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Unsolved murder of Palmer Lake mountain biking legend leaves community deeply unsettled

April 13, 2018 Updated: April 16, 2018 at 7:34 am
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On his last ride on the mountain he loved, Tim Watkins set off on an unseasonably warm September morning up the grinding, steady climb of well-traveled Mount Herman Road. From there, he had options.

He could grip his handlebars and take Stoopid Trail, the rocky and rollicking descent back into Monument. Or he could pedal on and drop into Limbaugh Canyon, where golden aspen and towering ponderosa sheltered meandering Monument Creek and a trail alongside it built for speed.

Tim Watkins, 60, was found shot to death on Sept. 17 in the Mount Herman area after going missing on a bike ride three days earlier. 

Not only had Watkins traversed this backcountry hundreds of times, he helped develop and maintain these very trails. He was the man, in fact, who'd drawn the area's best-known map.

And he cared for this terrain like a pastor for his parish - a devotion born of a horrific Forest Service accident he suffered years earlier that mangled both of his feet and ankles, leaving him barely able to walk, much less run or hike.

On two wheels, he found his spirituality and inner peace.

And on this particular ride, there is every reason to think his spirits were buoyed. After an extended period of seemingly intractable disagreement, he and his wife, Ginger Chase-Watkins, were freshly reconciled and had made plans to visit one of their favorite places, Crested Butte, where they hoped to start anew.

He set off on the ride Thursday.

Their wedding anniversary was the coming Monday.

Tim Watkins never came back.

Three days after he went missing on Mount Herman the search for him led to a shallow grave near the mouth of Limbaugh Canyon. Under a blanket of pine needles scattered to match the forest floor, the body of the 60-year-old Watkins, shot multiple times, had been deposited on a hillside no more than 20 feet from one of his favorite trails.

Rob Meeker looks down on a shallow grave Wednesday, April 4, 2018, where the body of mountain biker Tim Watkins was found in September, 20 feet above the Limbaugh Canyon trail in the background. (just below the cluster of boulders) Meeker was one of the leaders in the search after Watkins went missing on Mt. Herman. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Who killed him and buried him there - and why - are enduring mysteries that have elevated tensions in the popular recreation area along the Palmer Divide, where private property disputes, recreational shooting and the sight of homeless drifter campsites have roiled relations with visiting trail-goers for years.

Seven months later, no arrests have been made, and the only known person of interest was released without charges related to Watkins' death. El Paso County sheriff's detectives say they continue to investigate the case, performing forensic tests and tracking down leads - 250 of which poured into the office following the shooting, the most recent substantive one coming about a month ago.

"We're looking for closure for the family, to give them an answer of what happened to Tim," said Kurt Smith, the sheriff's lead detective on the case. "Somebody out there knows exactly what happened."

Smith declined to release additional details in the case.

Ginger Chase-Watkins holds one of Tim Watkins old Yeti mountain bikes that was given back to her after her husband's death by someone who had bought it from Tim years ago. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Simmering suspicions among those who share the wooded sanctuary at the southern end of the Rampart Range and a family's unanswered questions remain. Whoever killed the local mountain biking icon wounded a community's sense of security and well-being.

"He was doing what he loved most," said Watkins' daughter, Arielle Watkins. "I don't understand why someone would take something like that and put such a poisonous spin on it."

Rob Meeker peered over the map he used to direct the search for Watkins when Tim didn't return by nightfall Thursday.

He traced the lines of trail routes and numbered search grids where he helped dispatch scores of Watkins' friends and acquaintances to find the missing rider, even before local police and El Paso County Sheriff's deputies launched their efforts.

Meeker acted as one of two incident commanders, the other being Watkins' friend and neighbor Niall Byrne.

Meeker and Byrne established a search headquarters at Palmer Lake's town hall, where they organized the volunteers into 11 teams that scanned the forest from Sundance Mountain above Palmer Lake to a private property line south of Monument and Mount Herman Road.

Together, these civilian volunteers - not sheriff's investigators - found every publicly known clue to Watkins' demise.

And now, Meeker points to each spot on the map.

Rob Meeker's map of the area north of the Mt. Herman Road shows the plan of attack volunteers used while searching for Tim Watkins after he went missing in September. The red circled areas and numbers showed the search priorities and map shows were his belongings and clues were found. Watkins created the map. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

There's the place where Watkins' clipless, PEARL iZUMi size 42 shoe was found still buckled and strapped tight, resting upright on Mount Herman Road.

