Colorado has seen its share of horrible crimes.
When we think of murders across the state’s history, the first things that come to mind are now-notorious names of places, victims and killers: Sand Creek, Ludlow, JonBenét Ramsey, Alfred Packer, Ted Bundy, Adolph Coors III, Harris and Klebold.
But Colorado has also seen its share of obscure but fascinating homicides, some of which took place in locales we pass by every day.
1. Fremont’s Folly
Victims: Old Bill Williams, Dr. Benjamin Kern
Junction of Embargo Creek and Rio Grande, near South Fork
March 21, 1849
From 1843 to 1846, the nationally famous “Pathfinder” John C. Fremont led three successful expeditions into the American West, mapping its blank spots and encouraging the influx of European-American settlers. After his dishonorable discharge during the Mexican-American War, though, Fremont's star was on the wane. In an effort to regain the limelight, he recklessly led his Fourth Expedition into Colorado’s wintry, nearly impassable Sangre de Cristo Mountains in 1848, guided by master trapper Bill Williams, looking for a rail route from St. Louis to San Francisco. Fremont’s refusal to turn back led to the deaths of ten members of the party from starvation and exposure. The survivors struggled into Taos, New Mexico, on February 12, 1849. As if that wasn’t bad enough, Fremont ordered Williams and Kern back to recover cached equipment and notes two weeks later, and they were subsequently shot to death by Utes. Fremont became a senator and the first Republican candidate for president.
2. The Lake County War
Victim: Judge Elias Dyer
July 4, 1875
A feud between neighbors Elijah Gibbs and George Harrington in 1874, in the high country between Leadville and Buena Vista, grew into a series of armed combats fought by rival groups of ranchers in the region. Judge Elias Dyer was run out of the county once by the Gibbs faction; he returned with warrants for sixteen members of the self-titled "Committee of Safety." On July 4, 1875, Dyer, surrounded by thirty hostile vigilantes, dismissed the charges when no witnesses came forward against them. The courtroom emptied; then five men returned and shot Dyer to death. No one was ever charged with the crime. Dyer’s gravestone in Castle Rock’s Cedar Hill Cemetery quotes from his farewell letter to his father as follows: “A victim of the murderous mob ruling in Lake County/I trust in God and his mercy: at 8 o’clock I sit in court, the mob have me under guard: I die for law, order, and principle.”
3. The White River War
Victims: Tabweah, Nathan Meeker, others
Tabernash and Meeker, Colorado
Tensions between the Utes and white settlers in the Colorado mountains escalated steadily throughout the 1870s. Tribal member Tabweah was killed by prospector Frank Addison in a dispute on September 1, 1878. This was one of many violent incidents that culminated in the Meeker Massacre on September 30, 1879, when Indian agent Nathan Meeker and eleven others were killed by Ute warriors resentful of the attempt to make them farmers. It would take five years for the conflict to end with the forced removal of the surviving Utes to various reservations. The Town of Meeker was founded in 1883 on the site of his death, the former White River Reservation. In 1902, the Town of Tabernash, a corruption of Tabweah’s name, was founded in his memory.
4. The Hop Alley Riot
Victim: Sing Lee
19th and Arapahoe streets
October 31, 1880
The Hop Alley riot of Halloween 1880 was the most destructive expression of anti-Asian prejudice in Colorado until the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. At the time, approximately 3,000 Chinese immigrant residents existed in poverty in the area bound by Blake, Market, 19th and 22nd streets. “Hop Alley,” 20th to 21st between Blake and Market, was named for the opium dens located in the precinct — as many as seventeen of them. Resentment about the immigrants taking jobs and racist hysteria raised tensions. A barroom fight triggered a rampage that injured scores. Twenty-three houses of the Chinese burned down. Laundryman Sing Lee was caught by the mob and beaten. Dr. C.C. Bradbury and others tried to intervene. “Blood spattered all over my clothes as I knelt down beside him, placing my own body between him and the vengeful throng, and I received several severe blows,” testified Bradbury. Despite medical efforts, Lee died hours later.
