Murder in a Small Town

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Nearly 20 years after their mother's death, the children of Edna Van Der Veen still mourn for her. They’re now adults, and even today, they have questions about how she died, despite what the police reports indicate.

She died on April 18, 1984 in Alamosa. At the time, the official cause of death was suicide. But ever since, Edna's family suspected her boyfriend murdered her. And they've been fighting to bring George Cottrell to justice, with no luck and no hope, until now.

KKTV reporter Jeff Marcu has been working on this multi-state investigation for months and has some clues that could help solve this cold case.

“It took our lives away from us. We lost our childhood completely. We never got to grow up and have a childhood. We had to become adults immediately." Barbara Waldren is talking about life without their mother. Her brother, Richard Sarro, agrees. "Our mother was our sole parent for most of our lives, so our only parent was taken away from us, and we were split up.”

They were only 13 and 16 years old. Their sister, Elizabeth, was 15 at the time. Three teenagers---coping with the violent death of their mother. A death, at the time, officially ruled a suicide. But was it?

Edna moved her three children to the small southern Colorado town of Alamosa in 1983. She was looking for a better life. Times were tough---raising three kids on her own and money was tight.

The close-knit family moved into a small white house just south of town. It was affordable and the landlord, a man by the name of George Cottrell, seemed like a nice guy. "He kept in touch with us, and would send us a teddy bear---came out to see us, wanted to see how things were going," says Barbara.

George Cottrell owned millions of dollars worth of properties and businesses in the 1980's. Edna and George started dating. We're told Edna saw a future with George, until their relationship apparently became violent. Barbara says on one occasion, he picked Edna up and literally threw her through a window.

The hope of a future ended suddenly on April 18th, 1984. On that spring night, Edna lay dead in George's bedroom---a single gunshot wound to her forehead. As she walked through the house, Barbara could remember it clearly. "I just feel like a part of her is still here. The mirror is still here. Everything is the same. Actually, the bed is in the same position as the one in the room, and she was laying right here."

George was the only other person in the house. He says he found Edna after she had been shot---lifeless on his bedroom floor. Police investigated, and George was not considered a suspect. In fact, no one was---even though police admit there were clear signs of a violent fight that night. The official word---Edna committed suicide.

But Barbara and Richard have always had a different theory about how their mother died. "I know in my heart that George Cottrell murdered my mother," says Barbara.

We asked Sgt. Harry Alejo, current lead investigator for the Alamosa County Sheriff's Department, how he thinks Edna Van Der Veen died. This is an exchange between Jeff Marcu and Sgt. Alejo:
Jeff: “So at the time, this was ruled a suicide. Do you think it was a suicide?”
Alejo: "In knowing now what I know about George---in the statements he's made, I think George had a larger role in what happened."
Jeff: "Was it a suicide?"
Alejo: "I don't think so."
Jeff: "Sergeant, with the evidence you have and what you know now, is this a homicide?”
Alejo: "I lean towards a homicide, yes."

We also brought this case to an independent source---well-known crime scene investigator Lou Smit. This is his take on the case: "I see a lot of red flags in this case that would indicate that there is a possibility of it being a homicide.” Smit worked on hundreds of high-profile cases in Colorado for more than three decades, including the JonBenet Ramsey murder investigation. He has concerns about the suicide ruling." In 35 years that I've been investigating suicides and homicides, I've never seen a case where a woman shot herself in the forehead from anywhere from 3 to 12 inches away as a suicide.”

Smit also says the angle of the bullet in Edna's forehead is also a clue about what may have really happened that night. "Which would indicate that either the victim, if she did commit suicide, would have had to have the gun way out there and high, or perhaps that it would have been a taller person that fired the weapon," he says.

Smit and current Alamosa County investigators agree on another key point: there were many routine crime tests and procedures that were not followed that night in 1984. "One of the striking things that I see in this particular one, is that the clothing of Mr. Cottrell was not taken in as evidence," says Smit. He says a simple test of Cottrell's clothing could have provided investigators with a key piece of evidence as to how Edna died. And that's not all. "I don't see where the shell casings were fingerprinted, just to determine who may have put those bullets into the gun."

We asked the current Alamosa County Sheriff Dave Stong why so many factors were overlooked in the 1984 investigation. Specifically, we asked why Cottrell’s clothes were not tested for blood or gunshot residue. He said if Edna’s death had occurred today, that would certainly be part of their investigation. Sheriff Stong says he didn’t know why those tests weren’t done in this case.

Perhaps the only people who do know why, are not talking. We tried to find out more from the original investigators who worked the case back in 1984. But they either couldn't remember details or could not be reached for comment.

Until a conclusive crime investigation proves otherwise, there is only one person who truly knows how Edna Van Der Veen died. That takes us back to George Cottrell. He was the only person in the house that night. Since then, Cottrell has lost his businesses and properties. We caught up with George in Las Alamos, New Mexico, where he's now working as a custodian.

Jeff Marcu and a cameraman approached him to ask some pointed questions:
Jeff: "George, did you murder Edna Van Der Veen?"
George: "I didn't murder anybody."
Jeff: "Did you get away with murder?
George didn't want to answer any more of our questions. But a short time later, we caught up with him again. And what he had to say may surprise you.

Jeff: "Did Edna Van Der Veen commit suicide?
George: (Pauses) "She was going to."
Jeff: "Did she?"
George: (Pauses) "Uhhh, I can't say anymore than that."
Jeff: "Did you kill her?
George: “No."

After a series of investigations, the district attorney in Alamosa, Peter Comar, says he has never been able to come up with enough evidence to prosecute George Cottrell or anyone else for first or second-degree murder. Those two charges have no statute of limitations. "So what we said in best case scenario---best light---possibly criminally negligent homicide, but that has a three year statute of limitations," says Comar.

Another challenge---since the death has been ruled a suicide, most of the evidence has been destroyed from that night in 1984. That's something investigators say is puzzling especially with the possibility of domestic violence that night. "In just the pictures of the crime scene that particular night, there was a pretty violent fight that night,” says Alamosa County Sheriff’s Department investigator Sgt. Harry Alejo.

Barbara Waldren's efforts to find out what happened to her mother have yielded some results. In 2002, Edna Van Der Veen's death certificate was updated. The cause of death changed from “suicide” to “undetermined.” But for Barbara and her family, that's not enough. "We lost a whole life that we should have had together as a family."

This 20-year investigation is not over. After we began looking into Edna’s death, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation opened its own case to see if they can find out what really happened. There is also currently a grand jury investigation looking into other cases in Alamosa. We're told this death could eventually become a part of that investigation.

A special Crime Stoppers number has been set up for this case. If you have any information about what happened that night in 1984, call (719) 589-4111. You will remain anonymous and if your tip helps lead to a conviction, you could earn a cash reward.