody else involved, even the parents."
But Janet Hancock says that Enselma's view is skewed. "The kids quit going to her house because she made them uncomfortable about the church," she says. "She set rules and regulations, called meetings with the youth and tried to advise them that we didn't need to know about it."
By 1995, the relationship between Enselma and the Hancocks had seriously soured. Enselma says she grew disenchanted with the church after Troy's demands for money became bothersome and his spending questionable.
Church members scoff at that characterization.
"What money, is my question," says Vince Dominguez, who belonged to Troy's church in New Mexico and followed the pastor four years ago when he moved to Colorado. "Our rent [in Española] was $200 a month, and sometimes we couldn't even pay that," he says. "I have been there when we counted the offerings. Most people down there are on welfare, and sometimes there would only be $5."
And in keeping with the church tenets, Troy does not earn a salary. He made his living then -- and still does -- as a housepainter.
The Hancocks and others blame the fissure on Enselma's stubbornness and sense of damaged dignity coupled with Natalie's growing independence.
Enselma and her husband struggle, like many parents, to keep their kids on the straight and narrow. They failed with their daughter Dawn, who was just ten months younger than Natalie. Dawn married young, had two children and then neglected and abandoned her family in favor of drugs and dangerous men. In their desire to help Dawn, the Vasquezes reported her to the authorities and wrested custody of her children from her.
Perhaps they were afraid that Natalie would make the same mistakes.
Natalie, though, was the good girl. Her parents were exceedingly pleased when she began seeing a preacher's son, a comparatively well-to-do young man from Wyoming.
"She was in love with him," Enselma says. "She loved him very, very much. Then, for some reason, he stopped calling her. We had hoped that she would marry him. Then all I know is that Natalie came over here and told me she was dating Matthew."
The Hancocks, Enselma says, instigated the relationship, and Troy "prophesized" the marriage of Natalie and Matthew.
"The rumor I heard was that Troy had a vision," Enselma says.
Matthew Mirabal was a surprising choice of boyfriends for Natalie. Although a member of Souls Harbor church, Matthew was several years younger than Natalie and just fifteen when they began dating. He'd had a run-in with the law (he'd threatened another boy with a weapon and was put on probation), he came from a broken home, and he'd dropped out of school.
Natalie, on the other hand, had graduated from high school and was attending college. She was bright and outgoing , and until she started dating Matthew, her family had hopes that she would marry above her station. A tiny young woman, just 4' 11", with dark hair that cascaded to her knees, Natalie had a smile that could light up a room. She had caught the eye of several young men.
But despite Enselma's insistence that the Hancocks threw Natalie and Matthew together, Troy says he never envisioned the two as married and that he and his wife had reservations about the couple dating, even though they cared for them both.
"I didn't want Matthew to date her, because he was so young and she was older," Janet Hancock agrees. "He was a kid, even though he acted older. But it was none of my business; you can't choose someone's mate."
"When a couple makes up their minds, it's totally up to them," Troy says.
As Natalie grew closer to the Hancocks and to Matthew, her family's influence over her lessened.
Matters came to a head in the fall of 1995. According to the Hancocks, the split occurred after Natalie's father came to church under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
During services, church members are permitted to come to the front of the hall and play musical instruments from the platform where the preacher stands. It is considered a place of honor. Natalie's father often played the guitar.
"One day," Troy says, "he passed slap out and dropped the guitar. I think he was on nerve pills, and muscle relaxers and marijuana, too. I told him I didn't want him on the platform if he was going to do that. I told him he was still welcome at church, but I put the guitar up. They got upset about it, and it went from there."
According to Hancock, Enselma and her husband quit the church within a week after that. (Enselma concedes that her husband was on medication at the time, but she denies that any such incident caused them to leave the church.) Natalie chose to remain a member of Souls Harbor, which proved a point of major strife between her and her mother.
In December 1995, Natalie and Enselma got into a huge argument over the church. Natalie wanted her parents to return to Souls Harbor. Enselma wanted her to quit and join a different congregation.
