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Victim of 1982 homicide identified

Staff Writer

Photos courtesy Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office The bus believed to be the site of a 1982 homicide sits in a field in southern Archuleta County. Top: John Doe, believed to have been murdered in the bus, was identified last week as Stewart Eric Simmons. Bottom: Jane Doe, the second victim of the homicide, remains unidentified.

Photos courtesy Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office
The bus believed to be the site of a 1982 homicide sits in a field in southern Archuleta County.

Nearly 32 years after his murder, the male victim of a 1982 double homicide in Archuleta County was identified last week.

Photos courtesy Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office  John Doe, believed to have been murdered in the bus, was identified last week as Stewart Eric Simmons.

Photos courtesy Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office
John Doe, believed to have been murdered in the bus, was identified last week as Stewart Eric Simmons.

That male, who was previously dubbed Richard Miller, was positively identified Feb. 19 as Stewart Eric Simmons, 20 years old at the time of his disappearance.

That identification has not only furthered the investigation into the 1982 homicides, but provided closure for a family from Roswell, Ga., who can now bring Simmons home.

“I can tell you that it was a huge shock and a tremendous relief after all these years of not knowing to know we can finally bring Stewart home,” said Simmons’ mother Joanne.

Simmons’ body and that of an unidentified female 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 were buried in New Mexico, and much of the evidence in the case was kept in New Mexico over the decades.

The case may have gone cold, but it was never left behind.

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 Det. George Barter of the Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office took it on.

“The case lives because I’m working on it,” Barter said previously.

Over the years, Barter worked to retrieve the skulls out of museum storage in New Mexico and 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 bus’s 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, including many of those named in earlier police reports and other documents.

A possible scenario

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.

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 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 border.

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 — now known to be Simmons — badly decomposed and partially buried along the river bank.

Although Simmons’ 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.

Photos courtesy Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office  Jane Doe, the second victim of the homicide, remains unidentified.

Photos courtesy Archuleta County Sheriff’s Office
Jane Doe, the second victim of the homicide, remains unidentified.

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 mustache. 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.

Since then, and not hampered by Barter’s retirement from the ACSO, the search has continued.

In July 2013, Barter, with the help of the New Mexico FBI, exhumed John Doe’s body from an Albuquerque cemetery with hopes of finding additional DNA to help identify the victim, though the DNA proved to not be needed thanks to the availability of dental records for Simmons.

Personnel also searched the Espanola, N.M. church cemetery where Jane Doe is believed to have been buried, though that search came up empty-handed.

An amateur and a lead

The lead into John Doe’s possibly being Simmons came to Barter through e-mail from an amateur sleuth, Barter explained.

The unidentified sleuth, Barter said, is part of a group of amateur sleuths who pore over websites filled with missing persons and cold cases, such as The Doe Network and NamUs (National Unidentified and Missing Persons System).

“I’ve spent literally hours and hours and hours in those databases,” Barter said, adding he believed the tip from the sleuth because other investigative work led him to believe the victim was in the Navy in California.

“I was jumping up and down, I know this is him, I know this is him,” Barter said. “I was just positive it was him.”

With a potential ID and dental records, investigator Terry Coker of the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator (OMI) and a forensic odontologist compared the skull with the records.

In about a week, Barter’s beliefs were confirmed.

“His fillings were just a flash match,” Barter said.

Barter explained that, in trainings about investigating cold cases, the No. 1 rule is to identify the victim.

“I think it’s just … awesome that we finally got step one of the cold case investigator’s handbook,” Barter said.

Now, armed with the knowledge that Simmons supposedly left with a 39-year-old waitress named Margo, Barter was able to find a potential identification for the female victim.

OMI is currently working on comparing Jane Doe’s mitochondrial DNA (which can be tracked through the female side of the family) to that of a missing person’s family in the national DNA database. Barter did not release the potential ID of the female.

Barter said there is a likely suspect in the case, as well as one or two likely associates.

A son, identified

While Bill and Joanne Simmons admit it is difficult to learn the circumstances of their son’s death, the couple is relieved that, after 32 years, he will soon return home.

“We will be eternally grateful to Det. Barter for the work that he did,” Joanne Simmons said.

