In February of 1960, Adolph Coors III was murdered by Joseph Corbett Jr., sending a shock throughout Denver. Robert Sanchez looks back at one of the most sensational crimes in Colorado history.
The packages arrived outside apartment 305 with considerable frequency, with return addresses from places like New York and Bangor, Maine. They were from gun makers, mostly, and the man in 305 received them with great satisfaction.
It was December 1959 and Denver was in the midst of a cold winter. Outside the Perlmor Apartments, near the corner of Pearl Street and Colfax Avenue in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, the city was aglow in Christmastime. A few minutes' walk from the third-floor apartment, the City and County Building was saturated in light. From the window in his studio room, the man could hear the holiday bustle of cars and buses in a town he'd come to enjoy.
His name was Joseph Corbett Jr., but he called himself Walter Osborne. Although he was a trim six-foot-two—a head taller than most in his building—he cut an innocuous figure. He was 31 years old, though his body appeared much older: His shoulders were meek, his face long through the ears and the jaw. He wore dark-rimmed glasses and slicked back his light-brown hair so that only the cowlick near his right temple appeared out of place. His two front teeth slanted inward. His eyes were gray.
Osborne did not smoke or drink. He did not own a phone. His apartment was Spartan, with a sleeper couch, a table, a gas stove, and a miniature refrigerator. The walls were white. After nearly four years at the Perlmor, Osborne rarely spoke with his neighbors. Because of this, some of the women in the apartment building had come to refer to him as their "Mystery Boy."
Osborne's landlady, a woman named Viola Merys, knew the man in 305 had once worked as a graveyard-shift chemist cooking alkyd, a synthetic resin, at the Benjamin Moore Paint Co., near the corner of Walnut Street and Broadway, at the north end of downtown. Osborne had quit his job a few months earlier. No matter, Merys thought, as long as her tenant continued making his payments.
As the chill of winter frosted the city that year, Merys could not have known that while the rest of Denver was reveling in the fruits of postwar affluence that had brought new Buicks and color television to an emerging middle class, the finances of the man in 305 were relegated to his $75-a-month rent, to twice-weekly gas fill-ups, and to the mail-order items that were arriving outside his room.
Walter Osborne was nearly broke. But he had a solution. It came in the packages, which he opened in the quiet of his room.
At the turn of 1960, as Denver was building skyscrapers and the Soviets launched rockets to the moon, the Adolph Coors Company in Golden was the 14th largest beer producer in the country and was easily the most dominant brewer in the West. Its president was Adolph Coors III—grandson of the company's Prussian-immigrant founder—a bookish, quiet man who, ironically, was allergic to beer.
The company Adolph Coors III inherited was even more powerful than it had been in the early days when the brewery opened in an abandoned foothills tannery along Clear Creek in 1876. Following the model its namesake founder set generations earlier, familial distrust of outsiders was a Coors trademark: The company rarely borrowed money, it abhorred union labor, and it shunned publicity as much as possible. Rare was a Coors photograph in the society pages of the local newspapers. Even rarer was a Coors who couldn't make a business a winner. The Adolph Coors Co. succeeded, the family believed, because Coorses ran it.
And perhaps there was something to that. After all, it was Adolph Coors and his son, Adolph Jr., who ushered the business through Prohibition. While other breweries across the country were shuttered, Coors plugged away on grit and ingenuity. With alcoholic beverages outlawed, the company manufactured porcelain and malted milk, and became the nation's first maker of nonalcoholic beer.
Through Adolph Coors' planning, the company became a staple of Colorado life and a model of American enterprise. So it was a shock when he fell out of a hotel window—some suspect it was a suicide—in 1928.
Adolph Jr. took his old man's place in the corporate hierarchy. Educated at Cornell University, he was a brewmaster by trade and a businessman by birth. The second Adolph turned Coors into a porcelain-manufacturing giant, and soon after Prohibition ended the company was supplying the government with cones that would be used to build missiles. When the alcohol market reopened, Coors intensified its marketing outside Colorado, beginning advertising campaigns that pushed the beer's mountain-source water as the key to its taste.
