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A series examining nearly 100 unsolved murders in the region

Shared concern

by B.J. Plasket
Daily Times-Call
2001 Times-Call Publishing Co.

   DENVER   Homicides are inherently difficult to solve and prosecute.

   Even the most remorseful offenders are unlikely to confess to a crime that will either put them in jail for life or subject them to lethal injection.

   Those charged with murder including the indigent usually receive a more aggressive defense than those charged with lesser crimes, and prosecutors are often reluctant to use less-than-compelling evidence in a murder trial.

   And, there is the reluctance of some prosecutors to prosecute murder cases they see as difficult.

   Former Boulder County District Attorney Alex Hunter, who was often criticized for his reluctance to prosecute murder cases, once said he didn't like to take a case to trial unless he had "a 100 percent chance of winning."

   Hunter, who retired last month, was often criticized publicly by victims' families and privately by police officers for that stance.

   If current murder cases can be called difficult, older cases could well be called next to impossible. They are even more difficult to solve.

   And the older cases get, the more difficult they become.

   "The hardest thing is locating witnesses," said Stu VanMeveren, who has been the district attorney in Larimer County's 8th Judicial District for 28 years. "They forget, they move, they die."

   Witness problems aren't the only hurdles facing cold-case investigations, VanMeveren said.

   "Sometimes it's difficult even finding the officers who investigated a case years ago," he said. "Reconstructing old crime scenes is also a challenge."

   VanMeveren even admitted that prosecutors allow so-called "lawyer ego" to keep them from filing cases in which they might not get a conviction.

   "I think that creeps in," he said. "As a prosecutor, you must avoid the win-at-any-cost mentality.

   "We just try to do what's right."

   Law enforcers long considered brethren regardless of location are connected in spirit and by national computers, but it is an incomplete connection at best.

   In fact, there is no Colorado or national database or clearinghouse to share information about unsolved homicides.

   While police officers, using state and national computer databases, can access the criminal history of any American in seconds, those criminal histories reveal only arrests and dispositions.

   They do not list suspects. They cannot tell if a current suspect was ever a suspect in another case.

   Police officers have to be diligent and lucky to connect the dots they hope will lead to an arrest.

   "Right now we often have a hit-and-miss situation," said VanMeveren, the longtime district attorney for Larimer and Jackson counties.

   Boulder County District Attorney Mary Keenan agreed.

   "Absolutely," she said. "The more we coordinate our efforts with other law enforcement agencies, the more effective we are."

   Longmont police Cmdr. Tom Fixmer offered an example.

   "Look how long it took to find Ted Bundy," he said of the mass murderer whose killing spree started in the Northwest and continued through Utah and Colorado before ending in Florida.

   "Would a national database have helped? Yes."

   In the end, it was a stolen car that put Bundy in custody and on his way to Florida's electric chair for the murder of a 12-year-old girl. Bundy was also convicted of the slaying of two coeds, but he was linked to dozens of other murders.

   In a vain attempt to delay his execution, Bundy began a string of confessions, but his date with the electric chair ended all that.

   With Bundy dead, authorities could only guess how many murders he committed.

   In the 20 years since Bundy's apprehension in spite of leaps in technology the system has not changed much.

   Television shows such as "America's Most Wanted," which was directly responsible for the recent capture of seven escaped Texas convicts in Colorado, have helped fill the information void that haunts homicide detectives.

   The law enforcement community, however, has made little progress in creating a national system to trade information on unsolved murders.

   But there are some regional hit-and-miss attempts at information sharing.

   Nebraska publishes a monthly crime bulletin that is sent to neighboring states. Colorado does not.

   "It would cost money for Colorado to do that," Fixmer said.  "But if it solved one homicide, it would be worth it. And I'm sure you would solve more than one."

   Local departments can and do issue teletypes sometimes nationally on specific cases. But other departments use their own discretion in distributing that information to officers on the street, and stringent rules keep departments from overloading the system with information.

   Longmont and many other jurisdictions in Colorado and its neighboring states are members of the Rocky Mountain Information Network. The subscriber-only service serves as an information exchange between departments in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Arizona, Montana and Nevada.

   The network contains what Fixmer described as "mostly current stuff" but also includes stored archives that  could spell the difference between a solved homicide and one that remains cold.

   But the network is a poor replacement for a  statewide or national information-sharing system.

   Fixmer said he would "welcome any kind of additional information-sharing system," but he admitted he doesn't know how it should be structured. On the state level, he said, the effort could be coordinated by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation as part of the Colorado Crime Information Computer system. A similar system, the National Crime Information Computer system, could be used to link the other states.

   But all of that would take legislation probably both federal and state as well as significant funding.

   In the absence of a homicide database, some jurisdictions have looked to other means to solve older murders.

   Prosecutors in one Michigan county have formed what they are calling a "citizens' grand jury" with the sole purpose of helping murder investigations that have hit dead ends.

   Many local police departments  and two state police organizations have put up Web pages containing lists of unsolved homicides from recent years.

   This series will later examine  what resources are available to investigators in Colorado, how those resources fall short and what more can be done to catch those who are getting away with murder.