Channel: Colorado cold cases, Denver unsolved murders, crimes — The Denver Post
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Murder suspect known as the Hammer Killer arrives in Colorado decades after cold case killings shook metro region


Alex Christopher Ewing, the man accused of bludgeoning four victims to death with a hammer three decades ago, has arrived in Colorado, where he will face charges in the cold case killings.

The Nevada Supreme Court last week denied Ewing’s motion to stay in Nevada, where he’s been held since 1985 on an attempted-murder conviction.

This undated Nevada Department of Corrections file photo shows Alexander Christopher Ewing, who is serving an 8-to-40 year sentence for a 1984 escape from custody and ax handle attack on a couple in the Las Vegas area. A lawyer is arguing that Ewing, facing death penalty charges in four Denver-area killings in 1984 should have been given a lawyer to help him fight extradition. (Nevada Department of Corrections via AP,File)

Ewing is being held at the Arapahoe County Detention Center, with an advisement hearing scheduled for Monday, Vikki Migoya, spokeswoman for the 18th Judicial District Attorney’1`s Office, said via email.

The brutal 1984 murders shook the region, the investigative trail going cold for decades. On Jan. 10, 1984, Patricia Smith was raped and killed in her Lakewood apartment. Six days later, Bruce and Patricia Bennett and their 7-year-old daughter Melissa were found dead in Aurora.

In August 2018, 34 years after the murders, DNA evidence on two pieces of carpet and a little girl’s bed comforter connected Ewing to the scene of the crimes.

The cold case is the latest in a growing list of serious crimes now being checked out in a new light as DNA evidence gives investigators previously untapped resources.

Alleged Hammer Killer appears in Jefferson County court as victim’s family watches


A man suspected of using a hammer to bludgeon four people to death in Colorado was advised Tuesday of the charges he faces more than three decades after the alleged crimes.

Alexander Christopher Ewing, also known as the Hammer Killer, appeared in Jefferson County District Court where he was read the six felony charges he faces there, including four counts of first-degree murder in connection to the killing of 50-year-old Patricia Smith. Ewing is also facing murder charges in Arapahoe County District Court in connection with the deaths of 27-year-old Bruce Bennett, his wife, 26-year-old Debra Bennet and their daughter, Melissa, 7.

Ewing appeared in a red jail uniform, with his hands shackled. A small man starting to bald, Ewing spoke only briefly in single-word answers to questions from the judge.

Smith’s family members sat in the front row and wiped away tears as Jefferson County Chief Deputy District Attorney Bob Weiner read through the charges Ewing faced.

Ewing, 59, had been imprisoned in Nevada since 1985 on an attempted murder conviction and fought his extradition to Colorado.

Investigators could not connect Ewing to the four 1984 Colorado killings until 2018 when DNA evidence tied him to the crimes. Colorado investigators had submitted DNA found at the scenes to a national database years ago, but the samples didn’t match anything until Nevada officials uploaded a sample from Ewing in the summer of 2018.

Ewing is suspected of raping and killing Smith in her Lakewood apartment and, six days later, killing the Bennetts in Aurora. The Bennett’s youngest daughter, Vanessa, who was 3 years old at the time, survived.

Ewing is eligible for the death penalty in both Colorado cases, though neither district attorney has made a decision whether to pursue it.

Colorado lawmakers last month passed a bill abolishing the death penalty, but the ban would only affect cases filed on or after July 1. The governor has yet to sign the bill, though he is expected to do so.

Ewing’s public defender, Katherine Spengler, argued multiple times during the court hearing Tuesday that Ewing should not face the death penalty because Colorado’s capital punishment law is unconstitutional. Prosecutors do not have to decide whether to pursue execution until after Ewing is arraigned.

Ewing’s preliminary hearing — where a judge will determine whether there is enough evidence to let the case continue in court — is scheduled for May 22.

Florida sheriff wants new leads following Netflix series “Tiger King”


TAMPA, Fla. — A Florida sheriff is asking for new leads in the disappearance of the former husband of a big cat sanctuary owner featured in the new Netflix series “Tiger King.”

