Feature

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

Before he assumed the first and middle name of his older brother, Walter Osborne, Corbett was like most boys growing up in 1930s America. He played softball and soccer near his northeast Seattle neighborhood, studied in his family's modest home, and watched his parents rebuild their finances after the Great Depression. The second son born to Marion and Joseph Corbett, the telegraph editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the junior Corbett spent his youth enjoying a mostly typical American childhood.

He was a handsome boy, with an aristocratic face and a head of curly brown hair—a bright and curious child who spent weekends playing in front of the family's two-story home on a tree-lined street a few blocks north of the University of Washington campus. Corbett, who was not close to his father, was a voracious reader, and his mother Marion encouraged him as he dove into German, Russian, political science, philosophy, physics, and mathematics. He was reserved, but Corbett had set himself apart with his intellect. In eighth grade, he was named president of his class.

Corbett grew quickly and awkwardly (he was nearly six feet tall before high school), and, despite developing into a dashing teen, he apparently never outgrew a poor self-image. The personal difficulties spilled into the classroom, where he dropped classes or didn't complete his work.

Despite finishing only in the top 25 percent of his high school class, Corbett enrolled at the University of Washington as a physics major. Before starting classes, the university issued a general assessment test to all incoming students. Corbett scored a 91 out of 99, between 31 and 41 points higher than the average incoming freshman. Corbett was declared a borderline genius.

If he knew this, the information didn't go to his head. Corbett joined a short-lived fraternity of 12 physics majors but was completely forgettable. As in high school, he struggled to maintain a full course load. By his third year, in 1949, Corbett only had enough credits to qualify as a sophomore. His academic performance was erratic. His only achievement, it seemed, was that he had kept a job testing adhesives for the American-Marietta Co. When Corbett quit his job, he slipped out of work early so he wouldn't have to attend his going-away party.

By June of 1950, out of a job and behind in his course work at the university, Corbett returned home and contemplated dropping out of school. While he was at home, his mother walked out onto a balcony on which Corbett had been fixing a banister and fell one story onto a well grate. She died five days later.

Corbett lost himself in a fog of depression. His brother, Walter, had left home six years earlier, and the relationship between Joseph Jr. and his father seemed more distant than ever. (He would later say that his father oozed selfishness.) Corbett left the University of Washington and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. By October, just a few weeks after starting classes, he dropped out.

The shots sounded like lightning striking a tree. A woman hanging clothes a couple of miles from Turkey Creek heard them in quick succession, as did another woman who had been reading at her home nearby.

Crack-crack.

A milkman on a route around Morrison stopped at the bridge's edge around 10 a.m. and honked his horn. A Travelall was blocking the route. Its engine was running, and the radio was on. The milkman honked again.

Corbett returned to his Denver apartment around noon on February 9. A thick layer of dried mud ran up the Mercury and covered the yellow paint and spattered the windshield. Dirt streaked the car and hung under the bumpers. Corbett parked the Mercury, walked upstairs to his room, and closed the door. Inside apartment 305, Corbett picked up a letter, which was sealed in a white envelope and lined with two taped stamps so the DNA in his saliva could not be traced. The address was typed and included no street or number.

Mrs. Adolph Coors III
Morrison, CO
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