"She said we better go to church," Enselma recalls. "I said, 'I'm not going there,' and she got very angry and said, 'You guys are a bunch of devils. You're going to split hell wide open.' I said, 'I don't have to go to the Hancocks' church to make it,' and she said not to talk against a man of God.
"I asked her why she persisted on staying with them, and she started pulling her hair. She was so stressed out, a vein in her eye busted. She said, 'I can't be with you devils.' She was hysterical. I slapped her, and slapped her hard. I slapped her because she was hysterical and because they [the Hancocks] manipulated us through her. They did so much damage in our family. She was simply a wonderful daughter."
But Natalie would tell a different story of the argument, and her appearance belied Enselma's description of a "slap."
Natalie told others that her mother had demanded money from her and that she demanded, too, that Natalie quit the Hancocks' church. "She said she would move out," Marcus Mirabal (Matthew's brother) says of Natalie. "Her mother had been telling her for months to get out," Janet Hancock adds.
And Natalie sported "two black eyes, and her lips was busted," Troy says.
Following the fight, Natalie moved out of her parents' home and in with the Hancocks.
The size of Souls Harbor's congregation had always ebbed and flowed with the vagaries of the economy and the prevailing community sentiment. By mid-1996, with membership at an all-time low, Troy Hancock decided it was time to move on.
"It wasn't a good place to make a living," Troy says. "The people there, if they don't work at Los Alamos, they're on welfare. The membership had dwindled down to nearly nothing. People were moving, going places where they could work. It wasn't a good place to raise kids."
When Hancock decided to move -- this time God was calling him to Colorado, he says -- about a dozen members of the congregation decided to come with him. He lists the names of several people, from teenagers to middle-aged adults, who decided to pull up stakes and move to Colorado with him.
But the way some Chamisal residents tell it, Hancock acted as a latter-day Pied Piper, brainwashing and luring away the town's best, brightest and youngest to join up with his "cult" in Colorado.
Among those who left to help Hancock build a new church were Natalie (who was still living with Troy and Janet) and Matthew; Marcus Mirabal and his wife, Lisa Mondragon Mirabal; and Vincent Dominguez.
"There was nothing there for me," Marcus Mirabal says of his decision to move from Chamisal. "The highest wage I ever made was $8 an hour. I play the drums for the church, Matthew played the bass guitar, and Natalie and Lisa were singers. I just felt like we were a part of the church."
Dominguez, valedictorian of his class at Penasco High School near Chamisal, has been referred to as the town's pride and joy. He left Chamisal in the fall of 1995 to attend college in Albuquerque on a full-ride scholarship. So the town "was shocked," according to some reports, when he decided to chuck school and go to Colorado with the Hancocks. The church's critics cite that as evidence of the Hancocks' strong, negative influence and their dislike for any type of formal education.
Dominguez resents the implication.
"I respect [Troy Hancock] as a man of God," he says. "Everything he's influenced us to do is biblical. He is a good influence, because he approaches us on our own level. I've never drank, never done drugs, never got pulled into it like some of my friends did."
And, he says, the Hancocks had nothing to do with his decision to quit school.
"It was pretty much a freshman thing," Dominguez says. "I wasn't prepared. I enjoyed it, but I think I should have waited, and my grades showed that. I wasn't focused.
"When Brother Hancock decided to start a church in Colorado, I decided to give him a hand," Dominguez says.
And if anyone was "shocked" about his decision, it wasn't his parents, Dominguez says. "My parents weren't upset. They knew I wanted to quit."
As for the Hancocks' reputed "contempt" for higher education, Dominguez says he's never seen it.
"Brother Hancock encouraged me to do what I want to do," Dominguez says, "though he didn't necessarily want me to put it before God. But he never discouraged me." In fact, says Dominguez, he's presently enrolled in Front Range Community College, where he's studying computer science.
"The young people loved [Troy] and wanted to be with him," Mary Mondragon says. "They're not babies, they're adults. When Lisa said the Hancocks were going to open a church in Colorado and that they were going, we said, 'Okay, as long as you stay in church and live for God.'"
