Cold murder case gets new attention

Phlisia Bunting

For the better part of the past two decades, Carrelyn Bunting has lived the life of a frustrated mother.

Frustrated that her and her runaway daughter’s efforts to mend their relationship were cut short by 16-year-old Phlisia’s murder. Frustrated that the investigation went cold, even though authorities know who was with her at the time of the teenager’s death.

But with Tuesday marking the 20-year anniversary of Phlisia’s body being found face down with a large rock on the side of her head at Island Acres State Park in De Beque Canyon, the probe appears to be gaining fresh legs.

After turning the case over to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation three years ago, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department has reassumed control and assigned new resources.

“Our goal is to get some resolution for the Bunting family,” said Sgt. Henry Stoffel, the lead investigator in the case. “It’s been 20 years. It’s been too long.”

That’s good news for Bunting, who has previously been critical of how authorities have handled the investigation.

“It makes me feel very good,” she said. “This case is a solvable case. We know who the players are. We just need to get everybody put into their proper places.”

Phlisia left Denver in July 1990 with 19-year-old Maurice Duerson and two juveniles, Wayne Irish and Wayne Kirk. Heading for California, they stopped in the Grand Junction area. On July 20, Island Acres parks maintenance workers found Phlisia’s body in a lake. Authorities concluded she had been struck in the head with a blunt object and dragged a short distance to the lake, where she drowned.

Investigators arrested Duerson in Denver a few days later in connection with Phlisia’s murder. But prosecutors declined to file charges, saying one of the juveniles who implicated Duerson had changed his story multiple times.

Authorities’ efforts to identify Phlisia’s killer were further twisted in 2001 when Wayne Kirk died in a car accident in Georgia.

The Sheriff’s Department transferred the case to the CBI in 2007, hoping the agency’s statewide resources would produce some results. But given the CBI’s backlog of cases, sheriff’s officials took back the case within the last several months.

“We know CBI is very busy,” Stoffel said. “We were at a point where we could put some more resources on the case.”

Investigators have traveled to Denver to interview associates of Duerson, Irish and Kirk and are planning another trip soon. Stoffel said authorities also hope advancements in DNA technology will yield new information.

Stoffel pointed to another Sheriff’s Department case in which authorities were certain of their suspect but needed a break to make an arrest. That case involved the 1998 disappearance of Coty Vernon near De Beque.

Investigators long suspected her boyfriend, Jason Garner, of foul play but weren’t able to arrest him until Vernon’s body was found in 2002 with a stab wound to her tailbone.

“There are some strong points in the case and some things we need to shore up, but it’s not at the point where we can take it to prosecution,” Stoffel said.

Stoffel said he is in contact with Bunting on a weekly or every-other-week basis, updating her on where authorities stand with their work.

“I want the public’s help because this is a public issue,” Bunting said. “It’s not just a Carrelyn Bunting family issue. This is an issue for Colorado, because as long as these guys walk free, they have the potential to be the ones in the nursing home taking care of your loved one. They have the potential to be the ones showing up at your door as a repairman.”

She also wants Phlisia’s killers to know she and others haven’t forgotten about them.

“I want the perpetrators to know it’s not over,” she said. “Don’t close your eyes. Don’t sleep too good.”

Anyone with information about Phlisia’s murder is asked to call Stoffel at 970-244-3265.


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