Prairie Crossroads

I followed the murder trial in the death of high school teacher Randy Wilson, who was found dead at a lonely crossroads in 2010. In 2017, Elbert County investigators announced they had made an arrest in the cold case, charging Dan Pesch, a Summit County man, with Wilson's murder. As the months went by, the case unraveled. Pesch's confession didn't match how Wilson died. His DNA was nowhere to be found. His parents provided an alibi. Through a combination of public records searches, compassionate relationship-building with Pesch's family and friends, shoe-leather reporting and intuition, I uncovered Pesch's long history of hoaxes and false confessions, and exposed the incompetent investigation into Wilson's death. I also memorialized Wilson, a man whose impactful life often felt overshadowed by his tragic death.


Arrest made in 2010 slaying of teacher

Daniel Pesch, 34, charged with killing Kiowa High teacher Randy Wilson

December 20, 2017

The Elbert County Sheriff's Office announced it has arrested Dan Pesch, 34, in connection with the 2010 death of Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson.

Pesch was arrested on Dec. 19 in Littleton by Elbert County investigators, according to a sheriff's office news release. Pesch was charged with first-degree murder, resisting arrest, obstructing an officer, and attempt to escape. Further details were withheld per a court order.

Wilson's body was found with his hands tied behind his back, a belt around his neck and a bag over his head in a field in northern Elbert County on June 14, 2010, according to a Denver Post article from the time. Wilson taught physics and calculus at Kiowa High School for a decade.

Wilson, who was originally from Montana, was 52 when he was killed, according to an obituary. He was the father of five sons, and had taught in schools around the country and as far away as the South Pacific.

Wilson was last seen at a gas station in Bennett, heading back to Kiowa from visiting family in Montana, on the night before his body was found, according to a Colorado Community Media story from the time. His car was found abandoned near his body in the field, near the intersection of county roads 194 and 53, a remote area about halfway between Bennett and Kiowa.

Investigators in 2011 interviewed two people who may have spoken to Wilson at the gas station, but no arrests were made at the time.

Pesch appears to have moved to the south metro area in recent months from Summit County, according to social media posts. A LinkedIn profile appearing to belong to Pesch shows he worked as a chef, lived in Summit County until earlier this year, and held a degree from the University of Central Florida. Pesch's Facebook features pictures of his young daughters, as well as a variety of furniture and children's toys posted to a local yard sale page in early December.

Court records show that eviction proceedings were filed against Pesch and his partner in September 2017. Pesch was charged with several crimes in Breckenridge in November 2016, including criminal possession of ID documents from multiple victims and illegal possession of a weapon, though the charges were dismissed.

It is unclear if Pesch knew Wilson.


Teacher murder case shrouded in secrecy

Suspect Dan Pesch to face preliminary hearing in March

January 20, 2018

The man accused of killing former Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson in 2010 will have a preliminary hearing on March 30, marking the first time the public will hear many details in the case, which has been shrouded in secrecy since the arrest of suspect Dan Pesch in December.

Wilson, 52, was found dead at the intersection of County Line and Kiowa-Bennett roads on a cold and rainy day in June 2010. No suspects were ever named in the case.

Pesch, 34, seems to have moved to the Denver area from Summit County in spring 2017, according to social media posts. He appears to have two young daughters.

He was arrested Dec. 19 in Littleton and charged with first-degree murder, resisting arrest, obstructing an officer and attempting to escape.

A judge signed a gag order at the time of Pesch's arrest, meaning the arrest affidavit — normally public information — is unavailable. Court hearing dates have not been posted to the state docket search website, and no listing for the arrest exists on a state database of criminal offenses.

The secrecy is to protect the integrity of the investigation and prosecution, said 18th Judicial District spokeswoman Vikki Migoya.

Prosecutors will present their case to Judge Robert Lung on March 30. In a preliminary hearing, the prosecution attempts to convince a judge that they have enough evidence to proceed to trial. A trial date has not yet been set.

Pesch's prosecution is being led by 18th Judicial District Assistant District Attorney Mark Hurlbert, who in 2003 pursued sexual assault charges against basketball star Kobe Bryant, against whom charges were dropped after the accuser declined to testify. Pesch is being represented by public defenders Annelise Garlin and Elizabeth Orton. He is being held in the Elbert County Jail in Kiowa, which shares a building with the court.

Wilson was a popular teacher at Kiowa High School, where he had taught physics and calculus for a decade, according to news reports from the time of his death. An obituary for Wilson said he had five sons, and had previously taught at several Christian schools around the country and as far away as an island in the Pacific.


‘You can’t fill those shoes’: Teachers, students remember slain teacher

Gone Too Soon: The Life and Death of Randy Wilson, Part 1

March 13, 2018

A wooden cross marks the lonely prairie crossroads where Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson was found dead in 2010. At the school, 16 miles south, Wilson’s final, stoic yearbook photo hangs in a hallway above the engraved names of students who have received a scholarship in his name.

Mementos of the father of five are everywhere: A mural of the mountains he loved outside his old classroom. A stone monument beside a mini amphitheater outside the school, with benches arrayed toward a lectern, dedicated to him. Around Kiowa, a town of about 740 people in Elbert County, stand bookshelves he built and basements he finished as a carpenter during summer breaks.

But the most poignant legacy Wilson left is the broken hearts of the teachers and students who knew him, who were left with memories of a rock of a man, a father figure of quiet grace and capability who was ripped from their lives.

“We’ve done our best to carry on what he left, but you can’t fill those shoes,” said Karen Carnahan, who was once a student of Wilson’s and now teaches at the same school.

At the age of 52, Wilson was found dead at the intersection of Kiowa-Bennett Road and County Line Road on a cold and rainy June day, with a bag over his head, his own belt around his neck and his hands bound behind his back. No suspects were ever named in the case, and more than seven years passed until the surprise arrest of Daniel Pesch, a longtime Summit County resident, in Littleton in December.

Pesch, charged with first-degree murder, is awaiting trial in the Elbert County Jail, just a few blocks from the school where Wilson’s memory remains so alive. A judge quickly sealed all records in the case after Pesch’s arrest, and few details are available. Pesch’s next scheduled court appearance is a preliminary hearing, where the prosecution will lay out evidence in the case against him, currently set for March 30.

Country home

Kiowa, 50 miles southeast of Denver, feels far from the Front Range megalopolis. It has been largely untouched by the development that has changed nearby towns in recent decades. Today, Elizabeth is home to a Wal-Mart and strip malls. Farther northwest, Parker now teems with office parks and big-box retail. Kiowa, though, remains part of the Great Plains.

Approaching from the west on Highway 86, the subdivisions, then the mansions, then the hobby farms fade away, and ahead stretches an infinite horizon. Kiowa is topped by an old water tower, visible from miles distant, like an inverse anchor rising into the sea of sky.

Tucked along Kiowa Creek, the town feels nestled in, the stately old courthouse bookending one end of Comanche Street, the town’s main drag. Outside the courthouse stands a stone memorial that reads in part, “In Memory of Pioneers Massacred by Indians,” in memory of the Hungates, a young family murdered by Cheyenne warriors on a ranch to the north in 1864.

