It was half past ten in the morning on January 5, 2005, the thermometer just a few degrees above zero, and a Newfoundland named Bear was cruising the neighborhood. No way that dog should be loose, particularly in such bitter cold.
Toler had just left his house on a quiet street in Lakewood, headed for a Kinko’s to do some copying, when he saw Bear wandering at the end of the block. He’d met the dog the previous summer when he’d gone over to the house of Charles Repenning, his 82-year-old neighbor, to pick up some misdelivered mail. Repenning had turned out to be a friendly old gent — and very fond of his Newfie.
Charles Repenning received medals for heroism in World War II and renown in later years as a paleontologist.
Nick Savajian (top left) promised cash and meth to burglars Richard Kasparson (right) and Mike Wessel — and testified against them as part of a plea deal.
A judge ordered a new murder trial for Michael Mapps because of attorney misconduct.
Now Toler parked his truck and walked the dog back to Repenning’s house. He rang the bell, banged on the door. No answer. He walked around to the back of the house and found that a gate had been left open, providing Bear a means of escape. A window from the back door was lying cracked on the ground.
Then he noticed something even more disturbing. The house’s electric meter had been removed and was sitting on a picnic table. An electrician by trade, Toler knew that was one way to cut off the power. He quickly spotted other snipped and dangling cables and wires, including the phone line.
He pulled out his cell phone and dialed 911.
Two officers from the Lakewood Police Department arrived within minutes. After noting pry marks on a deadbolt and other signs of forced entry, they went inside. The place had been ransacked — drawers missing from dressers, cabinets wide open, papers and knickknacks scattered everywhere.
In a bedroom, under a heap of blankets beside the bed, they found the body of an elderly man. His hands were bound with a telephone cord. There was a sock stuffed in his mouth and a bandage wrapped tightly around his eyes, nose and lips, blocking his ability to breathe. He had suffocated while his killers went about their frantic business, helping themselves to his belongings and leaving a mess behind.
Charles Repenning had cut a wide swath through life. He had been a soldier and a prisoner of war, a scientist and an adventurer. He’d traveled extensively in the Southwest and carved a name for himself in paleontology as a leading authority on fossil rodents. Despite his age and declining health, he’d still been engaged in his voluminous scholarly writing and publishing when the home invaders abruptly ended his journey.
Repenning was accustomed to taking the long view, debating with his colleagues the circumstances surrounding the rise and fall of an entire species. But the investigation of his murder provided a glimpse of an entirely different world, one whose inhabitants care nothing about the past and even less about the future — a netherworld of addicts and dealers, where the long view doesn’t extend beyond what can be smoked or snorted right now.
By the time the case went to trial — actually three separate murder trials — it had become a lurid story of meth and death, with odd overtones of the hit crime drama Breaking Bad. Just like on TV, the Repenning case featured a criminal mastermind, Michael Mapps, who seemed like an ordinary family man and businessman but had a talent for cooking exceptionally potent methamphetamine. And, as in the series, the story line involved a motor home that may have contained lab equipment as well as damning evidence stolen from the Repenning home.
But was Mapps really a kind of Walter Whie? The narrative that pegged him as the “mastermind” of a horrendous crime began to break down shortly after Mapps was convicted by a jury of felony murder in 2006. Evidence that had never been presented at trial made its way, five years later, to a hearing in Jefferson County. District Judge Dennis Hall threw out the murder conviction and ordered a new trial, finding that Mapps’s own attorney had “engaged in improper conduct” in the case by removing and then replacing evidence.
Hall’s ruling was still under appeal when Mapps, who was also serving time for manufacturing meth, died in prison last year. He never got his new trial; it’s possible the verdict would have been the same if he had. But his death leaves several unanswered questions, a puzzle of teeth and vertebrae and bone fragments that can’t quite be assembled into a coherent form.
Members of the Mapps family, who fought doggedly to win him a new trial, insist that he was more of a fall guy than a ruthless drug lord. “That’s not who my dad was,” says the defendant’s son, Ben Mapps. “He was fucking up, making some bad choices. But he wasn’t killing people or setting people up to get killed. He’s not the guy they painted him to be at all.”
Charles Repenning acquired many unusual artifacts and keepsakes over the course of his long and eventful career. It was no easy task to determine the full scope of what had been plundered from his house because his interests were so diverse. Most of the objects that went missing had far more personal significance than monetary value; every piece, it seemed, had a story behind it. The stolen items were evidence not only of a crime, but also of the character of their rightful owner, a testament to his travels and passions and insatiable curiosity.
