This article won a 2011 Top of the Rockies Excellence in Journalism Award, and was a finalist for a 2011 City and Regional Magazine Association award in the feature writing category.

It hasn’t snowed in days, but the chill and wind remain. Randy Hansen is in no hurry to leave the warmth of his car, but he feels compelled. He scans the desolate expanse outside his car window: a seemingly endless open field of frosted grass. Twenty minutes, he tells himself, it’s worth being out in the cold for 20 minutes to be able to cross this one off the list. The detective shoulders open the door, pulls a black wool cap tight onto his bald head, and walks into the field, his winter overcoat flapping in the wind. A former college football player, Hansen is tall and still possesses the kind of trim, sculpted physique that many men in their 40s have let slip away. Hansen typically exudes a formidable presence, but now, in this field in nowhere Aurora, he looks anything but.

A layer of old snow crunches underfoot. His eyes begin to water. He would tell you it’s the wind. He keeps looking, squinting, searching the ground in front of his feet. He’s not sure what he’s looking for, exactly, or even if he’s looking in the right place. After all this time, the unmarked grave of a little girl isn’t likely to look like much. Maybe a modest mound rising from the otherwise flat field, maybe a slight indentation in the dirt. He knows that walking around this field—just like all the other fields he’s examined after receiving a tip, or like now, on nothing more than a whim—is probably a waste of time. But he doesn’t know what else to do, and he has to do something.

For a moment, Hansen allows himself to think. He’s alone, in a field, in the cold, trying to unearth the body of a child he thinks he has to find. The phrase “obsessive-compulsive lunatic” pops into his mind. But then her face flashes in front of him, and he remembers how he got here. How he chanced upon this mystery, and how it changed his life in so many ways. On that snowy night years ago, in 2005, when he first got the call, Hansen could not have imagined how intertwined his life and this case would become. He could not have guessed he would not be living in his Arvada home, or that he’d be divorced. He wouldn’t have envisioned he’d be spending as much time as he does at an Old Chicago drinking IPAs and talking to cute bartenders about his lack of a love life. He could not have foreseen that all these years later he would be ferreting around a vacant field hoping to find Aaroné.

Monday, November 14, 2005, 7:45 p.m.
Across the room the TV was blaring, filling the basement of an Arvada home with the resonant voices of Al Michaels and John Madden as they broke down the Monday night game between the Cowboys and the Eagles. Hansen had a clear view of the flat-screen from his weight bench. Working out was a requirement for Hansen, and not just because his job demanded basic fitness. The repetition helped him rub out the details of long days spent working as a detective in the Aurora Police Department’s Crimes Against Children (CAC) unit. The distraction of a good NFL game didn’t hurt either.

Halfway into a set of leg presses his cell phone rang. The call wasn’t unexpected: Hansen was on-call for the evening, which meant he’d be the guy the department would dial if a crime involving a child cropped up.

“This is Randy.”

The lieutenant gave Hansen the details: A six-year-old female had been missing since approximately 1 p.m. Police were on the scene. The address was 16551 E. Kepner Place, Aurora.

Hansen hung up the phone, relieved. Missing children were rarely ever truly missing. They were often hiding in the attic; sometimes they were at a neighbor’s house; often they’d “run away” and would come home on their own. But only a fraction of one percent of missing children ever ended up really vanishing into thin air. Chances were police would find the kid before Hansen even made it to Aurora. He pulled on street clothes and grabbed the keys to his Chevy Impala. On his way out the door he hollered to his wife, Carrie: “Got a call. It’s just a missing kid. I’ll be right back.” It was a line she had heard her husband say so many times before.

November 14, 2005, 8:30 p.m.
Hansen pulled into the cul-de-sac in front of the beige-brick home in Aurora. It had been snowing off and on for the past half hour. He stepped from the car into the 30-degree chill and looked for his on-call colleague, detective Chris Fanning. The other half of the detective twosome emerged from a navy-blue sea of uniformed patrol officers, many of whom had been searching the house and neighborhood for more than six hours but had yet to find any real leads. An Amber Alert couldn’t be issued because there was no description of a vehicle or a potential suspect. Although police were already inside, Hansen and Fanning knocked on the front door. Aaron Thompson answered the door. He told the men he was the missing girl’s father and showed them into the living room, where Shely Lowe, Thompson’s live-in girlfriend, and the couple’s other seven children were gathered.

Hansen surveyed the scene in the cookie-cutter home. He was immediately struck by the silence. In his experience, when a child was missing the family had a hard time controlling the volume. Someone was yelling or crying. Friends and family spilled in and out of the house—talking, updating, consoling. But not here. There was hardly a noise. The television was on, but the sound hovered just above a static whisper. The kids, who looked like they ranged from early elementary- to middle-school age, sat glued to the couches near the TV. Not one of them was talking. No one was playing a game. Hansen didn’t even catch one trying to provoke another. The only activity they seemed to be allowed to do was their chores. Every few minutes, one would get up to clear away a dirty food dish or wipe down the kitchen counter or empty the dishwasher. Which was maybe why, Hansen thought, the house was so damn tidy. In fact, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a house full of children that was so clean.

