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Thomas McCORMICK

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer?
Characteristics: Recruited homeless men from a Denver church mission to work on his sprawling Eastern Plains ranch, then murdered them rather than pay them
Number of victims: 0 - 8 +
Date of murders: 1975 - 1983
Date of arrest: January 1986
Date of birth: ???
Victims profile: Homeless men
Method of murder: Shooting - Hitting with a hammer
Location: Kit Carson County, Colorado, USA
Status: Never tried. Died on November 15, 1997
 
 
 
 
 
 

Tom McCormick owned one of the largest spreads in Colorado's Kit Carson County, sprawling over some 2,900 acres of wheat, corn, soy beans and grazing land for livestock, with a feed lot on the side.

Valued at more than $2 million, the ranch kept McCormick busy, and he saw little of his neighbors. In fact, he was fiercely antisocial, chasing locals off his land and driving all the way to Denver for migrant workers at harvest time.

Financial problems struck in 1980, forcing Tom to sell off giant tracts of land, driving the feed lot into bankruptcy, and he began to cast about for new sources of income. One of those, operated with son Michael, was a "chop shop," dealing in stolen cars and trucks. 

On August 30, 1983, 60-year-old Herbert Donoho failed to keep an appointment with friends, at a truck stop in Wheat Ridge, Colorado. A phone call demonstrated that he never made it home to Caldwell, Idaho, and so authorities began their search for missing man and truck. 

By January 1984, prosecutors at Fort Morgan, Colorado, were hearing McCormick's name in connection with hot-car investigations, but state police failed to pursue the allegations at that time. 

Seven months later, in mid-July 1984, Herbert Donoho's truck was identified - in spite of altered serial numbers - by an alert inspector at Roseburg, Oregon. The new owner had purchased the rig in Phoenix, around December 1983, and further checking led detectives back to Mike McCormick.

Indicted on various felony counts in June 1985, McCormick fled into hiding, but was captured in Nebraska during January 1986. 

On February 4, he struck a bargain with the prosecution, offering Donoho's body - and his killer - in return for leniency. McCormick named his father as the murderer and linked him with the deaths of six or seven other men, identified as migrant workers, allegedly killed at the ranch over the past ten years. 

On January 30, 1986, investigators followed Michael to a field near Byers, Colorado - some 100 miles from the McCormick ranch - and there unearthed the corpse of Herbert Donoho.

Descending on the ranch with heavy road equipment, deputies recovered three more skeletons in early February. All had been dispatched by gunshot, with the oldest slain a decade earlier. Harsh weather stalled the search for more remains, but spokesmen for the local sheriff's office estimated the toll might reach an even dozen before they were finished.

Michael Newton - An Encyclopedia of Modern Serial Killers - Hunting Humans

 
 

Mass-murder probe reignited

By - The Denver Post

July 7, 2008

In 1986, Mike McCormick told homicide detectives that his father recruited homeless men from a Denver church mission to work on his sprawling Eastern Plains ranch, then murdered them rather than pay them.

The case made national headlines as Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents and detectives exhumed three bodies on the ranch.

But state budget woes upended the investigation and stopped the search for bodies after Mike McCormick was convicted in a separate murder. That left perhaps more than a dozen bodies buried somewhere on the 2,800-acre ranch in Kit Carson County.

Now, the murder investigation has been reignited, and authorities are gearing up to dig for the bodies again.

But the earlier lack of investigative fervor might have allowed Colorado's most prolific mass-murder suspect — Mike's father, Tom McCormick — to go to his grave without punishment, said Linda Holloway, a retired Fort Collins homicide detective who is now a part-time investigator for the 13th Judicial District Attorney's Office.

"It's upsetting to me," Holloway said. "Why didn't this go any further?"

Tom McCormick died in Aurora on Nov. 15, 1997, a decade after the murder investigation was halted.

Prosecutors had stated that proving Tom McCormick killed his ranch hands had become nearly impossible because Mike McCormick's murder conviction had destroyed his credibility.

But Holloway said that if authorities had continued searching for bodies, they could have found evidence that implicated one or both of the McCormicks.

New interest in the allegations surfaced recently when Mike McCormick was released from prison.

He led state investigators to the three skeletons in February 1986 as he was bartering with Jefferson County prosecutors to get a favorable deal in the death of an Idaho trucker.

Jefferson County officials had arrested him for stealing Hurbert Donoho's semi-tractor-trailer after Donoho's disappearance. Mike McCormick was later charged with murder when detectives found discrepancies in his story that his father had killed Donoho.