This notice posted on the Twitter ...
Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister via AP
This notice posted on the Twitter account of Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister on Monday, March 30, 2020, seeks the public’s help for new leads in the disappearance of Jack “Don” Lewis, the former husband of a big cat sanctuary owner featured in the new Netflix series “Tiger King.” Chronister posted that the popularity of the seven-part documentary made it a good time to ask for new leads in Lewis’ 1997 disappearance.

Hillsborough County Sheriff Chad Chronister posted on his personal Twitter account Monday that the popularity of the seven-part documentary made it a good time to ask for new leads in the 1997 disappearance of Jack “Don” Lewis. He was married to Carole Baskin, who runs Big Cat Rescue near Tampa.

Lewis went missing shortly before a planned business trip to Costa Rica, investigators said shortly after his disappearance. His van was found near a Pasco County airport. Deputies searched the wildlife sanctuary he ran with his wife, but he was never found in Florida nor Costa Rica.

“Tiger King” tells the story of an Oklahoma zookeeper named Joseph Maldonado-Passage, also known as “Joe Exotic,” who was sentenced to 22 years in federal prison this year after being convicted in an unsuccessful murder-for-hire plot against Baskin. He was upset that Baskin, an outspoken critic of him and his zoo, won a million-dollar civil judgment against him.

The documentary extensively covered Maldonado-Passage’s repeated accusations that Baskin killed her husband and possibly fed him to her tigers. Baskin has never been charged with any crime and released a statement refuting the accusations made in the series.

“Tiger King” quickly became Netfix’s top show following its March 20 release. The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office confirmed last week that the Lewis case is still active and open.

DNA testing identifies suspect in 1963 cold case of 16-year-old killed at Colorado Girl Scouts camp

Colorado Bureau of Investigation
Margaret “Peggy” Beck

Advances in DNA technology allowed Jefferson County investigators to crack a 56-year-old cold case and identify a suspect in the killing of a teenage girl in her tent at a Girl Scouts camp.

Margaret “Peggy” Beck, 16, was sexually assaulted and strangled on Aug. 18, 1963, in her tent at the Flying G Ranch Girl Scouts Camp near Deckers, where she was a counselor. She was sleeping alone because her tentmate had gone to the infirmary. Although the nearest tent was 75 feet away, nobody interviewed by police recalled hearing or seeing anything.

Law enforcement collected scrapings from under Beck’s fingernails and submitted them for DNA testing, according to previous Denver Post reporting. Investigators created a DNA profile from the evidence in 2007 and submitted it to a national database, according to the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. A more comprehensive profile was created in June 2019, and investigators were able to identify the suspect through genealogical research.

Colorado law enforcement have solved several other cold cases using similar tactics, including the 1981 killing of a teenage hitchhiker and the 1980 stabbing of a college student.

Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office officials are scheduled to identify Beck’s suspected killer at a news conference Thursday morning.

Boulder County Sheriff’s Office solves 1970 rape and murder case

Betty Lee Jones (Boulder County Sheriff’s Office)

The Boulder County Sheriff’s Office said DNA evidence has identified a man who died in 2019 as the person who likely raped and murdered a 23-year-old Denver woman in 1970.

According to a release, Betty Lee Jones was found dead on March 9, 1970, by two Colorado Department of Transportation workers down an embankment on Colo. 128 near the Boulder and Jefferson county border.

Investigators said Jones, a mother of two, had been bound, sexually assaulted, strangled and shot.

Jones was last seen alive at her home in Denver the day before her body was found following an argument with her husband. Witnesses said Jones left the home and tried to flag down cars, eventually getting into a blue sedan.

Paul Leroy Martin

The case was reopened in 2006 and DNA evidence found on Jones’ body was submitted to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, but it did not match any profiles in a national database or any known suspects, including Jones’ husband.

In 2019, the DNA was provided to a private lab, Bode Technologies, which was able to use genealogy to develop a family tree and narrow the suspect down to a Denver family.

A member of the family, Paul Leroy Martin, was found to have died in June 2019. His body was exhumed, and his DNA matched that of the profile found on Jones’ body.

Martin had no known link to Jones, but Martin’s family believed he drove a blue sedan.