He pulled up a chair to talk with Thompson while Fanning lured Lowe into the kitchen. In Law & Order fashion, the detectives interviewed each parent individually and out of earshot from the other. After so many years on the force, Hansen had witnessed a hundred different ways people react to stress, but he was still surprised that neither parent seemed the least bit emotional. No chin quivering. No eyes red with tears and exhaustion. No faraway stares. Thompson and Lowe were calm and cooperative as they told the detectives the same story they’d told patrol officers earlier that day: Just before noon, Aaroné and her sister were at the kitchen table. Thompson had just finished feeding them a late breakfast when Aaroné asked to have another cookie beyond what her father had already given her. When Thompson said no, the six-year-old threw a temper tantrum and ran upstairs to the bedroom she shared with her three sisters. Fifteen minutes later, Thompson went to check on his daughter and couldn’t find her. A search of the house turned up nothing. After a brief look around the neighborhood, Thompson called Aurora police.

Thompson’s retelling of the story seemed devoid of sentiment to Hansen. Even if it was the 10th time he’d told it that day, Hansen thought the father’s lackadaisical delivery was strange. The detectives peppered the family with more questions, but neither Lowe nor Thompson nor the children could supply the detectives with any helpful information about where they thought Aaroné might be or whom she might be with. The little girl’s parents said that Aaroné had no friends, didn’t play outside, didn’t have any extended family in Colorado, and hadn’t yet enrolled in school. Hansen shot Fanning a frustrated look.

Hansen changed direction and asked for two things: recent photos of Aaroné and a tour of the kids’ bedrooms. Lowe had handed over a snapshot of Aaroné to patrol officers earlier in the day. Hansen had examined the photo, but the blurry photograph showed a too-skinny toddler in a blue and white checkered outfit. Aaroné could barely have been four when it was taken. The missing girl was just two weeks shy of her seventh birthday. When he told Lowe and Thompson he needed a more recent picture of their daughter they couldn’t produce one.

With the night growing late and the temperature dropping outside, Hansen hurried to the second floor. Thompson followed sluggishly. The detective looked out the windows, opened hallway closets, and then examined the girls’ room. There were two sets of bunk beds for four girls, but only three mattresses. Hansen asked about the discrepancy, and Thompson explained that when he and Lowe bought the beds, they only had seven kids; when the eighth one came along Aaroné began sharing a bed with one of her sisters. Possible, Hansen thought, but pairing that with the lack of photographs and the family’s underdeveloped sense of urgency—something wasn’t right. Walking out of the bedroom, Hansen found the girl’s father in the hallway, standing with his eyes closed. As Hansen passed by, Thompson cracked open an eye, looked at the detective, and said, “I’m kinda tired—I’m gonna go to bed.”

Tuesday, November 15, 2005
It was nearing 3 a.m. as Hansen tiptoed into his dark house, trying not to wake his sleeping family. He slipped silently into the warm bed next to Carrie. He’d perfected the move over the years; coming in late was part of the job.

He’d been a cop for 15 years—first booking inmates into jail, then working patrol—but the past three years as a CAC detective had been the most intense. He’d taken the detective exam because he’d had his fill of society’s riff-raff, the drunkards and drug addicts. The CAC unit wasn’t exactly what he’d had in mind when he’d gone fishing for a promotion. With a 14-year-old daughter and an 18-year-old son of his own, listening to tales of child torture and sexual abuse turned his stomach. He’d had to learn not to blush when a nine-year-old used words like “cooter” or “hoohah” to describe where her uncle had touched her. It was impossible not to see his own kids in the faces of young victims. He hated the job for nearly a year before he found a reason to love it: The first time he got a guilty verdict and put an end to a child’s suffering, he knew why he was where he was.

Which is why he hadn’t minded being in Aurora for six hours that night. It was his job to find a missing little girl, to bring her back to her family—even if that meant hours away from his own. With little more to go on than an old photograph, Hansen was aware of what lay ahead for him. Phone calls. Leads. Dead ends. Hansen mentally prepared for what was shaping up to be a real missing-child case—his first one ever.

Only five hours after he slipped into bed with Carrie, Hansen was back in Aurora. Time is precious when a child has gone missing. According to studies, the first few hours are the most critical: Nearly three-quarters of abducted children who are murdered are dead within three hours of the abduction. Aaroné had been missing for 19 hours. Hansen checked in with officers who’d been canvassing the block. Out of the nine houses on the street, not one resident knew the Thompsons well. The consensus, patrol officers told Hansen, was that the family was unfriendly and reclusive. The kids never played outside. The parents didn’t return a neighborly wave.

Hansen had hoped to scrape together some details on where the kids played and how often the neighbors saw Aaroné outside. Without that information Hansen had to find another way to get a bead on Aaroné. He had officers ask Lowe and Thompson for something of the girl’s—anything from which bloodhounds could draw a scent. The trail the dogs sniffed off a baby doll evaporated in a field near the house. Hansen also asked the Thompsons for some of Aaroné’s clothing for DNA extraction. Lowe sent one of the kids to fetch a bundle of Aaroné’s tops and bottoms. Hansen held up each item of clothing and lifted a skeptical eyebrow—not one piece looked large enough to fit a six-year-old child. If there was one thing Hansen had learned during his years on the job, it was that the simplest explanation was usually the correct one: Aaroné didn’t just go missing over a cookie.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005
The case was everywhere. The investigation was the lead story on every news channel. The community, unwilling to accept that a six-year-old had simply disappeared, pulled together to find her for her family. Missing-child posters with the blurry photograph of Aaroné were taped up all over the city. Volunteer search groups fanned out across Aurora, looking in parks, wooded areas, and open fields for Aaroné. Hansen manned his desk at the Aurora Police Department, making calls, setting up interviews, checking e-mails, and following up with his team. Police work, grunt work. Tips had been streaming into the hotline the department had set up, and Hansen had his people checking out the most credible leads. Nothing crucial surfaced. Nothing, until a call came in from the Colorado Department of Corrections: An inmate at the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility said he had information about little Aaroné.

