4
| News |

A Cure for the Common Cold Case

^
Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

In June 1975, Howard and Virginia Morton got a call from the boss of their eighteen-year-old son, Guy, in Arizona. He said that Guy had hitchhiked to Phoenix to try to get back the deposit on a car he couldn't afford, and never returned to work.

A dozen years later, a retired sheriff's deputy read a newspaper story about the Mortons' search for their son and remembered a skeleton found in the desert in 1975. The remains had been misidentified by a medical examiner and destroyed. The Mortons, who'd moved from Kansas City to Colorado in 1980, ultimately sued Maricopa County over the mishandling of their son's body and continued to search for his killer. In 1995, they joined the Front Range chapter of Parents of Murdered Children, which Howard was soon chairing.

But Howard didn't agree with one of PMC's programs: Murder Is Not Entertainment, a protest of crime dramas on TV. The Mortons liked to watch those shows. They followed Dr. Mark Sloan, the police consultant played by Dick Van Dyke on Diagnosis Murder, and they sat through rerun after rerun of Murder, She Wrote. "Those of us who have been hit by a murder in our family want to see the murder solved, so we watch these shows and see they can be solved, they do get solved, and we like that. We root for the cops," Howard says, and pauses. "We actually root for the cops."

Info

cold cases

Howard knows that cops make mistakes, that a lot of murders go unsolved because of bad investigations or no investigations — like not recognizing a murder scene for what it is until days or weeks have passed, as was the case in the disappearance of Paul and Sarah Skiba and Lorenzo Chivers. Morton knows there are good cops, too, dogged guys and gals who take their cases to bed with them every night. But even the good ones can only handle so many cases.

"When a new crime of violence pops up, guess what happens? Except in Denver and a couple of other places, that investigator gets yanked off whatever he's doing," Howard explains. "Denver has several investigators who are working exclusively on unsolved murders, but even Denver can't get their arms around all the cases they have to address. They're looking at 604 unsolved murders."

And that's just since 1970.

In 2001, Howard formed Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons — a group that would hold law enforcement accountable for unsolved murders. The first thing he had to do was find out just how many Colorado cases were unsolved.

Howard's group petitioned 108 municipalities to come up with the total number of murder victims whose cases had not been solved: 1,250. And Morton started advocating for the creation of a statewide, state-funded unit with full-time investigators specially trained to tackle cold cases. Such an endeavor would take significant funding, and last year Representative Paul Weissmann sponsored a bill to repeal the death penalty and fund a cold-case squad with the savings from death-penalty cases. Between the Attorney General's Office and the judicial branch, the state now spends nearly $800,000 annually on death-penalty cases — and only one person has been executed in Colorado since 1972. Weissmann's bill died in the House, but a smaller, less controversial measure did pass: HB 1272, sponsored by Representative Joe Rice, which gave $67,822 to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to assemble a database of all the open homicides in the state, and created a cold-case task force that is supposed to report back to the legislature with recommendations for solving those cases.

Audrey Simkins, criminal intelligence analyst with the CBI, is now compiling the data on cold cases — defined as unsolved murders at least three years old. She will cross-reference what she finds with FOHVAMP's database, which includes year-old cases, and the end product will be two CBI-maintained databases — one for law enforcement and one for the public. "We're essentially hoping to be able to outline how many cases are outstanding and then go back and review those cases," she says. "The bill allows local law enforcement to request assistance from CBI" — even if it doesn't include any funding for that assistance.

"If you're going to attack a problem, one of the first things to do is take inventory," says Kathy Sasak, deputy executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, who's heading up the cold-case task force. A prosecutor for 23 years, Sasak says that often cold cases are just waiting on the right lead, and the public database could be key. "A lot of times, cold cases are cold not because law enforcement doesn't know who did it," she says, but simply because they don't have enough evidence to prove it. With a public database, people who know something about a murder can check on the status of a case and perhaps be inspired to come forward. "We're looking for needles in haystacks," Sasak admits.

As the law required, Sasak also sent a questionnaire to all of the state's law enforcement agencies asking about their practices and resources related to cold cases. That information will go to the task force, which includes police, prosecutors, representatives of the Attorney General's Office and five FOHVAMP members, including Howard Morton.

With the state's DNA database scoring two murder matches in recent months — in the 1997 killing of Susannah Chase in Boulder and the 1976 slaying of Holly Marie Andrews in Clear Creek County — forensics will certainly be a subject on the task force's agenda. The DNA discovery that exonerated Tim Masters of the murder of Peggy Hettrick also illustrates the need to apply 2008 forensic technology to evidence from cold cases, Sasak notes.

While Morton appreciates the recent breaks, investigators need more resources than the testing of old DNA evidence — particularly since such evidence is most helpful in sex-assault cases. "DNA is not always that much help in a murder," he points out. "It simply identifies someone who was there. It does not provide evidence that's the person who killed the victim. It's help. It's one piece. But it's still a matter of focus and manpower. It's still a matter of having people dedicated to working cold cases and the right people dedicated to working cold cases."

One of the first things Howard did with the task force was discuss his unsolved murder figures — broken down by agency. "I shared it with them because these cops were talking, 'Let's get best practices so we can pass them around to smaller jurisdictions that don't know how to address unsolved murders,' and I said, 'Wait a minute....'"

He'd documented more than 600 unsolved murders in Denver, 100 in Aurora, 77 in Colorado Springs and 120 — including Paul and Sarah Skiba and Lorenzo Chivers — in Adams County. "The majority of the problem is here on the Front Range," he says. "You don't need to send this down to Alamosa where they have three. Let's clean up our own house first."

When he was in Parents of Murdered Children, Howard sat through a lot of trials, and he saw how difficult it was for parents as gruesome details were brought up and defense attorneys tried to make victims seem at least partly to blame for their deaths. "That's a difficult road, but our road is different," he says. "Somebody got away with murder, and that somebody's walking around out there. There is no closure on either one of these paths, but there is resolution for the people who go through the court system. There is no resolution in our case, or in the case of all of these 1,250 victims of unsolved murder in Colorado. None."

Howard recently took the first hundred names from his alphabetical database and averaged the amount of time these cases had been waiting for justice: sixteen years. As he gets older — and watches other members of FOHVAMP die without knowing what happened to their loved ones — his sense of urgency grows. "I want to know before I die that justice has come for our son."

This task force could be the start to finding justice for so many Colorado cases. "Murder is a crime against the state," Howard concludes. "And the state has a responsibility in every unsolved murder to provide the resources to solve it."

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.

 

Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.

 

Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.