When evidence of a 2006 murder turned up in the personal storage unit of Fremont County detective Robert Dodd in December, a man who lives halfway across the country was intensely interested.
Frank Hernigle of Fultonville, New York, wondered if that storage unit might also contain evidence in another case Dodd had been handling for years. That case involves Hernigle's cousin, Gene Fish, a retired federal agent who mysteriously vanished from his rural home west of Cañon City on June 21, 2004.
While not much is being said about the investigation into Dodd's alleged mishandling of that murder evidence, Fremont County authorities told Hernigle that nothing connected to Fish was contained in the storage unit. But Hernigle is somewhat encouraged by a new wrinkle in his cousin's case that might finally provide answers.
Last month, the Cañon City Daily Record reported that "a bloody rope, an ax and boxes of paperwork" were found in the unit by Rick Ratzlaff after he bought its contents in an auction in December. (The Pueblo Chieftain reported that Dodd lost control of his storage unit after failing to pay the rent.)
The items were connected to the 2006 murder of Candace Hiltz, 17, who was killed Aug. 15, 2006, in a family home in Copper Gulch. The Hiltz family was appalled at Ratzlaff's discovery, especially because they've always believed Candace's death was covered up, though they didn't elaborate on what they meant by that. While one family member recognized a shirt connected to the case, he disputed that a rope and ax were used, the Daily Record reports. Candace's mother, Dolores Hiltz, told the Daily Record the family was always suspicious of how the case was handled by Fremont County. News articles at the time of the killing reported the victim had been shot.
Sheriff Jim Beicker has since cataloged the storage unit's contents and turned the matter over to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations. He wouldn't answer any questions. Neither would the CBI, though spokesperson Susan Medina did say the Dodd case is active and there's no expected completion date.
Dodd was placed on paid administrative leave following the storage unit discovery and will remain on leave, pending the CBI investigation, Beicker tells the Independent.
But there's a tiny new development in the case of Gene Fish that Beicker gave only cursory information about. Detective Dale King has been assigned to what Beicker called "an open/active investigation."
Hernigle says he got a call from King several weeks ago and was told the Sheriff's Office still wants to determine what became of Fish.
Fish served in the Air Force before working for the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. He retired in early 2003. After buying a 35-acre rural tract in Fremont County in 1999, he added a house in 2003.
Fish was last seen by his wife, Lynn, on June 21, 2004. She told authorities later that he stormed away, frustrated with his life, but that his pickup truck reappeared in their driveway a day or two later.
After a friend of Fish's father reported him missing on Sept. 1, 2004, sheriff's officers met briefly with Lynn, though they didn't search the property. She agreed on Sept. 7, 2004, to submit to a polygraph test, but two days later hired a law firm, which advised the Sheriff's Office in a letter that officials were "to have no further direct or indirect contact with Mrs. Fish," and that "no attempts be made to search her residence or other property," because "she does intend to exercise her constitutional rights."
Since June 21, 2004, no one has heard from Gene Fish, who would be 66 now. He's never used his passport, credit cards or contacted any in a large circle of friends and colleagues, Hernigle says.
One of those is Dr. Faith Leibman, a criminologist and forensic psychologist as well as a lawyer, who dated Fish in the 1980s and stayed in touch with him periodically over the years, until he disappeared. She doesn't believe Fish would have abandoned his friends and family.
"He never would have gone out of the country or some place far away where he could not come home and see his mother," she says. "She meant the world to him and he never would have taken off and left her."
Gene's parents, now both dead, spent about $100,000 investigating their son's disappearance. Those efforts included hiring retired Colorado Springs Police homicide detectives Dave Spencer and Lou Smit. "Lou and I both agreed they had enough information to go to a grand jury and get an indictment years ago," Spencer said on Feb. 2. But the Fremont County authorities ignored their help, he says. In fact, District Attorney Molly Chilson threatened to have Spencer arrested for interfering in the sheriff's investigation.
"We basically got told to mind our own business," he says. "It's a sad situation when it could have been resolved years ago."
Lynn Fish sold the property she once shared with Gene in the South T-Bar Ranch subdivision west of Cañon City on Dec. 1, 2011, for $249,000, property records show. She used a conservator's deed to pass Gene's share to the new owners.
In July 2012, Lynn Fish bought a five-acre tract with a modular home about 40 miles away at 761 Tumbleweed Road in Cotopaxi, for $82,000.
Coming up on the 13th anniversary of Fish's departure, authorities still consider it a missing person case, not a criminal matter. Hernigle is encouraged that the case is second in line for attention by Fremont County's newly created cold-case unit, King told him.
"You always have hope," says Hernigle. "I have no choice but to give them [the Sheriff's Office] the benefit of the doubt."