Among the things that were taken:
Minerals and rocks. Growing up in Oak Park, Illinois, Repenning developed an early interest in geology. As a teenager, he’d set up a museum in the family attic, displaying tables of rocks and fossils he’d found, complete with hand-lettered explanations of their significance.
Several firearms, including a prized German Luger. Repenning served in the 104th Infantry Division in World War II. In late 1944, he was wounded in battle, captured and sent to a stalag in northern Germany, then assigned to work on a farm. In the final, chaotic weeks of the war, he escaped his captors and headed west. Along the way he collected a number of Nazi souvenirs, including the Luger and a ceremonial sword. “Rep,” as he was known to colleagues, never talked much about his wartime experiences, but he wrote sixty years later about learning compassion for the enemy: “It took me two weeks of constant combat to realize that those guys shooting at me had to live in the same mud and snow that I did.”
One Bronze Star, one Purple Heart. Received for military service.
Navajo rugs, Hopi kachina dolls and other Native American pieces. In 1948, Rep began working for the U.S. Geological Survey, producing geologic maps of the Four Corners region and visiting remote areas of reservations in Arizona and New Mexico. His work helped to identify key fossil deposits and led to a wealth of later research.
Numerous bones, teeth, and entire skeletons of creatures great and small, current and extinct, meticulously catalogued and exhaustively studied. In 1955 Repenning moved his family to California. He continued to work for the USGS but also pursued graduate work in paleontology, picking up a master’s degree but never completing his doctoral dissertation. He became renowned for using the fossils of small mammals, particularly rodents, as an aid in reconstructing prehistoric eras. He also studied large seals and demostylia, a long-extinct order of aquatic mammals, and was known to bury dead zoo animals — zebras, emus, even an elephant limb — in his back yard so that he could study their bones.
Books, maps and personal papers. Repenning and his wife divorced in 1982, and he relocated to Lakewood two years later. Despite a growing array of health problems — a stroke, emphysema, lung cancer — he continued to work for the USGS well into the 1990s and was only semi-retired at the time of his death, still deeply engaged with his fossil collection and research library.
A few of the items taken, such as the guns and rugs, certainly had some cash value. Many others had scientific value but no commercial worth; they would be prized only by someone who understood what they were. But the ransacking of the home suggested a much more indiscriminate crew, scooping up whatever they thought might be worth a buck. The police also discovered that a vacant home next to Repenning’s had been hit that same night, the power cut in the same fashion; not finding much to steal, the thieves had tried to make off with the dishwasher. This was no meticulous, professional heist. It was brutal and sloppy, the destruction of a life and desecration of its history by ravenous, careless predators.
How careless became apparent in a matter of hours.
The morning of the murder, not long before Toler called 911, a neighbor across the street had seen two men going in and out of the Repenning house, loading up a red truck and Rep’s SUV. The men left distinctive shoeprints in the snow.
The face of one of the suspects was captured on an ATM camera in Arvada when he tried to use the victim’s bank card later that day. The stolen SUV, a 1991 Mitsubishi Montero, turned up in Denver a few days later.
But the big break in the investigation came three weeks after the murder. An employee of Table Steaks, a pool hall in Edgewater, overheard two men arguing about a burglary and an old man who’d been killed. One of the men had filled out a job application, providing his name and address.
On the afternoon of January 27, 2005, Lakewood detective Mike Rushford knocked on the door of a south Denver home occupied by Richard Kasparson and his wife, Ginny. Rushford explained that he was investigating a burglary. Kasparson said he didn’t know anything about it. Rushford studied the man’s shoes and asked him to lift up a foot so he could see the tread pattern.
Kasparson was soon in custody, his shoes seized as evidence. A search of his home turned up boxes of stuff that had clearly been taken in the burglary, including prescription-drug bottles with Repenning’s name on the labels. Rushford showed Kasparson a picture of his own pasty face captured by the ATM camera while he was trying to get cash with Repenning’s card.
Kasparson didn’t have much to say. His wife did. Like many in their circle, she and her husband had been out of work for months and were daily meth users. She admitted pawning a camera and a pair of binoculars her husband had brought home and said if the police wanted to know more about where the stuff came from, they should talk to the couple’s friend, Mike Wessel. Wessel had recruited her husband to join him in a burglary, saying he knew someone who would pay them in cash and meth for the goods.
Wessel owned a red truck, similar to the one seen by Repenning’s neighbor. The police picked him up at his home in a Thornton trailer park around midnight. A small-time thief and meth-head who’d been busted for prowling other trailers in the park and even for stealing dog toys, Wessel knew he was in over his head. He began to cry. Then he boo-hooed a confession.
