Chasing A Ghost

For 33 years, no one had been able to solve the homicides of three women, all of who had been assaulted and killed in the same grisly manner just months apart. When detectives from the Denver Police Department’s cold case unit recently reopened the investigations, they not only identified the murderer, but they also found one of the most brutal serial killers in Colorado history.

October 2012

In 1978, Vincent Groves was 24 years old and lived in relative obscurity in Denver, where he worked as an electrician at the Gates Rubber Company near downtown. He was 6 feet 5 inches tall with light brown skin and an easy, confident gait. He’d come from a middle-class family in Wheat Ridge, the oldest of three sons born to a postal-worker father and a teacher mother. They lived in a brick home on a gently sloping corner lot that overlooked a neighborhood of ranch-style houses and slowly maturing shade trees. Groves had been a prom king finalist in high school, a member of the student council, and a basketball player on a team that included future National Football League wide receiver Dave Logan. Shortly after Wheat Ridge High School lost the 1972 state championship, Groves enrolled at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where he played basketball for two years. He dropped out in 1974 and returned to Colorado, where he cared for his elderly grandmother, worked, and spent time with his parents. Although he didn’t consider himself overly religious, he often attended the Baptist church where his father was a deacon and his mother played the organ.

Since leaving college, Groves also lived a secret life. When he was away from his family, Groves drank at a Denver lounge called the New Yorker. Friends began to think he was an alcoholic. At night he cruised a five-mile strip of East Colfax Avenue, a road connecting the Denver-Aurora border notorious for its pay-by-the-hour motels and easy access to drugs. Among his closest acquaintances were pimps and prostitutes, whom Groves often supplied with cocaine. He befriended one prostitute, a 17-year-old named Jeanette Baca, and became her pimp. On June 11, 1978, Baca’s nude body was found dumped a half-mile from a Jefferson County park. Police interviewed Groves, but charges were never filed. Less than a year later, Groves moved in with 21-year-old Norma Jean Halford. On August 24, 1979, a Colorado state trooper discovered Halford’s empty vehicle parked along a mountainous road outside Georgetown. The woman’s body was never found.

Groves eventually moved to a house in Denver and continued pushing cocaine, heroin, and marijuana. He snorted lines of coke while he played poker with friends, among them a petite, attractive bank employee with short hair named Jeanette Hill. The pair had met at church years earlier but only recently had they fallen in love. Hill didn’t seem to care what Groves was doing in his spare time, or perhaps she didn’t know. Groves would have been forgiven for thinking he’d found the perfect woman.

The two soon were living together in a second-floor apartment on Denver’s Pearl Street. By then, Groves had left Gates Rubber and found janitorial work throughout the city. The freedom allowed him to come and go as he pleased, and by early 1981, it was becoming more difficult for Hill to ignore her boyfriend’s behavior. He often disappeared for days at a time. Life wasn’t much better when he was around. One night, just before their wedding on March 23, 1981, someone broke a window to their apartment and left a gun on the sill. It was clearly a threat, perhaps from someone Groves had crossed on the street. Groves panicked and told Hill to pack her clothes. They were moving—right now. The pair drove across town in the middle of the night and moved into his parents’ home in Wheat Ridge. A few weeks later, on their wedding night, Hill slept while her new husband got high.

Of the eight or nine detectives in Denver’s cold case unit, perhaps none relished the hunt more than Mylous Yearling. He’d been a fast riser through other police units, particularly because of his investigations into sexual assaults, where he used DNA to help solve some of Denver’s most appalling cases. In 2005, Yearling helped find a forensic link to Brent Brents, a serial rapist who terrorized the city. Fewer than three years later, Yearling tied a series of sexual assaults to Michael Lollis, who’d attacked nine women in Denver and Arapahoe County. After more than a decade on the police force—working his way from car No. 613 patrolling the west Denver neighborhood where he’d lived as a toddler, to his job now—Yearling was often reminded of what his mother once said to him: He was meant to be a light in the darkness. Before he’d leave for work in the morning, his children told him to catch the bad guys. Like the fictional superheroes on his desk, Yearling knew he was made to protect others. There seemed to be a destiny to his work. Shortly after Yearling joined the police department, his wife, Shellie, gave him a gold necklace with the Superman emblem attached to it. The golden “S” hung just above Yearling’s heart, and he wore it to work every day.