5. The Colorado Labor Wars
Victim: Arthur Collins, others
November 20, 1902
Miners and mine owners were at each other’s throats at the turn of the last century. The Western Federation of Miners battled management in a series of strikes, armed confrontations, forced deportations of strikers, sabotage and worse across the West, and particularly in Colorado. Cripple Creek, Leadville, Denver and Durango were among the towns affected. One of the most bitter struggles took place in Telluride, where mine manager Arthur Collins cut wages and relaxed safety regulations to increase profit. He countered a 1901 strike by hiring gunmen and strikebreakers. On November 20, 1901, a fire at his Smuggler-Union Mine, attributed in part to Collins’s cost-cutting measures, killed 24. Exactly one year later, Collins was killed by a shotgun blast as he sat in his home on mine property. The murderer was never found. The Labor War lingered until 1907, with the union the loser in every instance. In 1905, however, WFM members helped found the International Workers of the World, an organization that had more success and still exists today. The murder site, long abandoned, is slated for residential redevelopment.
6. Murder at Mount Carmel
Victim: Father Mariano Felice Lepore
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, 3549 Navajo Street
November 19, 1903
People were not very fond of Catholic priest Father Mariano Lepore. In 1898, the parish priest was denounced by four Denver Italian societies in a statement that referred to him as someone “who has perverted the attributes given him by God to uses of selfish cunning, hypocrisy, and deceit....” Many parishioners broke away from him and built a rival church around the block from Mount Carmel. In October 1903, a laborer from Philadelphia, Giuseppe Sorice, came to town asserting that Lepore owed him money. On November 19, the two were playing cards in the parish house when the drunken Sorice shot Lepore three times. Lepore got the gun away from Sorice and shot him fatally as well. After Lepore's death, the breakaway congregants returned to Mount Carmel under the guidance of its new priest, Father Moreschini, as well as that of future saint Mother Cabrini. Lepore left an estate worth $20,000; in 1907, a previously unknown wife and son successfully laid claim to part of it.
Continue to learn about seven more horrifying Colorado murders.
7. Murder in the Marble Bar
Victims: Sylvester Louis “Tony” von Phul, G.E. Copeland
Brown Palace Hotel, 321 17th Street
May 24, 1911
Isabelle “Sassy” Patterson Foulk’s dance card was full. A divorcee freshly married to the wealthy John W. Springer (who owned Highlands Ranch at one time and built a historic mansion there), she also carried on affairs with Tony von Phul and Frank Henwood. An escalating series of encounters between her two lovers led Henwood to shoot von Phul three times in the Brown Palace Hotel’s Marble Bar, an attack that killed bystander Copeland as well. After a long and scandalous trial, Henwood went to jail, and Isabelle and Springer divorced. The story is told in detail in Dick Kreck’s 2003 book Murder at the Brown Palace.
8. Murder in Park Hill
Victim: John Smith
4040 Montview Boulevard
January 13, 1917
Socialite Stella Newton Britton Moore left her husband and young daughter for her stepfather’s chauffeur, John Smith, in 1913. The handsome and hard-living Smith soon wore out his welcome, and Stella returned to her former husband’s home, while Smith moved to the Oxford Hotel. At two in the morning on January 13, 1917, Smith drunkenly entered the Moore home and attacked Stella, abusing her until she shot him twice, with two different pistols, at 5:30 a.m. “He tore my clothes from my body,” she later testified. “He choked me and tried to force liquor down my throat. None of these things brought me to the line where endurance snapped. But when he threatened to ruin my daughter, then I shot and shot to kill.” After the spectacular, highly publicized trial, the jury acquitted her in fifteen minutes.
9. Mass Murder in Midair
Victims: Daisie Graham, 43 others
Over Weld County, Colorado
November 1, 1955
Jack Gilbert Graham really hated his mother. His family was so poor that she put him in an orphanage when he was five – but she never bothered to retrieve him, only bringing him back to live with her when he was 22. They often fought. She set him up in business with a drive-in restaurant, but it burned down in September 1955. Graham collected the insurance money. Graham’s mother booked a flight to visit Graham’s sister in Alaska. On November 1, 1955, United Flight 629 left Stapleton Airport at 7:52 p.m. At 8:03 p.m., it blew up over Longmont, leaving debris and bodies, including that of Graham’s mother, scattered across six acres of Weld County farmland. After one of the most challenging and painstaking forensic reconstructions of that time, authorities determined that the plane had been destroyed with a dynamite bomb and that Graham was the killer. He built the bomb, put it in his mother’s suitcase, and wired it to explode during the flight. The motive? Cashing in on insurance policies for her that he purchased moments before her flight, in addition to his inheritance. Graham was convicted in the first murder trial ever televised in the state. Before he was executed on January 11, 1957, he said, “As far as feeling remorse for those people, I don’t. I can’t help it. Everybody pays their way and takes their chances. That’s just the way it goes.”
