1995-08-06: Dorothy Allison: "His name is Brown. But not like the color brown; not spelled that way"
Tracking Heather's KILLER - August 6, 1995
Investigation had many twists before it ended
Colorado Springs Gazette - Telegraph
Full Text (2536 words)
Tracking Heather's KILLER
Investigation had many twists before it ended
Marcus Montoya, Gazette Telegraph.
Colorado Springs Gazette - Telegraph.
Colorado Springs, Colo.: Aug 6, 1995. pg. B.1
Copyright Freedom Newspapers, Inc.
Aug 6, 1995
Elinor McGarry walked into the house, thinking the worst. It was an attractive, Spanish-style home on the quiet plains near Peyton. Yet something horrible had happened here.
This is the house where 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church lived. The house from which she had disappeared."I always try to go in and process a scene as an unknown, a worst -case scenario," McGarry said. "The worst case, of course, would be a homicide.
"She snapped photos of everything. She collected the girl's bedding and the black T- shirt she was last seen in. She put a silver earring into a paper evidence bag.
Then McGarry began looking for fingerprints. She concentrated on the window in the master bedroom. The screen had been removed, then placed back on the sill. The window was open when the mother left Heather in the house; it was closed when she got home.
She looked at the window sill and could see the prints. McGarry began dusting. The black volcanic powder clung to oils and sweat left behind, revealing crisp ridges and swirls. Three fingerprints and two palm prints were lifted and taped onto white cards bearing McGarry's mark: EMG-13.
It was the start of one of the most intense police investigations in Colorado history. Interviews and a review of the case file show that detectives would talk to hundreds of people, check out scores of sightings, consult psychics and identify at least 41 suspects. In all, the El Paso County Sheriff's Office and the FBI would collect 15 leather-bound volumes of dead-end evidence - and a single set of prints without an owner.
The prints belonged to Robert Charles Browne, a 42-year-old ex-con who lived a mile from Heather and her family. Browne had killed the girl on that September night in 1991, then dumped her body on a lonely, garbage-strewn mountainside some 30 miles away.
Detectives wouldn't know that for more than three years. It took that long for someone to penetrate the secret of those mysterious fingerprints.
A missed opportunity? Perhaps. But detectives assigned to Heather didn't get the kind of breaks that can make a case open and shut.
Most slayings are done by people who know the victim - family, friends, lovers. Death often results from a fight - over drugs, over money, over lost love. Connections between the killer and the killed are sometimes easily made. Witnesses come forward, someone talks too much. More often than not, homicides are solved within a week of the crime.
Heather's case fit none of those patterns. She had no enemies. She didn't know her killer. There were no witnesses. Her remains weren't even discovered until two years after she vanished from that attractive, Spanish-style home on the plains near Peyton.
Indeed, from the very beginning it was a hard case to solve. About as hard as they come.
Investigators chased every lead they heard.
Heather disappeared between 8:30 and 10:15 p.m. Sept. 17, 1991. She was baby-sitting her then 5-year-old brother while her mother took two other brothers to a Scout meeting.
When her mother, Diane Wilson, returned, the 5-year-old was asleep; Heather was gone. Wilson called her husband, Mike Church. No, he said, he hadn't heard from his daughter.
In 1991 in Colorado, 4,506 teens, 534 of them from El Paso County, were reported to be runaways. Some were fleeing a lousy home life, some acting out an adolescent adventure. Heather didn't fit those profiles. She was responsible, an A- student, a loving and obedient daughter. Even though Mike and Diane had been living apart for more than six months, she had a happy home life and loved both her parents.
This was no runaway, investigators decided. This was a kidnapping.
News of the crime spread quickly, shocking a community where little girls don't get snatched from their homes. Diane Wilson spearheaded a campaign to find her missing daughter while Mike Church quietly hired a private investigator. Thousands of missing person posters went up, each with a photo of the smiling, bespectacled girl. National organizations such as the Center for Exploited and Missing Children pitched in and America's Most Wanted broadcast the story. The Friends of Heather Dawn Church Foundation was formed to support the investigation.
There was no shortage of help. Officials, friends and volunteers fanned out in the fields around the Church home looking for signs of the girl. Among them was Sgt. Dave Bartels of the Sheriff's Office. His bloodhound, Dixie, picked up a promising scent on railroad tracks heading east. Driving and walking, they would follow that scent to western Kansas until Bartels realized the trail was leading nowhere.
