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For the past five years, Hess had worked as a volunteer in the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office’s col

The Confessor

For the past five years, Hess had worked as a volunteer in the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office’s cold-case unit in Colorado Springs.

Sarah Stolfa for The New York Times

El Paso County (Colorado) Sheriff’s

The Confessor

At this late hour of his life, Charlie Hess said the question “Why?” didn’t matter anymore. After all the years he spent in the F.B.I. tilting at the criminal mind, all his years in private practice running lie-detector tests, his time extracting secrets as a C.I.A. agent in Vietnam, he was no longer interested in “Why?” What counted were simple, incontestable facts: who, when, where, what. Names, dates, locations; cause and manner of death — these were his goals as he tried to flesh out the transgressions of a man who, by his own account, killed 48 people. Robert, can you remember what year that was? Was the body north or south of the highway? Where did you get the ice pick? “Why?” was bottomless and slippery and often fraught with useless moral overtones. “Why?” didn’t close cases. “Why?” was for intellectuals, and Charlie Hess had seen enough of them to say there were two kinds of people: intellectuals and those who got things done.

Now here he was at 2 a.m. on a cold November night, escorting an interviewer to a rental car parked outside his trailer in a poor neighborhood on the east side of Colorado Springs. “I could pack up and move tomorrow — just give me my woman and my dogs,” he said, craning his head back at the torrent of stars above the Front Range. He said that the footloose spirit came from Gypsy blood on his father’s side, but he was 80, and after two heart operations, a brush with death from kidney failure, and two hip-replacement surgeries, you had to wonder if his wanderlust had a leg to stand on. Under the wan streetlight, he looked a little like Spencer Tracy after a hard winter.

For the past five years, Hess had worked as a volunteer in the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office’s cold-case unit in Colorado Springs. He’d helped to organize files no one had looked at, in some cases, for decades. Then he began poring over one case in particular. He’d started writing letters and tracking down names. He’d done hundreds of interviews. He’d made dozens of trips by car for meetings at the penitentiary an hour south, near Canon City. He’d faxed police jurisdictions all over the West. He’d sifted through jewelry boxes for a stolen wedding ring. Two or three times frustrations got the better of him and he had quit. But he always came back, persevering as the months rounded into years. It wasn’t as if he lacked other interests. He could have been fishing. He could have been walking the dogs. He had two daughters. A grandson. Two great-granddaughters. And his wife, Jo, with whom he was so happy he could scarcely bring himself to eat when she left to visit relatives. So: Why? Why spend so many hours trying to beguile a man already locked away for life with no hope of parole?

“There are five or six reasons,” he said with a long-suffering sigh.

He’d already mentioned he didn’t care for golf. He’d already explained he wanted to be of use before he was ushered off the stage. He’d already confessed to a competitive streak, and the satisfaction of showing the office hotshots he still had chops. One of the deepest reasons was not a secret at all: his son-in-law had been murdered in Colorado Springs in 1991.

“Some I’ve told you about,” he reminded me. “But the others I won’t.”

“Could one assume the others have to do with feelings you have about things that happened in the past, maybe when you were with the bureau or in Vietnam — things you feel now you want to atone for in some way?”

He seemed almost amused, like Garry Kasparov contemplating a poisoned pawn from a high-school chess-club upstart.

“You’re a very good interrogator,” he said. “But you’ll never get that out of me.”

2. The Apple Dumpling Gang

El Paso County is a Delaware-size district on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains with a population of about 575,000; a murder rate well below regional and national averages; and, outside the city, fewer than two dozen unsolved homicides going back to 1969. The injustice of any one unsolved murder probably looms larger in a community where murders are rare, but the cold-case unit informally established in the county sheriff’s office in 2001 owes its existence less to the expressed values of an uncallused electorate than to the zeal and friendship of three retired volunteers: Scott Fischer, Lou Smit and Charlie Hess. Tickled by their ages — now 61, 72 and 80 respectively — an office manager in the sheriff’s office teasingly nicknamed them the Apple Dumpling Gang, after the bumbling dimwits in the 1975 Disney movie.