Kiowa is the Elbert County seat and home to the annual county fair. But there is no stoplight along the town’s two-block main street, with its stretch of false-fronted bars and shops, and a church converted to a library. The town climbs away to the east, where Kiowa’s school — with an enrollment of roughly 250 from kindergarten through high school — crowns the hill.

It was here that Randy Wilson settled in his early 40s, after a career that had seen him teach science at schools around the United States and halfway across the world, to the Colorado town that would later be haunted by his unsolved death.

‘When he spoke, we listened’

Born in Utah and raised in Bozeman, Montana, Wilson majored in science at Montana State University and received his master’s degree in secondary education from Steward University in Georgia, according to his obituary. His first teaching job was in Mount Vernon, Washington, in 1981. He married in 1984, and had five sons with his wife Linda. Wilson’s teaching career took him to schools in California, Montana, Missouri, and Saipan, an island in the western Pacific.

The family came to Kiowa in 2000, and life changed soon after. Court records show Randy and Linda began divorce proceedings the next year, and in 2002 Linda moved out of state. Wilson’s ex-wife and sons declined to comment for this story.

Wilson taught a slew of classes — math, science, computers, architecture and consumer science — at Kiowa’s small K-12 school, which typically has fewer than 100 students in the high school grades. He strove to make lessons relevant, said Sarah McFarland, a former student who knew Wilson well and remains close to his son Weston, who still lives in Kiowa.

“In consumer sciences, he had us plan a budget, balance a checkbook, plan meals for a family, and even budget a wedding,” McFarland said. “We had to account for dresses, tuxedos, flowers — the whole nine yards.”

Wilson’s lessons drew from his life, she recalled.

“He pulled from his own experiences, from childhood, from raising kids to marriage,” McFarland said. “He would tell the story over and over about the day his fourth son was born. They didn’t have time to get to the hospital, so he had to deliver his son himself. He said it was the most humbling experience of his life.”

Wilson had an air that drew respect.

“He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, we listened,” McFarland said. “He could look at me and get me to tell him something I wasn’t going to tell anyone.”

Wilson was devoted to his profession, recalled Liz Morrone, Kiowa’s longtime school counselor.

“He would come early to study with kids, he would stay after school, he would come in on Saturday or whenever they wanted to study,” she said.

Morrone said she was dazzled by the breadth of Wilson’s knowledge.

“He could talk about the physics in a bowl of soup as you stirred it.”

Wilson was a father figure for a lot of kids, said Carnahan, his former student.

“We had a lot of students who didn’t have a great relationship with their dads, and he was that strong male figure in their lives,” she said. “Even the bad kids respected him, because they knew he cared about them, too. He could help with any subject. Kids would even bring him their English papers for editing.”

Wilson was a godsend for a rural district trying to build up its technology programs at the dawn of the internet age, said Greg Kruthaupt, the former superintendent of Kiowa schools who hired Wilson.

“Randy was off the charts intellectually,” Kruthaupt said. “His understanding of technology was in the top 5 percent. His brain was like a sponge.”

Kruthaupt once briefly suspended Wilson from teaching, after an anonymous caller informed police that a student had built an inert bomb-like device for a school science fair, a project supervised by Wilson. The incident was the subject of a New York Times article.

Police confiscated the device, and Kruthaupt put Wilson on leave with pay while the incident was investigated. Wilson was soon reinstated, and neither he nor the student faced charges.

Kruthaupt said it didn’t damage his view of Wilson.

“He just got so close working with students that he didn’t think about the impact,” Kruthaupt said. “It was four months after 9/11 and people were just edgy. A ‘bomb’? Give me a break. It was about the scientific method.”

A man of faith

McFarland remembered the day she heard her sister-in-law was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. She thought of her little niece who would be without a mom.

“I completely lost it,” she said. “I sat on the floor in the hallway rocking back and forth. The halls were empty, nobody in the school. Then here comes Mr. Wilson. He sat there with me while I cried. It meant everything to me. He didn’t ask what was wrong, he just sat there. Teenage girls cry a lot. He figured out something was wrong.”

Wilson was a calming presence in the school.

“There was a student who died a couple years before Randy, in a car wreck,” remembered Polly Ehlers, who teaches fourth and fifth grades. “Something that always struck me: at the student’s memorial, which we held in the school gym, everyone was just a wreck. But there was Randy, in his suit, out front directing traffic and parking. Somehow that helped me keep it together. Of course, only a couple years later, we would hold Randy’s memorial in the same gym.”

Wilson’s suit stands out in another memory. McFarland remembered him coming to a sermon at a newly formed Baptist congregation, which at the time was meeting in the school cafeteria.

Wilson was the only parishioner in a suit.

“That was that Montana boy in him,” she said. “To him, that was just how you dress for church.”

Faith played a strong role in Wilson’s life, Ehlers said.

“He could quote Bible passages off the top of his head. He had read the Bible cover to cover — twice.”

After his divorce, Wilson never dated again, according to McFarland.

“He told me that once he was married, he was married,” said McFarland. “He never talked about dating because in his mind he was going to be faithful to his wife even though they were divorced.”

Many roles

One of Wilson’s more low-key but vital roles was as the school’s de facto computer repairman, several people recalled.

“Because he was so quiet, the holes he filled we didn’t even know about became so obvious,” Ehlers said. “He was amazing with computers. If you got yourself into a bind, or a panic that you broke it, he’d calmly come in and fix it. We weren’t sure anyone could do that again.”

He was willing to fill in wherever necessary, remembered Cherie Wyatt, a fellow high school science teacher who taught alongside Wilson.

“I remember we had a teacher who left in April. Randy just stepped in and did substitute lesson plans for her class while still teaching his own.”

Wilson often elevated the level of discourse, Wyatt said.

“Lunches aren’t nearly as fun anymore. We would laugh and talk about deep scholarly things. He was so well read in the arts and classics. I was in heaven.”

Wilson had a dry, sometimes subtle sense of humor.

“He told me during the science fair, when I was whining about it, he said, ‘I found a project even you can do,’” Carnahan said. She recalled it involved potatoes.

Both Carnahan and McFarland remembered him making fun of their cowboy boots.

“I’d wear these wild-colored boots, and he’d say, ‘ugh, they’re making me puke!’ ” Carnahan said.

McFarland said she saw a different side of Wilson on a class trip to Glenwood Springs. The kids rushed to the hot springs pool not long after they got off the train, and close behind them was Wilson.

“Somebody was splashing me like crazy, and I turned around to see it was Mr. Wilson,” she said with a laugh.

McFarland, like Carnahan, went on to become a teacher herself, teaching elementary in Calhan, south of Kiowa.

“I think of him all the time,” she said. “I wonder what he would think. I try to take lessons from what he did. He truly loved us. We were like his surrogate children, and that’s how I try to approach teaching.”

“He would ask me all the time after I graduated, ‘Are you a teacher yet?’ The last time I saw him, I said, ‘Will you stop asking me that? You’ll be my first phone call after that happens.’”

McFarland never got to make that call.


‘He would want us to forgive’: Arrest made years after teacher's death

Gone Too Soon: The Life and Death of Randy Wilson, Part 2

March 20, 2018

Kiowa High School let out for the summer in May 2010, with popular science teacher Randy Wilson’s youngest son Dean among the 29 graduates. Wilson’s sons Cody and Weston had recently told their dad that they were both expecting children, who would be his second and third grandchildren.

