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

By the summer of 1981, Vincent Groves and his wife, Jeanette Hill, were arguing frequently. On August 14, 1981, the couple was fighting again, this time about a fishing trip Groves planned to take with two friends and their 17-year-old daughter, Tammy Sue Woodrum. Groves was taking a camper, which was attached to the bed of a pickup truck parked outside. Hill pleaded with him to allow her to come along. Groves refused, grabbed the keys to the truck, and said he’d be back.

The next morning, Hill was home sick from work when Groves appeared at the house. He had something to tell her, but he wouldn’t do it there; he needed to tell her in the mountains. Did he have sex with the teenage girl? Was their marriage over? Hill walked outside and waited for an explanation. Groves told her to get in the pickup, which was still connected to the camper. She complied; Groves started the engine and pulled away. He was silent as he drove toward the foothills. He finally made a turn onto a meandering country road near the town of Deckers. By then, it seemed to Hill, they’d been driving forever.

Somewhere outside the town, Groves finally began to speak. And then he started to cry. The fishing trip with the friends was true, he told Hill, but first he picked up Woodrum and the two went to Boulder to score some cocaine. When they’d gotten the stash, they drove toward Fraser—about 90 miles away—and pulled off the road. One thing led to another, Groves said, and the girl started shooting up. But she couldn’t handle it. Something had gone wrong, Groves sobbed. She overdosed. She was dead.

Hill wanted to jump out of the truck and run. The girl, where was the girl? Groves looked at his wife. The teenager’s body, he said, was in the camper.

Back in March 2010, Anthony Parisi had applied for a grant, “Solving Cold Cases with DNA,” from the National Institute of Justice, which was approved in September of the same year. In 2011, Denver Police’s cold case unit sorted through 600 postmortem kits and reopened 266 unsolved homicide investigations from 1970 to 1984. Parisi immediately started reviewing cases and gathered mental notes on others. One in particular caught his attention: the rape and strangulation of Joyce Ramey, a 23-year-old prostitute from Denver. Her body was discovered on July 4, 1979, in a field near the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, northeast of downtown. She’d been sexually assaulted and strangled. Although Ramey was white and lived a high-risk lifestyle, the year and manner of death were identical to both the Cuff and Jenefor murders. Like Cuff, Ramey’s body had been dumped.

The sergeant delivered the file to Mylous Yearling’s desk. Inside were photographs of Ramey’s body—hands above her head, legs stretched out. Yearling opened the file and studied the photos. Bruises and scrapes covered her calves, her back, her right buttocks, her hip, her neck. Blood soaked the back of her head. It looked like Ramey fought like hell. On her left ring finger was a white metal ring with a blue stone.

Yearling turned to his computer and pulled up a map. The site where Ramey’s body was dumped—an area southeast of East 56th Avenue and Havana Street—was now a jumble of loading docks, and strips of asphalt and concrete. The detective typed Ramey’s name into a Google search. After a few minutes clicking through different websites, Yearling stumbled upon a message board devoted to cold case investigations. In one comment thread dedicated to unsolved Colorado homicides, he found a simple who-what-when on a young woman who disappeared in August 1979. Her name was Norma Jean Halford. Yearling scrolled down the page and found a copied and pasted, 21-year-old newspaper story that included Ramey’s name on a list of women who were murdered or disappeared across the Denver metro area from 1979 to 1988. According to police at the time, the story said, one man might have been responsible: a man named Vincent Groves.

At his wife’s urging, Groves turned himself in to Lakewood police and eventually was convicted of second-degree murder after his Tammy Sue Woodrum drug-overdose story fell apart. Forensic evidence showed Woodrum had been beaten, raped, and strangled. In court, evidence proved that Woodrum was drug-free when she was killed; prosecutors showed marks on the teenager’s skin matched Groves’ belt. Groves was sentenced to 12 years in prison in the summer of 1982. Between teaching classes to inmates and taking college classes of his own, Groves received intermittent prison visits from his wife, who asked for a confession. Groves refused, and she soon filed for divorce. By 1985, she was finally free.

Two years later, on February 13, 1987, Groves was released from prison under mandatory parole. He’d served five years when he arrived back in Denver, where he discovered that his family still supported him. His father gave him a blue 1978 AMC Concord, and Groves worked for a time as a church janitor, then as a department store janitor. The work kept him moving through the Mile High City, often late at night, and he quickly reacquainted himself with life on East Colfax Avenue.

Groves frequented a strip between York Street and an area just beyond the Denver city limits—a mishmash of drive-up motels, drug dealers, and booze spots. Prostitutes took notice of Groves’ Concord, and he moved among the women with ease. In March of 1987, he picked up a twentysomething prostitute named Shelia Washington, who was working an area near Colfax. Groves offered her $200, which he planned to pay with 10 $20 bills he said he’d won at the dog track. Washington agreed. Before they went to her motel, they bought $100 in crack cocaine. Groves paid.

Inside Room 8 at the El Patio Motel on Colfax, Groves stripped down to his boxers, and Washington began to remove her clothes. He told her to stop at her bra and panties. He liked to take those off himself, he said. As he sat on the bed later, he watched Washington take hits from a crack pipe and said he wanted to show her how he used to get high in college. It was easy, Groves told her. Take a hit, hold it in, close your eyes, count to 30.

Washington put the pipe to her lips and took a drag. She held her breath. Then, slowly, she began to close her eyes. Groves now was standing in front of her. He towered over the 5-foot-3-inch woman. As Washington’s lungs filled with smoke, Groves inched closer.

Suddenly, she felt hands on her throat. Washington opened her eyes and screamed. He quickly overpowered her. She thrashed. One of her feet hit a glass coffee table in the room, and it landed with a crash on the floor. Groves squeezed harder. Washington could feel herself losing consciousness. Her body was going limp. And then everything went dark.