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Cold cases

Mothers of Murdered Youth push police to solve old cases


Mothers of Murdered Youth recently demonstrated to ask - Colorado Springs police to keep investigating unsolved - murders. - MICHAEL DE YOANNA
  • Michael de Yoanna
  • Mothers of Murdered Youth recently demonstrated to ask Colorado Springs police to keep investigating unsolved murders.

Steven "Gino" Romero was gunned down in a drive-by shooting seven years ago -- an eternity to his mother.

Although Colorado Springs police were instrumental in the arrest and conviction of the driver and a conspirator, alleged triggermen Vinnicio Martinez, 30, and Socorro Gutierrez, 34, have eluded capture all these years. Both have probably fled the city and changed their identities, police say.

Case: cold.

Since 1970, police have stacked up 75 such cases, a number Jennifer Romero, the mother of 13-year-old Gino, says is way too high. Leading a small band of mothers -- Mothers of Murdered Youth, or MOMY -- Romero wants police to assign a special detective to investigate the unsolved murders.

"The longer they wait, the colder these cases get and the more likely it becomes these cases will never be solved," she said. "How would you feel knowing your son's killers are still on the streets?"

MOMY, made up of the family and friends of murder victims, picketed recently on the lawn of the Colorado Springs Pioneers Museum in an effort to pressure police to address the issue.

But homicide unit detectives are stretched thin, said Lt. Brian Grady, who oversees the unit along with other major crimes units. The old cases are split between nine detectives -- one detective less than the unit had five years ago.

And homicide detectives also investigate other crimes, including officer-involved shootings and an estimated 1,100 felony assaults each year. That's 122 assaults per detective -- a high caseload to fit in with investigation of murders, Grady said.

Money problems

In the nearly three years since Colorado Springs voters approved a 4/10 of a cent Public Safety Sales Tax to improve police services, the police department's homicide unit budget has remained stagnant.

The tax generates about $11.9 million annually and is added to the $67.1 million police budget. Much of the funds have been funneled into a new division -- Stetson Hills -- which earlier this year began patrols in the fast-growing northeast part of the city. Money has also been used to expand police administration for the entire department.

"At the time the plan [for the tax] was put together, there was nothing in it for investigating cold cases," said Tom Albertson, fiscal and planning manager for the police.

Meanwhile, homicide detectives say they lack funds to investigate older cases, including money for DNA tests. Such tests, routinely used in new cases, could provide valuable leads and possible breaks for investigators. Grady could not specify the number of unsolved murder cases where potential DNA evidence remains untested.

Hoping for more funds to test DNA and to allow officers to travel out of state to check on leads and tips, the homicide unit is preparing to apply for a grant through the National Institute of Justice, Grady said.

"We are sensitive to cold cases and we are seeing what we can do to dedicate more resources to the unit," he said.

'It never happens'

But Romero is becoming weary of such promises, including talk of grants. She said she and other mothers have heard them before.

"I feel after we stand up, after the initial hype, people care because they don't want it to happen to them," Romero said. "Then the police -- and they have good detectives -- say they are going to do something about it, but it never happens. It seems like there are more cold cases. So we mommies get together again and come out and say, 'Hey, we're still here and we're still unsolved.'

"It's been seven years for me already, and I want to see justice before I die -- before it's too late."

Romero -- along with about a dozen other MOMY moms and family members who were recently rallying in front of the Pioneers Museum -- are convinced that if special attention were given to almost any of the cases, police would soon be celebrating a success.

The unsolved murders highlighted by MOMY activists included:

Tyrone Bautista, 19, gunned down as he walked to a friend's house in 2002.

Patricia Ann Elliott, 19, a University of Colorado at Colorado Springs student, beaten to death in 2001 in her town home.

Jennifer Lee Skinner (aka Jennifer Watkins), 23, an aspiring nurse, killed and left in a stairwell at Memorial Hospital in 1999.

Rick Espinoza, 37, a hospitality worker, found slain in 2001 in a landfill southeast of Fountain.

"Every one of these crimes, someone knows, someone knows something that can help solve these cases," said Gail LaSuer, a member of MOMY.

Her daughter, Monique LaSuer, was a hotel administrator at Best Western Palmer House Hotel. The 26-year-old woman's body was found in the hotel, beaten and strangled about four years ago.

Detectives have no suspects, she said.

MOMY's Web site is . If you have any information on an unsolved murder in Colorado Springs, call Crime Stoppers at 634-7867.

-- Michael de Yoanna

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