A Cold Case Frozen in Time | News | Denver | Denver Westword | The Leading Independent News Source in Denver, Colorado

A Cold Case Frozen in Time

For more than eight years, Sharon Skiba waited behind locked doors. Her life had stopped on February 7, 1999 — the day her son and nine-year-old granddaughter disappeared. In the days and weeks and months that followed, the house she'd once been happy to share with them became her prison...

Local News is Vital to Our Community

When you support our community-rooted newsroom, you enable all of us to be better informed, connected, and empowered during this important election year. Give now and help us raise $12,000 by June 7.

Support local journalism

Share this:

For more than eight years, Sharon Skiba waited behind locked doors. Her life had stopped on February 7, 1999 — the day her son and nine-year-old granddaughter disappeared. In the days and weeks and months that followed, the house she'd once been happy to share with them became her prison. Ghosts invaded her dreams, and she grew older while Paul and Sarah's things — the pictures, the toys, the flannel shirt that still smelled like her son's aftershave — stayed frozen in time. She wanted to flee, to resume her life, but she waited — for Paul and Sarah to come home, for their bodies to be found, for an arrest to be made.

She finally left that haunted place, but the ghosts followed. When Sharon sees a blond girl in her teens, she thinks that's how Sarah might have looked. She'd be driving now, starting college. And Paul would have built them that house in the mountains he always talked about.

But Paul and Sarah disappeared nine years ago, and whatever remains of their story is still out there, hidden in a place known only to their killer.

How soon can you get back here, Mom? Things are really bad. I need you to watch Sarah.

On Friday, February 5, 1999, Sharon Skiba was halfway across the country when she got a call from her son Paul. At Paul's insistence, she'd moved from Minnesota to Colorado in 1990, after she and his father divorced, to be near her oldest son. She got an apartment, but Paul, who was having his own marital problems, moved in with his mother a few weeks later. Sharon and Paul had been living together ever since, first in that apartment, then one Paul rented in Castle Rock, and finally the house in Thornton that he bought after his divorce in 1993. Their arrangement was simple: Paul took care of his mom, and she helped care for his daughter, Sarah, when Paul had her on weekends and in the summer.

Sharon couldn't wait to get back to her granddaughter. They were pals who would spend entire Saturdays shopping wholesale stores for bargains and free samples. But right now, Sharon had obligations in Minnesota. Her mother had passed away, and she needed to clean out her apartment and get her affairs in order before she returned to Thornton.

Can you get here as soon as possible?

When he drove her to the airport the week before, Paul had told his mother that he was breaking up with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Teresa Donovan, who'd given birth to a baby boy, Paul Roger, almost three months earlier. Paul wasn't sure the baby was his and was going to ask his lawyer to file papers seeking a paternity test. If Paul Roger was his child, he was going to fight for full custody — and he needed to know that his mother would be there to help with this grandchild, too. Paul worked long days at his business, Tuff Movers. In fact, the Friday night he called Sharon, he'd just gotten home and was scrambling to make dinner for Sarah. He didn't have much time to talk, but he wanted her to know that he was telling Teresa to leave, that he wanted her out of the house by Sunday night. Paul told his mother he'd call her then.

How soon can you get back here?

Not soon enough.

Paul didn't call Sharon on Sunday night. Instead, late the next morning she heard from Teresa Donovan, who said that Paul hadn't come home. He hadn't taken Sarah back to her mom's house, either, and he hadn't shown up at work, even though he had a job lined up. Lorenzo Chivers — who lived with Teresa's sister Bobbi Jo — had been working with Paul on Sunday, and he was missing, too. Teresa had already called the police, but she said they weren't taking her seriously. So Sharon decided to make a call herself. When she reached Detective Dante Carbone at the Thornton Police Department, he told her that Paul had probably decided to take Sarah for a ride and was out having a good time. Carbone explained that Teresa and her sister had already called a number of times.

"This is my first phone call, and there's something drastically wrong," Sharon told the detective. "My son was supposed to call me on Sunday."

Paul Skiba was just 21 when he headed west in 1981. The son of a cop, he'd been a regular troublemaker in his tiny home town of Centerville, Minnesota, but now he had a misdemeanor drug charge and had skipped out on his court date. He landed in Denver with an alias he used for work: Craig Nelson. The name didn't stick, and neither would the charge when he was eventually arrested on the outstanding warrant.

Paul and the girlfriend who'd moved with him settled in Westminster. Their only furniture was a mattress on the floor and a dining room table, but Paul had to have the corner two-bedroom apartment. "That's the way Paul was. He was always into style and how he came off to people," says Jerry Bybee, who lived downstairs in the apartment complex.

