Life ... And Death ... On The Run

The 1995 green Camaro Z28 roared out of the dark hills at 95 miles an hour, barreling east on Interstate 70 toward the coming sunrise. Behind it flashed the blue and red lights of an Idaho Springs police cruiser.

The officer had noticed a young man and woman standing by the car on a side street in the small mountain town. When he swung the cruiser around to investigate, the pair jumped into the Camaro, where a companion waited.

The chase was on.
Two more miles, up and over the last hill, and the lights of Denver would have appeared on the plains below. But suddenly the Camaro, with its three young occupants, veered off the highway at the Chief Hosa exit. The driver lost control, and the car began spinning clockwise as it swerved from the exit ramp, plowing through the tall, dry grass.

With the car moving at 140 feet per second when they reached the exit, the final 490 feet of their lives lasted approximately three seconds. One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi.

The car slammed passenger-side first into a two-foot-thick Ponderosa pine. The impact sounded like a bomb going off in the still mountain air.

As the Camaro slowly spun to a stop on the other side of the tree, the horrified Idaho Springs police officer called for help. It was 5:45 in the morning, October 26, 1995.

By the time the Jefferson County Coroner's office investigator arrived at the scene, two of the bodies had been removed from what remained of the car. A third was pinned in the backseat and would have to be cut from the wreckage.

All three had died instantly. The cause of death was as clear as the fresh scars on the tree and the mangled scrap metal behind it. Death by physics: speed vs. the immovable object.

The question for the coroner's office wouldn't be how, but who. There was no identification of any kind on the bodies: no purses, no wallets, no letters in the car--no hint of who they were or where they were going.

Two of the victims--the driver and the backseat's occupant--were barely disfigured. But the female in the front passenger seat had suffered a severe head trauma. She had been closest to the point of impact, perhaps looking out that side window as the car careened like a carnival ride gone haywire. Her face no longer existed.

"We knew two of them were young just by looking," recalls Triena Harper, the chief deputy coroner in Jeffco. "But otherwise we had three Does and no place to go."

The girl in the backseat looked to be hardly more than a child, and the male driver appeared to be in his teens. Many of the cops, paramedics and investigators had children of their own, and they went about their work grim-faced.

Once the bodies arrived at the morgue, Harper knew she had to get the kids identifiedEfast. Somewhere out there a mother or a father--maybe both, though statistics indicate that a runaway, as these three were assumed to be, usually comes from a broken family--was waiting to hear from a child.

Only once in her fourteen-year career had Harper failed to identify a corpse: a young woman whose badly decomposed body had been found on Lookout Mountain in the spring of 1989. Nature had done its work so well that Harper could not even determine a cause of death. But she tried to learn everything else she could about the dead woman. A forensic anthropologist reconstructed her facial features using the skull and estimated her height and weight from the remains. They'd given the information to the newspapers and submitted it to a national clearinghouse for missing persons.

Nothing had come of it. Nevertheless, Harper kept at it for another year, refusing to let go of the remains, hoping she could find a family to deliver them to. When, reluctantly, she finally gave up, Jane Doe was buried in a Golden cemetery; the services were videotaped in case her family was ever found.

Harper was determined that these three new Does would have a better ending. Their families were going to get these kids back.

The first step was examining the bodies, noting every scratch and scar. She consulted a radiologist and odontologist regarding bone and teeth development to determine age, as well as to find evidence of dental work and previously broken bones that might aid in identification.

At first glance, the backseat passenger had appeared to be fourteen or fifteen years old. Now the experts put her at closer to twelve or thirteen. She was a beautiful child--Hispanic, with dark brown hair and eyes, but no tattoos or other distinguishing marks.

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Steve Jackson