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Getting away with murder 

Why cold cases haunt Colorado Springs police and families

click to enlarge Cassandra Rundle and her children, Detrick and - Melanie - Sturm, were strangled in their home on Valentines - Day, - 1985. - FAMILIES OF HOMICIDE VICTIMS AND MISSING PERSONS INC
  • Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons Inc
  • Cassandra Rundle and her children, Detrick and Melanie Sturm, were strangled in their home on Valentines Day, 1985.

Two decades ago, Detrick Sturm stumbled into the arms of a killer. The 12-year-old boy had just arrived at his Colorado Springs home. It's likely he called out for his mother, Cassandra Rundle.

But she couldn't answer.

An attacker had bound the 37-year-old woman with tape and tightened an electrical cord around her neck. The attacker might also have raped her.

Rundle's daughter, Melanie Sturm, 10, hid in another room as her mother drew her last breath. But the murderer found her too, taking her life.

According to a leading police theory, Detrick arrived at his family's small house at 412 La Clede Ave., during the bloodbath. He never survived to tell anyone what happened on Valentine's Day, 1985.

The slayings sent chills across Colorado Springs and the nation as police scoured the Rundle home and surrounding neighborhood for days, gathering hundreds of pieces of evidence and statements.

But days turned to weeks, weeks to months, months to years and years to decades. Exactly what happened to Rundle and her children is still a mystery. There are possible suspects, detectives say, but no arrests have been made.

The murders are among the 74 officially unsolved, or "cold," cases that have lingered at the department since 1953.

While researching this story, the Independent has identified two other unsolved murders that the Colorado Springs Police Department initially claimed unfamiliarity with -- setting off a departmentwide search for missing murder files spanning the years between 1953 and 1971.

Guarded optimism

In the last five years, the police have amassed 18 cold cases, more than the department accumulated during the entire 1990s. But with no dedicated cold case unit -- specially trained detectives who are focused strictly on cracking unsolved murder cases -- detectives who investigate hundreds of violent crimes each year don't have the time and resources to relentlessly pursue old cases.

The last success came six years ago in 1999, two years after the discovery of skeletal remains belonging to Jason Chafin, a Fort Carson soldier who was stabbed to death. Because of police efforts, two of Chafin's fellow soldiers, Bobby Seay and Darrell Shelton, were sentenced to life in prison for the murder.

Lt. Brian Grady, who supervises the department's nine murder investigators, is optimistic detectives are on the brink of solving more cases.

"We're making progress on several," Grady said.

But Richard G. Rundle, Cassandra Rundle's father, constantly guards against optimism that progress will be made on his family's case.

"It was a case where they probably didn't have the resources to dig into it," Rundle said.

Like many family members, he hesitates to blame detectives, citing a variety of other factors instead.

There is a constant "brain drain" at the police major crimes unit -- a revolving door where homicide detectives depart for promotions and better pay. And detectives overwhelmed with active cases have little time to focus on cold cases.

"We don't have a lot of time to go back," Grady admitted.

For at least a decade, families and their advocates have asked the department to create a special cold case unit. Experts say such a unit would probably help put killers behind bars.

click to enlarge Irene Skinner holds a photograph of her daughter - Jennifer Lee Watkins, who was found under a stairwell - at - Memorial Hospital in 1999. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Irene Skinner holds a photograph of her daughter Jennifer Lee Watkins, who was found under a stairwell at Memorial Hospital in 1999.

But such pleas have been ignored.

Forever grieving

Rundle, a West Virginia attorney, has never quite learned to cope with the deaths of his daughter and grandchildren. He doesn't want to dwell in the horrible past, but will never forget what happened.

"It was 2/14/85," he said in a telephone interview. "You try to keep it in the back of your head, but it sneaks out, you know. It causes a lot of depression and anger."

Irene Skinner knows those emotions too well. The murder of her daughter, Jennifer Lee Watkins, 23, has gone unsolved for six years.

"There's a blank space here, and I can't explain it," she said during an interview at her home in Midway, south of Colorado Springs.

