59 | Red Herring: The Strange Case of Vernon Maurice Roe

red herring/2 Something intended to divert attention from a more serious question or matter; a misleading clue, a distraction. Orig. in draw a red herring across the track, etc. (from the practice of using the scent of a smoked herring to train hounds to follow a trail). The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary

Tom Gussie wasn’t the only red herring Lozow dragged across the track to defend Duane. He also tried to pin Betty’s murder on the killer in the unsolved death of Vernon Maurice Roe. Based on cold case websites and news articles at the time, here are the facts.

Roe was a 44-year-old Martin Marietta engineer who lived less than a mile from the Fryes. Recently separated from his wife in California, he’d attended a company Christmas party on Sunday, December 15, 1974. He left the party early to tend to his dog before going to dinner with a co-worker. When Roe didn’t show up for dinner, his date called him repeatedly but got no answer. When he didn’t come to work the next morning, she went to his house. Roe’s door was unlocked. She found him on his kitchen floor, shot three times in the chest. There was no sign of forced entry or struggle, and burglary was ruled out. Roe’s case is still listed UNSOLVED.

DA Tomsic recalled cigarette butts found at the crime scene. A neighborhood kid also remembered seeing a car with California plates parked near Roe’s house the day he was killed. These facts suggest an execution or contract killing, perhaps related to Roe’s pending divorce. Roe’s case has certain similarities to Betty’s murder: the victims were close in age, lived less than a mile apart, worked at Martin, and were killed at home on a weekend with burglary ruled out—and there’s the domestic homicide angle. But the dissimilarities are equally striking.

Roe was separated from his wife and living alone; he was killed in late afternoon or early evening; he was shot in his kitchen, and Betty was bludgeoned in her garage; there was no indication his crime scene was staged. The neighborhood was an enclave of people who worked at Martin Marietta. If the killer was stalking Martin employees in Arapahoe County, there was no shortage of targets, and why wait 18 months?                                            

Why did one of the original cops in Betty’s case believe the two murders were related? The answer may lie on the 2008 version of Arapahoe County’s cold case webpage. The case after Roe’s was Betty’s (listed SOLVED). Of greater interest is the case right before Betty’s. Thanks to sharp police work, the murder of Nadine Franklin was also SOLVED.

Nadine was a 15-year-old who ran away from a group home. Shot four times with .38 caliber bullets, she was found on a busy Littleton corner at 8:45 a.m. on December 31, 1971. As ACSO began to investigate, the Littleton PD received a shots-fired call at 11 a.m. near a shelter at a local park. When cops arrived, they found a young man dead from a self-inflicted shot to the chest. A Smith and Wesson revolver lay next to the body and .38 cartridges were recovered. The young man had a history of mental illness and had been diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia. Littleton PD closed his case as a suicide.

An alert ACSO investigator thought Nadine’s murder might be connected to the suicide. Bullets from both scenes were sent to the CBI, which found the same gun was used.

Nadine was murdered 18 months before Betty, and almost exactly three years before Roe. What’s the chance of an Arapahoe County cop in the 1970’s not being aware of the clever police work that went into linking Nadine’s murder with her killer’s suicide and the kudos that investigator undoubtedly received? The ACSO still crows about it. And in the aftermath of Duane’s case being dismissed in 1973 and him being re-charged decades later (two black eyes for Arapahoe County), why not ruminate (or grumble) that instead of Duane having gotten away with murder, the Martin Marietta stalker had struck again?

Some defense lawyers throw spaghetti at a wall. Others draw stinky herrings across the track.

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