Of the eight children living in the Kepner Place house, none was the biological offspring of both Thompson and Lowe. Lowe was pregnant with what would soon be the couple’s first child together. Two of the other children were fathered by Eric Williams Sr., a former boyfriend of Lowe’s. Williams had since become a ward of the state of Colorado, a drug addict who’d ditched a court-appointed stay at a halfway house. It was Williams’ cellmate who called the hotline. He said Williams had told him things about Aaroné that Hansen would want to know. She’s dead, said Williams’ cellie. She’s been dead for years; she died in the bathtub, and they buried her in a field somewhere.

The tip made sense to Hansen. That was why there were no photographs. That was why there were only seven mattresses. That was why Thompson and Lowe’s behavior seemed so off—it would’ve been nearly impossible for them to get appropriately emotional about a little girl lost in the cold when she was already dead. And that, Hansen thought, was also probably why Lowe and Thompson had reported her “missing” when they did—if family was going to visit after the birth of the new baby, they’d want to know where Aaroné was. That she’d run away or been kidnapped was a better story than telling the grandparents she’d died and had been buried in a field. Hansen sent detectives to Cañon City to interview both Eric Williams Sr. and his chatty cellmate. He wanted to know exactly why Williams thought Aaroné was dead. It took a moment to sink in, but Hansen realized his missing-child case likely had just become a homicide investigation.

With Williams’ plausible allegations in mind, Hansen headed back to the Kepner Place house to interview the other seven kids. Thompson and Lowe initially had been unwilling to allow the detective to interview the kids alone. But they had finally relented. When Hansen arrived, all seven children were clean, dressed, and waiting. Hansen took the kids, one at a time, into another room for questioning. The interviews were, for the most part, unremarkable. The kids seemed nervous and tongue-tied, their answers clipped and unhelpful, until Hansen sat down with the youngest boy, a soft-spoken, squirmy, eight-year-old son of Shely Lowe’s. Sitting in a chair in the middle of the room, the child’s legs dangled, his feet barely able to touch the floor. Most of the session followed the same pattern as the others—seemingly easy questions followed by useless answers. But as Hansen finished this particular interview, the detective asked the young man if he had any questions. “Yes,” the boy said. “Don’t you want to know about Aaroné’s favorite food and her favorite color and what she was for Halloween?”

Surprised by the question, Hansen replied that he would like to know those things.

Pizza, orange, and a witch, said the eight-year-old, obviously proud that he’d been able to tell the policeman what he thought the cop wanted to hear.

“Who told you to tell me that?” asked Hansen.

“No one,” he said.

Hansen studied the child. It was the way the boy had said it, scripted and rote. The detective’s own kids, Justin and Cami, were teenagers now, and although he was often away on the job, Hansen had been around his kids enough to know they never would have asked that kind of question at that age. When his kids were little, Hansen had worked the night shift to make things easier on the family. While Carrie worked at the hair salon they owned together, he had stayed home in the afternoons to watch Justin and Cami. He knew eight-year-olds. He knew their tendencies; he knew how they acted; and he certainly knew when they weren’t telling the truth.

Thursday, November 17, 2005
At 5 p.m., Hansen arrived at the Thompson residence. The bland suburban house looked changed to Hansen somehow. More sinister, more ominous. A little girl probably had died in there, and Hansen had to make sure that didn’t happen again. As he got out of his car, his heart pounding, Hansen realized he hadn’t even thought about what he was going to say to the parents. He couldn’t compromise the investigation by giving them too much detail, yet he had to tell them something: He was, after all, there to take their children away.

Having his own kids made police work harder—and easier—for Hansen. His work hours increased when he made the jump from patrol to CAC in 2002, which meant he saw even less of Justin and Cami—and Carrie too. At the same time, being a father gave him that parental instinct, a sixth sense that made him that much more protective of every child. And so, 44 and a half hours into the investigation, Hansen knew he had a critical decision to make. Seven children under the age of 16 were living in a home in which both parents were now suspects in the potential homicide of the kids’ sibling.

Hansen had a sound argument for wanting to remove the Thompson children. But was there enough hard evidence? He wasn’t sure; however, if there was ever a time to employ the better-safe-than-sorry motto, Hansen figured this was it. As a CAC detective, he understood the big picture: Each year in the United States about 800,000 children are victims of abuse and neglect—and nearly 1,800 die from it. Hansen had picked up the phone to call the Colorado Department of Human Services. He’d requested a court order to remove the kids.

The decision might have been more difficult if Hansen hadn’t already listened to the taped interviews with Eric Williams Sr., the inmate whose cellie had said he had information about Aaroné’s death. That interview had provided Hansen with a more convincing story line than Thompson’s cookie anecdote. According to Williams, in January 2004 Lowe had told him that Aaroné died from an episode in the bathtub, and that she and Thompson buried the girl in a field. Lowe had also mentioned to Williams that the night the couple went to bury the girl they were stopped by police, but that nothing came of it. Hansen checked out Williams’ story: Police in Greenwood Village had, in fact, stopped Thompson and Lowe in their Ford Expedition behind a grocery store—near the rows of Dumpsters—at 2:40 a.m. on January 21, 2003.