Watkins went missing from her job as a dietitian at Memorial Hospital on Nov. 5, 1999. She was found three days later under a hospital stairwell, wrapped in heavy plastic and bizarrely covered in half-burnt cigarettes. It was as if someone had the time to smoke after concealing the body, Skinner said.

She insisted on identifying the body, even though she was told that she would be shocked. She was.

Jennifer, who was white, had turned bluish black because the plastic accelerated decomposition. At first, Skinner didn't think it was her daughter.

Detectives have not made much progress on the case over the years, Watkins said. She has pressured the department to send DNA evidence in for testing, but was told she would have to wait.

"All I know is they keep pushing her case back because there's always another one," Skinner said.

Police declined to discuss specifics surrounding progress on the case.

Rundle has also faced hurdles in getting detectives to follow up on his family's case.

He identified a possible suspect -- Phillip E. Wilkinson, 37, a former Fort Carson soldier who is now sitting on death row for the 1992 murder of a mother and her two children in Fayetteville, N.C. That case has eerie similarities to the Valentine's Day murders.

Rundle felt so strongly that Wilkinson might have been responsible for the murder of his family that he attended the man's trial in 1994. Yet police haven't pursued the lead, he said. Police told him that Wilkinson couldn't be responsible.

"They said he was in Korea at the time, but I have information to the contrary," Rundle said.

Detective Richard Gysin identified Wilkinson as a "person of interest," along with several unnamed people. However, Colorado Springs investigators have not interviewed Wilkinson.

One drawback to long-distance investigations is there is no budget for cold case travel. Detectives have roughly $1,000 for annual travel, said Grady, but it is "earmarked for active cases."

The lack of follow-ups results in deep frustrations for some families, causing them to turn their anguish outward, displaying it publicly.

Last summer, Mothers of Murdered Youth, or MOMY, a group of about 12 families with cold cases, picketed in downtown Colorado Springs. Family members displayed pictures of their sons and daughters to passing motorists.

MOMY leader Jennifer Romero demanded that police make cold cases a priority. However, police administrators wouldn't even sit down to listen to the group's concerns and suggestions, Romero said.

click to enlarge Monique LaSuer was slain in 2000 while working at a - hotel.
  • Monique LaSuer was slain in 2000 while working at a hotel.

"We were ignored, to tell the truth," she said.

Romero started MOMY after her 13-year-old son, Steven "Gino" Romero, was gunned down in a drive-by shooting about seven years ago. The incident sent her reeling for months, but she eventually found a way to make sense of her loss.

"I was driven to go out and help individuals who were feeling like I was," she said. "I thought, 'Nobody should have to go through that alone.' "

Like other families, Romero is exasperated by delays on her case. After Gino was slain, it took police two years to issue arrest warrants for the suspected triggermen -- Vinnicio Martinez and Socorro Gutierrez. The two have evaded police by fleeing the city, but Romero occasionally hears rumors that they have returned to Colorado Springs to visit. She wonders why police never seem to be able to get ahead of the rumors and make arrests.

"The shooters in my case are still free," Romero said. "If you ask me, it's like a forgotten case, not a cold case. I know there's no activity. There's always another case that takes precedence because it is hot and mine isn't."

Rising at an alarming rate

Colorado Springs police point to the department's high clearance rate as an indication that detectives are doing a great job. According to the department, 87.65 percent of murder cases since 1971 have resulted in the apprehension of a suspect.

The national success rate, by comparison, is sharply lower -- 62.4 percent, according to FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

Yet over the past five years, unsolved murders have risen at an alarming rate in Colorado Springs. If the pace continues, this decade will be by far the worst on record.

Between 1990 and 1999, the department listed 17 cold cases. That number is 18 so far this decade. If that trend (and current murder rate) holds over the coming five years, the department will tally 36 cold cases for the 2000s, far surpassing the least-successful decade for solving murders on record, the 1980s, when 21 cases went unsolved.

In response to an open records request, police identified 74 cold cases including the names, dates, locations and the circumstances surrounding murders.

The earliest still-unsolved crime on record was the Nov. 27, 1953, death of police patrolman Richard Burchfield, who had been sent to the scene of an armed robbery, but never made it. Instead, he was found slumped in the seat of his squad car near Bijou and El Paso streets, his body riddled with small-caliber bullets.

