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

Once he’d discovered the name “Vincent Groves,” Mylous Yearling was certain he had found the killer. In late September 2011, a cursory check of the Internet, old newspaper clippings, and police files fueled his hunch. All he was missing was a DNA link between Joyce Ramey and his other two cases. Then he would need Vincent Groves’ DNA. Yearling thought the last step was easy enough.

The detective plugged Groves’ name into the Accurint database and began scrolling through information. The particulars were straightforward: name, date of birth, and an address. There was just one problem.

A man staying in Room 10 at the El Patio Motel heard the fight between Shelia Washington and Vincent Groves, and kicked open the woman’s door. There, he saw Groves, half-naked, standing over the prostitute. Groves threw on his khaki pants and furiously gathered his other clothes. Washington pulled herself off the floor, grabbed a broom, and chased Groves out the door and toward a sidewalk.

About a week later, she called Aurora and Denver police to report the assault, but she didn’t know Groves’ name. A year later, in August 1988, Washington flagged down a police car when she saw her attacker driving his blue vehicle on East Colfax Avenue. An officer stopped Groves, but only questioned him briefly and then let him go.

Around the same time, 28 investigators from multiple jurisdictions had begun looking into nearly 20 unsolved murders they thought were connected to Groves. Most of the women were prostitutes; nearly all had been sexually assaulted and strangled. In some cases, Groves was the last person seen with the victim. In others, Groves supplied drugs to the women. During their investigations, police also learned of attacks on other prostitutes, including the one on Shelia Washington.

On September 1, 1988, police arrested Groves near the corner of South Colorado Boulevard and East Mexico Avenue on an attempted first-degree murder charge in the Washington case. As part of the arrest, investigators also wanted to question Groves about the series of unsolved murders. Police interviewed his parents, his new girlfriend, and his ex-wife, among others. His vehicle was taken to an auto repair shop, where it was searched and vacuumed. Officers collected hairs they found in the car. During an interview with investigators that stretched past midnight, Groves told police Washington had stolen $1,600 from him. He never tried to choke her, he contended. When an investigator asked about the slew of dead women, Groves admitted he knew many of them. He identified a prostitute he’d been with, claimed he knew the killer of one woman, and looked at a photo of another victim. “You’ve done your homework,” he told the investigator. “It looks real bad for me.”

Prosecutors tried to introduce details of eight murders before Groves’ attempted-murder trial began in Denver District Court in early 1989—thinking, in part, the unsolved strangulation deaths could help show a pattern leading up to the Washington attack. A judge rejected the motion. During his trial, Groves’ attorney said his client tussled with Washington, but there wasn’t physical evidence that he’d tried to strangle her. He argued that prosecutors based their entire case on claims from an drug-using prostitute who’d by then been sentenced to three years in prison for cocaine possession. As far as the defense attorney was concerned, this was a run-of-the-mill assault that shouldn’t have made it out of county court. The case against Groves fell apart. On February 16, 1989, it took a jury only 90 minutes to acquit him.

Groves was hardly cleared, though. The earlier, multijurisdictional investigation netted other cases. In Adams County, investigators linked Groves’ DNA pattern to 19-year-old prostitute Juanita Lovato, whose naked body was found in April 1988 in a field near Strasburg, east of Denver. In Douglas County, Groves was charged with the murder of a 25-year-old prostitute named Diann Mancera, whose body was dumped a year earlier along I-25, just west of Parker. DNA banding found in the woman’s underwear matched the pattern in Groves’ DNA structure. The two cases became bellwethers for forensic evidence in Colorado.

Groves was convicted in both cases in 1990 and sentenced to life. He was already in poor health. He had hepatitis C and suffered from chronic liver problems. In 1996, his body began to shut down. Groves was moved in and out of hospitals. In the fall of that year, Lakewood Police interviewed him. Investigators asked about the 1987 death of Zabra Mason, a 19-year-old former honors student from Denver who was due for a job interview the day she was found slumped in her vehicle in a field off West Colfax Avenue. Groves earlier admitted that his bank, Bank Western, was near where Mason’s car was found. The investigators told Groves he could clear his conscience and give the young woman’s family some closure. Whatever information he might have had, he clearly planned to take it to his grave. Groves died October 31, 1996, at University Hospital in Denver. He was 42 years old.