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.
It was this release that sparked the new interest in finding more bodies on the ranch. Two decades ago, prosecutors "didn't feel the need to spend the money to try [McCormick] again if he was already put away for life," Holloway explained. "Since there's no statute of limitations on homicide, we thought maybe the case could be rejuvenated and charges could be used against the responsible parties."
Complicating the case has been the absence of anyone coming forward to notify police that their loved ones may be missing. The three bodies recovered in 1986 were of James Plance, Robert Sowarch and James Sinclair. Not one of the men, who were transients, had been reported missing.
The family of Plance was notified of his death last year only after DNA confirmed his identity. Two of the victims had been shot and another had been beaten to death, Holloway said. Two weapons were used in at least one of the murders, indicating two killers may have been involved.
Although no one is certain how many had been killed on the ranch, Holloway said, "some other names came up in the investigation of people that worked out there on the ranch where nobody knew what happened to them."
She has focused efforts on gathering teams to return to the ranch to recover more bodies. She has enlisted the help of NecroSearch, a private Denver-based nonprofit organization that aids in the recovery of hidden bodies. Using aerial photography it has been able to compare pictures of the ranch from then and now to narrow down areas where potential graves may be located on the massive estate, Holloway explained.
Leslie Clapper, who now owns the McCormick property with her husband, Charles, believes more bodies may be hidden there.
"Every once in awhile the plow will dig up something like a shoe or a piece of clothing," she told ABC News. But apart from the occasional feeling of fright she gets when walking through the building in which Thomas and Michael used to live, she said if there are more bodies her family "would just like them to be found and returned to their families."
Robert Watson of the 13th Judicial District Attorney's Office agrees. "I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do. If there are victims out there we need to recover them and return the bodies to their families."