Judge clears way for trial in death of Kiowa teacher

Evidence, DNA don’t match confession, defense says

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In the months leading up to his December 2017 arrest, Dan Pesch, the man charged with murdering popular Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson in 2010, confessed to the crime many times — including through letters left in a shopping mall and writings scrawled on windows of his Littleton-area apartment.

But his confession doesn’t match physical evidence in the case, his DNA is nowhere to be found at the scene of the crime, and a logbook places him halfway across Colorado on the day of Wilson’s death, according to testimony from investigators and the suspect’s father.

Pesch’s public defenders, Elizabeth Orton and Matthew Schoettle, worked to cast doubt on the validity of their client’s confession during a two-day preliminary hearing that concluded on May 25 at the Elbert County Courthouse in Kiowa. The prosecution’s case, they argued, rests solely on Pesch’s repeated but ever-changing confessions, none of which reference details about Wilson’s death that weren’t reported in news stories.

Prosecutors argued that while there are inconsistencies in Pesch’s narrative, much of it does match the known facts of the case, and Pesch persistently sought out law enforcement for months on end.

The judge decided to send the case on to trial, and Pesch is scheduled to be arraigned, where he will plead guilty or not guilty, on July 16.

Although the accused does not formally mount a defense at a preliminary hearing, Pesch’s attorneys seemed to suggest that if the case goes to trial, they will argue that Pesch suffered mental illness that led him to falsely confess to murder.

Wilson, who was 53 at the time of his death, was found dead at the intersection of Kiowa-Bennett Road and County Line Road in northern Elbert County on June 14, 2010. Wilson died by asphyxia, with a plastic bag over his head, a belt around his neck and his hands bound behind his back. No suspects were ever publicly named in the case until the surprise arrest of Pesch, 35, just before Christmas 2017 in Kiowa.

Elbert County investigators testified that over a meandering series of meetings and text messages in the second half of 2017, Pesch said he was driving along Kiowa-Bennett Road late at night in June 2010 when he got a flat tire. Pesch said Wilson stopped to help him, and after changing the tire, got into an altercation because Pesch was driving while intoxicated. Pesch said he hit Wilson with his car door, knocking him unconscious. Pesch said he covered Wilson’s head with a bag, put the belt around his neck, and bound his hands with duct tape before driving off.

Pesch’s attorneys say their client got crucial details wrong: An autopsy report showed no evidence that Wilson was ever knocked unconscious, Pesch made no mention of the duct tape used to cover Wilson’s mouth beneath the bag, and Wilson’s hands were bound by three zip ties — one around each wrist and a third through his belt loop — not duct tape. Further, they argue, Wilson was the only major contributor of DNA on every piece of evidence, and tests have not identified Pesch’s DNA on any items. Finally, Pesch’s father, Norman Pesch, testified that a log he kept of horse rides at his home in Montrose establishes that his son was more than five hours’ driving time from the scene of the crime on the night Wilson died.

Pesch’s attorneys advanced an alternate theory of Wilson’s death, suggesting Wilson staged an elaborate suicide, evidenced by a life insurance policy he had taken out on himself four months before he died which would have been voided if Wilson died by suicide, and a note found in his car detailing the disposition of his finances.

Reaching out

Testimony from Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap, his brother Lt. Joel Heap, and Elbert County investigator Chris Dennis laid out the lengthy story of Pesch’s confession.

Pesch first reached out to the Elbert County Sheriff’s Office in June 2017, testified Sheriff Shayne Heap, who said Pesch sent him a Facebook message asking to confess to a burglary.

Pesch met with investigators twice, and though the time frame Pesch gave for the story surpassed the statute of limitations on burglary, investigators’ interest was piqued by the date: June 2010, the month of Wilson’s death.

The investigation got stranger on Aug. 3, when Elbert County investigator Chris Dennis received a late-night text from Pesch reading “I think I killed Randall, not sure.” The text was immediately followed by another reading “Sorry, wrong person, that’s an inside joke.”

In a meeting on Aug. 9, Pesch began to unfold a new narrative: He said he was driving along Kiowa-Bennett Road late at night in June 2010, and stopped when he got a flat tire. He said his car jack wasn’t working, then two men in a sedan stopped and helped him change his tire, then Pesch left.

“He never mentioned a murder,” Dennis said. “He said he was drinking and was afraid someone would call the police on him.”

Dennis asked about the late-night text message. Pesch called it a joke with an old co-worker, though the co-worker later said she had no idea what Pesch was talking about, telling investigators she thought Pesch was “seeing how much of their time he could waste.”

Investigators collected a DNA sample from Pesch at the meeting and began working to compare it to DNA from evidence in the case — none of which ended up matching Pesch.

