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Robert SPANGLER

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Parricide
Number of victims: 4
Date of murders: 1978 / 1993
Date of arrest: 2000
Date of birth: 1933
Victims profile: His wife, Nancy Spangler, 45, son David, 17, and daughter Susan, 15 / His third wife, Donna Sundling, 58
Method of murder: Shooting (.38-caliber handgun) / Pushed her off a 140-foot drop to her death
Location: Colorado/Arizona, USA
Status: Sentenced to life imprisonment without parole in Arizona in 2000. Died in prison on August 5, 2001
 
 

 
 

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On the morning of December 30, 1978, in Littleton, Colorado, Robert Spangler lured his wife Nancy into the basement with the promise of a "surprise." He then shot her in the head with a.38 handgun. Going upstairs, he shot his teenage children, Susan and David. David was slow in dying, so his father finished him off by smothering him with a pillow. Spangler had cunningly framed the crime scene, making it appear that his wife had shot their children and then herself.

Now he was free to marry his new love, Sharon Cooper. A former high school athlete, he hiked the Grand Canyon with Sharon, who chronicled the trip in a book dedicated to her "soul mate," Spangler. But their happiness was short-lived. The marriage ended in a costly, messy divorce.

In April, 1993, when Spangler's third marriage to 59-year-old aerobics instructor Donna Sundling went sour, he took her hiking in the Grand Canyon and pushed her off a 140-foot drop to her death. In 1994, when ex-wife Sharon committed suicide, Spangler became the focus of intense police scrutiny. Wracked with brain cancer, he told all to investigators in the fall of 2000, detailing his shocking serial sage-the story of a two-time widower...and a four-time killer.


Robert Spangler

Sometimes you really have to wonder how any killer that takes time to plan and carry out his murderous action manages to get convicted. I mean, if you don't get caught actually committing the crime, and you manage to dispose of the evidence, I really can't see how you can get convicted. The case of Robert Spangler is a good example. here was a guy that police knew killed his family, but had no conclusive evidence against him. In fact, the only reason you are getting to read about him is because he got unlucky, well he got more than unlucky, he got cancer and an attack of the fame bug.

Not long after Robert Spangler learned he was dying of cancer in late 2000, detectives came knocking at his door on the chance he had something he might want to get off his chest before the end came. They weren't disappointed with what he had to tell them.

Spangler very calmly admitted killing his family (wife and two kids) in 1978. He also told the officers that he had pushed his third wife over the Grand Canyon 15 years later. She died as well.

Based on this confession he was charged in Colorado with murdering his first wife and two children. According to prosecutors, he said that he was dissatisfied with family life. It was a pretty good plan to get rid of the family too. He had shot Nancy Spangler, 45, son David, 17, and daughter Susan, 15, in their home in suburban Denver. He had then placed the gun and a typewritten suicide note near the mother's body.

Despite this 'brilliant' plan he was nearly caught. Spangler initially told police he had been at work, but he had to explain how he happened to have gunshot residue on his hands. He told police he returned home and found his wife sitting in a chair with a gunshot wound to the head. He said he saw the gun nearby and handled it. Close call, and without solid evidence the authorities concluded the mother killed the children and then herself. Good police work.

Spangler later remarried and then divorced in 1988. The ex-wife died in 1994 of a drug overdose, and Spangler has not been implicated. Interesting that they didn't try and get him to confess to this one as well. I guess that police couldn't give a fuck about a junkies death.

In 1990, Spangler married Donna Sundling, an aerobics instructor. The couple were visiting the Grand Canyon in 1993 when she fell 200 feet to her death. Spangler told police he turned away to adjust his camera and when he turned back, she had disappeared. But her relatives were pretty suspicious of this as they said she was afraid of heights and very agile. Still, if there's no conclusive evidence, then why bother charging someone. I mean, it's not he's a serial killer or anything.

Another odd thing with this second murder is the fact that Spangler had the body cremated before anyone had a chance to check the body out. Still, no conclusive evidence means no charges. This guy may have liked to push things with the law, but he was pretty smart.

Following his confession Spangler has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Phoenix in the 1993 death of Donna Sundling Spangler.

And that's pretty much all I know in the case against Robert Spangler. In August 2000 he said that he only had 6 months to live, so I'd imagine that he is probably already dead by now.

