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Cold case goes national

The search for the killers in a 27-year-old unsolved double murder linked to southern Archuleta County is poised to go national, as producers with Kurtis Productions are preparing to feature the case in a 60-second television spot called “Cold Case Files Minute,” scheduled to air in about two weeks.

According to Rachel Pikelny, producer with Kurtis Productions, “Cold Case Files Minute” is an outgrowth of the television show “Cold Case Files,” with Bill Kurtis, the show’s host, providing up-to-date case information while reaching out to viewers for help in solving the crimes — albeit in a more compact format than the “Cold Case Files” show. Unfortunately for law enforcement agencies across the country, “Cold Case Files” aired its last new show in 2007. Thus, producers of “Cold Case Files Minute” seek to fill in the information gap with briefs that appear as stand-alone public service announcements or as spots woven into the fabric of a local or regional newscast.

Although Pikelny acknowledged that 60 seconds provides hardly enough time to dig into the complexities of America’s unsolved crimes, she said the intent is to provide key case details to as many viewers as possible in order to spark a lead that may help law enforcement solve the crime.

“The most important thing is relaying facts that could spark a memory,” Pikelny said. “The ideal situation is that we can help solve the crime.”

Archuleta County Sheriff Det. George Barter said when Pikelny contacted him about two weeks ago with a pitch to air the case as a “Cold Case Files Minute” he jumped at the chance, sending Pikelny 30 to 40 photographs, including photos of the suspected crime scene — an abandoned bus that had been converted into a residence— the Carracas Bridge from where authorities believe the bodies were dumped into the San Juan River, photos of the river itself and revised facial reconstructions completed with the assistance of staff at the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department in Albuquerque, N.M.

In addition to the killers, Barter is seeking the identities of the victims who, as of yet, remain unknown.

Barter said he anticipates the episode will cover basic case details such as when, where and under what circumstances the bodies were found, combined with an explanation of recent developments in the case.

“Hopefully they’ll do the facial reconstructions; hopefully the drawings will be a focal point,” Barter said. “My hope is to identify either, or both of the victims. I’d feel like I’d succeeded if I could get the victims identified. Even if I don’t put anybody in jail, that’s (identifying the victims) a huge success, particularly for a case this old. It would provide closure for the families.”

Although Barter reopened the case in the spring of 2009, he pushed the 1982 murders out of the county’s cold case files and into the limelight Sept. 24, with the discovery of blood and shell casings at the suspected crime scene.

Since then, leads have steadily trickled in, however, Pikelny said national air time could blow the case open, and instead of fielding a couple phone calls a week, Barter could soon face hundreds that may help him learn the victims’ identities or lead him to the killers.

“Half of my goal is to identify the victims. The other half is to arrest,” Barter said.

Until then, the victims are known only as John and Jane Doe.

Twenty-seven years ago

Although key events and details in the case remain sketchy, Barter has stitched together a possible scenario based on witness testimony gathered over more than two decades. According to those testimonies, in the late summer of 1982, a couple — John and Jane Doe — was seen hitchhiking in the southern part of Archuleta County, possibly on Trujillo Road, when they were picked up, then driven over the San Juan River via the Carracas Bridge and about a mile into New Mexico and to a school bus allegedly owned by Tina Madrid.

There, Barter said, trouble ensued — some say over a dope deal gone bad — and the killers shot the man at least twice with a .22 caliber weapon then strangled the woman.

After the murders, law enforcement believe the killer or killers dumped the bodies from the Carracas Bridge into the San Juan River. Ultimately, John and Jane washed up on the river’s banks just west of the bridge.

According to case files, rancher Frank Chavez found the woman Sept. 19, 1982, on an island in the river about a half mile west of the bridge and about 75 yards inside the New Mexico line.

Chavez said he was out looking for his livestock when he spotted Jane Doe’s foot protruding from beneath the silty river soil.

About a month later, on Oct. 22, Jerry Killough, from Grants, N.M., was walking with his two daughters along the northern bank of the San Juan — the Colorado side of the river — when they discovered John Doe, badly decomposed and partially buried along the river bank.

