A Man Who Solved Murders (Don Ward)

By: Don Ward
By: Don Ward

Lou Smit died last week. You may not know his name but you may well know some of the work he did.

 A MAN WHO CAUGHT KILLERS AND SAVED LIVES

Detective Lou Smit died last week of cancer.  He was known for helping with the Jonbenet Ramsey case and for finding the killer of actor Kelsey Grammer's sister Karen. She was murdered in Colorado Springs in 1975.  One local case in particular would not have been solved without him.  Without his work, others would have died too. Here's why.

On September 17th, 1991 a little girl disappeared from her home in Black Forest. No one who knew Heather Dawn Church ever saw her again. The search was exhaustive, the public campaign unrelenting.  No one would give up on the sweet little 13 year old.  Remember this picture?

   

Home video of Heather was on TV almost every day for months.  Any new piece of information, or sometimes the mere lack of information was a new angle on the story...a new chance to get Heather's image and information out there. There was always the hope that some knew where she was. 

One man knew where she was.

The evening after Heather disappeared I did what I'm quite certain was the first interview with her mother Diane.  I was working for a different Colorado Springs TV station at the time. The rest of the media from here and from Denver all showed up the next day. 

 

I remember it like it was yesterday.  It's impossible to imagine what a mother must feel when her child is missing.  The picture above is from one of the many follow-up stories about a week after Heather was reported missing.  Diane was baffled.  She had no idea what happened. Neither did investigators, or family members, or Heather's friends, or any of the many volunteers who stepped in to try to help find her. 

 One man knew what happened.

The fliers went up everywhere.  A reward fund was opened, then capped out of fear that if it was allowed to grow, someone with information might hold back, waiting for a larger reward. 

Nothing helped.  Leads came in, none panned out.  No one wanted to give up but the story did slowly fade.  An organization formed to find Heather would occasionally come up with a new angle and we'd do new stories, just to keep Heather's face on the collective mind of the community.  It seemed everyone was looking for Heather but no one knew where to find her.

One man may have thought he got away with murder....again.

Two years to the day after  Heather was last seen at home...she was found,  Someone spotted human remains in a remote area off Rampart Range Road.  Dental records eventually confirmed that the tiny skull found abandoned in the rugged terrain was that of Heather Church.  Still, there were no suspects, there was no killer to lock up, there was no sense of closure (if there is such a thing) for anyone, from family, to law enforcement to a community saddened by the loss of an innocent little girl. 

All of that would change eventually.

One man was about to take on the case.

Lou Smit was a highly regarded homicide detective recently retired from the Colorado Springs Police Department.  He worked briefly for the County Coroner then for the District Attorney.  Then another CSPD veteran was elected El Paso County Sheriff. I sat down with John Anderson last week, the day after Lou Smit died, to talk about what happened all those years ago, and what Lou Smit did for our community by cracking the case of the murder of Heather Dawn Church.

 

 

Anderson was a long time admirer of Lou Smit.  Always impressed with the detective's methods and dedication, and above all, his results.  As the new Sheriff, Anderson decided to form a Cold Case Unit.  He told me that he recruited Smit with the promise that Smit could do whatever he wanted to get results....to catch killers. The hunt was back on.

Here's the story as told to me by former Sheriff Anderson.  There was a latent fingerprint found on a window at the Church home in the initial investigation.  It was checked against anyone and everyone who had access to the house, and there was no match.  Anderson told me the previous Sheriff's administration had done all the right things.  The print was put through the Automated Fingerprint Identification System or AFIS for the state of Colorado, and there was no match. 

Anderson says one of the first things Lou Smit did was to focus on that fingerprint.  Anderson says the homicide specialist prepared 96 more submission packets to get that fingerprint to the 96 other AFIS databases across the nation. There is now an integrated AFIS through which prints can be matched across the entire system...but that wasn't the case in 1995. 