Not long after graduation, as the cottonwoods along Kiowa Creek leafed out in the warm spring sun, Wilson, 52, drove to Montana to visit relatives.

On his drive back toward his Kiowa home on Sunday, June 13, Wilson stopped in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for dinner. At 10:45 p.m. he pulled off I-70 at exit 304 and stopped to gas up at a Conoco on the outskirts of Bennett, just north of Elbert County on Colorado’s eastern plains. The late-spring brilliance of the week prior had ceded to a gloomy cold front over the weekend, and the wind whipped.

One more exit down the interstate, opposite a rest area since torn down, was the junction with Kiowa-Bennett Road.

Only 30 miles of dark prairie separated Wilson from home. He never arrived.

‘Why him?’

The next day, June 14, 2010, dawned gray and drizzling on the plains north of Kiowa.

Tim Fry and his friend Greg were headed south along Kiowa-Bennett Road to get registration tags for Fry’s truck, according to a Denver Post article from the time.

At the crossroads with County Line Road, a rare bend in the route, almost exactly halfway between Bennett and Kiowa, they spotted a parked white sedan, facing north in the gravel. Across the road, in the grass, lay a body.

The two men had found the body of Randy Wilson, dead by asphyxiation with a bag over his head and a belt around his neck. The sedan, Wilson’s, was cold. A car jack sat beside it, though no tires were flat. A black glove lay near Wilson’s head. He lay face up, his hands bound behind his back.

Wilson’s wallet was missing, though his credit cards were never used.

“It just doesn’t seem like he fought,” Fry told a Denver Post reporter later. “I didn’t see any scuff marks. His (clothes) were clean, almost pressed.”

In Kiowa, 16 miles to the south, news started to spread that a body had been found out on the prairie.

“I figured some bum had overdosed out in a field,” said Sarah McFarland, a former student of Wilson’s who knew him well.

She was working at the 4-H office in Kiowa for the summer, preparing for the county fair at the end of July.

She got the news the next morning.

“I had just pulled into the parking lot of the office when a friend texted me,” McFarland said. “I fell to my knees and sobbed. I couldn’t make any sense of it.”

Kiowa’s longtime school counselor Liz Morrone got a call from the superintendent. She put down the phone in shock.

“My fiancé, Joe, knew something was wrong,” Morrone said. “I sat there numb. The tears kept coming but I wasn’t moving. It had to be a different Randy Wilson.”

Wilson’s death was big news, reported by every TV station in Denver. As days passed and details emerged, the community’s shock deepened.

“Not just who did it, but why him?” asked McFarland. “Why the way it happened?”

‘Amazing Grace’

An online memorial page began filling with condolences and memories.

“Mr. Wilson, you were the only person that has ever explained chemistry in ‘jock’ so I could understand,” wrote one former student.

“He stayed seemingly every day after school with a group of us trying to beat concepts into our heads until all of us got it,” wrote another. “He was such a brilliant man that he could have attained anything in life, but chose to spend his days roaming the halls of Kiowa High School and looking after his sons.”

Wilson’s funeral was held in the school gym the following Saturday, June 19. TV news cameras joined the dense crowd.

“People came pouring out from different places,” Morrone recalled. “I didn’t want to be there, but I needed to be. I couldn’t believe the guy I used to make espresso and joke around with was really gone.”

Cherie Wyatt, a fellow science teacher who worked closely with Wilson, remembered Wilson’s sister singing “Amazing Grace” at his funeral, and Wilson’s brother telling stories of growing up in Montana.

After the funeral, the TV crews left town.

‘Going through the motions’

With Wilson’s death a mystery and no suspects named, Kiowa, a town of about 740 people in Elbert County, took on a more suspicious air, McFarland remembered.

“People got less trusting,” McFarland said. “Before Randy died, I knew lots of folks who would’ve stopped by the side of the road to help a stranger. People stopped doing that. I knew people who hadn’t locked their house in 30 years, who started to after that. It changed the way people looked at the world.”

Tidbits of information about the case trickled out in the months that followed. The Denver Post reported in August 2010 that the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office was awaiting test results on evidence sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, and that investigators had “good leads.”

Returning to school that fall was difficult, Wyatt recalled.

“He was all over my room,” Wyatt said. “I would find papers with his name on them. I just couldn’t do anything without running into him.”

Wilson’s death took some of the color out of the world.

“The year of teaching afterwards was hard,” Morrone said. “We felt like we were going through the motions. A lot of the flair was gone.”

Morrone said she hung on to tangible effects long after Wilson was gone.

“The computers he set up for me, I wouldn’t let anyone touch them for the longest time,” she said. “They divvied up his belongings, and I got his little blue filing cabinet. It’s in my house now. It means a lot to me.”

The loss was wrenching for Kiowa’s students.

“It was terribly hard on the kids to have an influence, a father figure like that, and then for him to be ripped from them in such an awful manner,” Morrone said.

The investigation

The year Wilson died closed without major developments in the case. Wilson’s son Weston told a 7 News reporter in April 2011 that the family hadn’t heard anything from investigators since December.

Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap, who was the undersheriff at the time of Wilson’s death, held a news conference on the case on April 29, 2011, saying that investigators had collected DNA evidence in the case, but were unable to link it to anyone.

Heap asked for the public’s help in the investigation, saying investigators had been unable to contact a young couple who were at the Conoco near Bennett around the same time as Wilson.

A news reporter was able to contact the couple, who had been traveling to the Aspen Music Festival from Florida the night Wilson died. They were eventually cleared in the case.

Heap told a 7 News reporter at the time that investigators were working other leads.

“We’ve found multiple things that we haven’t shared with you, and we don’t intend to, that we’ll keep moving forward on,” Heap said.

Heap declined to comment for this article.

By June 14, 2011, a year had passed since Wilson died with no arrests in the case.

Elbert County investigators had crisscrossed the country chasing clues, Sheriff’s Lt. Michelle Nail told 7 News at the time. Nail said they followed leads in Florida, Colorado, Wyoming,

Washington and Oregon, and had developed a “firm theory” for Wilson’s death.

“Proving it is another thing,” Nail said. She declined to elaborate on the theory.

In the absence of evidence, rumors and theories swirled.

“If he recognized a car, he would’ve stopped to help,” McFarland said. “That’s my theory, that he stumbled upon something he shouldn’t have. I honestly thought it was probably someone he taught. They would have known if he caught them doing something wrong, his first stop would’ve been the sheriff.”

Wilson’s son Weston posted on the online memorial page that he had spread his father’s ashes on the Grays Peak trail, southwest of Georgetown, on the one-year anniversary of his death.

Weston added several photos of himself and his brothers climbing mountains with their dad.

Wilson had climbed nearly every Colorado fourteener, Morrone remembered.

At the high school, teachers hung a plaque, topped by a framed picture of Wilson, for the Wilson “Einstein” Award, a $200 scholarship given to a senior each year in Wilson’s honor.

“Although Mr. Wilson will not be there to personally love and challenge Kiowa’s students, many will be blessed in the years to come in honor of him,” Wyatt wrote online at the time.

In 2012, Morrone helped raise funds for Kiowa’s school to build an outdoor classroom dedicated to Wilson: a cluster of benches arranged facing a lectern, fronted by a boulder bearing a plaque, reading in part: “Father, Son, Brother, Teacher, Mentor, Friend.”

