After the gunshot that killed her sister, after the cursory police investigation that was wrapped up in just a couple of hours, after the first pangs of doubt and suspicion took hold, the dreams came.
The first one appeared just weeks after the shooting.
Julie sat on a hard pew in the front row of a Missouri church. Suddenly, there was Jill, standing in front of the congregation in a flowered dress, singing “Amazing Grace.” Her voice was angelic, her smile pure joy. It was all so confusing, and Julie sat there with her mouth agape, thinking, “Why are you here?” As Jill’s words faded out, Julie jumped from her seat and rushed to her.
“What are you doing here?” Julie asked. “I thought you left me.”
Jill reached for Julie’s face, gently caressing her cheeks.
“Oh Julie,” she said, “I would never leave without saying goodbye.”
The sisters embraced, and Julie cried so hard she shuddered — first in the dream, then after she woke, tears stinging her eyes.
The next dream came later, and kept coming.
It unfolded in an upstairs bedroom of the big house in Woodland Park where Jill, 37, a registered nurse at Penrose-St. Francis hospital in Colorado Springs, had lived with her husband and their two young sons. Jill was unpacking a suitcase. And another woman, her sister’s college roommate, was living in her home, seemingly taking over her life and her place in the family. They could hear her sister’s two sons — including the boy blamed for the shooting — running around in another part of the house, playing with the other woman’s daughters, laughing.
Julie’s sister began to weep.
“What happened to my life?” Jill asked. “What happened to me? You have to find out what happened to me!”
The dreams weren’t wrapped in gauzy haze. They were vivid — so real that after awakening Julie’s eyes would dart around her bedroom, looking for her sister. Each time, she wanted badly for Jill to be there, her big sister, who taught her to bump a volleyball, who coaxed her always to believe in herself.
Instead, there would be only sorrow. And nagging questions about a shooting that didn’t make any sense.
It’s been that way ever since March 28, 2001.
That was the day Jill Wells was shot in the head on a remote ranch in the middle of Colorado’s eastern plains. The day the responding sheriff accepted with little question the story told by Jill’s husband — that their 6-year-old son had accidentally pulled the trigger as the three of them shot at targets stapled to a stack of hay bales. The day that same sheriff effectively closed the case before sundown, deciding not to ask questions that might have exposed the inconsistencies in the story told by Jill’s husband, that might have gotten at the marital problems, at the financial troubles, at the rumors of an affair, at the life insurance.
The day the county coroner decided not to have an autopsy performed, not to even ask his own questions.
BLAME PODCAST: 9Wants to Know asks who is really to blame for Jill Wells' death
Halfway between the Front Range and the Kansas state line sits Lincoln County, shaped like a giant backward “L” 72 miles tall and 48 miles wide across the bottom. Only 19 of Colorado’s 64 counties have fewer residents.
A few hazy clouds streaked the springtime sky on that Wednesday afternoon almost 16 years ago. The temperature in Lincoln County touched 50 — sweatshirt weather. Winter’s snows had receded, spring’s rains hadn’t come. Walking across a farm field kicked up dust.
Traffic along U.S. 287 slowed in Hugo, population 885, passing a sagging downtown whose best days were decades in the past. But it was still the county seat, and south of the highway, across the railroad tracks, sat a complex of modern brick buildings housing county government — the commissioners, the assessor, the courts, the coroner. One wing toward the rear of the building was home to the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and jail, its nerve center a raised interior room surrounded by smoked one-way windows. Inside, the department’s emergency dispatchers work at a radio console, and detention officers have an unobstructed view of inmates.
At precisely 1:48 p.m., the 911 telephone rang. Dispatcher Berta Taylor reached to her left and picked it up.
“Nine-one-one Lincoln County,” she said.
“Yes ma’am,” the man on the line said, “can you please help me?”
“What’s wrong?” Taylor asked.
His next words were garbled. Then Taylor heard, “... just accidentally shot my wife.”
Taylor stiffened, and her voice picked up speed.
“Oh now hang on — hang on here with me, OK?”
“Just do something,” the man said. “Could you send some help for me? I got two little boys in the house. Please.”
“OK,” Taylor said, her voice taut. “I will help you, but you hang on. Can you hang on with me?”
“Yes,” he said.
Taylor clamped her hand over the phone and summoned Alan Yowell, the county’s undersheriff, who was in his office down the stairs. Then she turned her attention back to the call.
“Is, is she still alive, sir?” Taylor asked.
“I don’t know,” the man said, pleading but not hysterical. “I just grabbed my son and ran in the house.”
“Okay, now just a minute,” Taylor said. “I’m going to let you talk to an officer and we’re going to get you help.”
