This article won a 2011 Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Award, and was a finalist for a 2011 City and Regional Magazine Association award in the feature writing category.
It hasn't snowed in days, but the chill and wind remain. Randy Hansen is in no hurry to leave the warmth of his car, but he feels compelled. He scans the desolate expanse outside his car window: a seemingly endless open field of frosted grass. Twenty minutes, he tells himself, it's worth being out in the cold for 20 minutes to be able to cross this one off the list. The detective shoulders open the door, pulls a black wool cap tight onto his bald head, and walks into the field, his winter overcoat flapping in the wind. A former college football player, Hansen is tall and still possesses the kind of trim, sculpted physique that many men in their 40s have let slip away. Hansen typically exudes a formidable presence, but now, in this field in nowhere Aurora, he looks anything but.
A layer of old snow crunches underfoot. His eyes begin to water. He would tell you it's the wind. He keeps looking, squinting, searching the ground in front of his feet. He's not sure what he's looking for, exactly, or even if he's looking in the right place. After all this time, the unmarked grave of a little girl isn't likely to look like much. Maybe a modest mound rising from the otherwise flat field, maybe a slight indentation in the dirt. He knows that walking around this field—just like all the other fields he's examined after receiving a tip, or like now, on nothing more than a whim—is probably a waste of time. But he doesn't know what else to do, and he has to do something.
For a moment, Hansen allows himself to think. He's alone, in a field, in the cold, trying to unearth the body of a child he thinks he has to find. The phrase "obsessive-compulsive lunatic" pops into his mind. But then her face flashes in front of him, and he remembers how he got here. How he chanced upon this mystery, and how it changed his life in so many ways. On that snowy night years ago, in 2005, when he first got the call, Hansen could not have imagined how intertwined his life and this case would become. He could not have guessed he would not be living in his Arvada home, or that he'd be divorced. He wouldn't have envisioned he'd be spending as much time as he does at an Old Chicago drinking IPAs and talking to cute bartenders about his lack of a love life. He could not have foreseen that all these years later he would be ferreting around a vacant field hoping to find Aaroné.
Monday, November 14, 2005, 7:45 p.m.
Across the room the TV was blaring, filling the basement of an Arvada home with the resonant voices of Al Michaels and John Madden as they broke down the Monday night game between the Cowboys and the Eagles. Hansen had a clear view of the flat-screen from his weight bench. Working out was a requirement for Hansen, and not just because his job demanded basic fitness. The repetition helped him rub out the details of long days spent working as a detective in the Aurora Police Department's Crimes Against Children (CAC) unit. The distraction of a good NFL game didn't hurt either.
Halfway into a set of leg presses his cell phone rang. The call wasn't unexpected: Hansen was on-call for the evening, which meant he'd be the guy the department would dial if a crime involving a child cropped up.
"This is Randy."
The lieutenant gave Hansen the details: A six-year-old female had been missing since approximately 1 p.m. Police were on the scene. The address was 16551 E. Kepner Place, Aurora.
Hansen hung up the phone, relieved. Missing children were rarely ever truly missing. They were often hiding in the attic; sometimes they were at a neighbor's house; often they'd "run away" and would come home on their own. But only a fraction of one percent of missing children ever ended up really vanishing into thin air. Chances were police would find the kid before Hansen even made it to Aurora. He pulled on street clothes and grabbed the keys to his Chevy Impala. On his way out the door he hollered to his wife, Carrie: "Got a call. It's just a missing kid. I'll be right back." It was a line she had heard her husband say so many times before.
November 14, 2005, 8:30 p.m.
Hansen pulled into the cul-de-sac in front of the beige-brick home in Aurora. It had been snowing off and on for the past half hour. He stepped from the car into the 30-degree chill and looked for his on-call colleague, detective Chris Fanning. The other half of the detective twosome emerged from a navy-blue sea of uniformed patrol officers, many of whom had been searching the house and neighborhood for more than six hours but had yet to find any real leads. An Amber Alert couldn't be issued because there was no description of a vehicle or a potential suspect. Although police were already inside, Hansen and Fanning knocked on the front door. Aaron Thompson answered the door. He told the men he was the missing girl's father and showed them into the living room, where Shely Lowe, Thompson's live-in girlfriend, and the couple's other seven children were gathered.
Hansen surveyed the scene in the cookie-cutter home. He was immediately struck by the silence. In his experience, when a child was missing the family had a hard time controlling the volume. Someone was yelling or crying. Friends and family spilled in and out of the house—talking, updating, consoling. But not here. There was hardly a noise. The television was on, but the sound hovered just above a static whisper. The kids, who looked like they ranged from early elementary- to middle-school age, sat glued to the couches near the TV. Not one of them was talking. No one was playing a game. Hansen didn't even catch one trying to provoke another. The only activity they seemed to be allowed to do was their chores. Every few minutes, one would get up to clear away a dirty food dish or wipe down the kitchen counter or empty the dishwasher. Which was maybe why, Hansen thought, the house was so damn tidy. In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd seen a house full of children that was so clean.
He pulled up a chair to talk with Thompson while Fanning lured Lowe into the kitchen. In Law & Order fashion, the detectives interviewed each parent individually and out of earshot from the other. After so many years on the force, Hansen had witnessed a hundred different ways people react to stress, but he was still surprised that neither parent seemed the least bit emotional. No chin quivering. No eyes red with tears and exhaustion. No faraway stares. Thompson and Lowe were calm and cooperative as they told the detectives the same story they'd told patrol officers earlier that day: Just before noon, Aaroné and her sister were at the kitchen table. Thompson had just finished feeding them a late breakfast when Aaroné asked to have another cookie beyond what her father had already given her. When Thompson said no, the six-year-old threw a temper tantrum and ran upstairs to the bedroom she shared with her three sisters. Fifteen minutes later, Thompson went to check on his daughter and couldn't find her. A search of the house turned up nothing. After a brief look around the neighborhood, Thompson called Aurora police.
Thompson's retelling of the story seemed devoid of sentiment to Hansen. Even if it was the 10th time he'd told it that day, Hansen thought the father's lackadaisical delivery was strange. The detectives peppered the family with more questions, but neither Lowe nor Thompson nor the children could supply the detectives with any helpful information about where they thought Aaroné might be or whom she might be with. The little girl's parents said that Aaroné had no friends, didn't play outside, didn't have any extended family in Colorado, and hadn't yet enrolled in school. Hansen shot Fanning a frustrated look.
Hansen changed direction and asked for two things: recent photos of Aaroné and a tour of the kids' bedrooms. Lowe had handed over a snapshot of Aaroné to patrol officers earlier in the day. Hansen had examined the photo, but the blurry photograph showed a too-skinny toddler in a blue and white checkered outfit. Aaroné could barely have been four when it was taken. The missing girl was just two weeks shy of her seventh birthday. When he told Lowe and Thompson he needed a more recent picture of their daughter they couldn't produce one.
With the night growing late and the temperature dropping outside, Hansen hurried to the second floor. Thompson followed sluggishly. The detective looked out the windows, opened hallway closets, and then examined the girls' room. There were two sets of bunk beds for four girls, but only three mattresses. Hansen asked about the discrepancy, and Thompson explained that when he and Lowe bought the beds, they only had seven kids; when the eighth one came along Aaroné began sharing a bed with one of her sisters. Possible, Hansen thought, but pairing that with the lack of photographs and the family's underdeveloped sense of urgency—something wasn't right. Walking out of the bedroom, Hansen found the girl's father in the hallway, standing with his eyes closed. As Hansen passed by, Thompson cracked open an eye, looked at the detective, and said, "I'm kinda tired—I'm gonna go to bed."