With the suspect DNA match from Peggy Cuffs and Emma Jenefor’s postmortem kits already recorded, authorities began a search for a “forensic unknown” in the federally operated Combined DNA Index System. The index, also called CODIS, was created in the mid-1990s as a collection site for the DNA profiles of convicted felons across the country. While forensic scientists had often used biological markers—such as blood groups—to help identify suspects, the advent of DNA typing in the 1980s produced something far deeper, a spectacularly unique biological code police could use to mine for leads. Now CODIS had millions of DNA profiles. Yearling and Parisi waited for a suspect’s name. It never came.

Yearling couldn’t understand why a DNA record didn’t exist in CODIS. From studying serial rapists for years, he knew most of them eventually slipped up and got caught. Yearling hypothesized that maybe the suspect had been in the military and was stationed overseas, thereby making himself ineligible for inclusion in the forensic database. Or maybe the man died before CODIS began collecting DNA profiles. Had he simply stopped raping and killing? That seemed unlikely.

Yearling switched to another lead—Jenefor’s boyfriend, “Hook.” Yearling pored over hundreds of pages. He learned Hook drank heavily and had trouble keeping a job. Hook could become violent when he was drunk, Jenefor’s friends told investigators in 1979. Jenefor had been so frightened of him, she gave his address and phone number to a female friend. If anything happened to her, Jenefor explained to the woman, police needed to find Hook. When investigators first interviewed him, the man was 29. He was 6 feet tall and had a medium build. He belonged to a motorcycle gang. About two weeks after Jenefor’s murder, he failed a polygraph test. Yearling held the examiner’s report in his hands. Near the bottom of the typed-out paper were the words “subject not cleared.”

Something confounded Yearling about his new suspect, though. If Hook had murdered Jenefor—and Peggy Cuff, given the DNA match—there was nothing in his criminal record that would have led anyone to believe he had committed the two murders. Yearling had learned much during his time on the police force, including the fact that most rapists and murderers didn’t begin with rapes and murders. Most often, there was a clear pattern that eventually led to something big: maybe arson, or a series of felony assaults. Studying Hook’s record, Yearling saw only DUIs, simple assaults, disturbing the peace, and drinking in public. On the spectrum of criminal activity, these weren’t much more than stupid mistakes. Could Hook have killed his girlfriend in a fit of rage? Maybe. Would he then have sought out a stranger to rape and strangle? Probably not. Yearling drove past the brick house where Jenefor’s body was found; he stopped in the alley where Cuff was dumped near a worn garage. None of it made sense.

Yearling periodically ran Hook’s name through the National Crime Information Center database, and in the spring of 2011, roughly a year after taking on the cases, he finally got a hit. Hook had been arrested on a felony charge in Aurora. A year earlier, Colorado became the 19th state to adopt Katie’s Law—named after a New Mexico woman who’d been raped and murdered in 2003—which required a DNA sample from anyone who’d been the subject of a felony arrest, rather than a felony conviction. Hook’s DNA profile would be uploaded to the DNA database in six weeks. Yearling’s boss, Anthony Parisi, circled the date on the calendar on his office wall. On June 23, 2011, he checked the database. Hook didn’t match.

Yearling viewed the never-ending streams of cold cases on his desk as if they were broken spiderwebs. Each was dangling by a few precious threads, and each thread was part of a complicated tapestry he had to connect, one fragile piece at a time. In these two cases, he now worried, the web might never be reconstructed. He went back to the reports. The detective began having trouble sleeping. Each morning, Yearling drove to work, took the elevator to the second floor, and for a moment, thought about those dead women.