Both Thompson and Lowe were home when Hansen knocked on the door. The detective calmly explained that he had information that Aaroné had been dead for more than two years. He requested their cooperation. And then he broke the news that social services would be taking the children. Hansen watched for a reaction. Thompson didn’t move or speak. His stunted response made Hansen wonder if the man was even listening. Lowe had definitely heard him.

“You bald-headed, redneck motherfucker!” she screamed. “You get the fuck out of my house!”

As much as Hansen would’ve loved to oblige—to leave this unpleasant scene and go home—he could not. Along with a court order to remove the children, he also had a search warrant that allowed him and his team to take possession of 16551 E. Kepner Place. If Eric Williams Sr.’s story was accurate, Aaroné hadn’t been inside the home for at least two years. Hansen knew it was unlikely he’d find much evidence of a crime scene. Blood could be washed away, weapons disposed of, evidence tossed out. But over the course of the next several days, cadaver dogs would prowl through the home anyway, sniffing for old blood. The dogs showed interest in the girls’ bedroom and in the upstairs bathroom, but the blood residue the crime scene investigators found came from other children in the house—not from Aaroné.

Police scoured every room, bagging anything they felt could be evidence. Hansen took every toddler-size girl’s shirt in case the CSIs needed to pull more DNA later. Officers also tagged bags of Halloween candy (seven), pairs of kids’ gloves (seven), and toothbrushes (seven), none of which popped positive for Aaroné’s DNA. NecroSearch, a Colorado organization that specializes in finding clandestine grave-sites, set up in the Thompson’s backyard. As media helicopters hovered above the Aurora home, a team of volunteer scientists used ground-penetrating radar to search the property for disturbed soil. They noted a handful of suspicious patches of earth, but after hours of digging nothing was found. Aaroné, as far as anyone could tell, had not been tossed into a makeshift grave on the Thompson property.

Friday, November 18, 2005
Taking the Thompson kids out of the home the night before had been emotionally draining, but not nearly as challenging as Hansen had imagined. Even with Lowe’s insults ringing in his ears, Hansen had calmly helped the children toward the door. He asked the kids to get their coats, and, for the most part, they walked out of their home without so much as a whimper. Hansen wondered if they’d learned the stoicism from their father, or if they were simply terrified into speechlessness.

After bringing the children to the police station, Hansen and another detective decided to question the oldest child, a 15-year-old, who was actually Shely Lowe’s younger brother. The teenager had been living with the family since August 2004. He was old enough, Hansen thought, that he might be able to put something—anything—into context.

Hansen had a gift for interviewing. Detective Chris Fanning, Hansen’s coworker of two years, always said it was Hansen’s talent for maintaining an even keel that made him a good CAC detective. Even talking to a child molester, Hansen could keep his cool. But that night, after four days of wading though murky waters with the Thompson family, Hansen lost his patience when the teenager became defensive and the kid punched the wall. “What am I supposed to think when I see a father falling asleep when his little girl is supposedly out in the cold and snow?” Hansen asked, his tone this side of angry. The boy didn’t answer. Hansen could tell he wanted to protect his sister, but it was obvious he wasn’t entirely sure what he was protecting her from.

The interview dragged on for five and a half hours, during which time something occurred to Hansen: If the boy moved into the Thompson house in August 2004 and Aaroné died sometime in 2003, he might not have known she ever existed. When Hansen pressed the boy on whether he had actually ever met six-year-old Aaroné, the boy hesitated, then relented. He’d never seen her, he said. Not once.

Some of the other kids were interviewed on Friday morning at SungateKids, a child-focused facility where the Aurora Police Department took the vast majority of its youngest victims for forensic interviews. Listening to the recorded conversations, Hansen could tell the children were terrified, but for reasons he hadn’t anticipated.

At first, the kids wanted no part of the interviews. They said they didn’t know anything. They repeated that the last time they’d seen Aaroné had been Monday morning before school. But as the interviewers trudged on, strategically pressuring the kids and refusing to let any inconsistencies pass, Hansen listened to a bizarre plot twist emerge: As each kid opened up, he or she said that, more than a year earlier, Lowe and “Big A,” as the kids called Thompson, had told them that Aaroné had gone back to Michigan to live with her real mom. They’d said they sent her back because she was bad. On Monday morning, the day Aaroné “disappeared,” Lowe and Thompson told the kids that Aaroné had come back from Michigan that morning and had then run away. They told the kids to tell the police they had seen her before they left for school.

The stories confirmed what Hansen already suspected: Their parents had coached them on what to say to the police. The kids, vaguely understanding their parents were in trouble, hadn’t wanted to say the wrong thing—were terrified of saying the wrong thing—concerned they might be sent away, or worse. To prove his theory correct, Hansen had the interviewers ask each child the same questions their eight-year-old brother had asked him: What is Aaroné’s favorite food, what’s her favorite color, and what was she for Halloween? “Pizza,” “orange,” and “witch” spilled out of the children’s mouths, followed closely by the admission that their parents had told them to say those exact things to the police if they were asked. But the children weren’t completely forthcoming. They still weren’t offering up all of the answers to Hansen’s questions. Questions like: What happened the last time you saw Aaroné?

