This is an adapted chapter from Caleb Hannan’s new Kindle Single The Accidents; read the full story here.
When Dave Weaver first sat down with the file he wasn’t impressed. His bosses told him to work the case the same way he worked every other case, which meant to go where the truth led, no matter where it led. Even early on, Weaver could see that the truth was leading somewhere he didn’t want to be.
It was only a few days into the new year, 2013, and only a few weeks after the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department received a curious letter. The letter was from the Department of the Interior, which oversees every one of the country’s 417 national parks. Most people don’t know that within that department there are teams of cops who work cases just like police in less scenic precincts. Now those cops had a message for Douglas County: You need to go take a second look at something you thought you were done with.
Weaver was the man for the job because even in a room full of patient people, his patience marked him as different. He was older. He had seen a lot. He had done a lot: Two tours in Vietnam, a return to the country to help evacuate Saigon and 20 years patrolling Air Force bases. Technically Weaver wasn’t even supposed to be a detective. Technically he was retired.
Before becoming a detective he’d spent decades moving his wife from base to base. When Weaver finally left the Air Force and asked her where she wanted to live, she chose Denver. After a few years sharpening his golf game Weaver got bored and applied for a job in Douglas, the county just to the south. Only a few years later he was surprised to find that the people who ran the county wanted him to work cases. Not long after that he found what a lot of good detectives manage to find: a mantra. “Do it carefully, not quickly,” was Weaver’s.
That saying served him well working sex crimes for most of a decade. He was careful and methodical and knew how to navigate the choppy waters of bureaucracy even when it came to the toughest cases. The case now before Weaver was different, though. At first glance, it wasn’t even apparent that it was a case. It appeared instead to be a terrible accident.
In 1995, long before Weaver ever stepped foot in Douglas County, a woman died on the side of a dark road on a cold night. She was killed while trying to change a flat tire when the car she was underneath fell on top of her, thousands of pounds of metal pinning her to the ground. The only witness to the accident was her husband. And the only reason Weaver was even looking at this thin excuse for a file was that now that same husband was a widower once more.
When the friends and family of Toni Henthorn heard how she died, only one was able to put into words what so many others were thinking. “He pushed her,” said Toni’s father, Bob.
Toni and Harold Henthorn were celebrating their 12th wedding anniversary the weekend when she died. The couple met online in late 1999 and got married only nine months later, both in a rush to have a child. She was an eye surgeon. He was a wealthy fundraiser for hospitals and churches. After years of trying, the two managed to have a daughter, Haley. They were out hiking when Toni lost her balance on a steep cliff in Rocky Mountain National Park on September 29th, 2012, bleeding out on the ground 130 feet below where she fell.
Over the course of those dozen years, Bob and Yvonne Bertolet watched their daughter change. At one time she had been assertive and confident – a former high school athlete with a deep commitment to God and an unwavering belief that she was put on Earth to help people heal. Unlucky in love, but a success just about everywhere else. Then came Harold.
He had arrived with grand promises, including a claim that he was so rich that Toni would never have to work again. That wasn’t really a concern for the Bertolets – Toni’s father, Bob, had grown wealthy by making smart bets on pieces of land that turned out to be full of oil. The family had enough money. What they wanted was to see Toni happy. And despite her having all the trappings of happiness – a big house, a healthy child, a yearly Christmas card detailing everything that’d gone right for them – that never seemed to happen.
Bob and Yvonne watched as Harold slowly took control of Toni’s life. First he convinced her to move to Colorado. Even though he said he could work from anywhere, he didn’t see a future in Mississippi, where Toni’s family, friends and nearly everyone else who was dear to her already lived. Then came more subtle attempts to choke off any contact Toni might have with those who loved her.
Even though Harold had money, he refused to travel with Toni back to the South. If the Bertolets wanted to see their daughter they had to get on a plane, a burden for two elderly parents even before both suffered mild strokes. Stranger still was Harold’s behavior on phone calls.
For most of their lives, Toni and her mother Yvonne had been best friends. It was Yvonne’s job as a surgical nurse – and the fact that she kept medical textbooks lying open around the house while Toni was growing up – that first inspired Toni to get her start in medicine. Yet as soon as she moved to Colorado, Toni was no longer able to speak to her mother alone. Harold never said she wasn’t allowed, of course. It just so happened that every time Bob or Yvonne called their daughter, Harold was the one to answer. He would put them on speakerphone and then do the majority of the talking, while Toni’s voice came in faint and distant, as if she were standing in another room. “Hey Mrs. B!” Harold would say, using the pet name he’d given Yvonne.