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, the gang meets for coffee at the Old Heidelberg Pastry Shop and Cafe on South Tejon Street. Then they shuttle over to their office in a beige, two-story building in the center of downtown Colorado Springs. Sheriff Terry Maketa’s suite is across the hall; the rest of the brass are a few doors down. Except for a poster-size photo of Hess, Smit and Fischer with a haul of yellowtail caught on a fishing trip in Mexico last summer, the cold-case headquarters is all business: gray metal desks, chairs, a computer and metal shelves racked with unclosed case files in dozens of black three-ring notebooks. On the spine of each binder is a high-school-yearbook-style photograph of a murder victim. From the doorway, the array of faces looks like a crowd on a balcony waiting for a play to begin.

The godfather of the Apple Dumpling Gang was Sheriff Maketa’s predecessor, John Anderson, who held the top law-enforcement post in the county from 1995 to 2003. Charlie Hess’s daughter Candy managed Anderson’s first campaign. During a strategy meeting at her house in 1994, Hess met Lou Smit, who served with Anderson on the Colorado Springs Police Department in the 1970s and ’80s.

Smit was a legend in Colorado law-enforcement circles. A veteran of more than 200 homicide investigations, he had a knack for solving tough cases that seemed to entail an almost mystical connection with victims. His dedication to the job was unrivalled. When Smit had applied to the Colorado Springs police force in 1966, the department still had a 5-foot-9-inch height requirement. Smit measured in half an inch short. He asked to be retested, and the night before, he persuaded his cousin, who was already on the force, to hammer him on the head with his nightstick. The next morning, extended half an inch by the mother of all welts, he got the position.

Hess and Smit’s friendship developed quickly over regular racquetball games and frequent meals. They each could improvise in difficult circumstances. They each had quick senses of humor. They each appreciated the degree to which cases sometimes required tactics and methods that weren’t always in, or by, the book.

“Lou and I are very much alike,” Hess said. “We both understand that if you want to see into the abyss, you’ve got to walk near the edge.”

John Anderson ran for sheriff in 1994 with an ambitious agenda that included raising salaries, professionalizing officer training, digitalizing communications and enlisting more volunteers. Mindful of advances in fingerprint and DNA analysis, he also thought more could be done to revive stalled investigations. One unsolved homicide in particular was very disturbing to him and almost everyone else in the county.

The case arose three years earlier in the northern part of the county known as the Black Forest, when a 13-year-old girl named Heather Dawn Church disappeared from her family’s house. Heather was one of four kids, and on the night of Sept. 17, 1991, she was home baby-sitting for her 5-year-old brother, Sage. There was little chance she’d run away. As she’d written on a Mormon Church questionnaire that eventually made its way into a police file of some 15 volumes, her “short-term goals” were to be nicer to her brothers and get straight A’s. She liked animals, dollhouses, swimming, biking, playing the violin and tag. Her favorite passage of Scripture was “Love one another.”

Two years after she vanished, her skull was found down a hillside off Rampart Range Road, about 30 miles from her house. More than 40 suspects had been considered, including Heather’s father, Michael Church, who separated from his wife around six months before Heather’s death. The case was televised on America’s Most Wanted.

When he took office in January 1995, Anderson appointed Lou Smit captain of detectives and directed him to revisit the Church case. “I became a grunt,” Smit told me last fall. “I started putting together all the case files. I went through all the photos again. I made a timeline. I called the parents. I developed lead sheets for burglaries in the area. We looked at a lot of kids and checked alibis. When I was talking to one of the guys in the lab, he said, ‘Maybe we ought to send out the prints again.’ ”

The best piece of forensic evidence the investigators had was fingerprints lifted off the frame of a window screen. The prints had been sent out to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and the F.B.I., but no match had turned up. At the time, the fingerprint data banks of each state and of the F.B.I. were not all interconnected. (The so-called Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System began in 1999.) Smit told the county fingerprint specialist, Thomas Carney, to prepare 8-by-10-inch photographs of the fingerprints and then mailed them to 52 jurisdictions, each with its own set of computerized records.

