45 | Telling Time

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons. T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

A pivotal factor in criminal cases is time.

Time of death can rule a suspect in or out. Minutes can make or break an alibi. Testimony is meaningless unless the witness can pinpoint precisely where he was and when. But time is only as reliable as the means by which it’s measured, and the clocks and watches in Betty Frye’s time weren’t as reliable as they are today. Indeed, there seems to have been a quaint tolerance for inaccurate timepieces.

The day Betty was killed, the watch on her wrist stopped at 10:03. She fell on that hand and the crystal cracked. Cops took the watch to a jeweler. Despite the damage, the watch was useless in pinpointing when she was attacked. It needed to be cleaned and lubricated, and blood running into the mechanism could have affected the time. The jeweler believed Betty’s watch had been running intermittently—stopping and starting up again—before she was killed.

Colorado State Patrol Officer Clyde Wiggins also wore a watch. That morning he was handing out tickets at the busy intersection where the Fryes lived. According to his ticket book (i.e., his watch), Wiggins cited a VW at 10:20 and a motorcycle at 10:27. In 1973 Wiggins told investigators he was certain of the times of both stops. This was important not just because Wiggins was virtually on the scene when Betty was killed, but because other witnesses saw him and thought he was there an hour earlier.

Virginia Moldenhauer carpooled with Betty to work. Between 9:00 and 9:30 that morning, she dropped by the Frye house to return a thermos Betty had left in her car. She saw Wiggins ticket the VW and motorcycle. She was sure of the time because she planned to visit her son before he left for work at 10:00 a.m. Her daughter-in-law said she arrived at their house between 9:50 and 10:00.

Roofers on a house cater-corner to the Fryes had a clear view of the intersection. They, too saw Wiggins ticket the VW and motorcycle. (Other than the killer, roofer Randy Peterson was probably the last person to see Betty alive, at 10:00 a.m. He also saw an unidentified male in the Frye backyard 15 or 20 minutes before the DJ on his radio announced the time at 11:30. These times tally with the cold case coroner’s estimate of Betty’s time of death, and 13-year-old Bret Wacker who placed Duane at home at 11:35.) But back to Wiggins.

The roofers said Wiggins talked to one driver he ticketed for at least half an hour. If Virginia Moldenhauer arrived at the Frye house at the beginning of the traffic stops and Wiggins gave one of the motorists grief for 30 minutes, it explains some of the discrepancy between her account of when Wiggins was there and the times in his ticket book. The cops kept pressing Wiggins. Finally he admitted his watch ran fast!

The most graphic and chilling evidence against Duane was three electric clocks. The clocks stopped when the killer unplugged them from upstairs bedrooms and the kitchen to stash in the loot by Betty’s body in the garage. Photographed by investigators at the scene, they read 11:22, 11:23 and 11:27 a.m. Their GoPro-like documentary of the killer’s minute-by-minute trek through the house was a cornerstone of the prosecution’s case. But one fact isn’t in the record.

In 2014, Sendle told me a crime scene tech plugged the clock-radio back in to play music. Did that affect the time? By a minute or two at most, Sendle said, and he thinks it happened after the clocks were photographed. But boy did he chew that tech out!

The most reliable indicator of time in Betty’s case may have been a TV set. When Bret Wacker came to Duane’s door at 11:35 a.m., he could prove the time. The Monkees ended at 11:30 and he’d switched the channel to Sherlock Holmes for his brother before his five-minute-walk to Duane’s house. Bret didn’t need a clock or a watch to back him up. He had T.V. Guide.  

How do you measure time?

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