Boulder, Colo. Police Crack Cold-Case Murders

Nov. 12, 2012
A recent conviction marked the eighth cold-case homicide that the Boulder County District Attorney's Office has closed with either a guilty verdict or an admission of guilt since 2009.

Nov. 10--Looking at 5640 Arapahoe Ave. today, it's hard to imagine the Boulder apartment complex was strung up with crime tape and alive with police officers.

But that was exactly the case on Nov. 1, 1994, the night that Boulder city worker Marty Grisham was having dinner with his girlfriend, answered a knock on the door and was met with four gunshots to his head and chest.

With no eyewitnesses, little evidence and no arrests, the sudden and violent shooting remained unsolved for 18 years.

Then, this past January, police arrested 36-year-old Michael Clark, a friend of Grisham's daughter who was one of the initial suspects in the case. Prosecutors said Clark shot Grisham to hide the fact that he forged checks that he stole from the victim.

Late last month, a Boulder County jury found Clark guilty of Grisham's murder, bringing finality to a case that went nearly two decades without it.

The conviction marked the eighth cold-case homicide that the Boulder County District Attorney's Office has closed with either a guilty verdict or an admission of guilt since current DA Stan Garnett took office in 2009.

In the last three years, Kevin Elmarr was found guilty in the 1987 strangling of Carol Murphy, Diego Alcalde was convicted in the brutal 1987 beating death of Susannah Chase and Scott Kimball admitted to killing four people between 2003 and 2004, and pleaded guilty to two counts of murder.

"The benefits of working these cold cases is that it brings resolution to issues that matter to a whole lot of people," Garnett said. "These are not just crimes against the victim, they're crimes against the whole entire community, so the community has an interest for us to solve the case."

While in some murders -- such as Chase's -- a new piece of evidence such as an out-of-the-blue DNA match arises and solves a case, most cold cases require hard work and manpower to slowly piece together what little evidence there is in order to convince a jury.

"It's a huge amount of work," Garnett said. "But if you love trials, love courtrooms and love seeking justice in cases like the people here do, you're willing to put time and effort into it."

The Clark case was just one example of the work and the perils of trying a cold case. A suspect from the day of the murder until he was arrested 18 years later, no one piece of evidence arose to break the case open.

"Police weren't waiting for this big forensic break," said Assistant District Attorney Ryan Brackley, who was the lead prosecutor on the Clark case. "They went out an re-opened the case and just put good old fashioned police work to it."

Prosecutors were successful in closing Grisham's murder, and, with improving technology and a DA's office willing to take on cases, Brackley said it hopefully will be one of many more to come.

"I'd like to believe in Colorado, with the type of training that we have and the resources and experience we have, no murder case should be considered too cold," he said. "That's certainly the philosophy we have here in Boulder County, and I think it's the growing philosophy throughout the state."

'A fresh look'

In 1999, with the Boulder Police Department getting criticized for its handling of what would become Boulder's ultimate cold case -- the JonBenet Ramsey murder -- the department decided to create a major crimes unit.

While in previous years detectives would rotate assignments, the major crimes unit took a handful of experienced detectives and permanently assigned them to handle homicides and other serious crimes.

Detective Chuck Heidel -- who has been with the team since its start -- said the creation of the major crimes unit has certainly helped with the investigation into old murders.

"Two things: First is you have people with experience," Heidel said. "Second is being able to stay with the case, because you might work this for a couple of years. To have somebody just kind of assigned to it and stick with it until it's finished is definitely an advantage."

Heidel estimates he has had four or five cold case murders assigned to him in the time he has been with the unit, including the Chase and Grisham murders. He said oftentimes with little public interest in the cases, it gives detectives a chance to take a closer look at the evidence at their own pace.

"There's not as much pressure," he said. "You don't have the press on you, you don't have people constantly calling you. Most of the time people don't even know it's being worked on."