Adolph Jr.'s sons—Joseph, William, and Adolph III—all learned at their father's elbow. All three earned Ivy League degrees, and all three worked for the family from the time they were young enough to push a handcart. They grew up together, raised their families together, and expanded the family business together. Their modesty belied their wealth. At the mandate of their father, the Coors boys wore leather high-tops and button-down shirts and no sport coats. They shared an office with three metal desks. Because Adolph Jr. had nearly been abducted in a kidnapping plot in 1933—an event that deepened the family's distrust of outsiders—Coors men were required to spend much of their after-hours time at the family's whitewashed ranch house on the company's property.
The boys eventually were rewarded for their obedience. By the mid-1950s, Bill was in charge of the brewery, and Joe was head of the porcelain business. Adolph III, known as Ad, was made president of the entire company.
By Christmas 1959, as Ad Coors was nearing his 44th birthday, Coors brewing had claimed a majority of beer markets across the West. Ad and his wife of nearly two decades, Mary Grant Coors, had four children, three of whom were now teenagers. The family had moved to a foothills ranch, about 15 miles outside Denver, fastened atop a rocky cliff along a road that ran a crooked path north to Golden. Decorated in Mary's old-money style of antique, high-backed chairs and Oriental rugs, the house's interior hardly resembled the rugged, Old West atmosphere Ad cultivated outside. Nestled among the 480 acres of Jefferson County prairie were Coors' Black Angus cattle, a brood that in February 1960 included a newly purchased prize bull from Kansas that had become Ad's favorite.
Coors was almost six-foot-two and slender; he skied, played softball, rode horses, and drove cattle at his ranch. As he neared middle age, Ad Coors had taken the long view. In his new foothills home, he felt free, a world away from the demands of the brewery. He certainly had no idea that Joseph Corbett Jr. had witnessed this transformation firsthand, from the front seat of his car, a rifle at his side.
Corbett called the plot to solve his financial woes the "big score," and he planned his crime the way an honor student might prepare for a final exam. He targeted Adolph Coors III for a kidnapping almost immediately after arriving in Denver in 1955. Corbett intended to ask for at least $250,000 in ransom but no more than $500,000—the maximum he figured he could take without raising suspicions when he moved to a new community.
Much of Corbett's time in January 1960 was spent outside the Coors' Jefferson County home, where he sat in his car along the dirt road that connected the Coors' ranch with Golden. Less than two miles northeast of the home was a log-reinforced bridge that crossed Turkey Creek. It was old, with rickety railings and worn wooden planks. The bridge was wide enough for one vehicle to pass at a time, and it gave Corbett an excellent vantage point from which to initiate his attack.
On February 8, 1960, Corbett headed to the foothills in his Mercury on what would be his final trip before the abduction. He parked his vehicle near the bridge. At around 8 a.m., a local miner saw the yellow car partially blocking the bridge. The miner noted the first four characters of the Mercury's license plate: Colorado AT-62.
In the morning light of Tuesday, February 9, Ad Coors put on a pair of flesh-colored, rimmed glasses, then slipped on gray flannel pants with his name embroidered on the inside of the waistband. He buttoned a green-checkered shirt, wrapped a tie around his neck, and fixed a clip, monogrammed "AC III," on it. He placed a monogrammed penknife in his pocket, along with 43 cents. He said good-bye to Mary, then added a navy parka and a khaki cap, and opened the door.
His breath blew white in the morning air. Coors stepped into his company-owned green and white Travelall station wagon, switched on the radio, and made his way down the muddy, switchback driveway about 30 yards to the road below, en route to a morning meeting with his brothers. It was 7:55 a.m.
He turned north and headed into the morning chill toward the one-lane bridge over Turkey Creek. It was there that he saw a yellow vehicle blocking his path.
He was brilliant. Even the psychiatrists saw it. His unusual grasp of science; his vocabulary; his interest in 19th century philosophy and foreign languages. It was clear that Joseph Corbett Jr. had a special mind.
Before he assumed the first and middle name of his older brother, Walter Osborne, Corbett was like most boys growing up in 1930s America. He played softball and soccer near his northeast Seattle neighborhood, studied in his family's modest home, and watched his parents rebuild their finances after the Great Depression. The second son born to Marion and Joseph Corbett, the telegraph editor at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the junior Corbett spent his youth enjoying a mostly typical American childhood.
He was a handsome boy, with an aristocratic face and a head of curly brown hair—a bright and curious child who spent weekends playing in front of the family's two-story home on a tree-lined street a few blocks north of the University of Washington campus. Corbett, who was not close to his father, was a voracious reader, and his mother Marion encouraged him as he dove into German, Russian, political science, philosophy, physics, and mathematics. He was reserved, but Corbett had set himself apart with his intellect. In eighth grade, he was named president of his class.
