Teacher death probe beset by obstacles

Troubled investigation comes to light in court, accounts from those touched by case

Posted 10/20/18

With questions mounting about the murder charge against Daniel Pesch in the 2010 death of Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson, a look at the history of the case reveals an investigation that has …

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Teacher death probe beset by obstacles

Troubled investigation comes to light in court, accounts from those touched by case

Posted

With questions mounting about the murder charge against Daniel Pesch in the 2010 death of Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson, a look at the history of the case reveals an investigation that has encountered numerous problems.

Pesch, 35, pleaded not guilty to Wilson's murder in Elbert County District Court on Oct. 15. That arraignment came nearly 10 months since the day in December 2017 when Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap arrested Pesch.

The arrest followed months of increasingly frantic confessions from Pesch in the second half of 2017 — murder confessions that he now says were the product of drug abuse and mental illness.

Pesch's arrest was seemingly a high point in the years-old mystery that had frustrated Wilson's loved ones, who had waited in vain for answers after the beloved father and educator was found dead at a rural Elbert County crossroads in 2010.

But a preliminary hearing in the case in May cast doubt on the charges against Pesch, as testimony from investigators showed that Pesch's confessions didn't match the crime scene, DNA tests failed to connect him to crucial pieces of evidence, and a logbook placed Pesch hundreds of miles away on the date of Wilson's death. Police records show Pesch has falsely confessed to crimes in the past.

Deputy District Attorney Chris Wilcox said at Pesch's October arraignment that prosecutors were still sorting through piles of materials provided by the defense, and that the state may request its own evaluation of Pesch.

District Attorney George Brauchler — who heads the 18th Judicial District office that is prosecuting the case and is a candidate for state attorney general — declined an interview request.

Pesch's next court appearance will be in a pre-trial conference on Nov. 7.

Sheriff unfamiliar with reports

Though Pesch's accounts changed many times, the gist of his confession was that he was driving along Kiowa-Bennett Road late on June 13, 2010, and pulled over for a flat tire, according to testimony from Heap at the May hearing.

Pesch told investigators that Wilson stopped to help him change the tire, but the pair argued and scuffled, and Pesch knocked Wilson unconscious with a car door. Pesch said he took a belt, plastic bag and duct tape from his car, then bound Wilson's hands with tape before covering his head with the bag and wrapping the belt around his neck.

The confession bore several problems: Wilson's hands were bound with three zip ties — one around each wrist, and a third loosely attached through his rear belt loop — not duct tape. Wilson's autopsy found no evidence of a blow to the head that would have knocked him out. The only DNA found on the belt and bag was Wilson's.

Heap testified at the preliminary hearing that he had never read Wilson's autopsy report, and had no idea if Wilson sustained head trauma. Heap further testified that he never read the district attorney's report in the death, which showed no signs of a struggle. Heap also said he was unfamiliar with the results of DNA tests on evidence.

Heap was undersheriff when Wilson died in June 2010 and was elected sheriff five months later. He declined an interview request for this article.

Frustrations grow

Jenelle Reyna, who now resides in Parker, lived in a farmhouse a stone's throw south of the crossroads of County Line Road and Kiowa-Bennett Road where Wilson was found in 2010. She said investigators never visited her house to ask if she or her family had seen anything unusual.

In the days that followed, Reyna said, her family was on edge, worried that a murderer was on the loose nearby. Their fears heightened as they saw signs that someone had visited their barn — normally unlocked doors were locked, lights mysteriously left on, and cigarette butts were scattered around, though nobody in the family smoked.

“We slept with guns by our beds,” Reyna said in an interview with Colorado Community Media. “I wouldn't go feed the horses without a machete. I called the sheriff to come check it out, and I got no response. I called and emailed several more times, and so did my dad, but they never called back. We were scared to death and they wouldn't acknowledge us.”

In April 2011 — 10 months after Wilson died — Heap held a press conference seeking the public's help in locating Krista Coppedge, a California piano tuner, who investigators believed was at a gas station in Bennett at the same time as Wilson in the final hours before his death.

Heap said investigators had identified Coppedge from surveillance footage in the investigation's early days, but they were unable to find her after months of searching.

Reporters found the woman's phone number “in less than five minutes,” according to a news report from the time.

Speaking by phone from California recently, Coppedge recalled being horrified by the incident.

“My phone started blowing up with reporters,” Coppedge said. “Finally investigators called to question me. I had nothing to offer. I just filled up on gas next to the guy. I was annoyed and scared that they put my name out in the media, with a murderer still on the loose.”

Investigators later called back and asked for a DNA sample, Coppedge said.

“That was when I told them I think I need a lawyer here,” she said. “After that, I never heard from them again.”

Coppedge couldn't understand why investigators couldn't find her.

“I'm in business for myself,” Coppedge said. “I try to make myself easy to find. I have a website, for crying out loud.”

'Beyond their capabilities'

In the months after the press conference, Wilson's brother and one of his five sons made public appeals for anyone with information to come forward.

Speaking to a reporter from his home in Alabama, Wilson's brother, Loren Wilson, said in June 2011, “I do believe the Elbert County investigators may be operating beyond their capabilities and experience.”

Elizabeth Orton, Pesch's attorney, advanced an alternate theory of Wilson's death at Pesch's preliminary hearing. Wilson's death may have been an elaborate suicide, she said, citing a new life insurance policy Wilson took out on himself in the months before his death that would not have paid out after a suicide, and a note found in Wilson's car, parked near his body, detailing the disposition of his finances.

Wilson's death occurred on the return leg of a solo trip to visit relatives in Montana, just weeks after his youngest son graduated from high school.

Wilson's family declined to comment for this article.

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