Another point on the map a half-mile northwest is where his cell phone case, his Safeway membership card and a few other scattered items from his wallet were found.

Meeker moves his finger east, resting on a hillside above Limbaugh Canyon that seemingly would be impossible to reach with a car, truck or SUV.

There, Meeker says, Watkins' custom-made, titanium hardtail mountain bike was found off-trail.

Watkins' body was about 50 feet to the north, wedged in a roughly 4-by-3-foot hole in a densely forested hillside.

Standing below the gravesite two months after Watkins body was discovered, there is no discernible evidence of a struggle, nothing but silence and muffled shadows of towering pines on an overcast late autumn day.

*****

Rob Meeker holds sign Wednesday, April 4, 2018, he had posted in the area where Tim Watkins was found shot to death on Mt. Herman. The sign was originally posted at the Limbaugh Canyon trailhead on the Mt. Herman road and was found lying on a remains of a rusted car splattered with bullet holes about 50 yards from the trailhead. The offensive words on the sign have been blurred. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Beneath fluorescent lights in the basement of Swan-Law Funeral Directors mortuary in downtown Colorado Springs is where Meeker last laid eyes on his friend and cycling mentor

Alone with him one final time, Meeker's eyes darted from one gunshot wound to the next, pockmarks on the freshly prepared corpse.

His mind went back to the search, and the sight of sheriff's deputies sticking a pencil through another apparent bullet hole on the front tire of Watkins' bicycle.

Each clue challenges Watkins' loved ones' efforts to understand how he died.

Was it a targeted killing, or an argument with a nearby landowner, recreational shooter or homeless drifter that escalated to bloodshed? Did Watkins even make it to the Limbaugh Canyon trailhead, or did someone kill him along Mount Herman Road? Was he shot elsewhere and carried or dragged to his final repose?

Could it have been an accident - perhaps a vehicle hitting Watkins along Mount Herman Road - that ended in a grisly cover-up?

The clues are confounding.

There are obvious blunders in terms of someone who knew what they were doing and who was seriously attempting to dispose of a body where it wouldn't be found, including the scattered trail of evidence leading more or less to the bicycle. Or was this an intentional effort to make the killing look like a series of mistakes?

"A lot of this shit just does not make much sense," Meeker said.

*****

Rob Meeker leaves the Limbaugh Canyon trail Wednesday, April 4, 2018, to the shallow grave where Tim Watkins' body was found. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Meeker looks up from the map, the uneven search zone boundaries drawn in red marker.

This isn't how their decades-long friendship was supposed to end.

Meeker remembers sitting as a boy in the pews of Palmer Lake's Little Log Church - a quaint stone-and-timber cabin that is as much a town square as Palmer Lake's go-to place of worship.

At the end of each Sunday morning church service, Meeker remembers walking outside and catching glimpses of Watkins barreling down the street on his mountain bike, heading into the woods or just returning.

To a kid cooped up at church, Watkins looked like a free man.

"I was like 'That's the coolest guy ever,'" Meeker said. "Go in peace? Totally."

He would learn that Watkins was a man of faith, but one who found peace in a different log church - his cathedral walls the wooded, secluded hillsides of Limbaugh Canyon.

Here, in the outdoors sprouted a spirituality rooted in Watkins' attraction to Native American tradition, which he melded with a selective take on Christianity. He still visited his parents' Little Log Church from time to time. But he felt most at home outdoors.

Many Sunday mornings, Watkins' own hymnal call could be heard as he raced breakneck down freshly cut singletrack: "Hoka Hey," he'd yell in Sioux. "Today is a good day to die."

*****

As a kid, Watkins borrowed his dad's heavy, black Raleigh three-speed bicycle and pedaled into the hills above his Palmer Lake house.

"Those bikes weren't much for the uphill, but it was a lot of fun. We'd go up until we were just totally exhausted, then we'd turn around and fly down," Watkins told The Gazette in one interview.

A picture of Tim Watkins sits on a shelve next to his ashes at Ginger Chase-Watkins' Palmer Lake home Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

His sport remained a niche hobby through the 1990s - one hardly resembling the multibillion-dollar industry it is today. Watkins mentored Meeker and at least one other teen to sponsorships with some of the biggest names in the sport.

