High Crimes

wooden-judges-gavelBefore Lake City was Lake City, it experienced its first murders — murders that have lived in infamy.

Lake City, a tiny little hamlet that swells substantially in the summer months, lies 60 miles south of Gunnison in its own county, Hinsdale. It calls itself, in a slogan I’m quite impressed with, “A Diamond in the Rough,” and it is surrounded by the rugged peaks of the San Juans.

In 1874, as most of us who live around here know, a band of six prospectors disregarded the advice of the Utes who wintered in Montrose (because who would be stupid enough to live year-round in the areas now occupied by Hinsdale and Gunnison counties?) and struck out for Breckenridge — the long way, it seems.

Five of them never made it past what is now Lake City. The sixth, the notorious Alferd/Alfred (the arguments for both spellings are equally ferocious) Packer, walked into the Los Pinos Indian Agency the following spring, well-fed and oozing money from quite the assortment of wallets.

In my five-minute internet research project this morning, a museum site asserted that Packer only killed one of his companions, Shannon Bell, who was responsible for killing the others. United Press International, which I didn’t even know was still around but it wants to send me updates, was equally adamant that Packer killed all five. A website from Lake City, which was the best-written of the bunch, was extremely non-committal on the guilt issue. At any rate, everyone can agree that Packer survived the winter on the flesh of his now-dead companions.

While that is the part that keeps the case alive, Packer was never tried for his cannibalism. His first trial, for murder, took place in Lake City, the town of which came along roughly a year after the murders, but there was a second trial, in 1886, in Gunnison. In the largely empty expanse of the new courthouse lobby are a few chairs that were once occupied by jurors in that case. Packer was found guilty on five counts of murder, but the argument seems to carry on today as to how many of his companions he really killed — even if he did eat all of them.

While nothing in the area has topped that case for sensationalism, there have been other trials for murder in the Gunnison courtrooms, including one for another Lake City-area death.

This one was just a couple-three years ago, and the jury ended up stymied. My friend Lindsey was among the 12 jurors, and after a mistrial was declared, she and several of her peers took the extraordinary step of writing a letter to the newspaper asserting the man’s guilt.

I can’t remember names, but a man, a wealthy summer resident from a southern state (which doesn’t really narrow it down in Lake City), was walking along a cliff above a creek with his wife when she ended up in the water below. I’m in the “she was pushed” camp, given the evidence presented at the trial as it was published in the paper. And so were Lindsey and most of the jurors, but not all of them (I think the judge’s instructions and evidence that was disallowed played a part in this), and the hung jury resulted in a mistrial.

This first trial had been held in Gunnison to ensure a viable jury pool; when the DA decided to pursue a second trial, the venue was changed clear over to Broomfield, near Denver. The man, who already had a second wife, was supported by all of his children (maybe the first wife was a mean mother), and again the jury ended up hung. He is free to carry on with his new wife, who ought to be very careful if he ever suggests hiking high above a thin-running creek without enough force to tumble a body the way he insisted it did.

Back in my newspaper days, in the early 1990s, a cold case cracked open, thanks in large part to forensic work by Kathy Young of the sheriff’s department. (She was later tapped to go to Russia to hunt for Tsar Nicholas II and his family, all of them — including daughter Anastasia, I’m sad to report — executed in 1918.)

In the early ’70s a woman named Michele Wallace was backpacking before she disappeared near Crested Butte. At some later point a ball of long black hair, determined to be Michele’s, was found, but not until Kathy came along were any other remains located. After two decades of roaming around free while Michele was dead, a guy named Roy Melanson was charged and put on trial in Gunnison for her murder. Unlike the wealthy Southerner, Melanson did not escape the surly bonds of justice.

I did not cover that trial, but we had our own Roy at the Gunnison Country Times back then, and I just remember him returning to the office after taking a picture of the criminal Roy being led through the courthouse in shackles, rather taken aback by the aura of menace the man exuded.

And now we have another murder trial coming up that has been the talk of the town for awhile.

[I am skipping a trial that I’m sure took place when I was a kid, because I can’t remember much of anything except that one teenage Singer brother shot another, and I was shocked that someone could do that to a relative. I was only 9 or 10, so you’ll have to forgive my naivete.]

A few years ago, my co-worker Ben practiced jiu jitsu with a man named Jacob Millison, who expressed concern about his longevity to his fellow martial artists before he abruptly disappeared. Just about a year ago his body was exhumed from a manure pile on the family ranch in Parlin.

A tiny senior citizen named Deb Rudibaugh, who had come into my shop on occasion over the years, took responsibility for shooting her son Jacob while he slept. She’s due to go on trial this year, but I’m not sure on what charges, since she’s already admitted guilt.

She does insist she managed all this on her own, and while she certainly could have shot him (through the top of the head, which weirds me out, although I don’t know why that’s any worse than being shot through the temple — dead is dead), there is great doubt that she was able to move the body around on her own.

So her daughter Stephanie Jackson also is calling the Gunnison County Detention Center home these days, awaiting trial I think in August. Again, from here in the Peanut Gallery she seems plenty guilty: the morning after her brother was never seen alive again, she was busy posting on some form of social media about how something had happened that was so great it made her want to scream.

Stephanie’s husband, and I’ve lost track of what charges he is facing, seems likely to be a hostile or at least unfriendly witness, since he has claimed that his wife menaced him and discharged a revolver in his direction.

So the Gunnison courts will be busy this year with these three intertwined cases as we await more verdicts on murder — as we apparently have for 133 years — here in the High Country.

Updated: photojournalistic evidence of the sadly underused courthouse lobby with its signature feature of Packer Trial Jury Chairs. I think they’re like the one by the safe, but they could be under the plaque. That’s how historic they are.

lobby 0219

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