11 News Investigation: Suicide or Murder?

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Handcuffed and locked inside a car trunk… On the surface, it might sound like a murder, but investigators thought otherwise.

The sun sets in Chandler, a remote spot just 5 miles south of Canon City. There's an eerie kind of quietness in this deserted mining town. It's not a place many people visit. Doni Grindstaff would never have gone there. That’s according to his mother. In fact, Sandy Collins says her 36-year-old son was trying to get out of Canon City. “Doni was a wonderful, sweet and a kind, beautiful person, but he made bad choices." He wanted to start a new life, but it all came to a halt on July 29, 1998. "We reported him missing to the police dept," Sandy says.

Missing for 5 days until someone discovered a white Ford. It was abandoned in a ravine a mile off the county road in Chandler. All the doors were locked, and a hose attached to the exhaust pipe led through the rear speaker of the car and right into the trunk. Also in that trunk was Doni's body, handcuffed to the trunk's hinges. Beside him, there was a water bottle and a pillow. His shirt neatly tucked into his pants. Doni Grindstaff's death was ruled a suicide. But was it?

"Nothing was right, nothing was right about it," Sandy said. For 8 and a half years now, Doni's mother and sister have questioned the circumstances surrounding his death. "If Doni would've had anything in the trunk of car, it would've been a beer and his shirt, if had shirt on, it would've been open."

Even the Fremont County Coroner, Dr. Dorothy Twellman had her suspicions right from the start. "It's puzzled me and frustrated me since it occurred." Dr. Twellman says even though law enforcement called it a suicide, she didn't completely agree. "So they could close the case… I remember hearing comments that they didn't want 2 unsolved murders, so they closed it as suicide. I thought there were a lot of questions, it could certainly could be a homicide." So the coroner ruled Doni's death “undetermined”. The possible causes: suffocation, carbon monoxide poisoning, or extreme heat or even entrapment in a car trunk.

We took our investigation to an independent source, Ollie Gray, a former cop with 45 years of experience in death investigations. "Based on this paperwork, I think it's a homicide; I don't think it's a suicide. It almost looked like the whole thing was staged," Gray says.

Gray says there are numerous red flags in Doni's death including this evidence noted in the Colorado Bureau of Investigation report. The white car Doni was found in had been muddy, but Doni was not. "I don't see mud… his boots were clean. What I see in those pictures is that the jeans had no mud or dirt." Gray says if Doni had committed suicide, he would've had to get under the car, would have had to get dirty, to attach the hose to the exhaust pipe. CBI agents called Doni's death a suicide. "To me, it looked like the easiest way to get rid of it was not to investigate it any further," Gray says.

"To say that we wrote this case off because we're lazy slobs, that's insulting," Barie Goetz said. He is the CBI agent who investigated the physical evidence at the scene. He says Doni's neat and tidy appearance indicates he wasn't forced into the trunk. "There was no trauma to the victim, no tearing of clothes. To me, it's overwhelming it's a suicide," Goetz says.

What about the mud on the car and how did Doni stay clean? Was it mud from the scene? No, says Goetz. Where was the mud from, we asked. “I don't know," Goetz says. And what about the handcuffs, Goetz says Doni may have used them to lock himself inside the trunk in case he had a last minute change of heart about killing himself. "IIf you have to work so hard to come up with bizarre explanations as to what the "killers" would've done, it's just not a homicide, it's a suicide," Goetz says.

"As a son, he was funny and loving," Sandy says. Looking for closure, she visited the Fremont County Sheriff's Office for years on a regular basis, asking investigators to re-open the case. In 2001, her persistence got the attention of one detective who re-labeled Doni's death suspicious. But since then, the Fremont County Sheriff says, not much has happened. "I wouldn't call it an investigation, certainly not." Sheriff Jim Beicker told us he needed more time to look at the case before he could speak with us any further. "Believe me, we have nothing to hide here." We asked the sheriff if we could meet with him again after he took a look at the case and he said yes, but when we tried to talk with the sheriff later, he refused to speak about Doni Grindstaff.

For Doni's sister, Michelle, there's not a day that goes by when she doesn't think about her big brother. You worry about his last minutes…if he knew, if he was worried about family," Michelle cried. Michelle and Sandy try to keep Doni alive and they hope one day, they'll find answers.

Did Doni Grindstaff drive to Chandler to take his own life? Or did someone bring him here to take it from him?

Sandy is considering asking the coroner to do a coroner's inquest, which means the case would be taken to a jury to have them determine Doni's manner of death.

The CBI agent told us he will re-evaluate the case only if someone steps forward with more evidence that could prove Doni's death was a murder.