“Please hurry,” the man said again.
Over the next 35 seconds, Taylor worked to keep him on the phone, learned that his name was Mike Wells, confirmed the address of the ranch he was calling from — located along County Road 24, nearly 30 miles away, not far from a settlement of modest mobile homes and a highway shed known as Punkin Center.
Undersheriff Yowell rushed into the room and took the phone.
“Tell me what happened,” he asked.
“My wife and my son and I were out target shooting. And he turned the gun and it went off and shot her. I don’t even know where he hit her. But get somebody down here, please,” Wells said.
“OK. OK. We’ll be there.”
Undersheriff Yowell bounded out of the communications center, looking for his boss and father — longtime Lincoln County Sheriff LeRoy Yowell.
First elected sheriff in 1974, he was in the seventh of what ultimately would be eight four-year terms as the top lawman in a county of roughly 6,000 residents. But for all his time in office he’d handled only two murder cases, both in 1986: the slaying of a ranch hand in a drug deal gone bad, and the killing of a man and his father in a hammer attack carried out by a drifter.
Yowell’s three sons had grown up around the office, and two of them had followed him into law enforcement. Alan, the oldest, had already spent more than two decades in the sheriff’s office, more than half that time as his father’s top assistant. Lynn, the youngest, was in his third year as the police chief in Limon, 15 miles up the highway.
LeRoy Yowell was 60, Alan Yowell 41.
Now LeRoy Yowell was in the passenger seat of the white Ford patrol car. Alan Yowell floored it, heading south on a two-lane road.
The nearest neighbor to the ranch along County Road 24 was more than a mile and a half away across pastureland — twice that by road. Often, the only sounds are the rush of the wind, the hum of a truck’s tires on Highway 94 to the south, the thrum of a commercial airliner beginning its descent into Denver.
Alan Yowell reached Highway 94 and sped west. At that moment, an ambulance approached from the other direction, emergency medical technicians Patrick Leonard and Michelle Leonard, his sister-in-law, on board. They pulled in behind the patrol car.
By the time the undersheriff wheeled the Ford off the county road, bounced over a cattle gate, and headed up the long, straight driveway toward the ranch house, more than 20 minutes had passed since Mike Wells had called 911. At the top of a gently rising hill, they reached a white clapboard house amid a clump of trees surrounded by open prairie. Mike and several buddies had rented it for years, using it as a hunting retreat and weekend getaway.
Mike rushed toward the approaching patrol car and ambulance, waving them in the direction of a clearing among the trees north of the house.
It was 2:11 p.m.
Jill Wells lay sprawled on her belly on an old foam mattress, a rifle in her hands as though she was about to fire at a paper target stapled to a hay bale 50 feet away. Blood caked the right side of her head from a wound just above her ear.
She was dead.
Jill Evenson was born in Sioux Falls, S.D., the fifth child and fourth daughter of the Rev. Walter Evenson, a Lutheran minister, and his wife, Joyce, an elementary school teacher. She spent much of her childhood in the small Missouri town of Stover, a little more than an hour southwest of Columbia, where her father was the preacher at a country church.
Her teen-age years in Stover — population 1,000 — were dominated by church and school.
It was there that she first met Mike Wells, a star on the Stover High basketball and baseball teams.
They dated for a time, but after graduation it was obvious they were heading in different directions.
Jill enrolled at Dana College in Blair, Neb., and later transferred to the University of Missouri in Columbia, where she earned a nursing degree. She came to Colorado Springs in 1987, taking a job at the hospital.
By then, Mike Wells had married and soon he and his wife had a daughter and then — less than 15 months later — a son. But the marriage was shaky, and before the new baby was walking his wife had filed for divorce. A judge formally ended the marriage during a March 28, 1989, court hearing. Mike didn’t show, and his ex-wife was awarded custody of their kids. He was granted visitation and ordered to pay $200 a month in child support and half the medical expenses.
Around that time, he moved to Colorado, where he rekindled his relationship with Jill.
They married July 20, 1991. And from the outside, their life appeared to be a happy one. Jill continued her work as a nurse and immersed herself in her church. Mike opened his own construction business.
He joined some buddies in renting the ranch near Punkin Center, and he went on hunts in places like Alaska. He earned his pilot’s license. He built an impressive home in Woodland Park and decorated it with the trophies of his many kills.
There was no questioning Mike’s skills in the backcountry — his friend Mark Horvat, one of the partners in the ranch rental, considered him one of the best outdoorsmen and hunters he’d ever been around. That carried additional weight because Horvat was more than 15 years older than Mike.