Thursday, December 1, 2005
For almost three weeks Hansen had been working seven days a week. He drove home mostly to shower, change clothes, and sleep. He hadn’t seen his kids in days. He and Carrie were barely talking. Not that that was unusual. Carrie often told him he was emotionally unavailable and distant, especially when he became engrossed in a big case. That comment stung Hansen, probably because he knew it was true; he had always struggled with verbal affection. He’d always been shy and reserved. These were traits that helped make him a skilled interviewer—but maybe not a communicative husband. It was in his genes. His parents, who’d been married for more than four decades, never said “I love you” to each other in front of the kids. They never even said it aloud to Hansen or his older brother. There was love in the house, but it wasn’t overt. When Hansen met Carrie Parks at Saugus High School in California, he fell in love with how comfortable she was saying “I love you.” Yet it took him becoming a father for those words to float off his tongue more easily. Kids were easy to love. Which was why Hansen had such trouble understanding Aaron Thompson’s indifference—and why he winced when Carrie pegged him as distant.

When he did see his wife, he didn’t offer up much about the case. They never talked about his job. Well, they rarely talked about his job—and even when they did talk about it they didn’t really talk about it. After all, a conversation about his days spent listening to a 13-year-old talk about how her stepfather touched her breasts or investigating who fractured the skull and broke the ribs of a six-month-old wasn’t kitchen-table conversation. Hansen began to realize, though, that if he wasn’t talking about his job, he wasn’t talking much at all, especially with his wife.

And so the detective spent hours at the station, where he could discuss the strange details with other detectives, people who understood. For all the time he’d been putting in, though, Hansen stood at an impasse. Lowe and Thompson were refusing to speak to him. The kids seemed unwilling to help with specific details surrounding Aaroné. After days of executing the search warrant, the house wasn’t revealing its secrets. The only concrete information he had that Aaroné was dead was from Eric Williams Sr., a convicted criminal. And there was nothing that pointed to her death, if it happened at all, as a homicide. More than once, Hansen thought that the case was simply impossible to solve. That the drudgery of doing interviews and following up on tips was not worth the effort and time spent away from his family. Even the interview he had lined up for that afternoon seemed like a waste of time, but he visited Tabitha Graves at her run-down home in Denver anyway.

Listed as one of the Thompson kids’ in-case-of-emergency contacts at school, Graves said she and Lowe were old friends who’d had a falling out more than a year before. They hadn’t talked since, she said, and she certainly didn’t remember Lowe saying that anything had happened to Aaroné. For Hansen, it was just another frustrating dead end. Hansen threw down his card and asked Graves to call him if she thought of anything that might help. It was one of those perfunctory, cliché moves, almost never worth a damn.

But later that evening Graves picked up the card and dialed his cell phone. “Detective Hansen,” she said, her voice trembling—he thought maybe she was crying. “I’m sorry, but I lied to you earlier today. Shely told me back in the summer or fall of 2004 that Aaroné was dead. She said Aaron did something with the body.”

The typically unflustered Hansen couldn’t help but feel his pulse quicken. It was already past quitting time, and his family was probably wondering if he’d ever come home, but Graves was on her way to the police station. She told Hansen she’d been in Lowe’s car when Lowe said Aaroné had died. Lowe explained that one morning Aaroné hadn’t come down for breakfast. When Lowe checked on her, she was in bed but wasn’t moving or breathing. Lowe called for Thompson, who went into the bedroom with Aaroné for about an hour, came out with the girl wrapped in a blanket, and left in the family’s Ford Expedition.

This was the break Hansen had been waiting for. He convinced Graves to make recorded phone calls to Lowe. And for five long months, from early December 2005 to early May 2006, he worked the relationship between Graves and Lowe. Hansen had Graves call Lowe just to talk, to catch up—and to build trust. To build enough trust, Hansen hoped, that Lowe would reveal not only how Aaroné really died—in the bathtub? in her bedroom?—but where she was buried.

Through dozens of recorded phone calls and three wiretapped meetings, Lowe maintained a healthy skepticism of Graves. Her distrust meant that Lowe rarely let her guard down enough to divulge much more than she’d told Graves in 2004. But there were moments of enlightenment, details that gave Hansen insight. During the third face-to-face meeting, Graves asked Lowe if the two of them could go place flowers on Aaroné’s grave. Lowe balked at first, but then acquiesced: “I’ll have Aaron do it,” she said, adding to Graves, “You ain’t going nowhere.” Graves added pressure, saying, “Aaroné needs to be acknowledged, Shely.” To which Lowe replied, “Ain’t nobody forgot that baby.”

Friday, May 12, 2006, 4:30 a.m.
The morning was still dark when a call came into Aurora’s emergency dispatch center.

“911, what is your emergency?”

Aaron Thompson’s voice was thick with alarm: My girlfriend isn’t breathing.

Paramedics rushed to 16551 E. Kepner Place to find Shely Lowe unconscious and unresponsive. With Thompson at her side, Lowe was taken by ambulance to the Medical Center of Aurora. Shely Lowe died, at 33 years old, from heart failure.

Minutes later, the phone on detective Hansen’s bedside table rang.

“This is Randy.”