His appeals attorney, Patrick Mulligan, got Mike McCormick's murder conviction overturned when it was determined the defense attorney was ineffective at trial.

Prosecutors refiled murder charges but later gave McCormick a deal in which he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was released from prison in June 2005.

McCormick, who has a business in Denver, did not respond to a message.

In 2006, Jefferson County prosecutors contacted Bob Watson, the district attorney who oversees criminal prosecutions in Kit Carson County, and suggested reopening the investigation of the ranch slayings.

Last year, at Watson's request, Holloway tracked down the skeletons of James Irvine Plance, James Perry Sinclair and Robert Lee Sowarsh. Their remains had been stored for years at a laboratory at Colorado State University before ending up in a storage vault at the Kit Carson County Sheriff's Office.

Finding the bodies of other victims is a priority for family members as well as for law enforcement.

The bodies of other victims might show that more than one weapon was used to kill them, suggesting there might have been more than one killer, Holloway said. It would be unusual for a killer to use more than one type of weapon.

Authorities had already found such evidence in 1986.

Sowarsh's autopsy indicated he had been shot in the head with a shotgun, and his body also had five pistol wounds.

Holloway said she sent Sowarsh's skeleton, which was missing its skull, to the Netherlands for DNA testing to confirm his identity. She used victim-assistance funds to have the skeletons of all three men cremated and their remains sent to relatives.

When she contacted Plance's family, she learned that they had never been told that his body had been found.

"His sister had died a few months before I called them, and she never learned what had happened to him," she said.

Sinclair's sister Pamela Nail asked for his remains in 1986 but was denied, said her husband, Lonnie Nail.

"They said they had to keep them for a study," he said.

Pamela Nail died four years ago, he said.

Holloway collected 15 boxes of evidence that included reports of witness interviews. She had most of the information computerized and digitized for analysis.

Volunteers including geologists and forensic anthropologists from NecroSearch, a nonprofit group that helps law enforcement search for graves, have identified several spots on the ranch where bodies could be buried, Holloway said.

But NecroSearch requires reimbursement for hotel, food and travel expenses, and Holloway said she hasn't been able to line up funding.

"I've been trying all spring to get them out here," she said. "I'm one part-time investigator working for seven counties and 26 law-enforcement agencies. Funding is still a problem."

 
 

Suspected killer takes secrets to grave

by - The Denver Post

July 6, 2008

Names: Robert Lee Sowarsh, James Perry Sinclair, James Irvin Plance
Location: Former McCormick ranch in Stratton, 150 miles east of Denver.
Agency: Thirteenth Judicial District Attorney’s Office
Date killed: In the 1970s and early 1980s
Cause of Death: Shotgun blasts, strangulation and bludgeoning.
Suspects: Tom McCormick, who is deceased, and his son Michael McCormick.

The people who could be Colorado’s most prolific killers might have gotten away with murder because of a lack of funding for state and local investigators and conflicting versions of what happened.

In February 1986, Michael McCormick led detectives to the graves of three men, Robert Lee Sowarsh, James Perry Sinclair and James Irvin Plance, and he claimed there were more bodies buried on his father’s 2,800-acre ranch near Stratton in Kit Carson County.

The search was halted, then-CBI director Neil Moloney and local authorities said at the time, because of a lack of money.

Officials said no charges were ever filed agaist the man Michael McCormick accused - his own father - because of his lack of credibility. Mike McCormick accused his father of the Aug. 30, 1983, murder of Idaho trucker Hurbert “Bert” Donoho, 60. He claimed Tom McCormick struck Donoho with a sledge hammer and he helped his father put the body in a sleeping bag and bury it in a wheat field near Byers, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

But officials came to believe Michael McCormick committed the murder alone.

The bodeis came to light in 1986 after the younger McCormick was arrested for stealing Donoho’s semi tractor trailer. At the time Donoho was missing and believed dead.

Mike McCormick agreed to a plea bargain that gave him two years in prison on numerous drug, theft and fraud charges if he led authorities to Donoho’s body and those of other men he claimed his father killed on his ranch on the Eastern Plains.

Mike McCormick claimed his father recruited homeless men at a church mission called the Christian Men’s Center on 2228 Larimer Street in Denver, said Linda Holloway, a former Fort Collins homicide detective and current investigator for the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. Tom McCormick would not let the men leave his ranch and withheld their pay.

When many of his workers filed complaints with state employment officials, Tom McCormick began killing his ranch hands when it came time to pay them, Holloway said.

He would shoot, strangle or beat them to death and then bury them on the ranch, Mike McCormick reported to authorities. Tom McCormick had intentionally picked men that family members and society had forgotten so that no one notice they were missing, Holloway said.