At the crossroads

A wooden cross memorializing Wilson stands at the crossroads where he was found dead. A stone’s throw away, along a barbed-wire fence, a smaller cross, shrouded in grass, marks the spot where his body lay.

Heading south from Bennett at night, the crossroads stands out — it’s the first place a driver is forced to slow down, as the otherwise arrow-straight road jags a few hundred feet west around a tight curve. It’s also the first spot on the drive out of view of houses, and few lights are visible on the horizon.

Over the hill to the west, about a mile distant, lies Third Bridge, a low bridge over Kiowa Creek that has long been a pilgrimage for Denver-area teens, a location that legend says is haunted by spirits of various tragedies.

The site of Wilson’s death was eventually woven into the mystique of the bridge, with “ghost hunter” teens posting YouTube videos of themselves visiting the crossroads late at night.

The crossroads is a dark place to those who knew Wilson.

“My stomach gets tied up in knots when I drive past where he died,” McFarland said. “It messes with me. I try to keep driving and not focus on it.”

The years passed, and Wilson’s death began to scar over.

Then, just before Christmas 2017, 7 1/2 years after Wilson was found dead, came a startling announcement: Elbert County investigators had made an arrest in the case.

The accused

On Dec. 19, the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office announced it had arrested Daniel Pesch, 34, in Littleton. Pesch, who turned 27 only three days before Wilson died, was charged with first-degree murder, resisting arrest, obstructing an officer and attempting to escape.

A judge sealed all records in the case almost immediately, and neither investigators, prosecutors, nor Pesch’s public defenders have shared any details in the case.

The news opened old wounds for those who knew him.

“Now we have to relive it all over again,” McFarland said. “We had gotten to where we could live without this overwhelming sense of loss and now they’re bringing us back to 2010. I spent the first month after his arrest trying to figure out how I felt. I was relieved, confused, sad — every emotion I could feel.”

In some ways, Pesch’s arrest only added to the enigma.

“No news for seven years, then they arrest some guy nobody’s ever heard of,” McFarland said.

“The way he died, I’m sure there was more than one person involved. Randy was 6 feet tall. He would’ve fought back. There’s no way one person could have subdued him to kill him in that way.”

Pesch’s online footprints give some clues to his life.

His LinkedIn profile says he earned a bachelor’s degree in legal studies from the University of Central Florida, in Orlando, in 2006.

The profile says he worked as an assistant property manager for Vail Resorts in Keystone from October 2007 to November 2010, which would include the time of Wilson’s death.

After that, the profile says he held a handful of restaurant jobs in Breckenridge.

The profile’s last entry says Pesch had moved to the Denver area and started a job at a restaurant at Dry Creek Road and I-25 in May 2017.

A search of Pesch’s criminal record reveals a handful more details.

Pesch obtained a flurry of traffic tickets, all in either Idaho Springs, Summit County or Breckenridge, around the time of Wilson’s death.

In November 2016, Breckenridge police charged him with felony possession of ID documents from multiple people, possession of an illegal weapon and speeding. All the charges were dismissed in February 2017. Breckenridge police were not immediately able to locate an affidavit in the case.

More about Pesch comes from his Facebook profile, which he maintained since 2007. The earliest photos on the page show Pesch in his early 20s, goofing around with friends in the mountains, sledding and throwing snowballs. More recent photos show him embracing family members.

Records show Pesch was evicted twice: once the winter after Wilson died, and again in

September 2017, three months before his arrest.

Pesch’s final online footprint comes from December 2017, the month he was arrested. He spent much of the weeks preceding his arrest selling numerous children’s toys and pieces of furniture on a Littleton community Facebook page, posting new items nearly every day. Moving boxes can be seen in the background.

Pesch’s next court appearance is expected to be a preliminary hearing at the courthouse in Kiowa, where the prosecution will present some of the evidence against him. The hearing is scheduled for March 30.

Until then, those who knew Wilson are left to wait and wonder.

“I just want justice for him,” said Karen Carnahan, a former student of Wilson’s who now teaches at the same school. “But I know that no matter how upset we are, he would want us to forgive.”

In the meantime, Morrone draws solace from an experience she had in a Denver restaurant the winter after Wilson died.

“My wedding was scheduled for the same day as Randy’s birthday,” she said. “Before he died we were joking about how we’d have a great big party. He died in June, and I got married the following November. On the first Valentine’s Day after he died, my husband took me out to dinner. We didn’t tell anyone where we were going. When the waitress brought the bill, she said somebody already paid it for us. We asked who, and she said some guy who already left. We asked her to check, and she came back and said: ‘All I’ve got is Mr. Wilson.’ ”


More details emerge in teacher murder case

Suspect reached out to sheriff months before arrest, document shows

April 27, 2018

Details are beginning to emerge in the case against Dan Pesch, the man charged with murder in the 2010 death of popular Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson.

Pesch, 34, was arrested a few days before Christmas last year and charged with killing Wilson, who was found at the remote crossroads of County Line Road and Kiowa-Bennett Road in Elbert County in June 2010.

Wilson, who was 53 at the time, was found with a bag over his head, a belt around his neck, and his hands bound behind his back. Wilson's car was nearby, and his wallet and credit cards were missing, though the cards were never used.

No suspects were ever named in the case until the surprise announcement of Pesch's arrest by Elbert County investigators on Dec. 19, 2017.

Though a preliminary hearing in the case has seen repeated delays, recently unsealed documents in the case show that it was Pesch who initiated contact with Elbert County investigators in June 2017, six months before his arrest. The documents also show that Pesch met with investigators multiple times in the latter half of 2017 before being arrested outside the Walmart in Elizabeth, near Kiowa, as he was voluntarily driving from the Georgetown area to Elbert County in December.

A judge recently unsealed an affidavit in the case, amounting to the first new information in the case against Pesch since the day he was arrested.

Files that are normally public record, including the dates and times of court hearings, have been suppressed for months. Vikki Migoya, the spokeswoman for the district attorney's office in the 18th Judicial District, said in December that the seal was to protect the integrity of the investigation.

The affidavit is heavily redacted, with lengthy sections blacked out. The sparse new details indicate that Pesch initiated contact with Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap through a Facebook message on June 28, 2017, more than seven years after Wilson's death.

Pesch, who was living in Littleton at the time, then voluntarily met with investigators at the Elbert County Sheriff's Office on July 10, Aug. 1, Aug. 9, and Dec. 8, according to the affidavit.

The affidavit goes on to provide the following account of Pesch's apprehension, arrest and detention:

Pesch texted Elbert County investigator Chris Dennis on Dec. 15 and said he had been evicted from his Littleton apartment. Three days later, on Dec. 18, Pesch drove from Georgetown to Elizabeth. Sheriff's office personnel tailed him to the parking lot of the Elizabeth Walmart, where they arrested him and transported him to the Elbert County Sheriff's Office in Kiowa.

Inside the sheriff's office, Pesch signed a waiver of his Miranda rights and agreed to answer questions. A short time later, Pesch was charged with first-degree murder in Wilson's death.

Heap and Dennis escorted Pesch across the parking lot without handcuffs, where he broke free from their grasp and ran across the lot after seeing the jail entrance.