The first thing Heidel said he does when he's assigned a cold-case murder is get everything organized and up to date. This means scanning reports and documents into searchable PDFs, typing up hand-written notes and creating digital copies of photos and recordings.

"Just about everything is to either preserve it or to make it easier to find and to search for," Heidel said.

Brackley said that with cold cases, it is especially important that the investigating agency has evidence organized and easy to access.

"When you have a case that's over 10 years old, that's 10 years of evidence and multiple investigators on the case," he said.

But Heidel said what may seem like busy work also helps him familiarize himself with a case, remembering facts and making notes about certain details he may want to look into. While Heidel said getting assigned a cold case requires time to study, it also gives the case new life.

"The downside of it is you have to familiarize yourself with everything, but it is also a fresh look at the case," he said. "You don't have any preconceived notions, which I think is a benefit when you're looking at these. Sometimes it's easier to see a bigger picture."

The picture of Grisham's murder wasn't much clearer in 2009, with little having changed since the initial investigation.

"In this instance all the evidence left behind was four shell casings," Heidel said. "Whether that happened today or back then, it's circumstantial evidence."

But even all those years later, Heidel said the clues still pointed to Clark, and one thing held the key to the case.

"Michael Clark lied about where he got the gun from, who he got it from and what he did with it," Heidel said. "The next question is: Why?"

'No homicide is ever closed'

In 2010, after reviewing the evidence in the Grisham investigation and feeling confident that police had a case, Heidel took his findings to Garnett, who assigned Brackley to the murder.

"We knew even then (the case) would be a circumstantial one," Heidel said. "But Stan didn't have any hesitation at all to assign Ryan Brackley to work with us on it, and then Ryan gave us some direction as to what he was looking for. That's good to know that, hey, if we bring a good case to the DA's office, they will be willing to go forward with it."

Heidel said it's important that detectives know they will be heard, even when they bring forward cases that aren't slam-dunks. He said he's talked to detectives from other judicial districts who feel they don't get quite the same support from their DA, so he knows how crucial it is to solving cold cases.

"A lot of jurisdictions are hesitant to take this type of case to trial," Heidel said. "It's not just the money, but politically you're kind of sticking your neck out. These cases are tough to win and nobody likes to lose."

Brackley estimates he has worked on dozens of cold-case murders, many of them as the senior trial counselor on a homicide investigation unit in New York that focused on unsolved, drug-related murders.

He said that in every cold case, prosecutors have to make tough decisions about which investigations they elect to put their resources into.

"We ask ourselves in a cold case and every case: Can we meet our ethical obligation in filing a case with a reasonable likelihood of conviction?" Brackely said, but added that prosecutors cannot shy away from cases simply because they may not be easy wins.

"What we try very had to do in cold-case work is not to blur the line between that ethical obligation and hesitating to take a case, which is very, very tough," he said. "When we go into these cases there is no guarantee of success. But we're not going to be deterred from a case simply because it's a hard case or the possibility exists of not getting a conviction.

"Justice is done by bringing a case and putting it in front of a jury."

Added Garnett: "My office's policy with law enforcement is that no homicide is ever closed."

Once Brackley was assigned to the Grisham murder, he and Heidel set to work building the case they would eventually present to a jury. Brackley said that as the one who eventually will have to present everything in court, he likes to be involved in the investigation as much as possible.

"My philosophy from the DA perspective is that I expect prosecutors that are handling a case become part of the team and work hand-in-hand with the investigative team to the extent we can ethically do," he said. "Ultimately, the prosecutor needs to make the decision. The best way to do that is to be on the ground with the investigators."

After re-interviewing witnesses and poring over old evidence, Heidel and Brackley discovered a crucial piece of evidence that prosecutors in 1994 did not have. They found a witness in Florida who could link the purchase of a 9mm handgun to Clark.

With this new evidence, police and prosecutors obtained an arrest warrant for Clark and proceeded to file first-degree murder charges.

