Editor's note: Blame is a three-part series collaboration between 9NEWS Denver and The Gazette. This is part 2 of 3. Read part 1 here. More than seven years after Jill Wells was killed, a backhoe tore into the earth in the Woodland Park Cemetery. The investigation into her death had been renewed.
Julie Evenson walked through the door into the lobby of the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office in Hugo, ready to demand some answers.
It was 3 in the afternoon on June 29, 2008, a Sunday. Seven years had passed since Julie's sister, Jill Wells, had been shot and killed on a remote ranch, and the passage of time had not assuaged the suspicions.
That maybe the shooting wasn't an accident. That maybe Jill's little boy, Tanner, wasn't responsible.
At the glass window at the far end of the lobby, Julie asked to speak to an officer. As she waited, she had no idea that there was a new sheriff. In 2006, LeRoy Yowell had decided not to run for a ninth term and quietly retired. Tom Nestor had been elected to succeed him.
Deputy Albert Leach asked Julie how he could help her. He'd joined the sheriff's office a year after the shooting near Punkin Center. He'd never heard the name Jill Wells.
Words spilled from Julie. My sister was shot here in 2001. Her 6-year-old son was blamed. I don't feel like it was a very good investigation. I think Mike was having an affair. There was a lot of life insurance money involved. Can you please look into it?
"I was very intrigued and very moved by what she was telling me," Leach says.
Leach handed her a standard form and asked her to write out a statement.
"The death of my sister was very tragic for our family," Julie began. "We never really got any closure because Mike never talked about it in detail. We suspected that his story wasn't truthful for many reasons."
Over two pages, she poured out seven years of suspicion and supposition, recounting everything she could remember.
A prior trip she'd made to Lincoln County with her sister Joy - who felt immediately that the story of Jill's death sounded too strange to be true and who wanted to investigate - had been met with a polite but firm response. There was nothing more that could be done.
The suspicion was that Mike had been abusing drugs for years - just three days earlier, on June 26, he'd been rushed to the emergency room, where he reportedly said he'd always felt guilty about Jill's death because he was in the house at the time.
"That's not what the report said," Julie wrote.
She went on.
A story she'd heard - that Tanner had told a friend he didn't shoot his mother. A rumor that Jill and Mike had raised their life insurance right before her death. After Jill's death, Mike's divorce from his third wife. Mike's ability to bluff, like talking his way out of trouble in a series of minor car accidents.
"I believe he could lie about Jill's death as well," Julie wrote. "Tanner should not be tainted as a boy who shot his mom and his father should admit to the truth and be a man."
Leach sat with Julie for two hours. It was so very different from her previous visit, two years after Jill's death, when she had come to town with her sister, Joy. But during that 2003 visit, Julie and Joy had been unable to get then-Sheriff Yowell to meet with them, and they left feeling like little kids who'd been patted on the heads and sent on their way.
Now Leach was taking it all in. Now, for the first time, someone in a uniform was willing to listen.
Joy Evenson was six years older than Jill. And when they were kids, Jill was the little sister who sometimes got on Joy's nerves. But as the sisters grew up, they grew closer. And when Jill was in nursing school at the University of Missouri, Joy shared an apartment with her in Columbia.
During that year, Joy saw a young woman who was serious about her classwork and responsible and caring everywhere she went, who had an uncanny knack for recalling the funny things she heard people say. Like the day she was talking with one of the residents of the nursing home where she worked about going to a picnic.
Who wants to go to a picnic, the woman asked, and have the birds crap all over you? Jill laughed as she told Joy the story.
Joy was closing her salon the night of March 28, 2001, when her husband arrived with the shocking news that Jill was dead.
In the days ahead, she and other family members traveled to Woodland Park. They found Mike surrounded by a cadre of close friends. Jill's sisters wanted to talk privately to him, wanted Mike to explain exactly what had happened. Each time they asked, they were rebuffed - one friend or another would step in and say he's too distraught, he's not in any state of mind to be able to do that right now.
Jill's mother also asked to talk to Mike. Alone. He said he would but then put it off.
It was so unbelievable, and it fueled the feeling that had taken hold deep in Joy's gut - that the story of Jill's death was too bizarre to believe.
She wasn't alone in her suspicions.
A woman who worked at a medical center in Woodland Park called the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office. Sheriff Yowell wrote down her name and the name of another woman who knew Jill, then handed the paper to his son, Undersheriff Alan Yowell.
