Anatomy of a Murder

In February of 1960, Adolph Coors III was murdered by Joseph Corbett Jr., sending a shock throughout Denver. Robert Sanchez looks back at one of the most sensational crimes in Colorado history.

February 2009

The packages arrived outside apartment 305 with considerable frequency, with return addresses from places like New York and Bangor, Maine. They were from gun makers, mostly, and the man in 305 received them with great satisfaction.

It was December 1959 and Denver was in the midst of a cold winter. Outside the Perlmor Apartments, near the corner of Pearl Street and Colfax Avenue in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, the city was aglow in Christmastime. A few minutes' walk from the third-floor apartment, the City and County Building was saturated in light. From the window in his studio room, the man could hear the holiday bustle of cars and buses in a town he'd come to enjoy.

His name was Joseph Corbett Jr., but he called himself Walter Osborne. Although he was a trim six-foot-two—a head taller than most in his building—he cut an innocuous figure. He was 31 years old, though his body appeared much older: His shoulders were meek, his face long through the ears and the jaw. He wore dark-rimmed glasses and slicked back his light-brown hair so that only the cowlick near his right temple appeared out of place. His two front teeth slanted inward. His eyes were gray.

Osborne did not smoke or drink. He did not own a phone. His apartment was Spartan, with a sleeper couch, a table, a gas stove, and a miniature refrigerator. The walls were white. After nearly four years at the Perlmor, Osborne rarely spoke with his neighbors. Because of this, some of the women in the apartment building had come to refer to him as their "Mystery Boy."

Osborne's landlady, a woman named Viola Merys, knew the man in 305 had once worked as a graveyard-shift chemist cooking alkyd, a synthetic resin, at the Benjamin Moore Paint Co., near the corner of Walnut Street and Broadway, at the north end of downtown. Osborne had quit his job a few months earlier. No matter, Merys thought, as long as her tenant continued making his payments.

As the chill of winter frosted the city that year, Merys could not have known that while the rest of Denver was reveling in the fruits of postwar affluence that had brought new Buicks and color television to an emerging middle class, the finances of the man in 305 were relegated to his $75-a-month rent, to twice-weekly gas fill-ups, and to the mail-order items that were arriving outside his room.

Walter Osborne was nearly broke. But he had a solution. It came in the packages, which he opened in the quiet of his room.

At the turn of 1960, as Denver was building skyscrapers and the Soviets launched rockets to the moon, the Adolph Coors Company in Golden was the 14th largest beer producer in the country and was easily the most dominant brewer in the West. Its president was Adolph Coors III—grandson of the company's Prussian-immigrant founder—a bookish, quiet man who, ironically, was allergic to beer.

The company Adolph Coors III inherited was even more powerful than it had been in the early days when the brewery opened in an abandoned foothills tannery along Clear Creek in 1876. Following the model its namesake founder set generations earlier, familial distrust of outsiders was a Coors trademark: The company rarely borrowed money, it abhorred union labor, and it shunned publicity as much as possible. Rare was a Coors photograph in the society pages of the local newspapers. Even rarer was a Coors who couldn't make a business a winner. The Adolph Coors Co. succeeded, the family believed, because Coorses ran it.

And perhaps there was something to that. After all, it was Adolph Coors and his son, Adolph Jr., who ushered the business through Prohibition. While other breweries across the country were shuttered, Coors plugged away on grit and ingenuity. With alcoholic beverages outlawed, the company manufactured porcelain and malted milk, and became the nation's first maker of nonalcoholic beer.

Through Adolph Coors' planning, the company became a staple of Colorado life and a model of American enterprise. So it was a shock when he fell out of a hotel window—some suspect it was a suicide—in 1928.

Adolph Jr. took his old man's place in the corporate hierarchy. Educated at Cornell University, he was a brewmaster by trade and a businessman by birth. The second Adolph turned Coors into a porcelain-manufacturing giant, and soon after Prohibition ended the company was supplying the government with cones that would be used to build missiles. When the alcohol market reopened, Coors intensified its marketing outside Colorado, beginning advertising campaigns that pushed the beer's mountain-source water as the key to its taste.

Adolph Jr.'s sons—Joseph, William, and Adolph III—all learned at their father's elbow. All three earned Ivy League degrees, and all three worked for the family from the time they were young enough to push a handcart. They grew up together, raised their families together, and expanded the family business together. Their modesty belied their wealth. At the mandate of their father, the Coors boys wore leather high-tops and button-down shirts and no sport coats. They shared an office with three metal desks. Because Adolph Jr. had nearly been abducted in a kidnapping plot in 1933—an event that deepened the family's distrust of outsiders—Coors men were required to spend much of their after-hours time at the family's whitewashed ranch house on the company's property.