The pen moved across
the page as though guided by someone else's hand,
leaving fragmented thoughts and raw emotions. Sometimes
it seemed that writing was the only thing that kept her
sane. Rhonda Edwards had filled several notebooks with
such bits and pieces since her daughter, Cher Elder, had
disappeared in March 1993.
Now, three years later, the man who
killed Cher by pumping three bullets into the back of
her head had just been found guilty of second-degree
murder. Thomas Edward Luther, 38, was likely to spend
the rest of his life in prison
Rhonda knew she should be happy that
Luther had been convicted, at least feel some sense of
relief. After all, nailing him for Cher's death had been
no sure thing. That morning, when it became apparent the
jury was deadlocked, she had feared the worstEthat man,
that smirking, laughing monster who sat at the defense
table like a choirboy, might not be held accountable for
Cher's death at all.
"I feel anger, rage, and resentment.
I have lost a piece of myself," Rhonda wrote as she sat
in a friend's living room, waiting for the evening news.
"I know I will never be the same as I was before her
death, some sorrows leave deeper scars than others. A
mother's loss of her child is a deep scarE"
Justice seemed hollow, as empty as
the hole into which they'd lowered Cher's casket almost
two years to the day after she'd been murdered. Executed,
Rhonda thought, by a man who raped and attacked young
women because they looked like his abusive mother.
Pretty. Small. Dark hair to the shoulders.
"Cher didn't get a fair trial,"
Rhonda wrote. "Our justice system can be twisted,
because of one person who cannot see that execution by
three bullets to the back of the head is deliberate
murder." One juror, a 65-year-old woman, had held out
for second-degree murder even though her eleven
colleagues believed Luther was guilty of murder in the
first degree. Then Jefferson County District Judge
Christopher Munch had invoked a little-used Colorado law
by telling the eleven jurors it was their duty to
compromise and find Luther guilty of the lesser charge.
After the verdict was announced, many
of the jurors met with Cher's family, apologizing
through their tears. Now there would be no death-penalty
phase. No public hearing to air the real truth about
Luther to counter the whitewashed version that had been
presented in court.
No equal payment for what he had done
Rhonda held together just long enough
to get out of the courtroom. She hadn't wanted him to
see her cry. Luther was smiling and hugging his
attorneys like he'd won, actually talking about how he
now could get back in shape in the prison weight room.
Her hand was moving again. "There is
a vacuum that can never be filledEa terrible
emptinessEto be able to talk to your child you have to
go to a cemetery and visit a cold stoneEit is the most
heartbreak a mother can have."
The trial that began January 16 in
Judge Munch's courtroom was never going to be an easy
one for prosecutors. For all the debate about the
holdout juror, it could have been lost at several points
along the way. There was no physical evidence putting
the gun in Luther's hand; no one who'd seen him shoot
Cher Elder. Two of the prosecution's three key witnesses
were criminals and habitual liars who had worked out
deals in exchange for their testimony; the third was
Debrah Snider, Luther's former girlfriend turned
reluctant betrayer, and no one knew for sure how she
Defense lawyers Lauren Cleaver and
Michael Enwall would certainly do their best to paint
the prosecution witnesses in the worst possible light,
while prosecutors Dennis Hall and Mark Minor would be
prohibited from referring to Luther's criminal past.
The prosecution had been dealt a
severe blow before the trial even began, when Munch
ruled in December that evidence of Luther's history of "bad
acts" and "prior similars"--chiefly the brutal rapes of
two women in 1982 and 1994--should not be presented to
the jurors. Hall and Minor would have to tiptoe around
Luther's prior convictions, even though he'd been in a
West Virginia jail serving time for the 1994 rape when a
Jefferson County grand jury indicted him in March 1995
on two counts of first-degree murder for the killing of
Even Luther's comments to other
inmates that he would kill the next girl he sexually
assaulted and then hide her body would have to be
sanitized for the jury, removing any reference to prison
and the fact that Luther had been found guilty of
attacking other women.
Munch's ruling blew
any chance the prosecution might have
had of proving the second count of the
indictment: that Luther had raped Cher,
then killed her to cover up the crime.
After two years in a shallow grave in
the mountains, Cher's remains carried no
physical evidence of rape. At trial
there would be only Luther's own
comments that he and Cher had engaged in
consensual sex and that, after someone
else killed her, he had buried her nude
body. (In fact, Munch would dismiss this
second count for lack of evidence after
the prosecution's presentation at trial.)
