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

Corbett sat in a cell at the Jefferson County jail in Golden. He did not seem terribly troubled by his incarceration, though he complained of the injustice and of the noise. "I got five hours' sleep last night," he told his jailers. "The doors were banging."

During marathon interviews, Corbett portrayed himself as confused and distraught—as a man who still struggled with his mother's death. During interrogations, Corbett refused to admit to Coors' murder. Instead, he discussed international politics, religion, and airplanes (he once envisioned using an airplane in a crime and studied books on flying).

The trial began in early 1961 and lasted 13 days. District attorney Ronald J. Hardesty pursued a first-degree murder conviction based mostly on the geological evidence found under Corbett's Mercury. He then pieced together the rest of the narrative from receipts and witnesses who saw Corbett's vehicle at the bridge. Fighting back tears, Mary Coors briefly testified about her husband's last minutes at home. "Her appearance was brief," the Rocky Mountain News wrote. "But her presence will be felt for the duration of the trial."

Corbett's attorneys kept their arguments simple. Their client, they said, was a victim of circumstance and was guilty only of being an already-wanted man who fled Denver because of federal police scrutiny following Coors' abduction. Corbett, they argued, thought the added police pressure would naturally turn up an escaped felon, and his abrupt move on February 10 was purely coincidental. Corbett did not testify on his own behalf. He sat motionless during much of the proceedings. The jury found him guilty, and Corbett was sentenced to life in prison.

But by the early 1970s, as Corbett was closing in on the dubious achievement as the longest-incarcerated prisoner at Cañon City at that time, his jailers began wondering whether Corbett had already paid back his debt to society. He actively worked in the prison hospital, where he had become a licensed X-ray technician, and is credited with saving several prisoners' lives. Meanwhile, Colorado's Legislature had begun reconsidering the meaning of life in prison. State lawmakers in 1973 changed a statute to mandate that any inmate imprisoned for 10 years or more receive a parole hearing.

Starting in 1978, Adolph Coors IV, Ad's son, visited Cañon City three times. Corbett refused each meeting. Adolph Coors IV was a born-again Christian who struggled in the years following his father's death. When he made his final visit, knowing Corbett wouldn't see him, Coors tucked a note into a Bible, which he handed to a guard: "I want to forgive you for what you did to my family," the letter read. "And I ask for your forgiveness for the hatred we've had for you all these years."

Less than two decades after the murder, Corbett, who had been a model prisoner, applied for work release. "I think the web of circumstantial evidence that was wrapped around me could have been wrapped around virtually anyone," Corbett told the parole board. "Further years of imprisonment [aren't] going to make me a better person. I've come as far as I can go."

By December 12, 1980, Joseph Corbett Jr. was a free man.

Ad Coors' remains were cremated shortly after they were discovered and later scattered over Aspen Mountain. (The Molson Coors Brewing Company does not openly discuss the murder, and through a company spokesperson declined to make anyone available for comment for this piece.) Several months after the murder, Mary Coors returned to Denver with her children and sold her family's Morrison ranch for $200,000. Ad's parents seemingly had little to do with her as the years wore on, and Adolph IV would later write a letter to his grandfather, comparing him to "another Adolph, Adolph Hitler."

Things didn't get any easier for Mary. Her eldest daughter, Mary Brooke, died of cancer in 1968, at the age of 26, and was buried at Denver's Fairmount Cemetery. Mary Coors joined her daughter there seven years later, after falling at a friend's home in Aspen. She was 60 years old.

Joseph Corbett Jr., however, lives on.

Ron Olson supervised Corbett's parole from 1980 to 1985, and maintained a friendly relationship with him several years after that, helping Corbett get an apartment and a job driving a Salvation Army truck. (Cecily Coors' husband called Olson each year for the five years he supervised the parole, asking where Corbett was and what he was doing.) Olson and Corbett, meanwhile, chatted often at the parole office. During those conversations, the men talked about job prospects, and Corbett lamented the fact that he was now too old to finish college. He never admitted to the murder.

Nearly five decades after the botched kidnapping, Corbett is now 80 years old and lives in a third-floor studio apartment about 10 miles from the murder site. Perhaps out of necessity, he has slipped back into anonymity. His apartment curtains are drawn shut at midday, every day, and it appears that he rarely leaves his home. Over the course of several months, I phoned him often but couldn't leave a message because he doesn't have an answering machine. I also repeatedly visited his apartment and left business cards when he didn't open his door. On one afternoon last summer, children played outside his room, oblivious to the man who lived inside.

On my final visit—an unseasonably warm, sunny afternoon last month—he finally answered my knock. I introduced myself.

"I was just getting ready to write you a note," Corbett said.

As Corbett stood in the doorway, he looked much the same as he did in 1960. He was slim, with a long face and gray eyes. His shoulders and his back were hunched slightly, his slender, wrinkled arms extending from the sleeves of a white T-shirt. He was wearing a worn-out pair of light-blue dress pants. At first glance, he looked more like a grandfather than the man the FBI once chased across two countries.

"It's nothing personal," he said, declining to be interviewed. "I have nothing to gain from the notoriety. I've put it behind me. It's a gruesome memory."

Corbett then smiled meekly. From the doorway, a corner of his room was visible, with its white walls, dated carpeting, and what appeared to be a worn couch. He shook my hand, thanked me for visiting, then closed the door and disappeared into his small apartment, a man, alone in the twilight of his existence, voluntarily confined to a prison of his own making.

Robert Sanchez is 5280's staff writer. E-mail him at [email protected].

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