Heap and Dennis grabbed Pesch, handcuffed him, and locked him in a holding cell. Pesch began hitting the wall with his head and fists, prompting deputies to strap Pesch into a restraint chair.

In addition to the murder charge, Pesch was also charged with resisting arrest, obstructing a peace officer and attempting to escape.

Another document helps flesh out a picture of Pesch's recent life: Just seven months before Pesch reached out to the Elbert County sheriff, police in Summit County had targeted him for investigation in a case that was derailed by the actions of a police dog.

Breckenridge police staked out a highway location to pull over and search Pesch in November 2016, according to an affidavit obtained from the Breckenridge Police Department.

According to that affidavit, the incident played out as follows:

Officers laid in wait for Pesch on a stretch of Highway 9 in Summit County, where Pesch lived at the time, in an attempt to pull him over as he was driving — acting on a tip that Pesch dealt cocaine, meth and pills.

Officers pulled Pesch over on a speeding charge, and called a K9 unit to search for drugs. The police dog leaped through the window of the car and “alerted” on a box in the back seat.

Officers searched the car, and found three drivers' licenses, from Florida, Michigan and Pennsylvania, none of them in Pesch's name. Officers also found an illegal collapsible baton on the floor of the car, which Pesch said he used as part of “Airsoft” toy gunfights. Police placed Pesch under arrest, and found he was carrying an illegal switchblade.

Pesch was charged with criminal possession of ID documents, possession of a dangerous weapon and speeding.

The case was dropped on Feb. 8, 2017, according to court records.

“I dismissed the case last year because there was no reasonable likelihood of success on the merits, e.g., I could not prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt in light of the totality of the circumstances,” said Lisa Hunt, the senior deputy district attorney in the state's 5th Judicial District, which includes Summit County, in an email.

Hunt said later by phone that the case was unworkable because the drug dog leaped through Pesch's car window, negating his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure.

Pesch moved to the Denver area roughly a month after the charges were dropped, judging by social media posts, after living in the Summit County area for nearly a decade.

Pesch now remains held without bond in the Elbert County Jail. A preliminary hearing in the murder case, in which the prosecution will present some of the evidence against Pesch, is currently scheduled for 2 p.m., May 21.


Judge clears way for trial in death of Kiowa teacher

Evidence, DNA don’t match confession, defense says

June 4, 2018

In the months leading up to his December 2017 arrest, Dan Pesch, the man charged with murdering popular Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson in 2010, confessed to the crime many times — including through letters left in a shopping mall and writings scrawled on windows of his Littleton-area apartment.

But his confession doesn’t match physical evidence in the case, his DNA is nowhere to be found at the scene of the crime, and a logbook places him halfway across Colorado on the day of Wilson’s death, according to testimony from investigators and the suspect’s father.

Pesch’s public defenders, Elizabeth Orton and Matthew Schoettle, worked to cast doubt on the validity of their client’s confession during a two-day preliminary hearing that concluded on May 25 at the Elbert County Courthouse in Kiowa. The prosecution’s case, they argued, rests solely on Pesch’s repeated but ever-changing confessions, none of which reference details about Wilson’s death that weren’t reported in news stories.

Prosecutors argued that while there are inconsistencies in Pesch’s narrative, much of it does match the known facts of the case, and Pesch persistently sought out law enforcement for months on end.

The judge decided to send the case on to trial, and Pesch is scheduled to be arraigned, where he will plead guilty or not guilty, on July 16.

Although the accused does not formally mount a defense at a preliminary hearing, Pesch’s attorneys seemed to suggest that if the case goes to trial, they will argue that Pesch suffered mental illness that led him to falsely confess to murder.

Wilson, who was 53 at the time of his death, was found dead at the intersection of Kiowa-Bennett Road and County Line Road in northern Elbert County on June 14, 2010. Wilson died by asphyxia, with a plastic bag over his head, a belt around his neck and his hands bound behind his back. No suspects were ever publicly named in the case until the surprise arrest of Pesch, 35, just before Christmas 2017 in Kiowa.

Elbert County investigators testified that over a meandering series of meetings and text messages in the second half of 2017, Pesch said he was driving along Kiowa-Bennett Road late at night in June 2010 when he got a flat tire. Pesch said Wilson stopped to help him, and after changing the tire, got into an altercation because Pesch was driving while intoxicated. Pesch said he hit Wilson with his car door, knocking him unconscious. Pesch said he covered Wilson’s head with a bag, put the belt around his neck, and bound his hands with duct tape before driving off.

Pesch’s attorneys say their client got crucial details wrong: An autopsy report showed no evidence that Wilson was ever knocked unconscious, Pesch made no mention of the duct tape used to cover Wilson’s mouth beneath the bag, and Wilson’s hands were bound by three zip ties — one around each wrist and a third through his belt loop — not duct tape. Further, they argue,

Wilson was the only major contributor of DNA on every piece of evidence, and tests have not identified Pesch’s DNA on any items. Finally, Pesch’s father, Norman Pesch, testified that a log he kept of horse rides at his home in Montrose establishes that his son was more than five hours’ driving time from the scene of the crime on the night Wilson died.

Pesch’s attorneys advanced an alternate theory of Wilson’s death, suggesting Wilson staged an elaborate suicide, evidenced by a life insurance policy he had taken out on himself four months before he died which would have been voided if Wilson died by suicide, and a note found in his car detailing the disposition of his finances.

Reaching out

Testimony from Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap, his brother Lt. Joel Heap, and Elbert County investigator Chris Dennis laid out the lengthy story of Pesch’s confession.

Pesch first reached out to the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office in June 2017, testified Sheriff Shayne Heap, who said Pesch sent him a Facebook message asking to confess to a burglary.

Pesch met with investigators twice, and though the time frame Pesch gave for the story surpassed the statute of limitations on burglary, investigators’ interest was piqued by the date: June 2010, the month of Wilson’s death.

The investigation got stranger on Aug. 3, when Elbert County investigator Chris Dennis received a late-night text from Pesch reading “I think I killed Randall, not sure.” The text was immediately followed by another reading “Sorry, wrong person, that’s an inside joke.”

In a meeting on Aug. 9, Pesch began to unfold a new narrative: He said he was driving along Kiowa-Bennett Road late at night in June 2010, and stopped when he got a flat tire. He said his car jack wasn’t working, then two men in a sedan stopped and helped him change his tire, then Pesch left.

“He never mentioned a murder,” Dennis said. “He said he was drinking and was afraid someone would call the police on him.”

Dennis asked about the late-night text message. Pesch called it a joke with an old co-worker, though the co-worker later said she had no idea what Pesch was talking about, telling investigators she thought Pesch was “seeing how much of their time he could waste.”

Investigators collected a DNA sample from Pesch at the meeting and began working to compare it to DNA from evidence in the case — none of which ended up matching Pesch.

Investigators interviewed Pesch’s wife, who said her husband had never mentioned being part of any crime. She said Pesch’s biological mother — Pesch was adopted — may have suffered schizophrenia, and that Pesch had recently had a concussion. Pesch told investigators he was taking Adderall, trazodone and Abilify — all psychiatric medications.

Much of the autumn passed without further meetings.

Meetings resume

Investigator Dennis’ testimony continued to unwind the final weeks leading up to Pesch’s arrest.

