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Man charged a second time in wife's 1973 slaying

Decades after Herbert Frye was first arrested, a cold-case unit believes the mystery is solved.

January 21, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

CENTENNIAL, COLO. — A hearing aid snuggled into his ear, Herbert Frye, 81, boarded a plane in Florida earlier this month to take him to this Denver suburb to face charges that he killed his wife 34 years ago.

It's the second time Frye has been charged with killing Elizabeth Katherine Frye, 45, who was found bludgeoned to death in their garage in 1973. He was arrested that year, but prosecutors dropped the charges, citing new evidence. Frye's lawyer says he doesn't know what the evidence was; the district attorney's office won't comment.

The slaying was a shock to what was then a quiet town considered far from the big city.

Now Arapahoe County is firmly part of Denver's sprawl, with six-lane boulevards lined with chain stores and supermarkets and high-end subdivisions staring out at the Rocky Mountains. In spring 2005, the sheriff's office decided it had enough investigators for a cold-case unit. Frye's is the first prosecution to result.

After fanning out to five cities to interview witnesses about the killing, the unit believed it had finally solved the mystery of what happened the morning of June 9, 1973.

"It was a variety of small pieces of information that came together to create the picture that we have," Sheriff Grayson Robinson said in an interview. But he added that he still didn't know what the motive might have been, and that the story told in court documents remained sketchy -- a reminder of how difficult it is to solve decades-old killings.

One development came in summer 2005, when Howard Morton, executive director of a local group for families of unsolved-homicide victims, contacted Jean Brickell, Elizabeth Frye's sister. He says Brickell had just gotten a call from Herbert Frye's sister, who had wanted to reveal something: that in 1995, their mother told her that Herbert had admitted he killed his wife.

Frye's lawyer, Gary Lozow, called that a weak foundation for a case against an octogenarian. "No. 1, it didn't happen," he said. "No. 2, the garbled hearsay of a 95-year-old woman is very troubling if that's the smoking gun."

Sheriff Robinson said the alleged confession was not the crux of the new evidence. Still, Lozow said it showed how the age of the case and its principals might make the prosecution difficult.

"We have concerns about the passage of time and his memory," Lozow said.

"Trying to replicate or re-create the history and access witnesses is going to be very difficult, especially those who are 10 feet under," Lozow said. Frye's four grown children believe he is innocent, the lawyer added.

Frye didn't fight extradition from Florida because he wanted to get the prosecution over with, Lozow said. Frye, a retired engineer, paid $100,000 bond and has returned to Florida until his March 15 court appearance.

"This person is in the part of his life when he shouldn't be worrying about this," Lozow said.

Arapahoe County Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Ann Tomsic said she could not comment on the evidence except to say the office would not have filed charges if it did not believe it could prove Frye's guilt.

"Our concern here has been with the victim," Tomsic said. "She didn't have the opportunity to grow that old."

Frye says he found his wife's body about 5:15 p.m. on June 9, 1973, after he returned from picking up their son Gregory at karate class in Boulder -- a 43-mile trip his son had not expected him to make, according to court records.

The house was ransacked, leading investigators to initially suspect a robbery.

The new indictment says electric clocks were pulled from the walls and stopped at 11:22, 11:23 and 11:27. Herbert Frye told investigators he'd left at 10:35 a.m. to visit his older son and fiancee in Boulder, then pick up Gregory, who normally took the bus. But according to police, a neighbor reported stopping by the Frye house and seeing Herbert there at 11:35 a.m.

The new indictment does not make clear what evidence is new and what was known when the charges were filed in 1973. The district attorney's office said state law prohibited it from specifying what information is new. But the indictment describes a family gathering in Boulder the afternoon of the slaying, after Frye picked up his younger son at karate practice and went to the apartment of his eldest son. The older son's then-fiancee said Herbert Frye had appeared distracted and had a head injury.

Morton, the advocate for families of unsolved-homicide victims, said deteriorating memories and decaying evidence could hamper prosecutions of cold cases.

But the passage of time can be helpful, he added. "Sometimes, alliances change, and people who have not come forward before come forward now," he said.

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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