Paul was tall, lanky and almost always wore a mustache. He used fashion as a way to make himself stand out from the pack; he didn't want to be like anybody else. He wore suspenders and a leather vest, rummaged through secondhand stores for deals on designer jeans and had an eye for antiques. He had a memory like a steel trap when it came to names and faces, which was probably how he managed to have so many friends. "He was my best friend, but I wasn't necessarily his," Jerry says. "He knew hundreds of people."

When they met, both men were out of work and only Jerry had a phone, so every morning, Paul would come downstairs and they'd go through the classifieds together, looking for jobs and making calls. That routine didn't last long, though. Paul got a job with a company that made baby buggies, then one that installed sprinkler systems. When he ran into a friend who worked for Student Movers, he switched jobs again — and something about this line of work clicked. He left Student Movers for another moving gig, and when his boss decided to get out of the business, Paul offered to buy his trucks. "He had places he wanted to go, visions of what he wanted to be in life. He came a long way in the fifteen years I knew him," says Jerry, who ended up working for Paul.

Tuff Movers was built around Paul's personality. He was responsible and meticulous, outgoing and a gentleman, the kind of guy moms fell in love with and Denver Broncos trusted with their valuables. "You could count on him," says Eron Johnson of Eron Johnson Antiques, who used Paul for all of his moves. "If he said he was going to do something, he found a way to do it. If there was a decorating emergency or someone had to have something quickly, he would figure out a way to do it. Very seldom would he say no, I can't help you." The exception was anything that might conflict with Paul seeing his daughter, and that impressed Johnson, too.

Paul was firm but fair. When something broke, he showed his temper — but he was also willing to give anyone a chance. "Paul would give you the shirt off his back," says longtime friend Bob Martinez. "That's how he was with his employees. He hired some shady folks, but it was because they needed help, they needed work. He just treated people great."

Bob included. They'd met while installing sprinklers and had quickly become close, so much so that Bob named his son after Paul. When Bob's wife decided she had to confront her husband about his drinking, she went to Paul first. "He knew I was going to rehab before I did," Bob says. "Paul was always there for me. In fact, he was the only friend I still hung around with after rehab, the only one who was nice enough. If it was hard on me, then Paul made sure nobody drank."

Rich Lesmeister was another close friend, someone Paul met soon after he moved to Colorado. When Rich's cancer-stricken wife died, Paul was there, helping as much as he could with their kids. And when Rich met the woman who would become his second wife, Carol, Paul made her and her kids feel welcome. "Paul had the biggest heart, polite and willing to help anyone," Carol says.

But Paul had his own heartaches. He'd met Michelle Russell when he worked for Student Movers, when he was still with his longtime girlfriend from Minnesota and Michelle was dating one of Paul's co-workers. Soon after Paul's relationship broke up, he and Michelle got together, and things moved quickly. She moved in with Paul right away. In a couple of years they were married, and in 1989 they had a daughter, Sarah. By then the marriage was already failing, and Michelle moved a hundred miles away, to Granby. The divorce was bitter, with lots of trips to court as Paul fought to see his daughter as much as he could. That turned out to be Wednesdays, when he'd drive to the mountains to pick up Sarah after school and spend the night at a hotel — always with a swimming pool — as well as every other weekend during the school year and Sarah's whole summer break. Paul never missed a visit, winter weather be damned.

"Paul and Sarah were beautiful together," Bob says. "They were like a Hallmark card. Sarah was Paul's whole world. He'd do anything he could for that girl. Sarah was always happy, full of spunk."

Sarah was sweet, too, happy to ride her bike or rollerblade around the neighborhood. When Paul hosted one of his frequent barbecues, Sarah was the polite hostess, serving drinks and making sure everyone was comfortable. On weekends, they'd ski, snowboard, go camping or hunt for treasure. Paul tried to make everything feel like an adventure.

Dozens of pictures of the smiling little girl warmed Paul's house when she wasn't there. His brother Gordy counted seventy. Once, on a job, Jerry saw Paul spot an old rocking chair by a dumpster and throw it in the van so that he could have it reupholstered for Sarah's room. "She was always on his mind," Jerry says.

Sarah was the love of Paul's life, but there was another girl competing for his affection.

Jerry had introduced Paul to Teresa Donovan at a Halloween party not long after his divorce, and the two dated on and off for years. Teresa was ten years younger than Paul, and didn't work because she was disabled. When the arthritis in her legs acted up, Paul would carry her up and down the stairs. She sometimes stayed with Paul and Sharon for weeks at a time, an arrangement that was often strained because Sharon and Teresa didn't get along. "I hated my son being with her, because I wanted to see him with someone more suitable," Sharon says. "He needed somebody decent. I didn't like her around Sarah." Teresa slept a lot and didn't help around the house. When Paul had people over, Teresa would stay in bed.