Although John Doe’s body was almost completely skeletonized, the autopsy showed, in addition to gunshot wounds, that he suffered broken ribs before his death.

At the time, neither body was found with items that might have provided law enforcement with clues to an identity. Thus, investigators were left with only basic descriptions derived from medical examiner reports.

Those reports described Jane Doe as a 30-year-old white female, 5-5 tall, medium build with brown hair. At the time of her death, she was wearing Wrangler blue jeans, a blue quilted peasant jacket, a purple halter top blouse and two pieces of jewelry: a hollow, gold heart necklace and a horn-shaped pendant.

Authorities found a sales slip in her pocket with the handwritten, almost illegible name of “Marilyn Cobraier” and a Farmington phone number. She also carried coins totaling $1.36.

Medical reports described John Doe as a powerfully built, 5-8 white male in his early 20s with straight brownish-blond hair, a reddish beard and moustache. At the time of his death, John Doe wore Converse low-top tennis shoes, tan corduroy pants, and a T-shirt imprinted with “Lazy B Guest Ranch,” a Fallon, Nev. brothel that has since closed.

Medical examiners said both bodies were discovered about four to six weeks after the murders occurred.

Despite numerous interviews, witnesses and leads in the case, those close to the original investigation say jurisdictional squabbles between district attorneys on either side of the state line caused the investigation to falter. Thus, and with law enforcement at loggerheads, John and Jane were never identified and their killers never brought to justice.

As the months and years passed, case files and evidence became scattered throughout labs, evidence lockers and law enforcement offices in Colorado and New Mexico, making it even more difficult for Barter to begin putting the pieces back together again. Nevertheless, since picking up the case in February 2009, Barter has resurrected old files and evidence, conducted new interviews and forged relationships with law enforcement personnel in New Mexico who have been crucial players in creating the updated facial reconstructions and obtaining a search warrant for the abandoned school bus.

While new information steadily percolates to the surface, Barter’s investigation continuously leads him back to the name of one witness — Tina Madrid — the alleged owner of the school bus, a named witness in 1982 and an individual who Barter says could help reveal the victim’s identities or lead him to the killers.

Barter said Madrid worked as a cook at the Elkhorn Cafe in downtown Pagosa Springs in the early 1980s.

According to police reports and interviews conducted soon after the murders, Madrid told investigators that she met a “Richard Miller” while she and he were working at a traveling carnival — presumably before her Elk Horn gig — and later hired “Miller” as a ranch hand. In the reports, Madrid said she let the man — aka John Doe — live in the bus, but later fired and evicted him for stealing. Despite the eviction, Madrid said she thought the man returned to the bus with the woman — possibly Jane Doe — he had later been seen hitchhiking with.

According to Madrid’s testimony at the time, she said that when she visited the bus she discovered signs of a scuffle, including broken furniture and the stove tipped over. Soon thereafter, Barter said, records indicate Madrid left the Pagosa Springs area.

When Barter and the forensics team scoured the bus for evidence Sept. 24, they located five splotches of blood on the carpet — some of which were found near the toppled stove.

In regard to the possibility of John Doe being Richard Miller, Barter said he believes the man used “Richard Miller” as an alias.

“Supposedly he was called ‘Richard Miller,’ but I never found a ‘Richard Miller’ in the missing persons files,” Barter said.

Fresh leads

Equipped with the revised facial reconstructions, Barter canvassed regional media outlets in the spring of 2009. Soon thereafter, Barter said, a Farmington man who had read about the new investigation in the local paper called and gave him directions to the school bus.

Since then, Barter has conducted additional interviews and searched another location along Trujillo Road.

“I was pretty sure we wouldn’t find anything, but I didn’t want to leave any stone unturned,” Barter said.

In addition, Barter said phone calls keep coming in, some providing tenuous leads that may help identify the victims.

“Every once in a while, I get a lead on one of the two victims,” he said, “but nothing very promising.”

Perhaps the spot on television will change those circumstances.

“I know there are locals that know things about this case that haven’t come forward,” Barter said.

With John and Jane Doe and their killer or killers still unidentified, the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department is requesting assistance from anyone with information related to the case. Contact Det. George Barter at (970) 264-8450.

james@pagosasun.com