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Cold comfort: Jeffco's cold-case investigator looks into the past to solve murders

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By AJ Vicens

Judy Pillman, a 24-year-old Denver woman, got out of a car on Oct. 16, 1986, just east of downtown on her way to an alcoholics anonymous meeting.

She was never seen alive again.

Her body was found 10 days later in an overgrown ravine on the west side of Chatfield Reservoir. Investigators back then were unable to find her killer and could never provide her family with answers.

Pillman's murder is one of nearly 40 cold cases under review by Jefferson County sheriff's Investigator Cheryl Moore, the lone member of the Cold Case Unit.

Moore’s work has been in the headlines recently with the murder conviction of Billy Reid, whom she linked to two unsolved murders dating to the late 1980s.

"Those two cases plus a Denver case (associated with Reid) took almost exactly three years," Moore said. "It's not like TV."

Moore's caseload is heavy and challenging. Her most recent case is the unsolved murder of Lucas Gonzales of Denver, whose body was found off the Beaver Brook Trail on Lookout Mountain on March 19, 1995. The oldest case Moore has been asked to solve is the murder of Harold Murphy Cohen in late 1949. His body was found in February 1950 in what was known as Blue Lake, which was south of Colorado 58 on what is now Coors property. Both cases —and all the ones in between —have myriad challenges.

"Finding people is one of the biggest ones," Moore said. Whether it's retired law enforcement officers, suspects or witnesses, many people have moved from the area or have died.

"Even in the Reid cases, a lot of the people involved are deceased," Moore said. "And it becomes a lot more difficult to go through the court process. You have to find other ways to bring in that information."

The Cohen case from 1950 is especially difficult, but Moore said she hopes to find retired police officers who can point her in the right direction.

The advent of the Internet over the last decade has made tracking people down somewhat easier. Law enforcement databases such as the National Crime Information Center and the Colorado Crime Information Center help Moore find people who investigated long-ago crimes.

"Twenty years ago, you had to mail off to the FBI for the same records," said Moore, who also uses many of the same Internet tools that average people employ on a daily basis. "It's amazing what you can find plugging in a name or phone number in Google."

But finding primary documents, old reports from various agencies and other tried-and-true investigative leads can be difficult.

"A lot of agencies don't keep their records," Moore said.

Still, she’s impressed with the way investigators in the past preserved records and evidence.

"It's actually pretty amazing with some of the older cases when you research them and see how meticulous they were."

Since the Jeffco Cold Case Unit was created in February 2005, Moore's work has changed the way evidence is preserved and records are kept.

“Sometimes it's the little things that become something," she said.

‘Kind of a nerd’

Working these old cases — with dead-ends and dead witnesses —might be frustrating for some, but not Moore.

"To me, they aren't frustrating," Moore said. "But I'm weird." Moore said she's "kind of a nerd" when it comes to history and research.

"It's not so much frustrating as they are challenging. They make you want to dig harder and try harder for what you're looking for. As time consuming as this one (Reid) was, it was worth the effort in the long run."

The families of Reid's victims have something to hold on to now, Moore said.

"There are two families who now have definitive knowledge about what happened to their loved ones," Moore said. And Moore said that a dangerous person was taken off the street. "This person, who obviously has the ability to kill, can't kill again."

The Reid conviction made the creation of the Cold Case Unit worth the investment, said Jacki Kelley, spokeswoman for the sheriff's office. Moore was a skilled investigator with 16 years at the Sheriff's Office when she was assigned to the unit.

"I think Billy Reid just justified that," Kelley said.

Kelley said there is no dedicated budget for Moore's work, just her salary and occasional travel costs that come out of the overall investigations budget. But even as the county is going through a budget crunch, the Cold Case Unit is paying dividends.

"Cold cases are just as important today as they were the day they happened," Kelley said.

"This is the ultimate investigative position," Moore said. "It was my decision to try to get to the unit, and I wouldn't change that now."

On the road

Moore routinely travels to other states to search for witnesses and potential suspects. She can do some interviews over the phone, but sometimes "it's been necessary to see somebody face to face to judge their response." Some people are helpful and welcoming, and others ee well, not so much.

"It depends on where they're at in their lives, and where they are in the case," Moore said.

Although the Reid trial was Moore’s first cold-case conviction, she expects more in the future. People have been visiting the sheriff's cold-case website and offering valuable tips and insights, along with the occasional offer of psychic services in exchange for compensation.

"I can't believe how much stuff comes from that," Moore said of the website, accessible on the sheriff's Web page at www.jeffcosheriff.com. "Some of the stuff that has come has been amazing."

Contact AJ Vicens at aj@evergreenco.com, and check www.columbinecourier.com for updates and breaking news.

Help Out

See if you can help solve a cold case. Visit www.jeffcosheriff.com, scroll down the main page and look for the “Cold Case Files” link. There, you'll find a list of cold cases. If you can help, call Investigator Cheryl Moore at 303-271-5625, or e-mail her at cmoore@jeffco.us.