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
"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
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
By Leonard G. Johns, M. S., Gerard F. Downes, and
Camille D. Bibles
“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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
1 Quote by Robert Spangler, printed in Robert Scott,
Married to Murder (New York, NY: Kensington Publishing Corp., 2004),
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
4 See the NCAVC’s Web site.
5 Charles Patrick Ewing, Fatal Families: The Dynamics
of Intrafamilial Homicide (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997),
6 Sharon Spangler, On Foot in the Grand Canyon:
Hiking the Trails of the South Rim, 2nd ed. (Boulder, CO: Pruett
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,
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.