THE LIFE AND DEATH OF LITTLE BIT
The morning chill was still in the air December 14 when the news flew up and down Colfax Avenue: "Shorty's dead. Murdered. The midget hooker is dead." The street people knew before the media, before the coroner, before many of the cops on the beat.
Another dead prostitute. But Belinda Bridgmon's murder was different. Even as police uncovered the tiny body--which had been wrapped in plastic, placed in a cardboard box and left in a dumpster--people began collecting to watch and mourn. Street denizens hardened by violence stood by and wept. Several women from a nearby day shelter huddled together and hugged each other as they cried. Police officers--some who'd come to the scene only because they'd heard that the dead woman was Belinda--choked back tears.
Barely nineteen, Belinda was too young to have been working the streets. And at three-foot-ten, she was much too vulnerable. A lot of people had tried to help Belinda go straight, tried to get her jobs. It was just too dangerous out there. But Belinda, who was a dwarf, not a midget, never could--or never would--quit prostitution or her crack pipe. And now, a year after she'd started hooking, she was dead.
One of the Denver cops who came to the crime scene was patrolwoman Snow White, a former rookie officer of the year. She'd arrested Belinda before and had developed a liking for her. Snow White and a dwarf. For the self-styled comics on the street, the possibilities were endless. But White and Bridgmon never joked about it. On Colfax, laughs were hard to come by.
White was on vacation the morning of the murder, but when she heard about it, she skipped a planned breakfast with friends to rush to the alley where Belinda lay. "I wanted to see her," White says. "It just didn't seem right to me." As White watched the crime-scene investigators go about their work, she remembered the last time she'd seen Belinda. She'd arrested her and was waiting with her near a holding cell at the city jail when, out of the corner of her eye, she noticed Belinda was crying. "She turned away," White says. "She didn't want us to see her crying. I thought how awful it must be for her.
"It was a rotten life and a rotten way to end a life," White continues. "But it's very, very hard for prostitutes to get out. I haven't talked to many of them that have."
The police still feel the jolt of Belinda's death. For others like her, however, the fear, shock and caution are already fading.
Patsy Hughes works near Capitol Hill, walking Colfax Avenue almost every day in search of customers. Her strawberry-blond hair hangs past the shoulders of her flannel shirt as she strolls slowly, eyeing each car that passes. Her face is dotted with freckles, her blue eyes bright. Her teeth, however, are neglected and rotting. Crack has got a hold on her, the cops say, just as it did on Belinda and most of the others.
"It's so messed up, what happened to her," Hughes says of Belinda. "I heard somebody cut her throat. I heard a bunch of rumors that she was chopped up."
None of that street gossip was true, but Hughes says she was spooked by Belinda's death anyway. "A lot of girls out here are ending up dead," she says, her eyes wide. "God, it's so awful. Lately, it's scary out here. I don't like coming out here at night no more."
But a cohort's murder won't stop Hughes. Belinda didn't stop, either, when a friend of hers turned up dead last summer. "What it comes down to," Hughes explains, "is you do what you have to do."
Sandy Bridgmon and Rodney Fosburgh met in Hammond, Indiana, in the mid-1970s, during the days of "peace, love and understanding," as Rodney is fond of saying. She was 20. He was 24 and "madly in love. I never loved anyone the way I loved that woman."
The two didn't bother much with birth control--Rodney had told Sandy he thought he was sterile. "I'd been with lots of women, and nothing ever took," he says. But a month into their relationship, Sandy became pregnant.
Rodney claims to have been delighted with Sandy's condition, but it wasn't a propitious time for them to be bringing a baby into the world. They were both drinking too much, says Rodney, and had little to no money. One time, when money was tighter than usual, he says, he let a friend talk him into stealing a television set. He was caught and spent a week in the county jail.