But Enselma could find no good in her daughter's moving away. She was "very angry with the Hancocks," Mondragon says. "She blames them that Matthew and Natalie went to Colorado."
Troy had made a scouting expedition to Colorado early in 1996 and decided that the Longmont area was a good place to settle. Rents were reasonable, and work was plentiful. The group moved to the area that summer.
The relocation seemed full of promise. Several of the congregants soon found jobs in construction. Marcus Mirabal began doing tile work, then started a business framing houses. Troy Hancock launched his own company, T&M Painting, named for himself and Matthew Mirabal, whom he'd taken on as a partner.
The Hancocks rented a large house and began holding church services in the basement while looking for a good site to house a new church. They eventually settled on a metal-sided building in an industrial section of Platteville, about twelve miles northeast of Longmont. It was christened the Apostolic Church of Platteville, or Iglesia Apostolic de Platteville, a nod to its many Hispanic members.
In Colorado, Matthew and Natalie continued their courtship, which had turned serious. The two married in November 1996, in a small ceremony back home in New Mexico.
"We insisted they do it there for their families," Janet Hancock says. "We encouraged Natalie to try to mend things with her family."
The Hancocks, who say they cared for Natalie and Matthew as if they were their own children, had long since gotten over their initial trepidation about the couple's relationship.
Janet made Natalie's wedding dress, sewing on thousands of sequins by hand. She says that she and her husband footed the majority of the cost for the wedding and reception. Enselma claims she doesn't know who paid for the wedding. "But they [the Hancocks] probably did because they wanted it so bad," she says.
The couple was young -- Natalie was just 21 and Matthew seventeen -- but marrying at an early age is common among members of the church. Marcus Mirabal had married Lisa Mondragon in 1993, when he was seventeen and she just sixteen.
Approximately a year after the wedding, Troy presented Matthew with an opportunity to become his own boss. "I wanted to see him get on his own," Troy says, "and I gave him one of my builders [with whom he had a painting contract]."
Natalie found work in a dental office, and she and Matthew settled into a Longmont apartment on South Pratt Parkway. They remained devoted to the church, attending services three times weekly. On Tuesdays they went to prayer meetings, on Thursday to the youth group, and on Sunday to a lengthy service that ended with a potluck dinner.
Matthew eventually began taking classes to obtain a real estate license.
By all accounts, the couple appeared happy. "Every payday, he would buy her a dozen roses because she loved roses so much," Mary Mondragon says. "He helped her clean. He was good to her." No one reported detecting any hint of violence in the home.
In addition, Natalie and her mother were developing a closer relationship; Natalie would often go to Chamisal to visit, and her mother sometimes made trips to Longmont.
"I wanted my daughter back," Enselma explains. "The Hancocks literally came in and destroyed our family. I wanted my daughter happy. I would even go to church with Natalie [in Platteville]. I would talk with the Hancocks. I tried getting civil with them. What I wanted was, I wanted my daughter back."
Still, things were far from easy for the young couple. In December 1998 the Mirabals declared bankruptcy.
According to Boulder sheriff's detective Steve Ainsworth, who would later head up the investigation of Natalie's murder, most of the debt represented Natalie's school loans. Enselma says now, however, that Matthew blamed the Hancocks for making him "go broke."
No matter the reason, the action itself was not unusual. "It was a run-of-the-mill bankruptcy, according to the DA," Ainsworth says.
"The baby was not planned," Ainsworth says. Natalie's pregnancy "was a source of stress. They worried about money, about the way a baby affects your life. It was fear of the unknown. Enselma and several others said they [Natalie and Matthew] had wanted to wait for a while."
But Enselma's memory of her daughter's pregnancy has harshened with time. Matthew "didn't want any children at all," she says. "He wasn't happy that Natalie was pregnant."
Ainsworth and others believe that Matthew was upset about the pregnancy for another reason, as well. They say that Matthew had begun an affair with his sister-in-law, Lisa Mirabal.
The Mirabal brothers and their wives had always been close. Lisa and Natalie had known each other since they were adolescents and had grown up together in the church. When the Hancocks and others moved to Longmont, Matthew moved in with his brother and Lisa until his marriage to Natalie.