That left the
prosecution with the task of proving the
first count: that Luther had killed Cher
and that her murder had been
premeditated. But after Munch's decision,
the prosecutors could no longer present
what they believed to be the truth about
Thomas Luther's motive--that he is a
serial killer who lures a woman into a
false sense of security, then rapes and
attempts to kill her. Both of Luther's
rape convictions had been for
particularly violent crimes; he's also a
suspect in the murders of several other
It is not necessary
to prove motive in order to obtain a
murder conviction. "But it's only human
to want to know why someone would do
something like that," Hall says. With
Luther's prior history inadmissible, the
prosecution had only hypothetical
explanations for why Cher might have
been killed--because she was going to
tell police about the criminal
activities of her boyfriend, Byron
Powers, or because she had gotten into
some sort of an argument with Luther
after accepting a ride with him to
Munch, a former
prosecutor, wrestled with the issue long
and hard before making his December
ruling, according to a source at the
Jefferson County court. Without question,
the judge knew such a ruling would
damage the prosecution's case.
But in the end Munch
said he was not entirely persuaded by
the prosecution's theory as to Luther's
motive. Although the judge noted that
the victims' appearances were "extraordinarily"
similar, the horrific nature of the
attacks could not help but unfairly
prejudice Luther's right to be tried
only for the crime of killing Cher
Hall had warned
Cher's family that the judge might rule
against the prosecution. But that did
not make Munch's decision any easier to
"It was just another
example of how the system puts a
criminal's rights ahead of the rights of
everybody else," says Cher's father,
Earl Elder. "Jurors are supposed to be
intelligent people. I think they needed
to know that he has a history of
violence that maybe directly related to
what he did to Cher. If they didn't
think it was important, they could have
Adds Rhonda, "I
couldn't understand why the system went
to such lengths to protect repeat
offenders. All those other girlsEbut
nobody was going to let the jury know
just how bad he really was."
Early Sunday morning,
March 28, 1993, Rhonda Edwards sat
upright in bed at her new home in Grand
Junction. She had no idea what had
awakened her in such a panic.
She looked at the
clock--3:05 a.m.--and made a note of the
time on the pad that lay on her
nightstand. She and Van, her second
husband, liked to compare notes about
dreams; Rhonda also had an old habit of
jotting down thoughts in case they ever
proved to be important.
Sometimes they meant
nothing. But often enough to make Rhonda
a believer, there would be some problem
with a family member. Or she'd learn
that Van, a long-distance trucker, had
been thinking about her at the same time
she was thinking about him.
Something felt wrong.
Rhonda lay awake, waiting for the
telephone to ring.
The call didn't come for three days.
Then her daughter's landlady in Golden
phoned to say that Cher's boss at the
Holiday Inn had called because Cher
hadn't shown up at work for several days.
And a counselor from Barnes Business
College, where Cher was supposed to
start attending classes that Monday, had
called, too: Cher hadn't appeared at
Rhonda phoned Earl
Elder, her first husband and Cher's
father, who still lived in Golden.
Rhonda and Earl had divorced when Cher
was two; both had soon remarried and
Cher had bounced back and forth between
the two families--often at her own
insistence. She was a happy kid, full of
life, but she needed a lot of love.
Rhonda sometimes thought Cher was so
needy because of the insecurity of
having two homes.
She'd last seen her
daughter in January, when she and Van
dropped Cher off in Golden on their way
back from a trip to Illinois, where
Van's children from his first marriage
lived; the kids in both families had
always been close. When Rhonda had last
spoken to her daughter in mid-March,
Cher had said nothing particularly
noteworthy, made no mention of any new
boyfriends. She'd just talked about her
excitement over starting college.
Earl called Rhonda back that night.
He'd talked with Cher's friends and then gone to the
Lakewood Police Department to file a missing-persons
report. As far as he could tell, Cher had last been seen
in the Central City casino where her childhood friend,
Karen Knott, was a cocktail waitress. Cher had been with
a gray-haired man in his forties. Karen was worried
about Cher, too. The two young women were constant
companions, and if they didn't see each other every day,
they were certain to talk on the telephone. But now
Karen hadn't heard from Cher in four days.
Detective Scott Richardson of the
Lakewood Police Department was assigned to the missing-persons
case. At the end of April he told Cher's family that he
believed she was dead. Richardson had caught Cher's
boyfriend, Byron, in numerous lies, including denying
that he knew the gray-haired man pictured with Cher on
the casino's videotape. The man's name was Thomas
Luther, Richardson told the family, and he had a history
of attacking young women.
