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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Serial Murder, He Wrote

Amid the small talk in their letters, a volunteer investigator coaxes a killer to reveal clues to some of the 48 slayings he says he committed.

August 10, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The slight, silver-haired man sat in front of the shackled killer and asked: "Do you know who I am?"

Charlie Hess watched the prisoner struggle to recognize him. It should have been easy. Hess had recently sent Robert Charles Browne a photo of himself, his 5-foot-6 frame dwarfed by a yellowfin tuna he had caught during a vacation in Baja California. Hess, a volunteer investigator for the local sheriff's office, and Browne, a convicted killer of a 13-year-old girl, had been exchanging letters for two years. They had swapped fishing stories and griped about their ailments -- Hess' hip replacement surgery, Browne's arthritis.

In between the pleasantries, Hess recalled, he was pushing Browne to reveal more about murders he said he carried out -- how, unbeknown to law enforcement, he had killed 48 people over 25 years. Hess had waded through letters from Browne that hinted at the crimes. "I will not hand it to [you] on a golden platter," Browne wrote.

In June 2004, the letters stopped. Browne had told Hess not to visit him in prison, but after three months of silence, the investigator figured he had no choice. Hess introduced himself. Then he asked Browne why he had stopped writing.

"I ran out of stamps," the killer said.

*

Hess, 79, first heard about Browne in the spring of 2002. Hess was meeting with the two other volunteers who make up the cold-case unit of the El Paso County Sheriff's Office at one of their twice-a-week coffee breaks at the Old Heidelberg Pastry Shop downtown.

They were an unusual group. Hess was a soft-spoken former FBI and CIA officer who had moved to Colorado Springs after his son-in-law's murder. Lou Smit was a retired detective who had solved more than 100 homicides and probed the slaying of 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. Scott Fischer was a former newspaper reporter and photographer who had recently stepped down as publisher of the Colorado Springs Gazette.

The three men had spent about a year combing through the files of a dozen open murder cases, chasing leads and updating records. Now the trio, who called themselves the "dinosaurs," were looking for a new challenge.

All three recalled that Hess posed this question at coffee that day: Why don't we pick someone who may be a serial killer? Hess said he was thinking of his success over the decades at getting information out of incarcerated crooks.

Fischer, now 60, asked Smit if he had any candidates. The detective immediately came up with Robert Browne.

In 1995, Smit had arrested Browne, a tree farmer living outside Colorado Springs, for the 1991 abduction and killing of Heather Dawn Church. Heather disappeared after she was taken from her bedroom; her skull was found two years later by a hiker in the mountains west of here.

Browne had insisted he had just been burglarizing the Churches' house, but he pleaded guilty to murder and was sentenced to life in prison.

Something had always bothered Smit, 71, about the case. If it was just a burglary, why did Browne kill the teenager and hide her body parts with such skill? And surely it was no coincidence that two of Browne's neighbors in his hometown of Coushatta, La., had died violently, their killer never found.

"You know, I think he's a serial killer," Smit told his partners. "I think we can do a bit more."

The investigators pulled the file on Heather Church from the department's archives. They were surprised to find a letter Browne had written to the district attorney from prison, hinting that authorities would never uncover all his crimes.

"The score is you 1, the other team 48," Browne wrote. He had enclosed a hand-drawn map, highlighting the states where he said he had committed murders. Numbers written on nine states added up to 48. "If you were to drive to the end zone in a white Trans Am, the score could be 9 to 48."

Browne had refused to elaborate then, but the retirees decided they should contact him. Because he had arrested Browne, Smit knew he would not talk to him. The logical man, given his background, was Hess.

*

A career in law enforcement was the furthest thing from Hess' mind in 1946 when he got out of the Navy. All he really wanted to do was work as a guide in the fishing camp his parents owned in northern Wisconsin. But his father insisted that he go to college, so Hess earned a degree in philosophy and began teaching high school science and coaching football and basketball in rural Michigan.

In 1952, the FBI was recruiting and offering to pay agents twice what Hess was making, so he applied. While laboring in a remote office in West Texas, Hess watched small-town sheriffs gently coax suspected car thieves and prison escapees into confessing their crimes. Hess recalled one sheriff telling him: " 'You know, Charlie, all you have to do is give a guy one good reason to talk to you. And it's up to you to find that reason.' "

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