Sergeant Joe Young, the supervisor of the CAC unit, broke the news to a still-groggy Hansen, who climbed out of bed, once again, leaving Carrie alone. His first thought was that he’d lost the only line of communication he’d had—the one from Lowe through Tabitha Graves. His next and most heart-sinking thought was that any attorney could now explain Aaroné’s death in a way that could get Aaron off the hook: Shely did it.

Late May 2006
Although Hansen would’ve liked to arrest both Lowe and Thompson for the crimes he thought they’d committed, he was just as content to cuff Thompson alone. And after more than six months of police work, Hansen thought he had enough to do just that. Hansen believed that the phone recordings between Lowe and Graves were damning enough to get a warrant on their own. But in his back pocket he also carried evidence that Thompson and Lowe did not buy seven mattresses as Thompson had said—a receipt from Bedroom Expressions showed they’d originally purchased eight. Hansen also had a witness, a Catholic nun no less, who was in the Thompson home the morning of November 14, 2005, for a Section 8 housing check—and she did not see Aaroné. Hansen itched to move on the arrest. He met with Sergeant Young and Aurora’s chief of police, Daniel Oates, who both agreed that Hansen had gathered enough evidence to make the arrest.

But after a meeting with Arapahoe County District Attorney Carol Chambers the group changed its mind. Hansen had accumulated a mountain of circumstantial evidence, but his stack of evidentiary have-nots was considerable: no body, no murder weapon, no cause of death. Chambers suggested taking the case in front of the grand jury to make sure prosecutors had enough evidence to get a conviction. A grand jury isn’t a criminal trial; no one gets sentenced to prison by a grand jury. But prosecutors love them—the power to subpoena witnesses and present evidence behind closed doors often proves to be a tremendously helpful investigative tool. The majority of grand juries hand down a “true bill,” or an indictment, that gives prosecutors cause to go to trial.

The grand jury convened for the first time in the Thompson case in late spring 2006. Hansen attended two daylong hearings each month. He had to reinvestigate dozens of aspects of the case to present to the jury. It felt like overkill to Hansen. He was frustrated and tired. But he understood the process gave him a chance to see what his investigation might look like seen through the eyes of a jury. Still, the thought of going through the case for the grand jury and then having to do it again for a criminal jury felt overwhelming. The work hours involved were staggering—and Hansen simply didn’t have the stamina to manage the case and deal with his home life.

September 2006
If the end of the Hansens’ marriage hadn’t come during the Thompson case, it would have fractured during the next, or the one after that. Hansen would tell you the couple had been a bad match from the start, and that the end of their marriage was no different than any other failed marriage in America. There was both fact and wishful fiction in that explanation. Divorce is always about something, and in police marriages it’s almost always about something to do with the job. The divorce rate for cops is 60 to 70 percent higher than the national average. Not that being a statistic mattered to Hansen. That didn’t make the end any easier. Carrie would have to declare bankruptcy. Hansen, who would learn that he made, as he would drolly put it, “too much money” as a police officer to declare bankruptcy himself, would have to pay child support and settle up the debt from their hair salon. And someone would have to move out.

Four months into the grand jury proceedings, Hansen moved into a one-bedroom unit in an Aurora apartment complex. He furnished it with a cheap kitchen table and a futon for the living room. It wasn’t like he needed nice stuff; with the grand jury taking up his days and nights, he hardly spent any time at the apartment anyway. Instead of driving home to Arvada to slip silently into a warm bed after a long day of work, Hansen could make all the noise he wanted. He lived alone, sleeping in sheets that were always cold.

October 2006 to May 2007
It had been nearly a year since Hansen pulled the Thompson children out of their home and placed them in foster care. For 11 months, they were nearly silent when it came to what happened inside 16551 E. Kepner Place. In the middle of the grand jury hearings, however, the floodgates opened. Perhaps it was Lowe’s death. Maybe it was the natural progression of mental healing. It could’ve been some unknown trigger that released the deluge. What mattered was the kids were talking, and they were all saying the same thing: They had been brutally physically abused.

The kids called the abuse getting a “whoopin.” And they said that both Thompson and Lowe handed whoopins out with near equal force, ferocity, and frequency. Lowe, they said, took a kind of pleasure in punishing, while Thompson just did whatever Lowe told him to do. Either way, whoopins were everyday occurrences in the home, brought down swiftly for eating a bite of Lowe’s breakfast cereal, for a bad grade at school, for not doing their chores, for not being ready on time, for a dirty room, for spilling food, for thumb-sucking, or for wetting the bed.

These punishments were not the average swat to the behind—the kind of reprimand strict grandmothers might’ve handed out for back-talking. For minor offenses, Thompson or Lowe would whack the children’s hands with a leather belt until welts appeared. Sometimes the kids had to stand on the fireplace hearth, hold a telephone book, and face the wall for hours at a time. When a younger child made a mess in his pants, Thompson’s punishment of choice was to place the excrement in the toilet and hold the child upside down by the ankles over the pot while screaming, “Poop goes here!”

For more serious infractions, the kids received beatings in the basement. Lowe and Thompson would make the children strip naked, tie them to a pole with a scarf, and cane them with whatever instrument struck their fancy: a baseball bat, a broomstick, a metal pole, a belt, an extension cord. The parents would often take turns, tag-teaming the beatings so that when one got tired the other would take over. When the abuse drew blood, which the kids said it often did, Lowe and Thompson would make the kids clean up their own blood with bleach. After every beating, the kids had to take a hot bath to stem the swelling.

