The Hits Keep on Coming

James Darnell is in a rut.
Just days before the 63-year-old Colorado Springs man was slated to go on trial for trying to hire a hitman to kill a woman and her young child, he was arrested for allegedly taking out a murder-for-hire contract on four other people, including a district judge, a former deputy district attorney and a police detective.

"I want them fish bait," Darnell allegedly told the undercover police officer who was posing as a hitman.

Why Darnell thought he could pull off the deadly scheme when he failed the first time is a puzzle to law enforcement officers. But whatever points Darnell may lose for stupidity, officers concede, he makes up for in sheer brass: He is accused of conceiving and planning the last four murders while being held in the El Paso County jail.

Until 1995, Darnell's criminal record consisted of a single arrest for a DUI in Cripple Creek. The retired electrician descended into the murky world of murder-for-hire only after his wife, 68-year-old Wanda Crawford, was sent to prison for child abuse ("Older but Bitter," August 22, 1996).

For years Crawford had been a daycare provider, watching children in her spacious Colorado Springs ranch home. Among her clients were Troy and Selina De La Rosa, who entrusted Crawford with the care of their only child, a daughter, Stephanie.

On October 8, 1993, shortly before 8 a.m., Selina De La Rosa dropped her daughter off at Crawford's home. Two hours later, paramedics were rushing the comatose nine-month-old to a local hospital. Doctors suspected almost immediately that the girl had been shaken; by that afternoon, police investigators were focusing on Crawford as a suspect.

Stephanie's injuries left her brain-damaged and permanently disabled. "Stephanie can't see," Deputy District Attorney Lisa Kirkman Werner told the jury impaneled to try Crawford in September 1994. "There is a question about whether or not she can hear. She will never walk. She will never talk."

Two weeks after the trial began, Crawford was found guilty of child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury. El Paso County District Judge James Franklin ordered that Crawford serve eighteen years in prison. By early December 1995, however, Crawford decided she'd had enough of prison life. And Darnell was tired of living alone. Together they allegedly plotted to have Selina and Stephanie killed. Prosecutors claim that the two planned to force Selina to write a note implicating herself as the person who hurt Stephanie; then they'd make it appear as if Selina had killed her daughter and herself.

The plot was foiled, however, when Crawford's would-be middleman talked to authorities, and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation arranged for an undercover agent to pose as a hired gun. Crawford and her husband were charged with soliciting murder after Darnell gave the "hitman" a down payment.

Darnell was plunked into the El Paso County Jail and his bond set at $1 million. Crawford's trial on the new charges was to begin January 14; Darnell's trial was to start on the heels of his wife's case. In light of the new charges against Darnell, both of those trials have been postponed.

Lisa Kirkman Werner planned to prosecute the pair. But she was torn between that and her desire to spend more time at home with her own child, says Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Gilbert, who worked with her on Crawford's child-abuse trial. In early December 1996, Kirkman Werner left the district attorney's office to go into private practice. Gilbert was to take over prosecution on the murder-conspiracy charges.

The plot thickened on January 3 of this year, when police officials became aware (they won't say how) that Darnell might be planning more mayhem. Two Colorado Springs vice cops, a man and a woman, were drafted to play the roles of hitman and moll.

Darnell's targets the second time around were to be District Judge Steven Pelican (who was to preside over the murder-for-hire trials of Darnell and Crawford), Lisa Kirkman Werner, police detective J.D. Walker (who'd investigated the child-abuse charges against Crawford) and a former friend of Crawford's who had testified against her in the child-abuse case.

"[Darnell] indicated to us that he wanted the judge killed and that he wanted it to look like an accident," says Colorado Springs police sergeant Rod Walker, who oversees the department's major crimes section. "I don't know what was finally agreed upon. I think it was to be an auto-pedestrian accident."

According to Walker, Darnell wanted the judge done first. The dates and methods of the other deaths were to be "pretty much up to the hitman." The deal, Walker says, was to be finalized when Darnell signed over to the hitman a deed to some undeveloped property.

Darnell was arrested January 10 on four counts of solicitation to commit murder. It was the same day the judge was to have been killed. Darnell's bond was upped to $6 million.

Walker says police have no indication that Crawford was involved in this second murder-for-hire contract, but the new charges against Darnell threaten to throw a considerable kink into plans to prosecute him and his wife in the plot against the De La Rosas.

"Judge Pelican feels he could be completely fair [in the De La Rosa case]," says Gilbert, "but the appearance of impropriety is there. It could be that no 4th District judge can hear the case. And I assume it's possible the defense will raise a motion to get me off the case because one of the targets is a former deputy district attorney who I worked with on this case. "I assume that if we're thrown off one case, we'll be thrown off both."

Selina De La Rosa appears to be coping well with the new developments in the case. She is concerned about where and when the trial involving her and her daughter will take place, but she says she was slightly taken aback when she learned that Darnell was in trouble a second time.

"I'm a little surprised," she says, "that he would go off on his own [without Crawford] and do this.