Corbett grew quickly and awkwardly (he was nearly six feet tall before high school), and, despite developing into a dashing teen, he apparently never outgrew a poor self-image. The personal difficulties spilled into the classroom, where he dropped classes or didn't complete his work.
Despite finishing only in the top 25 percent of his high school class, Corbett enrolled at the University of Washington as a physics major. Before starting classes, the university issued a general assessment test to all incoming students. Corbett scored a 91 out of 99, between 31 and 41 points higher than the average incoming freshman. Corbett was declared a borderline genius.
If he knew this, the information didn't go to his head. Corbett joined a short-lived fraternity of 12 physics majors but was completely forgettable. As in high school, he struggled to maintain a full course load. By his third year, in 1949, Corbett only had enough credits to qualify as a sophomore. His academic performance was erratic. His only achievement, it seemed, was that he had kept a job testing adhesives for the American-Marietta Co. When Corbett quit his job, he slipped out of work early so he wouldn't have to attend his going-away party.
By June of 1950, out of a job and behind in his course work at the university, Corbett returned home and contemplated dropping out of school. While he was at home, his mother walked out onto a balcony on which Corbett had been fixing a banister and fell one story onto a well grate. She died five days later.
Corbett lost himself in a fog of depression. His brother, Walter, had left home six years earlier, and the relationship between Joseph Jr. and his father seemed more distant than ever. (He would later say that his father oozed selfishness.) Corbett left the University of Washington and enrolled at the University of California at Berkeley. By October, just a few weeks after starting classes, he dropped out.
The shots sounded like lightning striking a tree. A woman hanging clothes a couple of miles from Turkey Creek heard them in quick succession, as did another woman who had been reading at her home nearby.
A milkman on a route around Morrison stopped at the bridge's edge around 10 a.m. and honked his horn. A Travelall was blocking the route. Its engine was running, and the radio was on. The milkman honked again.
Corbett returned to his Denver apartment around noon on February 9. A thick layer of dried mud ran up the Mercury and covered the yellow paint and spattered the windshield. Dirt streaked the car and hung under the bumpers. Corbett parked the Mercury, walked upstairs to his room, and closed the door. Inside apartment 305, Corbett picked up a letter, which was sealed in a white envelope and lined with two taped stamps so the DNA in his saliva could not be traced. The address was typed and included no street or number.
Mrs. Adolph Coors III
Before he left his room, Corbett gathered four pairs of underwear and two towels. He stopped at the cleaners, where he received ticket No. 14476. And he dropped the letter in the mail.
Joseph Corbett Jr. returned to his room that afternoon, closed the door, and waited for an answer.
It wasn't his first murder.
A few days before Christmas 1950, Corbett picked up a 20-year-old hitchhiking sergeant from Hamilton Air Force Base, near San Francisco, and shot the man twice in the head. The man's body was found in Marin County, and Corbett was caught in a stolen car a few days later in Beverly Hills. He admitted killing the man, claiming it was in self-defense, then later saying that it was a botched robbery attempt.
How Corbett went from scientific prodigy to a murderer is perhaps the greatest mystery of his life. Psychiatrists and newspaper reporters would wonder whether it was the sudden death of his mother that had pushed him over the edge. His father initially called the arrest a mistake, but later told a newspaper reporter that, "If he did it...somewhere along the line something had snapped inside him."
Corbett pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in the spring of 1951 and was sentenced to a maximum of life in prison. He served one year at San Quentin near San Francisco, where his IQ was measured at 148 and he occasionally cited Nietzsche's philosophy of might makes right. Corbett then spent three years at a mental hospital at Terminal Island, California, where doctors viewed him as high-strung, "markedly schizoid," and "abnormal." Psychiatrists warned that he had the potential to explode into "violent, uncontrolled emotion."
In April 1955, Corbett was discharged from the prison hospital and moved to a minimum-security cell. His time in prison was not entirely lost, however. His father—and his new wife, Helen Marie—visited, and father and son began to repair their relationship. The junior Corbett frequently turned the conversation toward college and his wish to complete his undergraduate degree.