Pesch texted Dennis around Thanksgiving 2017, saying that his wife had left him and taken their two young children. Pesch said he was thinking of fleeing the country, but was still interested in “doing the right thing.” Investigators later learned he had been placed on an involuntary 72-hour mental health hold in a hospital around this time.

On Dec. 4, Pesch texted Dennis again, asking if he and investigators could wrap up the case that week, or whether he would get “a free pass on murder lol? (Expletive) I didn’t mean that it was a joke.”

Pesch’s narrative of Wilson’s death evolved again in a meeting on Dec. 8. This time, Pesch blamed Wilson’s death on a passenger of Wilson’s named Alvarez, though investigators found no evidence the passenger existed and Pesch never mentioned the man again.

Dennis presented Pesch with a photo the sheriff’s office had received anonymously, showing Pesch wearing camouflage and holding a gun. Whoever sent the photo had written that Pesch had been bragging about “killing a teacher in Elbert County.” Pesch said he hadn’t told anyone about the case.

Investigators received unusual evidence on Dec. 13, testified Lt. Joel Heap, Sheriff Heap’s brother. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office had recovered a pair of handwritten letters left outside the security office at Southwest Plaza, a shopping mall west of Littleton, confessing to killing Wilson.

The letters, which Pesch later confirmed writing, called Wilson’s death a “drunken mistake.”

“I will never be able to forgive myself for the pain I caused his family and community,” one letter read in part. “God help me.”

The urgency of the case intensified on Dec. 15 when Pesch texted Dennis that he was being evicted from his Littleton-area apartment, and was hoping to turn himself in.

Investigators received a call from Denver homicide detectives shortly after Pesch was evicted, alerting them that Pesch had left a message about Wilson’s death scrawled on his apartment windows in dry erase marker.

“I accidentally murdered Randall Wilson on June 2010 off Kiowa-Bennett Road in Elbert County, Colorado,” the message on the window read. “He helped me change my tire at approximately” before cutting off.

Investigators received another message, from Greenwood Village Police, that they had obtained a text message from Pesch mentioning “that entire Randy Wilson situation.” Pesch texted he thought Elbert County investigators had decided against him as a suspect, which he considered a sign to make a fresh start, and called one of the detectives involved an “idiot.”

Investigators arranged one last meeting, on Dec. 18, where Pesch was arrested and charged with murder. Pesch attempted to flee investigators in the Elbert County Justice Center parking lot, Sheriff Heap testified, and was strapped to a chair after throwing himself against a wall in a holding cell.

Mounting a defense

Pesch’s narrative of killing Wilson doesn’t jibe with written records of his whereabouts at the time, testified Norman Pesch, Dan’s father.

Norman testified that Dan was visiting him and his wife in Montrose, more than five hours from Kiowa, for a long birthday visit the weekend Wilson died, as evidenced by logs of trail rides Norman keeps for his horses.

The family took a day-long trail ride the day of the death, Norman said, and returned home for a leisurely dinner. Norman said the family was exhausted after the ride and “turned in early,” with Dan retiring to a bedroom beside the kitchen, emerging the next morning for breakfast. Norman said the visit stands out in his memory because of how seldom Dan visited at the time.

The nuts and bolts of the case simply don’t match up with Pesch’s narrative, his attorneys argued. At no point did Pesch offer information beyond what was reported in news stories from the time of Wilson’s death, which Pesch admitted reading, they said.

Wilson’s autopsy showed no signs of bruising or head trauma consistent with being hit hard enough to be knocked unconscious, and his clothes and hands were described as clean and without smears or smudges by every investigator — suggesting he had not changed a tire on a dirt road in the dark on a rainy night, Pesch’s attorneys said.

Sheriff Heap declined to weigh in on much of the defense’s argument, saying he had not reviewed Wilson’s autopsy report or DNA test results, and had not read the statements of some investigators. Heap did theorize, however, that Wilson’s clean clothes indicated he may have been knocked unconscious before he died.

“There are two possibilities here, based on what the court has heard,” said Judge Michelle Amico, who oversaw the hearing and ruled that the case should proceed. “One is that Mr. Pesch sought out the police and admitted to killing Mr. Wilson out of guilt, or, for some reason Mr. Pesch falsely claimed to have killed Mr. Wilson after at least doing enough research about the case to tailor that false confession to the evidence that was publicly known. The evidence presented here could support both possibilities.”


Murder suspect no stranger to false confessions

Dan Pesch still awaiting trial in cold-case death of Kiowa teacher

September 28, 2018

Six days before Christmas 2017 came shocking news: Authorities had arrested a man in the 2010 murder of Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson.

Elbert County investigators charged Daniel Pesch, a longtime Summit County resident, with first-degree murder in the death of Wilson, a beloved science teacher found dead at a country crossroads more than seven years earlier. Wilson, 53 when he died, was found in a ditch with a bag over his head, a belt around his neck and his hands bound behind his back.

Little was known about the case against Pesch until May 2018, when a court hearing revealed that the charges against Pesch were based almost exclusively on months of his strange, ever-changing confessions. Pesch, investigators testified, described significant details of the crime scene wrong. His DNA was nowhere to be found on evidence from the scene. His grandfather testified that a logbook placed Pesch halfway across the state the night Wilson died.

Nearly 10 months after his arrest, Dan Pesch, 35, still sits in the Elbert County jail in Kiowa awaiting trial for the murder of Wilson — a crime he confessed to many times. Pesch's arraignment, which has seen repeated delays, is scheduled for Oct. 15.

Today, though, Pesch says the confessions were an act of suicidal desperation — a cry for attention born of mental illness, drug abuse and stress.

Interviews with Pesch's family members and acquaintances, conducted by phone from around the country, and court records shed light on the mysterious murder suspect: a hard worker and caring friend, but also a man given to darkness and lies, with a history of seeking punishment for crimes he didn't commit.

'The quintessential nerd'

Pesch's mother, described as a drifter suffering from schizophrenia, put him up for adoption not long after he was born, family members said. Pesch's father is unknown.

Pesch was adopted by his maternal grandparents, and spent much of his childhood in Old Forge, a little town in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. His grandparents declined to be quoted on the record for this story.

There was no shortage of drugs and liquor around town, said Adam Smith, who was close with Pesch in school, but Pesch was strait-laced.

“He was kind of the quintessential nerd,” Smith said. “He got A's and B's, read a lot of books — Stephen King was his favorite.”

Pesch enrolled at the University of Central Florida in Orlando in 2001. He studied criminal justice and legal studies, hoping to go to law school, he said.

“We drank together a lot,” remembered Eric Jepson, one of Pesch's fraternity brothers.

“Dan was happy-go-lucky,” Jepson said. “But eventually it seemed like he was drinking more than normal. He was always really fidgety. He'd change the subject a lot.”

Pesch said in a September phone interview from the Elbert County jail that he began taking Adderall, a medication often used to treat attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity, in college.

He said he finished a bachelor's degree, but university records show he dropped out in 2004.

Out West

By 2007, Pesch was in Colorado, working for a ski resort.

Ann — who asked that her real name not be used due to the sensitive nature of Pesch's case — was one of several Old Forge kids to move to Colorado after graduation. She was thrilled to find out Pesch lived nearby in 2008.