Investigators interviewed Pesch’s wife, who said her husband had never mentioned being part of any crime. She said Pesch’s biological mother — Pesch was adopted — may have suffered schizophrenia, and that Pesch had recently had a concussion. Pesch told investigators he was taking Adderall, trazodone and Abilify — all psychiatric medications.

Much of the autumn passed without further meetings.

Meetings resume

Investigator Dennis’ testimony continued to unwind the final weeks leading up to Pesch’s arrest.

Pesch texted Dennis around Thanksgiving 2017, saying that his wife had left him and taken their two young children. Pesch said he was thinking of fleeing the country, but was still interested in “doing the right thing.” Investigators later learned he had been placed on an involuntary 72-hour mental health hold in a hospital around this time.

On Dec. 4, Pesch texted Dennis again, asking if he and investigators could wrap up the case that week, or whether he would get “a free pass on murder lol? (Expletive) I didn’t mean that it was a joke.”

Pesch’s narrative of Wilson’s death evolved again in a meeting on Dec. 8. This time, Pesch blamed Wilson’s death on a passenger of Wilson’s named Alvarez, though investigators found no evidence the passenger existed and Pesch never mentioned the man again.

Dennis presented Pesch with a photo the sheriff’s office had received anonymously, showing Pesch wearing camouflage and holding a gun. Whoever sent the photo had written that Pesch had been bragging about “killing a teacher in Elbert County.” Pesch said he hadn’t told anyone about the case.

Investigators received unusual evidence on Dec. 13, testified Lt. Joel Heap, Sheriff Heap’s brother. Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office had recovered a pair of handwritten letters left outside the security office at Southwest Plaza, a shopping mall west of Littleton, confessing to killing Wilson.

The letters, which Pesch later confirmed writing, called Wilson’s death a “drunken mistake.”

“I will never be able to forgive myself for the pain I caused his family and community,” one letter read in part. “God help me.”

The urgency of the case intensified on Dec. 15 when Pesch texted Dennis that he was being evicted from his Littleton-area apartment, and was hoping to turn himself in.

Investigators received a call from Denver homicide detectives shortly after Pesch was evicted, alerting them that Pesch had left a message about Wilson’s death scrawled on his apartment windows in dry erase marker.

“I accidentally murdered Randall Wilson on June 2010 off Kiowa-Bennett Road in Elbert County, Colorado,” the message on the window read. “He helped me change my tire at approximately” before cutting off.

Investigators received another message, from Greenwood Village Police, that they had obtained a text message from Pesch mentioning “that entire Randy Wilson situation.” Pesch texted he thought Elbert County investigators had decided against him as a suspect, which he considered a sign to make a fresh start, and called one of the detectives involved an “idiot.”

Investigators arranged one last meeting, on Dec. 18, where Pesch was arrested and charged with murder. Pesch attempted to flee investigators in the Elbert County Justice Center parking lot, Sheriff Heap testified, and was strapped to a chair after throwing himself against a wall in a holding cell.

Mounting a defense

Pesch’s narrative of killing Wilson doesn’t jibe with written records of his whereabouts at the time, testified Norman Pesch, Dan’s father.

Norman testified that Dan was visiting him and his wife in Montrose, more than five hours from Kiowa, for a long birthday visit the weekend Wilson died, as evidenced by logs of trail rides Norman keeps for his horses.

The family took a day-long trail ride the day of the death, Norman said, and returned home for a leisurely dinner. Norman said the family was exhausted after the ride and “turned in early,” with Dan retiring to a bedroom beside the kitchen, emerging the next morning for breakfast. Norman said the visit stands out in his memory because of how seldom Dan visited at the time.

The nuts and bolts of the case simply don’t match up with Pesch’s narrative, his attorneys argued. At no point did Pesch offer information beyond what was reported in news stories from the time of Wilson’s death, which Pesch admitted reading, they said.

Wilson’s autopsy showed no signs of bruising or head trauma consistent with being hit hard enough to be knocked unconscious, and his clothes and hands were described as clean and without smears or smudges by every investigator — suggesting he had not changed a tire on a dirt road in the dark on a rainy night, Pesch’s attorneys said.

Sheriff Heap declined to weigh in on much of the defense’s argument, saying he had not reviewed Wilson’s autopsy report or DNA test results, and had not read the statements of some investigators. Heap did theorize, however, that Wilson’s clean clothes indicated he may have been knocked unconscious before he died.

“There are two possibilities here, based on what the court has heard,” said Judge Michelle Amico, who oversaw the hearing and ruled that the case should proceed. “One is that Mr. Pesch sought out the police and admitted to killing Mr. Wilson out of guilt, or, for some reason Mr. Pesch falsely claimed to have killed Mr. Wilson after at least doing enough research about the case to tailor that false confession to the evidence that was publicly known. The evidence presented here could support both possibilities.”

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