But on August 1, 1955, four years after entering prison, Corbett sneaked out of his minimum-security cell, put on clothes that he had hidden in a laundry cart, opened a window screen, and disappeared.
He surfaced a few weeks later in Los Angeles, where he adopted his brother's name and found work at an ice company. He signed up for a life-insurance policy (naming his "friend," Joseph Corbett Sr., as the beneficiary) and joined a union. While he had maintained a low-key demeanor, Corbett was on the constant lookout for an opportunity to leave. On a whim that December, Corbett packed a suitcase and headed to Denver.
A few months after arriving, Corbett rented apartment 305 at the Perlmor, got a driver's license at the Division of Motor Vehicles, started looking for work using the Walter Osborne alias, and told people he had a wife—a lie—whom he named after his mother.
Corbett got a job at Benjamin Moore the following spring, beating out 117 other men for a job. He grew more comfortable as he realized that he was perfectly adept at hiding in plain sight. It was a quality that would suit him well.
"Come with me," Jefferson County sheriff's lieutenant Ray Kechter told his lab technician, Dale Ryder. "I'll explain on the way."
Kechter handed Ryder a camera, and the two men loaded into a car. They rode 15 minutes to the Turkey Creek bridge on word from the Colorado State Patrol that a vehicle belonging to the Adolph Coors Co. had been found running, minus the driver. It was 1:30 p.m.
Kechter and Ryder pulled up to the site and saw Coors' Travelall. The men recognized the person next to the vehicle, brewery president Bill Coors. Next to Coors, a sheriff's corporal and a few state patrolmen were inspecting the Travelall's bumper. More than 100 law-enforcement officers and volunteers were nearby, searching muddy fields, peeking into abandoned caves, and kicking thick sheets of scrub and ice that covered the hilly landscape.
Ryder got to work snapping photos of tire marks and collecting blood, dirt, and rocks on the bridge. He could hear the deputies searching in the distance. Ryder stood and turned his attention to specks of blood on the station wagon's bumper, then to droplets on a window. Ryder saw a blood-spattered railing on the bridge and scraped the blood. A portion of the bridge's wooden railing was removed and prepared for a crime lab.
Coors' advertising manager, Bill Moomey, brought two bloodhounds. The dogs caught Ad Coors' scent, but quickly lost it. Moomey looked glumly at a nearby officer. "Ad never left this bridge."
Ryder was handed a ball cap and a snap-brimmed fedora. The cap was khaki. The fedora was dark brown. Ryder studied the hats, then motioned for Bill Coors to come over. The man pointed definitively to the khaki cap: "I'm sure this one's Ad's. I'm not sure about the other." Mary Coors arrived a few minutes later. She was more certain: "Ad hasn't worn a fedora in years."
Sheriff's deputies stood guard over Coors' ranch house. News reports had gone out already, and the family began receiving prank calls. Police put a tap on Bill Coors' Denver phone.
The late-afternoon light began to give way to darkness. The sheriff ordered the creek drained. There, on a muck-covered rock, were Ad Coors' glasses.
The "Mystery Boy" was acting strangely.
It wasn't yet dawn on Colfax Avenue on Wednesday, February 10, 1960, when Corbett began climbing his apartment's stairs, grabbing boxes from his room, then hurrying down the steps and bursting out the back door. He walked down the alley that connected his building to Colfax Avenue, passing a few aging brick buildings along the way. The alley spilled onto the street, and in the distance Corbett could see the spires of the Temple Emanuel.
After he stuffed his car's rear seat with boxes, he returned to the building, where he found the landlady, Viola Merys, whom he told he was leaving to finish his degree in Boulder. He paid his last month's rent, and handed her his room key.
By the time Corbett drove off, the FBI was searching letters from the Morrison post office. One caught their attention; it was addressed to "Mrs. Adolph Coors III, Morrison, CO." The lower left corner was marked "Personal."
An FBI agent removed the letter from the envelope.
Mrs. Coors: Your husband has been kidnapped. His car is by Turkey Creek. Call the police or F.B.I.: he dies. Cooperate: he lives. Ransom: $200,000 in tens and $300,000 in twenties.
There will be no negotiating.
Bills: used / non-consecutive / unrecorded / unmarked.
Warning: we will know if you call the police or record the serial numbers.
Directions: Place money & this letter & envelope in one suitcase or bag..
Have two men with a car ready to make the delivery.
