Unsolved murder in small town saloon
Photos on the wall of Palisade’s Livery Saloon show Ronald Vanlandingham smiling, surrounded by friends. His mining hat and lamp, perched on a shelf above the liquor bottles, tell of his days toiling at the former Powderhorn Coal Co. in Cameo. A former Army paratrooper, the father of two and his wife, Rita, purchased the neighborhood bar in 1987 as a way to unwind a bit and save some money for retirement.
These days, a whimsical photo of Vanlandingham’s two great-grandsons sits prominently at the front of the bar, an enlarged snapshot of two young, carefree tykes with their backs to the camera peeing out in the open. Vanlandingham, described as a generous soul who looked after the underdog, surely would have chuckled at this.
But the former bar owner would never get to meet the boys who now crawl under the pool tables and run around the bar their mom and grandfather run.
Twenty-one years ago next month the rhythms of this placid downtown were splintered when a gunman forced Vanlandingham, 55, and bar patron Garry Moss, 49, into the men’s restroom and shot each man once in the head just before closing on a slow Sunday night. About $330 from the till and Vandlandingham’s wallet were stolen.
This unthinkable turn of events occurred on the heels of the brazen daytime murder of Grand Junction pawn shop owner Dale Potter only nine days earlier. The crimes spread law enforcement thin and were partially to blame for Palisade’s startling double homicide going unsolved. To top it off, a little more than a year after Vanlandingham and Moss were executed on May 23, 1993, the Palisade Police Department turned its attention to the grisly murder of teenager Jacie Taylor at the Inness Court Apartments.
But institutional knowledge runs deep, and town folk have not forgotten that no one was ever tried for the murders at the local bar.
After a year on the job, Palisade’s new police chief, Tony Erickson, believes he can solve the case. His is the same kind of robust energy that former Police Chief Carroll Quarles brought to the case in 1996, also a year after he was tapped as the town’s new police chief.
This time around, Erickson has the backing of a grant from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. New technology developed in the past decade to scrutinize DNA has opened doors wider for law enforcement to solve cold cases.
“I want to solve this for the families and the people of Palisade,” Erickson said. “In my mind we have more than we could ever want in this case. There’s a lot of folks to talk to and I can’t wait to get into it.”
‘RIPPED THIS TOWN SOMETHING TERRIBLE’
The execution of two residents at the spirited bar just wasn’t something that happened in serene Palisade. Time seems to have largely stood still in this downtown establishment with its faint light and a deeply polished wooden bar, where locals and blue collar workers meet up even on weekdays.
Yet wounds from that time haven’t healed for some, and longtime patrons easily transport themselves back.
“It ripped this town something terrible,” recalled Mark Bartholomew, who was at the bar with friends on recent weekday. Bartholomew works weekends checking IDs at the door, and he was around when the double murders rattled this small town.
“There were 500 to 600 people at Martin Mortuary (for Vanlandingham’s service). You could have taken a nap in the middle of the intersection. This place just emptied out,” he said, pointing out the door to Palisade’s core a half-block away, the intersection of Main Street and Third Street.
“It was like the modern-day ugly aspects of life hit Palisade,” he said.
Johnny Vanlandingham, Ronald’s son, now owns the bar, and his daughter, Kersee Davis, mainly runs day-to-day operations.
Johnny, who is the EMS coordinator for the Plateau Valley Fire Department, was a 26-year-old family man with two girls ages 4 and 2 when his father was slain. He was working for Premier Services Ambulance Inc. at the time, and was called to the scene, initially thinking the call about “blood and bodies everywhere” at the family bar was a hoax. Johnny stayed outside while a coworker checked the victims’ pulses. After coworkers explained what they had seen, he had to break the news to his mother at her home.
“That was tough,” he said of the circumstances of that time in general. “Death, it happens. But when you die unexpectedly because some jackass robbed you for $200 ...” he said, trailing off.
After the hundreds of mourners showed for his father’s funeral, many gathered at the Brass Rail in Grand Junction for a wake in the bar owned by Ronald’s best friend, Leroy Kirkhart.
“We really celebrated his life, not his death,” Johnny said.
