Longform

A Cold Case Frozen in Time

Page 5 of 11

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.

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Jessica Centers