"The Demon Dog," our current cover story, focuses on the life and work of author James Ellroy, whose bestselling, high-octane novels evoke a long-vanished Los Angeles of the 1940s and 1950s and present artfully fictionalized treatment of some of that city's most notorious crimes, including the Black Dahlia case. Ellroy recently moved to Denver, which he regards as an "amenable place" to pursue his current project, a four-volume exploration of Los Angeles during World War II. "Denver rules, and L.A. drools," he declares.
Having the demon dog of American crime fiction in our midst (he was recently named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America) got us thinking about historic crimes in Colorado, particularly those that are sufficiently complex, ambiguous or outrageous to merit Ellroy treatment. The ten cases listed below provide a glimpse into mile-high tragedies and mores, media excesses and police procedures, and some of the darker corners of local history. They are presented in chronological order.
10. The Million-Dollar Bunco Ring (1922)
With the aid of a police force on the take, bulbous-nosed underworld kingpin Lou Blonger made Denver the epicenter of bunco. Top con artists from around the country hit town every summer to run the long con on rich tourists, including a fake stock exchange. But Blonger hadn't counted on an honest man taking over as district attorney — the incorruptible Philip Van Cise, who placed trusted agents undercover in Blonger's ranks and bugged his office with a dictaphone hidden in a chandelier. No body count here, but this Roaring Twenties version of The Wire, with a massive cast of shady characters, should go straight to hardcover, then HBO.
9. The Love-Crazed Nurse and the Bigamist Cop (1928)
Farice King was a nurse and a grieving mother, hanging on to sanity by a thread after abandonment by her husband and the death of her child. Bob Evans was a smooth-talking cop who led her on and used her. One night Evans was brought into King's hospital ward after being wounded in a shootout with burglar Eddie Ives. King proved to be a better shot than Ives. Her revenge led to one of the most sensational trials in Denver history. It's a tale of bathtub hooch, gum-snapping flappers, love nests crawling with jazzbos hopped up on goofballs, egghead alienists, pushy dame reporters...and much, much more.
8. The Railroading of Joe Arridy (1939)
How did Joe Arridy, a 23-year-old man with the mental capacity of a five-year-old, end up going to the gas chamber for a brutal ax-murder in Pueblo? Credit Wyoming sheriff George Carroll, a headline-grabbing lawman who claimed that Arridy had confessed the whole terrible crime to him. Never mind that Arridy (IQ 46) was easily suggestible, confessed to other crimes he couldn't have committed, and quite possibly was not even in Pueblo on the day when fifteen-year-old Dorothy Drain was bludgeoned and raped in her own bed. Never mind that the evidence pointed to a more likely suspect, a serial killer named Frank Aguilar. The powers that be decided Arridy and Aguilar must have done the crime together, and both were sentenced to die. A pardon for Arridy didn't come until 72 years and a day after his death.
7. Here Comes the Spider Man (1942)
The murder of a 73-year-old Denver man in his home started out as a locked-room mystery. No signs of forced entry. No clues. Ten months later, the case was solved when police, responding to repeated reports of some kind of apparition in the house, caught emaciated Theodore Coneys crawling back into his hidey-hole in the attic. Coneys, a vagrant with a distinctly despairing view of the world, had lived in the cramped space without anyone's knowledge and had dispatched the homeowner one night after he was caught slipping downstairs to raid the fridge. Then he just went back to his hole. The cops called him the Spider Man, and the moniker stuck. Long before Peter Parker spun his first web, Denver had the real Spider Man, offering some intriguing, creepy-crawly tie-ins (or copyright lawsuits) for a possible blockbuster novel.
6. Perry Mason and the Kidnapped Coed (1948)
In response to the shocking sex murder of eighteen-year-old University of Colorado student Theresa Foster, the Denver Post went all out. It hired Erle Stanley Gardner, the creator of Perry Mason and the most popular living author on the planet, to sleuth out the killer. Gardner brought in a team of forensic experts and wowed the local cops. The paper virtually convicted suspect Joe Sam Walker in a torrent of lurid stories before he ever went to trial — so many stories that his conviction was eventually thrown out. Did the law get the wrong man, or did a hack crime writer blow the collar?
5. The Bombing of Flight 629 (1955)
John Gilbert Graham needed money. John Gilbert Graham didn't get along with his mother. So he slipped a bomb in her luggage after she booked a flight to Alaska to shoot caribou with her daughter. The enterprising lad also took out more than $37,000 in flight insurance from a handy airport vending machine. The midair explosion killed all 44 on board United Flight 629, the first confirmed bombing of a commercial flight in U.S. history. Pursued relentlessly by cops local and federal, Graham confessed and got the gas chamber.
4. The Colorado Godfather and the Hit on Hal Levine (1975)
As laid out in the recent documentary Once Upon a Crime: The Borelli-Davis Conspiracy, which played last week at the Denver Film Festival, the story of how retired New York police detective Mike Borelli and fellow cop Bob Davis came to be convicted of conspiring to murder Denver businessman Hal Levine is a tangled web — a tale of police so eager to nail a supposedly-mobbed-up Borelli that they cut a dubious deal with snitch (and possible hit man) Terry D'Prero to point the finger at Borelli and Davis. Was the so-called "Colorado Godfather" just a patsy? Did the state's Organized Crime Strike Force manufacture a Mafia hit out of a highly disorganized crime? So much ambiguity demands a good fiction writer to straighten out the plot.
3. The Assassination of Alan Berg (1984)
The bizarre murder of radio talk-show host Alan Berg outside his Denver home has been the subject of a couple of true-crime books and was partly the basis of the much-fictionalized Oliver Stone movie Talk Radio. Still, it would be fascinating to see what Ellroy, whose work seethes with extremists hatching whacked-out conspiracies, would do with a bunch of loser neo-Nazis who decide to execute a smart, funny radio yakker simply because he's Jewish.
2. The United Bank Murders (1991)
It was unquestionably an inside job. The man who robbed the United Bank on Father's Day, disguised in hat and sunglasses and making off with close to $200,000 while methodically executing four security guards in the process, knew the bank's layout and its security procedures. Prosecutors thought they had their man in James W. King, a former police officer — and former weekend security guard at the bank — whose alibi for that Sunday morning was as weak as a malnourished kitten. But with the aid of powerhouse defense attorneys Walter Gerash and Scott Robinson, who poked gaping holes in eyewitness IDs, King was found not guilty at trial. He died in 2013. The case has never been solved.
1. JonBenet Ramsey (1996)
There have been stacks of books, a miniseries, a Joyce Carol Oates novel, false confessions, even attempts to channel the voice of the pageant princess from the spirit world. Officially, though, the murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey in her Boulder home on Christmas night remains unsolved. (Unless, of course, you give much credence to the 1999 grand-jury vote to issue indictments of parents John and Patsy Ramsey on felony child abuse and accessory charges, an effort that was never endorsed by prosecutors and wasn't revealed to the public until 2013.) With the twentieth anniversary of the state's most scrutinized, sensationalized and strangest murder mystery drawing near, how can the author of American Tabloid resist weighing in?