Harold was usually cheery, often irrepressibly so. He was constantly talking, often bragging, and always had to be the center of attention. The Bertolets had accepted those quirks early on because that’s what a good family does – they worked hard at liking the person that made their daughter happy. Now that Harold had taken that daughter away from them, however, and made it almost impossible to talk with her, the quirks became decidedly less charming.
The Bertolets hoped life might get better for Toni with the birth of Haley in 2005, but found, to their dismay, that things only got worse. The control Harold seemed to demand over Toni extended to their daughter as well. Harold planned every one of the little girl’s days and nights. He organized playdates with other parents, told Haley when and what to eat, and made it clear to everyone paying attention that he, not Toni, was in charge. He refused to allow Toni to help put Haley to bed at night, insisting that the hour or so before Haley fell asleep was his “daddy-daughter” time. Even after she’d fallen asleep, Harold found a way to keep his eye on his only child. The Bertolets found it odd that long after she’d ceased to be a baby, Harold kept a video monitor running in his daughter’s room.
The Bertolets could sense that Toni was unhappy but felt there was little they could do about it. She had already suffered through one previous marriage, and her parents knew that her deepening faith and the fact that she and Harold now had a child of their own meant it was unlikely she would ever choose to divorce him. Yet it was hard for the Bertolets not to notice that so much about Harold seemed not to make sense. His job, for instance. He insisted to anyone who would listen that he was an in-demand fundraiser who had a large staff and made millions a year. Yet every time Toni managed to sneak a look at the couple’s finances, she found that their bank accounts weren’t nearly as flush as he made them out to be. This despite the fact that the Bertolets had been extra generous to Harold and Toni, gifting them some half-million dollars – for a down payment on their house in Colorado, for cars and new appliances and for anything else the couple needed – in the 10 years since they’d married.
Something wasn’t right, and Yvonne wanted to talk with Toni. But every time she broached the subject of Harold’s job, the couple’s lack of money or his need for control over every part of her life, Toni always had the same response: If you do that, I’ll suffer the consequences. What Toni meant was that Harold didn’t like to be questioned. He needed things done his way – something that was becoming more and more evident with each passing day. If Harold said they needed a new car, the car got bought. If Toni mentioned a stove wasn’t working properly or noticed something else that needed fixing, the issue got deliberated for hours, until Toni was so exhausted by the argument that she gave up. Suffer the consequences meant having to listen to Harold talk until he got what he wanted. Which he always did.
Bob and Yvonne voiced their concerns to Toni when they could, which meant the few times they traveled to Colorado to see her in person and got her alone. They couldn’t talk about Harold on the phone, since every call with her was also a call with him. It went on like this for years, with occasional sunbreaks, moments when both Harold and Toni’s moods improved and the union seemed salvageable. Then came the incident at the cabin.
Harold owned a little house in the mountains west of Denver and took Toni and Haley there often. One night, something happened at that cabin that left Toni recovering in a hospital bed. What that something actually was, the Bertolets were slow to find out. “Oh it was nothing, Mrs. B!” Harold had insisted on one of their phone calls afterwards. It wasn’t until Toni came back to Mississippi to visit, for the first and only time in a decade without Harold, that Yvonne began to worry for her daughter’s safety.
The story went like this: Late one night, while Haley slept inside the cabin, Harold asked Toni to help him clean up some debris. Then, while she was standing below a raised porch with her back turned, Toni felt the weight of something heavy hit her on the neck and knock her to the ground. She was in immense pain and had numbness in her fingers when she was taken by ambulance to the ER. For a time, she wondered if she would ever be able to perform another operation. Afterwards she would discover what it was that had hurt her so badly: a large piece of lumber that Harold said fell off the porch. If she hadn’t moved a millisecond before it hit her, she later told her mother, it may have landed right on her head, perhaps with enough force to kill.
Yvonne had spent more than a decade suppressing her motherly intuition about Harold so that her daughter would be spared the consequences. Now that Toni was home by herself in Mississippi, Yvonne could no longer hold her tongue. “I don’t think that was an accident at all,” she said, sitting on a bed next to Toni.
A chance to speak frankly with her daughter was something she hadn’t had for a long time and Yvonne didn’t waste it. She told Toni she thought Harold wasn’t working as much as he said he was, if at all. She said she believed Harold was living off of his first wife’s life insurance, a death that everyone in the Bertolet family understood to be the result of a tragic car accident. She told Toni that Harold may have even been having an affair. How else to explain all the strangeness? The lies? The travel for work that didn’t seem, to Yvonne at least, to be real?
