Foul play investigated in deaths years later

Vickie Mahrling’s nightmare began May 30, 1968, the day her big brother’s Chevrolet smashed into a tree in the tiny northern Colorado town of Mead.

Vickie Mahrling’s nightmare began May 30, 1968, the day her big brother’s Chevrolet smashed into a tree in the tiny northern Colorado town of Mead.

She was 11, and her memories of that Thursday night start with a ringing telephone, followed by moments frozen in time. Hearing her mother, palpably distraught, saying, get dressed, get dressed, we have to go. Feeling so alone as she waited at the hospital. Seeing so many of her relatives upset.

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Her big brother was dead. Gone was the big, strong kid who carried Vickie on his shoulders as he irrigated on the Weld County farm where they grew up.

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Leroy Drieth died in a car crash May 30, 1968. In 1993, after his body was exhumed, a forensic pathologist concluded his throat had been slashed before the wreck.    

Leroy Drieth was 18, and nearly a half-century later, his death remains a mystery — and an indictment of what can go wrong when coroners don’t do their jobs.

Leroy had been at his girlfriend’s house in Mead. There was a dispute. He jumped into his sedan and sped off, making it two blocks on the gravel street before he reached a stop sign at a county road. He blew through it, then went for the brakes, leaving 69 feet of faint skid marks before smashing into a tree in front of Mead’s school.

The investigation ended quickly. The Colorado State Patrol accident report no longer exists, but the coroner who looked into it wrapped up his work quickly — perhaps in as little as an hour. George Howe Jr., who was a mortician and served as a deputy coroner, completed a one-page form covering his work, but it’s not clear whether he interviewed anyone himself or simply relied on information provided by the state troopers. Howe typed out three lines describing what happened:

Auto struck tree in front of high school — had left girl friends house stating he was “going to kill self and not see her again” — preceeded 2 blks to accident ...

When he signed the death certificate, he marked Leroy’s death “auto suicide.” He decided no autopsy was necessary.

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Almost immediately, the whispered rumors began — that Leroy had been murdered. A couple of weeks after Leroy’s funeral, his mother, Freda Farmer, went to the authorities and asked for an investigation. She was told the case was closed, that she was a grieving mother, to go home and get over it. She did go home. And for years, her grief was so great that Leroy’s death was barely spoken of, his photographs put away.

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Vickie Mahrling has been fighting for the truth about the death of her brother, Leroy Drieth, for decades.

Vickie Mahrling grew up and got married and moved away. And then she came home, and she started looking for answers. A request for a copy of her brother’s death certificate led to a discussion with an investigator, who told her that suicide in a car crash was extremely rare and encouraged her to hire a private detective.

Vickie couldn’t afford that, but, eventually, she asked her mother’s blessing to have Leroy’s body exhumed. She gave it.

“One thing she said to me that really stood out was that she felt like she had let him down in life and let him down in death, because in all of our hearts we knew he had not committed suicide,” Vickie says.

Around 7 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1993, workers began digging into the soil covering Leroy’s grave at Mountain View Cemetery in Longmont. A little more than 25 years had passed since his death.

At 7 a.m. on Aug. 9, 1993, workers exhumed the grave on Leroy Drieth at Longmont's Mountain View cemetery. 

A couple of hours later in Loveland, Dr. Patrick Allen opened the casket and saw immediately that Leroy’s body was in remarkably good condition, especially considering the passage of time. Allen, a forensic pathologist, would serve as Larimer County’s coroner for 36 years and perform thousands of autopsies. One of the first things he noticed was a curving wound about 4 inches long in Leroy’s neck, its edges sharp. It had been sewn shut by an embalmer, but as Allen examined it, he concluded it wasn’t the kind of injury he’d seen in untold car crash deaths he’d investigated. He also found the carotid arteries undamaged — a direct contradiction of the 1968 death certificate, which said they were severed in the crash.

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And that led to a startling conclusion: “It is my opinion that although the ultimate cause of death was due to the injuries sustained in the vehicle crash, the lower neck wound is uncharacteristic of a wound from a vehicle crash. It is therefore also my opinion that the lower neck wound has all of the characteristics of an incised wound and is very suspicious of foul play. This wound may not have been immediately fatal but was a very serious, potentially fatal wound. It is possible that the decedent may have been fleeing in his vehicle when the crash took place as a result of loss of control or loss of consciousness.”

He called for the case to be reopened as “probable foul play.”

The Boulder County coroner changed Leroy’s death certificate, removing “suicide” and replacing it with “undetermined.” Weld County authorities launched a criminal investigation. But despite a lot of publicity — and a segment on the TV show “Unsolved Mysteries” in 1996 — the investigation eventually ground to a halt.

That kind of thing is no surprise to Dr. Michael Dobersen, who served more than 20 years as Arapahoe County’s coroner.

Dr. Michael Dobersen, a forensic pathologist who was Arapahoe County coroner for more than 20 years, performed an autopsy on the body of Jill Wells in December 2008.

“Mistakes get buried, and we never really find out what happened,” Dobersen says. “You take someone’s word for something. Again, I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who said the perfect crime is committed every day, we just never hear about it.”

The family of Yolanda Riojas has been searching for answers for more than 30 years.

In 1984, at a dairy farm northeast of Fort Morgan, Yolanda was found unconscious on the ground. It was reported she’d fallen off a large haystack or been trampled by cows. She died a short time later at the hospital.

Yolanda Riojas was injured Sept. 13, 1984, on a dairy farm northeast of Fort Morgan. She died later at a hospital.

“One of our investigators who had been on the call was just concerned with the overall — how she was found, that nobody had seen this happen and that the initial reports that she had fallen off a haystack didn’t quite add up,” says current Morgan County Sheriff Jim Crone, a young deputy that day in September 1984. But when the county coroner — a mortician — was asked to have an autopsy performed, he balked: The death of the 24-year-old milkmaid was clearly an accident, he said.

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There was an effort to get a court order to force the coroner’s hand, but before it got to that point, detectives were told that Yolanda’s body had been cremated.

Fast forward five years. Yolanda’s mother went to then-Sheriff Gale Davey and asked for a new investigation. Davey explained that without an autopsy, there was no way to know exactly how her daughter died. And no autopsy was possible, he said, because she’d been cremated.

After being told she had not been cremated, Davey arranged to have her body exhumed March 1, 1990. The pathologist who examined Yolanda’s remains, Dr. Jill Gould, found her body severely decomposed and concluded it was impossible to say with absolute certainty how she died. But she made it clear she believed the injuries to Yolanda’s neck were no accident.

Yolanda Riojas was injured Sept. 13, 1984, on a dairy farm northeast of Fort Morgan. She died later at a hospital.

“This injury may have resulted from manual or ligature strangulation or a severe directed blow to the neck,” Gould wrote. “Examination of the scene, examination of the body immediately after death and autopsy findings are inconsistent with the individual having died from a fall from a haystack or trampled by cows.”

Detectives launched a homicide investigation — 5½ years after Yolanda’s death.

“Really,” Crone says. “we’re not any closer, that much today, than what we were 20 years ago.”

There’s still hope — for her family, and Leroy’s.

After years of inactivity, a phone call in 2015 sparked new work on Leroy’s case. It was assigned to a Weld County sheriff’s detective, and he is working it.

“They do hope there’s going to be some arrests,” Vickie Mahrling says. “And they do hope now that the people that are still alive and involved are going to be brought to justice. And they continually give me hope, and, uh, don’t patronize me and say it’s been too old, you should forget about it, we may not ever be able to solve it.”

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Yolanda Riojas’ grave in Riverside Cemetery in Fort Morgan.