TERROR GRIPS GRAND JUNCTION- 1975 community review
Three months after graduating high school, David Bailey packed up his Ford Maverick and drove across the country from Ohio to western Colorado, enticed by the laid-back nature and open spaces of the West.
He figured he had left behind the rough-and-tumble Rust Belt for lazy Grand Junction when he arrived here in August 1974, a place where the kids parked their cars along North Avenue and drank beer and everyone looked the other way.
“We were used to crime. Murders weren’t that uncommon,” Bailey said of his hometown.
“You come out here, and it’s almost an innocent place.”
For at least one year, he was wrong.
The murders of a dozen people in Mesa County in 1975 terrorized a community whose residents rarely had a reason to lock their doors and rattled it in ways that still reverberate today.
Gun shop stores and locksmiths experienced a jump in business. Would-be empty nesters encouraged their teenagers and 20-somethings to live at home a while longer.
Night-shift workers paid closer attention to the shadows. Some dreaded venturing out of their homes at all.
Perhaps nobody had reason to fear more than female college students and young professionals. Five of the victims were women ages 19 to 25.
Although the husband and neighbor of two of the women was arrested and charged in their murders, assailant theories abounded, ranging from serial killer to college student to random stranger.
Claudia Hazelhurst grew up down the block from the apartment building where Linda Benson and her 5-year-old daughter, Kelley, were stabbed to death in July 34 years ago this summer. She said the bad feeling that permeated that area in the aftermath of the murders still lingers.
“I do recall a sense of foreboding in that neighborhood, and even still when I pass that area, it’s resurfaced,” said Hazelhurst, now the city’s human resources manager. “I think about it.”
John and Brenda Varga graduated from Grand Junction High School the same year Linda Benson did. At the time Linda and Kelley were killed, the Vargas lived less than a mile away and had a 5-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. John Varga remembers he and his wife watching their kids a little closer, looking over their shoulders a little more often.
“You identify with the circumstances and the victims and how easily it could have been you,” Varga said.
While 1975 stood out for the number of murders, Vicki Felmlee recalled a series of preceding events that struck close to home.
The year before, a friend of hers was killed in a car accident in De Beque Canyon.
Although she graduated high school a year after Linda Benson and her son was in day care with Kelley Benson, Felmlee was closer to Linda’s sister, Judy Ketchum, who died of a drug overdose in Pitkin County exactly one year before Linda Benson was killed.
Felmlee, then a 23-year-old geology student at Mesa College, said she didn’t pick up on a sense of panic in the community as much as a feeling of numbness.
“I think it was just sort of like, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ ” she said of the reaction to the murders.
Upon arriving in Grand Junction, Bailey got a job installing landscaping, hoping to save enough money to go to college. He and two roommates moved into an apartment two blocks from Mesa College.
It turns out it was also two blocks from where Deborah Tomlinson lived — and died. The Mesa College freshman was found dead in her bathtub two days after Christmas. She had been strangled and raped.
Bailey said residents started a neighborhood-watch group to look out for one another.
“People were pretty shook up about it, especially college girls,” he said.
The spate of homicides, particularly those that remained unsolved into the fall of that year, resulted in a surge of “fear” calls from residents reporting everything from angry fights at neighboring homes to noises that conjured images of prowlers.
Law-enforcement agencies also handled a number of missing-persons reports — incidents that any other year may have been dismissed as juvenile runaways or people who were overdue when expected by family or friends.
“We’ve always had missing persons, but the fear part (of those calls) has been more in the last month or two than we’ve had in a lot of years,” then-Mesa County Sheriff Dick Williams said in October 1975.
Even a simple case of overdue hikers became something sinister.
Several weeks after the deaths of the Bensons — Linda was a high-school friend of hers — Mona Foote and two younger girls in her neighborhood ventured out for a hike up
Mount Garfield. When it got dark and the group hadn’t yet returned, panic set in. Police swarmed up the Bookcliffs, their flashlights dancing on the hillsides.
It turned out the three had gotten lost. But the community’s paranoia played out on the front page of the newspaper.
The headline in The Daily Sentinel the next day screamed about a missing woman and children. A list of the murders that had occurred up to that point accompanied the story.
“It just showed how tense everyone was,” said John Foote, Mona’s husband.
More than 30 years later, Bailey can’t help but reflect on how murder has weaved a thread through his life. He went on to become the curator of history at the Museum of Western Colorado, and it was his work that raised doubt as to whether famed cannibal
Alferd Packer murdered four companions near Lake City in the winter of 1874.
“I made my name on crazy murders,” he said. “I never thought when I was 18 or 19 years old that I would see them here (in Grand Junction).”