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Stranger than fiction: the 'Denver Spiderman' and his Moncreiff Place murder

DENVER - It was October 1941.
The home at West Moncrieff Place, which would become the home of a stranger-than-fiction murder-mystery.

DENVER - It was October 1941.

An elderly man had been found beaten to death in his small brick home in what we call today the Highlands.

Neighbors, concerned when the gentleman had not shown up to a dinner party, discovered him.

The crime was reminiscent of a horror scene. Yet, the truth about what happened to 73-year old Phillip Peters, was very much stranger than any fiction a novelist could imagine.

The home on West Moncreiff Place

73-year-old Philip Peters was found bludgeoned to death in his home at 3335 West Moncrieff Place on Friday October 17, 1941.

Police said his head was smashed with a heavy ‘stove shaker,' and at first his horrific homicide had police stumped, with no motive or suspect.

Nothing had been taken from the home, so robbery was unlikely.

Peters was a retired auditor for Denver and Rio Grande Western railroad.

"The killer took time to wash his hands and to wipe off the murder instrument, so he could have taken time for the robbery," Detective Captain James E. Childers told the Denver Post in the days after the crime.

The elderly man had no enemies, making revenge an unlikely motive as well. His wife, who had just broken her hip, was not at home, but in the hospital, and neighbors were keeping an eye out for Mr. Peters.

Fingerprints were found, but yielded no leads as they were just from neighbors, Mr. Peters, or his wife.

Those same neighbors found him on Saturday evening, sprawled on the floor of a bedroom inside his home. Blood was everywhere.

The police investigation: stumped for months

Newspaper articles in the Denver Post reported "scores" of detectives were placed on the case.

Police described the brutal slaying as "without mercy," as blood had even spattered on to the ceiling and was spread in different rooms throughout the home.

It was evident Peters had struggled during the assault, and police said he fought back using several walking canes.

He died after being struck 37 times with the cast iron makeshift weapon.

Detective Childers was frustrated. It took nine months until detectives would get a break.

"A thin, white hand," and the break in the case

In July, 1942, a woman called police. She told officers in a shaky voice she had been hired to help Mrs. Peters around the house, one of two women who did so after the widow's husband had been killed.

Soon after she began staying in the house, she heard "strange" noises. Today, though, she actually saw something.

"Just a few minutes ago, I heard a sort of tapping. I had heard it before, but I thought it was only some woodpeckers. But this time I walked into the kitchen- and I saw the door to the stairway that leads upstairs slowly open," she told police.

The Denver Post quoted her in their February 7, 1960 edition of Denver Post Empire, which was an interview with the case's lead detective, decades after the crime had been solved.

"A foot came out and then I saw a thin white hand on the door! I screamed and the man ducked back into the stairway and I heard him running up the steps," the housekeeper told police.

Police responded immediately and searched the home: they found nothing. The upstairs bedrooms looked entirely normal, and the panels which appeared to go to the attic via the ceiling had been sealed shut.

The housekeepers, terrified, refused to return to the home and Mrs. Peters was moved back to the hospital for care while police investigated.

Keeping watch for ‘the ghost'

Two detectives were assigned to guard the house until they saw or heard something.

Days passed. Nothing. The detectives were pulled from their watch.

Then, another lucky break: on Thursday, July 30, detectives in the neighborhood found something.

Two policemen in the area had stopped by to check on the place – and as they were searching the first floor, they heard a lock turning in a door upstairs.

Detective Roy Bloxom opened a closet door and there he saw a pair of legs disappearing upward through a tiny panel into the attic.

He lunged, pulled the mystery man's legs until he clattered to the ground, and  then called his captain.

Now Police Chief, James Childers described this man as "the strangest looking human I had ever seen. He was a tall man, just under 6 feet, but thin as a wilted weed. His dirty hair hung low over his ears, and his skin was the ugly, unwashed gray of an overcast sky."

His shoes and clothes were rotted and torn. One of the officers told Childers the man had been living in the home since September – nearly a year. And no one had noticed.

No one, except perhaps Mr. Peters.

Stranger than fiction: The Spiderman's confession

The man told police his name was Mathew Cornish, but really it was Theodore Coneys.

After feeding him a hamburger, apple pie, and some coffee, police began questioning the transient on Peters' murder.

The 59-year-old man had kept one panel unlocked to the crawlspace above the home, and would lock it from the inside when he retreated to his attic abode.

At first, he denied it.

Then, he proceeded to tell the truth, which was very much stranger than any fiction, indeed.

Coneys had come to Denver as a sick boy with his widowed mother, and actually met the Peters when he joined a mandolin and guitar club. He had been invited to their home several times.

When his mom died, he left Denver and became a bit of a lost soul, drifting from town to town.

In April 1941, he returned to Denver as a homeless person, sleeping in alleys and doorways and spending a dime a day on food.

As the weather turned cooler, in September, he remembered his "old friend" Phil Peters. With Peters gone at the hospital to visit his wife, Coneys let himself into the home, raided the fridge for food, and discovered a loose panel leading up to an attic.

The space was 27-inches high and 57-inches wide. He made it his home.

"It looked like a good place to hole up for the winter," he told detectives.

So he stayed, and when the house was vacant, he would slip downstairs and steal some food, just a bit at a time so as not to draw suspicion.

He cut into the house's wiring system to install an outlet in the attic. He stockpiled the Peters' canned goods. He even built a makeshift radio to "stay in touch with the outside world."

A deadly discovery

Coneys' ghostly existence was disturbed one evening as he had slipped downstairs to make some coffee. He thought Peters was out to dinner – but the homeowner instead entered through his back door as the unwanted houseguest was standing at the kitchen stove.

Coneys hit Peters over the head with an old .44 caliber revolver in the kitchen – and Peters, stunned, moved to the living room to call police.

Hitting Peters again, Coneys told police he thought he had knocked him out, and he planned to take some money and leave. Instead, he heard Peters in the bedroom.

That's when he told police he beat the elderly man with the stove shaker - until he was still.

Stranger still, Coneys continued to stay in the home. He heard the news of Peters' death on his makeshift radio while hiding in the tiny attic above the very room in which he killed the old man.

Eventually police detectives returned to the home to see Coneys' habitat. The stench of it made one officer vomit.

The Spiderman's sentence

On Halloween, 1942, a jury took just 90 minutes to convict Coneys guilty of murder – he was given life in prison instead of the gas chamber, The Denver Post reported.

Upon his sentencing Coneys was quoted to say, "Now I feel safe. I'll have a better home than I have had in years."

He was imprisoned in Canon City until his death in 1967.

And that is the stranger-than-fiction story of the Denver Spiderman. 

Information in the article was gathered from the Denver Public Library. Have an idea for something we should research? Email us!




(© 2015 KUSA)


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