Still, Rhonda and Van refused to give
up hope. Maybe Cher had just gotten fed up and gone
somewhere to think things through. Her parents called
all the friends she had made in different parts of the
country--California, Missouri, Illinois. They made up
posters, some of which Van tacked up in truck stops
during his cross-country journeys.
They'd occasionally get calls, but
the leads never panned out. As the weeks stretched into
months, Rhonda would call Richardson to scream or yell
or cry. She knew it wasn't his fault that the
investigation seemed to crawl along. Sometimes she'd
even call his office at 3 a.m., when she knew Richardson
wasn't there. "I just wanted to hear his voice without
bothering him," she says. "It was good to know he was
Rhonda was riddled with guilt. Maybe
she had raised Cher to be too trusting. "Did I
contribute to her death?" she asked in her diary. "Was I
too busy at work? Did I listen enough?" She wondered
what would have happened if she had allowed Cher to
marry her high-school boyfriend.
In September, Richardson called and
said there might be a breakthrough. Byron Powers had
been arrested for attempted murder; maybe now he could
be persuaded to reveal what he knew about Cher's death.
But it would be another year before Byron talked.
In the meantime, Rhonda was haunted
by dreams. One frequent vision involved a gingerbread-style
house, like those she'd seen in the mountain town of
Idaho Springs. Other details were more difficult to
recall, except for the vague feeling that the dreams had
something to do with Cher. And when Rhonda woke in a
cold sweat, the clock would almost always show 3:05 a.m.
There was nothing vague about the
dream she had on the night of October 10, 1993. In the
dream she--or was it Cher? she couldn't tell--was in a
car traveling down a long, dark mountain road. Her head
lay to one side, her eyes watching a full moon rise
above the treeline. The car rolled to a stop at a creek.
She was looking at the moon when suddenly she heard an
excruciatingly loud bang and felt pressure on the left
side of her head.
"Instantly, I close my eyes as the
light grows bright and there is a sudden, heavy warmth
that runs through my bodyEI shrink into nothing," she
would write in her diary that night. But when she first
woke from the dream, she lay in the dark afraid to move.
The sound and the sensations had felt so real. "I
wondered if He had come back to earth, and I was
witnessing the end of the world," she remembers. "Or was
I seeing death as Cher saw it?"
When Rhonda finally reached for her
notepad, she checked the time. It was 3:05 in the
Richardson was sure that Thomas
Luther had killed Cher sometime after leaving Central
City early on the morning of March 28, 1993. But Rhonda
couldn't let her daughter go. For more than a year she
and Van played detective, going over all the clues.
Maybe if she kept her brain busy, she could keep her
emotions and fears in check.
Van was getting worried about her. On
holidays, once a cause for large celebrations, Rhonda
hid in her room. She threw herself into her work with
the city of Grand Junction as though burying herself in
the everyday troubles of her fellow citizens could erase
her own horror. But then she'd come home and cry for
hours. Van would find her outside at night, looking up
at the stars and asking plaintively, "Where are you?
Where are you?"
Sometimes he would wake up and she
would be gone from their bed. One night he found her
sitting at the kitchen table, staring at a cup of coffee,
smoking a cigarette, repeating over and over as she
cried, "I just want to find my baby. I just want to find
She wrote in her
diary, "I don't want Cher to lay in some
shallow grave forever."
In the fall of 1994,
Byron Powers was sent to prison for
assault, having been sentenced to 24
years. Richardson called Rhonda to say
that he was working with an FBI
psychologist; he was going to wait sixty
days, let Byron think about spending his
youth in prison and then talk to him
again before he got too comfortable with
his new inmate friends. Richardson was
sure Byron knew where Cher's body was
and what had happened that night. They
might have already worked out a deal if
Byron's lawyers hadn't kept getting in
At one point that
fall, Cher's family was brought into the
discussion of whether to bring Luther to
trial without a body. The danger was
that if Luther was acquitted and the
body later found, Luther couldn't be
The family also knew
going to trial without a body meant the
search would end and Cher might never be
discovered. "We said don't do it unless
you're sure," Earl Elder remembers.
Frustrated by the
pace of the police investigation, Earl,
a big man, had begged to be told
Luther's whereabouts so that he could "question"
the suspect himself. Richardson refused
his request, and Earl's independent
attempts to locate Luther were
Like his former wife,
Earl was on a wild emotional ride. He'd
been in the process of divorcing his
second wife when Cher disappeared;
Debbie, like Van, had known Cher most of
her life and was devastated by the loss.