The next unsolved murder identified by the police occurred nearly 20 years later, in 1971, when Lloyd Samuelson, a schoolteacher, was slain.

The police department failed to include, however, the 1954 murder of Alfred H. Norris, an 80-year-old man assaulted at his 116 S. Corona St. home in 1954 by an attacker armed with rocks.

Nor does it currently identify the unsolved murder of James J. Gaughan Jr., a 44-year-old businessman bludgeoned at his 2122 N. Tejon St. home in 1960.

Both cases were chronicled in newspapers on file with the Pikes Peak Library District. But when asked about Norris and Gaughan's cases, police spokesman Lt. Rafael Cintron said the files could not be located. He conceded that the police could be missing others as well. The case files, he said, could have been moved to storage years ago.

And without the case files, experts say it would be almost impossible to convict a murder suspect if one were found. Case files become the basis for a court trial once a suspect has been apprehended. The files contain coroner's conclusions, police reports, suspect interviews and photographs.

Howard Morton, executive director of Families of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons Inc., a nonprofit group based in Denver that represents 180 families around the state, said the missing files indicate Colorado Springs police haven't made a priority of solving cold cases.

"How do you think it feels to be the family of a murder victim and told the crime doesn't exist?" Morton said.

Police around the state, he said, have differing methods for maintaining murder files. Some departments, he said, organize in a slapdash fashion.

"There's a great variation in how police departments and sheriff's offices keep records," Morton said. "In some cases, they rely on institutional memory, but have no files readily available. ... It doesn't surprise me there is a gap in Colorado Springs' cases."

click to enlarge Gail LaSuer brings flowers to her daughter Moniques - grave. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Gail LaSuer brings flowers to her daughter Moniques grave.

Aided by Michael Radelet, a University of Colorado professor, and Radelet's students, Morton's group has begun independently tracking cold cases to ensure knowledge of present and future cases isn't lost. In the last two years, the group has called up or written to numerous law enforcement agencies around the state, asking them for complete lists of their cold cases.

So far, Morton says, there are at least 500 unsolved murders statewide since 1970. Morton and Radelet estimate that number could double by the time they are done accounting for cases.

The effort is vital because state criminal justice officials don't maintain such a list, Morton added.

Some departments welcome the inquiry, saying it has helped them renew focus on old, unresolved cases. But other departments are less cooperative, refusing to give information, Radelet said.

"In a lot of cases, the cops didn't want to talk to us because they think it makes them look bad," Radelet said.

Turnover high in major crimes

Just nine detectives are responsible for investigating the most heinous crimes in Colorado Springs, with a population of roughly 400,000 people. That's one less detective than five years ago, when the population was about 40,000 less.

The detectives, part of the major crimes unit, handle about 20 murders a year. When one happens, one of two teams made up of roughly half the unit's detectives drops everything it is doing to scour the crime scene, canvass the area, gather evidence and interview witnesses and possible suspects.

As a rule of thumb, murders have the highest probability of being solved during the first 72 hours, when they are considered active, detectives say.

In addition to murders, the detectives are also responsible for investigating kidnappings, high-profile cases involving other officers or public officials and more than 1,000 violent felony assaults each year.

In a hectic month, it can be difficult to find time for cold cases, said Detective Richard Gysin. Ultimately, detectives chip away at eight or nine cold cases each when they have the opportunity.

"In a month, we would probably spend a total of two to three days on cold case stuff," Gysin said.

Only one detective in the major crimes unit has almost ten years of service. And, within the next two years, four of the unit's nine detectives are expected to apply for and receive promotions that will take them off cold cases and put them on street patrols, Grady said.

New detectives earn the same amount as any other full-time police officer -- between $46,993 and $62,076 a year.

To advance to higher salaries, such as becoming a sergeant, earning $73,498 annually, or a lieutenant, $84,525 annually, detectives are often reassigned.

Gysin, with the major crimes unit since 1998, said he wants to stay. When it came time to apply for promotion this year, he turned down the opportunity in part so that he could continue making progress on cold cases.