But Mike also had a reckless streak, crashing snowmobiles and even somehow avoiding disaster after flying a Cessna directly into a power line in Lincoln County. Somehow, the wire snapped and the plane stayed in the air.
Tanner came along in 1994.
Not long after that, Jill asked for time off work so she could stay home with the baby while he was ill. A hospital administrator told her that wasn’t possible, and when Jill went to the human resources office to complain she met a fellow nurse named Kathy Parham.
They hit it off immediately, and Kathy quickly became Jill’s closest friend at work. They walked on their lunch breaks whenever they could, Jill rushing down from her work station on the hospital’s 11th floor to Kathy’s office, where she kept a comfortable pair of sneakers that she’d slip into just before they headed out. They formed a small prayer group with a colleague.
Jill’s immersion in her faith continued away from work, as well. She sang in a Christian trio known as Jacob’s Well, and grew extremely close to Terri Willoughby, a friend she attended Bible study with every Wednesday. Often, they’d have lunch afterward, and in between they’d talk on the phone three or four times a week.
In 1998, Jacob was born.
But despite the two beautiful boys, the impressive house, the construction business, there were problems in the marriage.
Jill confided to her mother that she and Mike had tax problems. She confided to close friends that her wages were being garnished to pay Mike’s child support in Missouri. She told her friends Kathy Parham and Terri Willoughby that what she really wanted to was quit her job and stay at home with her boys but that she couldn’t because of their financial pressures. She shared her frustrations with Mike — that he was often not present, emotionally or physically.
Eventually, she confided to those same friends that she had suspected that Mike was having an affair with a close friend of hers — a woman she’d known since college. Jill confronted them both, and they denied it.
“I choose to believe them,” Jill told Terri Willoughby.
And then, in early 2001, she confided something else to Kathy and to another work colleague: Mike wanted her to buy more life insurance.
Though it seemed futile, Undersheriff Yowell and the EMTs felt Jill for a pulse. Nothing. They cut her blood-soaked sweatshirt up the back to check more thoroughly for injuries, then rolled her slightly to get a better look, locating an entrance wound just above her right ear. It was hopeless, and they rolled her back onto her stomach — to the position she was in when they found her — and stepped back.
Rural Colorado is a patchwork of small fire departments and ambulance services, many of them relying on volunteers. When a 911 call goes out, it’s not unusual for a handful of people to respond in a fire truck or an ambulance — and for others to race to the scene from wherever they are in their own vehicles.
Michelle Leonard’s husband, Carlos, the Fire Chief in Karval, was west of Punkin Center when he heard the call over his emergency radio. Bob Webb, a firefighter, pulled up with his wife, Connie, an EMT and victim’s advocate.
Michelle Leonard and Patrick Leonard went to Mike Wells, who was away from Jill’s body, gagging and spitting up.
Michelle would always remember two things. It seemed obvious to her that he hadn’t gone to aid his wife after she’d been shot — she appeared to be completely undisturbed, ready to pull the trigger, and she saw no blood on him, no sign that he’d held Jill in her final moments. And though she’d been on a lot of traumatic calls, she’d never seen anyone at any of those scenes who acted the way he did.
One of the Yowells got on the radio to the sheriff’s office in Hugo and requested that victim’s advocate Juliet Lundy respond — and to bring the department’s camera. No one had thought to bring one.
Dispatchers also called for the Lincoln County coroner, Don Bender, and on-call district attorney, William Sylvester.
Someone suggested that they go in the house and talk to the boys, and Mike Wells flinched and said, “Wait — don’t say anything. They don’t know what’s happened yet.”
Patrick Leonard would never forget that moment.
Mark Horvat had settled into a soft chair in the Cinemark 16 theater on Powers Boulevard in Colorado Springs, next to his grandson, for the 2 p.m. showing of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His wife, Diana, and daughter arrived and interrupted them with stunning news: Mike Wells had called, Jill was gone, and he needed Mark to come out to the ranch.
Horvat and his wife left the theater and drove toward Lincoln County.
As Sheriff Yowell and Undersheriff Yowell surveyed the scene, they examined the rifle in Jill’s hands, her finger on the trigger. Roughly 8 feet away from her body, another .22-caliber lever-action rifle lay on the ground, as if it had been dropped there. Flecks of dirt speckled the stock. Yet another rifle lay on the open tailgate of Mike’s Ford pickup. And a pistol rested in a box in the truck’s bed.
By protocol, Alan Yowell was the lead investigator. He wrote down a half page of cryptic notes, then turned on a small tape recorder and dictated his initial observations.
