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Authorities are digging into an unsolved 1982 double homicide — literally.
In the near future, Archuleta County Sheriff Det. George Barter, with the help of the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator, hopes to have one victim’s body exhumed in an attempt to obtain DNA samples for identification purposes.
He hopes exhumation of the second victim for the same purpose will follow.
The victims’ bodies were found along the banks of the San Juan River about a month apart in the fall of 1982, one found on each side of the Colorado-New Mexico border, about a mile from the Caracas Bridge.
Both victims are now buried in New Mexico, and much of the evidence in the case has been kept in New Mexico over the decades.
Present in that evidence was mitochondrial DNA, which is a general type of DNA useful in narrowing down to the female side of a person’s family.
However, Barter’s goal is to obtain nuclear DNA from the victims’ femurs. Nuclear DNA, Barter explained, is a more specific DNA, which he can then enter into the national Combined DNA Database (known as CODIS) in order to increase the chance of finding a DNA match to positively identify the victim(s).
The male, Barter said, is buried in the Bernalillo County portion of the Fairview Cemetery in Albuquerque.
That male victim, still officially a “John Doe,” has tentatively been identified as Richard Miller — something Barter hopes to confirm or reject through use of the test results.
But the timeline for the exhumation is unknown. Barter has been working to have the dig completed since April, but is at the mercy of OMI’s schedule.
“I think it could happen within a few weeks,” Barter said.
The cost for that exhumation, Barter said, is $1,700.
Following up with the exhumation of the female “Jane Doe,” tentatively identified as Lori Gibson, though, could be more difficult.
The female is buried in a church graveyard in Espanola, N.M., but the exact grave she is in is unknown, Barter said, adding that negotiations with the church are underway.
Into the Internet era
Beyond the search for additional DNA to test, the decades-old investigation is taking another modern turn — Facebook.
In April, Barter created Facebook pages for the victims, listed under their possible identities — Lori Gibson and Richard Miller.
Those Facebook profiles show the facial reconstructions of the pair, information about them, and photos related to the unsolved case.
Barter said new information will be added to the page over time.
The profiles can be found at www.facebook.com/lori.gibson.1610 and www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100005668510400.
“I think the older it gets, the less chance there is,” Barter said of solving the case. “Now is the hot time.”
A case gone cold
After an initial investigation in 1982, the case of the double homicide went cold and untouched until a few years ago, when Barter took it on.
“The case lives, because I’m working on it,” Barter said.
Over the years, Barter has worked to retrieve the skulls out of museum storage in New Mexico and, with that evidence, had new facial reconstructions created.
In 2009, shortly after Barter reopened the case, an old, abandoned bus located off the beaten path in the area of Caracas was searched, with positive results: a long, narrow strip of carpet attached to the floor that tested positive in five places for blood, in addition to four .22 caliber shell casings found.
At the time, Barter said the presence of blood found soaked into the bus carpet meshed with a number of testimonies gathered after the murder.
About a year later, an old car believed to be related to the case was dug up in the area of Caracas (the car buried to serve as erosion control) and searched, with a few more belongings found.
Since 2009, Barter has completed numerous interviews in efforts to further the case.
More recently, Barter re-interviewed many of those named in police reports and other documents.
According to 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.
According to bits of evidence patched 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 Caracas Bridge.
Archuleta County rancher Frank Chavez found the woman’s body 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, of 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’s body, 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 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 was 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 Office full-time in February 2009.
Since then, and not hampered by Barter’s retirement from the ACSO, the search has continued.
Anyone who has additional information about the case is asked to contact Barter directly or Crime Stoppers.
Barter can be reached by calling 264-8541, e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org, messaging Barter via either of the Facebook pages, or by contacting Crime Stoppers.
Crime Stoppers can be reached by calling 264-2133, visiting www.pagosacrime.com, or by texting “ACCST” plus your message to 274637 (CRIMES).