Quotes

Over the years, Spangler worked for Honeywell Corp.'s camera and instruments division, served as public relations director for a non profit organisation, and was as a part-time disc jockey at a radio station. Spangler was raised in Ames, Iowa, where a laboratory at Iowa State University is named after his father, a civil engineer.

"He's the kind of person you'd like as a next-door neighbour until you find out about him," said neighbour Joyce Williams.

"We couldn't believe it then, and we still don't believe it,'' said Nancy Spangler's stepmother, Joan Stahlman. "Robert didn't come to see her father after Nancy died. That seemed strange. We never heard a word from him."

Roy Meiworm, who was dating Spangler's daughter at the time of her death, said Spangler's confession sent him into shock. "I lost about 20 minutes of my life," said Meiworm, now 42. "I can't tell you how upsetting it is to find out everything you've been told was wrong. It's taken me 22 years to even enjoy Christmas again. I have a feeling this is going to be another tough one."

Oh, and one last thing, Spangler's new wife, Judy, was apparently quite surprised by the confession. She refused to comment to journalists, but her friend said: "Judy said she was numb. Obviously there was a side to him that none of us know. Everybody was duped."

The Wacky World of Murder


Resurrecting Cold Case Serial Homicide Investigations

By Leonard G. Johns, M. S., Gerard F. Downes, and Camille D. Bibles

FBI.gov

“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, prosecutive, 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 intra-familial 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 .38caliber 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. 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.

Rangers located the third wife’s body approximately 160 feet below the trail. The autopsy report concluded that she sustained massive injuries, including abrasions, contusions, lacerations, and multiple fractures of the neck, chest, and lower extremities. Spangler never was directly implicated in this wife’s death because it was ruled an accident. He drew national attention with interviews on several television shows. As a grieving husband, Spangler discussed his wife’s accidental death and the dangers of hiking in the Grand Canyon. Spangler continued to backpack the Canyon with a variety of partners several times a year.

After the death of his third wife, Spangler reestablished contact with his second wife, who moved back into his Colorado home and died of a drug overdose in 1994. This death was not investigated by law enforcement.

The Investigation

In January 1999, perceptive investigators from the U.S. Department of Interior, National Park Service, and counties of Coconino, Arizona, and Arapahoe, Colorado, linked the cold case homicides in their respective jurisdictions. They met with agents from the FBI’s Flagstaff,Arizona, resident agency and requested assistance. An assistant U.S. attorney (AUSA) from the District of Arizona with experience in capital murder cases, who had a personal knowledge of the Grand Canyon, joined the team. The AUSA united the cases under the umbrella of federal jurisdiction as an insurance fraud/murder, and an FBI agent in Flagstaff contacted the NCAVC.

First, NCAVC officials suggested that investigators complete a subject history on Spangler, stressing that investigators should familiarize themselves with all available information.8 Further, they recommended using an NCAVC Behavioral Assessment Questionnaire when interviewing some of Spangler’s associates. Early investigation revealed that Spangler was an educated, intelligent, and successful man. A charismatic individual, he worked in careers of human relations and public speaking. In addition, Spangler spent a significant amount of time living in different parts of Colorado and hiking the Grand Canyon. One lead set by the FBI agent resulted in an interview of a woman living in a small Colorado community who, subsequently, contacted authorities a few weeks after her interview. At that time,she gave them a copy of a letter she received from Spangler in which he advised her that he had terminal cancer.

The investigative team, with concurrence from the NCAVC, immediately approached Spangler. A complete confession was critical for prosecution because of the lack of existing evidence. The investigative team traveled to Colorado to interview Spangler, and the AUSA met them there to provide on-site legal consultation.

Confession

In Colorado, local law enforcement and the local FBI office supported investigators. Because any prosecution depends on the admissibility of a confession, the investigative team agreed to videotape the entire interview. Spangler’s terminal cancer created special issues for the AUSA regarding mental competence and the voluntariness of a statement. 9 For this purpose, the NCAVC provided a telephonic interview strategy: a medical doctor retained by their unit analyzed Spangler’s medical records, confirmed his terminal condition, and gave advice regarding competency issues.