Paul and Teresa had been broken up for several months when they got back together for a night in early 1998. Weeks later, Teresa told Paul she was pregnant.

Paul rented a trailer for Teresa to stay in that April, then had her move into the house just before her due date in November. When Gordy flew out to Denver after the birth, Paul told him that he doubted he was the father and planned to get a paternity test, but in the meantime, he wanted Teresa and the baby in the house because he was worried that she wasn't capable of caring for a child. Sharon helped when she could, but she'd been traveling back and forth to Minnesota to deal with her mother's death.

In early February, Rich and Carol Lesmeister went to Paul's house for dinner. After they ate, Paul and Rich went down to the basement, and Paul started complaining about Teresa. He said he'd come home from work to find her still in bed or partying next door with a neighbor, leaving Sarah to take care of the baby, Rich remembers. He was going to seek a paternity test, kick Teresa out of the house and sue for full custody if the child was his.

On Saturday, February 6, Paul kept an eye on Jerry Bybee's eleven-year-old son, Matthew, while Jerry went out on a moving job. Matthew later told his father that he and Sarah had stayed outside in the playhouse to get away from the loud argument that Paul and Teresa were having inside. Jerry, one of just three Tuff Movers employees at the time, was scheduled to work the next day, too, but he asked Paul if he could take Sunday off so that he and his siblings could get together to order flowers for their grandfather's memorial service. Paul told Jerry that he'd cover for him, even if he had to take his daughter along on the job. "He really didn't like to work when he had Sarah, but sometimes he did," Jerry remembers.

On his day off, Jerry had lots of time to reminisce with his family — a little too much time. He got so drunk that his brother had to drive his car home, and Jerry puked on the way. He had to drag himself out of bed Monday morning and then clean the mess out of his car, so he was late to work. It was at least 9:30 or 10 when he got to the Tuff Movers yard — a fenced-in parking lot at 72nd Avenue and Raleigh in Westminster where Paul kept his trucks. Jerry was supposed to go on a job with Paul and Lorenzo Chivers, but they weren't there.

Right away, Jerry noticed that the big moving truck Paul always backed into a specific spot had been pulled in front first and crooked. "Paul was a neat freak, anal about everything, so I'm thinking, 'Oh, I can't wait to hear why the truck's parked like that' — because Paul would have a story," he says. "That guy could tell a story about anything. He described things like nobody else could. He'd describe food to you and you could actually taste it. I was waiting for him to come in ranting about something that had gone wrong. It looked like somebody had just pulled in the yard at 50 miles per hour and hit the brakes."

When Jerry went to open the gate, he realized that the lock had been changed. It was strange, but Paul did buy a new lock whenever he fired someone. Maybe somebody had screwed up, maybe that would be part of the story.

Jerry waited outside the gate for Paul and Lorenzo to show up.

Meanwhile, Sarah's mother called police to report that Paul hadn't brought their daughter back from his weekend visit. The two had been in court over custody issues before, and Michelle had recently told Paul she might be moving out of state. The Grand County Sheriff's Department issued a warrant for Paul's arrest. As far as the authorities were concerned, the incident was a parental abduction and Sarah wasn't believed to be in any danger.

But if that were the case, then where was Lorenzo?

Lorenzo Chivers had been working for Paul for a few months. They'd met through Teresa, since Lorenzo lived with her sister. He was a mellow, nice guy who could strike up a conversation with anybody. He was a father of two — fifteen-year-old Josh, who lived with him, and twelve-year-old Aubrie — and it wasn't like him to just take off and not let his kids or their mother know where he was. Even though Lorenzo was separated from his wife, Misha, they were still close. Recently, they'd even talked about reconciling.

Misha didn't know what to think when Josh called her that Monday to say that his father hadn't shown up the night before. She asked to talk to Bobbi Jo. "I know he's not coming home," she remembers Bobbi Jo telling her. "I know something horrible has happened to him."

It was Wednesday before anyone could convince the police to check out the Tuff Movers lot. A Westminster officer met Jerry there and told him to open the gate. Jerry said he didn't have the key, and didn't want to cut the lock in case it was evidence. Irritated, the officer slammed his car into the fence, then jumped onto his hood and over the gate.

"You coming?"

Inside, Jerry tried to think of what was different from how he'd left the lot Saturday. He noticed a puddle of oil partly covered by a piece of plywood and pointed it out. "Can you prove that he didn't change his oil?" the officer asked.

Jerry went up to the big moving truck that he'd noticed parked funny on Monday and tried to peek inside the cab without touching anything. "That's unusual right there," he said. "The truck's clean. We live in these trucks."

The cop grabbed the driver's-door handle and whipped it open.

"I feel he destroyed more evidence than he was willing to look at," Jerry says. "To him, there was nothing unusual there. I was disgusted with him."