Undersheriff Yowell apparently called both women. Next to the first woman's name, he wrote "affair." Next to the other one, he wrote "Jill's co-worker." He took no other notes.
After Kathy Parham got the news, she spoke to another Penrose-St. Francis Hospital colleague, who blurted out: Mike did it! Her suspicion was based on a conversation she'd had with Jill about life insurance.
At Jill's funeral, her friend Terri Willoughby sat close enough to the front to watch Mike, sobbing throughout the service with Tanner in his arms. And she wondered: "Is this an act, or is this true grief? Is this remorse, or do you have an acting degree?"
The day after Julie's visit, Deputy Leach told Sheriff Nestor and his undersheriff, Gordon Nall, about what she'd said and written. They went to a storage room and pulled out a slender brown accordion file with "Jill Wells" and "118IR01" written on it in black Magic Marker.
Inside the folder, they found:
The original two-page offense report; three pages of notes from the coroner
A copy of the death certificate; newspaper clippings, photographs from the scene and pictures of the guns taken at the sheriff's office; a Hunters Education Association report on the incident; Jill's driver's license, a printout of Jill's background from a law enforcement database that showed her driving record; one Post-it note showing the times of the 911 call, the arrival of the sheriff and undersheriff at the ranch and their departure, a one-page document showing they returned the guns to Mike Wells less than 24 hours after the shooting; a yellow piece of legal paper with two names written on it in Sheriff Yowell's handwriting and a few sparse notes in Undersheriff Yowell's handwriting; a small piece of notebook paper containing Undersheriff Yowell's notes about the incident; a folded piece of notebook paper with Mike Wells' birthday written on it; a cassette tape that included Mike Wells' 911 call, Undersheriff Yowell's dictation of details at the case, a 1-minute, 31-second interview of Tanner and a 55-second interview with Mike Wells; and perhaps most curiously, a one-page facsimile request, dated April 5, 2001, from an investigator hired by Allstate Life Insurance Co. that the sheriff's office turn over "all police reports relating to the death for the above insured."
The "above insured" was Jill Wells.
But it was what they didn't find that troubled all three of them.
Among the constants in American law enforcement is that cops generate paper - lots of paper. A simple burglary or assault can lead to dozens of pages of reports. A death investigation, hundreds. Or more.
Any seasoned detective who opened the Jill Wells file would have expected to find a written statement from Mike Wells. Audio or videotaped interviews with Mike and Tanner. Reports documenting those interviews - the questions asked, the answers given. Logs showing when and where every photograph was taken. Diagrams outlining the scene. Measurements showing the location of critical pieces of evidence, like Jill's body, the targets, the gun, the pickup. An autopsy report. Documentation of ballistics testing on the guns. Reports on fingerprinting.
"At first, it was more curiosity and to see what the case was about," Leach says. "And then a few days after getting into it, there was a lot of red flags that come up, that we had a lot of questions and no answers. So I was really curious and wanted to move on with it and I got the sheriff's and undersheriff's blessing at the time to do what I wanted to do."
What he wanted to do was figure out whether it was really Tanner who fired that shot. Or whether it was Mike.
By the time the investigation of Jill's death was reopened, Mike's life was a mess.
In August 2006, he had moved his third wife and their kids into a new home - 8,350 square feet on 21 acres of forested land outside Woodland Park. Off the dining room was Mike's pride and joy, his trophy room. Knotty wooden paneling. High ceilings. A stone fireplace. Leather couches. Animal heads from his many hunts ringing the walls. Off to one side, a built-in gun rack stocked with rifles and shotguns.
But behind that veneer, Mike's marriage was falling apart amid increasingly erratic behavior. Becoming furious after discovering his truck was nearly out of gas. Coming home from a basketball game with the boys, sitting down at the kitchen table and passing out, falling face-first into his dinner.
By March 2007, his third wife had moved out. Eventually, she sought a restraining order.
"Mike stated that he is videotaping me and my conversations," she wrote on one of the forms she filled out.
On a questionnaire that asked her to describe the most serious incident she'd experienced, she wrote, "I haven't kept track of dates. He threatens to leave me penniless, to 'bury me,' to skip the country. On Sunday 3/23/08 he arrived at my home despite being told not to do so. This was the 2nd time. On Sunday night he called threatening me ... that he would make my name be mud, subpoena me & have me thrown in jail ..."
In another spot, she wrote, "Mike has many weapons but has not threatened with any of them. There was 1 incidence of physical abuse in the winter of 2006. He was on drugs & I was able to chalk it up to that, probably mistakenly. He is now very up & down & paranoid & I'm unsure what he may or could do."
