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

Several months later, the Denver Police lab officially confirmed the DNA match between Vincent Groves and DNA found in the Cuff and Jenefor cases. In January of this year, the lab connected DNA in Joyce Ramey’s case to Groves—a link Parisi called months earlier. Yearling, meanwhile, investigated the death of a 35-year-old prostitute named Pamela Montgomery, who was strangled and dumped in a north Denver alley in the early morning hours of August 14, 1988. There was no suspect DNA in her case, but a witness at the time told police he heard a poorly tuned vehicle in the alley behind his home, then saw a tall black man pull a body out of the car. Shortly after Groves’ AMC Concord was impounded following his arrest in the summer of 1988, the witness in Montgomery’s case was taken to the auto repair shop where it was stored. The witness vaguely recognized the car, and he asked to hear the engine. It made a distinct chugging sound—identical to the one in the alley.

On February 9, 2012, the Denver District Attorney’s Office cleared all four cases. Including his previous convictions, Groves officially had been connected to seven murders and would hold the dubious distinction of being Colorado’s most prolific serial killer. How many more women died at his hands was a question Parisi and Yearling knew they would never answer. The 1988 investigation suspected Groves of at least a dozen more cases that remained unsolved. Perhaps most frightening was that Peggy Cuff and Emma Jenefor never even showed up on that list.

Yearling and Parisi reached out to victims’ families; only Pamela Mongomery’s failed to respond. On Valentine’s Day this year, the two men put on their suits and spent the day meeting with the families inside a second-floor conference room at police headquarters downtown. The room overlooked a parking lot and a few bail-bonds shops. Yearling and Parisi sat across a large rectangular table from the relatives and were joined by a representative from the Denver District Attorney’s Office and a victims’ advocate from the police department. The men explained the cold case unit’s work over the past few years, and told mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers about Vincent Groves. For Joyce Ramey’s family, the information was hardly a surprise. Groves had been linked to that murder for decades—though the woman’s parents seemed relieved there was finally confirmation. Yearling and Parisi called Peggy Cuff’s brother, who lived outside Colorado. Yearling spoke into the conference room phone. “We wanted to let you know that we didn’t give up,” he told the man.

The last meeting was with Emma Jenefor’s sister. She never expected the news. Yearling and Parisi could see the confusion on her face. What brought Groves into her sister’s life? Why did he choose her? There were no answers. After the meeting, Parisi returned to his office. The day had been among the most emotionally draining of his career, and he realized just how profoundly the cases affected him. Parisi had come to know them as Peggy and Emma and Joyce—and now Pamela—but as he stood alone in his office, Parisi felt empty. On his desk was a three-ring binder with file numbers connected to hundreds of unsolved cases: more victims, more police reports, more confused families. Parisi wanted to solve them all, but he knew that was an impossibility.

Yearling went home and took his wife to dinner. He rarely explained the details of his work to her; he thought the day-to-day of investigating rapes and murders was too grisly for someone who didn’t deal with it regularly. Even in this case, perhaps the greatest triumph of his career, he kept the information to a minimum. Instead, he told his wife he loved her.

Months later, after news reports of Yearling’s work made their way around the world, the detective continued to think about the women. Even with the uncertainty over the years—the agonizing stops and starts to the investigation—Yearling couldn’t get over the feeling he had been blessed. Blessed to be a police detective. Blessed with the opportunity to solve those murders. Blessed with the chance to sit across from those families.

Yearling was now 43 years old, and he’d begun to think the Groves case was perhaps not the one that he imagined his career was leading toward. Instead, it was just one in a series of hundreds he hoped to solve in his lifetime—each no more important than the last; the last no more important than the first. But still, he couldn’t help but think there was something special about the Groves investigation, something intrinsically valuable about that chase. He had never been more certain that this job was his fate. After all, it was right there in Yearling’s case file on Groves, a black-and-white affirmation that perhaps his mother was right; he was meant to be a light in the darkness. The day after Vincent Groves died 16 years ago, Mylous Yearling began his first class at the police academy.