May 3, 2013 Updated: May 3, 2013 at 9:55 pm
Nearly 20 years after the rape and murder of a mentally disabled woman in Colorado Springs, a jury returned sweeping convictions against the man suspected by police from the beginning.
Jose Burciaga-Ruiz spent the past two decades denying involvement but couldn't explain why his DNA matched semen found in Sharon Lee Sklavos the day her savaged body was discovered in the woods off Gold Camp Road.
Convicted of first-degree murder, second-degree murder and sexual-assault, Burciaga-Ruiz, 58, faces life in prison without parole at his May 31 sentencing by 4th Judicial District Judge Michael McHenry.
'I'm just pleased - pleased for Sharon, pleased for the family, ' said lead prosecutor Gail Warkentin. 'It was a long time for the family to wait for justice. I'm glad they got it. '
Relatives of Sklavos burst into tears as the verdicts were read about 4 p.m. Friday, after a three-week trial in Colorado Springs. Sobbing, they held each other and exchanged deep embraces with prosecutors as Burciaga-Ruiz's family members wept loudly on the other side of the courtroom.
Among those celebrating was J.D. Walker, a retired Colorado Springs police detective who led the investigation on July 31, 1994 when Sklavos' partially nude body was found in a litter-strewn field near the Captain Jack's trailhead - a stick lodged inside her genitals.
Now a 4th Judicial District Attorney's Office investigator, Walker said he always suspected involvement by Burciaga-Ruiz, who dated Sklavos' sister at the time of the grisly slaying and sometimes stayed at the sisters' shared home on Kincannon Road.
But Walker said the case against him was circumstantial - until police resubmitted evidence for DNA testing by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation with the help of a cold-case grant. The results came back in 2012 with a match to Burciaga-Ruiz, who was tracked to Nebraska, where he worked as a roofer, and lured by police back to Colorado Springs with a bogus claim that someone was stealing his Social Security checks.
'This is my birthday today, and it was a good present, ' said Walker, who turned 59 on Friday.
Relatives say Sklavos, 38, had the mind of a 7-year-old after suffering a mental breakdown in the wake of witnessing her husband fatally shoot himself. After stints in a psychiatric facility, Sklavos moved in with her sister and stayed home while she was at work, sometimes passing the time by sitting on a dirt knoll and waving at passing motorists.
Shy, she would run back inside if anyone waved back, neighbors told police..
Despite police detectives' suspicions about Burciaga-Ruiz, Walker said they didn't want to roll the dice on a trial and risk letting a murderer walk.
'That's what this case is - we just didn't have the evidence, ' he said. 'We collected DNA on the scene ' - though, he noted, police didn't know it at the time - 'and 19 years later here we are. '
During the trial, public defenders Cindy Jones and Charlotte Ankeny contested the quality and conclusiveness of the DNA evidence and tried to persuade the jury that a different man committed the crime.
'We're disappointed, ' Jones said, saying the conviction would be appealed.
The DNA analysis showed that Rafael Balderrama, a friend of Burciaga-Ruiz, also appeared to be involved. Balderrama, also a suspect in a 2001 drug killing in El Paso County, is believed have fled to Mexico, where police say he may have been murdered.
'We think he died in Mexico. We can't prove it, but everybody who knows him tells us that, ' Walker said.
The saga of Sklavos' death spawned a new tragedy in Colorado Springs when one of Sklavos' relatives tried to take the law into his own hands.
Edward Rubio, 26, the husband of one of Sklavos' nieces, confronted Balderrama in September 1994, about his aunt's death. Rubio wounded Balderrama and killed Marcos Hernandez-Castillo, 25, in a shooting outside the Wagon Wheel Lounge on East Platte Avenue. Rubio and an accomplice, Christopher Kinney, 29, were sentenced to 32 years in prison in July 1995 for murder and attempted murder.
After the verdicts were read, Burciaga-Ruiz's relatives stormed angrily out of the courtroom, one woman striking the door on her way out.
'They seen what he did to her! ' one of Sklavos relatives snapped. 'He got what he deserved! '
Asked if Friday's verdict meant justice for her aunt, April Rubio responded: 'Justice will be served when he is before God. '
Contact Lance Benzel: 636-0366 Twitter @lancebenzel
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