According to Simmons’ parents, now in their early 70s, their son was a smiling, hardworking, motivated young man who joined the U.S. Navy after deciding college was not right for him.

“He was literally the apple of my eye,” Joanne Simmons said of her son.

Following boot camp, Simmons was set to be in the Navy’s nuclear program.

But, after arriving in San Diego, perhaps faced with the idea of being away from home for the first time, Simmons went AWOL (absent without leave). Despite that misstep, a Georgia congressman wrote a letter on behalf of Simmons and he was accepted back into the Navy.

Upon his return to the Navy, Simmons accepted responsibility for his mistake a few months earlier and faced punitive action for his disappearance — the brig. On his way to the brig in June 1982, Simmons was allowed to relocate his motorcycle, and he again went AWOL, this time for good.

A few weeks later, Simmons’ ID was used on the military base to check out camping equipment.

“Stewart was a big camper,” Bill Simmons said. After learning about where their son’s body was recovered, the couple was not surprised. “If he walked out of that school bus and saw those mountains, he was headed in that direction.”

The couple also noted that Simmons had mentioned meeting a woman, a waitress known as Margo, shortly before leaving.

Those decisions to go AWOL, Simmons’ parents say, may have been caused by a fall their son suffered at age 4.

While playing with friends and relatives, Simmons fell out of the attic of a house being constructed, which fractured his skull and led to him being in a coma. At the time, the Simmons said they were told the injury could have lasting effects on their son, but those effects were not apparent until he hit puberty.

At that point, his parents explained, Simmons began to have problems controlling his impulses, though he could process events after they happened.

“That was a definite side effect of that injury,” Joanne Simmons said, adding that the effect was monitored closely. “The military would have been great for him because it was structured.”

Simmons’ parents learned of his disappearance from Navy personnel after he never called his parents to inform him that he had been sentenced to the brig.

Because he was young and had gone AWOL previously, the Simmons’ said they were not allowed to file a missing persons report with the Navy after not hearing from their son for several weeks.

The couple was also not able to file a report in their hometown of Roswell, Ga. due to jurisdictional issues.

Instead, they took the search into their own hands.

A search for Simmons

“When the days went by and went by … I knew in my heart something had happened,” Joanne Simmons recalled.

The family hired a private detective, then a retired FBI agent in attempts to determine if their son’s social security number or other personal information had been used to report income.

“This was about all you had available to you back then,” Bill Simmons said.

Despite having full-time careers and two other children, the couple also traveled to San Diego and Mexico, searching frantically to see if anyone had seen their son.

“We were just aimlessly driving around as though something were going to appear,” Joanne Simmons recalled. “It was just a nightmare; it truly was.”

Over the years, Simmons’ parents never stopped looking — tracking down dental records from a deceased dentist, poring over unidentified persons across the U.S. and religiously watching cold-case and unsolved case shows on TV, finally filing an unofficial missing persons report in Georgia in 1999, submitting personal items owned by their son for DNA as technology advanced — and always made sure their phone number remained the same and that their home had a place for their son should he turn up.

“We just never stopped looking. Ever,” Joanne Simmons stated.

Returning home

Now, almost 32 years after he initially disappeared, Simmons will return home in the coming months.

“We are anxiously awaiting his arrival home,” Joanne Simmons said, noting that their younger daughter will escort Simmons’ cremated remains home, where the family will hold a memorial service.

“He was loved. He was very loved, and he has been painfully missed for 31 years.” Joanne Simmons said.

Of Barter, she said, “He has given us a gift that nobody else in this world could have given us. … We will be eternally grateful for that.”

randi@pagosasun.com

This story was posted on February 27, 2014.
  • Chris Gerlach

    Wonderful coverage Randi, and a beautifully written moving article. A true work of masterful journalism. Well done and I am so happy for this man’s family What a story. Hopefully they can identify the unknown lady as well.

  • Craig

    Good work by Detective Barter. It’s sad to see him working part time. He’s a great asset to the Sheriff’s Department. Well written article.

  • http://powip.com vermontaigne

    Hope y’all are picking up Detective Barter’s beer tab. Wish he were in our neighborhood.

  • pagosanative

    Great story! Amazing dedication and hard work from Det. Barter, this man deserves a medal. Now it’s time to find the killer(s).