The officer left the lot unconvinced that a crime had been committed.

Another day passed with no sign of Sarah, Paul or Lorenzo. Josh Chivers had been staying at his mom's house. On Thursday night, Misha took him to his dad's so that he could pick up some clothes. They found everything from Josh's room packed up and waiting by the door. "I guess you don't have a room at Daddy's house anymore," Misha told her son.

Sharon Skiba finally flew back to Denver on Saturday, February 13. All week, she'd been calling police; all week, they'd been telling her not to worry, that Paul had probably taken off with Sarah and would eventually come back. But she knew her son wouldn't do that. His business and life were in Colorado. He'd recently taken out a second mortgage on his house to pay off credit-card debt, and he'd been to court enough times to know that keeping Sarah would only hurt him. He was careful to never even drop her off late.

Desperate, Sharon went to the phone book and hired a helicopter so that she could scan the area for Paul's car, a '72 Chevelle. She had the pilot fly over the Tuff Movers lot and also over Brighton, since Teresa had told her she'd been to a psychic who said that Paul and Sarah were dead and that Paul's car would be by a gravelly area near a lake or river. But they didn't find anything.

On Sunday — a week after Paul, Sarah and Lorenzo had last been seen — Rich Lesmeister got a call from Teresa. It was the first he'd heard that Paul and Sarah were missing. He and Carol asked if there was anything they could do to help, and then spent the morning hanging up fliers — which turned out to have the wrong license-plate number for Paul's car. That afternoon, the Lesmeisters met Sharon at the Tuff Movers lot. Rich, a mechanic, had been there recently to rebuild an engine for one of Paul's trucks. As they pulled up, he spotted the new lock and the odd way the big truck was parked. He and Carol hopped the fence and told Sharon to wait outside.

There were bullet holes in the truck that Rich had been working on, and a fresh oil stain. Carol saw a smear of blood on the big truck's door — like a print from a bloody shirtsleeve. And then they both spotted what looked like a small chunk of scalp near the windshield. "When we found that, we decided to get out and call the police," Rich says.

They climbed back over the fence and told Sharon it didn't look good. Through tears, she called Gordy in Minnesota. He and his father needed to get to Colorado. And then they called the cops.

When the Westminster police arrived, the scene quickly turned into a fight between officers and Paul's friends and family members. The police insisted that Paul had taken off with Sarah. "They threatened to arrest us if we didn't leave because there was no crime committed there," Rich remembers. "And we should all go home."

He tried to explain that the inside of a moving van was never spotless, but the big truck was clean — except for the blood on the door. And where had the bullet holes come from?

The police said somebody could have cut himself and left blood on the big truck, and the other truck could have been shot at somewhere else, while it was moving. Rich had to point out that the truck with the bullet holes didn't have a motor; he had yet to install it. "They were like the Keystone Kops," he says. "No one wanted to assume responsibility."

The discussion lasted long enough for Gordy Skiba and his father to arrive at the airport. Before she left to pick them up, Sharon called Bob Martinez, who joined the others at the lot about ten that night. It was like a reunion of Paul's friends, all walking around what could be a crime scene. And while they walked around, the police argued over which town had jurisdiction over the case. "I was like, 'Jesus Christ, it happened in Westminster, it's your jurisdiction. Do what you need to do,' and they couldn't see it that way," Bob remembers.

After midnight, a patrol car from Thornton showed up. Since a missing-persons report had already been filed in Thornton, Thornton would continue with the case, officers said. Finally, at nearly 3 a.m., the police took down everyone's information and told them to leave. Police would wait there until the trucks were towed out, taken as evidence. Sharon asked the officers to secure the gate when they left.

The next morning, the lot was wide open, with no crime tape.

The first news report about the case ran that day: Authorities were looking for a trio who'd disappeared a week before "in what may be a custody battle."

Gordy and his father started scouring the area, looking for Paul and Lorenzo's cars. They drove down every street and through every business and apartment-complex parking lot within a several-mile radius of Tuff Movers. Gordy also walked the neighborhood, looking for any signs of bodies having been dragged. He checked culverts, open fields and large sewer pipes being put in for new construction. Sharon, Jerry, Rich, Carol and Bob joined in the search.

After two days, Jerry found Lorenzo's car in a Westminster parking lot.

After a week of searching and waiting, Gordy finally went home, believing his brother was dead. The Denver Police Department located Paul's car a few days later at an apartment complex near South Federal and West Arkansas — with his personal belongings and Sarah's backpack full of beanie babies inside. Paul's usually tidy car had mud all over it but no fingerprints. Lorenzo's had been clean, too.

