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

On March 30, the FBI added Corbett to the 10 most-wanted list, saying, "We want this man more than anyone since John Dillinger." Corbett's photo became ubiquitous, and federal agents canvassed the country, interviewing Joseph Corbett Sr., former coworkers, neighbors, and inmates in California.

If the noose was tightening, it wasn't outwardly apparent. Nearly two months had passed since Coors' disappearance, and there was no body, no witnesses, and no Corbett.

A few miles from Ad Coors' ranch, life at the Coors plant went on as if Ad had never existed. Bill and Joe split their brother's duties without animosity, and their father never publicly discussed his son's disappearance with employees.

The outward indifference belied the family's inner turmoil. There is little evidence that Adolph Coors Jr. reached out to Mary or to his grandchildren, and the family's coolness toward her husband's disappearance pushed Mary into a haze. She began to drink heavily. Mary's children, too, felt the isolation. The burden followed them to school, where they were protected by armed guards. Any semblance of a regular life had been shattered. And eventually, any relationship Mary and her children had with the rest of the Coors family would appear hopelessly lost.

The discontent Mary felt toward her in-laws was heightened that September when a target shooter walking in a remote Douglas County dump found Ad Coors' pants and his penknife. More than 20 FBI agents and sheriff's deputies searched the landfill until they found Ad's remains. Bill Coors addressed reporters with an indifference that stung Mary. "It's obvious," Bill said, "the guy was murdered."

Six months after the murder, Corbett lived in a boarding house that he rented in a Jewish neighborhood on the west side of Toronto. Corbett found the neighborhood charming, with its Scottish-named streets, but it was hardly an ideal existence.

By late August 1960, Corbett was on his third job in six months. A job-hopper out of necessity, he had left two previous positions because his bosses began uncovering lies on his resume and started asking questions. His newest place of employment, a warehouse in the city, kept him from the creeping eyes of management.

That same month, news of Coors' murder finally reached Toronto. When he learned of the newspaper stories, Corbett left town; in his rush, however, he left behind a plastic wallet, his driver's license, his union card from California, and a book: Anatomy of a Murder, by Robert Traver. A few days later, a former Toronto coworker who had read a Reader's Digest story about the murder—which included Corbett's photo—called police.

Corbett left from Toronto en route to Winnipeg, passing lakes Huron and Superior. While police searched his second-floor room in Toronto and FBI agents began arriving in Canada, Corbett, who was already in Winnipeg, rented a fire engine-red 1960 Pontiac, and then skipped town again.

Corbett spent his 32nd birthday in a Vancouver hotel under the name Thomas C. Wainwright. The coastal city felt familiar. Corbett intensely missed the Pacific Northwest after leaving Seattle a decade earlier, and he found that the surrounding water calmed him.

As with his previous stops, Corbett was prepared to make a new home. He had been searching for a new job and had ordered a rental typewriter; he notified the front desk that he was expecting a delivery. He also moved the conspicuously red car to a garage.

As Corbett sat in his room the morning of October 29, he prepared to restart his life for the third time in nine months. He drew the chain lock on his door and lay down on his bed.

Downstairs, a Vancouver police constable was talking to the hotel manager. The constable had heard a description of the rented car that morning during an FBI briefing and remembered seeing the red Pontiac with Manitoba plates parked near the hotel a few days earlier. The manager confirmed that the vehicle's owner was still there. Around 9 a.m., six squad cars with police and FBI agents surrounded the building.

Corbett heard a knock and a voice at his door: "Typewriter ordered for Mr. Wainwright." He unlatched the lock and turned the knob.

There, in the early light, he saw gun barrels pointed at his face. Corbett dropped his head. "I'm your man," he said.