The couples spent a great deal of time together, sharing dinner at each other's homes, shopping, attending church.
According to Ainsworth, however, Lisa and Matthew spent a lot of time together without their partners. At Matthew's trial, several neighbors would testify that they often saw Matthew enter his brother's apartment shortly after Marcus left for work.
But if there was any tension among the four young people, it wasn't apparent to those closest to them. They continued to do things as a group, right up until the night Natalie was murdered.
Saturday, September 25, 1999, was a busy one for Natalie Mirabal. She spent much of the day with Janet Hancock, driving to garage sales in search of bargains. She hosted dinner that evening for another young couple from church.
After dinner, a group of them headed to Boulder for the evening: Matthew, Natalie and their infant daughter, Mikela; the Mirabals' dinner companions; Marcus and Lisa Mirabal and their daughter; and Natalie's fifteen-year-old brother, Nehemiah.
(Nehemiah had come to live with Matthew and Natalie that spring, after he reportedly had gotten into some minor legal trouble. Enselma says that Natalie missed her brother and wanted him to come be with her. But Marcus and others say that Enselma sent the boy up to Longmont because she felt the church would be a good influence on him.)
The couples drove separate cars and met up in Boulder, where they went to the Pearl Street Mall. "There was a fall fest or something like that," Marcus Mirabal says, "and we looked at the art booths and watched the street performers. We went to Starbucks."
It was after 11 p.m. when the group headed home, about 11:30 when they made it back to Longmont.
Matthew generally didn't drive at night because his right eye is permanently dilated, making him sensitive to headlights from oncoming cars. "When he was three, a boy accidentally stabbed him in the eye with a pocketknife," Marcus says. "He's legally blind in one eye, and he's going blind in the other."
But Matthew did drive that night. "I remember him honking his horn at us at the stoplight," Lisa Mirabal says.
Nehemiah went up to bed -- he slept in a loft over the Mirabals' bedroom -- as soon as they arrived home. Matthew and Natalie stayed up.
Lisa says she remembers Natalie mentioning that she wanted to go to the grocery store that evening to get some potatoes for the next day's potluck dinner at church. "She said she needed to get them and slow-cook them overnight."
Matthew would later tell police that Natalie left the house about midnight to drive over to a nearby Safeway and pick up a few items. Matthew said he stayed home to watch the baby and fell asleep. When he woke at 3 a.m., he noticed that Natalie was not home and began to panic.
"He called his brother first, but [Marcus] didn't answer the phone at first," says Ainsworth. "But Marcus thought maybe something was wrong with the baby. He hit *69 and called his brother back, but the line was busy."
By that time, Matthew was on the phone with Troy Hancock. He told him that Natalie had left for the supermarket three hours earlier and hadn't returned.
The preacher and his wife immediately hopped in their car to help look for Natalie. They checked the parking lots of several grocery stores along the way. Two blocks from Matthew's house, at the Safeway at Ken Pratt Boulevard, they spotted Natalie's red Toyota.
"They [the Hancocks] looked in the car but didn't open the door," Detective Ainsworth says. "They went in the store and asked them to page [Natalie], and they checked the aisles to see if she was in the store. Then they went to Matthew's house."
When the Hancocks arrived at the apartment, Matthew was on the phone with the police.
Although Ainsworth thinks it's ridiculous that Matthew didn't phone the police earlier, Longmont police dispatchers didn't seem eager to help when he did call. According to tapes of Matthew's 911 call to police, he had to plead for someone to help.
"My wife left the house three hours ago and hasn't been back, and I'm worried," he told the dispatcher. "It's just not like her."
When the Hancocks arrived and told Matthew that Natalie's car was at Safeway, Matthew relayed the information to the dispatcher and asked that an officer go check the car.
"I want someone to look at the car, okay?" he said. "If that's okay, I'd like to have a cop look at the car and maybe dust it."
"We wouldn't do that unless a crime's committed," the dispatcher told him. "We don't dust for prints on somebody who's three hours late."