“ ... 03/28,” he began simply. “Um, received a 911 call from a residence, north of 94 on County Road 24. Spoke with a gentleman on the phone from the office. He stated that his son turned with a gun and it discharged and it struck his wife ... When we arrived she was laying on a piece of Styrofoam in back of the residence. Her left hand and index finger were in the trigger of a rifle with a scope. ... Um, we removed her finger from the trigger of the weapon in case it was loaded and rolled her slightly to take a better look. There was definitely, um, nothing that could be done at that point, and basically at 1411 I pronounced her dead ... Um, the theory at this point without further interviews is that the boy turned ...”
The recorder garbled his next words.
After dictating details about one of the guns, the undersheriff snapped off the recorder. He had talked for two minutes and 38 seconds.
Juliet Lundy arrived. She handed the camera to Undersheriff Yowell — who began snapping photographs of Jill’s body — then walked into the house.
Connie Webb, who was a victim’s advocate in addition to being an EMT, was with Tanner and Jacob, who were playing and watching television.
Lundy, who had been a victim’s advocate for a little more than three months, sat with Mike. She asked him if there was someone she could call; he told her two friends were already on the way. She tried to explain to him what he could expect — that returning home would be bewildering — and suggested that he take some time before getting rid of anything. The boys, she explained, might one day want something of their mother’s, and she urged him to keep her stuff, maybe ask a friend to take care of it or put it in storage.
And then she saw something odd, something that startled her: Mike Wells glared at Tanner.
“Don’t look at him like that,” she said tersely. “He lost his mother, too.”
As she watched Tanner, she wondered why he seemed totally unaffected. She expected questions. What’s going on? Where’s mom? Who are these people? Why are they here?
A little later, the undersheriff sat down with Mike. He took no notes, and he didn’t ask Mike to write out a statement. He turned on his recorder, capturing 55 seconds of broken conversation.
“What went on here?” Undersheriff Yowell asked.
“We were just shooting ... we were shooting,” Mike said, sobbing. “I was just watching the line, you know? I went to get his gun to load it, and he was shooting mine. And then ... pull ... came back. He, it’s a hard time to lever it, the main lever doesn’t close up. It just went — it went off ... I just grabbed him ... went in the house ... and ... I called.”
The undersheriff confirmed that Jill was a left-handed shooter, then asked for her birthday. Then Mike said, “and I told him she just bumped her head.”
Then came what could have been considered the most important interview — with Tanner.
Again, the undersheriff took no notes. He recorded a little more than a minute and a half of the conversation. It would be clear to the people who later listened to it that Tanner was sitting alongside his father as he talked, a violation of well-established protocol, which would have called for a forensic interview of a child by an expert, conducted away from his family.
“Do you know why I’m down here today?” the undersheriff asked.
Tanner’s answer can’t be heard — perhaps he nodded his head.
“Okay, why?” the undersheriff asked.
“Because my mom ...” Tanner said.
“And what were you guys doing when your mom bumped her head?” the undersheriff asked.
“Um, shooting,” Tanner answered.
A short time later, the undersheriff asked, “From where your mom bumped her head, where were you standing — how far away from her?”
“Um, like two or three steps ...” Tanner said before his voice trailed off.
“Okay. Now was your mom standing up?” the undersheriff asked.
Again, Tanner’s answer wasn’t captured.
“What was she doing?” the undersheriff asked.
“She was laying down,” Tanner said.
“Okay, what kind of gun were you shooting?” the undersheriff asked.
“Um, the rifle,” Tanner said.
“What kind of a rifle?” the undersheriff asked.
“Um,” Tanner began, and this his voice trailed off.
“What do you mean by ... How do you load it, Tanner?” the undersheriff asked.
“Um,” Tanner said, and his voice trailed off again.
“What did you do with that gun?” the undersheriff asked.
“Um,” Tanner said.
“OK,” the undersheriff finally asked, “is there anything else that I haven’t asked?”
“Um,” Tanner said.
“How many times have you shot that rifle with the lever?” the undersheriff asked.
“Um,” Tanner said.
“A lot of times or just a few times or ...?” the undersheriff asked.
“Kind of a lot,” Tanner said.
“Kind of a lot? OK,” the undersheriff said, marking the end of the recorded interview.
In Colorado, it is the job of the county coroner to determine how and why someone dies — the “cause” and “manner” of death. The cause can be anything — blunt force trauma, gunshot wound, pulmonary edema. But when it comes to “manner,” coroners have only six options under state law. Natural. Accident. Suicide. Homicide. Pending investigation. Undetermined manner.
County coroners have tremendous power, and tremendous responsibilities. They alone can order an autopsy — a forensic dissection of a body that includes careful examination of organs and tissues, testing for drugs and alcohol, microscopic study of cells. In cases where someone has been shot, the bullet can be located and retrieved for comparison to a weapon.
