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A series examining nearly 100 unsolved murders in the region

Arson behind several of Adams County's unsolved homicides

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

   THORNTON Two arsons separated by 15 years account for eight of Adams County's 21 unsolved homicides.

   But police say they are optimistic they can solve one of those arsons the 1997 La Hacienda motel fire that killed five people as they slept away a cold January night.

   "We still feel strongly we can make this case," said Steve Pischke, who has headed the North Metro Fire and Rescue's portion of the probe since its inception.

   "It's still an ongoing, open investigation."

   It's also a federal case, with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms working closely with Thornton Police and North Metro investigators to get to the bottom of a case that has lingered for more than three years.

   By late January 1997, La Hacienda has ceased being a roadside stop for travelers. The 107-room motel had become a "residential" facility that rented rooms by the week and by the month.

   Among the people staying at La Hacienda on the evening of Jan. 26 were Darren Harper and Corinna Micek, who were staying there because their home had recently burned down.

   They had six children with them in their room, but all escaped without injury.

    Five others weren't so lucky.

    Twenty-eight-year-old Anthony Bunn was killed. So were 84-year-old Vivian Garrett and her 53-year-old daughter, Susan.

    Tad A. Westcott, 24, and Erik T. Waite, 23, also perished in the fire.

    La Hacienda, located on 84th Avenue just west of I-25, is gone now. Its former location is a vacant lot next to the Soundtrack Superstore.

   There is no visible sign that just after 2:30 a.m. on that January night, all hell broke loose at La Hacienda.

   The first report came from a woman who said her bathroom was on fire.

   Soon the fire would spread to 70 rooms. As the inferno was discovered, residents ran from door to door rousting their neighbors.

    Twelve-year-old Joshua Barella was sleeping in a room with five other people when he heard what he called "an explosion."

   By the time Barella escaped from the room, the fire had intensified.  He had to run past melting pop machines and a melted railing on the stairs.

    Joseph Galbreath didn't wake up until he heard sirens and radios blaring outside, where the flames were only 30 feet away.

   "It was just so hot," he later told reporters.

   Investigators questioned nearly all the 100 displaced residents. Two others who abruptly left the scene and the state were later found and interviewed.

    Hundreds of samples were taken  from the burned areas and authorities drew diagrams of the building.

    The fire, which was initially referred to as "suspicious," was later termed an arson.

    Lab results obtained within the first month gave investigators some clues on which they are still working. Federal investigators concentrated on paper trials involving ownership and finances at La Hacienda, which media reports said had become a haven for drug activity.

    And, although Pischke wouldn't give specifics, the investigation appears to have yielded suspect information.

    "We knew fairly early on what direction we were going," he said.

    That trail got hotter in recent weeks when a person called investigators with information.

   "It was pretty surprising to us," Pischke said of the new witness. "You don't usually get that at this stage."

   Pischke said the witness came forward after a civil suit was filed in the case and that the witness' information is helping the case.

   "We still meet frequently with the ATF and we haven't given up," he said.

   If the case is solved, the suspects will probably find themselves facing stiff federal charges.

   "We would go federal with the charges," Pischke said, "because of the nature of the fire and the evidence." 

    Such hope, however, probably doesn't exist in a 1982 arson case that killed three children.

    On Oct. 20, 1982, a fire swept through a mobile home at 1201 W. 92nd Ave. in Thornton killing 1-year-old Michael Neutzman, 4-year-old David Neutzman and 10-year-old Timothy Dodson.

    The events surrounding that fire are still a bit hazy.

   Authorities initially termed the fire an arson, but 18 years later reports about the blaze are scarce.

    No reports of arrests could be found, but Thornton police this week began looking through their archives on the case.

   "That could take several days," said spokesman Matt Barnes.

    Barnes said if the case was indeed an arson, the deaths it caused would be classified as open homicide cases, since there is no statute of limitations on the prosecution of murders.

If you have information about this case or any part of the series, call B.J. Plasket at 303-776-2244, ext. 451, or e-mail him at bplasket@times-call.com.