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Suspect in Murder Spree Takes Secrets to the Grave : Serial killings: Detectives are convinced the man who died in Alaska cell left trail of bodies across West.

November 23, 1990|PENELOPE McMILLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BILLINGS, Mont. — When Charles Thurman Sinclair died of a heart attack in an Anchorage, Alaska, jail cell last month, he was mourned by his family and by dozens of detectives in police departments from Missouri to Alaska.

His relatives saw the loss of a sportsman and loving family man. Detectives, however, lost the chance to question the man they are convinced left a trail of bodies across the West. Police and the FBI have linked Sinclair, 44, a former coin-shop owner, to 11 homicides, one attempted murder and two rapes. He may be responsible for 15 murders, authorities believe.

The murders began 10 years ago. Many victims were coin dealers who were also robbed. But it wasn't until this summer that investigators in several states, who had been trying to solve separate crimes, suddenly realized they were all looking for the same man.

"It was one of the unique joinings of police departments" in a widespread investigation, said Pete Piccini, a deputy sheriff in Jefferson County, Wash. Piccini became involved while investigating the disappearance and presumed murder of a vacationing California couple.

"We all felt (Sinclair) was a serial killer of the same stature of oTed Bundy," he said, referring to the now executed Florida sex murderer who was convicted of three murders but suspected of dozens more.

"We are still working on known and unknown crimes," FBI special agent Ken Marischen said in Anchorage. "There's a lot of unanswered questions. The only one we know knew the whole story took it to the grave with him."

The break came when police in Billings, Mont., began investigating the July 31 murders of Charles Sparboe, a 60-year-old coin shop owner, and his assistant Catharine Newstrom, 47. Both had been shot in the head. Some $54,000 in coins and gold was taken from Sparboe's shop.

A composite drawing of the suspect provided by Sparboe's son and a description of the crime sent out by Billings police triggered recognition in several squad rooms.

The common link between most of the murders was coins. A killer, a beguiling character who talked a lot, would go to a coin shop, often many times, pretending to be a customer, but in fact stalking his victims. The victims would get used to seeing him. Then one day he would return, usually near closing time, rob and shoot to kill with a small-caliber weapon--always in the head.

According to police accounts the unsolved crimes linked to Sinclair include:

--The Everett, Wash., murder of David Sutton on Jan. 27, 1980. He was found in his antique shop, dead from a gunshot wound to the head from a .38-caliber gun. Some $80,000 worth of silver dollars was taken.

--A similar robbery and killing of Mishawaka, Ind., coin shop manager Thomas Rohr on Aug. 28, 1985.

--The Vacaville, Calif., killing of coin-shop owner Ruben Lucky Williams on Nov. 1, 1986, also shot in the head and robbed.

--The Spokane, Wash., robbery-homicide of coin-shop owner Leo Cashatt, shot in the head July 14, 1987.

--The Kansas City, Mo., killing of LeRoy Hoffman on March 12, 1988. Coins worth several thousand dollars were missing. A stranger who said he was a local farmer had been in the store several times before this murder. The farmer wanted to sell his coins, and on the day Hoffman died, the shop owner told his wife he was going to buy a "large collection."

--In Murray, Utah, on May 4 of this year Legacy Coin shop co-owner Kelly Finnegan was shot in the head with a small-caliber gun, but survived. Finnegan said the shooter had recently been in the store several times before, saying he was from Texas. Finnegan described his attacker as a polite, friendly man who had said he wanted to buy coins. Instead, after the shooting he stole about $60,000 worth of merchandise.

"I had gotten used to him," the 29-year-old Finnegan recently recalled, so he didn't worry that "Jim Stockton" was hanging about as he put his valuables in his safe at closing time that day. "He mumbled something that sounded to me like 'you dumb bastard.' He said it very lightly, and I turned around to say: 'What?' In that split second he shot me."

The fact that Finnegan turned his head saved his life, he believes. The bullet pierced his forehead, but he was not seriously wounded and stayed conscious. He fell to the floor, pretending to be dead. The man he later identified as Sinclair walked back and forth across his body for several minutes, removing gold and rare coins.

Finnegan interpreted Sinclair's final remark to him, he said, as "that I was dumb to trust him, I let my guard down, so he won the game."

Officials were also looking into Sinclair's relationship to other crimes in northwest Washington not related to coin shops: namely, the disappearance of the vacationing California couple in August, 1986, the rape of a real estate agent that same month and the November, 1987, kidnaping and killings of a vacationing Canadian couple, including the rape of the woman.

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