Father Knows Best

He could never forget his daughter, but six years after her death, Frank Baley was getting on with his life. Then a Boulder police officer called, and the pain cut deep once again.

Detective Thomas Wickman wanted to reopen the file on Susan Baley, who'd died in Boulder in 1982 at the age of 26. Some new information indicated Susan might have been murdered--poisoned, in fact. Wickman wondered if Baley would give permission to have her body exhumed.

Baley and his wife, Blanche, talked it over with their four surviving children, most of whom lived close to the town of Stickney, Illinois, where they'd all grown up and where Frank Baley still serves as mayor. It was Susan who'd gone away to school, to the University of Colorado; Susan who'd stayed in Boulder for a part-time job at a chemical laboratory while she attended medical school. "I didn't want to do this without them knowing it," Baley says of the exhumation.

But the family members all agreed that if there were questions about Susan's death, they wanted answers. So in June 1989, Wickman and Baley visited a judge and obtained a search warrant to examine Susan's body for evidence of "murder."

They were looking for a chemical known as M-99, etorphine hydrochloride. In his affidavit for the search warrant, Wickman said he had reason to believe Susan might have been poisoned by Dr. Dale Wingeleth, the toxicologist who owned the ChemaTox lab where she'd worked for four years and whom she'd been dating for about six months. After attending a wedding in Chicago, Susan had returned to Boulder and Wingeleth's apartment, where the two shared a bottle of wine. They were in bed together early on the morning of September 27, 1982, when Wingeleth suddenly was awakened by the sound of Susan groaning. Wingeleth began administering CPR--he'd had to move her off the waterbed, he told police--and when that proved ineffective, he called 911. Then he held her in his arms until the ambulance arrived. Susan was pronounced dead ten minutes after she arrived at Boulder Community Hospital; the official cause of death was listed as epilepsy.

That puzzled her family: Susan had never suffered from epilepsy, Baley says. Their puzzlement turned to concern when they arrived in Boulder and were told by Wingeleth that Susan had wanted to be cremated and have her ashes strewn over the Rocky Mountains. They'd never heard that, either. Instead, the Baleys took Susan back home and buried her in Stickney.

And that's where she remained until Wickman convinced the family to dig up the past. Wickman's interest had been piqued by Maura Bennett, a ChemaTox employee who'd spent considerable time listening to Wingeleth mourn his lost love. But over the months, Bennett told Wickman, "Dr. Wingeleth's tone began to change when he talked about Baley dying. In this time frame he would get angry, then quiet, then change the subject, always going to 'do you know the perfect way to kill a person?'" Wingeleth even provided an answer, she said: M-99, a veterinary anesthetic that he described at one lunch as the "perfect murder weapon, that kills instantly." By now, Bennett said, Wingeleth was referring to Baley as "that bitch."

And by now, Wingeleth had his own troubles. He was using drugs, "almost all types," he told a judge, and in 1985 he pleaded guilty to a drug charge. In 1986 he was sentenced to nine months in jail and fined $20,000--a sentence whose effect rippled far, since Wingeleth's lab did testing for a number of local law enforcement agencies.

Bennett left ChemaTox ten days after Wingeleth was released from the penitentiary. At a board of health meeting two years later, she met a doctor who asked if she'd known Susan Baley and told her that he'd referred a case to Wingeleth back in 1982 involving a veterinary anesthetic called M-99. That's when Bennett contacted the FBI, which contacted the Boulder police. M-99, Wickman noted on his affidavit, is "400 times as potent as morphine."

When Wickman visited Stickney, Baley gave him a letter Susan had written about a lab case involving a drugged horse. "Remember when you used to take me to the race track and give me $20 to place bets?" she asked her parents. "I always lost, of course, and I used to insist the races were fixed."

But no one could have predicted the outcome of Susan's race with death. According to the second autopsy, she had died not from epilepsy, not from poisoning, but from a major cocaine overdose.

With that revelation, Wickman seemed to lose interest in Susan's case. But Baley's commitment remained as strong as ever. How could two autopsies have such different results? How could the first tests have failed to find cocaine? After all, the substance was hardly unknown in Boulder. (Wingeleth, who says he believes the first autopsy was correct, has denied any role in Susan's death.)

Baley went to Boulder to get some answers from the town's new police chief. But all Tom Koby would say, Baley remembers, was that the first autopsy was "botched." Susan Baley was a victim of an overdose, not a murder. Case closed.

Of course, Boulder is a town that does not like to own up to its murders. JonBenet Ramsey's death was the town's only recognized murder last year--officials don't count Lorraine Lawrence, found dead in a construction pit covered with plywood. She'd died from exposure, the coroner ruled, and also had suffered from epilepsy.

This year's recognized murder was committed by a CU professor who killed her estranged husband in their home, while a police officer waited for him downstairs. Officials don't count Luis McIntire, who got too rowdy at a party, was hogtied by the cops, sprayed with pepper spray--and died. That was a heart attack caused by positional asphyxia, according to the coroner.

This year, desperate to solve something, anything, the Boulder cops have resurrected a few cases from the dead. The 1983 murder of Sid Wells, the boyfriend of Robert Redford's daughter, was reopened. And last month, two years after an obese, bedridden woman was found dead of a head wound in her apartment, her husband was finally charged with her murder.

But Boulder is not interested in reviving Susan Baley.
For her father, the case has never closed. When Stickney hired a new police chief, John Zitek, a man with 32 years' experience as a Chicago cop, Baley talked it over with him. "I think they handled it terribly. A young girl 26 years old without any history of epilepsy doesn't die of a seizure," Zitek says. The investigation stopped in the middle of a "significant lead," he adds, and at that point, "the only person who could stop it would be the chief or district attorney."

In Boulder, that would be Tom Koby or Alex Hunter--household words since the murder of JonBenet Ramsey nine months ago.

But they've been household words in the Baley home for close to a decade. As Frank Baley read reports of the Ramsey investigation, he kept wondering about that second autopsy. "That brought it all back," he says. "It was the same actors."

Baley and Zitek recently sent notarized requests, on official Stickney stationery, to the Boulder police and coroner's office, asking for the autopsy reports, for the toxicology reports, for anything in Susan's files. "But they said they could not release it," Zitek says. "It's done here all the time. I don't know why they refuse."

After nine months of Ramsey mania, you don't need a First Amendment lawyer to know that an autopsy report is open to the public--unless it's specifically sealed by the court. And even those seals break, as they have with the JonBenet Ramsey autopsy and 65 pages of search warrants. But Frank Baley cannot get anything out of Boulder. He cannot even get his calls returned.

There are some things a father can never know. Why his child left this earth before him, for example. But at least he should be able to find out how.

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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