When their daughter was born, on October 27, 1975, the doctors knew right away that something was wrong. The baby was underweight, and her arms and legs were disproportionately small. On her birth certificate, doctors noted that Belinda Sue Bridgmon was a Russell-Silver dwarf, afflicted with a rare genetic mutation.
Belinda's dwarfism worried him at first, says Rodney, who with his long, thinning hair and graying mustache looks every bit the "old hippie" he claims to be. "I thought, `Oh, man, she's already starting out on the wrong foot.' But the more I was around her, the more I realized she was a great kid." He still carries in his wallet a handful of pictures of Belinda as a toddler. Now faded and worn, the photos show a bright, blond baby with a beautiful smile.
Those pictures are Rodney's only real connection to his daughter's early years. When Belinda was a year old, Rodney and Sandy parted ways. Just who left whom, and why, depends upon the teller. Sandy says she left Rodney. He claims he got out of the relationship because of his battle with the bottle. "My stepfather was a drunk," he says. "I decided I wasn't gonna raise kids if I was drinking."
For Belinda, that rift was the beginning of a peripatetic existence. Sandy moved with her daughter to Las Vegas, to Washington state, to Wyoming. When Belinda would get to be too much for her to handle, Sandy would farm her out to relatives in Tennessee or Alabama. One time, Rodney says, Belinda ended up in a foster home in Nebraska. And sometimes Sandy would send the girl to him. It wasn't until Belinda was eight and Rodney had quit drinking that she and her father became close.
Belinda, Rodney says, was "a good kid." She seemed to like school. She got decent grades and did her homework. The constant moving took its toll on her education, though, and she quit school after finishing the tenth grade. "The same thing happened to me," Rodney muses. "We were always moving. I ended up quitting school and going to Vietnam."
Outwardly, Belinda gave little indication that she suffered the sting of being different from other kids. Belinda "never let anybody push her around," her mother says. "Only a couple times did somebody tease her, and she put them in their place."
Life wasn't hard for Belinda, says her grandmother, Lucille Bridgmon of Lutts, Tennessee. "She was a happy little girl. She always had a smile on her face."
Rodney, however, believes Belinda used that smile to hide her true feelings. He'd seen people give her a hard time, and she always tried to act as though it didn't matter. "I think she was just hardened," he says. "She wouldn't let her feelings out." But the street people accepted Belinda, he says. Maybe that's why she stayed.
Belinda spent much of 1992 and 1993 with her grandmother in Lutts, just ten miles or so north of the Alabama state line. Belinda had a lot of friends there, most of whom she knew from her high school days in nearby Collinwood. "She was a little ladylike thing," her grandmother says. "She sat at home and minded her own business. She'd spend the night with her friends."
But Belinda had seen the bright lights of Vegas, and she didn't want to spend her teenage years in a backwater farming town miles from nowhere. She left in the summer of '93 to join her mother in Cheyenne, where Sandy was trying her hand at running a bar. When that didn't pan out, Belinda called her dad, who was then living in a small town in Nebraska, and said she wanted to stay with him. But then she decided she didn't want to live in Grand Island. It was too boring there.
So Rodney told his daughter that he'd move to Denver, get a job, get settled and then send for her. "I said, `Wait a couple months and let me get things squared,'" he says. "I was living in a dumpy place on Franklin Street. I was only here a week when--boom--Sandy sent her down to me."
Rodney was doing shift work as a foreman at a Denver manufacturing plant. He'd started drinking again (though he claims it wasn't a problem), and Belinda--who was just a few months shy of her eighteenth birthday--was left to her own devices. She began spending her time hanging around the seedier parts of East Colfax.
Rodney claims to have tried every drug there is in his younger days, and he says he knows darned good and well when someone is high. Until Belinda got to Denver, he'd never seen her high. After she hit town, it was a different story. "She ran into some guy on Colfax, and he got her into that crack," Rodney says. That's how it began.
Within months, Belinda was heavy into crack. To pay for it, she began walking Colfax, selling herself to any man who'd pull his car over to the side of the street. The going rate on the street is $20 for fellatio, more for straight sex. But the street-smart johns know that when a hooker is "on the pipe," she'll give it up for $9 or $10.
Denver cops heard almost immediately that "a midget was working `the 'fax.'" Belinda was known on the street as "Shorty" or "Little Bit." By January 24, 1994, she'd racked up her first arrest. The charge was trespassing, but the police knew she was up to more. Picked up by a vice cop, she was given a Health Order In (HOI), a command to report for an AIDS check--mandatory for prostitutes upon each arrest. She was picked up again two weeks later, this time charged with prostitution, loitering and shoplifting.
Detective Ed Roy has spent most of his 23-year career working vice and narcotics for the Denver Police Department, and he was bound to run across Belinda while working undercover. The first time he arrested her was March 14. "It wasn't hard to deal with her or to pick her up," he says. "I pulled up in my car and she jumped right in. She stood on the front seat. It felt like I had a little kid in there." Roy pretended to be a john who'd been with Belinda before. She believed it. "They're doing so many tricks, they really don't know who they're seeing," he says. "I've picked up some of them two and three times."
Because Belinda had already been busted, she was starting to learn the ropes. She asked Roy if he was a cop. "No," he told her. But she reached down and patted his waist anyway, looking for a gun. Not finding a weapon, she was satisfied. She asked, "Your place or mine?" and then directed him to an alley off Emerson Street favored by hookers for its privacy.
Roy then signaled to his back-up officers, who arrested Belinda. "She was like, `I've been caught. No big thing,'" Roy recalls. But he wasn't about to let her think she was going to skate on this one. He wanted her off the streets for good.
"I told her that when [prostitutes] get three arrests within twelve months, the judge will hammer them and put them in jail for six months," Roy says, adding, "I don't know if it's true or not." Belinda said she didn't want to do the time. "That kind of scared her," Roy says. She told him it might be best for her to leave town.
Roy agreed and, driving home his point, lectured her about the dangers of her profession. "I said, `You're too young for this. Find some other kind of work.' I said, `You don't realize the dangers involved. Especially being so tiny.' I said, `You're probably not getting paid half the time.' And what was she going to do? Tell the police?"
Roy was neither the first nor the last person to try to talk Belinda out of her lifestyle. Rodney Fosburgh had tried over and over. He knew his daughter was smoking crack, and he knew she was hooking. But he didn't know how to stop her. He says he tried reasoning with her, yelling at her, cajoling her. "We'd talk, and she'd say, `I've got to quit. I just can't quit right away.' I just didn't know what to do. She was eighteen."
Eighteen is the legal age, but it's awfully young to be hooking for a living. Most of the women working Colfax are in their twenties and thirties, says Officer Kathy Deegan, and she doesn't feel especially sorry for them. She says they're old enough to make a choice. But when Deegan first stopped Belinda and learned her age, she was appalled. "I thought, `My God! This is a child.' Why would someone so young choose a path that's so goddamn hard?"
Deegan works patrol car 223, which is assigned to cruise East Colfax, the city's hooker hot spot. Only three years on the job, she is considered a "baby cop," still finding her way. She's warm and friendly with people on the street, a trait that sometimes isn't respected by other cops. She tries to keep a handle on her feelings. That isn't always easy. With Belinda, it proved impossible.
The first time Deegan stopped Belinda and learned she was hooking, she sat her in the cruiser and talked with her for an hour. "I told her, `You're a baby, and you shouldn't be out here,'" Deegan recalls. When Belinda said she had to make some money because her Social Security check was going to her mother in Las Vegas, Deegan told Belinda that she could help her get the checks sent to Denver. She said she could help her find work. But for every offer of help, Belinda found an excuse.
"She was like, `Who's going to hire me? I'm a dwarf,'" Deegan recalls. "I told her, `I'll take you down to Americans With Disabilities. I'll take you to Social Security.' I gave her my card and my pager number, and I told her I'd go with her on my own time and help her."
