Joseph Corbett Jr., the man who sparked an international manhunt after he murdered beer-baron Adolph Coors III in 1960, was found dead inside his Denver apartment Monday from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound. He was 80 and had been suffering from cancer. I met Corbett once, and it is a memory that will stay with me forever. It was in the last moments before my story on Corbett and his role in the Coors murder was to go to print. I’d visited Corbett’s apartment on Federal Boulevard at least a dozen times last summer, and though I always thought he was behind the door, he didn’t open it. I won’t go through all the details (you can read them in the story, which ran in February), but here’s the gist:
Corbett shot Coors early one morning on a bridge near Morrison in an apparent botched kidnapping attempt. Corbett stashed Coors’ body in a yellow Mercury and drove it to Douglas County, where it was taken to the foothills and left in a community dump. A target shooter found the remains–including Coors’ bloodstained jacket–months later, as the FBI was tracking Corbett first to New Jersey, then into Canada. Corbett was arrested in Vancouver, and he was convicted of murder in 1961. After his conviction, Corbett became a star inmate and was released from prison in 1980. After culling hundreds of pages of FBI reports, newspaper clips, and even his jailhouse letters, I’d come to know Corbett perhaps as few others had. Just when I thought I had him pinned, he finally opened the door. He didn’t look like a killer. He looked like a grandpa. His face was long; his shoulders sloped. I found myself staring at his arms, the wrinkled flesh dangling from the bone. He was wearing a tattered white T-shirt and some threadbare slacks. I’d come to meet a murderer, but seeing him so worn and so beaten, I strangely began to feel sorry for him. Though he didn’t let me into his studio apartment, I could see inside the single room. It was as if time had stopped somewhere around 1985, which, of course, it had for Corbett. In his last decades, he rarely ventured out. He stopped working at some point in the ’80s (he drove a truck for the Salvation Army) and then checked out from society. In his doorway, we made small talk, and I asked if I could interview him. “It’s nothing personal,” he told me. “I have nothing to gain from the notoriety. I’ve put it behind me. It’s a gruesome memory.” I ended my story this way:
Corbett then smiled meekly…. He shook my hand, thanked me for visiting, then closed the door and disappeared into his small apartment, a man, alone in the twilight of his existence, voluntarily confined to a prison of his own making.