Updated: June 22, 2012 at 12:00 am
A man who was linked by DNA to the 1994 rape and killing of a mentally disabled woman in Colorado Springs will face trial on charges of first-degree murder and aggravated sexual assault, a judge ruled Friday.
After a two-day hearing, 4th Judicial District Judge Michael P. McHenry ruled that evidence linking 58-year-old Jose Burciaga-Ruiz to the death of Sharon Lee Sklavos is persuasive enough to be heard by a jury.
Burciaga-Ruiz will be held without bond in El Paso County jail pending trial. His trial date is likely to be set when he returns to court July 26.
Testimony by Colorado Springs police revealed that detectives are hunting for a possible accomplice — a fugitive named Rafael Balderrama who apparently fled to Mexico after being linked to an unrelated 2001 homicide in unincorporated El Paso County. Balderrama was immediately suspected by Sklavos’ relatives, and in September 1994 two men fatally shot an innocent bystander in Colorado Springs while trying to exact revenge on Balderrama.
Sklavos, 38, disappeared July 22, 1994. from her sister’s house, where she lived. Her nude and decomposing body was discovered nine days later near Lower Gold Camp Road and High Drive.
According to testimony at the preliminary hearing, Sklavos was raped during an attack that involved the use of a stick.
A 1994 autopsy determined she died of blunt force trauma. El Paso County coroner Dr. Robert Bux testified Friday that his review of the autopsy shows it’s also possible that she was strangled. Bux said advanced decomposition, together with insect activity, made it impossible to know with certainty.
Blood tests showed she was highly intoxicated at the time of her death, Bux said.
Burciaga-Ruiz, who dated Sklavos’ sister and frequently stayed with her and Sklavos at their home, was a suspect from the time the investigation began, Colorado Springs police detective Derek Graham testified on Friday. The man repeatedly denied involvement, saying that he was drinking at the Wagon Wheel bar on Platte Avenue on the night of the attack and passed out on the couch at Sklavos’ house after returning about 11 p.m.
But DNA testing in January established that his semen was inside the victim when she was found, Graham said.
Graham said new technology enabled the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to make a match that wouldn’t have been possible at the time of the slaying.
Evidence from the case was submitted for retesting last year under a police program focused on solving cold cases. A federal grant helped fund the effort, Graham said.
Police tracked Burciaga-Ruiz to Nebraska, where he was working as a roofer. Graham said police lured him back to Colorado Springs with a madeup story that someone was trying to steal his Social Security checks.
The case spawned another tragedy in Colorado Springs after Sklavos’ death when two men tried to exact revenge on Balderrama, whom they blamed, and ended up killing a bystander.
Edward Raymond Rubio, the husband of one of Sklavos’ nieces, and Christopher Kinney are serving 32 years in prison for killing 25-year-old Marcos Hernandez-Castillo. Balderrama was wounded in the leg during the attack. They pleaded guilty to second-degree murder. They blamed each other for pulling the trigger.
New questions arose Friday about the possibility of involvement by Balderrama in Sklavos killing.
Graham testified that a woman told police in 1999 that five years earlier, Balderrama and Burciaga-Ruiz drunkenly bragged to her that they sexually assaulted a “crazy woman.” The woman told police she kicked the pair out of her house for joking about rape but didn’t believe their claims.
She said her opinion changed when Balderrama tried to sexually assault her in 1999, Graham testified.
Balderrama hasn’t been seen since 2001, when he was named in a first-degree murder warrant by El Paso County sheriff’s detectives. Further details about that homicide investigation weren’t provided at the hearing.
Burciaga-Ruiz told police in March that he had been told Balderrama was recently slain in Mexico, but Graham said detectives haven’t corroborated the claim.
A family member testified that Sklavos had the mental capacity of an 8-year-old, attributing her condition to a mental breakdown she suffered after a former husband fatally shot himself in front of her in the 1980s. Her sister Lillian Anceno testified Friday that Sklavos was shy around strangers.
Although Sklavos enjoyed sitting on a knoll near the house and waving at passing traffic, she would get up and come inside if cars stopped, Anceno testified.
Burciaga-Ruiz denied having sex with her, Graham testified.