Wessel said his neighbor, Nick Savajian, had approached him about making some money. Savajian had met Repenning months earlier while doing roofing work at the house next door; he’d trimmed some branches for the old man, been invited into his home, and seen a lot of cool stuff. There were a bunch of things Savajian wanted from that house and thought he could quickly convert into money and meth. Savajian told him “that the old man would be no problem because he was eighty or ninety years old,” Wessel said.
Kasparson agreed to join Wessel in the operation. He and Ginny dropped by Wessel’s trailer on the night of January 4, 2005. They smoked weed and meth with Savajian, and then Wessel and Kasparson took off, saying they were going dumpster diving. They drove to Lakewood, cut the power on the vacant house just west of Repenning’s residence and helped themselves to what they could find. They brought the stuff back to the trailer, where Savajian took one look at the crappy haul and told them they’d burgled the wrong address.
Even though it was now morning, the pair drove right back to Lakewood, armed with better directions. They checked out the Repenning garage first. Then Wessel went into the house through a basement window while Kasparson fiddled with the back door. Wessel helped himself to guns, a stereo, an Indian rug, paintings, bones and curios from cabinets. He met Kasparson at the top of the stairs, and the two of them went to find the old man. Hard of hearing and taken by surprise in bed, Repenning still proved to be more of a problem than they thought. The elderly war veteran struggled with them and managed to seize a .25 Beretta from his nightstand. It took both of them to disarm him and tie him up.
By Wessel’s account, he was only in the room a few moments. It was Kasparson, he suggested, who was supposed to go back and untie the homeowner as they were leaving. But Ginny Kasparson would later testify that she overheard the two burglars accusing each other of causing Repenning’s death: “One of them said, ‘You killed him.’ And the other one said, ‘No. Bullshit. You did.’”
Hours after arresting Wessel, police visited Savajian’s trailer. They found Navajo rugs and other items linked to the burglary. They found Savajian a few days later. He was 26 years old, unemployed, with no prior felony record. His wife had recently left him, and he lived in his mother’s trailer with his three kids. He denied any part in the burglary, saying he’d just bought a few items from a neighbor.
Under Colorado’s felony-murder statute, a person who commissions a crime that results in a homicide is just as guilty as the killer. Savajian sat in jail for almost three months, staring at the possibility of life in prison. And then, just as Ginny Kasparson had rolled on Wessel and Wessel had rolled on him, Savajian decided to do some rolling of his own. His attorney arranged a meeting with police and prosecutors so that Savajian could explain that he was just a middleman in the deal — and willing to testify against the guy who set it all up in exchange for a plea agreement that would take the first-degree-murder rap off the table.
The dude they wanted, Savajian told them, was Michael Mapps, a 52-year-old Arvada resident who ran his own construction company. Mapps also cooked meth, real kickass stuff that had a purple tinge and the consistency of wet sugar and sold for a hundred bucks a gram, more than double what you’d pay for the usual homemade devil dust. The man collected guns and oddball antiques and had occasionally traded meth for stolen property that Savajian had ripped off from estate sales. Mapps had been with Savajian when he was invited into Repenning’s home; in fact, Mapps’s ex-wife lived on the same block.
In the weeks leading up to the burglary, Savajian had been trying to raise money to help his father, Gregg, who was in jail in Jefferson County and was facing a long stretch for allegedly soliciting the murder of a sheriff’s deputy over a bad haircut. (Gregg Savajian ultimately got a 24-year sentence in the case.) Nick Savajian wanted to sell his dad’s motorcycle, but first he had to retrieve the title, which Mapps was holding because the older Savajian owed him money. According to Nick, Mapps told him he could have the title in exchange for guns, Nazi memorabilia and a few other items they had seen at Repenning’s house.
Nick Savajian had promised Wessel and Kasparson dope and cash for the items. He insisted that he’d told them to do the burglary when the old man wasn’t home. A few hours after the thieves showed up at Savajian’s trailer with the goods, he said, Mapps came by to settle up, collecting the guns and a Nazi sword and handing over $1,500 and an eight-ball (about three grams) of meth; Savajian kept some of the cash and dope and handed the rest to Ginny Kasparson, to divvy up among the others. A few weeks later — and only hours before Kasparson was arrested — Savajian and Mapps had gone to Kasparson’s house to pick up more items.
On May 5, exactly four months after the murder, a SWAT team executed a no-knock warrant at Mapps’s house in Arvada. They found Mapps and a girlfriend in a cramped bedroom; on the wall was a poster of Al Pacino as the coke-dusted gangster in Scarface. They seized several items suspected to have come from the Repenning burglary and a modest but functional meth lab in the attic, including flasks, beakers, hydrogen peroxide, dozens of packs of pseudoephedrine pills, lye, muriatic acid — and 65 grams of the finished product, the cook’s signature killer purple crank.
