Longform

A Cold Case Frozen in Time

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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.

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Jessica Centers