Authorities in Colorado are searching for buried bodies on a 2,800-acre ranch, reopening a notorious serial murder case two decades old after the man who was once one of the prime suspects has been unexpectedly released from prison where he'd been serving time for another murder.
The case started in 1983 with an investigation into the death and disappearance of a truck driver. The trail led to Thomas and Michael McCormick, who investigators believed either together or separately hired homeless ranch hands from Denver, murdered them back at their Kit Carson County ranch, then buried the bodies on the grounds.
How many bodies may still be buried there no one knows, but more than 20 years ago Michael McCormick led homicide detectives to at least three corpses buried around his father's ranch, naming his father as the killer, according to senior investigator Michael Gallagher of the 1st Judicial District Attorney's Office, who spearheaded the case.
At the time, authorities halted the search for additional bodies, saying they were short on funds and were comfortable that they had enough evidence to put the perpetrators behind bars for the rest of their lives. To their chagrin, a series of events, including decisions from Colorado's justice system, would mean that the case against the father-son suspects was anything but secure.
Now, as was first reported by the Denver Post, the search for bodies has resumed after Michael McCormick, 52, was set free by a 2006 appeals court ruling that overturned his 1987 murder conviction for the death of the truck driver. His father, who died Nov. 15, 1997, was never successfully prosecuted in relation to the additional corpses.
Michael McCormick's appellate attorney said McCormick, who has not been named by police as a suspect in the reinvestigation, denied involvement in the murders.
Many of the case's original investigators and prosecutors have retired or died, but Linda Holloway, a retired homicide detective and now a part-time investigator for the 13th Judicial District Attorney's Office, is heading the new search effort.
"We started this up again when one of the suspects was released from prison in the spring of 2006," she told ABC News, referring to the release of Michael McCormick.
Michael McCormick was convicted of murdering missing truck driver Bert Donoho in 1987, though he claimed that his father, Thomas, had actually done the killing. Michael McCormick was simultaneously tried for 14 felonies and received a term of 48 years.
At the time Michael brought detectives to the three other bodies of migrant workers on the McCormick ranch in Stratton, Colo., claiming his father had killed them as well.
Prosecutors charged the father with all four murders but said they were ultimately unable to bring a case based on the son's testimony. With the physical evidence unclear as to who committed the murders, the son wasn't credible as a witness against the father given his role in the crimes, prosecutors concluded.
After Michael McCormick's conviction, his attorneys began a series of appeals that ended when the Colorado Supreme Court ordered a new trial because of the ineffectiveness of McCormick's trial lawyer, Rowe Staton.
"No one believes he was treated fairly in this process," McCormick's appellate attorney Patrick Mulligan of Denver told ABC News.
McCormick agreed to plead guilty to second-degree murder and got credit for time already served, paving the way for his release in 2006.