Sharon wanted to keep Paul's business afloat so that he'd have something to return to if he was still alive, and after a few weeks, she asked the Thornton police to return the trucks. One still had bits of scalp and hair stuck to the hood. "Do you normally give back a vehicle that still has evidence on it?" she asked.

The police came back for the truck, and this time the Colorado Bureau of Investigation took a look. Using luminol — which Rich had asked the cops to use weeks before — they found blood all over the back of the big truck and in the cab. The oil spill was covering more blood. DNA tests confirmed that it was Sarah's and Paul's blood, and investigators said there was enough to indicate that both Sarah and Paul had been fatally wounded.

In mid-March — five weeks after Paul, Sarah and Lorenzo disappeared — Thornton police and the CBI said they now had evidence suggesting foul play.

After Paul and Sarah disappeared, Sharon, Teresa and the baby lived together in Paul's house for a few weeks. Between Teresa's relatives and Sharon's friends, there were lots of visitors coming and going.

Verna and Butch Dreawves had driven up from Arizona to be with Sharon. Verna remembers sitting at the kitchen table, comforting her friend, while Teresa and her mother and siblings searched through Paul's things. "They were concerned about the life insurance, who was going to take over the business," Verna says. Paul had a $100,000 life-insurance policy on Sarah, and a smaller one with Sarah's and Sharon's names on it. There was nothing with Teresa's name.

Teresa and the baby finally left Paul's house in March, and Sharon changed the locks. But in April, Teresa went to court to argue that she should control Paul's assets.

As his next of kin, Sharon had already been appointed temporary conservator of Paul's estate so that she could pay Paul's bills — including the two mortgages on the house and the premiums to keep the life-insurance policies current — and run the business. At a hearing on April 16, 1999, the Adams County probate court discussed whether Sharon should remain conservator or Teresa's request should be granted — which would only happen if she could prove she was Paul's wife.

"I note here that we have more people in the courtroom than we usually have for murder trials," said Adams County District Court Judge Vincent C. Phelps Jr.

Casey Paison, Paul's attorney who was representing Sharon, explained that most of those people were rebuttal witnesses.

"Could you tell the court why you're going to this trouble to be here today and object?" Teresa's lawyer asked her.

"For the sake of my son, Paul Roger Skiba," she replied, "because I believe that he is entitled to Paul's — Paul Carroll [Skiba]'s things. He is the only heir. If they never come back, he's the only heir that — to everything that Paul had. Paul always wanted — if Sarah was here, Paul would want Sarah to have his things. He always wanted his children to have his things."

Teresa told the court that she and Paul had planned to marry after the baby was born and that she considered herself married to Paul. Paul had bought her a ring when they stopped at a half-price jewelry sale at the mall; Teresa called it her wedding ring. Teresa said she didn't use the name Skiba on documents or call herself married publicly because she was worried about losing her insurance; at 26, she was still covered by her mother. She insisted that Paul had rented the trailer a year before so that they both could live there, because Teresa didn't get along with Paul's mother, and she pointed out that they'd presented themselves as common-law married on the rental application.

But the trailer-park manager testified that she'd explained to Paul, who'd called Teresa his girlfriend, that it would be cheaper for them to rent the trailer as a married couple. Paul's tax accountant testified that Paul had filed as single. Friends testified that Paul wasn't married and that he didn't intend to get married.

Judge Phelps ultimately ruled that there was no common-law marital relationship, noting that while Teresa said numerous times that she and Paul planned to get married, there was no evidence to indicate it happened. "We can't be married some of the time and not the rest of the time," he said. "You're either married or you're not. You can't have it both ways.... I would also note as an aside, it would seem to me that if Mr. Skiba had intended to be married, it would probably have been Sharon Skiba who would be getting the [trailer] and not Ms. Donovan."

Sharon was appointed permanent conservator, but there was still the matter of child support. Paul had signed Paul Roger's birth certificate and given the child his last name. So the judge ordered the parties to get him the financial information he needed to order child support. A few months later, the court decided on the amount that Sharon — on behalf of Paul's estate — would pay Teresa every month.

She added that amount to the bills she paid, trying to keep her son's business and household intact until the police finally determined what had happened to Paul, Sarah and Lorenzo. One officer told Sharon that the case would be solved by Christmas 1999.

Witnesses said that the big truck had left the lot around seven or eight the night of February 7, 1999, and returned about midnight. That meant the bodies could not be more than a couple of hours away. A ramp was missing from one of the trucks, and police thought the killers might have tied it to the bodies to make them sink; vegetation in the radiator indicated the truck had been driven near a body of water. The authorities searched nearby lakes, bringing in the nationally recognized NecroSearch team to help. They also used bloodhounds and even psychics, one of whom directed them to an area with flat rocks near FlatIron Crossing.

But they found nothing.