“In addition to our sincere thanks to CBI, the FBI, and all the contributing scientists and investigators, I would like to personally thank Detective Steve Ainsworth for his diligent work and tenacity for solving this very cold case, which was so brutally committed,” Boulder Sheriff Joe Pelle said in a statement. “Steve has a long career, much of it dedicated to cold cases, and he does a wonderful job for these victims and their families.”

A probable cause statement was submitted to the Boulder County District Attorney’s Office on May 26, and a murder charge would have been filed had Martin been alive today.

“Every cold case homicide represents a tragic and unexplained loss,” Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty said in a statement. “These victims deserve justice. Their families deserve answers and some form of closure, but the investigative trail has gone cold — unless and until someone like Detective Steve Ainsworth takes it up. Detective Ainsworth did an outstanding job working this case over many years. Today’s announcement by the Sheriff’s Office is the culmination of years of hard work by Steve Ainsworth and the investigative team.

“Because of their tireless efforts and perseverance as well as the recent advances in DNA analysis, if he were alive today, Paul Martin would be charged and prosecuted by the District Attorney’s Office for the tragic murder of Betty Jones. “

“She is someone, she is no longer our Jane Doe”: Douglas County authorities ID woman killed in 1993 cold case


A young woman whose body was found in 1993 near a makeshift camp in the forest of Douglas County has finally been identified, the sheriff’s office announced Thursday. Now, the search for the person or people responsible for her death has reignited.

At a press conference at the Justice Center in Castle Rock on Thursday morning, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said he was a deputy when her remains were first found and now, as a sheriff, considered it an honor to say her name out loud to the public: Rebecca Ann Redeker, known to her family as Becky.

On June 15, 1993, deputies were called out to the Rainbow Creek Falls area in the Pike San Isabel National Forest between Woodland Park and Deckers about a body found in the woods, according to the sheriff’s office. When deputies arrived, they found the body of a young woman and a makeshift campsite. Spurlock said investigators believe the woman had died within 72 hours of deputies finding her.

Detectives attempted to identify the woman and despite an extensive crime scene, they were unable to for years and the case went cold, Spurlock said.

In July 2020, Douglas County Det. Shannon Jenson received information that led to a positive identification, with the help of Douglas County Sheriff’s Office partner United Data Connect, Inc. The details about that piece of information remains under investigation.

Read the full story from our partner at thedenverchannel.com.

Weld County DA to make “major announcement” in 1984 disappearance and death of Jonelle Matthews

Jonelle Matthews

Weld County District Attorney Michael Rourke said he will make a “major announcement” at 3 p.m. Tuesday in the 1984 cold-case disappearance and death of 12-year-old Jonelle Matthews.

The girl disappeared in 1984 in a case that captivated the region, drew national attention and baffled investigators for more than three decades.

On July 24, 2019, her remains were found in a rural field in Weld County. The following month, authorities announced a grand jury would investigate her death.

Jonelle was dropped off at her Greeley home on Dec. 20, 1984 after singing Christmas carols at a nursing home. She went inside, took off her shoes, turned on the TV and flipped on a space heater.  She answered the phone and took a message for her father, scrawling a note.

And then she was gone.

The now 35-year-long investigation into Jonelle’s disappearance began at about 9:30 p.m. that night, when her father came home to find the house lights on and the TV on — but Jonelle gone. He called police right away.

Over the years, the case took many turns. Immediately, authorities found footprints around the house. The friend and her father who dropped Jonelle off at her home that night told police they’d noticed the garage door had been open.

Thousands of missing person posters were printed, a $5,000 reward was offered. More than 600 volunteers searched 4,000 square miles in Weld County. In March of 1985, President Ronald Reagan mentioned the case during a speech about missing children.

Ten years after Jonelle disappeared, her family had her declared legally dead. In 1997, the girl’s birth mother — Jonelle had been adopted at one month old — contacted Jonelle’s parents and asked about reconnecting with the girl, unaware she’d been missing for 15 years.

In September 2019, a former candidate for Idaho governor said he was under investigation in the 12-year-old’s killing. Steve Pankey claimed he was shocked when authorities searched his home, and said he cooperated with them, giving his DNA and a polygraph test.