Matthew and Troy then drove to Safeway and checked the car. "We were looking for signs of a struggle after we knew she wasn't in the store," Troy says. He opened the car door with his knife, so as not to disturb any fingerprints that might be present. He did not notice anything amiss other than some leaves and debris on the front seat.
Finally, officers arrived to check the car.
"I pointed out some damage [on the outside of the car] to the officer," Troy says. "It looked like scuff marks on the passenger side. Nothing was broken or bent, but it looked like a shoe scuff mark, like someone had a rubber-soled shoe and put it up on the hood and down the side and up one of the windows."
A crime scene investigator snapped photos of the car's exterior and took a quick look at the interior before ordering the vehicle towed to the police department for processing and a more thorough search, Ainsworth says.
Although the police had not been quick to respond initially, church members were. By daylight, they had made up fliers with Natalie's name and photograph on them and were putting them up around town. Members of Troy's father's church drove up from Woodland Park to help look for her.
And Janet Hancock kept a vigil at Matthew's house, watching the baby and busying herself by cleaning up and starting a load of laundry. She woke Nehemiah about 4:30 that morning, she said. Matthew hadn't bothered to wake him and tell him that his sister was missing.
By dawn, Longmont was a beehive of activity. In New Mexico, however, Natalie's family was unaware of her disappearance.
"We had just gotten up and were getting ready to go to church when a phone call came," Enselma says. Her husband picked it up. It was the mother of one of Natalie's Colorado friends. "She said she was sorry, that she'd heard Natalie was missing," Enselma recalls.
Enselma and Matthew's mother, Patricia Mirabal, drove up to Longmont that same day. Enselma's mind raced the entire way.
"I was trying to think of so many things," she says. "I thought maybe she left him, or she was probably just scaring him. To me, she was not dead. I kept trying to pray, to think of good things. My mind was filled with so many things that could have happened. But I never thought about her being dead."
By the time the two women reached Longmont, police already knew that Natalie was dead. But the family would not be told for hours.
At 11:48 Sunday morning, while Enselma and Patricia were still less than halfway to Denver, Ainsworth received a page: A couple looking for landscaping rocks had come across a body in Lefthand Canyon west of Boulder.
It was a gruesome scene, even for veteran investigators.
Natalie was lying on her back, still clad in the black, knee-length skirt she'd worn to Boulder the evening before. Her white, blood-stained shirt had been wadded up and left on her chest.
They found her head about ten feet away.
The callousness with which Natalie had been treated was shocking. The Boulder county coroner would later testify that Natalie had been struck on the back of the head with a blunt object. Her lip and left eye were bruised, and she had been manually strangled. She had been decapitated with a single stroke.
Based on evidence at the crime scene, police theorize the killer had laid Natalie's body across a long metal screen and decapitated her there. He then dragged her body by the ankles and left it in some underbrush. It appeared as though her killer had then cleaned his knife by wiping it on the shirt he'd torn from her body.
The murderer apparently then used the metal screen to dispose of Natalie's head. "The theory is that he carried her head on that and basically rolled it down the screen to where it ended up," Ainsworth says.
Enselma and Patricia Mirabal arrived at Matthew's apartment by mid-afternoon, then accompanied Matthew and Natalie's brother, Nehemiah, to the police station for questioning. They had not yet been told that Natalie had been found.
"When we walked out [of the apartment], we were going to the car, and I had a picture of Natalie on the sun visor," Enselma says. "I wanted to look at it and keep her there. But when Matthew saw that picture, he got mad. He got the picture and folded it. He did not want to see it.
"It sort of grabbed me. I was still wondering if maybe they had fought. As we were driving out, he said, 'Enselma, I'm sorry. I'm really sorry. My God. She was your daughter.' He said, 'She was a very stubborn person.'
"And I thought, my God, he's talking in the past tense."
It was about 8 p.m. when police broke the news of Natalie's death to the Mirabal and Vasquez families and to the church members who waited at the police department.
Investigators watched Matthew closely for a reaction.
"When we told him she was dead," Ainsworth says, "he said, 'I don't know what to do. This has never happened to me before.'"
