Feature

Gone

No matter how winding and cold the trail, Randy Hansen pursued justice for Aaroné Thompson.

February 2010

Monday, September 28, 2009
Nine days is a long time for a jury to deliberate. For Hansen, each day that passed was another sign the jurors did not feel confident in the work he and his team had done to give Aaroné Thompson some small piece of justice. The thought of a hung jury—or, worse, a not-guilty verdict—made it difficult for Hansen to breathe. The wait was painful, but something else began to bother him too: the nothingness. For four years, the Thompson case had been his life. It had occupied his attention. It had taken over his work. It had pulled him out of bed and away from his wife and kids. It had become a part of him. When he had started this journey he was married, owned a house, and had two teenagers to keep up with. Now he was divorced and paying off debt from his married days; he lived in a one-bedroom apartment that still didn't have pictures on the walls; and his kids were old enough to live on their own.

For Hansen, a guilty verdict would validate more than his instinct that Thompson had tortured his daughter to death; it would mean that for all that he'd lost, there was some point, some good, that came of it. A not-guilty verdict would mean—well, he couldn't allow himself to go there. Not yet.

The trial had not attracted huge audiences during the long days of testimony, but the courtroom overflowed for the verdict on September 28. Hansen was too nervous to notice that the media and the public only wanted to see the end result—a fitting end to a tragic story all wrapped up in an hourlong session. They didn't want to sweat the details of how Thompson had been brought to justice—or who had brought him there—they just wanted to know that it was done.

As the judge began to read the verdict, Hansen leaned forward in his chair, his shoulders upright and rigid. In his mind, a full slate of guilty verdicts would've been justice well served, but he only needed to hear one "guilty" so long as it came after the words "count number one."

The first verdict dropped onto the still room—"guilty." Hansen's shoulders slumped, he hung his head, and a sad smile tugged at the edges of his lips. As the guilty verdicts piled up, eventually coming to 31, Hansen's eyes welled up. He was slow to get to his feet after the judge dismissed the jury and bailiffs took Thompson away. He shook hands with Bob Chappell and the rest of the prosecution team. He quickly checked his phone—he already had text messages from family and friends. One, in particular, caught his eye. It was from Carrie. It was short and to the point, but that didn't matter. It was one word that conveyed so much more: Congratulations.

Monday, November 30, 2009
Until four years ago, November 30 meant nothing to Randy Hansen. Now, the last day of November will forever register as Aaroné's birthday. Today she would have been 11. Instead, she is gone.

Maybe she's in a field like Shely Lowe once said, or maybe she's in the Aurora landfill under 200 feet of garbage. Hansen doesn't like either setting as Aaroné's final resting place, which is why over the years he has wandered across more than one open field, hoping he might chance upon the missing little girl. The detective had hoped that at the sentencing on November 10, Aaron Thompson would give up the location of his daughter's burial place. But despite pleas from Aaroné's birth mother, Lynette Thompson, who begged Aaron to draw a map so she could give her daughter a proper burial, and despite an admonition from an impassioned Judge Spencer, who told Aaron that he had failed as a man and as a father, he sat silent. The judge sentenced him to 114 years in prison.

Two years between a death and an investigation leaves too much room for time to erase the trail. That Hansen has not found Aaroné's body is not a failure to anyone except him. He expected he would find Aaroné's body, something of her, somewhere, but he understands that he has to say good-bye to a little girl he never knew, who dramatically altered his life. Which is why he helped plan a candlelight memorial for Aaroné on her birthday.

The ceremony begins at 4:30 p.m. as the sun begins to drop over the Rocky Mountains. About 60 people are gathered on a playground in Aurora. Hansen stands off to the side with his daughter, Cami. As darkness descends, the mourners light their candles. Hansen lights his daughter's candle and throws an arm around her shoulders. It's cold out, and she has no coat, but the half-hug is more for Hansen than for his daughter. After all the time he's spent thinking about and searching for Aaroné, an hourlong ceremony hardly seems like an appropriate end. And for Hansen, it probably isn't the end. Aaron Thompson's legal team will appeal the verdict. Acquaintances will ask him about the case at cocktail parties for years to come. And every time someone finds the body of a little girl—in Colorado or anywhere else—Hansen will be the first to ask if it's his little girl. But tonight Hansen is trying his best to say farewell. Seven speakers are lined up to talk to the small crowd, but Hansen is not one of them. He knows he'll just choke up. m

Lindsey B. Koehler is managing editor of 5280. E-mail her at [email protected].

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