The effort hit pay dirt in March 1995. Colorado authorities learned that the man who had handled the screen was a hazel-eyed white male, 6 feet 2 inches, 180 pounds, with a Southern accent, good teeth and “no visible deformities.” He’d been convicted of motor-vehicle theft and burglary in Louisiana. Further investigation disclosed he was living in a mobile home in Colorado Springs, about a half-mile down the road from Heather Church’s house.

His name was Robert Charles Browne.

County search-and-rescue personnel knocked on the door of his mobile home the morning after Heather vanished, but Browne said he knew nothing about the girl. F.B.I. agents canvassing the neighborhood later on had bypassed Browne’s house because it was just outside the perimeter of their search.

When Browne was brought in four years after the murder for a videotaped interview, the El Paso County detectives were at pains to establish whether he’d ever been at the Church house before Heather vanished. Ever done any construction there? Ever cleaned out a gutter, or put up a screen? Ever dropped by for a visit? No, no, no. Never been there in his life, he said.

“We said, ‘Thank you very much!’ ” Smit recalled. Browne looked shocked when detective Mark A. Finley, who was conducting the interview, dropped the bombshell that his fingerprints had been found at the scene. There must be some mistake, Browne insisted; they should run the prints again.

There was no mistake, but other than the fingerprints there was no physical evidence, which is why law-enforcement officials were surprised when Browne changed his story and, on May 24, 1995, pleaded guilty to the murder of Heather Church. He told a placement counselor that he had surprised the girl and killed her in her house by strangling her or breaking her neck. Judge Gilbert A. Martinez of the Fourth Judicial District Court sentenced him to life without parole.

“I think he was dodging the death penalty,” Smit told me. “We’d sent a detective down to his hometown in Louisiana to do a background check. It turned out there was a girl who had lived next to him who was missing and a girl who lived on the other side of him who was found murdered. The cases had never been solved. I don’t think he wanted us looking into his past any more than we already had.”

During his time as captain, Smit created a new format for organizing case files. All interview reports, crime-scene photographs and lead sheets were bundled into notebooks; time lines were drawn up; every name was indexed and cross-referenced. The process of “building the book” enabled new detectives to get up to date quickly on a particular case and helped detectives already involved see patterns that might otherwise be obscured in the welter of details.

Smit had wanted to organize the backlog of cold cases in similar fashion, but he retired in 1996 to help his wife, Barbara, who was suffering from cancer. During a period of remission before she died in 2004, Smit was asked by the district attorney in Boulder County to help investigate the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. When he was done with that work, he volunteered his services to the sheriff’s office, eager to organize the county’s unsolved murder files. Charlie Hess had a similar hankering.

And so in the spring of 2001, the two racquetball partners found themselves batting around about 15 unsolved homicides going back more than 30 years. They’d been working about two months when John Anderson came by with another volunteer, Scott Fischer, freshly retired from his job as publisher of The Colorado Springs Gazette. Fischer had no formal law-enforcement background, but in his early 20s he photographed homicide crime scenes for the local sheriff’s office in New Mexico and he was handy with a computer. After seven months with Hess and Smit, Fischer was inspired to enroll in the county’s reserve-officer program and attend the training academy.

Within a couple of years virtually all the cold cases of El Paso County were on computer disks that could be searched in an instant. In late April 2002, Hess, Smit and Fischer were sitting over coffee at the Heidelberg wondering what to do next. Hess turned to Smit. “Have you ever worked a case where you thought the guy was a serial killer?”

“You know, I think I have,” Smit said.


“Robert Browne.”

“You think I might write to him?” Hess asked.

