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Resurrecting Cold Case Serial Homicide Investigations

By Johns, Leonard G.; Downes, Gerard F. et al. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Resurrecting Cold Case Serial Homicide Investigations

Johns, Leonard G., Downes, Gerard F., Bibles, Camille D., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

"It requires a singular focus in committing the actual crime, quite cold-bloodedly." (1)

--Robert Spangler

Approximately one-third of all homicides in the United States are not cleared within the year committed. (2) In cold case homicides, investigators often are forced to work with stale information and a lack of evidence. (3) However, the FBI's National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC) offers consultations on the investigation of cold case serial homicides, as well as several other types of cases. The NCAVC combines investigative and operational support functions, research, and training to provide assistance without charge to federal, state, local, and foreign law enforcement agencies investigating unusual or repetitive violent crimes. (4)


Furthermore, the NCAVC's Behavioral Analysis Units provide behavioral-based investigative support by applying case experience, research, and training to complex and time-sensitive crimes typically involving acts or threats of violence. This support includes crime, threat, and critical incident analysis; investigative suggestions; profiles of unknown offenders; interview, persecutive, and trial strategies; major case management; search warrant assistance; and expert testimony. With the NCAVC's assistance, a 20-year-old cold case homicide investigation in the Southwest was solved in 2000.

Suspicious Deaths

On the morning of December 30, 1978, deputies from the Arapahoe County, Colorado, Sheriff's Office responded to the scene of a possible double homicide/suicide in a private residence in Littleton, Colorado. A neighbor had discovered the bodies of a 45-year-old woman, her 17-year-old son, and her 15-year-old daughter. All three had suffered gunshot wounds from a .38-caliber handgun. The daughter, found partially clothed in her bed, had a bullet wound in her back. The son, also in bed, had been shot once in his upper chest. The mother's body lay slumped over a typewriter in the basement with a bullet wound high on her forehead. A typewritten suicide note on the typewriter was signed with her initial.

As often is the case in intrafamilial homicide investigations, detectives interviewed the surviving spouse as a suspect. (5) The husband, Robert Spangler, age 45, told investigators that he was not home during the crime. Spangler admitted marital problems with his wife and that he planned to leave her. He described leaving his house early that morning and finding sheriff's deputies there when he returned. Spangler's original story changed significantly in a subsequent interview. Two separate, private polygraph examiners found his answers inconclusive to questions about his role in the deaths. The .38-caliber weapon used in all three shootings belonged to Spangler, and evidence of gunshot residue was found on his right palm. On January 3, 1979, the Arapahoe County coroner closed the case as a double homicide/suicide. The sheriff's office was unable to overcome the coroner's findings, and they had exhausted all investigative leads; therefore, they were forced to close the case. Most of the evidence either was returned to Spangler or destroyed.

Seven months later, Spangler married again. He and his second wife shared a common interest--hiking in Grand Canyon, Arizona. She eventually wrote a book of her experiences hiking the Canyon. (6) Subsequently, the couple began to have marital problems, and they divorced in 1988.

In April 1993, Spangler and his third wife, age 58, backpacked in Grand Canyon, Arizona. This wife was an active aerobics instructor with five grown children and numerous grandchildren from a previous marriage. One morning in April 1993, Spangler appeared at a ranger station in the Grand Canyon and calmly told the ranger that his wife had fallen to her death. he explained that they had stopped to take a picture on the trail and, when he looked back, his wife was gone.

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