Susan Mapps still has the handwritten note, scrawled on the top of a cardboard box her brother gave her years ago.
Hey Sue, I really don’t have any excuse for missing your birthday…once I get on the whisky train the exterior world ceases to exist for me. It has nothing to do with my love for you. We are the exiles of one family and we both deal with it in our own way, there are different ways to check out, it’s obvious how I do it…enjoy this belated gift from your only true brother because it comes from my heart and I know you will transform it into something beautiful. Michael
Inside the box was a bobcat skull and pelt that Michael had picked up at a biker swap meet. Sue liked to paint, turning such humble remains into decorations with a Southwestern flair. Her brother liked to collect quirky things, old tools and antique furniture and elephant figurines; when they were kids growing up in Golden, he was the one who found arrowheads when they went exploring on the Table Mountain mesas.
“Mike was a unique person,” she says, and points at an elegant stained-glass sculpture, a mask with the features of an owl, sitting on a shelf in her apartment. “He made that in prison. That’s all from him. It didn’t come out of a book.”
Susan Mapps has always felt a special bond with her older brother. She was two years old, her brother six when their parents divorced. “We were kind of the throwaway kids,” she explains. “We didn’t fit into either parent’s new family.”
Michael looked out for her, she says, telling her it was the two of them against the world. After high school, he became a master carpenter and started framing houses, eventually starting his own company, Mapps Construction, which had contracts at the Lakewood Federal Center for years. He married and started a family. But he was also an alcoholic and a drug addict, in and out of rehab several times over the course of his adult life.
Sue says her brother was sober for years at a time, but then old habits and old associates would drag him down again. She took care of him for weeks after one drinking bout left him almost dead, shaking with tremors and barely able to crawl to the bathroom. The situation deteriorated further as he began messing around with — and eventually manufacturing — methamphetamine.
His sister wasn’t exactly standing in judgment on the sidelines. Although she’s been clean now for a decade, Sue Mapps knows more than she ever wanted to about the tweaker world. She lived with her brother for a time and did her own checking out. “When you start doing it, it’s fun,” she says. “But it’s a very addictive drug. I always say that, after a while, I didn’t do drugs; they did me. People in the meth world become very scandalous. My brother had his own house, his own business, but after work, people would end up hanging at his house, getting high.
“And here’s the thing about meth. You start using it, and you learn how to clean it up to make it better. You either end up with someone who cooks, or you learn how to do it yourself.”
Sue knew meth-heads who would go to work ripping off cold tablets for cooks or otherwise ingratiate themselves, eager to ensure a steady source of supply. Michael Mapps preferred to make his own and sell the surplus. It was a small operation — the amount of meth seized in the raid on his home was a little more than two ounces — but one that drew plenty of scandalous people to the Mapps house and caused a serious rift with his sister.
One sore point was Mike’s long-running friendship with Gregg Savajian. Sue suspected Savajian, whom her brother had provided with construction jobs and shelter, of ripping off his benefactor’s drugs and cash. But her brother accused Sue of being the thief. “He didn’t believe me,” she says. “He believed Gregg. We got into a huge fight. He said, ‘Gregg has my back.’”
Mapps and Savajian eventually fell out over other squabbles. Mapps had put up money for Savajian to purchase a motor home to live in; when Savajian stopped making payments on the loan, Mapps took the RV away. But he continued to “look after” Savajian’s son Nick, who was also a regular meth user, by trading him dope for furniture or art objects. Sue and other family members acknowledge that Mapps must have known that most of the goods he traded for were stolen, but they say he avoided buying anything that might attract police attention. A neighbor recalls Mapps screaming at Nick Savajian one time that he should take his “hot” merchandise and get out of his house, so loudly that she could hear him from her front porch.
Ben Mapps says his father had no reason to commission a burglary: “He wasn’t hurting for money. He just collected stuff.”
A year and a half before the burglary, Ben was working with his father when the two of them, along with Nick Savajian, were invited into Repenning’s home. He recalls that it was Nick, not his father, who was awed by all the “cool stuff” the paleontologist showed them. “Nick talked about trying to get that stuff forever,” he says. “He loved antiques. He’d say, ‘I want to go rob that place so bad.’” But Ben, who’d grown up with Nick, didn’t think he was serious.
In 2003, Sue Mapps was arrested for drug possession and sentenced to prison. When she came out two years later, she was placed in a halfway house. She was determined to make a better life for herself, and her parole officer strongly discouraged any contact with her brother Mike, whom she hadn’t spoken to since she went away. “He was pretty wrapped up in the meth world when I came out,” she says.