Colorado “Hammer Killer” suspect won’t face death penalty in 1984 slayings


The man accused of bludgeoning four people to death in Colorado with a hammer in 1984 will not face the death penalty.

Alexander Ewing, 60, instead faces life in prison with the possibility of parole after 20 years for each of the first-degree murder counts he is charged with. Ewing is accused of killing 50-year-old Patricia Louise Smith in Lakewood on Jan. 10, 1984, and then killing Bruce and Debra Bennett and their 7-year-old daughter Melissa six days later in Aurora. The couple’s 3-year-old daughter survived the attack.

The killings were two in a spree of hammer attacks in the area that rattled residents and went unsolved for more than three decades, with the suspect dubbed the “Hammer Killer.”

Ewing was arrested in August 1984 and sentenced to 40 years in prison for two attempted murders in Nevada, but he was not connected to the Colorado killings until 2018, when his DNA was matched to DNA at the crime scenes. He was in prison when he was charged with the Colorado killings.

Although Colorado abolished the death penalty this year, defendants who were charged before July 1 are still eligible for capital punishment, although experts told the Denver Post a death sentence at this point would be a largely symbolic move.

First Judicial District Attorney Peter Weir in August declared that he would not seek the death penalty against Ewing in Smith’s killing, saying in a court filing that it was “not a lawful sentencing option” because of a lack of aggravating factors necessary to warrant a death sentence.

In the 18th Judicial District, where Ewing faces the charges related to the slaying of the Bennett family, Chief Judge Michelle Amico ruled Friday that Ewing could not face the death penalty.

In her ruling, Amico found that the state’s 1984 death penalty statute violated the Colorado constitution and was therefore invalid. Ewing’s case falls under the 1984 law because of when the crimes occurred, she wrote in the 21-page order.

Ewing appeared in court in Arapahoe County Monday and pleaded not guilty to killing the Bennetts. A trial date was tentatively set for mid-April. A date for trial in Jefferson County has not yet been set.

“Someone must know something”: Denver police ask for help to solve state trooper’s 1973 killing

Denver Police Department
Trooper Thomas Carpenter

Forty-seven years ago on this day, a Colorado State Patrol trooper was shot to death in his patrol car — and the killer was never caught.

Denver police on Sunday called for anyone with information about the killing of Trooper Thomas Carpenter to come forward as the department’s cold case unit still works to solve the case.

Carpenter, 31, was shot on Dec. 27, 1973, after he apparently was kidnapped by two men who’d been with a stopped car along the side of U.S. 36 near Broadway.

Thomas spotted the car and pulled up to it sometime before 10 a.m., but did not make a radio report that he was pulling over. He either intended to help a stranded motorist or he saw something suspicious.

The vehicle on the side of the road turned out to have been stolen. Witnesses later told investigators they saw Carpenter driving his patrol vehicle with two men in the back, one white, one Black.

At 9:58 a.m., Carpenter was dispatched to a crash at East 58th Avenue and Interstate 25, but told the dispatcher that he was at Interstate 70 and Havana Street at the time — several miles away from the area he was supposed to patrol.

Six minutes later, the dispatcher called again, and Carpenter tersely responded that he was on his way.

Not long after that, he was found shot to death in his car, parked behind an apartment complex at 13870 Albrook Drive in Montbello. He’d been shot in the head from behind. Witnesses said they’d seen two men running from the car.

No arrests were ever made in his killing. His gun was found two years later in a ditch in New Mexico.

Carpenter was a married father of three who had been a state trooper for about five years when he was killed. He was a religious man who did not drink alcohol, and was well-regarded by his colleagues.

“Thomas Carpenter was a devoted husband, father and trooper,” said Col. Matthew Packard, chief of the Colorado State Patrol. “Someone must know something about the murder of Trooper Carpenter. We are pleading that anyone with information, even if it seems insignificant, to please call the Denver police so that the family can receive closure in this case.”

Guest Commentary: I’m an innocent man who was on death row. Abolish the death penalty everywhere.


I am a lifelong conservative Republican whose faith in the criminal justice system was shattered by my near-death experience with it. I came within nine days of being sent to the gas chamber for a crime I did not commit.

