‘The Killing Season’ tests mettle of local law enforcement agencies
It began with an argument that led to a mentally ill son fatally shooting his father.
It ended with someone binding, raping and strangling a Mesa College coed inside her apartment.
During the intervening months of 1975, there was so much carnage that weary authorities called it “The Killing Season.”
Twelve people were murdered in Mesa County that year, a staggering number considering there were only two homicides in Grand Junction in the 10 years leading up to then and one in 1976. By comparison, 16 people have been murdered in this county since 2006, according to statistics from local agencies and the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
That was the year Ted Bundy left his calling card here on his way to infamy, when Kenneth Botham killed his wife, his neighbor and her two children, spawning a book and a comprehensive Web site maintained by Botham’s son, both of which questioned Botham’s guilt. That was the year when evidence was collected from a bloody crime scene in such a way that enabled police to catch up to the man suspected of perpetrating it 34 years later, when an apartment manager stumbled upon a horrible crime yet to be solved.
“You don’t forget it,” said former Mesa County Sheriff Riecke Claussen, who as a sergeant helped investigate the Botham-Miracle murders, the most notorious that year.
“It was one of those times that just kind of stands out in your memory as frantic as far as the investigations.”
In retrospect, current and retired law-enforcement officers say the investigators who hopped from crime scene to crime scene performed solid work with the resources and technology they had. But there’s little question the cases challenged agencies that lacked the experience, education and training needed to deftly juggle so many homicides. That created a steep learning curve.
“It was overwhelming, and we weren’t as a department ready for that in any way, shape or form,” said retired investigator Jim Fromm, who was 22 years old and three months out of college when the Grand Junction Police Department hired him in 1973.
“If we had a dozen homicides today, we’d have trouble handling them all,” said Grand Junction police Cmdr. Mike Nordine, whose department now employs roughly 120 people, twice the number of police employees in 1975.
The Police Department, which worked eight of the 12 deaths, dealt with other issues that year. The public and the media criticized then-Police Chief Ben Meyers and his staff for their handling of the Botham investigation and provided constant reminders that they had no answers for two murders and a disappearance that turned into a third homicide. The department also wrestled with turnover, including the resignation of its second-in-command.
Meyers came to Grand Junction in 1974 from Salem, Ore., bringing with him a captain and sergeant from Oregon and a sergeant from California. All were experienced in homicide investigations, said retired Lt. Ron Smith, who at the time was in charge of the department’s investigations unit.
The veterans teamed with a group of young investigators, including Fromm and Doug Rushing, who joined the department two years before Fromm. Smith said Meyers rotated veteran investigators into the patrol division, deciding he wanted experienced officers on the street. Smith said he initially questioned the move before becoming convinced that the energy and enthusiasm in investigations could be beneficial.
But that meant when Linda Benson and her young daughter, Kelley, were found stabbed to death in their apartment in July, Fromm and Rushing were tackling their first homicide. Prior to that, the most difficult call they’d responded to was a fatal car accident.
The two investigators spent nearly two full days in the apartment without sleeping or leaving, photographing and collecting every scrap of evidence they could find. Included in their collection was blood on a wall Fromm and Rushing were convinced didn’t belong to either the mother or daughter. But they weren’t sure how to remove the blood.
So they cut out the wall.
Their superiors later scolded them for it because the city had to pay for the damage.
“We didn’t know what the hell we were doing experience-wise, but we knew what we should be doing,” Fromm said.
He and Rushing figured they had compiled so much physical evidence that they’d make an arrest in a week. But like so many murders that year, their leads dried up and the case withered and died.
“We were doing the right thing, but we were never close,” Fromm said.
Claussen said local law enforcement was just beginning to recognize the importance of specialized training and higher education. He said prior to 1975, his deepest involvement in investigations consisted of conducting polygraph examinations. Suddenly, when the murders broke loose, he found himself strategizing at a table with other homicide investigators.
Grand Junction police teamed up with the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department on most of the cases in 1975, not only because the departments were located next to each other at the time but also because the sheer number of homicides stretched resources thin and forced them to rely on one another. City officials turned down police administrators’ request for an increase in employees in 1976.
Terry Farina was dealing with his own staffing issues when, at 34, he became Mesa County’s first elected, full-time district attorney in 1973. He was the only full-time prosecutor when he took office. Two years later, he had two or three full-time deputy district attorneys but no investigators.
The quadruple Botham-Miracle murders in August taxed authorities more than any homicide that year. Farina recalls investigators meeting at his house and working into the night.
It was also the case for which they took the most heat.
A month after Patricia Botham, Linda Miracle and Miracle’s two sons, Chad and Troy, vanished from their neighboring homes, Grand Junction police still insisted they were working on a missing-persons case, even though relatives were concerned of foul play.
That caused Farina to jump into the investigation.
Days after the bodies of the four were pulled from the Gunnison River, Capt. Robert Burnett announced his resignation, citing a lack of cooperation from the community in assisting the department. Meyers, the police chief, said he would quit if he could find another job where the community and media were more supportive of police.
In addition to the Botham-Miracle case, Fromm recalled a slip-up in the April
disappearance of Denise Oliverson. He said it wasn’t until a month after he and Rushing had taken a missing-person report that somebody in the department notified them that Oliverson’s bicycle and shoes had been found and were in storage across the street from the police station.
Although it likely had no outcome on the case — Bundy later confessed Oliverson was one of his victims — Fromm said the disconnect could have affected who investigators questioned.
“To be honest, they really screwed that up,” he said.
Fromm said many people charged that the media, including The Daily Sentinel, “crucified” police. But he said he’s not sure that’s true.
“Was the press putting heat on us? Not intentionally. The press was continuing to report,
‘Hey, we’ve six unsolved homicides, and we don’t seem to be getting anywhere.’ That’s not crucifixion. That’s the way it was.”
Meyers ultimately left the department the next year.
Authorities were also up against something over which they had no control: limited investigative tools.
DNA testing did not exist. Police relied upon blood typing, which only told them whether an unknown source of blood was type A, B or O. They were also just beginning to take advantage of a new test that allowed them to determine a person’s race and gender. But that was a far cry from developing a specific, detailed profile.
“Back in ’75, if you didn’t have a suspect to match up blood with as far as blood type, you’re no place,” Farina said.
Smith also noted that without computers, there was no easy way to cross-reference police reports, evidence logs or witness interviews.
Thirty-four years after he encountered his first murder scene, Fromm will never forget what he saw in that apartment or at any other crime scene.
“It was a life-changing series of events, I can promise you that,” the accountant said. “It will take a 23-year-old kid and a 24-year-old kid and mature them in a heartbeat.”
He doesn’t drive down any of the streets the victims lived on without remembering them.
And he simply doesn’t veer south on U.S. Highway 50 to Bridgeport, where Patricia Botham and the Miracles were dropped off a bridge into the Gunnison River.
“I can’t stand that place,” he said.