According to media reports, Thornton detective Pat Long, who worked the case for six years (he did not return numerous calls for this story), believed that more than one person was responsible and that the killers were familiar with Paul's business and knew he'd be returning to the lot that evening. Long kept waiting for someone to talk. A few people in prison did, but the leads turned into dead ends.

"As far as theories, there's a million of them out there," Jerry Bybee says. "They all make sense. They all don't make sense."

One witness had heard a woman screaming near the lot on the night of February 7, and Jerry says that when he first talked to Teresa the next day, she'd said she'd gone to the lot the night before — and asked him not to tell police.

Teresa Donovan refused to be interviewed for this story, saying that while once she would have bent over backwards to talk, she won't at this point in her life. "Those people are still out there," she says, "and yeah, I know who they are and the police won't listen. I said that on Montel."

There was a time when Teresa talked a lot about the disappearance, on the Montel Williams Show and other programs. On an MSNBC special, she said that police had told her that she failed a lie-detector test and that she was a suspect. "I'd never hurt them," she told the interviewer. "I'd never hurt them. The police have tried to say that I killed them or I had them killed." But she knew who the killers were, because Paul had rented parking spaces at his lot and recently had those cars towed. "They sold Paul drugs, and they were the only people that could have killed him," she said. "I don't know if it was over the cars or anger over Paul trying to get over the coke."

On Montel, Teresa said she believed there was a vendetta against Paul and that the killers didn't care who was with him.

But the owners of the cars weren't the only people who might have had a vendetta. "Paul was a great guy," Jerry says, "but he did have his enemies, people he had fired because they'd get in an argument or something would get broken."

Teresa's brother, Tom Donovan, was one of them. He'd been fired by Paul a few months before, and he had a temper. After the disappearance, Donovan threatened him, Jerry says, yelling "You're next! You're next!" and throwing rocks at the Tuff Movers truck he was driving. Sharon says that Donovan called her and said he was glad Paul was dead, that he and Sarah had been shot in the head and that he was going to shoot her in the head. Donovan later took Sharon and Jerry to court over a debt he claimed Jerry owed him. "He actually looked at Sharon, made his hand look like a gun and motioned like he shot her," recalls Bob Martinez, who went with them to court. (Donovan's sister Bobbi Jo, who also declined to comment for this story, says her brother is not available for comment.)

Paul's cousin Herbert Michael Hymes was another guy with an ax to grind. Hymes and Paul were once partners in Tuff Movers, but in the late '80s, Hymes was sentenced to six years for aggravated robbery. After he got out of prison, he went back to Tuff Movers, but Paul told Rich Lesmeister that he'd caught Hymes taking money from the business and cut him out.

"I quit the business because I was making more money in the stock market," Hymes responds. "I don't know nothing about this case. Kiss my ass."

"He swore that he'd get even with Paul," says Rich, who has his own theory. Police have always assumed that the moving truck seen the night of the disappearance was Paul's. "What if Paul's truck never left the lot?" Rich asks. "It could have been Herb's. Nobody knows for sure. What better way to transport the bodies and his car across town than to drive it in the back of another moving truck?"

Another theory had emerged soon after the disappearance — that Lorenzo could have been involved, since his DNA wasn't found at the lot. The implication was so hurtful that Misha Chivers wrote the media, asking them to treat her husband as a human being. "He was always either a suspect or he was just a third party or just an employee," she says. But he was so much more. He was the guy she'd fallen in love with when she was just a kid. They were flat broke but always found the two bucks to go dancing at the Indian Center on Friday and Saturday nights — Lorenzo in his braids and Stacy Adams shoes and Misha in her big hair and six-inch stilettos. He was a dad who told his kids he loved them, the child of a single mother with an eighth-grade education who never gave up looking for her son, and died in 2005 with the mystery unsolved.

By the third anniversary of the disappearance, Misha decided she couldn't wait any longer for answers and called Detective Pat Long. "You've given me bits and pieces of information," she remembers telling him. "My son is eighteen now. I need to know." Long agreed to sit down with Misha and Josh. He told them that Paul had been using his business as a front for narcotics and gotten tangled up with the wrong folks, Misha says. Lorenzo was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Long repeated that theory to the news media, saying that Paul, Sarah and Lorenzo were "probably victims of drug violence." Paul "wasn't a major drug lord," he explained, but had a small client base to which he sold marijuana.

His friends and mother don't deny that Paul smoked pot — though never around Sarah. But they don't believe that drugs had anything to do with his disappearance. Paul was not a drug dealer, they say, and he would never have knowingly put Sarah in danger. "He's not the person they made him out to be at all," Rich says. "Yeah, he dabbled in shit, but he was by no means a kingpin."