But blood is blood. After finding work as a cashier, Sue called her brother and arranged to meet for lunch. He never showed up. He’d been arrested that morning in the raid on his house and was soon facing murder charges.
Sue couldn’t believe it. Her brother was no angel, but he wasn’t crazy enough to send men like Kasparson and Wessel, whom he’d never met, to Repenning’s place — especially when his own ex-wife and kids lived across the street. As far as the Mapps family was concerned, Nick Savajian had to be making the story up as he went along, in order to shave decades off his own prison sentence.
Phone records show that Savajian left numerous brief messages on Mapps’s cell phone hours before and right after the burglary — proof, prosecutors maintain, that Mapps was in on the planning. But Savajian frequently called Mapps to trade goods for dope, and Mapps frequently ignored the calls. Ben Mapps was at his father’s house the morning Repenning was killed and recalls nothing unusual, other than the fact that “my dad’s phone kept ringing and ringing.”
“I guess if you were part of it, you’d be waiting for that phone call, not sitting there not answering while someone’s blowing up your phone,” he says. “Personally, I think Nick planned it, and he was telling these guys he could get rid of all of it, that he could trade it all for drugs. It didn’t work out like that.”
Michael Mapps retained criminal defense attorney Gary Fielder, who brought on board a co-counsel, David Suro. At trial the pair focused on shredding the credibility of the state’s star witness. “The prosecution’s entire case is going to come down to the word of a 26-year-old methamphetamine addict, methamphetamine dealer, admitted burglar, admitted murderer, who’s going to come in here and lie to you to save his own skin,” Fielder declared in his opening statement.
Savajian had already testified against Wessel and Kasparson, helping to secure life sentences for both. But Fielder hammered away at aspects of his story that just didn’t make sense. Savajian claimed that Mapps had specified what he would pay for items from the burglary in three brief phone calls amid the flurry of voice-mail messages on January 4. But none of the calls were longer than thirty seconds. Was it possible to plot a fatal crime that way?
Just what Mapps did pay, what he received and what he knew about the circumstances of the crime didn’t add up, either. Contrary to Savajian’s account, Ginny Kasparson testified that she and the others didn’t receive any cash, just meth, when Mapps showed up at the trailer park hours after the burglary. According to Savajian, he and Mapps didn’t learn that Repenning had died until a news report the next morning, at which point Mapps “said he had to get all the things out of his house.” Yet Mapps agreed to go with Savajian to pick up more items from the burglary at Kasparson’s house three weeks later — odd behavior for someone who didn’t want to be caught with evidence of a homicide.
The prosecution’s case didn’t rest solely on Savajian’s testimony. There were the phone records and the witnesses who saw Mapps picking up his goods at the trailer and Kasparson’s house. And there were the items seized from Mapps’s house, and other property seized from the RV that Mapps had taken away from Savajian’s father — a wealth of evidence that appeared to establish his complicity in the crime.
Yet even the physical evidence wasn’t quite what it seemed. Sitting in the courtroom, Sue watched in amazement as the prosecution presented nine items taken from Mapps’s house that had purportedly come from the burglary. One was a tripod with a U-shaped crotch that Sue had used for years to support a telescope, now misidentified to the jury as a surveyor’s tripod (which has a flat platform). Another was a horse jawbone that the victim’s son, William Repenning, testified had been kept in a cabinet in the Repenning home and had been a favorite plaything of Rep’s grandchildren. But Sue and others were prepared to testify that this particular jawbone had been in Mike’s possession for twenty years, ever since he and his wife found it on a river-rafting trip in the 1980s; there was even a photo that clearly showed the piece in Mike’s house, taken by police at the time of Sue’s arrest in 2003 — two years before the burglary.
Mapps and his family believed they could dispute the provenance of every one of the items taken from his house; they begged his lawyers to challenge that evidence. But Fielder and Suro were reluctant to alienate the jury by getting into a wrangle with the victim’s son over particular items. What was the point? Nobody was denying that Mapps had received stolen property. Even if it could be established that the items from the house didn’t come from the burglary, there was still the material recovered from the RV — several large boxes of rodent bones and other items that unquestionably belonged to Repenning, and one box that contained business cards and other paperwork of one Michael Mapps.
Fielder told Mapps and his family not to worry. The only evidence that Mapps had planned the burglary, rather than being an accessory after the fact, came from the unbelievable Nick Savajian. This was a “slam dunk,” he said. He was so confident that, after a brief quizzing of Detective Rushford about the phone calls, the defense rested without presenting any witnesses of its own.
