Published: March 21, 2014
In 2002 when news hit that the Beltway Sniper was picking off people in suburbs of Washington, D.C., El Paso County Sheriff John Anderson called the FBI to alert them to a possible suspect: Bruce Nozolino.
Nozolino, a Colorado Springs software engineer, was going through a nasty divorce in 2001 and 2002 when sniper's bullets hit his wife's divorce lawyer and, separately, barely missed the presiding judge in his home. Local cops were certain Nozolino had pulled the trigger but didn't have the evidence to lock him up.
Anderson, a life-long fan of Sherlock Holmes with a reputation for unusual theories that sometimes paid off big, decided the likelihood of two unrelated snipers in the country at once was "near astronomical." So he phoned the FBI.
"If we can take this guy off the street, in El Paso County we have a safer community, and if we can help the FBI that's a bonus," Anderson said in a recent interview recalling the case more than a decade ago. "I wanted this guy off the street. He was shooting people, trying to kill judges - he's a terror."
Anderson's theory turned out to be wrong. The FBI soon arrested another duo. Nozolino remained uncharged in any of the local shootings until 2010. This month, Nozolino was convicted of murder and attempted murder and sentenced to life without parole plus 288 years.
If Anderson's theory linking a local man to shootings 1,500 miles away seems unlikely, it pales in comparison to what happened in the eight years between when Anderson called the FBI and when Nozolino was arrested. The two became friends. The "terror" Anderson wanted behind bars came over for dinner, helped finish Anderson's garage, made an apparently illegal contribution to Anderson's campaign for Congress and became one of his top election volunteers. It was a scenario fit for a cable drama: The cop and the killer, doing home improvement.
Nozolino even persuaded Anderson of the possibility of another suspect in the local shootings - an idea Anderson then presented to police.
Looking back, Anderson said, he was duped by a deft manipulator who cultivated his friendship in order to deflect suspicions and gather intelligence on the investigation.
"He was very deliberate in setting it up," Anderson said. "And I probably should have seen it but I had just never encountered someone like him before."
Anderson is hardly the only prominent person befriended by Nozolino. In the nine years Nozolino was under investigation for attempted murder and then murder, he built relationships with prominent local leaders including City Councilwoman Helen Collins and former county commissioner and state Representative Douglas Bruce. Bruce continued to support Nozolino long after his arrest and was recently admonished by a sheriff's deputy for waving to Nozolino during the murder trial.
But Anderson's relationship was different. The former sheriff had decades of experience as a detective. He had been trained to investigate homicides by the FBI. And as the sheriff in charge during three of the shootings, he had detailed knowledge of the sniper attacks, and knew that Nozolino was the only suspect.
Anderson is now running for sheriff again. His relationship with Nozolino is raising questions about his judgment as he asks the public for the region's top law job.
"I certainly don't understand how he could know who Nozolino was, and then turn around and be his friend," said Bill Elder, who is also running for sheriff. Also running is Jim Reid. The three Republicans will face off in a primary June 24.
Crimes started in 2001
Nozolino's crimes started during a bitter divorce in 2001. In June of that year, a bullet shattered the window of his wife's divorce attorney's home. A few months later, a bullet hit the home of the judge overseeing the case.
In January 2002, while the lawyer was working late at his office, Nozolino shot him through the eye, nearly killing him.
Anderson was involved from the start. The sheriff's office investigated the first shooting and, Anderson said, the victim "didn't wait to be asked. He said there is no doubt who did it, absolutely, it's Nozolino."
Instantly, Anderson said, Nozolino "went to the top of the suspect list and stayed there."
As sheriff, Anderson arranged extra security for judges and was shown a photo of Nozolino and warned the sniper could be a threat to the sheriff.
Nozolino was on Anderson's rader in October 2002, when the sheriff called two of his top deputies into his office to explain his theory for the Beltway sniper case.
"Immediately he said it was Nozolino and wanted us to call the FBI," said Joe Breister, who was Anderson's commander of investigations at the time. Breister has announced his support for the Elder campaign. "The sheriff had some far-fetched theories. I guess there was a slim possibility he was right but I thought we were wasting our time and probably the FBI's time."
Also in the room was Larry Kastner, one of Anderson's bureau chiefs at the time. Kastner is supporting Jim Reid for sheriff. Kastner said Anderson had him call the FBI several times, offering evidence that might match Nozolino to the shooter. "He was ready to have two detectives fly out to D.C. that day to get it to them," Kastner said.
The FBI made arrests before anything more could happen.
Anderson left office a few months later and took a job with defense contractor Lockheed Martin. It was there he came face to face for the first time with the sniper he had been warned might one day come for him.
Slowly, Anderson allowed a man he had thought could be a murderer to become his friend.
It took time for Anderson to warm to Nozolino.
When Anderson first realized Nozolino worked at Lockheed, he said he was taken aback. Anderson had gone through a rigorous background check when he was hired, including multiple lie detector tests. "How could a man like that be in a job that requires a stringent government security clearance? Had anyone vetted this guy?" Anderson recalled thinking.
Anderson has read all of the Sherlock Holmes books numerous times. Anderson is such a great admirer of the fictional detective that keeps Holmes-style deer stalker caps and magnifying glasses at his home, and has spent years pulling quotes from Holmes' adventures to compile in a book of lessons from Holmes for real life. But the skills of deduction Anderson admires in the character were not at work during the years he knew Nozolino.
