Review of Jones trials: costly
It took a Mesa County jury 25 days from start to finish late last year to convict Lester Ralph Jones of the kidnapping and murder of Paige Birgfeld in a complicated case that stumped another jury last summer.
For the law enforcement organizations that investigated Birgfeld’s disappearance, however, and the government agencies that took the case to trial, Jones’ conviction took much more.
Three months after Jones’ December conviction, it’s not clear whether the cost in hours and dollars spent on the case will ever be truly known. The Daily Sentinel was able to verify a low figure of $179,093.44 was spent on some — not all — costs by the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office, the Mesa County District Attorney’s Office and the judicial district over the course of the search for Birgfeld’s killer.
Birgfeld, a single mother of three, disappeared June 28, 2007. Investigators soon learned that Birgfeld was moonlighting as a call girl providing erotic massages. It took five years for investigators to find Birgfeld’s remains, another two for them to arrest Jones, and a final two years to bring the case to trial in July 2016. The case ended in a mistrial after jurors couldn’t reach a consensus; a second jury, however, convicted Jones in December. Mesa County District Judge Brian Flynn sentenced Jones to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Mesa County Sheriff’s Office spent close to a decade and probably more than $100,000 investigating Birgfeld’s disappearance and building the case against Jones.
Office spokeswoman Megan Terlecky said the department tracks overtime and operational costs like travel for major cases, although it doesn’t track the regular hours staff spends investigating.
For Birgfeld’s case and the investigation into Jones, the office spent $59,662.14 in overtime for both patrol and investigations divisions. It spent another $34,553.20 in operational costs, according to Terlecky.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Jeff Byrne worked in patrol when Birgfeld went missing and in recent years supervised the team of investigators who spent the most time on her case. He said Birgfeld’s double life complicated the investigation.
“That was certainly something that proved challenging and definitely makes a complex case even that much more difficult,” said Byrne, who said there was never really a time in those nine years when the main investigators weren’t pursuing leads in the case.
Byrne said investigators had to juggle Birgfeld’s case with the constant influx of new cases. Just the combined 56 days that both juries spent in trial cost the department time as well, as senior level investigators spent hours testifying, and waiting outside Flynn’s courtroom to testify.
“I think it wears everybody out,” Byrne said. “But it’s worth every minute of it. … We’re happy that the DA’s office was able to secure a conviction on our case.”
Other agencies invested major funds into the case as well. Mesa County Chief Deputy District Attorney Dave Waite, who along with DA Dan Rubinstein handled Jones’ prosecution, said staffers from their office “put in an enormous number of hours.”
“For a lot of people, it was working a lot of weekends and a lot of evenings for the better part of six months or more,” said Waite, who described the case as the toughest he has ever worked. “In the end, we feel like all that paid off.”
The Mesa County District Attorney’s office plans to ask for $46,804.60 of restitution to cover costs of prosecution. Paralegal Tricia Watson said that figure includes costs of expert witness fees, subpoena delivery service, transcription, witness travel and accommodation, and other costs.
Of the fees listed in the restitution request, Watson said witness airfare is the highest — the DA’s office shelled out more than $15,000 to bring witnesses in to testify, some from as far afield as Georgia, Virginia and Maine.
Jess Dixon, Birgfeld’s now-teenage daughter, was flown into Mesa County from Pennsylvania twice with a traveling companion to tell jurors about her memories about her mother, Watson said.
Not included in the restitution request are the salaries of Rubinstein, Waite and Watson.
Jurors are paid $50 per day starting after the first three days of trial, which in this case included hundreds of people who sat through days of jury selection, according to Rubinstein. The two juries were paid a total of $38,073.50, according to Mesa County’s Judicial District Administrator Sandra Casselberry.
Still unknown are the costs of Jones’ defense, which was handled by Colorado State Public Defenders Steve Colvin and Kara Smith, who presented jurors with several potential alternate suspects.
The statewide office refused to release the costs for Jones’ defense, which included payment to multiple expert witnesses, citing confidentiality for records that are maintained as part of Jones’ case file.
The office released salary information for Colvin, Smith and Investigator Harry Brown, who were main players in Jones’ defense.
According to Chief Deputy State Public Defender James F. O’Connor, Colvin was paid $162,583 in 2016; Smith, $73,658, and Brown $56,159.
Jones is incarcerated in Fremont Correctional Facility near Cañon City in southern Colorado. He is expected to appeal his conviction at some point in the future.
Terlecky said that, while investigators are satisfied with the conviction, the agency is still waiting for that appeal to come.
“This still isn’t quite over yet,” she said.