The jury was out a day and half. It found Mapps guilty of felony murder in the first degree, which carries an automatic sentence of life without parole, as well as second-degree burglary and criminal solicitation. A few weeks later, Nick Savajian, who’d pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, was sentenced to sixteen years; he will be eligible for parole in 2016.
It would be months before Sue discovered certain details of the case the jury never heard about, including incriminating statements made by an alternate suspect and critical information about the boxes found in the RV.
It would take another five years to get a judge to listen to that story.
Life with her drug-addled fiancé had been an ordeal for some time for Jamie Reese. But if she had to pick a moment when it all got too strange to bear, it was probably the night that he freaked out while watching the news.
It was in early January 2005. Reese and her boyfriend, John Gossett, were lying in bed in their Arvada home, watching television. Then a story came on about an elderly man who’d been robbed and murdered in his home in Lakewood. Gossett leaped to his feet, clutching his head in his hands, as if someone had just driven a nail into his skull.
“Oh, my God,” he moaned. “Oh, my…God.”
Reese asked what was wrong. She followed him as he rushed out of the bedroom. “Please tell me you had nothing to do with this,” she pleaded.
Gossett ignored her. He left the house minutes later, not returning until five the next morning. Reese suspected he was seeing another woman, or maybe just getting high. A 43-year-old ex-con with a record of drug and gun charges in several states, Gossett was a regular user of meth, cocaine, heroin and Oxycontin — and, in Reese’s view, getting hinkier by the day.
It hadn’t always been like that. When Reese first met Gossett two years earlier, he had a thriving business installing windows and doing home remodels, often working with his best friend, Michael Mapps. But then Mapps and Gossett had started cooking meth. Really good meth. And the other business seemed to take a back seat to the parties, the yammering and paranoia, the endless procession of pipe-snatching tweakers. It was all pretty much downhill from there.
After the murder of Charles Repenning hit the news, Reese saw less and less of Gossett. She knew he was keeping things from her. Reese heard Gossett talking crazy on the phone, ranting about heists he was going to pull and people he was going to kidnap.
In February, a retired bail bondsman and part-time mechanic named David Frisco visited Gossett’s home in the company of Michael Mapps. Frisco had agreed to replace the clutch in Gossett’s truck and had come by to collect some cash for parts. Gossett told Frisco he wanted to show him something.
Gossett retrieved a large box from a closet and told Mapps and Frisco he was looking to “unload” some things. He produced a Luger and several daggers. Frisco wasn’t interested.
Frisco towed away Gossett’s pickup, fixed it, and then called to make arrangements to return it. But Gossett asked him to hold on to two large plastic tubs sitting in the back of the pickup, as he had no place to put them. Frisco stored the containers in his garage.
Mapps was arrested in May. Gossett soon moved to Florida, where he was building a house. As it turned out, Frisco had property there, too, and looked up Gossett when he was there in December. The men met for drinks at a bar north of Tampa. Agitated, Gossett suggested they adjourn to his truck and smoke a joint. Once there, he broke down and told Frisco he’d made a mess of things, getting involved in a dope deal with a Florida undercover cop. He was out on a six-figure bond and headed for prison. Again.
“It’s bad,” he said, “but it ain’t near as bad as Mike. He’s the one that’s really jammed up.”
Much to Frisco’s surprise, Gossett began sobbing. He insisted that he should be in jail, not Mapps. “I hired two junkies and they fucked up,” he said. He talked about going back to Colorado, holding a gun to Nick Savajian’s mother’s head and telling her that if her son testified against Mapps, she’d be killed.
Frisco told Gossett he should have his head examined. He immediately wished he hadn’t said it. He could see the butt of the Luger poking out of a towel on the floor of the truck. Maybe this wasn’t a good time to comment on his host’s mental stability. The conversation ended soon after, and Frisco slipped away.
A few weeks later, Gossett was dead, after a rampage that made national news. He fired at Osceola County deputies during a routine traffic stop and, fleeing on foot, panicked shoppers at a nearby Walmart by charging inside, gun in hand. He stole a car, ditched it in a suburban neighborhood and jacked another, crashing into several other vehicles. He commandeered a golf cart, then shot a bartender in a Bennigan’s parking lot in an attempt to obtain another car. While SWAT officers evacuated businesses and sealed off a section of highway south of Orlando, he barricaded himself in a white Malibu and turned the gun on himself.
Reese believed that Gossett had died clutching terrible secrets, that her ex-lover knew more about the Repenning burglary than he would ever admit. “I loved John very much,” she says now. “But the last year we were together, he became somebody I didn’t know. I wouldn’t put anything past him.”