Enselma recalls an equally odd response from her son-in-law.
"He said, 'Oh, my God. I'm only 21, and my wife is dead.' He never said he was going to miss her."
Soon thereafter, at the urging of Troy's father, Matthew obtained an attorney and stopped cooperating with police.
But it was already too late. Matthew had granted permission for detectives to search his home and Natalie's car.
After a thorough inspection of the car, investigators found a pair of dark brown gloves tucked between the passenger seat and the console. The gloves had blood on them. The left glove had a small slit on one side as if the person wearing them had been cut.
Police also found a pair of bloody pants in the trunk.
At Matthew's apartment, police found evidence of a possible motive: a $250,000 insurance policy on Natalie's life. Matthew was listed as the beneficiary.
Another key piece of evidence turned up at Matthew's workplace. Ainsworth found a Wal-Mart bag containing the hang tag from a pair of brown jersey gloves, the same brand that was found in Natalie's car. Matthew's fingerprints were on the bag.
Within days, Natalie's purse, driver's license and other evidence would be found tossed alongside a highway between Longmont and Boulder. Natalie's wallet still contained the $20 her husband said she was carrying when she disappeared. The only personal items that remained unaccounted for were her car keys and her checkbook.
Robbery was ruled out as a motive in her killing, as was sexual assault.
There was still a possibility that Natalie was the victim of a carjacking gone wrong, but the chances of that motive plummeted to almost zero when police matched tire tracks found in Lefthand Canyon to the tires on Natalie's car.
Carjackers, police said, would not be so kind as to return Natalie's car to the same place they'd found it. Matthew, though, would want to return the car to Safeway, which was within easy walking distance of his apartment.
And then there was the matter of the "scuff marks" on the passenger side of Natalie's car.
The trail and turnaround leading to where Natalie's body was found is lined with trees and bushes on the right side. A car driving down the trail too close to the trees would be scratched on the right passenger side.
"Matthew is blind in his right eye," Ainsworth says. "The car got scraped going down. On the way back up, the trees would be on his left. He can see out of his left. That's why there's no scratches on the [driver's] side."
Investigators made no secret of the fact that they believed Matthew had killed his wife.
"Detective Ainsworth called my house one day, and I said, 'I don't believe he done it,'" Troy Hancock says. "I will never be convinced that boy done that. And he said, 'I got all the proof I need.' He said, 'You don't care about Natalie.' He started telling me what [the murderer] had done to her, rolling her down the side of the mountain like a bowling ball.
"I said, 'I don't want to hear it.' To me, that was harassment. I really did not want to hear that. That really broke me down.
"After I told him I didn't want to talk to him, he would pull up in the driveway and then call us on his cell phone to say he was there."
Police later asked for a swab from Hancock's mouth so they could test his DNA; he was told that investigators wanted to check the possibility that he was the father of Natalie's baby. But even Ainsworth says he never believed that Natalie and the preacher had been intimately involved.
"I'm not stupid," Hancock says. "You can look at that baby and know it's not mine. She doesn't have blue eyes and light hair. It's totally Spanish. I told my wife they took swabs because there had to be at least two people involved [in the murder].
"I told Ainsworth that. I said, 'You ain't foolin' me, but you can have any of my DNA you want. I got nothing to hide.'"
Enselma says that she, too, found it hard to believe at first that Matthew might have killed his wife. "When they said that about Lisa [that she and Matthew might have been having an affair], I started defending Lisa," Enselma says. "I said they were very close. I didn't want to believe that. But in my heart I sensed it because of the way they acted. I kept saying, 'Enselma, you're grasping at straws.'"
On the morning of Friday, October 23, 1999, police arrested Matthew. He was sitting at the kitchen table in his brother's house when officers came for him. Lisa was standing at the sink.
"I turned around, and the cops were already in the house," Lisa says. "I never even heard them come in. Ainsworth said, 'Mr. Mirabal, you remember how you begged us to find the killer who murdered your wife?' I thought he was going to say they found him. But he said, 'You're under arrest.'
"Matthew went white as a sheet," she says.
