In the fall of 1982, two bodies — a male and a female — washed up on the banks of the San Juan River just west of the Carracas Bridge, at a site several miles east of Navajo Reservoir. Autopsies done at the time indicated the two were murdered, although they, nor their killers, were ever identified.
Archuleta County rancher Frank Chavez found the woman, known as Jane Doe, Sept. 19, 1982, on an island in the San Juan river about a half mile west of the bridge and about 75 yards inside the New Mexico line. Chavez was out looking for his livestock when he spotted Jane Doe’s foot protruding from beneath the silty river soil. It was later learned Jane had been strangled.
About a month later, on Oct. 22, Jerry Killough was walking with his two daughters from Grants, N.M., 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 he had been shot at least twice with a small caliber gun and suffered broken ribs before his death.
Neither body was found with items that might provide law enforcement clues to the victims’ identities, and authorities were left with only basic descriptions derived from medical examiner reports.
The 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 colored beard and moustache. At the time of his death, John Doe wore Converse low-top tennis shoes, tan corduroy pants, and a T-shirt with the “Lazy B Guest Ranch,” printed on the front.
Medical examiners said both bodies were discovered about four to six weeks after the murders occurred.
Law enforcement officers and investigators from Colorado and New Mexico worked the case for five years and what little evidence was found led officials to believe there was a link between the two murders. At the time, former Archuleta County Sheriff Neal Smith speculated that drugs or prostitution may have played a role in the victims’ demise.
Nevertheless, and despite numerous leads, interviews and five years of work, investigators came up empty-handed. Some close to the investigation say the operation faltered because of acrimony between district attorneys on either side of the state line.
Eventually, with no one actively working the case, files disappeared and key evidence became lost in cavernous filing cabinets and in the clutter of overstuffed evidence vaults. To make matters worse, New Mexico had a 15-year statute of limitations on murder cases, giving New Mexico lawmen little incentive to pursue an investigation that could not lead to prosecution.
In Colorado, however, no such limitation exists, and a case that had gone cold for 27 years turned hot when Det. George Barter joined the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department full-time in February 2009.
“I first heard about the case while having lunch at the Elkhorn Cafe,” Barter said.
Barter, a retired Drug Enforcement Agency agent, vowed to find the killers if given the chance.
“These people were shot and strangled and discarded like trash. These two victims deserve names and justice,” Barter said.
After joining the sheriff’s office, Barter made good on his word, and used intermittent free time between other cases, rummaging through old files and filing cabinets in hope of finding a spark that might reignite the case.
“Files had gone missing or weren’t where they were supposed to be. I looked for case documents for about six weeks,” Barter said.
Barter’s fortune changed in March, however, when a sheriff’s office staffer discovered a thick, black, three-ring binder jammed far in the back of a seldom-used filing cabinet. Barter opened the notebook, skimmed the contents and knew he’d hit pay dirt.
“Chills and thrills went through me when they found that thing,” Barter said.
Pouring through the notebook, filled with yellowed newspaper clippings, handwritten police reports and suspect interviews, Barter found threads that led him to the New Mexico State Police, the Rio Arriba County sheriff’s office and finally a storage facility at the state museum in Albuquerque. There, Barter said, he found photographic and other forensic evidence, and most importantly — Barter found the victim’s skulls.
“I had a conversation with Terry Coker at the office of the medical investigator. The conversation led me to believe the skulls were being stored in the museum in Albuquerque, ”Barter said.
Barter followed the lead and his hunch ultimately proved correct. With the skulls in hand, Barter believed he could render more accurate reconstructions of the victims faces than those produced in 1982, and he sought the help of Mary Brazas, a detective with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department. Brazas, Barter said, has an uncanny skill for facial reconstructions.
Using the skulls, Brazas was able to produce detailed facial reconstructions that Barter said he believes may help him identify the victims and their killers.
While working the case, Barter has traveled back and forth between Pagosa Springs, Rio Arriba County and Albuquerque, slowly gathering information that may help solve the case.
On a recent trip to Albuquerque, Barter visited the grave of John Doe where he found clean and fresh silk flowers on the victim’s headstone. The headstone was just one of about 40 nondescript markers — all for other “John Does” — and he wonders if the flowers were accidentally or intentionally placed on the headstone.
While Barter may never learn if the flowers were placed intentionally, he does intend to learn who murdered John and Jane Doe and to bring their killers to justice.
“There are suspects out there who deserve to be punished for killing these people and I won’t stop until I find them,” Barter said.
The Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department is requesting assistance from anyone having information about these homicides, or who may recognize the facial reconstructions. Contact Det. George Barter at (970) 264-8450 with any information.