Around 2000, Watkins started his own bike shop, Balanced Rock Bike & Ski in Monument, that combined his rock-solid reputation with work he understood - wrenching on bikes and matching new riders to their shiny new metal steeds.

He produced a map that - while no longer in print - remains the definitive catalogue of Mount Herman, Palmer Lake and Monument, largely depicting trails he helped make viable with detailed elevation profiles, dismount suggestions and critical tips on where canyon-side trails gave way to potentially fatal slopes.

His was a backcountry playground known for its ruggedness and solitude - a trail system circling Mount Herman highlighted by a thrilling, secluded descent across moist dirt and compacted Pikes Peak granite on the mountain's steep western face.

In many ways it resembles the more popular North Cheyenne Canyon in southwest Colorado Springs - only without the whir of dirt bikers, the sea of parked automobiles and the trains of mountain bikers clogging each tight switchback.

And it's a place where Rob Meeker, then still a teenager, would accompany Watkins for weekend rides, sometimes stopping for hours at a time to cut new trails or repair existing stretches with Army-style trenching tools and bow saws. They laid the trunks of pine and aspen trees over the headwaters of Monument Creek, building crude bridges that today's generation of mountain bikers and hikers still use.

When some people find their own little slice of heaven along Colorado's Front Range, they try keeping it a secret.

Not Watkins. He wanted to share his religion.

"Building the map with the keys to all of your trails - you can't give it away much more than that," Meeker said.

*****

The butt of a handgun peeks out of Meeker's backpack as he plods up that same grinding climb up Mount Herman Road, warming his legs and clearing his mind of the day's to-do list.

In the cool December air, he takes a right turn, pointing his bike down a wide piece of singletrack laden with gravel sandbars that unnerve some riders, and steel the resolve of others.

Meeker stops at a junction - where the trail turns as it descends into the Limbaugh Canyon. To his right is a red, yellow and green sign taped to a tree, challenging whoever killed Tim Watkins to "leave a time and date and location. Let's finish this up."

"YOU WILL NOT WIN," it reads. "THIS IS NOT YOUR MOUNTAIN, THIS IS OUR MOUNTAIN. THIS IS TIM'S MOUNTAIN."

Meeker leans back on his saddle and rides on.

*****

For a time, the most promising lead came in the form of an Indiana drifter accused of threatening bicyclists in the days before Watkins' death.

In this Sept. 27, 2017 booking photo released by El Paso County Sheriff's Office, Daniel Nations is seen. Indiana investigators are looking into whether Nations, the man arrested for allegedly threatening people along a Colorado hiking trail could be a suspect in the February killings of two Indiana girls who were hiking. 

Daniel Nations was arrested on suspicion of various crimes, including threatening someone with a hatchet, but was never named a suspect in the Watkins case. Nations, 32, was released in January without any related charges filed. He remains among "multiple" people of interest in the case, said Smith, the sheriff's detective.

"It would be nice if he gave a truthful statement to police," Smith said. "That's about the best thing he could do for himself, to exclude himself."

Even before Nations' release, hope faded among the slain cyclist's relatives that the killer will be found.

"The sorrow has kind of faded away," Watkins' son Isaac Watkins said in December. "And it's turned more to frustration and more restlessness because the person responsible hasn't been apprehended."

The family clings to small details that they were told of Watkins' last moments.

The day of his disappearance, Tim Watkins approached the first of the NO SHOOTING signs on Mount Herman Road when his cell phone buzzed.

On a mountain bike ride in the foothills above Monument, he had inadvertently called a friend - a dreaded "butt dial." Watkins explained his mistake, the two shared a laugh, and he pedaled on. The account comes from family and friends, including a brief conversation that his widow, Ginger Chase-Watkins, had with the man who says he heard her husband's last words.

*****

Long before the communities of Monument and Palmer Lake were jolted by news of the fatal shooting, Mount Herman was known for its backcountry conflicts. Arguments over access and boundary lines rankled visitors and landowners. Bullets whizzed over makeshift shooting ranges. Reports of drinking and drug use were common, creating a sense of menace as drivers whipped around blind curves.

It was a reality that Watkins and his son encountered regularly.

While backpacking 10 years ago in Limbaugh Canyon, bullets whistled by Isaac Watkins' head and ricocheted off a boulder behind him. It happened less than an hour after Tim Watkins asked shooters on a hill overlooking the canyon to hold their fire while he descended on his bike to meet Isaac, who had already set up his camp.

