On June 25, more than three years after Brenda Denton was killed in her Capitol Hill living room, the Denver district attorney charged John Lee Carson with first degree murder. According to the arrest affidavit, Carson, a friend of Denton’s, confessed to the murder from prison in March 2007. Then, that November, a crime-lab report matched his DNA to a cigarette butt found at the crime scene.
Brenda -- who’d made a reputation for herself in Denver as a bad-ass, bar-fighting punk chick with a Mohawk and a spiked leather jacket -- was also a passionate feminist who loved film noir and true crime stories. At 38, she’d settled down to focus on studying forensic psychology. But her dream of a career putting away bad guys -- especially those who hurt women – was cut short when her own story became a murder mystery that's unfolded in the pages of Westword.
On March 8, 2005, a maintenance worker noticed a suspicious odor coming from her apartment at 900 Lafayette. He let himself in and found a blanket on the living room floor. When he kicked it, he realized there was something underneath. A paramedic who was called pulled the blanket away slightly to see dried blood on the victim’s face and hands and a small hole near her right ear. There was a set of scissors under her body. An autopsy would reveal that she died of blunt- and sharp-force trauma.
Though I never had the chance to meet Brenda, I encountered Carson in late 2005 when I was interviewing Brenda’s friends for "Femme Fatale," a February 16, 2006 feature about her then-unsolved murder. He was in the Denver County Jail, awaiting trial after having assaulted another friend, Ryan Edwards, with a hammer. He said he loved Brenda, that she was beautiful, and "her soul glittered" -- a quote used in "On the Case," an April 19, 2007 followup article. He cut the interview short after I asked him about the last time he saw Brenda, but he wrote me a letter the next day to finish his thoughts. Though mostly incoherent, the letter, which is viewable in an April 11, 2007 blog entitled "Murder Solved," said that Brenda would "haunt the USA" until several things happened, like the election of a woman president.
It turns out this wasn’t the only letter Carson wrote. After pleading guilty to assault, he was sentenced and sent to the Buena Vista Correctional Facility. On March 8, 2007 -- exactly two years after Brenda was found dead -- he handed an officer at the prison a letter. It said, "this is a confession to murder I was involved in." He added that he hoped his admission would "ease the souls of all those involved … most of all Brenda Denton."
Denver homicide detectives Jaime Castro and Mark Crider went to Buena Vista to interview Carson the next day, and he again confessed. But he said he didn’t remember why he killed Brenda. He said this was the third time he "shot out" at somebody, and it needed to stop. The next week, the detectives saw Carson again. This time, he said he stabbed and slashed Brenda’s throat with a knife, and hit her in the head with a hammer once she was on the floor.
Police had first interviewed Carson just days after Brenda’s body was found and before his assault arrest -- and he had voluntarily supplied a sample of his DNA at the time. He said then he hadn’t been to Brenda’s home since the first week of January, and he didn’t know who her killer was.
On November 6, Detective Castro received a lab report confirming that the cigarette butts in an ashtray near the victim’s feet contained the saliva of John Lee Carson. -- Jessica Centers