Original Sin

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"The young people loved [Troy] and wanted to be with him," Mary Mondragon says. "They're not babies, they're adults. When Lisa said the Hancocks were going to open a church in Colorado and that they were going, we said, 'Okay, as long as you stay in church and live for God.'"

But Enselma could find no good in her daughter's moving away. She was "very angry with the Hancocks," Mondragon says. "She blames them that Matthew and Natalie went to Colorado."

Troy had made a scouting expedition to Colorado early in 1996 and decided that the Longmont area was a good place to settle. Rents were reasonable, and work was plentiful. The group moved to the area that summer.

The relocation seemed full of promise. Several of the congregants soon found jobs in construction. Marcus Mirabal began doing tile work, then started a business framing houses. Troy Hancock launched his own company, T&M Painting, named for himself and Matthew Mirabal, whom he'd taken on as a partner.

The Hancocks rented a large house and began holding church services in the basement while looking for a good site to house a new church. They eventually settled on a metal-sided building in an industrial section of Platteville, about twelve miles northeast of Longmont. It was christened the Apostolic Church of Platteville, or Iglesia Apostolic de Platteville, a nod to its many Hispanic members.

In Colorado, Matthew and Natalie continued their courtship, which had turned serious. The two married in November 1996, in a small ceremony back home in New Mexico.

"We insisted they do it there for their families," Janet Hancock says. "We encouraged Natalie to try to mend things with her family."

The Hancocks, who say they cared for Natalie and Matthew as if they were their own children, had long since gotten over their initial trepidation about the couple's relationship.

Janet made Natalie's wedding dress, sewing on thousands of sequins by hand. She says that she and her husband footed the majority of the cost for the wedding and reception. Enselma claims she doesn't know who paid for the wedding. "But they [the Hancocks] probably did because they wanted it so bad," she says.

The couple was young -- Natalie was just 21 and Matthew seventeen -- but marrying at an early age is common among members of the church. Marcus Mirabal had married Lisa Mondragon in 1993, when he was seventeen and she just sixteen.

Approximately a year after the wedding, Troy presented Matthew with an opportunity to become his own boss. "I wanted to see him get on his own," Troy says, "and I gave him one of my builders [with whom he had a painting contract]."

Natalie found work in a dental office, and she and Matthew settled into a Longmont apartment on South Pratt Parkway. They remained devoted to the church, attending services three times weekly. On Tuesdays they went to prayer meetings, on Thursday to the youth group, and on Sunday to a lengthy service that ended with a potluck dinner.

Matthew eventually began taking classes to obtain a real estate license.

By all accounts, the couple appeared happy. "Every payday, he would buy her a dozen roses because she loved roses so much," Mary Mondragon says. "He helped her clean. He was good to her." No one reported detecting any hint of violence in the home.

In addition, Natalie and her mother were developing a closer relationship; Natalie would often go to Chamisal to visit, and her mother sometimes made trips to Longmont.

"I wanted my daughter back," Enselma explains. "The Hancocks literally came in and destroyed our family. I wanted my daughter happy. I would even go to church with Natalie [in Platteville]. I would talk with the Hancocks. I tried getting civil with them. What I wanted was, I wanted my daughter back."

Still, things were far from easy for the young couple. In December 1998 the Mirabals declared bankruptcy.

According to Boulder sheriff's detective Steve Ainsworth, who would later head up the investigation of Natalie's murder, most of the debt represented Natalie's school loans. Enselma says now, however, that Matthew blamed the Hancocks for making him "go broke."

No matter the reason, the action itself was not unusual. "It was a run-of-the-mill bankruptcy, according to the DA," Ainsworth says.

But there was yet another stressor in the mix. That fall, Natalie learned she was pregnant.

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Karen Bowers