He added that the constant rotation of detectives isn't entirely bad. New detectives can bring a sense of enthusiasm to cold cases and spark new lines of inquiry.

But first, detectives must become acquainted with several dozen thick, three-ring case binders, brimming with leads, photos and the work product of past detectives.

Detectives want to spend more time working on cold cases, Grady said. For that purpose, the unit has applied for a $78,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, the training and research arm of the Justice Department.

If awarded, the bulk of the funds would pay overtime for detectives so that during their off-hours they can reassess unsolved murders, resubmit evidence and develop and follow new leads. If the department receives the grant, it will have a $10,000 travel budget for cold cases.

Meanwhile, the major crimes unit hasn't received any money this year from the 4/10-cent public safety tax that was approved by voters in November of 2001. The funds have largely been used for expanding police substations and lowering response times.

click to enlarge Steven Gino Romero was killed in a drive-by - shooting. - FAMILY PHOTO
  • Family photo
  • Steven Gino Romero was killed in a drive-by shooting.

Working harder, getting lucky

Lou Smit, a former Colorado Springs police detective and private eye known for aiding Boulder authorities in the investigation of the JonBenet Ramsey murder, says cold cases aren't impossible to crack.

"It's an amazing thing -- the more you think about an old case and the more you work on an old case actively, things just seem to happen," Smit said. "All of a sudden leads seem to come in and it is like, 'You're not lucky, it's just that the harder you work, the luckier you get.'"

Smit first displayed talent for getting to the bottom of cold cases in the 1980s with Colorado Springs police, then later with the El Paso County Sheriff's Office. In 1991, four years after the murder of 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church, Smit dredged up old fingerprint evidence from a windowpane at the Church home, sending it to dozens of agencies in hopes of finding a match. The effort paid off. The print belonged to a man who lived about a quarter-mile from the girl. The man was subsequently arrested and convicted.

With his experience, Smit was a natural fit for the all-volunteer cold case unit started three years ago in the county sheriff's office. Smit is joined by Charlie Hess, a former FBI special agent, and Scott Fischer, a former publisher of the Colorado Springs Gazette who has written brief summaries of the county's 11 cold cases. The oldest one there dates to 1974.

Smit, renowned for his attention to detail, explains what the unit has done.

"We've managed to take all the old cases and refresh them," he said. "And what I mean by refreshing them is to get the cases in perfect order so that if a lead does come in, any detective can go find anything in that case report at any time. We spend a great deal of time doing that. We also try to assist in obtaining leads ... If we have a chance to go through every piece of evidence, we do that. We work right with the detectives working the cases."

While Smit, Hess and Fischer downplay what they do as a mere good use of retirees, Brad Shannon, a commander in the sheriff's office, calls the team a godsend.

In 2002, the unit was especially helpful when the county experienced 12 homicides, about double the number of a normal year, Shannon said. Then, the volunteer cold case unit was able to keep homicide investigators focused on cold cases, something that otherwise would have been extremely difficult.

"We don't have an unlimited supply of investigators," Shannon said. "We're at a point right now where there are some cases that are kind of close, where some things could happen."

Smit added that detectives are often looking for the final piece in a massive puzzle of evidence.

"Many, many times we have a pretty good idea who did it, but there's just not enough there to prosecute," he said.

Calls for a cold case team

Meanwhile, families and their advocates have stepped up their calls that Colorado Springs police should form its own cold case unit.

The idea is nothing new to John Holiday, a private investigator who, in the wake of the Valentine's Day murders, laid out a comprehensive plan that would give the region the tools to solve tough murder cases.

As an investigator for the El Paso and Teller counties district attorney's office in 1973, Holiday drew acclaim for his relentless pursuit of Curtis President, a suspect in the shooting death of Frank Conroy of Colorado Springs. He tracked President to Saginaw, Mich., alerting police there, who made the arrest.

In the mid-1980s, Holiday sent a small pamphlet entitled "Project: Nemesis" to elected officials and top law enforcement officers. It called for an aggressive combined city and county team of investigators whose job it would be to handle cases that police and sheriff's investigators could not solve. Then-Police Chief Lorne Kramer, who is now city manager; former Sheriff John Anderson; former state Attorney General Gale Norton; and others were sent copies.

But they never responded, Holiday said.

"Every time a homicide goes unsolved, it tells the world, 'You, too, can get away with murder,'" Holiday said.

He suggests that homicide detectives should be thought of like surgeons -- professionals who require years of specialized training and experience before they can practice on their own. The police department's most expert homicide officers should be working on cold cases, he said, as opposed to cops fresh from a few years on a street patrol.

In 2001, following a lobbying effort by Holiday, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies Inc. emphasized the importance of cold case units in its standards manual. The prestigious Fairfax, Va., organization accredits many of the nation's law enforcement agencies, including Colorado Springs police.

click to enlarge Volunteer cold case sleuths Scott Fischer, Charlie - Hess - and Lou Smit. - EL PASO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE

The commission doesn't require a cold case unit for accreditation, but says the advantages are clear.

"Cold case units can increase the success of solving cases with minimal costs," said Dennis Hyater, a program manager for the commission.

Holiday would like to see the commission go one step further and require larger departments, like the one in Colorado Springs, to have a cold case unit for accreditation.

"Then it would be evaluated on the training and expertise detectives bring to the unit," he said.

A cold case unit would also slow the fast rate of detective turnover, he said, an idea that appeals to Gail LaSuer.

LaSuer, a retired teacher who lives in Colorado Springs, expressed frustration over learning that the detective assigned to the murder case of her daughter, Monique, had been reassigned. After five years, she believes that hiring a private investigator is probably the best way to solve the complex murder of her daughter, but can't afford to hire one.

LaSuer wears around her neck an image of Monique, forever 26, the age when she was killed. On Aug. 30, 2000, the young hotel administrator at the Best Western Palmer House Hotel was hit in the head with a blunt instrument and strangled.

"It's been a cold case from the start," LaSuer said. "I've never felt they were getting close to anybody. And hardly a week goes by that we don't have a murder around here. So that makes it feel less important."

Colorado Springs cold cases

1953 BIRCHFIELD, RICHARD Police officer killed in the line of duty

1953 BIRCHFIELD, RICHARD Police officer killed in the line of duty

*1954 NORRIS, ALFRED Beaten with rocks at home

*1960 GAUGHAN, JAMES Bludgeoned in his home

1971 SAMUELSON,LLOYD School teacher killed in his own home

1971 BEGIN, JEAN Bludgeoned to death

1972 MAY, DEBORAH Stabbed in her apartment

1973 COLLINS, MCKINLEY Shot in eye at home

1973 THOMPSON, LINDA Dropped child off at babysitters -- shot on porch

1973 BYRD, MARY Stabbed multiple times in park

1973 PIERCE, BRENDA Stabbed on street

1973 CONROY, FRANK Killed in St. Francis Hospital parking lot

click to enlarge Private eye John Holiday says Colorado Springs - needs a - cold case unit. - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Private eye John Holiday says Colorado Springs needs a cold case unit.