Earl suffered through days, even weeks,
of severe depression when he didn't want
to talk to anyone.
He alternated between
raging around the house and weeping.
When he saw a young mother with her
children, he'd recall how Cher had
wanted a big family and start crying.
Richardson told him
that the police had found Cher's car in
a grocery store parking lot three weeks
after she disappeared, "I felt sick," he
remembers. "That's when I knew for sure
that we were not going to find her alive.
Still, you keep hoping. You think, 'Maybe
she took off for Mexico for a few weeks.'
But that wasn't CherEshe would have told
her family and friends."
The new year came and
went, and it was coming close to the
second anniversary of Cher's
disappearance. Rhonda felt ready to
crack. "How long do I have to wait?" she
wrote in her diary on February 21, 1995.
Not long, as it
turned out. On February 27, Rhonda was
at work when the victim's assistance
counselor from the police department
came to see her. "They found Cher," the
woman said gently. Rhonda nodded and
gathered her coat for the drive to the
Grand Junction police department, where
she'd wait for Richardson's call.
She called Van at
"They found Cher," she said.
"Is she alive?" he asked.
Surprised by his
words, she reacted with anger. "No, Van,
of course not," she said, and
immediately felt ashamed. Van had just
asked what the rest of them had been
keeping in the back of their minds.
"There had always
been that tiny spark of hope," Rhonda
recalls. "We thought we were prepared to
hear this. But we weren't. I fell
again in early March with the news that
a Jefferson County grand jury had
indicted Thomas Luther on two counts of
murder. As soon as he could get the
paperwork finished, he'd be going to
pick him up from jail in West Virginia,
where Luther had recently been convicted
Rhonda was slowly
learning the details of her daughter's
death. Cher had been found near Empire,
a small mountain town with a few
Victorian buildings. She had been shot
in the back left side of the head.
Recalling her apocalyptic dream, Rhonda
shuddered. She had felt fear before; now
she was almost paranoid. When a car
slowly drove by where she was walking,
she shrank back until it passed.
She tried to calm
herself by planning Cher's funeral,
which was postponed several times
because the autopsy was incomplete.
Rhonda picked out a bronze casket, then
a headstone. She sent Cher's high-school
graduation gown to the coroner, as well
as a favorite teddy bear. She filled out
a funeral-home questionnaire that asked
who she wanted as pallbearers. There was
Van and his brother, and Cher's step-brother.
Richardson's face popped into her mind.
Over the past two years, he had become
like family. He had spent thousands of
hours gathering evidence to bring Cher's
killer to justice, enough to fill
eighteen three-inch notebooks and the
detective had always made time to listen
to her. Once he'd confided that he knew
Cher so well it was like investigating
the murder of one of his own children.
"You know my daughter
better than I do," Rhonda had told him.
"You're the brother I never had."
Now she wondered what
he'd say if she asked him to do one more
thing for Cher.
She called and asked. There was a
pause on the other end of the line, and she feared she'd
overstepped her bounds. Then Richardson, in that deep,
Texas drawl of his, softened and said, "I was going to
ask if you'd mind if I attendedEYou just made me very,
They laid Cher to rest in the Grand
Junction cemetery on March 24, 1995. Rhonda knew her
daughter would like the trees and the high red cliffs of
the nearby Colorado National Monument. On the stone were
words Van had suggested: "Until we meet again."
On day three of Thomas Luther's trial
for the murder of Cher Elder, Byron Powers took the
The courtroom had filled quickly each
morning. Cher's family sat behind the prosecution table;
most reporters sat behind the defense. The rest of the
room was filled with detectives from other jurisdictions
interested in Luther, court personnel and curious
onlookers, including two women who brought their
children nearly every day for a civics lesson, part of
their home schooling.
Pains had been taken to ensure that
the fifteen members of the jury--six men and nine women,
including three alternates--would not know Luther was
incarcerated in the Jefferson County jail. He was
allowed to change from the orange jail jumpsuit into
civilian clothes: casual shirt over his broad shoulders,
blue jeans and cowboy boots. And he was always brought
into the courtroom before the jurors arrived, his
handcuffs removed before they could see them.
Everyone else in the courtroom knew
that Luther was already a prisoner serving 15 to 35
years for the rape of a West Virginia woman. Once, when
Luther draped his arm around the back of defense lawyer
Cleaver's chair, a female spectator gasped. "How can she
stand to sit so close?" she asked.