In 2005, Sharon finally met Howard Morton of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons (see story, page 16), and he found funding to put up a billboard near the Tuff Movers lot with photos of Paul, Sarah and Lorenzo. As it was unveiled, Westminster announced that it was taking the case over from Thornton. "They inform me that day as we stood out there, did our stuff in front of the cameras, that the case was being transferred from Thornton to Westminster," Morton says. "They said it's been treated as a missing-persons case up until now, and now it's being treated as a homicide and we're giving it to Westminster. Here we are six years later, and they're just now going to take it seriously as a homicide?"

The jurisdiction change came as a surprise to Sharon, too. She says she'd developed a close relationship with Pat Long over the years, and despite her frustration over the lack of answers, she felt that Long and the other Thornton detectives were doing everything they possibly could. She'd talked to Long once a week; Misha Chivers talked to him at least once a month.

Sharon didn't have as much luck communicating with Westminster police. One detective even told her that he was closing the case, which spurred Morton to request a meeting with Westminster authorities, who assured him the investigation was still active. (Thornton police referred all of Westword's questions about the case to Westminster; Westminster officials refused to discuss their investigation.)

Don Quick, who became the Adams County district attorney in 2005, has tried to improve communication, bringing Sharon together with Thornton and Westminster officers twice for strategy meetings. "The problem is that right now, I'm not sure what new ideas they have," Quick says. "One of the hardest things is getting people to understand that there is a difference between knowing and proving. If we had the evidence, we'd file the case. There's nothing I'd like better than to bring Sarah's murderer to justice — even if I didn't know her."

But he did, because Quick's family has a cabin down the street from Sarah's mother's house in Granby. "She was a cute little blond kid," he remembers. "Her mom had dogs, and when I took my dogs for a walk, theirs would come charging down the hill. Sarah would come get them and take them back up the hill, and she was very sweet and would talk to us."

Quick hasn't sat down with investigators on the Skiba case for over a year, but he says he's confident it's still an open, active investigation. "I couldn't look Sharon in the face and say they're staying on it unless I know they're staying on it," he explains. "I like Sharon. I think she's been through the wringer, and I don't know how to not make her feel frustrated — because it's frustrating that it's been so long and it hasn't been solved yet."

Sharon had another puzzle to solve: how to handle Paul's interests. With time, her friends and family members went back to their lives, leaving her alone with the job she'd asked the court to give her: conservator of Paul's property. So in addition to talking to the media, posting fliers, knocking on doors and calling the detectives, Sharon was running a moving company.

Even if Paul never came back, she wanted to preserve the things he'd worked for.

But it wasn't easy. When the police took the big truck a second time to collect evidence, she had to get a rental, which was costly. Jerry was still working with her, and he trained the new people that Sharon hired. But moving furniture is hard work, and a lot of guys don't stick it out past the initial aches and pains — especially when the jobs are few and far between. Paul was Tuff Movers, and his clients didn't want to do business without him. Meanwhile, competitors were moving onto his turf. Eron Johnson says that people came by his store who said they used to work for Paul and that he should hire them to do his moves now. The whole scenario frightened him. "I don't know what happened," Johnson says, "but I'm sure it was an inside job of some sort, somebody who knew him."

After a few months, Jerry couldn't handle the pressure and sporadic work schedule anymore, and he quit — a move he still feels guilty about. In March 2000, Sharon finally dissolved Tuff Movers.

By 2001, Paul's money had run out, and the court allowed Teresa to take Paul's car and what merchandise she wanted from the house in lieu of child-support payments. With no source of income, Sharon kept paying the two mortgages — about $1,100 a month — as well as Paul's life insurance premiums out of her quickly depleting savings. Because Paul was still technically a missing person and presumed alive, his debts didn't go away.

She got a job with a company that made plasma bags for blood banks, but was in a car accident in the spring of 2002. She broke two ribs, dislocated three more as well as her collarbone, and had a herniated disc in her back. She couldn't work. Friends loaned her what they could and she ran up her credit cards to cover the payments on Paul's house.

She hadn't wanted to be there for a while, not since she'd finally accepted that Paul was never coming home. All the house made her feel was frightened. Whoever had killed Paul knew where she was. Her personality changed as she grew paranoid. She kept the blinds closed and asked Bob Martinez to put a lock on her basement door.

"You can't live like this," he told her.

Gordy and friends back in Minnesota had tried to convince her to come home, but she felt she couldn't leave until the case was settled. Now, though, it was either sell the house or let it go into foreclosure.

Sharon had gotten a court order in November 2000 giving her authority to sell the house, although technically, as Paul's conservator, she already had the power to dispose of his property. But now, as she started calling real estate agents, she says they all told her the same thing: "You can't sell the house without a death certificate."