3. First Serve

Thus began a relationship that in its ebb and flow — its diplomatic evasions, its deepening air of trust and collaboration — resembled a sort of marriage. At the outset Hess was certain of little but his approach. The initial overture was almost always pro forma: “You put your cards on the table. You tell the person who you are, what your background is, what you want, and you end with some subjunctive thing like ‘perhaps we can be of mutual benefit to each other.’ ” If he got a reply, he would improvise from there.

From case files, Hess learned that Browne, born Oct. 31, 1952, was the youngest of nine kids. He was raised in Coushatta, La., where his father, Ronald, worked as a deputy sheriff in the Red River Parish Sheriff’s Office. Depression apparently ran on his mother’s side. Browne’s maternal grandfather committed suicide by throwing himself into a cistern with a weighted chain around his neck. Despite his intelligence — later I.Q. tests would put him in the borderline-genius range — Browne’s grades were unremarkable. There was no obvious explanation for what would later seem his fathomless antipathy toward people, women especially.

In 1969, three days before his 17th birthday, Browne dropped out of high school and joined the Army. He did two tours in Vietnam and one in Korea before he was dishonorably discharged for drug use in 1976. He worked a miscellany of jobs at a paper company and a wholesale business in Louisiana; he delivered flowers in Texas. He worked the counter at a Kwik-Stop in Colorado Springs in 1987. He married five times; all of his wives were slight, small-boned women, not much more than five feet tall. And all of them were still alive. His fifth wife told detectives Browne confided in her that he hated women and cops. His fourth wife told reporters from The Colorado Springs Gazette that Browne had once put a pistol to her head and pulled the trigger, and when nothing happened asked her to shoot him. His third wife said Browne beat her because she forgot to put a spoon in the gravy. “He’s the devil’s right-hand man,” she said. “Call me when you pull the switch.” Browne’s second wife was Vietnamese and gave birth to his only child, a son named Thomas. The first marriage ended in divorce after three years. Browne’s criminal record wasn’t extraordinary. There was a warrant for his arrest in 1981 for stealing a church bell. In 1986 he stole a Ford truck. There were police reports linking him to cruelty-to-animal incidents, drug use, burglaries and arson.

Of much interest to Hess was that Robert Browne had already exchanged some letters with El Paso authorities. A couple of days after the fifth anniversary of his arrest, he sent a cryptic four-line poem to the Fourth Judicial District attorney in Colorado Springs: “In the murky placid depths,/ beneath the cool caressing mire,/ lies seven golden opportunities./ Missed opportunities?” It was signed “Lovingly, Robert Browne.”

Detective Finley took up the task of replying, writing a week later: “I have tried to anticipate what you are wanting to do and I believe I have a general idea of at least some of the things you refer to in your letter. . . . Certainly I am willing to come speak with you if that is what you want. I will tell you up front no other agencies are interested unless you are willing to provide bona fide information that will be of assistance to them. I took the liberty of writing this letter, rather than make a visit to access [sic] exactly what it is you want to do. It would be a waste of time to show up and speak in rhymes.”

A week later, Browne sent Finley more doggerel, four AABB-rhyme-scheme stanzas saying, in roundabout fashion, that the “seven sacred virgins” were buried in El Paso County and were therefore county cases. With the verse was a hand-drawn map outlining nine states — Washington, California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. There was a number on each state. Colorado had 9; Louisiana had 17. A note Browne included read: “The score is you 1, the other team 48! Are you willing to settle for this? You have the information to make the score 8 to 48. Somewhat better, but you seem not to have the insight or ambition to score! In addition if you were to drive to the end zone in a white Trans Am, the score could be 9 to 48. That would complete your home-court sphere. Do you wish to retire into obscurity? Or would you like to live a life of notoriety and wealth? Let’s see if you have the insight, ambition and drive to be somebody! Again you have your information! Do not contact me!!!”

