Crime

Colorado's cold case backlog: 1,518 murders still unsolved

This week's cover story, "The Victim Lobby," delves into the growing power of the victim rights movement and the sometimes clashing agendas of groups within that movement.

But there's one issue crime victim advocates strongly agree about: The pile-up of unsolved homicides over the past few decades is alarming -- particularly in Colorado, which has more than 1,500 cases in which families are mourning loved ones whose killers were never caught.

In recent years Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons has developed a statewide database of unresolved cases that dates back to the late 1960s. (The photo above shows Marianne Weaver, killed by an unknown assailant in 1970 in Denver.) There are now 1,423 deaths in Colorado officially listed as homicides in the database, plus another 95 cases of "suspicious" deaths or persons who went missing and a body was never found. In 46 of the cases, the deceased is listed as a John or Jane Doe, making it even less likely that anyone will ever be charged with the crime.

Below is FOHVAMP's breakout of cold cases by the different law enforcement agencies assigned to investigate them. Not surprisingly, Front Range cities have the majority of the cases. The Denver Police Department has a whopping 724 of them -- nearly half the statewide total, and seven times more the number in Aurora or Colorado Springs (number two and three, respectively.)

Why so many unsolved homicides in Denver? It's true that highly urban, ethnically diverse communities tend to push up the unsolved rate; not only are blacks and Hispanics more likely than whites to be victims of violent crime, but studies also suggest homicide investigations face more cultural hurdles in minority neighborhoods. But it also appears that cold cases were not a huge priority for the DPD until a few years ago.

"Until the present administration under Chief [Gerald] Whitman got going, they would not talk to us," says Howard Morton, executive director of FOHVAMP. But he adds that Whitman and David Fisher, the DPD's investigations division chief, have reached out to his organization, and a cold-case task force was launched in 2004. "Now I get a report every six months from them, listing all the unsolved homicides."

At the other end of the scale is the Arvada Police Department, which lists no unsolved homicides at all. "Either they're not reporting them, or they're better at solving them than anyone else," Morton says.

For more information on individual victims and cases, go to FOHVAMP's Colorado homicide victim database.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Michael Hancock speaks on the 'unspeakable pain' of his sister's murder (VIDEO)."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast