On May 5, just five days shy of a year since his wife disappeared after going on a bike ride near Maysville, Barry Morphew was charged with first-degree murder, even though Suzanne Morphew's body has not been found. And suddenly, another Colorado crime has become a national obsession.
Why have so many tragedies in this state gone national? We explored this question back in August 2018, shortly after the bust of Frederick's Chris Watts for the slaying of his pregnant wife, Shanann Watts, and their two daughters, three-year-old Celeste and four-year-old Bella — a shocking act that went on to spawn a truly awful Lifetime movie and a chillingly effective Netflix documentary. And like many of the other crimes that came before it, including the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, the 2012 Aurora theater shooting and the assault on a Boulder King Soopers in March, the Morphew matter involves people who resided in an idyllic place and seemed to have ideal lives — when their world was rocked by horror.
At this point, we don't know precisely what prompted Barry Morphew's arrest, since that affidavit is currently sealed. But at a press conference on May 5, Chaffee County Sheriff John Spezze and 11th Judicial District DA Linda Stanley lauded the efforts of more than seventy investigators from several law-enforcement agencies who issued 135-plus search warrants, conducted in excess of 400 interviews and chased at least 1,400 tips.
In the more than eleven months prior to this arrest, Barry Morphew, following in Chris Watts's footsteps, made himself the public face of the search for Suzanne, repeatedly declaring his innocence while pleading for her safe return on any platform he could find.
A case in point: this appearance on the Dr. Phil program last October.
The wealth of photos showing the Morphews in blissful poses, as well as their extremely telegenic qualities, offers one explanation for why the case spurred the interest of major broadcasters. But the way Colorado is viewed by people who don't live here also plays a significant part in local incidents becoming must-see TV from coast to coast.
The title of author Lawrence Schiller's book about the JonBenét case — Perfect Murder, Perfect Town — underscores the idea that Colorado (exemplified in that instance by Boulder) is a bucolic wonderland filled with spectacular scenery and gorgeous people whose lives are like travel brochures made real.
It's the kind of place where nothing bad should ever happen — and when it does, the impact is amplified to a shattering degree.
The same phenomenon came into play with Columbine (well-off, apparently trouble-free teens in a lovely suburb go homicidal) and the Aurora theater shooting (genius from a good family suddenly turns the seemingly safest of neighborhood settings into a nightmare) — and it was a big reason why they both became so well known.
There have been plenty of school shootings since the late 1990s, many of them more lethal than the one that happened here — yet Columbine is still seen as the exemplar of these gruesome episodes. And while mass killings take place with disturbing frequency, the one at the Aurora Century 16 continues to stand out even as others fade from the memories of all but those most directly impacted. Expect that to remain the case for the King Soopers shooting in Boulder, too.
As for the odds of convicting Barry Morphew even if Suzanne's body is never located, the March guilty verdict against Donthe Lucas for the murder of Denver's still-missing Kelsie Schelling, who, like Shanann Watts, was pregnant when she vanished in 2013, proves such an outcome is possible. And note that afterward, the case was the subject of a double-length episode of ABC's 20/20.
Even more attention is being given to the Morphew story, and if a future jury decides that Barry is an accomplished liar as well as a cold-blooded killer, the tragedy will almost certainly live on in national TV infamy for many years to come.
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