In the nearly four decades since she was a little girl, Diana Hardin has often gazed at an old black-and-white photograph of her mother, Jo Ann Harris, and wondered how close detectives were to catching her killer.
"I always thought, "They are working on the case,'" Hardin says. "I always expected they might find someone."
Yet the case, which dates to 1969, probably has seen little, if any, serious investigation for decades, top investigators with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office now acknowledge.
Evidence including clothing, police reports, a suspect interrogation and autopsy records cannot be found, says Joe Breister, law enforcement chief for the Sheriff's Office.
Breister says his office does not know when the evidence was lost or, perhaps, stolen.
The admission comes just weeks after the Colorado Springs Police Department acknowledged that employees improperly destroyed an unprecedented 11,000 pieces of evidence, potentially affecting hundreds of criminal cases. The Police Department and the Sheriff's Office are separate law enforcement agencies, though they both are headquartered in Colorado Springs.
It appears that the missing evidence in the Harris case is an isolated problem. But 4th Judicial District Attorney John Newsome whose office prosecutes crimes brought forth by the two agencies was not aware that a second agency had lost evidence until he was notified by the Independent earlier this week.
Of ever trying to prosecute the case without the original evidence and files, Newsome says, "It would certainly be a challenge."
Hardin was just 5 years old in October 1969, when her mother, a 39-year-old supermarket meat wrapper, went missing. About a month later, the 4-foot-11, 120-pound woman was discovered strangled on NORAD Road. She was wearing a windbreaker, pink sweater, bra and nothing from the waist down, according to an account published in the Gazette Telegraph at the time.
Breister and Cmdr. Brad Shannon first learned the Harris evidence was missing about four years ago, when Brenda Barton, Hardin's former sister-in-law, inquired about the case.
"They said everything was lost," says Barton, who recently contacted the Independent in an effort to revive the case.
Harris' name, she notes, has not been listed on a county Web site with 11 other unsolved murders dating to 1974. Breister says the exclusion is an oversight, and his office is working to quickly correct it.
Shannon says he attempted piece together evidence when Barton contacted the office. He located a few newspaper clippings in library archives, Polaroids of Harris' body on a gurney, and an aging detective who had worked the case.
The detective, Shannon says, recalled that an unnamed suspect had been questioned, but was not charged because of a lack of evidence.
What it means
None of the officers currently with the Sheriff's Office were on the force in 1969, but Howard Schafer, a retired sheriff's commander who now lives in Arizona, recalls responding to the scene of the Harris murder as a young patrol officer.
He says he set up a roadblock as detectives investigated, but neither worked on the case nor saw the body.
He remembers a time in 1972 when evidence was moved from a downtown vault in what is today the Pioneers Museum to the former Metro jail, just west of the museum.
Schafer didn't participate in the move, but says the process was clear. Aging evidence taking up space and not needed for existing cases would be thrown away, but only with the approval of elected District Attorney Bob Russel, who served from 1965 to 1985, he says.
"I do know a lot of things were thrown away," Schafer says. "I don't know if anything with this case was lost."
Russel, 76 and living in Colorado Springs, says the county didn't experience any problems locating evidence after the move.
"I don't recall the place losing evidence," he says.
Russel vaguely remembers the details from the Harris case, but says he clearly understands what it means for files and evidence to be missing.
"If that evidence is gone, you might have to give up on the case," Russel says.
The Sheriff's Office has moved its evidence facility three more times in subsequent years, including last year to a warehouse near the Criminal Justice Center, southeast of downtown.
Shannon, who guided an the Independent reporter on a tour of the facility, highlights the rigorous paperwork, collection processes and other checks and balances he says today would prevent county evidence from being lost.
Sandy Way, office administrator for the El Paso County Coroner's Office, provides a similar assurance for coroner's records. Records in the office are "99 percent" intact back to 1978, she says, adding that no records before that time are available because records could be maintained by different agencies before that date.
"We keep everything now," she says.
Little solace for Hardin
Breister says detectives will do what they can to investigate the case, but says he could offer little more than that promise to Harris' family.
"I can't offer any words of comfort or solace," he says.
Harris was cremated not long after the murder, her ashes spread in the mountains by family.
She left behind five children. While two were grown at the time, three Hardin, her 16-year-old sister and her 12-year-old brother had lived with their mother at 427 N. 30th St. Hardin's brother was taken in by his father shortly after the murder, and Hardin and her sister were placed in foster care.
When Hardin was 8, she was taken in by an older brother and left Colorado Springs, moving to several states before returning to Colorado as an adult.
"I find it really hard to believe something so serious got lost," says Hardin, now 42 and living in Wheat Ridge, north of Denver. "It makes me feel like she doesn't matter to them. It's just sad sad that she is forgotten. Somebody got away with murder. It really bothers me."