Love on the Rocks

The town got its name from the railroad that ran through it and siphoned grain from the white elevators that rise above Colorado's eastern plains. A steady supply of water lay underground, and so, in 1887, as the builders of the Pueblo and State Line Railroad planned their route, they made a notation on their maps to identify the spot between the closest towns on either side--Eads, 21 miles to the east, and Sugar City, 34 miles west: "Has well."

The 1990 census found 62 people--38 families--in Haswell, a cluster of buildings surrounded by central Kiowa County's wheat and corn fields. People stop and gossip at the one convenience store/gas station, Haswell Propane, a curved metal hanger along Route 96. The old fire-department building a quarter-mile up the road is boarded up, as is the Haswell Elementary School, a building constructed in the 1960s school mold: low, clean brick lines, flat-roofed. Today students living on Haswell's western-most border are bused 45 miles one way to school in Eads.

The school's closing a decade ago seemed to mark a turning point in the town's fortunes. Since then, Haswell's lumberyard, bank, grocery store and cafe have all shut down, too. Last year Union Pacific, citing high costs and little return, mothballed the rail line that runs through the heart of the town.

The only other business remaining in Haswell, L&M Processing, sits kitty-corner across Route 96 from the gas station. It's a low, white concrete building that Leonard Price has owned and worked in for 52 years, where cows and pigs are hauled in for slaughter and custom butchering.

It's also where, in the summer of 1996, among the band saws and wide tables, police say a young Haswell woman named Cynthia Phillips planned for her husband to be murdered.

Nothing remains private for long in a town whose population is counted in the dozens. But Phillips had become an object of scrutiny even sooner than usual. Her look-at-me outfits ("boots like that daughter of Frank Sinatra's used to wear," recalls one neighbor) and bleached blond hair assured that Phillips would be a curiosity soon after she arrived in the tiny farming community in 1994 with her husband, Ron, and their four children, two each from previous marriages.

Ron, a large, hardworking man, was a familiar quantity in Kiowa County, about 150 miles southeast of Denver. He'd attended high school 25 years earlier in Eads, where his parents and sister still live. But his young wife was a puzzlement to locals, a rich source of gossip. She seemed drawn to bustle and nightlife--commodities in short supply in Haswell--and it surprised no one when she began spending more and more time in Lamar, a city of 8,000 sixty miles to the southeast.

There Cynthia could usually be found at Opal's Pub, a battered honky-tonk on the northern edge of town. She soon became friends with one Opal's bouncer and lover to another. According to police, it was in early June 1996 that she handed one of the bouncers $10,000 cash in exchange for his agreeing to kill Ron one lonesome night at L&M Processing.

Cynthia claimed that she had her reasons. Ron deserved to die, she insisted, because he beat her. And at first, it did seem to Kiowa County sheriff's deputies that the Phillipses might have been imprisoned in one of those marriages that deteriorate into sad dances of mutual abuse: She cheated on him; he hit her.

But early this past summer, as the police drove across plains in the middle of the country visiting people from Phillips's past, they would learn much more about the reed-thin Haswell woman. Eventually, they would detect an unsettling pattern. It followed Phillips as she moved between small farming towns in Colorado, Kansas and Texas, and it involved the men in those towns who had become intimate with her.

In the past year, as law-enforcement officers from three states traced her trail, they discovered that these men had two things in common. All happened to hold large life-insurance policies listing Cynthia Phillips as beneficiary.

And all had run into a streak of deadly bad luck.
September 1996--Kinsley, Kansas
The search party was made up of agents from the Kansas Bureau of Investigation and the Edwards County sheriff's department. Although the calender date was inauspicious--Friday the 13th--the group hoped for a break. Leslie Konrade, 38, had been missing ever since he hurriedly left the local VFW bar on the evening of August 22.

In the three weeks since Konrade's disappearance, anonymous tips to the KBI had hinted that police should concentrate their search efforts "near water" around Kinsley, a town of 2,000 between Great Bend and Dodge City. But heavy rains had caused the rivers to overflow, and the manhunt amid the sprawling fields of western Kansas had been slowed. That September morning, however, Les Konrade finally showed up--floating face-down along the muddy banks of Coon Creek, several miles northeast of Kinsley.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer