As the El Paso County Sheriff's Office celebrated its role in Robert Charles Browne's claiming responsibility for 49 murders in a 25-year span, Colorado Springs police backpedaled to explain why they failed to nab Browne amid what could be one of the nation's worst killing sprees.
Browne was already serving a life sentence in state prison for the 1991 slaying of a Black Forest 13-year-old, Heather Dawn Church whose case was cracked in 1995 by sheriff's investigators. Last week, he appeared in court and pleaded guilty to strangling Rocio Sperry, a 15-year-old wife and mother who was first reported missing to Colorado Springs police in 1987.
Following four years of letters and meetings with Charlie Hess, a retired FBI investigator who is part of a three-person volunteer unsolved murder unit in the Sheriff's Office, Browne also said he carried out 46 other murders in nine states, and another outside the country, between 1970 and 1995.
"I couldn't be more proud of the team," says former sheriff John Anderson, who was instrumental in the creation of the unit five years ago. "I'm very, very proud."
Current Sheriff Terry Maketa echoed Anderson, and noted the case was originally in the jurisdiction of Colorado Springs police.
"Prior to 2005, [Sperry] was considered a missing person and almost forgotten," Maketa said in a press conference last week.
Too few clues
Regino Trujillo, the Colorado Springs police detective who initially investigated the Sperry report, says Sperry's husband had theorized his wife was murdered and kidnapped in November 1987 while he and their infant daughter were with relatives in Florida.
But there were too few clues at the time, Trujillo says, to turn the missing persons case into a potential murder investigation.
He concedes that police have over the years found it difficult to follow up on missing persons reports. Sometimes it becomes "awfully busy, and there are other cases to work," he says.
Over the last three years, city police have taken, on average, 1,585 missing persons or runaway reports. That's more than four a day.
About 80 percent of those cases involve youngsters like Sperry, who was last seen on her way to a Kwik Stop on Murray Boulevard. Browne, an employee at the store, convinced Sperry to go with him to a movie, in what Maketa called a "fatal decision."
But the Browne revelations have not prompted police to dig deeper into missing persons reports to determine whether any new homicide investigations should be opened.
"We don't have the resources," says Colorado Springs police Lt. Rafael Cintron.
The department has also recently struggled to solve murders. In response, the city last year assigned one of its nine Major Crimes detectives to work part-time on reducing a backlog of about 75 unsolved murders, which date back to 1953. Major Crimes detectives are responsible not just for investigating murders, but kidnappings and hundreds of assaults each year.
The first payoff came this spring, with arrests in the 2001 slaying of Patricia Elliott, a local college student.
But critics, including the families of several murder victims, want the city to pour more resources into the old cases and create a so-called "cold case" unit like the county one that busted Browne.
Recruiting top investigators
A former Colorado Springs police detective, Anderson says the Church case, in part, motivated him to run for sheriff.
"I really wanted to get my hands on that case," says Anderson, who's now running for U.S. Congress.
He also wanted to be in a position to funnel resources into homicide investigations.
As he took office in January 1995, Anderson dug deep into his budget and recruited the best available investigators from an array of local agencies, including the legendary Lou Smit, also a former Colorado Springs police detective. (Smit retired a couple years later, but came back in 2001 to help establish the volunteer cold case unit.)
Smit and the team quickly identified a partial fingerprint on Church's window screen and sent it for a variety of tests. It belonged to Browne, who lived just a short walk away from the Church family. It was just three months after Smit began working on the case that Browne was arrested.
If the story Browne, 53, now tells is accurate, he murdered his last known victim, 21-year-old Lisa Lowe, in Arkansas in November 1991, just weeks after abducting Church. Yet Lowe's family recently told the Associated Press that they believe Browne is taking credit for a murder that the details of his story do not support.
It is unclear just how many of the murders Browne actually committed. But as many as seven have corroboration and bring what Maketa says is an immeasurable reward: giving a family knowledge of how their loved one died.
"It brings about some sense of closure and may be even, in some cases, some vindication," Maketa told reporters last week.