Gone too soon: The life and death of Randy Wilson, part 2

‘He would want us to forgive’: Arrest made years after teacher's death


Read part one here

Kiowa High School let out for the summer in May 2010, with popular science teacher Randy Wilson’s youngest son Dean among the 29 graduates. Wilson’s sons Cody and Weston had recently told their dad that they were both expecting children, who would be his second and third grandchildren.

Not long after graduation, as the cottonwoods along Kiowa Creek leafed out in the warm spring sun, Wilson, 52, drove to Montana to visit relatives.

On his drive back toward his Kiowa home on Sunday, June 13, Wilson stopped in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for dinner. At 10:45 p.m. he pulled off I-70 at exit 304 and stopped to gas up at a Conoco on the outskirts of Bennett, just north of Elbert County on Colorado’s eastern plains. The late-spring brilliance of the week prior had ceded to a gloomy cold front over the weekend, and the wind whipped.

One more exit down the interstate, opposite a rest area since torn down, was the junction with Kiowa-Bennett Road.

Only 30 miles of dark prairie separated Wilson from home. He never arrived.

‘Why him?’

The next day, June 14, 2010, dawned gray and drizzling on the plains north of Kiowa.

Tim Fry and his friend Greg were headed south along Kiowa-Bennett Road to get registration tags for Fry’s truck, according to a Denver Post article from the time.

At the crossroads with County Line Road, a rare bend in the route, almost exactly halfway between Bennett and Kiowa, they spotted a parked white sedan, facing north in the gravel. Across the road, in the grass, lay a body.

The two men had found the body of Randy Wilson, dead by asphyxiation with a bag over his head and a belt around his neck. The sedan, Wilson’s, was cold. A car jack sat beside it, though no tires were flat. A black glove lay near Wilson’s head. He lay face up, his hands bound behind his back.

Wilson’s wallet was missing, though his credit cards were never used.

“It just doesn’t seem like he fought,” Fry told a Denver Post reporter later. “I didn’t see any scuff marks. His (clothes) were clean, almost pressed.”

In Kiowa, 16 miles to the south, news started to spread that a body had been found out on the prairie.

“I figured some bum had overdosed out in a field,” said Sarah McFarland, a former student of Wilson’s who knew him well.

She was working at the 4-H office in Kiowa for the summer, preparing for the county fair at the end of July.

She got the news the next morning.

“I had just pulled into the parking lot of the office when a friend texted me,” McFarland said. “I fell to my knees and sobbed. I couldn’t make any sense of it.”

Kiowa’s longtime school counselor Liz Morrone got a call from the superintendent. She put down the phone in shock.

“My fiancé, Joe, knew something was wrong,” Morrone said. “I sat there numb. The tears kept coming but I wasn’t moving. It had to be a different Randy Wilson.”

Wilson’s death was big news, reported by every TV station in Denver. As days passed and details emerged, the community’s shock deepened.

“Not just who did it, but why him?” asked McFarland. “Why the way it happened?”

‘Amazing Grace’

An online memorial page began filling with condolences and memories.

“Mr. Wilson, you were the only person that has ever explained chemistry in ‘jock’ so I could understand,” wrote one former student.

“He stayed seemingly every day after school with a group of us trying to beat concepts into our heads until all of us got it,” wrote another. “He was such a brilliant man that he could have attained anything in life, but chose to spend his days roaming the halls of Kiowa High School and looking after his sons.”

Wilson’s funeral was held in the school gym the following Saturday, June 19. TV news cameras joined the dense crowd.

“People came pouring out from different places,” Morrone recalled. “I didn’t want to be there, but I needed to be. I couldn’t believe the guy I used to make espresso and joke around with was really gone.”

Cherie Wyatt, a fellow science teacher who worked closely with Wilson, remembered Wilson’s sister singing “Amazing Grace” at his funeral, and Wilson’s brother telling stories of growing up in Montana.

After the funeral, the TV crews left town.

‘Going through the motions’

With Wilson’s death a mystery and no suspects named, Kiowa, a town of about 740 people in Elbert County, took on a more suspicious air, McFarland remembered.

