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Cold case murder from 1982 heats up

An unsolved 1982 double homicide relegated to the county’s cold case files turned red hot Sept. 24 when local law enforcement and the New Mexico State Police executed a search warrant on the suspected crime scene, gathering blood evidence and .22 caliber shells that could lead lawmen to the killers.

“I think they shot him down there, and I was able to put enough on paper to make a judge think so,” said Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department Det. George Barter as he pointed to an abandoned khaki-colored Chevrolet 6800 school bus with New Mexico plates.

“I’ve got suspects. Depending on how this goes, this could put the fear of God into them. I want them to know I’m coming for them,” Barter said.

Barter spoke those words before entering the school bus armed with a search warrant, wearing a respirator and clad in a protective biohazard suit, intent on finding evidence that might link the bus — and its alleged owner, Tina Madrid — to the killer or killers.

“The bus was lived in by Tina Madrid of Archuleta County, Colorado,” Barter said.

“She was interviewed as a witness at the time.”

However, and despite a series of fresh leads in the case — including new local testimony leading Barter to the bus — there were no guarantees Barter and the forensics team would find evidence. Yet, after nearly four hours inside, sifting through garbage and the flotsam and jetsam left over from what was suspected to be Madrid’s part-time residence, Barter hit paydirt: a long, narrow strip of carpet attached to the bus’s floor that tested positive in five places for blood, in addition to four .22 caliber shell casings.

Barter said the presence of blood found soaked into the bus carpet meshes with a number of testimonies gathered after the murder, and more recently, as Barter has re-interviewed many of those named in police reports and other documents.

According to those testimonies, a scuffle ensued inside the bus — possibly over a dope deal gone bad — that ultimately led to the man’s death and the death of his female companion. The couple are known as John and Jane Doe.

“If it’s good DNA, we may be able to match the blood to him, (John Doe),” Barter said.

The Colorado Bureau of Investigation will analyze the blood stains.

A lonely place to die

Travel 35 miles down Trujillo Road and over the Carracas Bridge, and the route eventually devolves into a two track. Lying dwarfed beneath red rock hills and infinite azure sky, the track moves away from the San Juan River, winding up out of a dense cottonwood grove, through hardscrabble high desert salt and peppered with stands of stubby pinon, sage and juniper and eventually skirts the rim of a shallow lonely basin. The bus, with its khaki hull, sits virtually camouflaged at the bottom of the basin about a mile from the river and the Carracas Bridge, and about a mile over the New Mexico State line.

Animal bones litter the area around the bus — mule deer vertebrae still attached to a small weathered skull, a jaw bone, leg bones and scapula. Faint game trails zig zag across the basin and up the hillside, hoofprints and dry scat mark the deer’s passage. Occasionally a hawk soars silently over the basin, but the only sound is the wind carrying the heady fragrance of sage and moaning a plaintive requiem of desolation.

The bus and the basin could be easily missed — unless you are a hawk — or Barter.

“Our stories in the paper led to a phone call telling us exactly where Tina Madrid’s bus was,” Barter said. “Since that day I’ve been working on probable cause to get a search warrant. It was a combination of the call, old evidence and a Pagosa Springs interview that led to the success with the search warrant. It was really that piece (the Pagosa Springs interview) that led to probable cause. What a lonely, miserable place to die,” Barter said.

According to bits of evidence stitched together during the initial 1982 investigation and Barter’s reopening of the case in the spring of 2009, evidence shows the killer or killers shot John Doe at least twice with a .22 caliber weapon, and strangled Jane. After the murders, the killers dumped both bodies in the San Juan River and, later, John and Jane washed up on the river’s banks just west of the Carracas Bridge.

Archuleta County 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 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, in addition to gunshot wounds, that he suffered broken ribs before his death.

At the time, neither body was found with items that might provide law enforcement clues to the their 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 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 “Lazy B Guest Ranch” printed on the front.

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

According to Barter, 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. 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 Barter joined the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department full-time in February 2009.

New leads

Since reopening the case, Barter has combed files, traced leads, gathered photographic and forensic evidence, while enlisting the help of colleagues in Colorado and New Mexico.

Key to his work was locating the victims’ skulls at the state museum in Albuquerque and working with Mary Brazas of the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department on a new set of facial reconstructions.

In addition, Barter gained the assistance of Richard Matthews, a New Mexico State Police agent and forensics expert, who helped Barter secure the search warrant and orchestrated the processing of the crime scene.

With the new reconstructions, Barter canvassed regional media organizations and the phone calls began trickling in, which, with Matthews’ help, gave Barter the leverage he needed to obtain a search warrant for the bus.

“I was able to show the judge information from enough witness testimony and enough new information to make her believe there was enough there (in the bus) that could be searched for and analyzed,” Barter said. “That’s the milestone in the case — that we were able to gather enough evidence to obtain a search warrant. It’s not old evidence I’m looking at — it’s new evidence. It’s not just one guy working on this case, it’s a whole team; it’s turned into a task force with the New Mexico State Police, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation lab, the FBI, the district attorney’s office, the Durango Police Department, and the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Department. There should be no peace for these people. Whether they are haunted by the dead, by me, or someone coming after me, there should be no peace. There are new witnesses and new evidence. Before, it was just a file in a cabinet, and now there is a case to be solved.”

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