Toni sat next to her mother saying nothing. So Yvonne continued with a final warning. “You do with this what you want to. But I would be very careful. I would not go anywhere alone with this man.”
Yvonne wanted Toni to say something, anything. She wanted her to say that she would listen to her mother’s warning. That she would take it to heart. Maybe even that she would leave Harold. Yet Toni remained silent. The Bertolets said goodbye to their only daughter a few days later.
Months later, when they got the news that she was dead, and that she had died while alone with Harold, her father Bob said what most in the family were already thinking. Toni had fallen off a cliff? No. “He pushed her.”
Their only daughter was gone. Their grandchild was now in the care of the man they believed to be her killer. It would be years before they would find justice. It would take a lot less time to find out that for Harold, their son-in-law, his tragic present looked very much like his past.
Harold Henthorn talked to many different members of Douglas County law enforcement on May 6th, 1995, the night his wife Lynn died after being crushed underneath their Jeep Cherokee. Reading through the file 18 years later, Detective Weaver realized something, which would later come out in court testimony from his superiors: that in almost every one of those conversations Harold made a statement that conflicted with something else he’d already said.
To one cop, Harold said that they were driving east. To another he said west. To one cop, Harold said he and Lynn ate dinner at a nearby restaurant just prior to the accident. To another he said they were on their way to the restaurant. To one cop, Harold said he and Lynn left their house to go on the drive around 1 p.m. To another he said 7. To one cop, Harold said the tire they pulled over to change was completely flat. To another he said it was merely spongy. To one cop, Harold said that he jacked up the fallen car and pulled Lynn out from underneath it in a desperate attempt to save her life. To another he said it wasn’t him – Lynn was actually rescued by a random group of helpful strangers.
There were other inconsistencies too. Harold couldn’t account for how the SUV fell off not one, but the two jacks he said he’d used to prop it up. To some people he said the Jeep fell when he threw the flat tire into the open hatch in the back. To others he said the flat tire actually bounced out; it was the spare, which he said he loosened, that fell and provided the impact necessary to jolt the Jeep off its moorings and crush his wife.
In the process of his own investigation, Detective Weaver discovered that no officer had called the restaurant where Harold claimed, at least in one version of his story, he and Lynn had eaten before the accident. (This was also brought up in court.) Nor did the coroner’s office report whether the contents of Lynn’s stomach indicated one story was more plausible than the other. Maybe it wasn’t the most critical detail. To Detective Weaver, it was just one sign among many that the investigation was “botched from the beginning.” (When reached for comment, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department disputed this characterization, but said they could not elaborate. “We feel some of the information in the article is misrepresented or incorrect,” Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock told Rolling Stone in a statement, “but we still have an ongoing criminal investigation and are not at liberty to discuss the case any further.”)
According to the testimony later given at a trial, instead of learning for themselves how much money Harold was due to receive from his wife’s life insurance, Douglas County’s detectives took his word for it that the payout was $300,000 – still a large amount considering his wife’s modest social worker’s salary of $14,000 a year. Had they checked, they would have found that Harold actually received twice that much. They also would have discovered that the amount was so high because Harold had changed the policy. Shortly before her death, the change Harold made allowed for double the compensation if Lynn died as a result of an accident.
Detective Weaver further discovered that the department was woefully undertrained: the man in charge of the investigation had been a detective for all of five months, had never been the lead on any homicide, and had never undergone any formal training before becoming a detective. (The detective would later testify to this in court.) “He had no real mentor to help him,” Weaver said recently, in his first public comments since his retirement in August.
Douglas County had changed tremendously in the intervening years. A former rural ranching community turned, nearly overnight, into one of the fastest growing counties in the nation. The Sheriff’s Office grew with it, from a few dozen to some 500 employees. But at the time of Lynn’s death, there were only five detectives covering an area half the size of Rhode Island. Douglas County wasn’t prepared to investigate Lynn’s death not only because they’d never seen one like it, but because they weren’t prepared anything of this magnitude.
Within less than a week, Douglas County’s coroner declared Lynn Henthorn’s death an accident. All of Lynn’s belongings, along with the Jeep, were returned to Harold. The Jeep was then salvaged. No physical evidence remained.