“I invited him over — I was genuinely excited to see him,” Ann said. “He got drunk and just started melting down. He said he'd done something terrible, that he was a horrible person. He wouldn't tell me what he did. He passed out and left the next morning. I reached out a few times after that, but I never heard back.”

In 2010, Pesch said in the recent interview from jail, he contacted the Chaffee County sheriff to falsely confess to a series of burglaries that had been reported in a Salida newspaper. An affidavit shows someone sent police a series of anonymous emails, linking Pesch to the crimes. The first email — which listed Pesch's phone number — was sent on June 19, just days after Wilson was found dead hundreds of miles away on the prairie.

Another email to Chaffee County authorities mentioned Pesch encountering "a random guy named Mike they found while on bikes" while burglarizing homes. Police in the area at the time were conducting a well-publicized search for suspects in the disappearance of Mike Rust, a Saguache mountain biker who had gone missing while chasing after alleged burglars who got away on dirt bikes. Another man has since been convicted of Rust's murder.

Pesch consented to fingerprint and DNA analysis in the burglaries, which showed no connection to the crimes. Pesch was never charged in the case.

Pesch offered little explanation for his confession.

“Just looking for attention, I guess,” Pesch said.

Pesch was evicted from his apartment that winter, court records show. Pesch's roommate at the time declined an interview request.

Starting over

By the spring of 2011, Pesch had landed on his feet, working for a popular Breckenridge restaurant.

Pesch began dating Kim Nuzum, a manager at the restaurant, in 2011.

“He was so easy to talk to,” Nuzum said by phone from Louisiana, where she now lives with her and Pesch's two daughters. “He was one of my best friends.”

Eventually Pesch was promoted to manager. Other restaurant employees from the time recall Pesch as a solid friend and boss.

“He worked really hard,” said Faye Reynolds, who worked with Pesch. “Even in the middle of rushes when nothing was going right, he never lost his cool.”


In 2015, Nuzum discovered she was pregnant, and Pesch was an excited father-to-be, she said. Their daughter, Avery, was born at the end of August 2015.

Nuzum got pregnant again in 2016, and the thought of two babies was nerve-wracking, she said.

“I was a mess,” she said.

Pesch started to buckle under the stress, he said from jail.

“My job wasn't going that well,” Pesch said. “I started drinking a lot more. I felt like I was treading water — badly.”

That November, with Nuzum in her third trimester, Pesch had another run-in with the police.

An “anonymous tipster” told police that Pesch was a drug dealer, and told law enforcement where and when to find him, according to an affidavit in the case. When police pulled him over, they found numerous driver's licenses scattered on the floor of the car, as well as an illegal collapsible baton.

Pesch said in September that the licenses were fake IDs he had taken from bar patrons, but the affidavit says he didn't say as much to police.

Charges in the case were eventually dropped because a drug dog sent to search the car leaped through the car window without consent, rendering the search illegal.

Pesch, when asked if he was the anonymous tipster against himself, replied: “No comment.”

'He wasn't sleeping'

Pesch and Nuzum's second daughter, Savannah, was born in December 2016, a month early. The baby stopped breathing not long after she was born, and was rushed from Frisco to a Denver hospital (Pesch says they were flown in a helicopter; Nuzum said they were taken by ambulance).

Pesch was fired from the Breckinridge restaurant in the spring of 2017, and told Nuzum it was because his manager “didn't like him.”

Facing a rent increase and poor job opportunities, the family moved to the Denver area, renting a three-bedroom apartment near Southwest Plaza Mall in south Jefferson County.

Pesch seemed to be unravelling, Nuzum said.

“He wasn't sleeping,” Nuzum said. “I'd catch him outside drinking in the middle of the night.”

Pesch's relationship with his grandparents had gone south, Nuzum said, and he seemed to take it hard when they didn't call him for his birthday in June 2017. By the end of the month, investigators testified, he had begun messaging Elbert County deputies, making vague insinuations about being involved in a crime.

Nuzum discovered a lengthy first-person narrative about killing Wilson on Pesch's computer that summer, she said, but Pesch told her it was an entry for a writing contest based on an unsolved crime he'd read about on a “ghost hunter” Facebook page.

Pesch was fired from a Denver-area restaurant job in August 2017. He sustained a concussion in a fall the day he was fired. (Pesch said he was taking Avery out of the bathtub when he slipped; Nuzum said both girls were with her at the time.)

Nuzum said she discovered Pesch had been spending hundreds of dollars a month on alcohol.

Eventually, Nuzum said, rent checks started bouncing, which Pesch blamed on his bank account being “hacked.”

Unbeknownst to Nuzum at the time, Pesch met with Elbert County investigators several times that summer, each time offering more tidbits about his purported involvement in Wilson's death.

“I was enjoying playing this game of cat-and-mouse,” Pesch said.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Nuzum told Pesch that his grandparents had sent her a letter in support of her taking full custody of the girls.

“That sent him over the edge,” Nuzum said.

While Pesch was hospitalized on a 72-hour mental health hold, Nuzum took off for her parents' home in Louisiana with the girls.

Nuzum said she told some friends that they could help themselves to items from the apartment, and Pesch returned home to find his family gone and the apartment ransacked.

In the weeks that followed, with eviction proceedings looming, Pesch sank deeper into a spiral of depression, he said.

“They sent me out of the treatment facility with a bunch of psych meds,” Pesch said. “I was drinking a lot on top of that. It was just me in that empty apartment with my cat.”

Pesch ramped up his contact with Elbert County investigators through December, making increasingly erratic statements about Wilson's death. At Southwest Plaza, he left handwritten letters confessing to the crime, and scrawled a confession on the windows of his apartment the day before he left for the last time. Pesch also sent an “anonymous tip” to Greenwood Village police that he killed Wilson, Pesch said.

Just days before Christmas, Pesch told investigators he was thinking of fleeing the country, and they summoned him to Kiowa. He obliged, and Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap arrested Pesch in Elizabeth.

In jail

Pesch struggled to break free from deputies in the jail parking lot, according to an affidavit.

“I think I realized the enormity of what I'd done,” Pesch said.

Pesch began asserting his innocence shortly after his arrest.

“I think I did it because I wanted to put myself in a position where I'd have no choice but to kill myself,” Pesch said. “But once I was in here, I couldn't bring myself to do it.”

Pesch said he's had lots of therapy in jail, and hopes to be released so he can return to his family. He said he's been diagnosed with adjustment disorder, in which a person's response to stress is more extreme than appropriate.

Nuzum said she's eager to have the father of her daughters back, though she struggles with what she's learned about him.

“I feel like part of me is missing,” Nuzum said. “The girls ask about their dad every day. Avery seems more sad than before. The littlest thing sets her off.”

Pesch said he wasn't thinking of Wilson's family when he confessed.

“I'm horrified I've dragged them through this,” Pesch said.

The outcome of the strange case is far from assured.

“We're waiting on some reports to see if this case needs to go to trial or if there's something else that can be done here,” said Chris Wilcox, the lead prosecutor in the case, at Pesch's last hearing, held on Sept. 17.

In the meantime, Pesch said he's spending his time reading novels, and working on some stories of his own.

“I have a very active imagination,” he said.


Teacher death probe beset by obstacles

Troubled investigation comes to light in court, accounts from those touched by case

October 20, 2018

With questions mounting about the murder charge against Daniel Pesch in the 2010 death of Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson, a look at the history of the case reveals an investigation that has encountered numerous problems.