To Hess, Browne’s cryptic cat-and-mouse communiqués clearly seemed intended to taunt the investigators who put him away for life. As he told me one day last fall: “My general feeling was that Robert Browne wrote those goofy poems because he had been incarcerated for five years and he was angry and he wanted to get the guys who put him in jail.” If nothing else, Finley’s letter demonstrated the in-your-face approach wouldn’t work. Hess took the opposite tack. Scott Fischer typed up Hess’s handwritten draft. It was dated May 9, 2002:

Dear Mr. Browne,

My name is Charlie Hess and I work as a volunteer at the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, mostly working on cold murder cases. My background is that I was a Special Agent in the F.B.I., was a C.I.A. agent in Vietnam and ultimately retired as a polygraph examiner with the San Diego Police Department.

In my endeavors here, I had occasion to review certain details of your case. I must say I was very intrigued by the correspondence you directed to the district attorney’s office here, subsequent to your incarceration. The information you alluded to brings to mind previous high-profile matters I handled and [I] am wondering if you feel it in your interest to grant me an interview.

It has been my experience that intelligent, unique individuals often times are in a position to illuminate matters that could never come to light via any other avenue.

Hoping you feel that a contact would be of mutual value, I remain

Sincerely, Charles J. Hess.

To the amazement of the detectives in the sheriff’s office, he included his home address. It was a standard part of his method for cultivating rapport. He’d served. Would the ball come back?

4. G-Man

Law enforcement was the last thing Charlie Hess expected to divert him from a life coaching football and showing anglers where to cast. He was an only child, born in 1927 to Charles and Beatrice Hess in Cicero, Ill. Before Charles Sr. went to work as a tailor he played briefly on the semipro team that eventually became the Chicago Bears. Beatrice was a seamstress who during the Depression helped make ends meet by sewing lingerie for rich people in Chicago.

When Hess was 15, his parents invested all their savings in a run-down resort on Fishtrap Lake, about four miles outside the north-central Wisconsin town of Boulder Junction. Hess expected he would manage the resort when his parents retired, but at the urging of his father, after an 18-month stint as a cook in the Navy, he used the G.I. Bill for a college education.

At Superior State College, Hess shared a coal-heated house with three military veterans. One of his roommates, Leonard Ojala, first noticed the “driven quality” that Hess would later bring to his work at the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. when Hess was always getting into fights with his football teammates. “Charlie has always wanted to prove something,” Ojala told me. “We Finns have an expression called sisu, which is a kind of stubborn determination to continue in spite of overwhelming odds. I think some of it rubbed off on Charlie. He’ll deny it, of course.”

Hess asked Ojala if he thought he would make a good husband for his college sweetheart, Joanne, and then promptly ignored his advice and tied the knot at the end of his sophomore year. Chris, the first of his two daughters, was born in 1949. Candy followed in 1951.

In 1952, lured by a $6,200 salary, he landed a position as a special agent for the F.B.I. Hess, just shy of his 25th birthday, was assigned initially to San Antonio. He learned Spanish at the F.B.I. language academy and was later posted to El Paso and then to Alpine, Tex., beside Big Bend National Park. He showed a flair for cultivating informants on both sides of the border; within six months of the start of his stint in San Antonio, he had 20 people passing him tips. Almost everything he learned about getting people to talk to him he credits to the intuitive approach of the Texas sheriffs he met on his rounds.

Hess put in 10 years with the bureau, and then 3 as the city manager of National City, just south of San Diego. But with his 40th birthday looming and his marriage getting rocky, he was restless and ready for an adventure. He ran into an old classmate from the F.B.I. Academy who had been hired by the U.S. Agency for International Development (Usaid) to teach police work to the South Vietnamese. Hess was hired by Usaid, and late in the spring of 1967 he flew to Vietnam as a foreign-service officer of the State Department. “I don’t think I was in favor of the Vietnam War ideologically as much as I just wanted to find out what was going on over there,” he told me.

One day in the summer of 1967, Hess went on an inspection tour in a plane with a C.I.A. paramilitary officer named Robert Wall, who outlined a joint American-South Vietnamese program that the C.I.A. was organizing to “neutralize” the Vietcong political cadres. Wall offered Hess a job as a deputy coordinator for the Phoenix Program.