10. Murder in the Recital Room
Victim: Elaura Jacquette
Macky Auditorium, 1595 Pleasant Street, Boulder
July 6, 1966
One of the region’s most beautiful concert halls witnessed one of its most gruesome murders. Twenty-year-old CU-Boulder zoology major “Lauri” Jacquette was sitting on the grass of the Norlin Quadrangle on the university campus, waiting for two children she was babysitting to exit a movie. Campus janitor Joseph Dyre Morse somehow lured her up to a practice room in one of Macky Auditorium’s neo-gothic towers. There he raped her and beat her to death, setting fire to her corpse afterward. A month later, Morse was caught and eventually tried and sentenced to 888 years in prison. He died there in 2005. In 2006, a plaque dedicated to Jacquette’s memory was placed on a rock where her belongings were found. The murder room is still used; various commemorative ceremonies have been held there. It’s also a prominent stopping place in paranormal investigators’ itineraries.
11. The "Lumber Baron" Murders
Victims: Cara Lee Knoche and Marianne Weaver
2555 East 37th Avenue
October 12, 1970
Cara Lee Knoche moved out of her parents’ house in Golden when she was sixteen and into a rundown, $48-per-month apartment in a converted house in North Capitol Hill. Her friend Marianne Weaver, eighteen, came to visit her there often. On October 11, 1970, Knoche turned seventeen, and told her parents she was moving out in four days, getting a job and returning to school as well. The next night, Weaver left her home to visit Knoche at 9 p.m. At 2:30 the next morning, friend John LeChuga walked into the darkened apartment and found the two women dead – Weaver with a bullet hole in the middle of her forehead, Knoche raped and strangled. No suspect was ever caught. The murder site is now the Valentine Room of the Lumber Baron Inn, an upscale bed-and-breakfast.
12. Death of a Talk-Show Host
Victim: Alan Berg
1445 Adams Street
June 18, 1984
Alan Berg was an ex-lawyer from Chicago and a Denver clothing-store owner when he was invited onto a local radio show. His high energy and abrasive style, coupled with his liberal views and fearless outspokenness, made him a natural talk-show host, and he gradually rose to a position of regional prominence via his show on Denver’s KOA-AM radio. He also became a target, landing on a list of potential victims penned by members of the white-supremacist terror group the Order, primarily for being Jewish. Berg returned to his condo after an attempted reconciliation dinner with his ex-wife at 9:30 p.m. on June 18, 1984. As he stepped from his car, Order member Bruce Carroll Pierce shot him to death. Four were later indicted for the murder; two were convicted and died in jail. Eric Bogosian’s award-winning 1987 play Talk Radio is based on the incident; Denver playwright Steven Dietz wrote about the murder in his 1988 play God’s Country. Film adaptations of each play followed. A complete account of the case can be found in Stephen Singular’s 1987 narrative Talked to Death.
13. Serial Killer's Victim
Victim: Cher Elder
Fifty yards northwest of U.S. 40, two miles north of Empire (GPS 39.7622815, 105.719971)
We’ll never know how many women Thomas Edward Luther killed. He will spend the rest of his life in prison for the crimes for which he was convicted, but even he is not clear on all he did. In a spree that lasted from 1982 to 1995, he killed, raped and/or assaulted at least five victims. Twenty-year-old Cher Elder and Luther left a Central City casino on March 28, 1993. Elder’s body wasn’t found until nearly two years later; she'd been shot three times in the back of the head. Luther was convicted of second-degree murder. Elder was put to rest elsewhere, but the shallow grave where she was hidden is still there, filled with large rocks and tended as an informal memorial.