When all set, advertise a tractor for sale in Denver Post section 69. Sign ad King Ranch, Fort Lupton.
Wait at NA 9-4455 for instructions after ad appears.
Deliver immediately after receiving call. Any delay will be regarded as a stall to set up a stake-out.
"Understand this" Adolph's life is in your hands. We have no desire to commit murder. All we want is that money. If you follow the instructions, he will be released unharmed within 48 hours after the money is received.
Coors' father spoke to reporters that same day. "I am dealing with crooks who have something I want to buy—my son," he said. "The price is secondary."
A three-line classified advertisement was placed with the Denver Post. It ran the next day, February 11.
JOHN DEERE. 1957 model 820, 69
h.p. tractor for sale. King Ranch,
Fort Lupton, Colo.
Adolph Coors Jr. worked to get the ransom, securing cash from a Boston bank, and organized the money in the proper denominations. The $500,000 was delivered overnight to Golden, and the family waited for the kidnapper's call. On February 22, 13 days after the kidnapping, Mary Coors wrote a note to reporters waiting outside her home. Jefferson County sheriff's deputies had moved off the property, she said; the family was alone. "We are ready to pay for my husband's safe return," she wrote. Her plea would go unanswered.
Federal agents, meanwhile, were gathering clues. Dried blood on the Travelall's windows and front bumper were at the FBI lab. More than four people—including Coors' second daughter, Cecily, and the miner—reported seeing a suspicious man sitting in a car, often with a rifle in the front seat. Agents moved quickly. Using the partial plate number the miner had given them, they traced the vehicle to an east Denver car dealership where Corbett had purchased the Mercury. It was basic police work from there: Agents ran the name "Walter Osborne" through Colorado's driver's license records, which had a fingerprint on file. The print matched that of an escaped murderer from California.
A few days earlier, on February 17, Corbett's Mercury had been found burning in a dump in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The car's interior was charred, and some of the windows were melted. Despite the damage, agents were able to make out the vehicle identification number.
Meanwhile, FBI agents made their way to the Perlmor Apartments, where Viola Merys told them that Walter Osborne had moved out the morning of February 10. When the agents searched the apartment building, they found handcuff boxes, tent poles, and leg irons.
Had it not been a botched job, perhaps Corbett and Coors would have spent a few weeks camping, living in the tent Osborne had purchased in Denver, and planning Coors' return to his family.
During his four years stalking Coors—holing up in his vehicle and preparing at the Perlmor—Corbett was meticulous about his preparation. But there was a flaw, one that had followed him from the time he was a young student who couldn't finish his classes. For all his work, Corbett couldn't seem to complete the task at hand. He neglected to form an exit strategy, and the poor planning was catching up to him.
It didn't start out as a murder, or at least the evidence doesn't point in that direction. Because there were no witnesses, the final moments of Coors' life remain open for interpretation. Evidence, however, would lead most observers in one direction: On the morning of the shooting, Corbett met Coors somewhere near the Travelall driver's side door, where there was a struggle. Coors then was shot twice from close range in the right shoulder blade, as if he had been running away. Coors' glasses fell off—possibly when his body fell against the wooden railing—and landed in the creek.
After the shooting, Corbett took the body and sped south about 20 miles on a maze of back roads into Douglas County, to the snowy hills and pine-covered mountaintops that loomed in the distance. Mud and pink feldspar dust gathered underneath the vehicle, which later would give federal agents a geological fingerprint on which to link Corbett to the crime. The road swerved and led deeper into the countryside, into a mess of more mud and trees.
Corbett stopped at the side of a wooded dump and pulled Coors' body from the vehicle. The ground was covered in snow. Blood soaked the back of Coors' parka. Coors still had on his pants, his boots, his tie, and his checkered shirt. Change jangled in his pants pockets. Corbett must have figured Coors would never be found.
On March 30, the FBI added Corbett to the 10 most-wanted list, saying, "We want this man more than anyone since John Dillinger." Corbett's photo became ubiquitous, and federal agents canvassed the country, interviewing Joseph Corbett Sr., former coworkers, neighbors, and inmates in California.
If the noose was tightening, it wasn't outwardly apparent. Nearly two months had passed since Coors' disappearance, and there was no body, no witnesses, and no Corbett.