None of the children was immune to the wrath—not even four-year-old Aaroné. According to the kids, when Aaroné wet herself or the bed, which was often, Thompson would whoop her on the bottom with a belt. He would then put Aaroné in the coat closet—her “punishment place”—often for the whole day, sometimes overnight. Her older sister remembered Aaroné spending hours in the dark closet and said she would lock fingers with Aaroné when the little girl would stick her tiny fingers out from underneath the closet door.

The information from the children brought clarity to the investigation that Hansen—and the sitting grand jury—had been searching for: This was not a murder case. This was a case of rampant child abuse. A case where one little girl was beaten to death, and in which seven others were barely surviving a living hell.

Every line in the 50-page indictment handed down by the grand jury on May 16, 2007, read like something out of a horror novel. But of the 60 counts laid out in graphic detail, count number one—child abuse resulting in death—was the most serious. The charge carried a maximum sentence of 48 years in prison. With the indictment in hand, Hansen could’ve legally arrested Aaron Thompson. But he didn’t. Instead, he sent patrol officers to make the arrest—an arrest he had worked more than a year and a half to make happen. Hansen thought it’d be easier that way; that Thompson would put up less of a fight or talk more freely if he weren’t there. Hansen simply didn’t need the spotlight, didn’t need the instant gratification—what he wanted, needed, was for a criminal jury to convict Aaroné’s father.

Opening Statements, August 7, 2009
Hansen’s face looked taut. Like the old football player he was, he rolled his shoulders and stretched his neck attempting to shake off the stress. Aaron Thompson wasn’t the only one on trial in the courtroom that day. Hansen knew his police work, his investigation, the last four years of his life—it was all on trial too. He wasn’t allowed to speak during opening arguments; that was Chief Deputy District Attorney Bob Chappell’s job. Hansen would only be able to watch as the counselor stitched together his case. After four years of work, he was no longer in control.

Aaron Thompson wasn’t in control either. Not in control of his children. Not in control of his freedom. He’d been in jail awaiting trial for more than two years. In court he sat quietly at the far end of the defense table in a blue, collared shirt. He was noticeably thinner than when he was arrested in May 2007. He murmured a quick good morning to his attorneys. Beyond that, he didn’t speak or move. He stared blankly ahead, his eyes vacant.

It had been more than two years since police handcuffed Thompson on the side of the road in Aurora, and nearly four years since Hansen first arrived at East Kepner Place. Finally, the now 45-year-old detective found himself sitting at the prosecution desk. The previous two years had been an epic roller coaster of hearings, motions, delays by the prosecution, delays by the defense, resignations by attorneys, trial preparation, and a change in judges. Dressed in a dark-blue suit, Hansen took his seat as the case’s advisory witness in the Arapahoe County Justice Center.

At the behest of Judge Valeria Spencer, the gray-haired Chappell rolled out his opening argument. With a click of a remote, he called up on two white screens a picture of Aaroné Thompson. It was not the overused, blurry photograph that by now everyone knew. This was a baby photo—and the image had its desired effect: In an instant, the concept of innocence lost hung thickly in the air. Chappell let the photograph sear into the jurors’ brains before he painted a ghastly picture of the neglect and abuse that befell not only this baby but seven others as well. Thompson and Lowe, he told the jury, built a house of horrors in their Aurora neighborhood—one that ended for them on November 14, 2005, but that would haunt their children forever.

For 22 days the prosecution laid out its case. Without a body, a cause of death, or much forensic evidence, the trial came down to the testimony of nearly 100 witnesses and 24 hours of taped video and audio recordings. The jurors listened as each police officer, detective, crime scene investigator, and forensic interviewer explained his or her role in the case and what the evidence they had found suggested. It was long, exhausting, tedious testimony. Tabitha Graves and Eric Williams Sr., two crucial witnesses for the prosecution’s case, took the stand and relayed their stories. The jury also listened to phone recordings of Shely Lowe, her language often vulgar and inarticulate as she talked to Tabitha Graves. The prosecution called detective Hansen to testify on a half-dozen occasions.

The most compelling—and heart-wrenching—testimony came from the children. Almost four years had gone by, but the Thompson children had not forgotten. Sitting less than 15 feet away from Big A, they described their stories of abuse. Scarred kneecaps. The soles of their feet beaten with a baseball bat. Whacks on the arms and hands for any little misdeed. For Hansen, this was the most difficult part of the trial. He knew that Aaroné had suffered what was most likely a painful death—a vicious beating that he believed left her with fatal internal injuries. But listening to the kids again, he realized that her death may have been something of a blessing. For if she had lived, she and her seven siblings would have endured abuse for their entire childhoods. Without her death, Hansen could not have come to their rescue.

The children testified to the last time they saw their little sister. Their recollections were slightly different, and none of them could give a date, but two of them described a similar incident: Aaroné had wet herself again, and Big A was whoopin her for it. One of her brothers heard the little girl’s screams emanating from the basement through the air vents into his bedroom. When Aaroné suddenly stopped screaming, he heard Big A say, “Shit.” Another sibling, a stepsister, said the last time she saw Aaroné was in the upstairs bathroom. Aaroné’s sister had been using the bathroom when Big A told her to go to her room. She watched as Thompson, who was furious that Aaroné had wet herself again, carried Aaroné into the bathroom and shut the door. She remembered that Aaroné was not at breakfast the next morning. Aaroné’s oldest step-sibling, 18 years old when he took the stand, also testified to noticing strange incidents during that time: a missing shovel, a foul odor in the basement, Lowe praying and joining a church, and the eighth mattress disappearing.

