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The Case of the Gentleman Gambler

Grand Junction police think they’ve finally solved a years-old murder—if only they can get the alleged perpetrator back to Colorado to stand trial.

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On October 2, 2004, Loma rancher Jay Yount was rounding up cattle in the meadows below Douglas Pass, in a remote corner of Garfield County. As he rode his horse near a lonely road mostly traveled by pickup trucks motoring between northwest Colorado’s gas fields and cow pastures, the sun-bleached skull sitting alone near some brush caught his eye. Taking care to mark the spot with a ribbon, Yount picked up the skull and took it with him as he rode through the chiseled shale landscape. He figured he’d better remember where he found it, because while stumbling across an animal skull in Colorado’s wildlands isn’t unusual, finding a human skull is.

Seven years earlier and about 70 miles north, in the badlands near the Colorado-Utah border, Marcus Bebb-Jones and his wife, Sabrina, went for a day hike at Dinosaur National Monument. The two would-be entrepreneurs had spent the previous several years struggling to resuscitate the Melrose Hotel in Grand Junction, a turn-of-the-century lodge reeling from its flophouse reputation. The area’s fellow hotel owners saw them—this burly British man with his slight wife usually standing, literally and figuratively, in his shadow—as unassuming but engaged in Grand Junction’s tourism industry. Their employees, British college girls on a work-study program, said the couple occasionally could be argumentative, partly due to the husband’s flirtatious nature with guests. Sabrina could get jealous, they said, but she was always devoted to their three-year-old son Daniel, and no one ever saw any fights between the couple turn violent. “They just seemed like nice, everyday business people trying to make a go of a local business,” says Lynne Sorlye, general manager of the Clarion Hotel in Grand Junction.

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This perception began to unravel after Marcus returned from the September 1997 day trip, alone and seemingly distraught. He told his employees the two had again quarreled over Sabrina’s jealousy. Once they arrived back in Grand Junction, he said, she stormed away and vanished. He had his employees call around to area hotels to see if anyone had seen Sabrina. When that turned up nothing, Bebb-Jones put Daniel in the family’s newly washed van the following evening and drove out of town, telling his employees that he was off to look for his wife in Las Vegas, where she had family and friends. (Police weren’t alerted to Sabrina’s disappearance for still another day, when a Melrose employee filed a missing person report.)

Police say Bebb-Jones did ask around about his wife in Vegas before going on a “playboy” spree, dropping thousands of dollars on prostitutes, designer clothes, and a rented Ferrari. After father and son had been in town for three days, a maid in the Flamingo Hilton Hotel found Daniel, left alone and half-naked in their room. The next day, after police took Daniel into protective custody, a maid in another hotel found Bebb-Jones alive but bloodied by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to his jaw. Nearby was a note: “Sabrina, initially you may not think this is the best. I can’t change who I am. I understand your anger, but now as the years pass, that will diminish. This is the only way I can be without you or Daniel. Please don’t hate me. Marcus.”

Garfield County detectives were skeptical. In a 40-page affidavit that reads like a Hollywood screenplay, they wrote that during the hospital interviews Bebb-Jones “seemed more concerned about talking with a lawyer rather than helping find Sabrina,” and a friend of Bebb-Jones told police that he’d gone on the sports car and hookers spree because “he wanted to go out in style.” Investigators found evidence of blood in the van—according to the affidavit, DNA tests later pegged it as 99.99 percent likely that the blood came from a child of Sabrina’s parents—and a Melrose employee was quoted in the affidavit as saying that “everyone at the hotel thought that Marcus had killed Sabrina.” But, unable to find a body, Garfield County police still couldn’t charge Bebb-Jones with a crime.

A year later the suspect sold the Melrose Hotel and split the money with his wife’s estate. During that year he’d been seen frequently in Las Vegas, hitting gaming tables around town, often with a stripper on his arm. He moved in with a Golden Nugget blackjack dealer for a time but soon left Vegas for England, leaving no forwarding address.

In fall 2004, after dental records identified the skull Yount found as Sabrina’s, dozens of searchers combed the nearby meadows but found no more signs of her body, probably because animals had scattered the bones. Investigators have always acted under the assumption that Sabrina was killed on or near Douglas Pass, though they admit they’re not sure. She may have been killed elsewhere and her body was dumped there. Or she may have been dismembered and her body parts scattered.

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By this time Bebb-Jones had turned to professional gambling, made a modest name for himself as a Texas Hold ’em player on the British poker circuit, and developed a reputation as a gentleman in the company of scoundrels. “Poker is full of low-life scum, basically,” says an official at the popular Nottingham poker club Dusk Till Dawn who asked not to be identified because of the club’s policy of not discussing its clients. “It used to be little gangsters playing poker in back rooms, but [Bebb-Jones] was the new age of poker.”

For professional players, losing a hand means losing a paycheck, and most pros have quick tempers and outsized egos, according to James Welch, a fellow poker player who knew Bebb-Jones from the Nottingham club. Welch says Bebb-Jones had a reputation as a “tight aggressive,” one who was conservative with bad hands, daring with good hands, and always even-tempered, win or lose. “Usually the better poker players are the more arrogant ones,” Welch says. “He was a real pleasure, a real nice gentleman, to be honest.”

What no one realized at first was that this apparently upstanding newcomer was being tracked by American police. The slow pace of the investigation—it was only after Yount found Sabrina’s skull in 2004 that it picked up again—allowed Bebb-Jones to remain a regular at Dusk Till Dawn until it leaked on British poker forums that police were scrutinizing him. Poker, of course, is all about disguising emotions and keeping hands hidden. Still, when rumors broke about the investigation, the Dusk Till Dawn official says the other players were stunned. “I never got the impression there was anything sinister in his body,” he says. “And I’ve rarely been wrong.”

On the other hand, the official notes, to play the mind-game of poker with a murder on your conscience would “take a lot of balls,” a quality that Bebb-Jones evidently possessed, at least at the tables. “He played [his hands] pretty normal,” Welch says, “but when he had the opportunity, he would go for the jugular.”

By last fall, American authorities had finally gathered enough evidence against Bebb-Jones, and one morning last November Scotland Yard officers arrested him at the home in central England where he lived with his mother and Daniel, now in his teens. Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario says he can’t remember a local case that required so much legwork, but he’s convinced they arrested the right man. “When we investigate a case, we go where the evidence takes us,” he says, “and the evidence took us to Marcus Bebb-Jones.”

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Since then Bebb-Jones has been fighting extradition. Earlier this year a British judge cleared the way for the transfer after Garfield County prosecutors pledged to take the death penalty off the table. Bebb-Jones still has remaining appeals in England, where his attorneys have argued that it would be inhuman for him to stand trial in a country where, despite prosecutors’ promises, execution still couldn’t be ruled out. Even so, Vallario remains optimistic that judges will eventually hand the suspect over to Garfield County. And back home in England, the Dusk Till Dawn official says Bebb-Jones’ former poker associates are still trying to get their minds around the image of the soft-spoken gentleman gambler as a murderer. “If he is guilty,” he says, “I hope he gets what he deserves.”

David Frey is a freelance writer in Glenwood Springs, Colorado. His website is www.davidfrey.me. E-mail him at [email protected].

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