There would be more blind alleys. Leads from people who claimed to have seen Heather flooded in. She was seen along the Peyton Highway, in a phone booth along Austin Bluffs Parkway, at a bus stop in Aurora. One woman insisted her 8-year-old grandson had "positively" seen Heather at Will Rogers Elementary School a week after her abduction. That was a day after she was spotted blindfolded in the back of a van.
One man said he talked with Heather at a Loaf 'N Jug. "The girl, who appeared to be 16, said that she had been in Emerald, Texas, for awhile," he told deputies. "That she's been married two or three times and had two or three children . . . When asked for her name, she hesitated and then said `Dawn.'
"After an America's Most Wanted segment, the sightings went national. Heather was working as a prostitute in Florida. She was attending a United Pentecostal Church in Oregon. She was treated in a hospital in California. Every tip was followed up with at least a phone call.
"Those first 18 months, everything was gone after," said Lt. Bill Mistretta, head of the sheriff's investigations division at the time. "There were absolutely no leads that weren't followed.
"Even when they came from left field.
Considering all the publicity, detectives figured they'd hear from psychics. Some detectives scoff at psychics; others are skeptical but willing to listen.
"I'm not going to disregard them," said Capt. Lou Smit, now head of investigations for the Sheriff's Office. "Sometimes, psychics come up with things you can't explain.
"And sometimes they come up with things almost too hard to believe.
A few weeks after the abduction, detectives heard from a woman who said she had information. Even though she was a patient at a mental health hospital, her doctor said one of her multiple personalities was a legitimate physic. So detectives drove her around the Pikes Peak region one day in November 1991. Their objective: find the coven of witches that had supposedly taken Heather.
Yes, the psychic told detectives, the coven was there, in that ranch near Lake George. Yes, she said again later that day, a second coven includes every resident of that subdivision off Briargate Boulevard.
Sheriff's Detective Stan Presley's written report was understated. "Claims that each and every individual in this area are coven members seemed to be unrealistic and slightly out of touch with reality.
"Detectives received several tips on Heather's resting place - near Stella and Baptist roads, between Briargate and the north Air Force Academy entrance. In June 1992, a psychic who had read about the case described a chamber of horrors vision that ended with Heather's funeral.
In hindsight, at least one report had some promise.
In 1992, Dorothy Allison, a noted New Jersey psychic who has worked with police across the country, called the Friends of Heather Dawn Church Foundation."
`I can tell you the killer's name right now,' "Allison remembered saying." `His name is Brown.'"But not like the color brown; not spelled that way.
"The words she used was `It was not the normal spelling, ' " said Chris Castle, a foundation volunteer.
No one is quite sure how the tip was pursued. The name was probably compared with those of everyone connected with the case, Smit said. Then it was forgotten.
Until Robert Charles Browne was arrested last March.
"When I heard the name I about fell over," Castle said.
Case put on back burner until remains were found.
As detectives continued digging, they came up with plenty of suspects. "You try to prove as well as disprove," Mistretta said. "But there were quite a number of people that could not be eliminated as viable suspects.
"On the list of suspects were the people closest to Heather - her parents.
Statistics show the vast majority of homicide victims were killed by someone they knew, so it was reasonable for investigators to question Diane Wilson and Mike Church.
The investigation put their lives under a microscope: How did the parents get along with the children? How were the children being raised? How were the children disciplined? Why was their marriage breaking up? Did they have financial troubles?
Both parents took and passed polygraph tests. Both of their alibis held up.
A suspect who looked particularly promising early on was a teenager with a juvenile record who lived in the area.
Dubbed the "bad boy" by detectives, he told them he and a buddy had taken his father's truck to go four-wheeling the night Heather disappeared. When questioned again he changed his story, saying he was home alone that night. His buddy failed a polygraph test. The "bad boy" remained near the top of the list well into this year. An investigation was made into an elderly man who reportedly knew the Church family. Detectives learned Heather supposedly told a friend the man had tried to touch her inappropriately. A detective recognized the man's name; she was investigating him in connection with a similar complaint. But he denied having anything to do with the abduction and he was ultimately crossed off the suspect list.
Another theory held that the kidnapper was a stranger, someone who broke into the home and snatched Heather.
It was a theory without a name until detectives stumbled upon Robert Charles Browne.
In more ways than one, Browne was under the detectives' noses all along.