After weeks of agonizing testimony, the prosecution rested its case. It was now the defense attorneys’ opportunity to refute what they could. Hansen was not surprised by their strategy—he’d known what it would be after the moment Shely Lowe died three years earlier. The defense asserted that Lowe, not Thompson, was the abusive monster, and that she killed Aaroné. They submitted that Aaron Thompson’s only two criminal missteps were helping Lowe cover up the crime and lying to police about the girl’s disappearance. The defense called fewer than 10 people to the stand and focused mainly on discrediting the prosecution’s witnesses. Thompson declined to take the stand, and the defense rested after only one day of presentation. On September 15, 2009, the case—and the last four years of detective Hansen’s life—went to the jury.

Monday, September 28, 2009
Nine days is a long time for a jury to deliberate. For Hansen, each day that passed was another sign the jurors did not feel confident in the work he and his team had done to give Aaroné Thompson some small piece of justice. The thought of a hung jury—or, worse, a not-guilty verdict—made it difficult for Hansen to breathe. The wait was painful, but something else began to bother him too: the nothingness. For four years, the Thompson case had been his life. It had occupied his attention. It had taken over his work. It had pulled him out of bed and away from his wife and kids. It had become a part of him. When he had started this journey he was married, owned a house, and had two teenagers to keep up with. Now he was divorced and paying off debt from his married days; he lived in a one-bedroom apartment that still didn’t have pictures on the walls; and his kids were old enough to live on their own.

For Hansen, a guilty verdict would validate more than his instinct that Thompson had tortured his daughter to death; it would mean that for all that he’d lost, there was some point, some good, that came of it. A not-guilty verdict would mean—well, he couldn’t allow himself to go there. Not yet.

The trial had not attracted huge audiences during the long days of testimony, but the courtroom overflowed for the verdict on September 28. Hansen was too nervous to notice that the media and the public only wanted to see the end result—a fitting end to a tragic story all wrapped up in an hourlong session. They didn’t want to sweat the details of how Thompson had been brought to justice—or who had brought him there—they just wanted to know that it was done.

As the judge began to read the verdict, Hansen leaned forward in his chair, his shoulders upright and rigid. In his mind, a full slate of guilty verdicts would’ve been justice well served, but he only needed to hear one “guilty” so long as it came after the words “count number one.”

The first verdict dropped onto the still room—”guilty.” Hansen’s shoulders slumped, he hung his head, and a sad smile tugged at the edges of his lips. As the guilty verdicts piled up, eventually coming to 31, Hansen’s eyes welled up. He was slow to get to his feet after the judge dismissed the jury and bailiffs took Thompson away. He shook hands with Bob Chappell and the rest of the prosecution team. He quickly checked his phone—he already had text messages from family and friends. One, in particular, caught his eye. It was from Carrie. It was short and to the point, but that didn’t matter. It was one word that conveyed so much more: Congratulations.

Monday, November 30, 2009
Until four years ago, November 30 meant nothing to Randy Hansen. Now, the last day of November will forever register as Aaroné’s birthday. Today she would have been 11. Instead, she is gone.

Maybe she’s in a field like Shely Lowe once said, or maybe she’s in the Aurora landfill under 200 feet of garbage. Hansen doesn’t like either setting as Aaroné’s final resting place, which is why over the years he has wandered across more than one open field, hoping he might chance upon the missing little girl. The detective had hoped that at the sentencing on November 10, Aaron Thompson would give up the location of his daughter’s burial place. But despite pleas from Aaroné’s birth mother, Lynette Thompson, who begged Aaron to draw a map so she could give her daughter a proper burial, and despite an admonition from an impassioned Judge Spencer, who told Aaron that he had failed as a man and as a father, he sat silent. The judge sentenced him to 114 years in prison.

Two years between a death and an investigation leaves too much room for time to erase the trail. That Hansen has not found Aaroné’s body is not a failure to anyone except him. He expected he would find Aaroné’s body, something of her, somewhere, but he understands that he has to say good-bye to a little girl he never knew, who dramatically altered his life. Which is why he helped plan a candlelight memorial for Aaroné on her birthday.

The ceremony begins at 4:30 p.m. as the sun begins to drop over the Rocky Mountains. About 60 people are gathered on a playground in Aurora. Hansen stands off to the side with his daughter, Cami. As darkness descends, the mourners light their candles. Hansen lights his daughter’s candle and throws an arm around her shoulders. It’s cold out, and she has no coat, but the half-hug is more for Hansen than for his daughter. After all the time he’s spent thinking about and searching for Aaroné, an hourlong ceremony hardly seems like an appropriate end. And for Hansen, it probably isn’t the end. Aaron Thompson’s legal team will appeal the verdict. Acquaintances will ask him about the case at cocktail parties for years to come. And every time someone finds the body of a little girl—in Colorado or anywhere else—Hansen will be the first to ask if it’s his little girl. But tonight Hansen is trying his best to say farewell. Seven speakers are lined up to talk to the small crowd, but Hansen is not one of them. He knows he’ll just choke up.