You could say I’m living proof of why people should not trust their government with the death penalty.

My nightmare started in 1974 when three friends and I were falsely accused of sexually mutilating and killing a student at the University of New Mexico. We were all sentenced to death in 1974.

The state had no proof — no weapon, no forensic evidence — just poorly run lie detector tests on all four of us and an alleged witness. Even when that witness later recanted, the judge refused to grant us a new trial.

It was only after the real killer confessed that we were exonerated, and that happened in the nick of time. My execution had been scheduled, and the assistant warden had asked what I wanted for my last meal.

How could this happen?

This was an abuse of government power, and it happens more often than you might think. In our case the main witness had been coerced to lie at the trial. Also, the murder weapon — nowhere to be seen during the trial — was later found inside the local sheriff’s safe. It had been hidden from the defense and traced to a law enforcement officer who ended up confessing.

Yet our story is not unique. We are among 173 people nationwide to be freed from death sentences because of wrongful convictions.

Although the Trump administration resumed federal executions, there has been a trend of conservative Republicans at the state level rethinking the death penalty. They do so because they believe in limited government, fiscal responsibility and the value of human life.

As Republican State Sen. Owen Hill of Denver put it, “It is against the natural order for one created in the image of God to willfully take the life of another created in the image of God.”

There are also powerful financial arguments. The death penalty costs far more money than its alternatives such as life without parole, according to numerous studies in many states over a lot of years. In fact, death penalty trials, and there are always two — one to determine guilt or innocence and one to decide a sentence — have caused some municipalities to almost go bankrupt, while others have been forced to pass tax increases.

The death penalty is just another wasteful, big government program. The 25 states that still have the death penalty — eight of them in the West — are wasting resources that could be used to make communities safer by solving cold cases or providing more tools to law enforcement.

Take Wyoming as one example. Since the state passed its death penalty law in 1977, Wyoming has carried out one execution, and today it does not have a single death row inmate. However, the state continues to spend at least $750,000 each year on a capital defense fund to train attorneys to handle death penalty cases that rarely ever come to them. It is no wonder that the overwhelmingly Republican Wyoming legislature came just a few votes shy of repealing the death penalty in 2019, and hopes are high they will finish the job this year.

New Mexico, where I was sentenced to death, repealed the sentence in 2009, and last year, Colorado ended capital punishment, thanks to three GOP state senators who made the crucial difference. In fact, no state west of Texas has held an execution in more than 10 years, and 2020 was another record low for new death sentences with only six total in all Western states. That’s down from a high of 72 death sentences in the West in 1982.

Another encouraging sign of change has just arrived with the filing of a death penalty repeal bill in the U.S. Congress, albeit a Democratic proposal with no GOP sponsors, yet.

As someone who barely survived an encounter with the criminal justice system, I call upon all who share my values to get rid of the death penalty once and for all.

And that last meal? It was going to be macaroni and cheese, just like my mother used to make. After I was released from death row I sometimes ate mac and cheese three times a day.

Ron Keine is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He is a member of the board of directors of Witness to Innocence, a small nonprofit working to end the death penalty.

To send a letter to the editor about this article, submit online or check out our guidelines for how to submit by email or mail.

Arrest made in 1982 deaths of two young women near Breckenridge


A Colorado man is in custody in connection to the 1982 deaths of two young women near Breckenridge.

Alan Lee Phillips, 70, of Dumont, was arrested for investigation on murder charges in the killings of Annette Schnee, 21, and Barbara “Bobbi Jo” Oberholtzer, 29, who went missing Jan. 6, 1982.

Court records said Phillips also faces charges of kidnapping and assault with a deadly weapon in each case. The offense date on Phillips’ case matches the date Schnee and Oberholtzer went missing, and the Park County Combined Court confirmed that Schnee and Oberholtzer are listed as the victims.

Phillips’ arrest marks one step toward closure for the families of Oberholtzer and Schnee, 39 years after they died.

The two women had no apparent connection to each other, but both worked in Breckenridge and were believed to be hitchhiking home when they disappeared.

Read the full story here.

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