“That just saved their overhead by killing them,” she said.

Tom McCormick also allegedly ran a car theft ring with the help of the homeless men from Denver, according to authorities.

True to his plea commitment, Mike Holloway led authorities to Donoho’s shallow grave and three graves of men on the ranch.

Two of the bodies were found in the back yard of Mike McCormick’s trailer at the ranch, and a third was found along a fence line south of Tom McCormick’s home. Mike said one of the victims was a ranch foreman and another was a burglar.

Mike McCormick said he caught the burglar in his trailer, summoned his father on a CB radio, and his father killed the burglar by choking him.

He claimed that the ranch foreman was shot to death by his father during a dispute over liquor.

The younger McCormick said that he knew where the men were buried because his father threatened to kill him if he didn’t help him bury them. When investigators uncovered one of the graves they discovered two shovels, corroborating Mike McCormick’s story, Holloway said.

Mike McCormick told authorities that his father killed Donoho in an Aurora home in 1983.
The elder McCormick was arrested and allegedly told a cellmate that it was Mike McCormick who killed Donoho and stole his brown 1977 Kenworth diesel rig from a Wheat Ridge truck stop.

Jefferson County authorities began to notice discrepancies in Mike McCormick’s story. Ultimately charges against Tom McCormick were dismissed and the younger Mike McCormick was charged and convicted of first-degree murder in Donoho’s death.

That is why, several officials said at the time, that his accusation against his father in the murders of men on his ranch would not be enough evidence to convict Tom McCormick.

Mike McCormick’s appeals attorney Patrick Mulligan said his client passed a lie detector test indicating he was truthful about the murders. Mulligan said he did not believe discrepancies in different accounts Mike McCormick gave of the murders were substantial.
In 2005, Mulligan won an appeal for Mike McCormick, getting his murder conviction in Donoho’s death overturned after he proved his client’s trial attorney was ineffective.

Jefferson County authorities refiled murder charges against him but later entered a deal with Mike McCormick in which he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder if he would not have to serve any additional time behind bars.

Upon his release, Jefferson County authorities called 13th Judicial District Attorney Bob Watson and told him about Mike McCormick’s release.

Watson reopened the murder investigation, asking his part-time investigator Holloway to see if it was possible to find the bodies of as many as 14 ranch workers believed to be killed.

“In a lot of ways these were considered disposable human beings,” Watson said of the 17 men believed shot, bludgeoned, stangled and buried on the ranch.

Holloway said when two suspects of a crime point fingers at each other, it complicates an investigation, but the graves of the other men could offer clues about who committed the murders.

For example, if the bodies of the victims show that more than one weapon was used to kill them, it may indicate more than one killer, she said. It would be unusual for a killer to use more than one type of weapon, she said. When different weapons are used it often indicates two killers were involved, she said.

Authorities had already found such evidence in 1987.

An autopsy of Sowarsh’s skeleton indicated that he had been shot in the head with a shotgun and that his body also had five pistol wounds. Heavy fence wire was wrapped around his lower right leg.

Holloway collected 15 boxes of evidence in the case from Jefferson County and Kit Carson County storage facilities and had about six boxes of the most critical evidence organized digitally, she said.

She also tracked down the bodies of the three men killed on the ranch, whose remains had been kept in a laboratory at Colorado State University until 2002 and then transferred to Kit Carson County and stored in evidence boxes.

Holloway said she sent Sowarsh’s skeleton, which was missing a skull, to the Netherlands for DNA testing to confirm his identity. She used victim assistance funds to have the skeletons of all three men cremated and their ashes sent to relatives.

When she contacted Plance’s family she learned that they had never been told that his body was found.

“They didn’t even know he had died,” she said. “His sister had died a few months before I called them and she never learned what had happened to him.”

Although members of Sinclair’s family had made a request to get his remains back after the investigation was completed, his body had remained in the evidence box, she said.

Sinclair’s sister Pamela Nail died four years ago, her husband Lonnie Nail said. Years ago, she had tried to get the remains from investigators.

“She tried to and they said they had to keep them for a study,” Lonnie Nail said. “It was important to her to put her dad to rest.”

Pamela died believing that Mike McCormick, who was convicted of killing Donoho, also killed her father, he said.

“She always wondered why they never charged him with murder,” he said. “She was upset.

 
 


Thomas McCormick’s mug shot in 1986, when he was arrested for first-degree murder.

 

Michael McCormick told authorities his father killed up to 18 men.

 

 

 

 

 
 
 
 
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