Crimes of a century: 100 years of trials at the Weld County Courthouse | MyWindsorNow.com

Crimes of a century: 100 years of trials at the Weld County Courthouse

Mike Peters
For The Tribune

It's been 100 years since the most elegant building in downtown Greeley was erected.

And in that century, there have been some eye-catching cases. Here are four of them — not the most inspiring, maybe, and possibly not the most surprising. But these cases grabbed the attention of the nation and even the world when they took place in the Weld District Courthouse.

1936: The Ray Butler murder case

It was 80 years ago when Ray Butler's body was found in an old water well, out on the open prairie, about 6 miles east of Pierce. The bootlegger had been hit in the back of the head with something, then his body was dumped down the well.

The search for Butler, who was supposed to be serving a sentence for bootlegging, lasted about a month.

But it wasn't Butler's fame, or the style of murder that gained this case's big headlines. It was one of the murder suspects: Seacil Roberts, a former Greeley police chief.

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Two men were arrested in the crime, Roberts and George Harrison (Hat) Wier, an employee on Butler's land. Both men said the other one killed Butler, then forced the other suspect to dump the body in the well.

Weir was first arrested for taking two cows and two calves from Butler's land. He claimed Butler gave them to him for payment on his job. There was no note or receipt from Butler.

On Aug. 8, 1936, the murder case received major headlines when they arrested Seacil Roberts, a neighbor of the murder victim. Roberts had been chief of police in Greeley for six years and had quit just the year before the murder.

The two suspects admitted drinking beer together in Keota on the day of Butler's disappearance. Both men said they knew of the killing. Wier said Roberts hit Butler in the back of the head with a chair; Roberts said Wier hit Butler in the back of the head with a hatchet.

Both men said a third man was involved, who they said was a "dago." Police believed they were saying an Italian mobster was involved. Neither suspect would identify the third man, and at one point, Roberts said, "My god! I can't tell who the third man was. They would wipe out my whole family!"

With possibly bootlegging involved, maybe some mobsters and a former police chief accused of murder, the headlines ran around the country. National newspapers sent reporters to Greeley; all the state newspapers and radio stations started following the case.

The Weld District Attorney's Office decided to try the cases separately, and Roberts was first in line. He continued his charge that Wier killed Butler, then forced him to help dispose of the body.

The physician who performed the autopsy in the case said it appeared Butler was killed by a blow on the back of the head by a chair, which is what Wier said Roberts used; however, the county coroner said a hatchet was the murder weapon.

Likely because of the conflicting evidence with the murder weapon, Roberts was found not guilty on the second ballot it took. The first ballot was 11-1 in favor of his innocence.

In Wier's trial, he stated while Roberts was Greeley's police chief, he had talked of robbing banks in Greeley and Fort Collins, and said he'd also killed another man. None of those statements were proven.

Wier's jury deliberated for 18 hours before telling the judge they were deadlocked. The judge sent them back to deliberate some more, and they returned with another "not guilty" verdict.

However, both men were sent to jail for a short time. Roberts for pleading guilty to a misdemeanor in assisting with the disposal of the body; Wier was sentenced for his previous bootlegging charge and for being an accessory.

Many Weld County residents were angry about the verdicts, and the court received a petition, asking the Grand Jury look into the case. There were 1,500 signatures on the petition. It was denied, because another trial would be double jeopardy in the case.

No information could be obtained about the men after they were released from prison. It is believed Roberts moved to Montana, and Wier died a short time after his release.

Ultimately, the Butler murder case has never been solved.

Dec. 14, 1961: Greeley's worst tragedy

It was the morning of Dec. 14, 1961, and school bus driver Duane Harms pulled his school bus up to the railroad tracks. There was some frost on the bus windows on the cold morning. Harms opened the bus door and looked, but didn't see a train. He stepped on the gas and began to cross the tracks.

The train was moving at nearly 80 miles per hour when it hit the school bus. It tore the bus in half, killing 20 children. Seventeen survived, many badly injured. It was the worst tragedy in Greeley history and one of the worst in the history of the state.

Harms was charged with manslaughter, and three months after the tragedy, the case came to the Weld District Courthouse. The Weld District Attorney's Office was flooded with letters, not only from Greeley, but around the nation. Some supported Harms and didn't blame him for the crash; others said he should go to prison.

The jurors had one major question to determine: did Harms stop the school bus as regulations required before crossing the tracks?

The judge in the trial was Donald Carpenter, and the prosecuting attorney was Karl Ahlborn. The court-appointed defense attorney was Jim Shelton.

After the jury was selected, Ahlborn gave his opening remarks. He said Harms was guilty of manslaughter because he didn't take the time to be careful, didn't look to see the railroad signal light, which was 728 feet from the crossing, and didn't look for the headlight of the oncoming train.

In rebuttal, Shelton said Harms followed the rules of the bus drivers' manual by stopping the bus before he crossed the tracks. He didn't see the train coming because of the difficult angle at which the road crossed the tracks and because of the high speed of the train.

The prosecution called 13 witnesses, from the train engineer to children on the bus to witnesses of the crash. The defense called other passengers, parents and Harms himself.

A parent who lost one child and had the other seriously injured, said Harms was a good man who watched over the children … and he saw the bus stop before crossing the tracks. A child who was on the bus also testified it had stopped.

Harms was on the stand for hours. He said when he comes to railroad tracks, "I usually stop, open the door, listen, then turn around and raise up so I can see over the kids. Then I look in the mirror."

Harms said he followed that procedure that morning, but some of his vision had been obscured by frost that had formed on the window while he was driving the route. He had started the bus early that morning to warm it up and get the frost off the windows, but some had reformed.

After Harms was finished, there were rebuttal witnesses from the prosecution, and more witnesses from the defense.

Just before 10 p.m. that Friday night, the case was turned over to the jury. The jury deliberated for two hours until midnight, then told the judge they wanted to continue on into the night until they could reach a verdict.

It was at dawn the next morning, on their fourth vote, the jury reached a verdict: Harms was found not guilty.

But the trouble for Harms continued. He and his family received threats, were harassed, and they finally moved to California to get away from angry people. There were some people in Greeley who agreed with the verdict and told Harms they were glad he was free.

Harms applied for a job as a school district electrician in California and was surprised they accepted him. He had the job for 38 years before he retired.

He still had a difficult time talking about the Greeley crash when the Rocky Mountain News produced a special series in 2007 but said he still thought about the crash every day and had nightmares about it.

Harms died of a brain tumor in California in November 2007.

Funds were raised in Greeley to place a monument to the children near the crash site.

The Polreis murder trial

Because of the unusual defense in this murder trial, it probably received more publicity from around the country and around the world than any case in Greeley history.

On Feb. 10, 1996, paramedics and firefighters were called to a west Greeley home at about 4:30 a.m. They found an unconscious boy lying on some stairs in the house. They gave him treatment at the scene, then he was taken by ambulance to North Colorado Medical Center, then to Children's Hospital in Denver. He was too badly injured and died after a few hours at the hospital.

The next day, the boy's mother, Renee Polreis, was arrested on a charge of child abuse resulting in death. Police believe the boy was beaten with an object, possibly a wooden spoon. His body was covered with bruise marks. After being booked into the Weld County Jail, Polreis was released on $80,000 bond.

The Polreis family had adopted the boy from Russia just a few months before, and he had some behavioral problems, according to Polreis. She said he suffered from reactive attachment disorder, which occurs when a child had grossly negligent care and therefore cannot form healthy relationships.

Polreis' attorney, Harvey Steinberg, said their defense would include the possibility the child beat himself to death with the spoon.

Because the disorder would be allowed in the trial and the defense was the boy beat himself, the case received national and world-wide publicity.

The attorneys and others connected to the case appeared on national television and publications several times. The case was covered by Good Morning America, the Today Show, and other nationally televised newscasts. And while the new nighttime show, 48 Hours, had only presented three 20-minute segments in each show, the Polreis case was the first to have an entire show dedicated to it. 48 Hours ran two one-hour programs, before and after the verdict.

The Weld District Courthouse became so populated with reporters and newscasters from around the world, they had to open up one courtroom as a press room. The reporters had to stay in that room during the trial. One reporter and photographer would be allowed in the court and would report back to the others at the end of the day.

On July 14, 1997, jury selection began, and the trial would last 14 days.

On July 29, after less than two hours of deliberation by the jury, Polreis was found guilty. A full court heard the decision from Judge Roger Klein, and reporters watched it from a closed-circuit television upstairs in the press room.

Before she was sentenced, Polreis and her husband appeared on a Dateline special television show, and she again denied beating the boy.

On Sept. 22, Judge Klein sentenced Polreis to 22 years in prison. He refused bail and she was taken to Weld County Jail to await transport to a state penitentiary.

Later, her sentence was reduced to 18 years, and in October 2005, she was released from prison by the Weld County Corrections Board. She was required to wear an ankle monitor at first, but later that was legally removed.

Polreis' whereabouts at this time are unknown.

Transgender murder gains national attention

It was one of the first transgender murder trials in the state and one of only a few across the United States. It was the first transgender murder in the country being dealt with as a hate crime, which could bring more severe penalties. For that reason, the murder of Angie Zapata brought national attention.

Angie was born male, Justin Zapata, but lived as a female. Allen Ray Andrade, 32, lived in Thornton and met Angie through an online social networking site. They communicated through hundreds of e-mails.

It was not until he came to Greeley, and, after being together a few days, Andrade discovered Angie had male genitalia. He became extremely angry and beat her to death with a fire extinguisher in her Greeley apartment. Her body was found the next day.

When the trial started, the courtroom was filled with members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities across Colorado and the nation.

In opening statements, Deputy District Attorney Brandi Lynn Nieto told the jury Andrade knew Angie was biologically a male for 36 hours before he killed her. That shows hate was building, Nieto said.

Public Defender Brad Martin said the case was not about judgment of a lifestyle; it was about deception and a reaction to that deception. In that case, Martin said, it wasn't a hate crime.

But the jury disagreed. After only two hours of deliberation, they found Andrade guilty of first-degree murder and of a hate crime. He was sentenced to life plus 60 years in prison. He is serving time in the Sterling Correctional Facility.

Just months after the Greeley trial, the U.S. Congress voted to strengthen the Hate Crimes Law to make it a federal crime to assault people because of their sexual orientation.

Courthouse Celebration

The celebration for the 100th anniversary of the Weld District Courthouse will begin at noon today with a presentation by former Tribune reporter Mike Peters, discussing odd courthouse experiences and the famous “ghosts” of the courthouse.

The courthouse will be open for tours from 1-7 p.m., with volunteers throughout the building available to answer questions and tell the history of the courthouse.

At 5 p.m., entertainment will begin on the front steps with a barbershop quartet singing period songs, a stilt-walking Uncle Sam and volunteers in clothing reminiscent of the life of the courthouse.

The celebration ceremonies will be from 5:30-6:15 p.m. The building will close at 7 p.m.

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