In cases where it’s not clear exactly what happened, the conclusions reached during an autopsy can dictate whether there’s a police investigation.
And if a coroner mistakenly concludes that a homicide is a suicide, or that a natural death is a murder, it can be difficult — or even impossible — to undo the damage.
Colorado’s system of using civilian coroners with few requirements — they have to be high school graduates, U.S. citizens, residents of the county where they serve and cannot have a felony conviction — dates back to the Old West and in many ways has evolved little since statehood was granted in 1876.
It’s a system that Massachusetts abandoned in 1877 when it replaced coroners with medical examiners who are doctors.
Colorado, however, remains one of an ever-dwindling number of states that has clung to the past. It is a system of extremes.
In 2001, Dr. Michael Dobersen, Arapahoe County’s coroner, oversaw an office with seven employees and an $822,402 budget. He was a forensic pathologist who conducted hundreds of autopsies every year. Denver’s Office of the Medical Examiner was even bigger — 22 employees and a $2.4 million budget.
In Teller County, coroner Debbie Smith had a budget of $40,214. She was the office’s only employee.
And in Lincoln County, coroner Don Bender operated an office of one with an $18,000 budget – and paid two deputy coroners $50 a call to respond to deaths when he wasn’t available. An emergency medical technician, his day job was with the local electric company. He’d been coroner since 1994.
Bob Webb sat in his pickup, whittling on a piece of wood, waiting for Connie to finish up her work so they could leave. He had one thought above all others: The shot that hit Jill was absolutely perfect, in the most horrifying way.
The prosecutor called to the scene, William Sylvester, gave his blessing to Mike Wells’ story: That Tanner, who had been firing a child’s rifle, had asked to fire his father’s “big gun” — the Browning that was found in the dirt a few feet from Jill’s body. That Mike had allowed Tanner to fire a single shot, then walked back toward his pickup to get the boy’s rifle, which lay on the tailgate. That Mike turned to see Tanner stand and try to cock the big rifle a moment before it went off. That Jill was hit and went limp.
Coroner Bender loaded up Jill’s body and drove away, bound for a mortuary. He decided no autopsy was necessary.
The sheriff and the undersheriff confiscated the four guns — potential evidence. They also took Jill’s purse. They took no fingerprints, no measurements. They didn’t sketch the scene, or arrange for ballistics tests on the guns, or search the house. They didn’t talk to Tanner outside his father’s presence, and they didn’t question Mike Wells in any depth. They took no photographs of Jill’s body before anyone touched her.
According to notes the undersheriff jotted on a yellow Post-It note, they left the ranch at 3:58 p.m. The on-scene investigation was over in an hour and 47 minutes.
As everyone dispersed and went their separate ways, Mark Horvat took the wheel of Mike’s gold Ford pickup, driving west toward Woodland Park. Mike and his sons sat next to him in silence. Tanner asked where his mother was.
“She’s at the hospital,” his father told him. “We can’t see her right now.”
Driving back to the garage in Karval where the ambulance is parked, Patrick Leonard thought about all he’d seen. He was bothered that Mike apparently didn’t go to Jill to try to help her, bothered by the way he acted, bothered by the way he tensed when someone suggested that they needed to talk to the boys.
Maybe it was unfair to judge the way Mike was acting. Maybe Tanner really didn’t know what had happened. Maybe.
Next to him in the ambulance, a very different thought coursed through his sister-in-law’s mind.
Michelle Leonard thought: What a perfect place to commit murder and get away with it.
DOCUMENTS: Read the documents from the Jill Wells case
The day after Jill Wells was shot to death, Undersheriff Yowell — with an assist from his father — inventoried the four guns they’d confiscated at the scene, dictating details into his tape recorder and snapping pictures.
Then something else occurred that would — in hindsight — seem strange.
Shortly after noon — a little more than 22 hours after the 911 call — the sheriff and undersheriff signed a one-page form and turned the four guns over to a friend of Mike’s.
INTERACTIVE: A 3D look at the cemetery where Jill Wells is buried
Coroner Don Bender finished up his work on Jill’s death certificate, listing the cause of death as “Gun Shot Wound To The Head” and typing an X next to “accident” in the section for manner of death.
In a death full of unusual decisions — no autopsy, no fingerprints, no in-depth interviews, no ballistics testing — this was one more anomaly: Coroners routinely take weeks to conclude their work and sign a death certificate.
That same afternoon, the day after his wife’s death, back in the big home in Woodland Park, Mike called about Jill’s life insurance.