Digging Up a Murderous Family Plot

Kirk Mitchell's front-page story in the July 7 Denver Post about the bodies found on the McCormick ranch 22 years ago brought back memories of one of the most badly bungled murder investigations in Colorado history.

Westword published my exclusive prison interview with Michael McCormick back in 1987 — long before our online archives, alas. But in that article, Michael and others accused his father, Tom McCormick, a Kit Carson County rancher, of being one of the most prolific serial killers in state history, responsible for as many as seventeen deaths.

The younger McCormick led investigators to four bodies — including three former McCormick ranch hands, buried on the eastern plains — but the truth remained buried. Partly because of budget cuts and jurisdictional problems, partly because of holes in Michael's own story, the elder McCormick was never charged with any homicides, while Michael took the fall for the death of an Idaho trucker whose rig had then been used to haul coal for one of the shady McCormick family businesses.

Tom McCormick, who died in 1997, never spoke to the press about the case. His lawyer, Larry Pozner, claimed that Michael "could con food out of a baby's mouth" and was trying to blame his father for his own mayhem, even though some of the bodies dated back to when Michael was a teenager. Michael claimed his father ran his ranch like a criminal empire, terrorizing family and employees alike: "With Dad, you don't talk, you don't argue. You don't ask why. If you do, you end up buried."

Mitchell reports that the long-dormant case is now getting a fresh look from investigators, who hope to use updated forensic methods to answer questions about the deaths. What the article doesn't explore, though, is why these particular deaths have gone unavenged for so long. The bodies found on McCormick's desolate ranch were those of itinerant workers and drifters, mostly estranged from their families; according to investigators, they lived in a peculiar kind of serfdom — no trips to town, no unauthorized phone calls, no pay until termination. And it's possible that termination of a different kind may have resulted because of disputes about pay. They were the sort of people who could — and did — disappear without a trace.

And they may not be the only ones. Not all of the McCormicks' former employees have been accounted for. Michael McCormick claimed there are more bodies out there, though he was hazy on the details.

"If it had been a wealthy rancher and his wife and daughter that had been heinously murdered in Stratton, I suspect everyone would have been more involved, more outraged," Dave Thomas, then the state's director of public safety, told me 21 years ago. "The fact that [the victims] are migrant workers or drifters—maybe that's all the more reason we should care, because nobody else does."—Alan Prendergast

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun