Cold Case Files - A Sealed Fate; Deadly Divorce   View more episodes

Aired at 12:00 PM on Friday, May 28, 2010 (5/28/2010)      View all transcripts from this day


00:00:02>> KURTIS: From a forensic standpoint, 1965 is worlds away fromCSI.
00:00:07There's no DNA to process, no laser lights available to search for evidence.
00:00:12Detectives remove the body, dust the scene for prints, and begin their investigation by learning all they can about the victim.
00:00:20Neighbors once again provide a starting point.
00:00:22>> And she was just recently divorced.
00:00:25She was quite popular and a lovely person, a wonderful personality, very friendly.
00:00:31>> She had been going to the Catholic church, taking instructions to join the church, and she had indicated a rather close relationship with a priest to some of her friends.
00:00:46>> KURTIS: How close a relationship is the question Earp wants answered.
00:00:50His interest in the priest in question, Father John Lauerman, sharpens when religious candles are found near the body.
00:00:58Earp tracks down the priest, who tells police he was giving Burnett private catechism lessons, many times late at night, but denies any involvement in the 19-year-old's murder.
00:01:09Over the next few days, Detective Earp becomes convinced that Father Lauerman is not coming entirely clean.
00:01:15>> Because of his personal guidance with her and certain statements that he had made to a waitress at a bar, that gave rise to him as being a very strong suspect.
00:01:33>> KURTIS: According to the waitress, Lauerman was a regular at the bar.
00:01:37One night, after a few stiff drinks, he allegedly told her that he was responsible for Cheryl Burnett's murder.
00:01:44With this information, Father Lauerman rises to the top of the suspect list.
00:01:50Two weeks into the investigation, as police work on establishing a link between the priest and the murder, they are called to the scene of another homicide, this one also in El Cajon and two miles from Cheryl Burnett's residence.
00:02:14Louis and Lola Mercer have been married for 28 years.
00:02:17They've just moved into a new apartment complex at 538 Chambers Street.
00:02:22On their fifth night in the new home, a man climbs through an open window and attacks the couple in their bedroom.
00:02:29When police arrive on the scene, Louis Mercer is dead, and Lola is barely alive.
00:02:35>> He had been brutally-- I mean brutally bludgeoned about the head area and upper torso.
00:02:42His wife had also been bludgeoned, received severe trauma to her head, and she had been raped.
00:02:53>> KURTIS: Lola Mercer is rushed to the hospital.
00:02:55She suffered irreversible brain damage and can't remember anything about the attack.
00:03:00Semen evidence is collected, but there is little else available in the form of physical evidence.
00:03:07As the police hunt for a rapist and killer, the town of El Cajon begins locking its doors.
00:03:13>> It was very shocking.
00:03:15El Cajon, at that time, was about 40,000 people, and because of the closeness geographically of the two homicides, people were quite concerned.
00:03:30>> KURTIS: Detectives believe the Burnett and Mercer crimes might be linked, which leads to a troubling question.
00:03:37Could their chief suspect in the Burnett killing, Father John Lauerman, also be responsible for the Mercer attack?
00:03:45As detectives investigate this possibility, yet another avenue of investigation opens up, this time in the town of La Mesa, six miles north of El Cajon.
00:04:11On July 5, 1965, a man breaks into the home of a La Mesa nurse, assaults her, and leaves her barely alive.
00:04:19Police canvas the area and find a neighbor who chased away a prowler just a few nights prior and managed to jot down the man's tag number.
00:04:28Detectives run the plates back to a former felon named Clyde Carl Wilkerson.
00:04:34The 27-year-old is put in a lineup and IDed by the La Mesa nurse as her attacker.
00:04:39Wilkerson is booked on a charge of attempted murder.
00:04:42A few days later, Jerry Earp catches wind of Wilkerson's arrest and his pattern of attack.
00:04:48Earp wonders about the similarity to his unsolved cases in El Cajon.
00:04:53>> There was quite a bit of similarity in that attack, and looking back and reviewing Wilkerson's history, he was developed primarily, at that time, as a suspect in the Mercer homicide.
00:05:10>> KURTIS: Detective Earp pays a visit to Wilkerson as he sits in the county jail awaiting trial.
00:05:16Wilkerson, however, is not talking about the Mercer case, the Burnett case, or anything else.
00:05:21>> I think it got about as far as me identifying myself as a detective with the El Cajon Police Department, and that was the end of the meeting.
00:05:32>> KURTIS: In November of 1965, Clyde Wilkerson is sentenced to five years to life for the attack in La Mesa.
00:05:39All the while, he, along with Father John Lauerman, remain strong suspects in the El Cajon murders.
00:05:46>> We didn't have enough evidence to even begin to charge anyone in either of the two cases, but he and the priest were both considered suspects in both cases.
00:06:01>> KURTIS: The Catholic church shuttles Father Lauerman to an out-of-state facility for alcohol rehab, in effect ending police contact with the suspect.
00:06:11Carl Wilkerson does his time in jail, but remains silent as the grave on the El Cajon killings.
00:06:17In time, both investigations go cold, and detectives are left to ponder who their killer might be, a convicted rapist, a Catholic priest, or someone else altogether.
00:10:14>> KURTIS: In the summer of 1965, random violence is a rarity in southern California, murder even more so-- that is, until June 6, when 19-year-old Cheryl Burnett is found raped and strangled to death in her bedroom in El Cajon.
00:10:30Two weeks later, Louis and Lola Mercer are attacked in their home.
00:10:34Louis is bludgeoned to death, Lola sexually assaulted and left with permanent brain damage.
00:10:40Within a year, both cases are cold and stay that way for over three decades.
00:10:45Then, in 1999, Detectives Jon Wooddell and Robert Anderson reopen the cases.
00:10:51>> They had been shelved due to either no leads or the technology wasn't present at the time.
00:10:56And so he brought the cases back out to take a look at it, see if there was anything that could be done with technology now that wasn't available at that time.
00:11:04>> KURTIS: Wooddell reads through the file of Cheryl Burnett and focuses on statements made by the investigation's chief suspect, a Catholic priest named John Lauerman.
00:11:15>> The night following the discovery of her body, he showed up at a local bar and had scratches on his face and proceeded to get drunk and tell basically anybody at the bar who was listening that he was responsible for Cheryl's death.
00:11:30So people started looking at him.
00:11:34>> KURTIS: Wooddell hopes technology will help to determine if this man of God did the work of the devil.
00:11:39Stored away in a police warehouse are items of evidence collected 34 years earlier at the Burnett crime scene, among them a sheet taken from Burnett's bed.
00:11:49Connie Milton of the San Diego Sheriff's Crime Lab is asked to examine it for possible DNA evidence.
00:11:55>> I just took random cuttings and prepared slides to look under the microscope.
00:12:00And lo and behold, I found, at that time, it was 34-year-old sperm that were still intact on this sheet.
00:12:08>> KURTIS: Milton is able to develop a DNA profile from the semen.
00:12:12Cold-case detectives believe that profile to be the genetic signature of the man who raped and killed Cheryl Burnett.
00:12:18The critical question: Is it also the genetic signature of a Catholic priest?
00:12:23The answer to that question lies six feet under, as cold-case detectives discover that Father Lauerman died in 1972, still under suspicion of murder.
00:12:35>> The only way to get DNA from Lauerman was to go ahead and exhume him so we could compare that to the evidence that we had at the scene and see if there was a match.
00:12:53>> KURTIS: On a winter morning, Jon Wooddell and a team of forensic scientists begin to unearth the grave of a priest.
00:13:00Lauerman's bone fragments and dental tissue are sent to a private DNA lab for testing.
00:13:06Once a profile is established, scientists compare it against DNA found at the Burnett crime scene.
00:13:12Six months later, Wooddell receives the results.
00:13:16>> I told him that the priest was not a potential contributor to the semen stains that were found on the sheet.
00:13:22>> KURTIS: After 35 years of speculation, DNA confirms that Father John Lauerman did not kill Cheryl Burnett, a crime for which he had been a suspect for over three decades.
00:13:34Wooddell is back to square one until he begins to compare notes with Detective Robert Anderson, who is working the Mercer case.
00:13:41>> He and I were just a couple offices apart at the time, and so I was talking to him about my case, and he was talking to me about his case.
00:13:50>> There was some similarities, and there was some mention in both cases that referred to the other one.
00:13:56>> So we were going back and forth, and the one commonality that was in both of the case files was Clyde Wilkerson.
00:14:04>> KURTIS: Clyde Wilkerson broke into a home and assaulted a woman just a few weeks after the Burnett and Mercer killings.
00:14:10Along with Father Lauerman, Wilkerson was considered a hot suspect in 1965.
00:14:16With the priest eliminated as a suspect, Wilkerson now takes center stage.
00:14:21>> I went through and tried to collect every single report that Wilkerson was involved in so that I could know as much about him as I could.
00:14:29>> KURTIS: What Anderson finds is a criminal record spanning nearly 50 years and a vast portfolio of violent crime with an emphasis on armed robbery and rape.
00:14:40Cold-case detectives decide they need to track down Clyde Wilkerson and, more importantly, get a sample of his DNA.
00:15:02Continental Express is a long- range trucking company based out of Little Rock, Arkansas.
00:15:07Its fleet consists of 500 18-wheelers, with hundreds of drivers assigned to the various rigs.
00:15:14From 1996 to 2000, Clyde Wilkerson worked for Continental as a driver.
00:15:19Cold-case detectives ask if Continental might have saved any of its employee records.
00:15:25Continental Express turns over paperwork mailed in from the road by truckers and even the envelopes those invoices were mailed in.
00:15:32>> When they go out on the road, and they get receipts and bill of ladings and things of that nature, they all go into an envelope.
00:15:40The person seals it, and it goes with the paperwork, into their file.
00:15:45>> KURTIS: Detectives seize the envelopes sent in by Wilkerson and send them to criminalist Connie Milton, who believes she has a good chance at collecting a sample of the suspect's DNA.
00:15:56>> When you lick an envelope, you're getting cells from your tongue that are deposited on that envelope, and they're basically going to stay there.
00:16:04The envelope is sealed.
00:16:06Those cells, your saliva, it's going to be there.
00:16:09>> KURTIS: Milton selects three envelopes for testing and is able to extract the same DNA profile from all three.
00:16:16That profile is then compared to semen evidence collected at the Burnett homicide.
00:16:21>> So I then pulled out the DNA report I had from the sperm on Cheryl Burnett's sheet, and I started going through each of the markers and looking at it, and I was just in shock that it matched.
00:16:37>> KURTIS: Milton picks up the phone and shares her results with Detective Jon Wooddell.
00:16:42>> I said, "Well, I got the DNA from the envelopes, and it's him.
00:16:46It matches.
00:16:47It matches the sheet." And his reaction was equally as excited as mine.
00:16:53>> A lot of yelling, lots more phone calls letting people know what's going on.
00:16:58Everybody was all excited.
00:17:00>> KURTIS: 37 years after the fact, Milton has linked Clyde Wilkerson to the murder of Cheryl Burnett.
00:17:07Next, the criminalist runs Wilkerson's profile against semen evidence collected in the Mercer homicide.
00:17:13Again the result is a perfect genetic match.
00:17:17>> I mean, once Burnett was made, that was the key.
00:17:20And then once Mercer came back, that was great too.
00:17:23We had both cases, and it was the same suspect.
00:19:42>> KURTIS: In 1965, Cheryl Burnett was raped and murdered.
00:19:45A week later, Louis Mercer was murdered, his wife, Lola, raped and left with irreversible brain damage.
00:19:52Both murders occurred in the small town of El Cajon, California, and both go cold.
00:19:5837 years later, DNA from semen left at each crime scene has been matched to Clyde Carl Wilkerson, a man with a criminal past-- a man who thought he got away with murder.
00:20:10In October of 2002, cold-case detectives meet face-to-face with Wilkerson to let him know how wrong he was.
00:20:30Cold-case detectives trace their suspect here, to a trailer home in Benton, Arkansas.
00:20:35Unaware that he is suspected in two cold homicides, Wilkerson has made no attempt to hide his identity or whereabouts.
00:20:43Even as he is placed under arrest, the career criminal is unsure exactly why.
00:20:49>> At the time, he had a functioning meth lab in his trailer.
00:20:55And I believe that at first he thought that's what we were there for.
00:20:59And it wasn't until some time later that we had to convince him that we were not from California to arrest him for this drug lab in Arkansas; that we were actually there for these unsolved homicides.
00:21:11>> KURTIS: Three days later, Clyde Wilkerson returns to California in handcuffs.
00:21:16>> Sir, are you Clyde Carl Wilkerson?
00:21:18>> Yes.
00:21:20>> KURTIS: Denied bail, Wilkerson sits in the San Diego County Jail and awaits his day in court.
00:21:25Deputy DA Dan Lamborn is assigned the task of compiling the case that will put Clyde Wilkerson behind bars for the rest of his life.
00:21:35>> I was confident that we had a solid case that a reasonable jury would look at and convict.
00:21:41You can never make predictions.
00:21:44We know this in this business.
00:21:45You can't predict what a jury is going to do, but we felt that we had the evidence to convince a jury.
00:21:53>> KURTIS: One week before Wilkerson's trial is set to open, the suspect pleads guilty to the murders of Cheryl Burnett and Louis Mercer, and the rape and attempted homicide of Lola Mercer.
00:22:03Sentencing is set for the following month.
00:22:23On April 15, 2003, Clyde Wilkerson arrives back in court to be sentenced.
00:22:29Also in court that day, people whose lives have been forever fractured by the violence visited on their loved ones.
00:22:36Steven Harris is the grandson of Louis and Lola Mercer.
00:22:40>> It's been a very traumatic time for the last couple of decades, waiting and hoping for something to occur in the case.
00:22:48And I applaud the tenacity of the El Cajon Police Department and those detectives that worked the case for their assistance in finally bringing Mr. Wilkerson to justice.
00:23:00>> KURTIS: Seabree Burnett grew up never knowing her grandmother, Cheryl Burnett.
00:23:05Too emotional to read it herself, Seabree stands by as Deputy DA Dan Lamborn reads her statement to the court.
00:23:13>> "I address the court today on behalf of my family that isn't here to see the end of the great tragedy that has affected our family for over 37 years.
00:23:22Cheryl was a beautiful, smart, talented, sweet, and supportive woman.
00:23:27She was strong-- not only physically, but emotionally.
00:23:30I know this because I have talked to people who knew her.
00:23:33And because of one man-- one single, solitary man-- I will never know her." It was very emotional, just seeing, after 37 years, how these atrocious acts that he'd committed still had effects, still affected people in tragic ways decades after the murder.
00:23:53>> It is therefore the judgment and sentence of this court that the defendant be imprisoned in state prison for the indeterminate sentence of life.
00:24:01>> KURTIS: Clyde Wilkerson leaves the courtroom in cuffs and returns to a California jail cell, where he will most likely spend the rest of his days.
00:24:10Cold-case detectives, however, are not yet finished with Wilkerson.
00:24:14>> The only time Clyde ever stopped doing anything is when he got caught.
00:24:18So he's got... he's got lots of free time in between arrests and, you know, incarceration, that kind of a thing.
00:24:27>> KURTIS: Wilkerson spent too many years on his own and unaccounted for for cold-case detectives to believe that he might not have killed somewhere else.
00:24:35The questions are where and who?
00:28:53At a desk inside the El Cajon Police Department, Detective Robert Anderson tackles the job of reconstructing a man's life.
00:29:01The detective is creating a detailed time line of Clyde Wilkerson's movements and then attempting to match up the former trucker's whereabouts with unsolved crimes.
00:29:11One morning, Anderson zeroes in on the place Wilkerson called home from 1973 through 1975: Tulsa, Oklahoma.
00:29:21>> One day, I sat down on the Internet, and I started playing around, putting in, you know, unsolved homicides and unsolved rapes.
00:29:28And eventually I got the Tulsa PD Internet Web site.
00:29:32You could research either by name or by year, and I started doing by year, and I put in 1973, 1974, 1975.
00:29:41>> KURTIS: Under the year 1975, Anderson comes across the description of four unsolved homicides.
00:29:47The detective calls down to Tulsa for more information on the cases.
00:29:52One of them immediately jumps to the top of the list as a perfect fit for Clyde Wilkerson's MO.
00:29:58Her name was Geraldine Martin.
00:30:01On February 5, 1975, she attended an evening lecture at Tulsa Community College.
00:30:07After class, she walked through a darkened parking lot towards her car.
00:30:12The next morning, her car was still parked in the lot, and Martin was missing.
00:30:17Her body was found two days later.
00:30:19Martin had been raped and strangled.
00:30:22To Anderson's eye, the murder fits Clyde Wilkerson's pattern of attack.
00:30:27He asks Tulsa if they have any evidence that could be used for DNA testing.
00:30:32>> They had already DNAed it.
00:30:34It was a very high-profile case.
00:30:35And so I asked that he have his lab person contact Connie Milton, and they could compare the numbers over the phone.
00:30:44They did the very next day.
00:30:47>> KURTIS: The next day, Anderson gets a phone call.
00:30:50His hunch about Tulsa is correct.
00:30:52The DNA is a match to Wilkerson.
00:30:55>> That one made the hair on my neck stand up.
00:30:59It was a totally different feeling than what I had, you know, had with Burnett and Mercer, because this one just really took me.
00:31:08It was a totally different case, and it was a shot in the dark.
00:31:12So that was a really good feeling.
00:31:16>> KURTIS: Tulsa authorities are working to extradite Clyde Wilkerson to their county to face murder charges in the case of Geraldine Martin.
00:31:23Meanwhile, Robert Anderson has remputer, refining his time line, working the Internet, and looking for more bodies he can lay at the doorstep of Carl Wilkerson.
00:31:35>> I'm positive there's more out there.
00:31:37He worked for two trucking companies from about '96 through March of 2000, and that's a good four-year time frame.
00:31:46When you're traveling around as a truck driver, a long-haul truck driver, and you have access to every state and, you know, all the people that are out there hitchhiking and who actually live on the road, the potential for other victims is enormous.
00:33:47Body rested. stress gone. mind sharp.
00:33:48Because unisom gave youdeep restful sleep all night.
00:33:51Morning early birds.
00:33:53Unisom. good night. good morning.
00:34:06>> Every day of your life you think about it.
00:34:09Every time they found a body, I thought, "Is that Mom's?" You feel that if justice is not done, then she died for nothing.
00:34:18Doesn't matter how many years.
00:34:20You still need that.
00:34:22It was like my head spread, and this horrible darkness left.
00:34:44>> KURTIS: Friday night in a Denver suburb, Brett Ludwig is 15 years old and plans to spend the evening watching TV with his mother, Dorothy Britt.
00:34:54Then, at 10:00 PM, Dorothy receives a phone call.
00:34:58She tells Brett that plans have changed and she's going out.
00:35:02Although she doesn't tell her son who was on the line, Brett believes that his mother has agreed to meet her ex-husband, Larry Britt, a man Dorothy had divorced two months earlier after an abusive three-year marriage-- a man Brett Ludwig had hoped was out of their lives for good.
00:35:20>> Larry was a brutal drunk-- is how I would put it.
00:35:24And he... their relationship was one of beatings through bouts of drinking-- all night drinking and all day drinking and more drinking and more beatings.
00:35:38>> KURTIS: Later that night, Brett hears Larry Britt's custom pickup truck outside his bedroom window.
00:35:44>> So it made a very distinctive sound, and I knew it was his truck.
00:35:48So I knew she was meeting with him.
00:35:52He had cajoled her into one last drink or something.
00:35:59>> KURTIS: At 9:00 AM the next morning, Brett wakes to find that his mother has not come home.
00:36:05The teenager is concerned.
00:36:07His mom has never stayed out all night and never missed a day of work.
00:36:12At 9:30, the phone rings.
00:36:14It's Larry Britt on the line, asking if Dorothy is at home.
00:36:18>> I immediately knew then and there that something terrible had happened, and I accused him then.
00:36:29"What did you do?" And he said, "Nothing." >> KURTIS: The boy doesn't believe Britt.
00:36:36He calls his older sister, Susie Kromminga, and tells her their mother is missing.
00:36:40She, too, believes that something is very wrong.
00:36:43>> That just wasn't in her character.
00:36:47Plus, with Larry's temperament and the way their relationship had been since the onset, you almost knew something was wrong.
00:37:00>> KURTIS: The siblings place a call to the Lakewood Police Department.
00:37:04A police officer takes a missing-person's report but tells them that nothing can be done for 72 hours.
00:37:18Three days later, there is still no sign of Dorothy Britt, and the missing-person's report is handed over to Lakewood Police detective Phil Anderson.
00:37:26When Anderson arrives at Dorothy Britt's home, the first person he speaks with is her son, Brett.
00:37:31>> I don't remember my exact words, but I was vehement and adamant that this was not a missing-person's case-- that something had happened.
00:37:44I implored them as much as a 15- year-old kid can, with long hair.
00:37:51>> Oh, he was convinced.
00:37:52He was convinced.
00:37:54There was no doubt in his mind-- I don't think ever any doubt in his mind that Larry had done something to his mother.
00:38:03>> KURTIS: After talking to family members, investigators begin to retrace Dorothy Britt's movements on the night she disappeared.
00:38:09Detective Clarene Shelley finds her way to a bar called the Front Range Inn-- a place that Larry and Dorothy frequented while they were married.
00:38:18>> There were employees at the bar that had seen both Larry and Dorothy at the bar that previous night.
00:38:25They were there until closing time, 2:00, it was determined later, and two or three of the employees had actually seen them.
00:38:33>> KURTIS: One bartender tells police he saw the couple drive away in Larry Britt's pickup, making Britt the last person seen with Dorothy before she disappeared.
00:38:42When police question Larry Britt, the suspect says he never saw Dorothy that night.
00:38:47Detectives obtain a search warrant for his truck.
00:38:50To the naked eye, the pickup appears to have been scrubbed clean, but detectives don't stop at the surface.
00:38:56They strip the vehicle, looking for areas that may have been overlooked by someone cleaning up a crime scene.
00:39:02>> While we were searching the vehicle, we discovered a large quantity of blood underneath and on the back of the seat on his pickup truck.
00:39:12>> KURTIS: Detectives send samples of the blood to the crime lab-- in 1974, before DNA technology.
00:39:18Forensic testing is able to determine that the blood is human, and it is the same type as Dorothy Britt's.
00:39:25When his story is challenged, however, Britt doesn't waver.
00:39:29>> Absolute denial in terms of contact with Dorothy or knowing what would have happened to her, why she wasn't home.
00:39:36>> KURTIS: Detectives believe their suspect is lying and undertake a body search.
00:39:41They start at Larry Britt's place of work-- a construction site and future home of the Chatfield Dam and Reservoir, where Britt operates a front-end loader.
00:39:52>> They were still in the process of digging up the gravel to actually build the dam.
00:39:56So there was refuse pits all around for the unused gravel, and it was huge.
00:40:00It's hard to describe how big it is.
00:40:02It was like looking for a needle in a haystack.
00:40:05>> KURTIS: Lakewood Police dig at the site, but turn up nothing.
00:40:08Even without a body, detectives want to move on their suspect.
00:40:11They take their case to the local DA and ask him to charge Britt with murder.
00:40:16>> At the time, the DA was a very aggressive prosecutor and was willing to take the risk, challenge the law, which, at the time, pretty much said you have to have a body in order to have a conviction.
00:40:29>> KURTIS: On August 29, 1974, Larry Britt is arrested and charged with first-degree murder.
00:40:35Two months later, the accused stands before a judge, clutching hard at an alibi in the form of a woman he married just days before the hearing-- a woman named Betty Curlee.
00:40:47>> Betty came in and indicated that he was at her apartment and had been there prior to 12:30 the evening before and had been there all night long, until 9:00 the next morning, and we couldn't shake her.
00:41:01>> KURTIS: Britt's alibi throws a wrinkle in the case, but the biggest problem for the prosecution lies in the fact that the victim's body has not been found.
00:41:09The judge decides the case against Britt is not strong enough to go to trial.
00:41:15>> The judge, I think, pretty much believed that he had did it, but as a matter of law, determined that we didn't prove our case because we couldn't establish, in fact, that a death had occurred.
00:41:26>> KURTIS: Larry Britt walks out of the courthouse a free man, while Dorothy Britt's family is sentenced to two decades of anguish as the investigation into their mother's disappearance goes cold.
00:41:39>> I knew he had killed her, and I knew he had done it brutally because he would beat us repeatedly.
00:41:47And I knew the police were not going to catch him-- at least after they had searched and arrested him and then had to let him go.
00:41:57And I wanted to kill him, for sure.
00:42:01I wanted to exact revenge for my mom and myself.
00:44:23>> KURTIS: On August 16, 1974, Dorothy Britt said good night to her 15-year-old son, Brett, and went out for the evening.
00:44:31Later that night, she was seen at a bar with her ex-husband, Larry Britt.
00:44:35Then she simply vanished.
00:44:37At the time, police believed that Larry Britt had murdered Dorothy.
00:44:41The body, however, never surfaced, and Britt's wife at the time, Betty, provided the suspect with an alibi.
00:44:4825 years later, Clarene Shelley is a division chief with the Lakewood PD.
00:44:54At the time of the disappearance, Shelley was a rookie cop and worked the case.
00:44:58Now she decides to reopen it and begins by checking on the state of marital bliss between Larry Britt and his alibi, wife Betty.
00:45:06>> I have to honestly tell you, and I have laughed with the other investigators about this, I either dreamed that I had a conversation or I had a conversation with someone who said, "By the way, did you know that Betty divorced Larry Britt?" >> KURTIS: Shelley asks Detective Phil Tenney to track down the former Mrs. Britt and question her again about her ex- husband and, more specifically, his alibi.
00:45:41Phil Tenney tracks Betty Britt to an assisted-living facility in central California.
00:45:47>> Not very good health-- a smoker, a drinker for her entire life.
00:45:51She was on oxygen, using a walker, and in her early 70s.
00:45:59But when I found her, she was very willing to talk to me.
00:46:03Now, what it said in the reports, Betty, was that Larry had left your place, didn't say where he was going.
00:46:12She, during the initial investigation, told investigators that Larry Britt had been at her house from about 12:30 on the night in question on and had left her home at about 9:00 the next morning.
00:46:29>> KURTIS: If that story is true, it discredits several witnesses who saw Larry and Dorothy together after 2:00 AM on August 17, 1974, the day she disappeared, and corroborates Larry Britt's contention that he never saw Dorothy at all that evening.
00:46:46Tenney questions Betty about the time that Britt came home.
00:46:49>> And then you said Larry came home and passed out on the couch.
00:46:54>> Yeah, he came in the morning.
00:46:56>> He came in the morning?
00:46:56Remember about what time?
00:46:58>> Well, it was getting light.
00:47:00>> It was getting light?
00:47:03Now, in the first report, you said that Larry got home about 12:30 at night, but today you remember that he got home when it was getting light out that morning?
00:47:17>> Came over, yeah.
00:47:18>> Came over when it was getting light out?
00:47:21>> KURTIS: Betty now claims it was getting light out by the time Larry Britt returned to her house in the early morning hours of August 17, leaving Britt ample time to kill his ex and dispose of her body.
00:47:33The new statement devastates the suspect's alibi and throws the entire investigation into a new light.
00:47:39>> It was absolutely huge.
00:47:40I don't know that we could have justified putting the resources into doing any more had it not been for that.
00:47:47>> It kind of ignited the case that had been laying dormant for 25 years.
00:47:54Everybody got a little more excited about it, and then we started examining the evidence.
00:48:00>> KURTIS: Tenney calls up the evidence boxes from archives and begins to mine them for clues.
00:48:05He comes across several small plastic bags containing samples of blood collected from Larry Britt's truck in 1974.
00:48:13Because the blood has not been refrigerated, it has dried and reduced to copper flakes.
00:48:18Tenney sends the sample to forensics and, a few weeks later, gets the bad news.
00:48:23The blood is too degraded for standard nuclear DNA blood typing.
00:48:28The lab, however, offers up a second possibility-- a new frontier in forensic DNA research called mitochondrial DNA testing.
00:48:37It involves the extraction of DNA not from the nucleus of the cell, but from bits of genetic code found in the mitochondria.
00:48:45Dr. Terry Melton is one of a handful of criminalists versed in the technique.
00:48:51>> Mitochondrial DNA tends to be very abundant in old and degraded materials, whereas you can normally not do a nuclear DNA test, which is the kind that's done in most laboratories around the United States.
00:49:04Mitochondrial DNA testing is a great alternative for those cases.
00:49:08>> KURTIS: Phil Tenney sends his samples to Dr. Melton, who is able to extract a genetic code from the bits of blood found in the back seat of Larry Britt's truck.
00:49:18Then a second problem arises.
00:49:20Without the victim's body, there is no sample to test against the unknown profile.
00:49:25Here again mitochondrial DNA offers hope.
00:49:29Unlike nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA is passed on unchanged from mother to son.
00:49:35>> We needed to look at a maternal relative of hers-- that is, somebody who would be expected to have exactly her same mitochondrial DNA profile-- and that would be her son, who's inherited precisely her mitochondrial DNA type from her., >> KURTIS: Brett Ludwig is Dorothy Britt's son.
00:50:42For 25 years, he has believed that Larry Britt killed his mother.
00:50:46Now he rolls up a sleeve and provides a vial full of blood in the hopes of proving exactly that.
00:50:53>> There's going to be a lot of pain involved.
00:50:56It wasn't the prick of a needle that was going to be the pain.
00:51:02It was going to be emotional.
00:51:04But never any hesitation.
00:51:07>> KURTIS: Dr. Melton takes Brett's blood, extracts a genetic profile, and compares it to the unknown DNA found in Larry Britt's truck.
00:51:16>> And what we found was that those blood flakes that came from Larry Britt's truck had the same mitochondrial DNA type as that of Brett Ludwig.
00:51:25The consequences of the match would be to say, "Well, who could have been in that truck?
00:51:30Who was a maternal relative of Brett Ludwig?" And from that, the conclusion might be that it was Dorothy Britt.
00:51:38>> KURTIS: After 25 years, cold- case detectives have the pieces they need to charge Larry Britt with murder, even without having the actual body of the victim.
00:51:48>> The case law had changed dramatically.
00:51:51In the interim 25 years, there had been several successful bodyless homicide convictions.
00:52:00It was a concern, obviously, but not too much of a stumbling block, as it was back in 1974.
00:52:08>> Oh, it was great.
00:52:09It was great because we knew that was the piece we needed in order to get the arrest warrant for Larry.
00:52:16>> KURTIS: In July of 1999, detectives present their case to the DA's office.
00:52:20Five months later, a grand jury issues an indictment for murder against Larry Britt.
00:52:36On a New England morning, detectives from Colorado come knocking on Larry Britt's door.
00:52:42They place him under arrest for his ex-wife's murder.
00:52:45The 59-year-old man still has nothing to say for himself.
00:52:49>> He made it very clear that he did not want to talk to us and would only talk to an attorney.
00:52:53So we never got a chance to really interview Larry.
00:52:56>> KURTIS: With Britt back in Colorado, Deputy DA Dana Easter gears up for trial.
00:53:01Although confident in her case, Easter knows that without a body, conviction on a murder charge is far from a sure thing.
00:53:08When Larry Britt's lawyer broaches the subject of a possible deal, Easter strongly considers, but not before talking it over with Dorothy Britt's family.
00:53:19>> We explained what the downside of going to trial was.
00:53:24We cared an awful lot about what they wanted and what they felt and how they felt about going through the trial.
00:53:33>> KURTIS: The family's overriding concern is that Larry Britt never walk the earth as a free man ever again.
00:53:40They also want to finally know what Britt did to their mother.
00:53:44>> And so we made that deal, that he had to be interviewed by the best polygrapher that I know and that he had to pass a polygraph on those issues before we would give him the deal.
00:53:59>> KURTIS: In January, Larry Britt is strapped into a