“People got less trusting,” McFarland said. “Before Randy died, I knew lots of folks who would’ve stopped by the side of the road to help a stranger. People stopped doing that. I knew people who hadn’t locked their house in 30 years, who started to after that. It changed the way people looked at the world.”

Tidbits of information about the case trickled out in the months that followed. The Denver Post reported in August 2010 that the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office was awaiting test results on evidence sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and that investigators had “good leads.”

Returning to school that fall was difficult, Wyatt recalled.

“He was all over my room,” Wyatt said. “I would find papers with his name on them. I just couldn’t do anything without running into him.”

Wilson’s death took some of the color out of the world.

“The year of teaching afterwards was hard,” Morrone said. “We felt like we were going through the motions. A lot of the flair was gone.”

Morrone said she hung on to tangible effects long after Wilson was gone.

“The computers he set up for me, I wouldn’t let anyone touch them for the longest time,” she said. “They divvied up his belongings, and I got his little blue filing cabinet. It’s in my house now. It means a lot to me.”

The loss was wrenching for Kiowa’s students.

“It was terribly hard on the kids to have an influence, a father figure like that, and then for him to be ripped from them in such an awful manner,” Morrone said.

The investigation

The year Wilson died closed without major developments in the case. Wilson’s son Weston told a 7 News reporter in April 2011 that the family hadn’t heard anything from investigators since December.

Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap, who was the undersheriff at the time of Wilson’s death, held a news conference on the case on April 29, 2011, saying that investigators had collected DNA evidence in the case, but were unable to link it to anyone.

Heap asked for the public’s help in the investigation, saying investigators had been unable to contact a young couple who were at the Conoco near Bennett around the same time as Wilson.

A news reporter was able to contact the couple, who had been traveling to the Aspen Music Festival from Florida the night Wilson died. They were eventually cleared in the case.

Heap told a 7 News reporter at the time that investigators were working other leads.

“We’ve found multiple things that we haven’t shared with you, and we don’t intend to, that we’ll keep moving forward on,” Heap said.

Heap declined to comment for this article.

By June 14, 2011, a year had passed since Wilson died with no arrests in the case.

Elbert County investigators had crisscrossed the country chasing clues, Sheriff’s Lt. Michelle Nail told 7 News at the time. Nail said they followed leads in Florida, Colorado, Wyoming, Washington and Oregon, and had developed a “firm theory” for Wilson’s death.

“Proving it is another thing,” Nail said. She declined to elaborate on the theory.

In the absence of evidence, rumors and theories swirled.

“If he recognized a car, he would’ve stopped to help,” McFarland said. “That’s my theory, that he stumbled upon something he shouldn’t have. I honestly thought it was probably someone he taught. They would have known if he caught them doing something wrong, his first stop would’ve been the sheriff.”

Wilson’s son Weston posted on the online memorial page that he had spread his father’s ashes on the Grays Peak trail, southwest of Georgetown, on the one-year anniversary of his death. Weston added several photos of himself and his brothers climbing mountains with their dad. Wilson had climbed nearly every Colorado fourteener, Morrone remembered.

At the high school, teachers hung a plaque, topped by a framed picture of Wilson, for the Wilson “Einstein” Award, a $200 scholarship given to a senior each year in Wilson’s honor.

“Although Mr. Wilson will not be there to personally love and challenge Kiowa’s students, many will be blessed in the years to come in honor of him,” Wyatt wrote online at the time.

In 2012, Morrone helped raise funds for Kiowa’s school to build an outdoor classroom dedicated to Wilson: a cluster of benches arranged facing a lectern, fronted by a boulder bearing a plaque, reading in part: “Father, Son, Brother, Teacher, Mentor, Friend.”

At the crossroads

A wooden cross memorializing Wilson stands at the crossroads where he was found dead. A stone’s throw away, along a barbed-wire fence, a smaller cross, shrouded in grass, marks the spot where his body lay.

Heading south from Bennett at night, the crossroads stands out — it’s the first place a driver is forced to slow down, as the otherwise arrow-straight road jags a few hundred feet west around a tight curve. It’s also the first spot on the drive out of view of houses, and few lights are visible on the horizon.