At 7:17 a.m. - the morning after the abduction - volunteer searchers approached Browne's mobile home. Browne, who had been sleeping, allowed them to look over his property. They were knocking at the next house by 7:28 a.m.
The same day, Elinor McGarry lifted what turned out to be Browne's fingerprints from the bedroom window. Every two or three months, the prints were run through the FBI's national fingerprint data base, which contains millions of images voluntarily submitted by police agencies across the country. Detectives kept hoping a match would be made.
A hit never came back. By February 1993, the case was put on the back burner - reluctantly, according to Mistretta.
"It became part of them; Heather became part of them," Mistretta said of his detectives. "There wasn't one of them who didn't adopt Heather in one way, shape or form.
"But nine months later, detectives got a break. Two years to the day of Heather's disappearance, a skull found by a drifter eight miles up Rampart Range Road was identified as hers. She had been hit over the head.
The investigation kicked into high gear again. Old suspects were re-interviewed. New theories were investigated. Fresh tips came in. Hundreds more hours were thrown on top of the thousands worked.
Nothing panned out.
Heather's parents started losing faith in the Sheriff's Office. For 2 1/2 years they had stood by the investigators.
But during the summer of 1994 they openly questioned the resolve of the Sheriff's Office.
"I'm sure it's not a No. 1 priority," Mike Church said.
"I think they've pretty much chased whatever leads they had," Wilson agreed. "I think they're kind of waiting for someone to get religion, or feel guilty or something.
"No one got religion. But in November, El Paso County got a new sheriff, John Anderson, a former Colorado Springs police sergeant. Anderson soon hired an old partner, Lou Smit, as head of investigations. Smit, who has a knack for solving old homicide cases, made Heather a top priority again.
Shortly after starting work last January, Smit reviewed Heather's file, a process he calls "messing with a case." He asked his investigators to come up with something new, something that hadn't been tried.
Tom Carney, a crime laboratory technician, immediately thought of the prints. "We knew those fingerprints had to be from the suspect," he said.
Carney understood the limitations of the FBI's fingerprint system: the quality of images is inconsistent. Plus, not every police agency submits prints to the FBI.
A better approach, he figured, would be an exhaustive mailing of quality photos of the prints to every police agency with an Automated Fingerprint Identification System. Like the FBI's system, AFIS compares fingerprint images electronically. AFIS computers aren't interconnected, but each one may contain prints that aren't in the hands of the FBI.
So Carney made 100 sets of photos of the three fingerprints and began sending them to 92 agencies with AFIS. Carney remembered thinking, "If this doesn't work, that's it.
"On March 24, someone from the Louisiana prison system called to report a match between the prints from the Church home and prints in its data base. The prints belonged to Robert Charles Browne. He had spent time in Louisiana prisons for various crimes, including auto theft, in the early and mid-1980s. He moved to Colorado in 1987 and, after living at several addresses, settled into a home just down the road from the Church residence. For the next four days, Browne couldn't move without investigators knowing about it. He swapped computer messages with a woman in Utah. He went shopping. He worked in the yard.
On March 28, detectives arrested him as he walked out of a downtown art supply store. Some 58 days later, Browne pleaded guilty to the murder of Heather, partly to avoid the death penalty. He was sentenced to life in prison with no chance for parole.
Investigators still don't know exactly what happened that night. Browne won't say. At his sentencing, he revealed only he was surprised by Heather after breaking into the home and killed her there. He never showed a drop of remorse in court.
Smit, for one, would like to know more. But he, like so many who became wrapped up in the case, is willing to let the details be.
"I know the family will live with it the rest of their lives," he said. "For them, it will never end.
"I'm not going to disregard them. Sometimes, psychics come up with things you can't explain." Capt. Lou Smit head of investigations for the Sheriff's Office
Caption: Gazette Telegraph - An FBI agent questions a motorist on Sept. 18, 1991, the day after 13-year-old Heather Dawn Church disappeared from her home on the plains near Peyton.; Caption: Mary Kelley/Gazette Telegraph - A skull found off Rampart Range Road in 1993 by a drifter turned out to be Heather Dawn Church's. Investigators returned with a bloodhound to search for more evidence in the teen-ager's slaying.; Caption: Mark Reis/Gazette Telegraph - Heather Dawn Church's grave is marked with this headstone at Evergreen Cemetery. The teen-age girl was slain in 1991.; BLACK & WHITE PHOTO; COLOR PHOTO