Cold case team tackles 23-year-old Bunting slaying
Nothing comes easy for Carrelyn Bunting when it comes to Mesa County.
Driving west on Interstate 70 during a trip earlier this month to Grand Junction to pick up her grandson, the brakes on Bunting’s sport-utility vehicle failed at the worst imaginable point: on descent from the Eisenhower Tunnel into Silverthorne. They avoided a crash and, with some quick repairs in Silverthorne, carried on the next morning.
Buntings aren’t easily deterred.
By the next afternoon, Carrelyn Bunting stood near the water at Island Acres, close to the same spot where her murdered daughter, Phlisia, 16, was found on July 20, 1990 — a case that has frustrated local authorities for nearly 23 years.
“We want to let everybody know that Phlisia is not forgotten,” the mother said, her gaze moving across a lake at Island Acres in what was her first visit to the crime scene in 15 years. Her words were directed at the young men she believes were involved in her daughter’s murder.
“We’re still here,” she said. “This isn’t over.”
There’s also renewed hope in the Bunting family that the case could finally close.
That’s because the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department is scheduled June 13 to have representatives in Denver to present details of Bunting’s murder to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s Cold Case Review Board, a cross section of 30 investigators, CBI and FBI agents, prosecutors and forensics scientists. Formed in 2009, CBI’s cold case team has reviewed and made recommendations on 20 cases. They meet just three to four times annually, CBI spokeswoman Susan Medina said. Presentations are made over roughly four-hour blocks, and Bunting’s case is one of two they’ll review next month.
“Once the elements of the case are presented, they start talking about new technologies which may assist in identifying new information and have a candid talk about the case itself, which maybe lead to new roads to go down,” Medina said.
Of the 20 cases the CBI team has reviewed since 2009, Medina said, the team is credited with producing two prosecutions with subsequent convictions.
In personality and dress, Phlisia Bunting stood out.
She idolized Boy George in a neighborhood where rap music blasted. At her Denver middle school, she took first prize in a Boy George look-alike contest and is seen in numerous photos wearing her almost-signature, oversized looping earrings.
“Coming from Denver, that just didn’t fit in,” her mother said, “It sort of put her out of the group of her peers. She always wanted to fit in and I’ve always thought that was one of the things that caused her to go out on the streets. She felt comfortable around the punk rockers and could be herself.”
“Phlisia was a modern-day hippie,” Carrelyn said.
Her mother in 1990 told the newspaper Phlisia had been home nearly a week prior to her killing — the longest stint at home in a while — after frequent runaway episodes. In her diary, Phlisia wrote if she ran away from home again she had a feeling she wouldn’t come back, the family said.
“She wouldn’t have come this far (to Mesa County) with someone she didn’t know,” Phlisia’s brother, Ivory, told the newspaper.
Bunting believes her daughter was hanging out in July 1990 at a Denver teenage runaway shelter, Urban Peak, when she met then-19-year-old Maurice Duerson, and two juvenile boys, Wayne Irish and Wayne Kirk. Phlisia left Denver with the trio and they headed for California.
Around 2 p.m. on July 20, maintenance workers found a beaten woman face down in a lake at Island Acres. Phlisia Bunting’s body appeared to have been dragged a short distance to the lake, while she was left with her head and upper torso in the water. A large rock had been placed on the side of her head.
An autopsy showed she drowned.
Seven days after the body’s recovery, Sheriff’s Department investigators went to Denver and arrested Duerson in the case. Duerson, however, was released after Mesa County prosecutors declined to file charges when one of the juveniles who implicated Duerson changed his account of what happened at least three times.
A mother’s doubts
Frustrating efforts to solve the case, Wayne Kirk was killed in a car accident in Georgia in 2001.
While Carrelyn Bunting acknowledges there’s been steady contact over recent years from the Sheriff’s Department, she still believes the case remains on the agency’s back burner and has been mishandled from day one.
“I believe because of Phlisia’s race, there was never the validity put into solving it from the beginning,” she said. “She was from Denver, a street kid and all that. They did not put the value on her life that they would have put on a Grand Junction child.
“These young men we have chosen to allow to walk free — and they work among your families, your kids at the college and among your daughters,” Bunting said. “And if you’ve killed once, you’ve probably killed again.”
She insists she’s forgiven those she still holds responsible for the crimes.
“That does not mean they won’t have to stand and face charges,” Carrelyn said. “They need to come clean and say what happened. And why.”
For the heartache that Mesa County has brought the Bunting family, they’ve kept steady ties to the area.
Five years after his sister’s murder, Ivory Bunting went on to graduate from the Job Corps in Collbran. Ivory’s son, Treall, 20, just finished a semester of classes at Colorado Mesa University, which spurred the family’s nearly ill-fated drive to Grand Junction earlier this month.
Treall said he’s pondering a criminal justice degree.
“I just want to be a homicide detective,” he said.