Shortly after his death, she went to the Arvada Police Department and described how Gossett had reacted to the TV report of the murder. She also visited Mapps in jail and told him what she’d seen. But no investigator from the police or Mapps’s defense team ever contacted her.
Two months before Mapps went on trial for murder, Frisco met with detectives at the Lakewood Police Department. He brought with him an attorney, a private investigator and a blue plastic storage container filled with books, fossils, minerals, a sword with an “SS” symbol, drawings of German military uniforms and other materials linked to the Repenning homicide.
Frisco told them he’d forgotten about the containers in his garage that Gossett had given him until shortly after his suicide. When he realized what they were, he explained, he knew they had to be turned over to the police.
The containers became part of the pile of evidence introduced against Mapps at his trial. But Frisco himself was never called to testify by either side. His story just didn’t fit with anyone’s theory of the case.
Re-interviewed by detectives, Savajian insisted that Gossett wasn’t involved in planning the crime at all. Savajian said he’d been present when Gossett had bought the Luger and a Nazi saber from Mapps shortly after the burglary. But in Frisco’s account, Gossett had been trying to sell spoils from the burglary to Mapps, not the other way around.
If you believed Frisco’s story, then Savajian had lied to the police about who planned the burglary — possibly because it was safer to finger Mapps than someone as violent and scary as Gossett. Now he was stuck with that story, even though Gossett was dead.
It just didn’t fit.
Many of the items taken in the Repenning burglary, including the Luger and other guns, were never recovered. Once in the hands of addicts, the loot was scattered far and wide. Some pieces turned up in odd places months after the thieves were arrested. The blue tubs Gossett left with Frisco were one kind of mystery. The boxes found in the RV were another.
Mapps kept the RV and another vehicle on some property in Arvada owned by a friend, Lisa Hicks. He paid Hicks a hundred dollars a month to store them in her driveway. It was an arrangement that made Hicks increasingly nervous — especially after Nick Savajian came by one time, insisting that the RV belonged to his father and should be turned over to him.
In July 2005, a few weeks after Mapps was arrested, Hicks went into the RV; she would later tell police that she was looking for title work that would identify the legal owner. Sitting on a bunk were half a dozen large boxes of what turned out to be mostly bones and fossils. She opened one and saw a Kachina doll and a slip of paper that had the name Repenning.
Hicks didn’t know who put the boxes there. She knew it wasn’t Mapps; her roommate had seen two younger, shorter, “scruffy” types hauling the boxes into the RV months earlier. Not sure what to do, she called Fielder, Mapps’s attorney.
Fielder showed up that evening with a private investigator and examined the boxes. Much to Hicks’s surprise, the attorney and his P.I. put them in their cars and whisked them back to his office.
Fielder held on to the boxes for several days, during which time he apparently consulted other attorneys about what he’d done. Then he had his investigator put them back in the RV. Upset, Hicks notified the Repenning family and the police that the victim’s property was in the RV, and the police seized the boxes a few days later. Neither Fielder nor Hicks ever told the police or the prosecution about the boxes being hustled to and from Fielder’s office.
Hicks was called as a prosecution witness at the Mapps trial. She was combative and uncooperative, invoking her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination when asked if Mapps paid her money to store the RV. “Nobody wants to know the truth,” she said. Fielder left her cross-examination to co-counsel Suro, who kept it brief and avoided any questions about the removal and replacement of the boxes.
“I’m sorry for this unpleasantness,” Suro told her.
“It’s okay,” Hicks shot back. “You can post my bail after I’m arrested.”
Sue Mapps learned about Fielder’s secret visit to the RV several months after the trial, from a Hicks acquaintance. As she saw it, the incident explained much of what had baffled and frustrated her about Fielder’s trial strategy, including his reluctance to challenge the evidence found in the RV; too many questions might expose what he had done. “Gary was protecting himself at my brother’s expense,” she says. “He put my brother in for life because he had to save his own ass.”
Mapps’s new attorney, Tom Henry, sought to overturn his conviction based on a claim of ineffective counsel. Fielder had not only failed to impeach witnesses or put on a defense, he argued, but the lawyer had tampered with evidence. At a two-day hearing in 2011, Hicks testified that Fielder had told her not to tell anyone about his visit to the RV. Fielder denied it.
Mapps’s daughter and ex-wife testified about a meeting with Fielder’s private investigator months after the trial, during which he told them that he and Fielder had “wiped down” the boxes to remove fingerprints before returning them. On the stand, Fielder and the investigator denied doing any such thing.
Fielder maintained that he had set out to preserve evidence, not destroy it. Hicks had given him the impression that people were harassing her and trying to break into the motor home — either to steal the boxes or in search of Mapps’s meth-making equipment. “I didn’t feel comfortable calling the police on my own client,” he told Judge Hall. “To this day, I think I did the right thing.”