Less than six weeks later, a judge finalized their divorce.
As they plotted their next steps, Sheriff Nestor pulled out a legal pad, drew a line down the middle and wrote "what was done" on one side and "what was not done on the other."
He left the section under "what was done" blank.
Under "what was not done," he wrote:
No trajectory at scene
No weapon test fire
No life insurance policy/copy
No interview reports
On another part of the paper, he wrote "what needs to be done" and jotted down a to-do list of sorts - get a copy of the life insurance policy, interview Mike's third wife, interview co-workers, recover the guns, figure out trajectories, determine whether a 6-year-old boy could operate a lever-action rifle like the one reported to have fired the fatal shot.
Leach went to work. He interviewed a Colorado Division of Wildlife officer who knew Mike and was suspicious of his story. He spoke with Mike's third wife, who told Leach that she and Mike began seeing each other a year after Jill's death. She had married Mike in 2004, but now they were divorced. She told Leach that she was "scared" of Mike, that she knew nothing about Jill's death - that Mike had never discussed it with her and she had never asked.
And Leach spoke with Mark Horvat, who'd been one of Mike's closest friends, who drove to Lincoln County and wrote out a statement about his recollections of the day Jill died.
"On arrival Mike embraced me, eventually sort of collapsing and vomiting while leaning on my car fender," Horvat wrote. "Seemed distraught but fairly coherent ... I eventually took Mike and his two sons home to Woodland Park. The only conversation was between Mike and Tanner. He kept questioning his dad about Jill. His response was she was at the hospital. They couldn't see her now. My impression was Tanner wasn't fully aware she was dead. Mike and I didn't speak about anything because of the presence of the children."
Horvat told Leach that a year after Jill's death he quit hunting with Mike and no longer felt comfortable around him.
And he told him something else. He told him he was no longer sure that Tanner shot his mother.
From a single piece of paper in the file on Jill's death, Leach had an Allstate claim number: 774 802 865 DG. In a phone call with an Allstate administrator, he learned there were two life insurance policies on Jill. One through Allstate, one through a subsidiary, the Lincoln Benefit Life Insurance Co.
Eight days after Julie's visit, Leach obtained a subpoena and a court order for the insurance company's records. He sent it off to Illinois. Within hours, workers at Allstate had compiled dozens of pages of documents and faxed them to Leach.
Jill had a policy through Allstate, purchased in 1994 and updated the following year, that included a $200,000 death benefit.
Interesting, not earth-shattering.
But the Lincoln Benefit documents floored Leach. He discovered that she had recently applied for a $500,000 life insurance policy with a $750,000 rider that, once approved, would mean a death benefit of $1.25 million. Jill signed the application and took a physical on Feb. 22, 2001, and wrote out the first premium check, for $332.46.
That was less than five weeks before she was shot to death.
Once the insurance company cashed that first premium check, the first $500,000 of the policy was guaranteed. Leach read on, discovering that while the policy hadn't yet been issued, Allstate's administrators believed they were obligated to pay Mike $500,000 - not the full $1.25 million.
As he studied the documents, Leach realized that Mike reported Jill's death and started the process of requesting payment the day after the shooting - not really evidence, but the kind of thing that makes an investigator pause. And Leach saw documents showing that Allstate investigators had contacted Sheriff Yowell repeatedly - five times in all - in the weeks after Jill's death, asking questions.
There was a note in the file dated April 17: "Spoke to sheriff Yowell ... He explained nothing has changed since the preliminary investigation. This was clearly an accident involving the 6 y.o. shooting his mother."
Two days later, an Allstate administrator wrote in an internal memo: "Based on this information, I am requesting to honor the claim and pay the husband/bene of the insured/applicant."
The following day, Allstate cut two checks, each of them made out to Mike Wells.
One was for $200,684.93. The other was for $501,712.33.
In the weeks ahead, Leach would learn of two more life insurance policies on Jill, one worth $95,000, one worth $30,000.
If there were red flags when Leach started his investigation, they now snapped in the wind.
Mark Horvat was at the ranch in Lincoln County with Mike Wells when he first realized his friend was abusing drugs.
The two had met in the fall of 1993 - six months before Tanner was born - and quickly became friends. They started hunting together, traveling to Alaska on big adventures to bag trophies. Bear. Caribou. Moose. Mike joined Horvat in a group that rented the ranch in Lincoln County.