Forest Service rangers recognized the problem, too. In summer 2014, they banned recreational shooting in the Mount Herman area - citing "weekly" complaints, errant bullets barely missing people and 911 reports of trail users being pinned down by gunfire.

Within days of the ban's implementation, signs announcing it were peppered by gunfire. Within weeks, Forest Service personnel had issued roughly 80 warnings to people found shooting in defiance of the ban.

Updated figures for Mount Herman aren't available, but shooting-related citations across the entire Pikes Peak Ranger District have plummeted in the past few years, a drop that District Ranger Oscar Martinez attributes in part to low enforcement staffing.

Even if the sound of gunshots have quieted, the sight of homeless camps have created their own tension.

Mountain bikers complain of abandoned camps resembling landfills, and of an eroding sense of safety as the area's homeless population grows. Some say enforcement of the Forest Service's ban on living on National Forest land is lacking, as is ticketing for campers who remain in one place longer than two weeks.

Some, like Watkins, took it upon themselves to educate those who refused to play by the rules.

Some of Watkins' friends wonder if his death was a result of a conflict between Tim and someone violating rules or laws.

Watkins wasn't the type to stand down.

If he saw motorists cutting off cyclists grinding up Mount Herman Road, he'd throw up his hands and yell at them, maybe flip them the bird. If he saw someone shooting illegally, he would tell them to stop breaking the law.

"He would always do that - he would always ask people to quit shooting," said Issac Watkins.

*****

A picture taken in 2015 of happier times when Tim Watkins and Ginger Chase-Watkins rode the Bridges of The Butte 24-hour ride during the Crested Butte Fat Tire Festival hangs in the living room of Chase-Watkins' Palmer Lake home Tuesday, March 6, 2018. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Ginger Chase-Watkins sits at her dining room table in a small ranch house filled with reminders of her two-year marriage. A photograph shows Tim and her riding their bikes along a road leading into Crested Butte, an outdoor sanctuary they shared.

For decades, Tim Watkins knew Ginger only as a childhood friend - a kid 10 years his junior who often tagged along as the neighborhood children played in the foothills above Palmer Lake.

They knew each other as adults, and she began to detect inklings of romantic interest. He'd shovel her driveway after snowstorms. She'd visited with him wherever he worked on her bike.

But it wasn't until she came into his shop one day with a Yeti - a spiffed-out, Colorado-built performance bike known to turn heads on the trails - that romance blossomed.

"I tell everybody he married me for my bike," Ginger said, laughing. "All of a sudden, I didn't have a pumpkin on my head."

They became a couple in 2014 at Vinotok - Crested Butte's annual harvest festival marking the autumnal equinox and the Pagan rite of Thanksgiving.

And in 2015, they became husband and wife at that same festival.

"That was kind of how it all started," she said. "That was really when we got together - we kind of just loaded up the bikes, went to Crested Butte, camped out under the stars at Oh Be Joyful (campground), and rode bikes and were kids.

"I mean, I just fell in love."

*****

Ginger Chase-Watkins holds the ring her husband, Tim Watkins, had ordered for her before he went missing Sept. 15, 2017. Watkins designed the symbol of a mountain, trail and cross and would draw it on shopping lists and other notes for his wife. After Tim's death, Ginger received a message from the ring maker telling Tim it was finished. He never had the chance to give it to her. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)  

Ginger learned quickly that marrying a lifelong mountain biker and free spirit carried certain impracticalities.

Financial tensions complicated the carefree life she envisioned with her "big goofy redhead." As a medical imaging specialist, she often worked long hours and sometimes six days a week. In contrast, Watkins' bike shop closed about 10 years before they wed, and he began bouncing from job to job - first, with Lewis-Palmer School District 38 helping special needs students, and later at a Palmer Lake bike shop and at a shop in downtown Colorado Springs.

"I knew what I was getting into," she said. "I always knew I would be more financially responsible for our expenses. And I'm OK with that. I knew that. He was responsible for the fun, and did a bang-up job, by the way."

But each high had a low. They moved to Crested Butte - a mountain biking mecca - for a year, but returned when the cost of living grew too steep.

She even sold the Yeti that sparked their relationship so that Tim could keep his car, a Blue Honda Element.