The investigators wanted to take Lisa in for questioning right away, but that would have left Matthew's baby, Mikela, and her own daughter alone in the house.
"I asked if [Mikela] was going to be put in a foster home, and they told me it was none of my business," Lisa says. "They took the baby, and later we found out that [the police] met Enselma halfway to New Mexico and gave her the baby."
Along with Matthew's arrest went any hope police might have had that church members would continue to cooperate with the investigation.
"In the beginning, I trusted Troy," Ainsworth says. "At the police station, he took me aside and said, 'I want you to catch the person who did this, whether it be friend or foe or family.'
"I believed that until we arrested Matthew and the whole place clammed up. Everything was okay until we arrested Matthew."
From the pulpit, Troy Hancock told the congregation that Matthew's attorney had asked them not to speak with police. Ainsworth was livid. And as it turned out, Matthew's attorney had not asked for their silence. Hancock said he'd misunderstood what the lawyer said, and he promised Ainsworth he would correct his mistake.
Ainsworth went to the church to hear the retraction firsthand.
"What he told the congregation was, 'When I said Matthew's lawyer said not to talk to the police, I was mistaken. However, Matthew and his family do not want you to talk to the police.'
"Well," Ainsworth says, "same result." They weren't talking.
It's hard to imagine that the congregation could have provided any new information that was as damaging as what police had already turned up. At Matthew's preliminary hearing in December, prosecutors laid out a solid case for his guilt.
Tests of blood found on the gloves from Natalie's car matched her DNA and Matthew's. Investigators said they believed that Matthew had cut himself while decapitating his wife. A small cut on the left glove matched a cut Matthew had on his hand the day after his wife's death.
Matthew had indeed taken out a $250,000 life insurance policy on his wife, investigators testified, but only after his request for a million-dollar policy had been turned down. The $250,000 policy was due to expire a few days after Natalie died. (Matthew's supporters contend that the policy was not in effect at the time of Natalie's death because Matthew hadn't sent in all the required paperwork. He had, however, paid a three-month premium in advance.)
Lisa Mirabal was called to testify, and she denied having an affair with her brother-in-law. But prosecutors brought forth witnesses to make a circumstantial case proving otherwise. Among the witnesses was a neighbor of Marcus and Lisa Mirabal, who said he'd seen Matthew entering his brother's apartment on numerous occasions when Marcus was at work.
Boulder District Court Judge Dan Hale found enough evidence to bind Matthew over for trial, though he did lower Matthew's bond from $1 million to $750,000. The change made little difference to Matthew's friends and family, who are not wealthy, and he remained in jail until his trial, which was set for June 2000.
With the trial pending, Enselma and Matthew's mother, Patricia, tried to remain on good terms for the sake of their infant granddaughter. The two women shared custody of Mikela, shuttling her between their homes in Chamisal. And though Patricia remained close with members of Matthew's church, Enselma did not. If anything, her bitterness toward the Hancocks and others increased exponentially.
She and Ainsworth became allies. And because church members were no longer speaking with the police, Enselma's version of events became the only one detectives knew and advanced.
Matthew's June trial held few surprises. Prosecutors brought out the DNA evidence, the insurance policy, the scratches on the car. And though they presented testimony implying that Matthew and Lisa were romantically involved, they did not put Lisa on the stand.
Why Matthew would strangle his wife and then cut off her head was never explained, although Ainsworth says he believes that Matthew decapitated Natalie simply to throw detectives off his scent. After all, what kind of man would behead his wife?
Matthew's attorney tried vainly to suggest that carjackers had kidnapped and killed Natalie. He also said Matthew's blood was on the gloves because he'd cut himself at work while wearing them.
The jury didn't buy the defense's arguments. After deliberating four days, weighing the possibilities of first- or second-degree murder, they found Matthew guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life without chance of parole. His formal sentencing was slated for September.
The relationship between Natalie's family, Matthew's family and the church disintegrated completely over the summer as the two grandmothers waged a battle to gain sole custody of Mikela.
