No matter how winding and cold the trail, Randy Hansen pursued justice for Aaroné Thompson.
Thursday, December 1, 2005
For almost three weeks Hansen had been working seven days a week. He drove home mostly to shower, change clothes, and sleep. He hadn't seen his kids in days. He and Carrie were barely talking. Not that that was unusual. Carrie often told him he was emotionally unavailable and distant, especially when he became engrossed in a big case. That comment stung Hansen, probably because he knew it was true; he had always struggled with verbal affection. He'd always been shy and reserved. These were traits that helped make him a skilled interviewer—but maybe not a communicative husband. It was in his genes. His parents, who'd been married for more than four decades, never said "I love you" to each other in front of the kids. They never even said it aloud to Hansen or his older brother. There was love in the house, but it wasn't overt. When Hansen met Carrie Parks at Saugus High School in California, he fell in love with how comfortable she was saying "I love you." Yet it took him becoming a father for those words to float off his tongue more easily. Kids were easy to love. Which was why Hansen had such trouble understanding Aaron Thompson's indifference—and why he winced when Carrie pegged him as distant.
When he did see his wife, he didn't offer up much about the case. They never talked about his job. Well, they rarely talked about his job—and even when they did talk about it they didn't really talk about it. After all, a conversation about his days spent listening to a 13-year-old talk about how her stepfather touched her breasts or investigating who fractured the skull and broke the ribs of a six-month-old wasn't kitchen-table conversation. Hansen began to realize, though, that if he wasn't talking about his job, he wasn't talking much at all, especially with his wife.
And so the detective spent hours at the station, where he could discuss the strange details with other detectives, people who understood. For all the time he'd been putting in, though, Hansen stood at an impasse. Lowe and Thompson were refusing to speak to him. The kids seemed unwilling to help with specific details surrounding Aaroné. After days of executing the search warrant, the house wasn't revealing its secrets. The only concrete information he had that Aaroné was dead was from Eric Williams Sr., a convicted criminal. And there was nothing that pointed to her death, if it happened at all, as a homicide. More than once, Hansen thought that the case was simply impossible to solve. That the drudgery of doing interviews and following up on tips was not worth the effort and time spent away from his family. Even the interview he had lined up for that afternoon seemed like a waste of time, but he visited Tabitha Graves at her run-down home in Denver anyway.
Listed as one of the Thompson kids' in-case-of-emergency contacts at school, Graves said she and Lowe were old friends who'd had a falling out more than a year before. They hadn't talked since, she said, and she certainly didn't remember Lowe saying that anything had happened to Aaroné. For Hansen, it was just another frustrating dead end. Hansen threw down his card and asked Graves to call him if she thought of anything that might help. It was one of those perfunctory, cliché moves, almost never worth a damn.
But later that evening Graves picked up the card and dialed his cell phone. "Detective Hansen," she said, her voice trembling—he thought maybe she was crying. "I'm sorry, but I lied to you earlier today. Shely told me back in the summer or fall of 2004 that Aaroné was dead. She said Aaron did something with the body."
The typically unflustered Hansen couldn't help but feel his pulse quicken. It was already past quitting time, and his family was probably wondering if he'd ever come home, but Graves was on her way to the police station. She told Hansen she'd been in Lowe's car when Lowe said Aaroné had died. Lowe explained that one morning Aaroné hadn't come down for breakfast. When Lowe checked on her, she was in bed but wasn't moving or breathing. Lowe called for Thompson, who went into the bedroom with Aaroné for about an hour, came out with the girl wrapped in a blanket, and left in the family's Ford Expedition.
This was the break Hansen had been waiting for. He convinced Graves to make recorded phone calls to Lowe. And for five long months, from early December 2005 to early May 2006, he worked the relationship between Graves and Lowe. Hansen had Graves call Lowe just to talk, to catch up—and to build trust. To build enough trust, Hansen hoped, that Lowe would reveal not only how Aaroné really died—in the bathtub? in her bedroom?—but where she was buried.
Through dozens of recorded phone calls and three wiretapped meetings, Lowe maintained a healthy skepticism of Graves. Her distrust meant that Lowe rarely let her guard down enough to divulge much more than she'd told Graves in 2004. But there were moments of enlightenment, details that gave Hansen insight. During the third face-to-face meeting, Graves asked Lowe if the two of them could go place flowers on Aaroné's grave. Lowe balked at first, but then acquiesced: "I'll have Aaron do it," she said, adding to Graves, "You ain't going nowhere." Graves added pressure, saying, "Aaroné needs to be acknowledged, Shely." To which Lowe replied, "Ain't nobody forgot that baby."
Friday, May 12, 2006, 4:30 a.m.
The morning was still dark when a call came into Aurora's emergency dispatch center.
"911, what is your emergency?"
Aaron Thompson's voice was thick with alarm: My girlfriend isn't breathing.
Paramedics rushed to 16551 E. Kepner Place to find Shely Lowe unconscious and unresponsive. With Thompson at her side, Lowe was taken by ambulance to the Medical Center of Aurora. Shely Lowe died, at 33 years old, from heart failure.
Minutes later, the phone on detective Hansen's bedside table rang.
"This is Randy."
Sergeant Joe Young, the supervisor of the CAC unit, broke the news to a still-groggy Hansen, who climbed out of bed, once again, leaving Carrie alone. His first thought was that he'd lost the only line of communication he'd had—the one from Lowe through Tabitha Graves. His next and most heart-sinking thought was that any attorney could now explain Aaroné's death in a way that could get Aaron off the hook: Shely did it.
Late May 2006
Although Hansen would've liked to arrest both Lowe and Thompson for the crimes he thought they'd committed, he was just as content to cuff Thompson alone. And after more than six months of police work, Hansen thought he had enough to do just that. Hansen believed that the phone recordings between Lowe and Graves were damning enough to get a warrant on their own. But in his back pocket he also carried evidence that Thompson and Lowe did not buy seven mattresses as Thompson had said—a receipt from Bedroom Expressions showed they'd originally purchased eight. Hansen also had a witness, a Catholic nun no less, who was in the Thompson home the morning of November 14, 2005, for a Section 8 housing check—and she did not see Aaroné. Hansen itched to move on the arrest. He met with Sergeant Young and Aurora's chief of police, Daniel Oates, who both agreed that Hansen had gathered enough evidence to make the arrest.
But after a meeting with Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers the group changed its mind. Hansen had accumulated a mountain of circumstantial evidence, but his stack of evidentiary have-nots was considerable: no body, no murder weapon, no cause of death. Chambers suggested taking the case in front of the grand jury to make sure prosecutors had enough evidence to get a conviction. A grand jury isn't a criminal trial; no one gets sentenced to prison by a grand jury. But prosecutors love them—the power to subpoena witnesses and present evidence behind closed doors often proves to be a tremendously helpful investigative tool. The majority of grand juries hand down a "true bill," or an indictment, that gives prosecutors cause to go to trial.
The grand jury convened for the first time in the Thompson case in late spring 2006. Hansen attended two daylong hearings each month. He had to reinvestigate dozens of aspects of the case to present to the jury. It felt like overkill to Hansen. He was frustrated and tired. But he understood the process gave him a chance to see what his investigation might look like seen through the eyes of a jury. Still, the thought of going through the case for the grand jury and then having to do it again for a criminal jury felt overwhelming. The work hours involved were staggering—and Hansen simply didn't have the stamina to manage the case and deal with his home life.