Then, a little more than a week after the shootings, The Livery reopened with a big party.
Johnny’s mother, Rita, and his sister, Garra, who also works at The Livery, attended Moss’ much more subdued memorial service.
Moss, who was half Cherokee and half Choctaw, worked in maintenance for School District 51.
He had moved from Grass Valley, California, in 1962. He had divorced Pamela Wilson in 1984, but was in the process of rekindling a relationship with her when he was killed.
Johnny said Moss, who had learning disabilities, didn’t run with the bands of friends that visited the bar. Moss would sometimes help Ron Vanlandingham clean up the bar at closing time. Some bar patrons remember Moss dressing up in Western wear and being friendly to everyone. He loved motorcycles, being outside and dancing. The night he was killed, Moss was picking up a key to rent the apartment over the bar.
Johnny said his father would sometimes give Moss money for helping clean up. Johnny said it seems sad that people talk mostly about the loss of his dad, but Moss equally was a victim.
“It was two lives that were lost,” Johnny said.
MISTAKES MADE IN INVESTIGATION
There’s no dispute that crucial evidence was inadvertently tossed aside. At the time, three Grand Valley law enforcement agencies — the Grand Junction Police Department, the Mesa County Sheriff’s Office and the Palisade Police Department — all had a hand in the case. But law enforcement thought they had more pressing issues on that brisk spring night. Grand Junction police officers had surrounded the Timbers Motel in Grand Junction, in an attempt to zero in on the suspect believed to have killed Dale Potter nine days earlier. That suspect, 30-year-old Deon Caballero, ultimately was arrested for that murder in the early morning hours, driving a stolen gray Firebird back to the motel. Seven witnesses saw that murder at the Alpha Pawn Shop and Caballero was identified as a suspect after his wife, Cindy Gilbert, confirmed a baseball hat that fell off Caballero in the struggle was her husband’s.
Witnesses also saw a gray Firebird leaving the The Livery the night of the double homicide.
When Caballero was booked into jail, he asked what the charges were and was told first-degree murder. Caballero then reportedly asked if it was for something that happened that night. This exchange was relayed to then-Palisade Police Chief Greg Kuhn, who declined to interview Caballero, thinking he had a lead on two other suspects, who also were Hispanic.
The stolen Firebird was returned to its owner without investigators searching it. The car’s owner threw out longneck Budweiser beer bottles that had been inside. At the time, Budweiser longneck beer bottles could only be purchased at a restaurant or a bar. Barcodes on those bottles would have shown the exact location where they were sold.
Caballero’s clothing, which may have contained blood spatter from the double murder, was given back to his wife, though it should have been sent to a lab for testing.
A year later, in 1994, Caballero was convicted by a jury and sentenced to life plus four years in prison without the possibility of parole for Potter’s killing. Caballero, now 47, is incarcerated at the Arkansas Valley Correctional Facility in the southeastern Colorado town of Crowley.
These are some of the facts that former Chief Quarles waded through when he opened the cold case in 1996 and then again about six years ago. Quarles was never able to get an arrest in the case he says is completely circumstantial. The murder weapon was never found, though Quarles searched irrigation canals and a portion of Island Acres State Park, where Caballero was known to go fishing. He’s also visited Caballero in prison, seeking but not receiving a confession. While DNA on cigarettes left at the bar didn’t match Caballero, Quarles is sure he’s the killer.
“I starting reading through the case and I couldn’t believe some of the mistakes,” Quarles said. “I know who did the murders.”
The former police chief believes he was too critical of investigators’ work and the case’s flaws to get an arrest for Caballero. And, with the suspect already serving a lifetime prison sentence, there may have been less motivation for a trial or having the case brought before by a grand jury.
“I wanted to see justice done and stepped on some toes,” Quarles said. “The DA (district attorney) at the time (Frank Daniels) wasn’t interested in doing a charge. He just flat told me there’s never going to be a prosecution on it.”
“It was one of those things that fell through the cracks,” Quarles added about the botched evidence. “It could have happened to anybody. I wish Tony (Erickson) luck. I think he’s probably got a better chance than I had.”
Anyone with information in the case can call the Palisade Police Department at 464-5601.