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 "Mystery Boy" was acting strangely.

It wasn't yet dawn on Colfax Avenue on Wednesday, February 10, 1960, when Corbett began climbing his apartment's stairs, grabbing boxes from his room, then hurrying down the steps and bursting out the back door. He walked down the alley that connected his building to Colfax Avenue, passing a few aging brick buildings along the way. The alley spilled onto the street, and in the distance Corbett could see the spires of the Temple Emanuel.

After he stuffed his car's rear seat with boxes, he returned to the building, where he found the landlady, Viola Merys, whom he told he was leaving to finish his degree in Boulder. He paid his last month's rent, and handed her his room key.

By the time Corbett drove off, the FBI was searching letters from the Morrison post office. One caught their attention; it was addressed to "Mrs. Adolph Coors III, Morrison, CO." The lower left corner was marked "Personal."

An FBI agent removed the letter from the envelope.

Mrs. Coors: Your husband has been kidnapped. His car is by Turkey Creek. Call the police or F.B.I.: he dies. Cooperate: he lives. Ransom: $200,000 in tens and $300,000 in twenties.

There will be no negotiating.

Bills: used / non-consecutive / unrecorded / unmarked.

Warning: we will know if you call the police or record the serial numbers.

Directions: Place money & this letter & envelope in one suitcase or bag..

Have two men with a car ready to make the delivery.

When all set, advertise a tractor for sale in Denver Post section 69. Sign ad King Ranch, Fort Lupton.

Wait at NA 9-4455 for instructions after ad appears.

Deliver immediately after receiving call. Any delay will be regarded as a stall to set up a stake-out.

"Understand this" Adolph's life is in your hands. We have no desire to commit murder. All we want is that money. If you follow the instructions, he will be released unharmed within 48 hours after the money is received.

Coors' father spoke to reporters that same day. "I am dealing with crooks who have something I want to buy—my son," he said. "The price is secondary."

A three-line classified advertisement was placed with the Denver Post. It ran the next day, February 11.

JOHN DEERE. 1957 model 820, 69
h.p. tractor for sale. King Ranch,
Fort Lupton, Colo.

Adolph Coors Jr. worked to get the ransom, securing cash from a Boston bank, and organized the money in the proper denominations. The $500,000 was delivered overnight to Golden, and the family waited for the kidnapper's call. On February 22, 13 days after the kidnapping, Mary Coors wrote a note to reporters waiting outside her home. Jefferson County sheriff's deputies had moved off the property, she said; the family was alone. "We are ready to pay for my husband's safe return," she wrote. Her plea would go unanswered.

Federal agents, meanwhile, were gathering clues. Dried blood on the Travelall's windows and front bumper were at the FBI lab. More than four people—including Coors' second daughter, Cecily, and the miner—reported seeing a suspicious man sitting in a car, often with a rifle in the front seat. Agents moved quickly. Using the partial plate number the miner had given them, they traced the vehicle to an east Denver car dealership where Corbett had purchased the Mercury. It was basic police work from there: Agents ran the name "Walter Osborne" through Colorado's driver's license records, which had a fingerprint on file. The print matched that of an escaped murderer from California.

A few days earlier, on February 17, Corbett's Mercury had been found burning in a dump in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The car's interior was charred, and some of the windows were melted. Despite the damage, agents were able to make out the vehicle identification number.

Meanwhile, FBI agents made their way to the Perlmor Apartments, where Viola Merys told them that Walter Osborne had moved out the morning of February 10. When the agents searched the apartment building, they found handcuff boxes, tent poles, and leg irons.

Had it not been a botched job, perhaps Corbett and Coors would have spent a few weeks camping, living in the tent Osborne had purchased in Denver, and planning Coors' return to his family.

During his four years stalking Coors—holing up in his vehicle and preparing at the Perlmor—Corbett was meticulous about his preparation. But there was a flaw, one that had followed him from the time he was a young student who couldn't finish his classes. For all his work, Corbett couldn't seem to complete the task at hand. He neglected to form an exit strategy, and the poor planning was catching up to him.

It didn't start out as a murder, or at least the evidence doesn't point in that direction. Because there were no witnesses, the final moments of Coors' life remain open for interpretation. Evidence, however, would lead most observers in one direction: On the morning of the shooting, Corbett met Coors somewhere near the Travelall driver's side door, where there was a struggle. Coors then was shot twice from close range in the right shoulder blade, as if he had been running away. Coors' glasses fell off—possibly when his body fell against the wooden railing—and landed in the creek.

After the shooting, Corbett took the body and sped south about 20 miles on a maze of back roads into Douglas County, to the snowy hills and pine-covered mountaintops that loomed in the distance. Mud and pink feldspar dust gathered underneath the vehicle, which later would give federal agents a geological fingerprint on which to link Corbett to the crime. The road swerved and led deeper into the countryside, into a mess of more mud and trees.

Corbett stopped at the side of a wooded dump and pulled Coors' body from the vehicle. The ground was covered in snow. Blood soaked the back of Coors' parka. Coors still had on his pants, his boots, his tie, and his checkered shirt. Change jangled in his pants pockets. Corbett must have figured Coors would never be found.