1974 GAMBLES, VIRGIL Shot at Little Brown Jug liquor store

1974 MCLAUGHLIN, CHARLES Shot during robbery of grocery store

1975 LAABS, DONALD Manitou Springs Police Detective -- killed in his car

1975 MARTIN, FRANCIS Victim shot in motel room, body found in trunk at airport

1975 MCCLENDON, VICTOR Kidnapped during robbery of Safeway, shot in barn

1976 CONRAD, JANET Motel maid killed on 10th floor linen room Antler's hotel

1977 HONZELL, MARIA Stabbed in chest while babysitting

1977 SCOTT, CAROL Victim body dumped near city gas barn

1978 MACEAHERN, NEIL Killed in his car outside Candlelight Bar during robbery

1980 BORDEN, ARTIE Elderly man assaulted -- died in hospital

1980 CALDWELL, MARY Elderly woman died of heart attack during assault

1981 LEVIN, ESSEL Shot while answering the front door of her home

1981 MILES, RADFORD Found stabbed in chest

1981 CONNAUGHT, EDWARD Beaten by house guest while asleep in bed -- robbery

1982 MCLAUGHLIN, DAVID Stabbed in car at traffic light. Tried to drive to hospital.

1983 JONES, RUTH Found shot in car

1983 TEIGEN, MARVIN Beaten and stabbed in motel room

1983 WILLIAMS, GLORIA Victim stabbed and run over by her own car

1983 GUEVARA, NICHOLAS Victim beaten, shotgunned, thrown in dumpster

1985 RUNDLE, CASSANDRA Strangled in home

1985 STURM, DETRICK Strangled in home

click to enlarge Colorado Springs police Detective Richard Gysin - SEAN CAYTON
  • Sean Cayton
  • Colorado Springs police Detective Richard Gysin

1985 STURM, MELANIE Strangled in home

1986 RIEDELL, MELLISA Stabbed in her mother's apartment

1986 FREYSCHLAG, BARBARA Shot in her kitchen.

1987 KRASHOC, DARLENE Found behind Korean Club strangled

1987 BOYD, SHERRY Found floating in Prospect Lake -- strangled

1987 FLUEGEL, WILLIAM Shot during drug deal -- set on fire

1988 O'KELLY, CAROLYN Stabbed in a motel on Nevada Avenue

1988 VIALPANDO, MARY Assaulted and stabbed in alley on west side

1989 DIEBOLD, JUDY Strangled and left off Rampart Range Road

1990 LACKS, SHIRLEY Shot while in vehicle

1990 BENEFIEL, CECELIA Found shot in home

1991 ALLEN, RICKY Found in bedroom shot in the back of the head

1991 KIRSCHENMAN, RODNEY Found strangled near railroad tracks

1991 JOHNS, KAREN Shot in back of head while in her vehicle

1991 JOHNSON, MICHAEL Found in a field stabbed -- was a Yellow Cab driver

1991 RECTOR, DAVID Found stabbed in living room

1992 GLOVER, CHARLES Shot in parking lot of Hotel DeVille

1994 SKLAVOS, SHARON Body found on wooded hillside -- blunt trauma

1995 LEBEAU, RANDOLPH Found sitting in his vehicle shot at Pace Plaza

1995 DESALVO, ROSE Bunt force trauma

1995 MOCK, MAJORIE Smothered in her apartment

click to enlarge Retired detective Lou Smit. - SEAN CAYTON

1996 TALAHYTEWA, JOSEPH Victim died of closed head injury

1997 ROBINSON,DEBRA Shot in the face in her apartment

1997 DOBBINS, MICHAEL Found stabbed to death next to hotel

1999 WATKINS, JENNIFER Found in stairway of Memorial Hospital

1999 MUSE, WILLIAM Shot in head while sleeping

2000 JONES, JOHN Transient beaten and stabbed under bridge

2000 LASUER, MONIQUE Employee at motel, beaten and strangled

2001 ELLIOTT, PATRICIA Found dead in bathtub due to blunt force trauma

2001 WILLIAMS, RICARGE Shot outside bar

2001 RIVERA, JOSE Stabbed at his home

2002 DOWDELL, CORNELIUS Shoot-out in parking lot -- gang related

2002 FOLAND, AGNES Stabbed in transient camp

2002 BAUTISTA, TYRONE Shot in street

2002 SANDBERG, JOCELYN Stabbed outside Armstrong Hall at Colorado College

2002 LARSEN, MICHAEL Stabbed in transient camp

2003 NICHOLLS, SOPHIA House fire killed 3 small children

2003 NICHOLLS, SIERRA House fire killed 3 small children

2003 NICHOLLS, JAY House fire killed 3 small children

2003 LEONARD, ANNABELLE Stabbed in home

2003 LEONARD, THOMAS Stabbed in home

2004 GONZALES-ARVIZU, PATRICIA Stabbed in her trailer

2004 KING, DEQUINCY Shot at Papasan's restaurant

2004 BROWNE, BRANDON Victim was shot while in the parking lot of a Denny's

Source: Colorado Springs Police Department

* Denotes cases not officially included on Colorado Springs Police Department's list of cold cases.

  • Why cold cases haunt Colorado Springs police and families

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