Luther rarely glanced at the people
behind him in the courtroom. He usually looked at the
witness on the stand ten feet straight ahead and
occasionally scribbled notes on a pad on the table in
front of him. The defense lawyers frequently engaged
their client in amiable conversation, and Luther would
smile and laugh.
In contrast, the prosecutors often
looked tired, even though things had gone fairly well
for them up to this point. Karen Knott had testified
that she'd seen her friend Cher with Luther in Central
City. She denied that the pair had been drunk when they
left or that Cher had driven Luther's car--as he'd told
Detective Richardson nearly three years before. Cher
wasn't the sort of girl to have casual sex with a man
nearly twice her age, Karen said, again contradicting
Luther's claims. She held up well under cross-examination,
then left the courtroom and burst into tears.
Enwall, a former Boulder County judge
who handled nearly all of the defense questioning at the
trial, had made it clear in his opening remarks that the
defense strategy would be to implicate Byron Powers and
Dennis Healey, a drug-dealing friend of Luther's, as
Cher's killers. But he'd gained no real ground with
Healey, who testified that Luther had called him early
March 28, 1993, to say he had "fucked up and killed a
broad." After that, Healey said, he'd acted as a lookout
when Luther went to bury Cher.
Justin Eerebout, one of Byron's step-brothers,
had taken the stand and testified that he'd given Luther
a stolen .22-caliber handgun--the sort that had been
used to kill Cher Elder, a ballistics expert would
Twenty-three-year-old Byron Powers
was called to the stand to explain how he'd overheard
Luther talking about a body that needed burying. Luther
had threatened to kill Byron's family if any of them
talked, Byron said, and also told him that he had cut
Byron's ring off Cher's finger and would use it to frame
Byron if it became necessary.
But then prosecutor Hall asked how
Byron's family had gotten to know Luther--and Byron let
it slip that his stepfather had gotten out of prison
shortly before Luther, his cellmate.
The jury now knew what Munch had
forbidden that they hear: Thomas Luther was a convicted
criminal who'd served time.
The jurors noticed the slip. "I heard
that and said to myself, 'Whoops, I don't think we were
supposed to hear that,'" recalls one juror who asked to
remain anonymous. "But we didn't know what it was forEit
could have been drunk driving or it could have been
murder. So I just put it out of my mind, and from what I
could tell, so did everyone else."
But Enwall immediately asked for a
mistrial, and Munch said he'd consider his request
overnight. The jury was sent home.
A shaken Hall slumped into his seat.
"I'd told him a million times not to talk about it," he
now says. "I don't think it was intentional. You have to
remember that these kids had known Luther for more than
ten years because he was their father's cellmate in
Richardson, who sat at the
prosecution table throughout the trial unless he was
testifying, tried to console Cher's distraught family
members. If there was a mistrial, he said, they'd come
back in a few months "with an even stronger case."
The next morning, Munch denied the
motion for a mistrial. But he also instructed the jury
to ignore the slip-up. While it was human nature to
assume that because a person had been convicted of a
crime he was likely to commit another, the judge said,
that assumption was unreliable and "often wrong."
Therefore, it was the jurors' duty to ignore the
reference to Luther's prior incarceration.
Byron then returned to the stand,
where Enwall attacked his changing stories, painting a
picture of a liar with much to lose if Luther was
acquitted. And then he accused Byron of killing Cher
Without missing a beat, without
raising his voice, Byron Powers looked him in the eye.
"I did not kill Cher Elder," he responded. "Thomas
Luther killed Cher Elder."
"Enwall was pushing and pushing," a
juror remembers. "But Byron just sat there and said, 'I
did not.' I believed him."
Although Cher's family also believed
Byron hadn't killed Cher, they considered him guilty of
at least accessory--after all, he'd concealed what he
knew of her death for two years. But the deal with Byron
was the sacrifice that got Cher's body back--and Thomas
Luther brought to justice.
Earl Elder understood the reasoning,
but it still galled him. "Byron Powers gives me a
headache," he said outside the courtroom after Byron's
Particularly irritating was Byron's
response when Hall asked why he'd followed Luther to the
grave. "This may sound stupid," Byron testified, "but I
wanted to find out where she was buried so that I could
slip a note under the Elders' door so they could have
their daughter's body back."
"What a crock," Earl says. "It was
hard to sit and listen to thatEif he was so concerned,
what took him two years to lead us to the grave? I
wanted to stand up and yell, 'Cut the bullshit and just
tell the truth. We all know that's a lie.'"