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 left his room, Corbett gathered four pairs of underwear and two towels. He stopped at the cleaners, where he received ticket No. 14476. And he dropped the letter in the mail.

Joseph Corbett Jr. returned to his room that afternoon, closed the door, and waited for an answer.

It wasn't his first murder.

A few days before Christmas 1950, Corbett picked up a 20-year-old hitchhiking sergeant from Hamilton Air Force Base, near San Francisco, and shot the man twice in the head. The man's body was found in Marin County, and Corbett was caught in a stolen car a few days later in Beverly Hills. He admitted killing the man, claiming it was in self-defense, then later saying that it was a botched robbery attempt.

How Corbett went from scientific prodigy to a murderer is perhaps the greatest mystery of his life. Psychiatrists and newspaper reporters would wonder whether it was the sudden death of his mother that had pushed him over the edge. His father initially called the arrest a mistake, but later told a newspaper reporter that, "If he did it...somewhere along the line something had snapped inside him."

Corbett pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the spring of 1951 and was sentenced to a maximum of life in prison. He served one year at San Quentin near San Francisco, where his IQ was measured at 148 and he occasionally cited Nietzsche's philosophy of might makes right. Corbett then spent three years at a mental hospital at Terminal Island, California, where doctors viewed him as high-strung, "markedly schizoid," and "abnormal." Psychiatrists warned that he had the potential to explode into "violent, uncontrolled emotion."

In April 1955, Corbett was discharged from the prison hospital and moved to a minimum-security cell. His time in prison was not entirely lost, however. His father—and his new wife, Helen Marie—visited, and father and son began to repair their relationship. The junior Corbett frequently turned the conversation toward college and his wish to complete his undergraduate degree.

But on August 1, 1955, four years after entering prison, Corbett sneaked out of his minimum-security cell, put on clothes that he had hidden in a laundry cart, opened a window screen, and disappeared.

He surfaced a few weeks later in Los Angeles, where he adopted his brother's name and found work at an ice company. He signed up for a life-insurance policy (naming his "friend," Joseph Corbett Sr., as the beneficiary) and joined a union. While he had maintained a low-key demeanor, Corbett was on the constant lookout for an opportunity to leave. On a whim that December, Corbett packed a suitcase and headed to Denver.

A few months after arriving, Corbett rented apartment 305 at the Perlmor, got a driver's license at the Division of Motor Vehicles, started looking for work using the Walter Osborne alias, and told people he had a wife—a lie—whom he named after his mother.

Corbett got a job at Benjamin Moore the following spring, beating out 117 other men for a job. He grew more comfortable as he realized that he was perfectly adept at hiding in plain sight. It was a quality that would suit him well.

"Come with me," Jefferson County sheriff's lieutenant Ray Kechter told his lab technician, Dale Ryder. "I'll explain on the way."

Kechter handed Ryder a camera, and the two men loaded into a car. They rode 15 minutes to the Turkey Creek bridge on word from the Colorado State Patrol that a vehicle belonging to the Adolph Coors Co. had been found running, minus the driver. It was 1:30 p.m.

Kechter and Ryder pulled up to the site and saw Coors' Travelall. The men recognized the person next to the vehicle, brewery president Bill Coors. Next to Coors, a sheriff's corporal and a few state patrolmen were inspecting the Travelall's bumper. More than 100 law-enforcement officers and volunteers were nearby, searching muddy fields, peeking into abandoned caves, and kicking thick sheets of scrub and ice that covered the hilly landscape.

Ryder got to work snapping photos of tire marks and collecting blood, dirt, and rocks on the bridge. He could hear the deputies searching in the distance. Ryder stood and turned his attention to specks of blood on the station wagon's bumper, then to droplets on a window. Ryder saw a blood-spattered railing on the bridge and scraped the blood. A portion of the bridge's wooden railing was removed and prepared for a crime lab.

Coors' advertising manager, Bill Moomey, brought two bloodhounds. The dogs caught Ad Coors' scent, but quickly lost it. Moomey looked glumly at a nearby officer. "Ad never left this bridge."

Ryder was handed a ball cap and a snap-brimmed fedora. The cap was khaki. The fedora was dark brown. Ryder studied the hats, then motioned for Bill Coors to come over. The man pointed definitively to the khaki cap: "I'm sure this one's Ad's. I'm not sure about the other." Mary Coors arrived a few minutes later. She was more certain: "Ad hasn't worn a fedora in years."

Sheriff's deputies stood guard over Coors' ranch house. News reports had gone out already, and the family began receiving prank calls. Police put a tap on Bill Coors' Denver phone.

The late-afternoon light began to give way to darkness. The sheriff ordered the creek drained. There, on a muck-covered rock, were Ad Coors' glasses.