Cold Cases Unthawed

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County investigators search for clues among old papers, DNA

By Rosalie Everson

Somewhere – maybe in Fort Lupton – there are people who know who killed Steven Craig Mayo or Jerry Dreiling or Patricia Blanco.

Weld County investigator Josh Noonan would like to talk to them.

If not hot on the trail of Weld County’s cold murder cases, Noonan and the trio of retired detectives working with him are hopeful that new uses of DNA on evidence still archived in lockers will solve 27 county murders that have confounded detectives, some of them for nearly four decades. They are checking to see if there is overlooked evidence that will allow cases to be resubmitted to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.

“Some of the evidence that was saved will have DNA on it,” Noonan said.

Bloody clothing is the most obvious, but now he said, “there’s a surprising lot of evidence that can be used for DNA. It wasn’t the intent at the time, to save the DNA, but it is useful for that now.”

The investigators have spent the past year contacting relatives of victims, relocating witnesses and organizing evidence, looking first at the newest unsolved murders and working their way back to the 1970s.

Much of what they are doing is office work. A single case can take months to dig into, once the files have all been located. Some records were stored in the Minuteman silo west of Greeley, some had never left the investigator’s office, and there are three cases from the 1970s where they have names and case numbers, but no reports.

Three cases have numbers but no names – a baby left in a blanket in south Weld, a man dumped into the Platte River east of Greeley, and another man who was shot to death in 1995.

Unsolved murders are often worked on intermittently, Noonan said, and every investigator has had one cold case in their file.

One under invesstigation now is the Blanco murder. Blanco’s husband fled to Mexico after the gunshot murder of his 26-year old wife at the G.A.O. Bar south of Fort Lupton. Ernesto Hernandez, a Commerce City man who was with her at the bar, survived. The detectives have been working with the Mexican government to find Blanco and “bring him in.” Blanco still has family living in the area.

Sometimes, Noonan said, family members who initially don’t want to assist in investigations change their minds. Most murders are, he said, committed by family or others close to the victim and relatives, either out of loyalty or fear, withhold information.

There are suspicions that a family member was involved in the murder of the 40-year old Mayo, who was found dead in his Weld County Road 18 home in December 2000. Sheriff’s deputies reported multiple gunshot holes throughout the home, and Mayo apparently died of a gunshot wound. There had been two reports of domestic violence incidents at the home that year, and he and his wife were engaged in a heated custody battle.

Often though, information comes from cellmates or other contacts who have been incarcerated with the murderers serving time for other crimes. It’s not the desire to help that motivates the prison contacts, Noonan said.

“Most information in crimes comes from cellmates, acquaintances who want to get something for themselves,” Noonan said. “If they help them solve the case, chances are they will get something, possibly more privileges.”

A bit of memory jogging for prisoners is coming in the form of playing cards the state attorney general’s office is putting together. The cards will have names and images of the victims and a synopsis of the crime, the victim’s photo on the back, plus contact information. “They have been a huge success in other states,” Noonan said.

The inmates may be unwittingly helpful. If they are career criminals or have been in the state systems, their DNA is imputed into a national base. More departments are submitting DNA from burglaries, which will also widen the chances of finding a match.

Such information may help solve the murder of Jerry Dreiling, who left a birthday party to change irrigation water in his fields in 1986. Dreiling, 40, was also shot, and investigators believed he may have interrupted a burglary in progress at his farm west of Fort Lupton.

There is a pressing need to re-examine some of the cases from the 1970s and ‘80s now, because deputies who were at the investigation scenes are retiring. As they retire, they will take their memories and impressions with them.

“A lot of times they worked it off and on their entire careers,” Noonan said. “They keep in touch with the families. It would be a huge victory to solve one of them now.”

Noonan has no preference about which murder he’d like to see wrapped up. “Though some cases are better remembered by the public,” he said “I want them all solved.”