A missing person cannot be presumed dead for five years. So in 2004, Sharon started the process to have Paul and Sarah declared dead. A hearing would have to be held in Adams County, but the hearing kept getting postponed. Sharon felt trapped.

Desperate, in July 2006 she sent a letter to Quick, the Adams County DA, listing all her canceled court dates. "Please, Don, help me get the death certificates so there can be some closure," she wrote.

"I think all the financial and other estate stuff was very wearing on her, and then trying to get them declared dead," Quick says. "It was something that punctuated her experience with the justice system."

The process was complicated by the slow pace of the case, attorney Casey Paison says. "There was forensic evidence," he says, "but there was an ongoing police investigation and always a tension between Sharon's interest in trying to resolve the question and police not wanting to have to bring that information into court and expose an ongoing criminal investigation."

Finally, in December 2006, almost eight years after Paul and Sarah disappeared, their death certificates were issued.

Sharon sold the house in May 2007 and put the money into an account so that the probate court could decide how to disperse it. By court order, Teresa got the contents — for her child. With Paul declared dead, the conservatorship was dissolved, and only one court hearing remained.

After a few more postponements, it was finally held this past August. Sharon brought an itemization of all the money she'd spent taking care of Paul's property and paying the bills before she could finally sell the house: $93,562.14.

But as Judge John Popovich announced his decision, Sharon felt like she was being scolded. "He didn't look at me," she says. The judge said that her claim that she was unable to sell the property for so long was without merit. She might have been paying the mortgage, but she also lived in the house without paying rent. Popovich ruled that she should have been paying rent since November 2000, when she'd gotten the order allowing her to sell the house: 78 months at $1,000 a month.

He deducted her claim by $78,000.

Sharon would be reimbursed just $15,562.14 for pouring more than eight years of her life and her life savings into her son's property. Everything else — $65,000 for the house, as well as the $100,000 life-insurance policy for Sarah — would go to the sole beneficiary of the estate, Paul Roger Skiba.

Sharon didn't know what hit her.

Back in September 2004, she'd filed a motion asking the court to order a paternity test, but the judge had denied the request. Teresa Donovan eventually had Paul Roger tested anyway, during a brief stint in Idaho. Sharon and Paul's father and brother received lab results in the mail that said Paul Skiba was the father. Sharon's only seen Paul Roger once since he was a baby — across the aisle at a court hearing — and she doesn't trust the test results. "I would like to believe it, because if that is Paul's child, that's wonderful," she says. "But I don't want to put my heart out there and have it destroyed."

Sharon didn't mind Paul Roger getting the $100,000 life insurance policy she kept current; she expected it, and was reimbursed the few thousand she spent on premiums. "That was fine," she says, "but not to get the proceeds on the house because of what I put into it. All I wanted to do was sell it, and I wasn't able to. I could have let the house be and let it go into foreclosure. I didn't do that. It was my son's estate. I tried to protect it. I did what I thought was the right thing to do, and I get very angry when I think about what happened. For a judge to say I didn't try hard enough..."

Sharon enlisted the pro bono help of attorney Derek Regensberger to protest the ruling. "I think it was a little bit of a harsh decision on the judge's part to penalize her," he says. "He didn't award her anything for all of the time and money spent paying the mortgage for all of those years."

But when Regensberger filed a notice of appeal and a motion to proceed in pauperis, asking that Sharon's filing fees be waived, Teresa Donovan's attorney filed a cross appeal, claiming that Sharon wasn't entitled to anything and calling her appeal "frivolous, groundless and vexatious." The attorney said that Paul's mother had failed to disclose assets and requested that Sharon be required to post an appeal bond — to cover attorney's fees.

Sharon had used the money she'd gotten from Paul's second life insurance policy naming her as a beneficiary to pay off the debt she'd incurred paying Paul's bills. By now, she had only $4,000 left in an IRA account, which she was saving for her own burial. She'd been staying with friends because she didn't have enough money to rent an apartment. She couldn't afford to go any further.

In November, she gave up her appeal.

Paul's estate is settled, but the mystery of his death remains. And even though Sharon no longer has to watch over his house, she feels like she needs to stay on the case to make sure it doesn't go cold. And that means staying in Colorado.

Sharon used to invite Paul's friends over for an annual vigil to mark the anniversary of his disappearance. She did not hold a vigil last week. She stopped a few years ago, not having the heart to do it when nothing was happening on the case, when her life was still in limbo.

"I guess at some point I realized they might never be found, and so I might go back to Minnesota sometime. But right now it just doesn't seem quite right," she says. "My job isn't finished here until the bodies are found."

Can you help us continue to share our stories? Since the beginning, Westword has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver — and we'd like to keep it that way. Our members allow us to continue offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food, and culture with no paywalls.