Cold Case: Mom says Fremont County sheriff bungled Candace Hiltz murder investigation
Rick Ratzlaff opened the abandoned Cañon City storage shed that he had just bought for about $50 and discovered more than he had bargained for: an ax, a blood-stained rope and bloody socks inside a manila envelope marked “Evidence.”
“That’s when I knew it was bad — really bad,” Ratzlaff said.
Ratzlaff’s discoveries — evidence from a cold case murder of 17-year-old Candace Hiltz — led to the suspension of a sheriff’s lieutenant who had previously rented the storage shed, triggered an investigation by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and emboldened the victim’s mother, Delores Hiltz, to speak openly about her long-held belief that the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office grossly bungled the investigation into her daughter’s murder — and possibly covered it up.
The mishandled evidence also freed Hiltz from worries that her own mentally ill son, James, could be charged with murder in the 2006 death of her daughter, a threat that has been hanging over her since that day she discovered the body of her nearly decapitated daughter crammed under a bed.
“We have lived under 10 years of (expletive) because he was the scapegoat. We’ve been waiting for this break,” Hiltz said. “It became clearer and clearer that this was a police cover up and we have been living a nightmare.”
The December discovery of evidence from Candace Hiltz’s murder case in a storage unit rented by sheriff’s Lt. Detective Robert Dodd infuriated Delores Hiltz, and she refuses to remain silent about her daughter’s death.
The “theft” and hoarding of evidence — including bloody clothing, an ax and a blood-stained rope — in 17-year-old Candace Hiltz’s murder case is so telling, her mother said, that she no longer fears her son will be framed. Hiltz now points an accusatory finger back at the sheriff’s office, saying that at the least they bungled the case. She comes just short of accusing deputies of being involved in her daughter’s death.
“(Dodd) had to steal the evidence from the basement of the sheriff’s office. He did that either to protect himself or someone else,” Hiltz said.
The 11-page autopsy report appears to support Hiltz’s assertion that at least two people and possibly three were involved in her daughter’s murder. She said Fremont County authorities have known for 10 years that multiple people were likely involved, but they still call her son a suspect, knowing that he lived in the woods because of his severe phobia of people.
Sheriff Jim Beicker did not return several phone messages seeking comment, but he has previously said Colorado Bureau of Investigation agents are reviewing the circumstances of the misplaced murder evidence. CBI spokeswoman Susan Medina also declined to comment.
The evidence was discovered after Dodd fell behind on his rental fees for a storage unit at Dawson Ranch Mini Storage, which is west of Cañon City. The owner said he auctioned the contents after Dodd paid him with a bad check.
Ratzlaff, a former street racer who has had his run-ins with Beicker and his deputies for years, bought Dodd’s belongings inside the storage shed for about $50 at a Dec. 17 auction.
When Ratzlaff later entered the storage unit, he picked through furniture and toys before he saw unusual items including a stack of about 15 blue-and-red emergency lights taken from squad cars. He also found brown sheriff’s deputy uniforms, some with Dodd’s name tag, and boxes of court documents.
He got suspicious when he saw large envelopes with “Evidence” printed on them. One contained a rope with a red stain on it. Another envelope contained socks that appeared saturated with blood.
Word spread slowly from Ratzlaff, to a Cañon City police officer, to Dodd about the items. Dodd’s family called Ratzlaff and tried to buy the items back, but Ratzlaff declined, he said. When Beicker heard about the find, he met Ratzlaff at the unit.
The sheriff warned Ratzlaff that his life could be in danger, Ratzlaff said. While he was looking around the shed, Beicker pointed to a backpack and said it was linked to the case. The sheriff refused to touch the green backpack, but asked Ratzlaff to pick it up and look inside. It held Candace Hiltz’s blood-stained shirt, Ratzlaff said.
The evidence now is in the hands of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation.
The discovery reinforced Hiltz’s misgivings about the deputies involved in the investigation from the start, she said.
On Aug. 10, 2006, a deputy drove to Hiltz’s Copper Gulch home and questioned her about her son James, a trespassing suspect. Candace Hiltz, who stood near her mother during the conversation, became increasingly upset at the tone of the deputy’s inquiry and ended up shouting at him. When he threatened to arrest her, Candace Hiltz held out her wrists and told the deputy she had seen him accepting envelopes from known drug dealers. Livid, the deputy stormed out of the house.
That was “Candy Girl,” Hiltz said, using her daughter’s nickname. “She had a ton of spunk.”
Though she was a teen mother, Candace Hiltz was about to graduate from Brigham Young University through an online program. She hoped to enroll at Stanford Law School and dreamed of one day becoming a U.S. Supreme Court justice, Hiltz said.
Three days after the verbal confrontation, the Hiltz family discovered their dog’s body in the woods behind their house. He had been tied to a tree with the blood-stained rope and killed with an ax. Both items were later found in Dodd’s storage unit.
Two days later, on Aug. 15, 2006, Delores Hiltz left at noon to run errands. When she returned home at 3:30 p.m., she found blood spatter and pooled blood “all over” the house. But she couldn’t find her daughter, who had stayed home to care for Paige, her 11-month-old daughter.
Hiltz heard her granddaughter screaming and ultimately found her daughter stuffed under a bed, wrapped in a green quilt. About 75 percent of her head was gone. “I held her hand,” Hiltz said.
In the days and weeks that followed, Hiltz became increasingly worried about the direction of the investigation. Detectives appeared to be focused on her son, James, repeatedly asking who he had been hanging out with.
Hiltz explained the paranoia that forced her son in and out of the Colorado Mental Health Institute. He was terrified of being with his sister and eight brothers, let alone being with anyone else, Hiltz said. When asked who her son’s buddies were, Hiltz said: “No one. It’s impossible.”
An autopsy and blood spatter in the home revealed that Candace Hiltz had been shot almost simultaneously from the front and back.
One shotgun shell struck her on the bridge of her nose and exited the back of her head. Five small-caliber bullets struck her in the back of the head. A medium-caliber bullet apparently from a third weapon struck her heart.
The sheriff’s officers have long considered James Hiltz a suspect in the case, even though he doesn’t own a gun and investigators found no evidence tying him to the crime, Hiltz said. Two years later, James Hiltz was found not guilty by reason of insanity in an unrelated burglary and sent to the state hospital.
“How could one man shoot at the same time from two different directions? How could a totally broken man not leave any evidence?” Hiltz asked.
In the days after her daughter was killed, Hiltz said she became increasingly frustrated with sheriff’s office missteps. Officers failed to protect the crime scene by putting up crime tape, and investigators left the door open.
After the sheriff’s office finished processing the scene, Hiltz found a shotgun shell in her granddaughter’s crib, bullet shells near the fireplace and the blood-drenched quilt her daughter had been wrapped in. A computer monitor stained with her daughter’s blood and used to prop the bed up was left behind. Towels apparently handled by a suspect also were left, and family members found a bloody shirt that Candace had been wearing near the house.
Hiltz and one of her sons bought a Rubbermaid container, placed all the evidence inside and took the items to the sheriff’s office.
Over the years, prosecutors and Beicker have attended James Hiltz’s progress hearings and argued against his release from the mental hospital, saying he is a suspect in his sister’s death, Hiltz said.
Now Hiltz hopes CBI investigators will retest all the evidence and consider other possible suspects.