The Phoenix Program remains as controversial today as it was during the war. Depictions of it range from a flawed but valuable intelligence and counterinsurgency operation to a lawless, terror-for-terror assassination program that paved the way for some of the more dubious tactics in the United States’ current “war on terror.” Hess supervised Phoenix operations in III Corps, a group of 11 provinces comprising 53 districts. Wall noted in a 1968 report that Hess “actually pioneered the investigative aspects of the program, and the success he has achieved has led . . . to the implementation of his concepts and ideas in other Corps areas.”

When I pressed him on the issue, Hess said he had not participated in, or witnessed, the more brutal interrogation practices that were aired in Congressional hearings in the early 1970s, when United States soldiers gave accounts of prisoners being thrown out of helicopters, or “rung up” by electric shocks from hand-cranked field telephones, or pierced through the eardrums by sharpened bamboo dowels. Hess, who has a hat stitched with the message, “Vietnam — If You Weren’t There, Shut Up,” also made a point of telling me he had no objection in principle to such techniques during wartime: “In a war, and this is strictly my opinion, you do whatever is necessary to save American lives. The only people who know if it’s appropriate are the people who are doing it at the time.”

Within six months or so, around February 1968, Hess knew the program he had helped design was working poorly. “Essentially we did not understand the Vietnamese culture,” he told me. “Our tactics were based on what we had accomplished with informants in the West, especially in Europe during World War II. We were too stupid and ignorant and misinformed to understand that in Vietnamese culture it was O.K. to be a traitor and leave your village, but it was not O.K. to be a traitor and go back and be a mole.”

After Vietnam, Hess went back to school to begin a new career as a polygraph examiner. His marriage was coming to an end when he met his second wife, Jo Marino, on a blind date in 1978. He had his first quadruple bypass that year (and a second 19 years later); and then, in 1984, the G-man escaped to the Baja peninsula. For six years he and Jo, the daughter of a commercial fisherman, lived 400 miles south of the United States border on the wild beaches of Bahia de Los Angeles. They built a cabin. They ate what they could catch, truck in every three months or tender ashore on a small boat. They had no mail, no phone, not even legal standing in the country, just the beauty of arid mountains, dawn light and sunset, the neon yellow-blue of dorado flashing in the turquoise sea. They could have stayed forever had Jo not begun to worry how they would manage getting old.

They returned to the States in the fall of 1991. Just a couple of months later, in the early hours of Christmas Eve 1991, Hess was staying in Cedar City, Utah, with Jo when the phone rang. Hess’s son-in-law Steven Vought Sr., the husband of his younger daughter, Candy, had been shot interrupting a burglary at his brother’s house in a rural area of El Paso County, about 15 miles southeast of downtown Colorado Springs. He slumped on the porch and bled to death in Candy’s arms.

Hess and his wife drove all afternoon and arrived in Colorado Springs Christmas Day. The intruders were three 17-year-olds said to be members of the Four Corner Hustlers gang. One teenager was caught almost immediately, having injured himself on a barbed wire fence while trying to flee; the two others turned themselves in on Christmas Day, accompanied by their parents. They were charged as adults. Hess intended to remain in Colorado Springs as long as Candy needed him. He and Jo built an apartment attached to Candy’s house. They put a wrought-iron fence around her yard, and bought a male Rottweiler named Zeppelin whose welcoming bark when Candy pulled into the driveway told her no one was inside waiting to harm her. In 2005, Candy remarried and moved out of the state. Her father, with work to do, stayed on.

5. Hello Charlie Hess

A week after Hess’s first letter to Robert Browne, a handwritten reply dated May 16, 2002 arrived in his mailbox:

Hello Charles J. Hess,

A face-to-face interview, at this time, is not acceptable. However I might be willing to correspond on matters that interest you.

What specifically were you intrigued by?

What high-profile matters were brought to mind?

What matters would you like to be illuminated?

My perception (accurate or distorted) will have a great bearing on the amount of, and what, I share.

’Til then, Robert Browne

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