Live Fast, Die Young

The sun was just beginning to dip behind Pikes Peak when Detective Mark Finley turned off the highway between Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs and onto a narrow back road. Gravel crunched beneath the wheels of his car as he steered through the seedy collection of single-wides that made up the "mobile home community," past a sign that read "Family Park...10 mph."

He found the trailer he was looking for in the farthest corner. It wasn't hard: Patrol cars had already pulled up alongside it, their blue and red lights bouncing off the aluminum trailer, turning the dusk garish and surreal. Uniformed deputies were stretching yellow crime-scene tape around the perimeter, while spectators, many of them as disheveled as their neighborhood, gathered in the street.

Finley parked and got out of his car. March 11, 1991, had been a warm day, but as the sun set, the air quickly cooled, and a few flakes of snow floated on the slight breeze.

Stan Presley, another detective from the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, was already at the scene. He'd been on his way to the juvenile detention center when the call came over the radio at 4:20 p.m. Recognizing the address, he responded immediately. Two bodies, male and female. Had to be Steve Staskiewicz and Jenny Carpenter.

Presley said as much to Finley, who was assigned to lead the investigation. "But I'm not sure," he added. Presley had taken a quick look at the victims, but the trailer was dark, and death had a way of altering even familiar features. And in this instance, the girl's face was a bloody mess. "Her hair's red, so it's probably Jenny."

Finley looked at his colleague. Presley was a hard guy to read. He could be angry as hell and not show it, but now he seemed more surprised than anything. They both were.

Nobody would shed any tears over Staskiewicz. His demise was what cops jokingly refer to as a "misdemeanor homicide"--hardly a crime at all. He was a scumbag, a drug dealer and in-your-face intimidator in the local "meth" crowd. Thirty-seven years old, he had a history of petty crimes and had never shown the slightest inclination that he was ever going to change. He'd been begging to bump heads with a bullet.

But Jenny's murder was harder to handle. She was only fifteen, abandoned by her father and mother, who'd handed her over to Staskiewicz two years earlier. Jenny was tough and streetwise, a pretty face and woman's body disguising a child. As far as the detectives were concerned, she'd never really had a chance to be anything more than what she needed to be in order to survive.

Finley felt the anger rise. It felt like failure. "The SOB pulled it off," he muttered.

They'd been told that Charles Stroud, another scumbag, wanted Jenny dead. Stroud didn't want Jenny testifying against him for raping her.

When a jail informant sent a warning that Stroud was arranging a "hit," Presley tried to protect Jenny. He'd gone to court and had her placed in a Castle Rock foster home. But after a week, the girl had run away. Back to Staskiewicz. Back home to die.

The surprise was that Stroud had the kind of muscle to get the job done from inside a jail cell. Witnesses died in mob movies, not in real life. But it didn't get more real than two dead bodies. And now Finley had to catch the killer.

At least he knew where to start--with Stroud. This should be over pretty quick, he thought, as the snow began falling more persistently.

He was only off by five years.

When Stan Presley met Jenny Carpenter in 1989, he'd been a cop for eleven years. She was just thirteen.

Steve Staskiewicz, a man with long, dark hair and a drooping moustache, had been stabbed during a fracas at a farmhouse east of Colorado Springs. Jenny was with several women who went to the hospital to check on him.

Among local law enforcement authorities, Staskiewicz had a reputation as a drug user and dealer. Presley assumed the farm was a front for a methamphetamine laboratory. Although the drug is easily cooked up with readily available chemicals and using household utensils, even bathtubs, meth labs generally are located in rural areas--in part to hide the cat-piss stink of production.

Not surprisingly, Staskiewicz was uncooperative, a real tough guy, when Presley asked what had happened. He said he didn't know who had stabbed him. But not to worry, the 6'3" Staskiewicz told the detective, he'd take care of the son of a bitch himself.

Jenny was equally uncooperative. Staskiewicz was her "guardian," she told Presley, but she wasn't around during the fight. "I don't know what happened."

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Steve Jackson