Investigators approached Spangler at home and he agreed to an interview at the local sheriff’s office. The FBI agent and the Arapahoe County detective initiated the actual interview with the AUSA monitoring it from another room. The agent from the National Park Service observed the initial interview and participated on the second day. The first day of interviewing lasted about 4 hours. Spangler believed investigators when they told him that FBI profilers wanted to study him because he was a unique killer. Like some other serial murderers, his compulsion to kill even fascinated him. 10

Investigators confronted Spangler with the 1978 murders of his wife and children, the drug overdose of his second wife, and the murder of his third wife in the Grand Canyon. At the end of the interview, Spangler told investigators, “Well, you’re naming one too many, remember.” He left, agreeing to contact investigators in the morning if he wanted to continue the interview. Contrary to expectations of the investigation team, Spangler telephoned the FBI agent the next morning and made an appointment to continue the interview after breakfast. Rapport was the key communication link between Spangler and the investigators, allowing the interview to continue despite an overnight 12 break.

During the second interview, Spangler told investigators how, while married to his first wife, he fell in love with another woman, then shot his wife and two teenage children to be with her. Further, Spangler said he smothered his son with a pillow after shooting him because the bullet wound was not lethal. He strongly denied involvement in the overdose death of his second wife and refused to discuss the death in the Grand Canyon because he feared a civil lawsuit from his third wife’s grown children.

Investigators encouraged Spangler to talk about the Grand Canyon murder by telling him that killing several people at one time did not make him a serial killer. This approach worked on Spangler; after a period of silence, he said, “You’ve got your serial.” Spangler then described how he masterminded the Grand Canyon murder and pushed his third wife over the edge while she faced him.

Analysis

The NCAVC officials provided a behavioral analysis and interview strategy directly applied by investigators in the Spangler case. Further, they accurately predicted several of Spangler’s behaviors. Spangler was concerned about his public reputation. He had been a radio talk show celebrity and was well respected in the community. After confessing, Spangler sent the FBI agent a letter, pleading with him to minimize the publicity about the case. In this letter, Spangler argued that he was not like other serial killers who target people for race or sexual orientation, correctly assessing that some serial killers target groups they perceive as undesirable. Spangler’s motivation to kill centered around the anticipated gain of eliminating his wives and children. During the interview, he told investigators that killing them was easier than divorce. The results of this investigation included Spangler’s confession to four homicides— three were 22-year-old cases. Spangler plead guilty in federal district court in Arizona to the first-degree murder of his third wife, and he admitted killing his first wife and two children. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole, dying of cancer while in federal prison.

Conclusion

Investigating cold case homicides constitutes one of the most frustrating duties of a law enforcement officer. However, the FBI’s National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime offers assistance to local, state, federal, and foreign agencies investigating unusual or repetitive crimes.

Departments should solicit the NCAVC’s assistance through NCAVC coordinators in their local FBI field offices. Services are provided on-site, telephonically, and at the NCAVC’s offices located near the FBI Academy. As demonstrated in this investigation, behavioral analysis assistance from the NCAVC may help law enforcement officers resolve cold case homicides, bringing closure to horrendous crimes.

*****

Endnotes

1 Quote by Robert Spangler, printed in Robert Scott, Married to Murder (New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2004), introduction.

2 U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Crime in the United States, 1999 (Washington, DC, 2000), 201; retrieved on April 6, 2004.

3 For the purpose of this article, the authors define a cold case homicide as one where all investigative leads have been exhausted.

4 See the NCAVC’s Web site.

5 Charles Patrick Ewing, Fatal Families: The Dynamics of Intrafamilial Homicide (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997), 8.

6 Sharon Spangler, On Foot in the Grand Canyon: Hiking the Trails of the South Rim, 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing, 1989).

7 Gary Scheige, American Journal’s Death Valley (1993); and National Public Radio’s Morning Edition (Washington, DC, 1993), transcript number 1230-1235.

8 Robert K. Ressler, et al, “Interviewing Techniques for Homicide Investigations,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1985, 27.

9 Confessions are presumed to be involuntary. The prosecution must prove that a confession is voluntary, even if there is no Miranda violation. See, Mincey v. Arizona, 437 U.S. 385 (1978).

10 Robert M. Spangler, interview by FBI Special Agent Leonard G. Johns; Arapahoe County Detective Paul E. Goodman, Jr.; and U.S. National Park Service Special Agent Beverly L. Perry, September 14-15, 2000, videotape. For additional information, see Robert K. Ressler, et al, “The Split Reality of Murder,” FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, August 1985, 11.

11 Ibid., (Spangler). (The authors believe that Spangler referred to the drug overdose death of his second wife when he made this comment.)

12 Supra note 8.

13 Supra note 10 (Spangler).

The views and opinions expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Justice.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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