Michael Bender, the recently retired chief justice of the Colorado Supreme Court, once wrote an article for lawyers on incriminating evidence titled “What to Do With a Hot Potato.” The article discusses a “look but don’t touch” approach and urges attorneys to voluntarily disclose such evidence to the proper authorities, possibly by bringing in another lawyer to contact police — an option Fielder said he’d considered.
“As an officer of the court, I cannot be complicit in a felony,” says Henry, who took over Mapps’s case. “I cannot hide evidence. In that situation, I believe I have an obligation to tell Lisa Hicks to contact an attorney immediately and follow that attorney’s advice.”
Judge Hall found that Fielder’s actions had possibly tainted the evidence — the police were unable to recover any fingerprints off the boxes — and had created a serious conflict of interest in his defense of Mapps. “The jury was not provided with a complete picture of the circumstances in which the boxes were found,” he wrote. “The conflict of interest created by Fielder’s misconduct affected defendant’s trial.”
Hall ordered a new trial, but the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Office appealed his ruling. (The office declined to comment on the case for this article because the current DA, Peter Weir, was the judge who sentenced Mapps to life in prison.) The Colorado Court of Appeals decision affirming Hall’s order was even more scathing in its appraisal of Fielder’s conduct. The evidence against Mapps, the justices noted, was far from overwhelming and relied heavily on the testimony of other participants in the crime. That the boxes had been removed and replaced was “highly relevant” to the case, and Mapps’s chances of acquittal had been harmed by Fielder’s “actual and undisclosed conflict of interest” with his own client.
Contacted recently, Fielder still defends his actions. “That was a long time ago,” he says. “I’ve matured since then. Whether I would have done it any differently now, I don’t know. It’s so easy to say, ‘Call the police.’ But when you’re talking about a man’s life, and you honestly think someone is coming to take or destroy the evidence, I felt it was my duty as an officer of the court to protect it.”
Fielder denies that he hid or tampered with evidence in the case. “Obviously, by holding the box, I could have covered up or smeared some other person’s fingerprints,” he notes. “But that was the extent of it. [Mapps] had business cards in there — how easy would it have been for me to take those cards and put them in the trash? That would have been destroying evidence.”
As for failing to disclose his conflict of interest to his client, Fielder says he met with Mapps at the jail shortly after he replaced the boxes and told him what he’d done; Mapps acknowledged that he knew the boxes were in the RV, he adds. But Henry and Sue Mapps dispute both claims, insisting that the defendant never knew about the box caper before the trial.
Mapps contacted the Supreme Court’s Office of Attorney Regulation Counsel, which investigates complaints of attorney misconduct. Fielder received a private sanction, meaning that the disciplinary action is confidential. He says his punishment consisted of a two-year “diversion” program, which typically involves taking some ethics and legal-education classes. Although the state has a compensation fund for clients injured by the “dishonest conduct” of their attorneys, the Mapps family was unsuccessful in recovering any portion of the $107,000 they had paid for Fielder’s defense work; the administrators of the fund found that the claim didn’t meet their criteria.
Mapps was still awaiting his new day in court when he died of complications from hepatitis C last June. Shortly after his arrival in prison, he’d learned that he had the bloodborne virus, typically acquired through intravenous drug use. One of the most common causes of chronic liver disease, hep C can lie dormant in the system for years before wreaking havoc. The state of prison health care, especially for lifers, may have contributed to his demise, but it was as if the choices Mapps had made years before had finally caught up with him.
Other inmates sent eulogies to his family to be read at his memorial service, describing him as avuncular and generous, a man of honor and integrity and — even rarer inside — a man of empathy. Not the qualities you’d associate with a criminal kingpin who cooked up poison in his attic, a poison with the uncanny ability to inflict misery in all directions, among the innocent and the damned alike.
In a victim-impact statement filed with the court, Jeanne Repenning Forsberg described her father as a man of honor and integrity and, yes, empathy. He was also a born storyteller. One time, she wrote, he came across a wolf with a paw clamped in a bear trap in Navajo country: “He looked into the wolf’s eyes for a long time and then cautiously reached forward and released the trap. He and the wolf ran for their lives in opposite directions…
“My father insisted that we learn to look into the eyes of strangers and see their humanity. It may not save our lives, but it will save our sanity and our souls. My father was more afraid of losing his sanity than of death. I wake up at night hoping he kept his sanity as he fought to breathe in his final moments, and wondering what he saw as he looked into the eyes of the man who chose to kill him.”