A few miles from Ad Coors' ranch, life at the Coors plant went on as if Ad had never existed. Bill and Joe split their brother's duties without animosity, and their father never publicly discussed his son's disappearance with employees.
The outward indifference belied the family's inner turmoil. There is little evidence that Adolph Coors Jr. reached out to Mary or to his grandchildren, and the family's coolness toward her husband's disappearance pushed Mary into a haze. She began to drink heavily. Mary's children, too, felt the isolation. The burden followed them to school, where they were protected by armed guards. Any semblance of a regular life had been shattered. And eventually, any relationship Mary and her children had with the rest of the Coors family would appear hopelessly lost.
The discontent Mary felt toward her in-laws was heightened that September when a target shooter walking in a remote Douglas County dump found Ad Coors' pants and his penknife. More than 20 FBI agents and sheriff's deputies searched the landfill until they found Ad's remains. Bill Coors addressed reporters with an indifference that stung Mary. "It's obvious," Bill said, "the guy was murdered."
Six months after the murder, Corbett lived in a boarding house that he rented in a Jewish neighborhood on the west side of Toronto. Corbett found the neighborhood charming, with its Scottish-named streets, but it was hardly an ideal existence.
By late August 1960, Corbett was on his third job in six months. A job-hopper out of necessity, he had left two previous positions because his bosses began uncovering lies on his resume and started asking questions. His newest place of employment, a warehouse in the city, kept him from the creeping eyes of management.
That same month, news of Coors' murder finally reached Toronto. When he learned of the newspaper stories, Corbett left town; in his rush, however, he left behind a plastic wallet, his driver's license, his union card from California, and a book: Anatomy of a Murder, by Robert Traver. A few days later, a former Toronto coworker who had read a Reader's Digest story about the murder—which included Corbett's photo—called police.
Corbett left from Toronto en route to Winnipeg, passing lakes Huron and Superior. While police searched his second-floor room in Toronto and FBI agents began arriving in Canada, Corbett, who was already in Winnipeg, rented a fire engine-red 1960 Pontiac, and then skipped town again.
Corbett spent his 32nd birthday in a Vancouver hotel under the name Thomas C. Wainwright. The coastal city felt familiar. Corbett intensely missed the Pacific Northwest after leaving Seattle a decade earlier, and he found that the surrounding water calmed him.
As with his previous stops, Corbett was prepared to make a new home. He had been searching for a new job and had ordered a rental typewriter; he notified the front desk that he was expecting a delivery. He also moved the conspicuously red car to a garage.
As Corbett sat in his room the morning of October 29, he prepared to restart his life for the third time in nine months. He drew the chain lock on his door and lay down on his bed.
Downstairs, a Vancouver police constable was talking to the hotel manager. The constable had heard a description of the rented car that morning during an FBI briefing and remembered seeing the red Pontiac with Manitoba plates parked near the hotel a few days earlier. The manager confirmed that the vehicle's owner was still there. Around 9 a.m., six squad cars with police and FBI agents surrounded the building.
Corbett heard a knock and a voice at his door: "Typewriter ordered for Mr. Wainwright." He unlatched the lock and turned the knob.
There, in the early light, he saw gun barrels pointed at his face. Corbett dropped his head. "I'm your man," he said.
Corbett sat in a cell at the Jefferson County jail in Golden. He did not seem terribly troubled by his incarceration, though he complained of the injustice and of the noise. "I got five hours' sleep last night," he told his jailers. "The doors were banging."
During marathon interviews, Corbett portrayed himself as confused and distraught—as a man who still struggled with his mother's death. During interrogations, Corbett refused to admit to Coors' murder. Instead, he discussed international politics, religion, and airplanes (he once envisioned using an airplane in a crime and studied books on flying).
The trial began in early 1961 and lasted 13 days. District attorney Ronald J. Hardesty pursued a first-degree murder conviction based mostly on the geological evidence found under Corbett's Mercury. He then pieced together the rest of the narrative from receipts and witnesses who saw Corbett's vehicle at the bridge. Fighting back tears, Mary Coors briefly testified about her husband's last minutes at home. "Her appearance was brief," the Rocky Mountain News wrote. "But her presence will be felt for the duration of the trial."