Pesch, 35, pleaded not guilty to Wilson's murder in Elbert County District Court on Oct. 15. That arraignment came nearly 10 months since the day in December 2017 when Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap arrested Pesch.

The arrest followed months of increasingly frantic confessions from Pesch in the second half of 2017 — murder confessions that he now says were the product of drug abuse and mental illness.

Pesch's arrest was seemingly a high point in the years-old mystery that had frustrated Wilson's loved ones, who had waited in vain for answers after the beloved father and educator was found dead at a rural Elbert County crossroads in 2010.

But a preliminary hearing in the case in May cast doubt on the charges against Pesch, as testimony from investigators showed that Pesch's confessions didn't match the crime scene,

DNA tests failed to connect him to crucial pieces of evidence, and a logbook placed Pesch hundreds of miles away on the date of Wilson's death. Police records show Pesch has falsely confessed to crimes in the past.

Deputy District Attorney Chris Wilcox said at Pesch's October arraignment that prosecutors were still sorting through piles of materials provided by the defense, and that the state may request its own evaluation of Pesch.

District Attorney George Brauchler — who heads the 18th Judicial District office that is prosecuting the case and is a candidate for state attorney general — declined an interview request.

Pesch's next court appearance will be in a pre-trial conference on Nov. 7.

Sheriff unfamiliar with reports

Though Pesch's accounts changed many times, the gist of his confession was that he was driving along Kiowa-Bennett Road late on June 13, 2010, and pulled over for a flat tire, according to testimony from Heap at the May hearing.

Pesch told investigators that Wilson stopped to help him change the tire, but the pair argued and scuffled, and Pesch knocked Wilson unconscious with a car door. Pesch said he took a belt, plastic bag and duct tape from his car, then bound Wilson's hands with tape before covering his head with the bag and wrapping the belt around his neck.

The confession bore several problems: Wilson's hands were bound with three zip ties — one around each wrist, and a third loosely attached through his rear belt loop — not duct tape.

Wilson's autopsy found no evidence of a blow to the head that would have knocked him out. The only DNA found on the belt and bag was Wilson's.

Heap testified at the preliminary hearing that he had never read Wilson's autopsy report, and had no idea if Wilson sustained head trauma. Heap further testified that he never read the district attorney's report in the death, which showed no signs of a struggle. Heap also said he was unfamiliar with the results of DNA tests on evidence.

Heap was undersheriff when Wilson died in June 2010 and was elected sheriff five months later.

He declined an interview request for this article.

Frustrations grow

Jenelle Reyna, who now resides in Parker, lived in a farmhouse a stone's throw south of the crossroads of County Line Road and Kiowa-Bennett Road where Wilson was found in 2010. She said investigators never visited her house to ask if she or her family had seen anything unusual.

In the days that followed, Reyna said, her family was on edge, worried that a murderer was on the loose nearby. Their fears heightened as they saw signs that someone had visited their barn — normally unlocked doors were locked, lights mysteriously left on, and cigarette butts were scattered around, though nobody in the family smoked.

“We slept with guns by our beds,” Reyna said in an interview with Colorado Community Media. “I wouldn't go feed the horses without a machete. I called the sheriff to come check it out, and I got no response. I called and emailed several more times, and so did my dad, but they never called back. We were scared to death and they wouldn't acknowledge us.”

In April 2011 — 10 months after Wilson died — Heap held a press conference seeking the public's help in locating Krista Coppedge, a California piano tuner, who investigators believed was at a gas station in Bennett at the same time as Wilson in the final hours before his death.

Heap said investigators had identified Coppedge from surveillance footage in the investigation's early days, but they were unable to find her after months of searching.

Reporters found the woman's phone number “in less than five minutes,” according to a news report from the time.

Speaking by phone from California recently, Coppedge recalled being horrified by the incident.

“My phone started blowing up with reporters,” Coppedge said. “Finally investigators called to question me. I had nothing to offer. I just filled up on gas next to the guy. I was annoyed and scared that they put my name out in the media, with a murderer still on the loose.”

Investigators later called back and asked for a DNA sample, Coppedge said.

“That was when I told them I think I need a lawyer here,” she said. “After that, I never heard from them again.”

Coppedge couldn't understand why investigators couldn't find her.

“I'm in business for myself,” Coppedge said. “I try to make myself easy to find. I have a website, for crying out loud.”

'Beyond their capabilities'

In the months after the press conference, Wilson's brother and one of his five sons made public appeals for anyone with information to come forward.

Speaking to a reporter from his home in Alabama, Wilson's brother, Loren Wilson, said in June 2011, “I do believe the Elbert County investigators may be operating beyond their capabilities and experience.”

Elizabeth Orton, Pesch's attorney, advanced an alternate theory of Wilson's death at Pesch's preliminary hearing. Wilson's death may have been an elaborate suicide, she said, citing a new life insurance policy Wilson took out on himself in the months before his death that would not have paid out after a suicide, and a note found in Wilson's car, parked near his body, detailing the disposition of his finances.

Wilson's death occurred on the return leg of a solo trip to visit relatives in Montana, just weeks after his youngest son graduated from high school.

Wilson's family declined to comment for this article.


Man who had been accused of killing teacher sentenced to probation

Dan Pesch released after more than a year in Elbert County jail

December 7, 2018

Dan Pesch — who in 2017 confessed to killing Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson in 2010, only to later say he didn't do it and have murder charges dropped — was sentenced to three years' probation on Feb. 4 after pleading guilty to a charge of attempted escape.

Pesch, 35, was scheduled to be released from the Elbert County Jail on Feb. 5, 414 days after he was arrested in December 2017 and charged with Wilson's murder. Pesch's arrest followed months of increasingly frantic confessions to Elbert County investigators. The murder charge against Pesch was dropped in Dec. 2018, after prosecutors said they were unlikely to convince a jury of Pesch's guilt.

Pesch pleaded guilty, however, to a charge of attempted escape, a felony, incurred when he broke free of arresting officers while being taken into the Elbert County jail in 2017.

Pesch has a history of falsely confessing to crimes, according to friends and family. His shifting confessions to Wilson's murder didn't match physical evidence in the case, according to testimony from investigators at a hearing in May 2018. Pesch's DNA was nowhere to be found on evidence in the case, and an alibi placed him hundreds of miles from the scene of Wilson's death, according to testimony.

“Mr. Pesch was in the midst of a mental health crisis” when he broke free from arresting officers in the jail parking lot, said Pesch's defense attorney, Elizabeth Orton, during his sentencing hearing. “I don't think his actions truly hit him until this charge, the attempted escape. It was in that moment where reality hit him that he was being arrested for a crime he didn't commit.”

Pesch, who smiled throughout the hearing, said he was sorry for the trouble he caused.

“I apologize for my actions to law enforcement and to the Wilson family for what occurred in 2017,” Pesch said. “I feel horrible about what I put them through.”

As part of his probation, Pesch will be required to complete a full psychiatric evaluation and comply with any recommended treatment, complete a substance abuse treatment program, attend cognitive behavioral therapy, submit to random drug tests and maintain employment of at least 40 hours a week.

Pesch has no permanent address, Orton said, and planned to move into a sober-living facility in Denver after his release.