Nozolino was very open about the police investigation of him, people who knew him at the time said. He would announce that the police thought he was a killer, and would not let the case rest, but there was nothing to it.
"It was his psychopathic behavior," said Anderson. "Instead of laying low, he would do the opposite."
Anderson tried to avoid Nozolino in the office at first.
"I deliberately did not want to have a relationship. I didn't like him, didn't trust him," Anderson said.
Anderson would encounter Nozolino in meetings and groups of work friends. He began to see that Nozolino was popular in the office.
"Bruce was a man's man. He swears, he spits, he shoots. He was a hunter, a lot of my guys are ex-military, that is something they enjoy. A lot of guys liked him," said Al Sarno, who supervised both men at Lockheed.
Anderson said he decided if Nozolino had passed stringent background tests for his security clearance, the cops must have been wrong about him.
It is possible, Sarno said, that Nozolino got his security clearance before his divorce, when he was not a suspect in any crimes, and Nozolino likely did not have to submit to lie detector tests.
Nozolino started making small talk with Anderson. Nozolino was easy to talk to. The two shared an interest in guns and both shared stories of bad divorces. Slowly a hello in the hall grew into short conversations and eventually they were spending time together. Nozolino would sprinkle odd questions into the conversation. He would ask about the ongoing investigation, or say he thought he was being followed, and ask if Anderson knew anything about it.
In retrospect, Anderson said, Nozolino was a master manipulator who befriended him to get information and deflect suspicion.
"What he was doing was fishing for information," Anderson said.
Planting alternate idea
In 2005, Nozolino helped Anderson finish his garage, saying he wanted only a home-cooked dinner as payment.
Anderson's wife, who had heard of the Nozolino investigation from her husband, could not believe the suspected sniper was in her house.
"She didn't really like it, but my guard was down by then," Anderson said.
In 2006, Anderson ran for Congress. Nozolino said he would do whatever he could to help, Anderson said.
Nozolino worked tirelessly, outshining other volunteers. He collected a third of the signatures Anderson needed to get on the ballot, records from the Secretary of State show, and he attended almost every campaign event.
"I remember him always sitting at the candidate table handing out fliers," said Jeff Crank, who was also running for Congress. "I only knew him as a guy from the firearms coalition who had his guns taken away by the police."
Nozolino told Anderson he wanted to give him the maximum campaign donation of $2,000, but would give it to him in the name of his girlfriend, Gail Deal, Anderson said.
Making this kind of "conduit donation" through another person violates the Federal Election Campaign Act. Anderson said he thought at the time the check came from a joint account, but Deal testified during Nozolino's trial that she did not make the donation.
Anderson finished fifth in the race.
If Anderson had suspicions about Nozolino during their friendship, he never took them to his former colleagues in law enforcement. The only time Anderson called police about the Nozolino case was to suggest an alternate suspect. Anderson said the idea of the alternate was planted by Nozolino.
Over several conversations during 2005 or 2006, Nozolino repeatedly mentioned a man named Kenny Doyle Lynn, Anderson said. Nozolino told Anderson that Doyle had talked about wanting to kill his ex-wife's defense attorney - the same attorney Nozolino's wife had used. Lynn killed himself in 2004 with a rifle similar to the type that shot at the judge. Nozolino mentioned Lynn worked for the same construction company as Anderson's wife.
"This is where he was very calculating," Anderson said. A deceased alternate suspect would take the heat off Nozolino.
Anderson said he confirmed some of Nozolino's account of Lynn with his wife, then gave the information to the lead police detective on the case, Derek Graham, encouraging him to do a ballistics test on Lynn's gun. The theory of another shooter later became central to Nozolino's defense at trial.
"This is where I learned something from that experience," Anderson said. "I should have been more careful. But I had never come across a pure sociopath at work."
Uneasy about Nozolino
Over the next two years Anderson grew increasingly uneasy with Nozolino.
"His conversations grew obsessive," Anderson said. "He was growing more desperate."
He would ask questions Anderson described as "chilling."
Questions like, "What rounds create the biggest, most violent wound?" and "If someone was wearing a vest, where would you shoot to kill a person?"
"It was a constant subject, to the point it became more and more uncomfortable," Anderson testified at Nozolino's trial in February.
Their relationship ended when the government suspended Nozolino's security clearance in late in 2008, due to a "series of behaviors" that called into question Nozolino's judgment, reliability, and ability to safeguard confidential information, according to testimony at Nozolino's trial from a former prosecutor who oversaw the revocation.
Nozolino planned to appeal and asked the former sheriff to testify about the alternate suspect.
Anderson said he ducked the request several times, and when finally cornered, said "Bruce, you don't want me to testify, it won't help you."
They never really spoke again, he said.
Nozolino lost his appeal, his security clearance and his job in late October 2008.
Less than two weeks later, Nozolino's ex-wife's former lover was shot in the head at dawn while shoveling snow, killing him.
Anderson got a call from his old bureau chief, Kastner, warning that the seemingly random shooting was the work of Nozolino. Nineteen months later, in July 2010, Nozolino was indicted by grand jury and charged with the attempted murders from 2001 and 2002, and the killing in 2008, ending a nearly decade-long investigation.
Anderson testified before the grand jury and at the eight-week trial. Looking back he said Nozolino had him fooled and he missed signs that in retrospect should have been red flags.
"My dog, Mango, hated him - and she was normally a nice dog," said Anderson. "She was more intelligent than her owner at the time."
Gazette reporter Lance Benzel contributed to this report.