Horvat eventually realized Mike was a big spender who couldn't handle money, but he also saw him as one of the best outdoorsmen and hunters he had ever encountered. He would use the words "enthralled with" to describe how he viewed Mike in those early years.
On that night at the ranch - Horvat would recall it as a year and a half to two years before Jill's death - Mike opened his hand and offered him Vicodin, a drug he'd begun taking after a root canal, he said.
"You'll sleep like a baby," Mike said.
Horvat wanted nothing to do with the pills.
Drugs - and, perhaps, their effects - would be a constant in Mike's life from that point on. Once while Jill was still alive, Mike ended up in the hospital after a bad reaction to drugs. Not long before she died, Jill confided to her friend Kathy Parham that Mike was exhibiting neurological problems that she thought might be signs of multiple sclerosis - but may actually have been the effects of narcotics.
In the years after Jill's death, Mike's drug use accelerated.
There was the 2006 incident of domestic violence against his third wife and the 911 call after he arrived home with slurred speech and then passed out, face-planting into his dinner.
Around that same time, Mike visited Jill's sister Julie and her husband in Missouri and was seemingly out of it the entire weekend. At one point, he bent over while the boys were fishing and his cellphone fell out of his pocket and into the lake. On the drive to the store to buy a new one, he passed out at the wheel more than once, drifting into the oncoming lane. Back at the house, he sat in a lawn chair, sunglasses covering his eyes, seemingly oblivious to the fact he was slowing sinking into the mud.
He entered a methadone program, taking the drug designed to help wean him off opioids.
In April 2007, a Colorado State Patrol trooper arrested Mike on a charge of driving while impaired. Tests showed he had three drugs in his system: alprazolam, used to treat anxiety; trazadone, an anti-depressant; and methadone.
Mike enrolled in treatment in the fall of 2007, and that care stretched into the following spring. But then, in April 2008, he was arrested again for driving under the influence of drugs.
And this time, Jacob was in the car with him. Social workers removed the boys from the home, and Mike was ordered to undergo a substance abuse assessment while they lived with a foster family.
During three meetings with a counselor in July 2008, Mike said that he consumed alcohol only sparingly over the years and said his problems with drugs began in 2005 after he was prescribed Percocet for a back injury. The counselor's report shows that he described his marriage to Jill as "good, we were soul mates," his relationship with his third wife as "volatile and controlling." It also said he asserted that he hadn't used methadone since finishing his after-care program.
"In response to this current situation," the counselor wrote, "Mr. Wells admitted to feeling alone and taking 'medication I found in my medicine cabinet to help me sleep, my son could not wake me up so emergency services were called, I was not trying to commit suicide.' "
It was apparently a reference to the incident in June 2008, where he ended up in the emergency room after experiencing a rapid heart rate, that brought Julie Evenson to Colorado and ultimately led her to the Lincoln County Sheriff's Office.
The counselor also wrote, "He was open and revealing at times, and guarded at others."
Diagnostic tests showed Mike had "high-medium motivation for change, but at the same time showed an extremely high level of defensiveness." That, the counselor wrote, "indicates that disruption in his life, and involvement in substances may be under- reported."
The counselor ordered weekly random urine screens.
The first two, on July 18 and July 25, were clean.
By late July 2008, Deputy Leach was already thinking about what it would be like to sit across a table from Mike Wells and ask him the questions that weren't asked in 2001.
"I wanted to go into it easy and try to build a rapport with him, but then I was gonna just point blank ask the question," Leach says.
"Why'd you shoot your wife?"
On July 31, Mike Wells was in court to follow up on his April arrest on drugged-driving charges. He was hopeful after that hearing that he would soon have Tanner and Jacob back with him.
On Aug. 1, he spoke to his third wife. He was, in her words, "lucid" and "hopeful" that the boys would soon be back home.
On Aug. 2, a Saturday, a friend called Mike around 4:30 in the afternoon. They talked about meeting later that day to shoot clay pigeons, but the friend never heard back.
By noon the following day, the friend had grown concerned enough that he drove to the big house outside Woodland Park to check on Mike. After ringing the doorbell and knocking on several windows, he found the door into the house open, and went in, calling for Mike. Again, nothing.
The friend walked into the trophy room. When he first glimpsed Mike on an inflatable mattress in front of the television, he thought he was asleep. As he got closer, he realized Mike was dead.
The trophies of his many hunts surrounded him. More than 25 rifles and shotguns filled the rack along one wall.
