No matter how winding and cold the trail, Randy Hansen pursued justice for Aaroné Thompson.
Thursday, November 17, 2005
At 5 p.m., Hansen arrived at the Thompson residence. The bland suburban house looked changed to Hansen somehow. More sinister, more ominous. A little girl probably had died in there, and Hansen had to make sure that didn't happen again. As he got out of his car, his heart pounding, Hansen realized he hadn't even thought about what he was going to say to the parents. He couldn't compromise the investigation by giving them too much detail, yet he had to tell them something: He was, after all, there to take their children away.
Having his own kids made police work harder—and easier—for Hansen. His work hours increased when he made the jump from patrol to CAC in 2002, which meant he saw even less of Justin and Cami—and Carrie too. At the same time, being a father gave him that parental instinct, a sixth sense that made him that much more protective of every child. And so, 44 and a half hours into the investigation, Hansen knew he had a critical decision to make. Seven children under the age of 16 were living in a home in which both parents were now suspects in the potential homicide of the kids' sibling.
Hansen had a sound argument for wanting to remove the Thompson children. But was there enough hard evidence? He wasn't sure; however, if there was ever a time to employ the better-safe-than-sorry motto, Hansen figured this was it. As a CAC detective, he understood the big picture: Each year in the United States about 800,000 children are victims of abuse and neglect—and nearly 1,800 die from it. Hansen had picked up the phone to call the Colorado Department of Human Services. He'd requested a court order to remove the kids.
The decision might have been more difficult if Hansen hadn't already listened to the taped interviews with Eric Williams Sr., the inmate whose cellie had said he had information about Aaroné's death. That interview had provided Hansen with a more convincing story line than Thompson's cookie anecdote. According to Williams, in January 2004 Lowe had told him that Aaroné died from an episode in the bathtub, and that she and Thompson buried the girl in a field. Lowe had also mentioned to Williams that the night the couple went to bury the girl they were stopped by police, but that nothing came of it. Hansen checked out Williams' story: Police in Greenwood Village had, in fact, stopped Thompson and Lowe in their Ford Expedition behind a grocery store—near the rows of Dumpsters—at 2:40 a.m. on January 21, 2003.
Both Thompson and Lowe were home when Hansen knocked on the door. The detective calmly explained that he had information that Aaroné had been dead for more than two years. He requested their cooperation. And then he broke the news that social services would be taking the children. Hansen watched for a reaction. Thompson didn't move or speak. His stunted response made Hansen wonder if the man was even listening. Lowe had definitely heard him.
"You bald-headed, redneck motherfucker!" she screamed. "You get the fuck out of my house!"
As much as Hansen would've loved to oblige—to leave this unpleasant scene and go home—he could not. Along with a court order to remove the children, he also had a search warrant that allowed him and his team to take possession of 16551 E. Kepner Place. If Eric Williams Sr.'s story was accurate, Aaroné hadn't been inside the home for at least two years. Hansen knew it was unlikely he'd find much evidence of a crime scene. Blood could be washed away, weapons disposed of, evidence tossed out. But over the course of the next several days, cadaver dogs would prowl through the home anyway, sniffing for old blood. The dogs showed interest in the girls' bedroom and in the upstairs bathroom, but the blood residue the crime scene investigators found came from other children in the house—not from Aaroné.
Police scoured every room, bagging anything they felt could be evidence. Hansen took every toddler-size girl's shirt in case the CSIs needed to pull more DNA later. Officers also tagged bags of Halloween candy (seven), pairs of kids' gloves (seven), and toothbrushes (seven), none of which popped positive for Aaroné's DNA. NecroSearch, a Colorado organization that specializes in finding clandestine grave-sites, set up in the Thompson's backyard. As media helicopters hovered above the Aurora home, a team of volunteer scientists used ground-penetrating radar to search the property for disturbed soil. They noted a handful of suspicious patches of earth, but after hours of digging nothing was found. Aaroné, as far as anyone could tell, had not been tossed into a makeshift grave on the Thompson property.
Friday, November 18, 2005
Taking the Thompson kids out of the home the night before had been emotionally draining, but not nearly as challenging as Hansen had imagined. Even with Lowe's insults ringing in his ears, Hansen had calmly helped the children toward the door. He asked the kids to get their coats, and, for the most part, they walked out of their home without so much as a whimper. Hansen wondered if they'd learned the stoicism from their father, or if they were simply terrified into speechlessness.
After bringing the children to the police station, Hansen and another detective decided to question the oldest child, a 15-year-old, who was actually Shely Lowe's younger brother. The teenager had been living with the family since August 2004. He was old enough, Hansen thought, that he might be able to put something—anything—into context.
Hansen had a gift for interviewing. Detective Chris Fanning, Hansen's coworker of two years, always said it was Hansen's talent for maintaining an even keel that made him a good CAC detective. Even talking to a child molester, Hansen could keep his cool. But that night, after four days of wading though murky waters with the Thompson family, Hansen lost his patience when the teenager became defensive and the kid punched the wall. "What am I supposed to think when I see a father falling asleep when his little girl is supposedly out in the cold and snow?" Hansen asked, his tone this side of angry. The boy didn't answer. Hansen could tell he wanted to protect his sister, but it was obvious he wasn't entirely sure what he was protecting her from.
The interview dragged on for five and a half hours, during which time something occurred to Hansen: If the boy moved into the Thompson house in August 2004 and Aaroné died sometime in 2003, he might not have known she ever existed. When Hansen pressed the boy on whether he had actually ever met six-year-old Aaroné, the boy hesitated, then relented. He'd never seen her, he said. Not once.
Some of the other kids were interviewed on Friday morning at SungateKids, a child-focused facility where the Aurora Police Department took the vast majority of its youngest victims for forensic interviews. Listening to the recorded conversations, Hansen could tell the children were terrified, but for reasons he hadn't anticipated.
At first, the kids wanted no part of the interviews. They said they didn't know anything. They repeated that the last time they'd seen Aaroné had been Monday morning before school. But as the interviewers trudged on, strategically pressuring the kids and refusing to let any inconsistencies pass, Hansen listened to a bizarre plot twist emerge: As each kid opened up, he or she said that, more than a year earlier, Lowe and "Big A," as the kids called Thompson, had told them that Aaroné had gone back to Michigan to live with her real mom. They'd said they sent her back because she was bad. On Monday morning, the day Aaroné "disappeared," Lowe and Thompson told the kids that Aaroné had come back from Michigan that morning and had then run away. They told the kids to tell the police they had seen her before they left for school.
The stories confirmed what Hansen already suspected: Their parents had coached them on what to say to the police. The kids, vaguely understanding their parents were in trouble, hadn't wanted to say the wrong thing—were terrified of saying the wrong thing—concerned they might be sent away, or worse. To prove his theory correct, Hansen had the interviewers ask each child the same questions their eight-year-old brother had asked him: What is Aaroné's favorite food, what's her favorite color, and what was she for Halloween? "Pizza," "orange," and "witch" spilled out of the children's mouths, followed closely by the admission that their parents had told them to say those exact things to the police if they were asked. But the children weren't completely forthcoming. They still weren't offering up all of the answers to Hansen's questions. Questions like: What happened the last time you saw Aaroné?