Belinda halfheartedly agreed with Deegan's arguments, and when the officer didn't see her for a time, she thought maybe Belinda had quit the streets. But a couple of weeks later she stopped her on Colfax again.
"I'm like, `Be-lin-da,'" Deegan says, stretching out the syllables of the name like an overwrought mother. "I said, `I thought you were going to call me and get some things worked out.' But it was the same old excuses: `I don't have a car; it's so easy to do this.'"
Eventually, Deegan says, she realized that she wasn't going to be able to convince Belinda to change. "I got to the point that I thought maybe I can help her another way. A harsher way. And I told her, `If it takes me putting you in jail every time I see you, I will. I don't want you out here.'"
After that, says Deegan, "I arrested her I don't know how many times. Seven. Ten. I'd give her tickets for loitering. A lot of times I would say, `If I see you out here again, you're getting a ticket.' But I just couldn't bring myself to slam her like that."
Roy's and Deegan's concerns about Belinda were aggravated August 31, when the body of prostitute Karen Kasting was found near Colfax and Emerson behind a Wendy's hamburger stand. Kasting suffered a horrific beating. Passersby witnessed the attack but did nothing to stop Kasting's assailant. Her killer has not yet been identified.
Denver cops tried to use Kasting's death as a warning to girls like Belinda. "I told her, `Belinda, you're going to end up like that,'" says Deegan. "I said, `What's your future out here?' And she said, `I'm not going to be out here much longer.'"
Belinda's father also took Kasting's death as a danger signal. "I said, `You could be one of them,'" recalls Rodney. Belinda said she had friends and that they all watched out for each other. "But I think she knew and I knew both that I was going to read about her in the paper if she kept hanging around there. I told her over and over.
"When she was in jail, I'd be glad," Rodney adds. "I told my buddies that at least I knew she was safe in jail."
Pimping isn't a big problem in Denver like it is in some cities, local cops say. The reason is simple: crack. "A pimp would starve to death," Roy says. "All the money the hookers get goes for crack."
But prostitutes still need protection, and many of them share their drugs with men who in exchange watch over them on the street. Belinda had two such acquaintances. One, known on the street as "Chicago," supposedly acted both as her bodyguard and her occasional pimp, say police. Belinda would stay with him off and on in his apartment. Like many such men, he has a reputation for violence. After Belinda's death, homicide detective Mike Fiori heard that Chicago once hung Belinda by her heels over his balcony and threatened to hurt her unless she made more money.
The other man in Belinda's life was Christopher Weatherall. Weatherall's street name is "PK," but he has told police that no one--including him--knows what the initials stand for. The 29-year-old Weatherall has a lengthy arrest record that includes busts for aggravated robbery, kidnapping and assault. Most of the charges have been dismissed.
It is not clear how--or how long ago--Weatherall met Belinda. Sheriff's deputies think the two might have met at the Denver County Jail. They might even have known each other in Las Vegas--Weatherall has an arrest record there, too. The most likely scenario is that they met on the street. Weatherall lived with his girlfriend, Emma Gurley, in a basement apartment on High Street, just half a block north of Colfax.
Gurley says she knows Belinda and Weatherall were "friends" but doesn't know the extent of the relationship between the two. "She's a prostitute," Gurley says, still using the present tense to describe Belinda. "She gets her rock and smokes it up. She'd bring it and share it with [Weatherall]."
Her boyfriend has a problem with crack, too, complains Gurley. "All he does is smoke it. He can't keep jobs. He had a job at Taco Bell, but he quit because someone threw a tray at him."
Belinda went to jail for the last time December 3, after being picked up on loitering charges. She was shipped out to the county jail, where she was well known and well liked.
"We had a pretty good rapport," says sheriff's deputy Pat Gabel. "This sounds bad to say, but she was kind of low-maintenance. She wasn't any extra work. She fit right in."