Julie got the news that same day. She immediately called Leach, and her words hit him like a gut punch. His suspect was dead, and for a moment he felt the investigation had hit a wall.
But Leach, Sheriff Nestor and Undersheriff Nall weren't ready to quit. They still hoped to answer the ultimate question, for Tanner's sake.
Leach called Mike's third wife, asking about the disposition of his property. She told him a Colorado Springs bank had control of Mike's estate. Leach's next call was to a bank administrator.
"Do you know anything about Mike's guns?" Leach asked.
"Yes," the woman replied, "we have all of them."
The bank had 35 guns Mike owned. Among them was the Browning lever-action rifle Mike said Tanner had in his hands when he accidentally fired the shot that killed Jill.
Dr. Earl Byrne, the Teller County coroner, would take almost four weeks before reaching a conclusion about Mike's death - a sharp contrast to what was done in 2001, when the Lincoln County coroner signed Jill's death certificate the day after the shooting.
Byrne interviewed Mike's third wife extensively, asking questions that were as pertinent to Jill's death as to Mike's. She denied that she had an affair with Mike while Jill was still alive. But she also said that he was cheating on Jill with another woman.
Byrne also looked into Mike's legal troubles. And he ordered laboratory tests.
Ultimately, he attributed Mike's death to an overdose of methadone. Although he believed the overdose was accidental, he could not be positive. On Mike's death certificate, he marked the manner as "undetermined."
Dec. 16, 2008, was gray and windswept as a backhoe tore into the earth in the Woodland Park Cemetery.
Deputy Leach had obtained a court order to exhume Jill's body. The hope was that an autopsy - however belated - might help reveal more about her death.
At the Arapahoe County Coroner's Office in Centennial, Dr. Michael Dobersen was waiting. More than seven years had passed since Jill died, and there were some things that he couldn't change. He could not, for instance, order the kind of blood tests that could have been done immediately after her death to establish whether Jill had drugs or alcohol in her system. While there was no suspicion that she did, it's a routine step in a thorough investigation.
Shortly before noon, a van carrying Jill's bronze casket arrived after the 70-mile drive from Woodland Park.
Carrying out an autopsy so long after a death is never ideal, but Dobersen was able to collect 13 fragments of the fatal bullet and determine its path - two things that could help answer questions about exactly what happened the day Jill died.
Dobersen and the other investigators, including agents from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, finished their work in a couple of hours, then the casket was closed. Later that afternoon, Jill was laid to rest a second time.
In the meantime, Tom Griffin, an investigator with the CBI, took the 13 bullet fragments back to the office and booked them into evidence.
As Dobersen studied the case, he was struck by the failure of Lincoln County Coroner Don Bender to order an autopsy - absolutely necessary in cases like this.
He began to think of Jill's death as the poster case for what is wrong with Colorado's coroner system.
After the autopsy, examiners in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's firearms lab set out to determine whether the bullet fragments collected during the autopsy could be linked to any of the four .22-caliber weapons known to have been at the ranch the day Jill died - the bolt-action rifles she and Tanner had been firing, Mike's lever-action rifle and a pistol that was discovered in a case in the back of his pickup.
Ballistics work like the kind undertaken at the CBI lab - trying to determine if a particular gun fired a particular bullet - is typical in police investigations. First, an analyst fires a round from the gun into a tank of water. That round is then retrieved and compared microscopically to the bullet obtained at a crime scene or autopsy.
Most rifles and handguns have swirling grooves cut down the insides of their barrels to spin the bullet and help it fly accurately. Known as rifling, those grooves can twist to the left or right, and there's enough variation between weapons and manufacturers that its often possible to tell with certainty that a particular gun fired a particular bullet.
When the CBI examiners compared rounds test fired from the four guns at the scene to the bullet fragments, they were able to conclude that Jill's Marlin rifle, Tanner's child's rifle and the Ruger pistol didn't fire the fatal shot. But when it came to Mike's Browning lever-action rifle - the one he said Tanner accidentally fired, striking and killing Jill - the determination was different: The gun "could have fired" the fatal bullet "since they are the same caliber and have the same general rifling characteristics."
In a courtroom, those results would be labeled "inconclusive."
The investigation of Jill's death was, for all practical purposes, at a dead end.
Coming Sunday: The investigation into the shooting death of Jill Wells remains open today. Lincoln County Sheriff Tom Nestor hopes that someone or some missing element will come forward or be presented to absolve Jill’s son of blame.
Contact 9NEWS reporter Kevin Vaughan with tips about this or any story: firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-871-1862.