Eventually the AFIS comparisons sent back two hits, two matches to the fingerprint found at Heather's house.  One was a criminal conviction in California, the other in Louisiana.  The name was the same...Robert Browne, with an "e" at the end. Anderson says that armed with that crucial piece of information, Smith tracked down Robert Browne, with an "e", by then with an address in Eastern El Paso County, less than a mile from the Church home.  Finally, they knew they had their man.

Anderson says he organized a swat team and they staged near the Browne home. They wanted to arrest him away from his house, and away from any weapons he may have had there.  Browne left the home..didn't drive toward the assembled team but instead made his way into Colorado Springs.  They arrested him as he left an art supply store, just a few blocks from the Sheriff's office.

A news conference was called to announced the arrest of a suspect in Heather's murder.  I remember having a very brief phone conversation with Diane and getting a very brief reaction from her that way..I don't think I was ever able to do anything else with her on camera.  The news conference was remarkable and informative, almost overwhelming in terms of the information presented about the killer and about how everything came together.  Lou Smit was introduced and may have spoken briefly but he was very humble. This was never about him...it was always about Heather Church.

Robert Browne would deny the kidnapping and murder of Heather Church but would eventually plead guilty to that crime, and to the 1987 killing of a 15-year-old girl in Colorado Springs.  Anderson told me as soon as they had a strong case in another murder, they were ok with the plea agreement for a couple of reasons.  Browne wanted to avoid the death penalty, and with input from Heather's family, prosecutors and law officers agreed, as long as the sentence would be life without the possibility of parole.  The death penalty can be very hard to get in Colorado. Also, since they had him on another case, if for some reason down the road the Heather Church case was thrown out, he would not go free. 

The arrest was in 1995, four years after the murder. It was only the beginning of what Smit and his Cold Case Colleagues would learn about the criminal claims of admitted killer Robert Browne.  What happened next is all explained in the book "Hello Charlie" by Charles Hess.

Hess, along with Smit and former newspaper publisher Scott Fischer made up the Cold Case Team that was still working on Browne and other killers.  Browne sent a letter to the D.A's office hinting at many, many more murders. A couple of years later, in 2002, Hess started corresponding with Browne and eventually interviewing him in person, in prison.  The book is a great resource for this.  Bottom line, Robert Browne claimed to have committed as many as 48 murders in several states and even one overseas. If his homicidal claims were true it would make him one of the most prolific serial killers in history.

Over the years Anderson says Smit and the others were able to substantiate many of Browne's claims. Others were less clear cut.  In one case, for instance, in the Northwest, Browne claims to have killed a man who parked his motorcycle by the side of a scenic overlook.  Years later the bike was found at the bottom of a ravine, the man had been reported missing, but no body was ever found. 

Anderson says Smit was convinced that at least 24 or 25 of the murders Browne claimed to have committed could be substantiated.  Eventually others probably could too.  Lou Smit, with his pursuit of that fingerprint evidence, stopped a cold-blooded killer in his tracks.

"I have no doubt he would have kept killing, he was a violent man"

That's what John Anderson told me when we talked about Robert Browne and the fact that he was living right in our community.  He was in that house right near Heather Church's home for four years after he apparently kidnapped her and killed her.  He was right in our community for four years until Lou Smit tracked him down and John Anderson locked him up.  He might still be living there now if this dedicated detective hadn't been determined to catch another killer.  He might still be killing in our community and across our nation if not for the work of Lou Smit and his colleagues. 

We lost Lou Smit....we lost a lot.

The story is much more complicated than the brief outline above.  "Hello Charlie" is available on line and it's a compelling read for anyone who remembers the case of Heather Dawn Church...and really, who can forget it?

It's one of the stories that has always stuck with me over the years, even as my career has taken me to several other cities to cover lots of other sad stories.  This one starts with a sweet little girl, and ends with a self-confessed monster.  It may not have ended yet......without Lou Smit.

We'll talk again soon.

Don ward

 

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