Most of the women at the jail accepted Belinda because "she was a little different," Gabel says. "They're a little more caring with one another, and she was one of their friends on the street. If she needed help, they would help her."
The deputies did what they could to help her, too. Whenever Belinda checked in for another stay, they always made sure that she got assigned to a bottom bunk--the upper ones were too high for her to manage.
Belinda was freed on December 13 at 8 a.m. She was dead in 24 hours.
Emma Gurley later told police that when she left the apartment on High Street at 5 a.m. on December 14 for her job at a nearby Burger King, Weatherall was nowhere around. After she went to work, however, Weatherall showed up at the apartment with Belinda in tow, police say. The two smoked some crack, and Belinda took a shower. When she emerged from the bathroom, police believe, Weatherall tied her up and strangled her. Police sources say Weatherall told officers he was angry because Belinda was taking too many tokes off the crack pipe and that he also was upset because he tried to have sex with her but was unable to achieve orgasm.
At about 10 a.m., witnesses told police, they saw Weatherall going to the nearby Gathering Place, a day center for homeless women, where he collected some empty cardboard boxes. A neighbor who stopped to speak with him later told police Weatherall had been "acting sort of strange and nervous and said he had to go."
Little more than an hour later, a man hunting for cans in the alley between High and Williams streets found a large cardboard box in a dumpster. The box had been sealed with cellophane tape. Tearing it open, the man discovered a bundle wrapped in plastic bags. Inside was the body of Belinda Bridgmon, her hair still wet from her morning shower.
It didn't take police long to land on Weatherall as a possible suspect. Street people who were hanging around the area told Detective Fiori that they knew "Shorty" hung out with a guy who lived in the High Street apartment. Weatherall turned himself in the next day when he heard police were looking for him. Fiori took Weatherall's statement and then booked him into jail on suspicion of first-degree murder. His bond has been set at $250,000. Contacted by telephone at the county jail, Weatherall declined to talk about the case.
Officer Kathy Deegan was at roll call when she heard about Belinda's death. "My heart just dropped," she says. "I thought, `No way. The girl's just nineteen.'" Like Snow White, Deegan went to the crime scene. "I had to see what they'd done to her," she says. Deegan says she cried and said a prayer for Belinda. Later that day, she and another officer went to Rodney's house to tell him his daughter had died.
Deegan still struggles with her feelings about Belinda's death. "I've just been trying to get over it," she says. "I've never been affected out here like this. I'm still young out here--three years on the force--and I'm still dealing with the question, `Should this bother me?'
"I wonder," Deegan continues, "how did I end up caring about her?"
The murder also "rang a real tight chord" with a lot of people down at the county jail, says Pat Gabel. "What bothered a lot of people here was the way he disposed of her," says the deputy. "He put her in a box and put her in a dumpster, and it just seemed so slight for a human life. A lot of us said we wouldn't dispose of a dog that way."
Rodney Fosburgh says he went on a two-week-long alcoholic bender after his daughter's death. "But I'm gonna be quitting," he says. "I haven't got any use for it."
Belinda's grandmother, Lucille Bridgmon, says Belinda was planning on moving back to Lutts and was supposed to arrive on Monday, December 12, two days before she died. "I was to send her a bus ticket on Thursday, but I wasn't able to do that," she says. Instead, Belinda was flown home for a funeral.
Down on Colfax, other prostitutes are grieving for Belinda, too. One, named Laura, stopped by Rodney's apartment on Christmas Eve to extend her condolences. "She was all upset over it," Rodney says. "She said Belinda was such a good kid." Laura also told Rodney about her own experience with a guy in a white Rabbit who'd pulled a knife on her. "She said she'd had to run out of the car, naked. I asked her, `Is it worth it?' And she said, `I just can't get off the stuff.'
"There's good people out there," says Rodney. "It's just the crack, man.
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