And tensions arose. They spent nights apart. Sometimes, he camped in the hills west of Mount Herman. But the night before his disappearance, he asked if he could come home. Ginger said yes.

They talked about patching things up and, excited, made plans to return to Crested Butte.

"I had just been working so much," Ginger said. "And we were just - we were just disconnected for so long. We just needed to just get back and do what you do, what we love to do.

*****

The following morning - her birthday - she woke up around 5 a.m. Barely awake, Tim Watkins turned over long enough to say "Happy Birthday," and "I'll see you tonight," she recalled. He asked if she wanted go out to dinner to mark the occasion, and she suggested they save the money for celebrating their wedding anniversary in Crested Butte.

She left for work.

He went for a ride.

When she returned home at 8:30 p.m., Watkins and his bike were still gone.

She texted him. And she did her "best Sherlock Holmes deduction" - reasoning he was close by, because he had "terrible" night vision. Most likely, she thought, Tim was at the local O'Malley's pub, or visiting his parents or his son. She fed the dogs. Exhausted from work, she laid on the couch and fell asleep waiting for him.

The next morning, Friday, she awoke to no Tim. She sent a test message checking on him, but received no immediate response and left for work in Highlands Ranch.

A few hours later, Isaac called her asking about his dad.

"I don't know," she replied, "I thought maybe he was with you."

Between the lack of response from Tim and concern from his son, her own fears began to mount.

Soon after Ginger left work on Friday, she sought help from the Palmer Lake Police Department. But until Saturday, Watkins' disappearance didn't rise to the criteria for a missing persons report, said Palmer Lake Chief Jason Vanderpool. In the meantime Isaac Watkins began searching the hills above Palmer Lake by himself.

On Saturday, Ginger pleaded on Facebook for help finding her husband. Meeker replied, as did many in Palmer Lake and Monument.

They fanned out on Saturday over several square miles of forest. Multiple times, Meeker saw a red car and red-haired man resembling Daniel Nations. He thought nothing of it - sheriff's deputies had yet to announce suspicions that Nations had been threatening people in that area with a hatchet.

Soon, a woman ferrying searchers up Mount Herman Road spotted a shoe, and Ginger quickly confirmed it as her husband's.

Some time later, other volunteers spotted Watkins' wallet contents further up Mount Herman. Then, another team spotted Watkins' bike.

El Paso County Search and Rescue used bloodhounds to comb the area for Watkins' scent. A local group of drone operators sent their crafts into the sky, providing aerial footage, said Niall Byrne, also a search leader. One had a camera equipped with night vision, which flew into the night.

They thought they were searching on Saturday for an injured Watkins, that perhaps he'd crashed and maimed himself so badly on the trail that he couldn't get back into town. They were searching for a living, breathing Tim.

They found nothing.

Not until Sunday - the day before Tim and Ginger's wedding anniversary - did one of those civilian volunteers spot Watkins' buried body, Meeker said. It went unnoticed all that time, he said, despite resting a mere 50 feet from his bicycle.

"I remember some people mentioning to me, 'We literally could have walked on top of Tim yesterday,'" Byrne said. "That's how close we were.'"

*****

Ginger joined the search for Tim. She was only a couple hundred yards away when another person spotted the mound with the body. The call for a coroner crackled on a nearby radio, and immediately she bolted for the grave. Other searchers interceded.

"I needed to see that - I needed to see where he was," she said.

Several days later, she did, as she fell in line behind Meeker and made for Limbaugh Canyon one last time.

Tim's daughter, Arielle Watkins, walked by her side. Meeker's father took up the rear. The two men carried shotguns in their hands and pistols on their hips.

They made hushed small talk. They traipsed up the steep, quarter mile-long hill leading from Mount Herman Road to the top of Limbaugh Canyon.

And there the procession entered Tim's church.

Meeker pointed to the grave and stepped back.

"It was so small," Ginger Chase-Watkins would later say, weeping at the memory.

She stepped in, touching the dirt that had touched his body.

"I'm trying to imagine what a person would have to do to get him up that hill, and fold him up and put him in that hole," she said.

She expected closure being there, seeing it for herself. But it didn't come.

Instead she wedged herself in. She tried clawing the dirt in around her, cradled by the forest floor and the arms of Arielle holding her.

She lay there for a time. Rob Meeker and his father stood guard against a killer unknown.

In the silence of the forest, they heard only sobs.

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