Over the hill to the west, about a mile distant, lies Third Bridge, a low bridge over Kiowa Creek that has long been a pilgrimage for Denver-area teens, a location that legend says is haunted by spirits of various tragedies.

The site of Wilson’s death was eventually woven into the mystique of the bridge, with “ghost hunter” teens posting YouTube videos of themselves visiting the crossroads late at night.

The crossroads is a dark place to those who knew Wilson.

“My stomach gets tied up in knots when I drive past where he died,” McFarland said. “It messes with me. I try to keep driving and not focus on it.”

The years passed, and Wilson’s death began to scar over.

Then, just before Christmas 2017, 7 1/2 years after Wilson was found dead, came a startling announcement: Elbert County investigators had made an arrest in the case.

The accused

On Dec. 19, the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office announced it had arrested Daniel Pesch, 34, in Littleton. Pesch, who turned 27 only three days before Wilson died, was charged with first-degree murder, resisting arrest, obstructing an officer and attempting to escape.

A judge sealed all records in the case almost immediately, and neither investigators, prosecutors, nor Pesch’s public defenders have shared any details in the case.

The news opened old wounds for those who knew him.

“Now we have to relive it all over again,” McFarland said. “We had gotten to where we could live without this overwhelming sense of loss and now they’re bringing us back to 2010. I spent the first month after his arrest trying to figure out how I felt. I was relieved, confused, sad — every emotion I could feel.”

In some ways, Pesch’s arrest only added to the enigma.

“No news for seven years, then they arrest some guy nobody’s ever heard of,” McFarland said. “The way he died, I’m sure there was more than one person involved. Randy was 6 feet tall. He would’ve fought back. There’s no way one person could have subdued him to kill him in that way.”

Pesch’s online footprints give some clues to his life.

His LinkedIn profile says he earned a bachelor’s degree in legal studies from the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, in 2006.

The profile says he worked as an assistant property manager for Vail Resorts in Keystone from October 2007 to November 2010, which would include the time of Wilson’s death.

After that, the profile says he held a handful of restaurant jobs in Breckenridge.

The profile’s last entry says Pesch had moved to the Denver area and started a job at a restaurant at Dry Creek Road and I-25 in May 2017.

A search of Pesch’s criminal record reveals a handful more details.

Pesch obtained a flurry of traffic tickets, all in either Idaho Springs, Summit County or Breckenridge, around the time of Wilson’s death.

In November 2016, Breckenridge police charged him with felony possession of ID documents from multiple people, possession of an illegal weapon and speeding. All the charges were dismissed in February 2017. Breckenridge police were not immediately able to locate an affidavit in the case.

More about Pesch comes from his Facebook profile, which he maintained since 2007. The earliest photos on the page show Pesch in his early 20s, goofing around with friends in the mountains, sledding and throwing snowballs. More recent photos show him embracing family members.

Records show Pesch was evicted twice: once the winter after Wilson died, and again in September 2017, three months before his arrest.

Pesch’s final online footprint comes from December 2017, the month he was arrested. He spent much of the weeks preceding his arrest selling numerous children’s toys and pieces of furniture on a Littleton community Facebook page, posting new items nearly every day. Moving boxes can be seen in the background.

Pesch’s next court appearance is expected to be a preliminary hearing at the courthouse in Kiowa, where the prosecution will present some of the evidence against him. The hearing is scheduled for March 30.

Until then, those who knew Wilson are left to wait and wonder.

“I just want justice for him,” said Karen Carnahan, a former student of Wilson’s who now teaches at the same school. “But I know that no matter how upset we are, he would want us to forgive.”

In the meantime, Morrone draws solace from an experience she had in a Denver restaurant the winter after Wilson died.

“My wedding was scheduled for the same day as Randy’s birthday,” she said. “Before he died we were joking about how we’d have a great big party. He died in June, and I got married the following November. On the first Valentine’s Day after he died, my husband took me out to dinner. We didn’t tell anyone where we were going. When the waitress brought the bill, she said somebody already paid it for us. We asked who, and she said some guy who already left. We asked her to check, and she came back and said: ‘All I’ve got is Mr. Wilson.’ ”

Read part one here

Kiowa Colorado, Elbert County, Randy Wilson, Shayne Heap, David Gilbert, Daniel Pesch


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