Corbett's attorneys kept their arguments simple. Their client, they said, was a victim of circumstance and was guilty only of being an already-wanted man who fled Denver because of federal police scrutiny following Coors' abduction. Corbett, they argued, thought the added police pressure would naturally turn up an escaped felon, and his abrupt move on February 10 was purely coincidental. Corbett did not testify on his own behalf. He sat motionless during much of the proceedings. The jury found him guilty, and Corbett was sentenced to life in prison.
But by the early 1970s, as Corbett was closing in on the dubious achievement as the longest-incarcerated prisoner at Cañon City at that time, his jailers began wondering whether Corbett had already paid back his debt to society. He actively worked in the prison hospital, where he had become a licensed X-ray technician, and is credited with saving several prisoners' lives. Meanwhile, Colorado's Legislature had begun reconsidering the meaning of life in prison. State lawmakers in 1973 changed a statute to mandate that any inmate imprisoned for 10 years or more receive a parole hearing.
Starting in 1978, Adolph Coors IV, Ad's son, visited Cañon City three times. Corbett refused each meeting. Adolph Coors IV was a born-again Christian who struggled in the years following his father's death. When he made his final visit, knowing Corbett wouldn't see him, Coors tucked a note into a Bible, which he handed to a guard: "I want to forgive you for what you did to my family," the letter read. "And I ask for your forgiveness for the hatred we've had for you all these years."
Less than two decades after the murder, Corbett, who had been a model prisoner, applied for work release. "I think the web of circumstantial evidence that was wrapped around me could have been wrapped around virtually anyone," Corbett told the parole board. "Further years of imprisonment [aren't] going to make me a better person. I've come as far as I can go."
By December 12, 1980, Joseph Corbett Jr. was a free man.
Ad Coors' remains were cremated shortly after they were discovered and later scattered over Aspen Mountain. (The Molson Coors Brewing Company does not openly discuss the murder, and through a company spokesperson declined to make anyone available for comment for this piece.) Several months after the murder, Mary Coors returned to Denver with her children and sold her family's Morrison ranch for $200,000. Ad's parents seemingly had little to do with her as the years wore on, and Adolph IV would later write a letter to his grandfather, comparing him to "another Adolph, Adolph Hitler."
Things didn't get any easier for Mary. Her eldest daughter, Mary Brooke, died of cancer in 1968, at the age of 26, and was buried at Denver's Fairmount Cemetery. Mary Coors joined her daughter there seven years later, after falling at a friend's home in Aspen. She was 60 years old.
Joseph Corbett Jr., however, lives on.
Ron Olson supervised Corbett's parole from 1980 to 1985, and maintained a friendly relationship with him several years after that, helping Corbett get an apartment and a job driving a Salvation Army truck. (Cecily Coors' husband called Olson each year for the five years he supervised the parole, asking where Corbett was and what he was doing.) Olson and Corbett, meanwhile, chatted often at the parole office. During those conversations, the men talked about job prospects, and Corbett lamented the fact that he was now too old to finish college. He never admitted to the murder.
Nearly five decades after the botched kidnapping, Corbett is now 80 years old and lives in a third-floor studio apartment about 10 miles from the murder site. Perhaps out of necessity, he has slipped back into anonymity. His apartment curtains are drawn shut at midday, every day, and it appears that he rarely leaves his home. Over the course of several months, I phoned him often but couldn't leave a message because he doesn't have an answering machine. I also repeatedly visited his apartment and left business cards when he didn't open his door. On one afternoon last summer, children played outside his room, oblivious to the man who lived inside.
On my final visit—an unseasonably warm, sunny afternoon last month—he finally answered my knock. I introduced myself.
"I was just getting ready to write you a note," Corbett said.
As Corbett stood in the doorway, he looked much the same as he did in 1960. He was slim, with a long face and gray eyes. His shoulders and his back were hunched slightly, his slender, wrinkled arms extending from the sleeves of a white T-shirt. He was wearing a worn-out pair of light-blue dress pants. At first glance, he looked more like a grandfather than the man the FBI once chased across two countries.
"It's nothing personal," he said, declining to be interviewed. "I have nothing to gain from the notoriety. I've put it behind me. It's a gruesome memory."
Corbett then smiled meekly. From the doorway, a corner of his room was visible, with its white walls, dated carpeting, and what appeared to be a worn couch. He shook my hand, thanked me for visiting, then closed the door and disappeared into his small apartment, a man, alone in the twilight of his existence, voluntarily confined to a prison of his own making.
Robert Sanchez is 5280's staff writer. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.