"Maybe in 1994 they were waiting for the gun to be found so they could run tests," Brackley said. "In our modern-day review of the case, we found out we didn't need the gun."

'Never too late'

After almost three days of deliberation, the jury ultimately convicted Clark of first-degree murder as Grisham's daughter, Kristen, and ex-wife, Pam, sat a few rows back.

"These families spend years in some cases wondering whether the murder of their loved one will be solved, years wondering if someone is listening to them, years wondering if they were forgotten by law enforcement," Brackley said. "Bringing a cold case to trial and ultimately getting justice gives them an extra sense of closure.

"They not only get justice, but they know they were not forgotten, that their loved ones were not forgotten. That's one of the most satisfying parts of cold cases."

When he was first running for district attorney, Garnett listened to voters to find out what they were looking for in a prosecutor.

"One of the things I heard when I first ran is people talked to me a lot about their frustration about unsolved homicides," he said. "It may be heightened by the Ramsey case, but people that live in Boulder pay attention to whether things are working well."

Garnett said he respects the prosecutors who came before him, but added that he was perhaps more confident in the value of taking cases to trial than his predecessors.

"I'm elected to make my own decisions," he said. "I have a lot of respect for the people who sat in this office before me, but if they made a decision I don't agree with, I will go through it with my staff and make the decision I feel is best. So far, juries have by-and-large agreed with us."

But Garnett is not without his courtroom losses when it comes to cold-case prosecutors.

A Boulder County judge threw out the murder case against John Angerer, who was accused of killing his girlfriend, Angela Wilds, in 2006 and leaving her body in a shallow grave in South St. Vrain Canyon. The judge didn't think prosecutors had enough evidence, and the coroner had ruled the cause of death undetermined. Garnett appealed the decision, but it was upheld by the Colorado Supreme Court.

And a Boulder County judge threw out charges against David John Trujillo, accused of bludgeoning David Eugene Cox to death in 1994. A district judge later reinstated the case, but Trujillo, who had been ill for a long time, died before he went to trial.

In the end, Brackley said it is in the best interest of the community that prosecutors continue to pursue cold-case murders.

"It's important people be held accountable for their actions," he said. "There is no statute on limitations on murder for a reason. That's because it's never too late to bring a murder case to justice."

Contact Camera Staff Writer Mitchell Byars at 303-473-1329 or [email protected].

Cold-case murder convictions

Diego Olmos Alcalde was arrested in January 2008 in connection with the 1997 murder of 23-year-old University of Colorado student Susannah Chase after his DNA -- which had been entered into a federal database -- turned up as a match to evidence recovered from Chase's body. In June 2009, a Boulder County jury found Alcalde guilty of first-degree murder, sexual assault and kidnapping.

Kevin Elmarr was arrested in 2007 and charged with strangling and then slitting the throat of ex-wife Carol Murphy in 1987. Elmarr was initially a suspect after his wife's nude body was found near a trailhead in Lefthand Canyon, but wasn't charged until DNA evidence showed that he had sex with the victim a few hours before her death. He was found guilty of first-degree murder in August 2009.

Scott Kimball in 2009 admitted to killing four people -- Jennifer Marcum, Kaysi McLeod, LeAnn Emry and his uncle, Terry Kimball -- between 2003 and 2004. A former FBI informant, Kimball pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree murder, but, as part of the deal, took responsibility for all four murders. The remains of Emry, McLeod and Terry Kimball have been found, but the remains of Marcum were never recovered.

Michael Clark was arrested in January and charged with shooting city worker Marty Grisham in 1994 to prevent him from discovering that Clark had stolen and forged some of his checks. Clark -- who was a friend of Grisham's daughter -- was always a suspect but was not arrested until DNA evidence and a paper-trail connecting Clark to a 9mm handgun surfaced in 2010. Clark was found guilty of first-degree murder in October.

Copyright 2012 - Daily Camera, Boulder, Colo.

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