"They made life hell for us," Enselma says of Patricia Mirabal and members of Matthew's church. (Patricia does not belong to Matthew's church or to the Apostolic faith.) "They said that I was abusing [Mikela], abandoning her and selling drugs. We were under social services questioning for a long time.
"I told Patricia that my hope was that we could work together. Why act like this when we could raise her together in peace? I was willing to work things out, but the Hancocks wanted the power because Janet wanted Mikela."
(Janet Hancock says that although she would "like to be a part" of Mikela's life, she has no desire to act as Mikela's mother. She has three sons of her own.)
Enselma's attorney subpoenaed Ainsworth and asked him to testify on her behalf at the custody hearing. The Hancocks went, too, hoping to testify for Patricia Mirabal, but they say they were not allowed in the courtroom.
Ainsworth says he wanted to testify because he was concerned about "undue influence" on the girl by the church.
"Troy and Janet wanted that baby," he says. "I don't think [Patricia Mirabal] wants the baby. If she stayed in the Mirabal family, Troy and Janet would raise her. Janet wanted a little girl. She always said she wanted a little girl. And they hate the Vasquez family.
"I think it wouldn't have ended there," he says. "I think [if Patricia was granted custody], there would be problems with visitation, etc. It wouldn't end there."
Enselma was granted full custody of her granddaughter. Patricia was given limited visitation rights. And Enselma obtained an order to keep everyone in Matthew's church -- with the exception of Marcus and Lisa Mirabal -- from having any contact with the baby.
At Matthew's September 7 sentencing, the sides were clearly divided and clearly defined.
On one side of the courtroom sat the Vasquez family. Thirty-five of Natalie's relatives, most of them clad in T-shirts adorned with Natalie's picture, sat on the left. On the right sat the Mirabal family, the Hancocks and members of Matthew's church.
"Hey, you look good in chains, bro," one of Natalie's brothers said to the manacled Matthew.
"You and your family and your hypocritical church have put us through hell," Enselma told Matthew.
"Enselma looked right at the Hancocks and said, 'You call yourself Christians, but you're nothing but devils,'" says Lisa's mother, Mary Mondragon. "It got very ugly in there. I think a bad spirit got hold of that woman."
Patricia Mirabal managed to work a cutting remark into her statement, as well, referring to the Vasquezes as members of a "drug ring."
"Maybe there's a murderer in [Natalie's] family," she said.
(She was referring to the fact that Natalie's sister, Dawn, had been arrested a year earlier in connection with a heroin ring in New Mexico. Boulder investigators do not believe, however, that the incident is in any way connected with Natalie's murder.)
After the judge formally sentenced Matthew, a court security guard quickly ushered Matthew's family from the room. The Vasquez family was escorted out another door.
Since the conviction, the Mirabals have retained an attorney for an appeal of Matthew's conviction and upped a reward for finding Natalie's killer from $10,000 to $20,000. The wording of the reward reads: "$20,000 reward for the arrest and conviction of the individual(s) who were involved in the brutal beating and decapitating murder of Natalie J. Mirabal and for the exoneration of Matthew Mirabal.
The latter wording was added after Ainsworth claimed, jokingly, that he could collect the money because he'd helped put Matthew behind bars.
Both sides still believe their cause is righteous.
"I just know this completely and totally," Troy Hancock says. "I know there's no way Matthew done that. If I thought he had -- and I told his brother this -- if I thought Matthew done this, I would never want to see him again, because I would feel that he had robbed us of a life. We thought the world of Natalie.
"I just will never believe that he killed her."
"I will not give up," Patricia Mirabal says. "I will fight for my son to no end. He is innocent, and there has to be justice."
Ainsworth's response is simple and direct: "Their faith in Matthew is misplaced."
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.
- Pot Driving Study Suggests Colorado's Stoned Driving Standard Way Too Low
Sun., Oct. 11, 2:00pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 12:00am
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:00pm
Fri., Oct. 16, 7:00pm
- Reader: I Hate People Who Ride Their F*cking Bike on the Road as If It's a Car
- Remembering Gary Lee Bomar, a Denver Music Scene Original Gone Way Too Soon