But there was something else. Buried inside the report, Detective Weaver found a reference to a footprint. The lead investigator made mention of a partial print on the wheel well, above the missing tire, the same one that Lynn had supposedly been trying to help change when she was killed. According to the file, the investigators noted the brand of shoes Harold was wearing at the time – Sperry Topsider – and took pictures of the tread. But, as the lead investigator would later testify to in court, they’d never checked the print against the shoes to see if they were a match.
A partial footprint wasn’t necessarily evidence of anything. But given the inconsistencies in Harold’s story – plus the inaccurate life insurance figure he shared, along with the fact that no one could explain exactly how the Jeep had fallen in the first place – its existence pointed to an alternative explanation: Harold had kicked the car and killed his wife on purpose.
There was something else, too, buried inside the file. Detective Weaver discovered that there were multiple witnesses to the accident’s aftermath who were never contacted. The file contained a note from a woman named Patricia Montoya, who called the day after the accident with a question. “Did you arrest the husband yet?” she’d asked.
Montoya and her family had been driving home that night from a day of fishing and picnicking when Harold appeared in the glow of their car’s headlights and waved them down. They were the first people to witness his incredibly odd behavior the evening his first wife died.
For some reason, though it was clear she needed their help, Harold yelled at them when they dragged Lynn’s unconscious body out from underneath the Jeep. He then let them take the lead when it came time to give her CPR. And, strangest of all from Montoya’s perspective, Harold refused to hand over the coat he was wearing. Montoya wanted to cover his wife with something warm. The spring night was cold and Lynn was only wearing a t-shirt. Montoya eventually got so fed up with the fact that Harold wouldn’t help warm up his freezing, near-death wife that she used her own coat and left it at the scene once she and her family realized the police were almost there.
She called the Sheriff’s office the next day to ask where she could pick up the coat. Then, when she found out that Lynn had died, she asked the follow-up question, the one record of her that still remained in the case file and made it clear how she felt about Harold.
When Detective Weaver called her nearly 20 years later and asked if she had any idea why he, an officer from Douglas County, might be calling out of the blue, Montoya’s answer came quick and definitive. “That woman on the mountain,” she said. Lynn’s death and Harold’s behavior, Montoya told him, were still “the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Detective Weaver heard something similar from Rebecca Roberts. She was a volunteer with the West Douglas County Fire Department who arrived on scene shortly after Montoya left. By the time Detective Weaver called Roberts, she had been promoted all the way up to chief of the department, and had witnessed more deaths than she cared to count. She told Detective Weaver that she had been at accident scenes where family members of victims were crying, screaming, and in some cases so emotional they punched her. Harold, in contrast to all those grieving family members, had been calm. After a career’s worth of experience, Roberts told Detective Weaver that she could confidently say the accident scene that took Lynn’s life and the behavior of her husband were the most unusual she had ever come across.
During the initial investigation, Detective Weaver’s colleagues had found some inconsistencies. The Douglas County Sheriff’s employees registered Harold’s conflicting statements and made note of the strange fact that the spare tire he said he was going to use was barely more inflated than the one he was removing. They spoke to a co-worker of Lynn’s who said the whole scenario seemed suspicious. They even uncovered a startling fact: Harold was already a criminal. Over a year before Lynn’s death, he had been arrested outside of a J.C. Penney for shoplifting $40 worth of underwear, odd behavior for a man who claimed to be so well off.
But in Detective Weaver’s mind, none of that mattered to the men investigating the case because every piece of information they gathered was viewed through the same distorting prism. Since Harold was treated from the start as a victim, not a suspect, and since his wife’s death was treated as an accident, not a deliberate murder, clues that would’ve appeared to others as red flags had no discernible hue at all. The Douglas County Coroner had ruled Lynn’s death as accidental. The questions from Douglas County police to Harold were perfunctory. Lynn Henthorn’s death was a tragedy, not a crime. Harold Henthorn was a grieving widower. Case closed.
Years removed from the original investigation, with Toni Henthorn’s suspicious fall raising new concerns, Detective Weaver was told to go where the truth led him. He had to give his bosses credit; they were telling him he was likely going to find something that embarrassed them, but encouraged him nonetheless. Now he needed an answer to a question that was gnawing at him.
He found a Jeep Cherokee similar to the one that fell on Lynn and went about trying to recreate the scenario that killed her. He rested the car on the same type of jacks Harold said he’d used, in the same spot on the same side of the road where Lynn died. Then he tried to get the car to fall.
He tossed the flat in the back, as Harold had said he’d done in one version of his story. When that didn’t work, he threw it a little harder. Then harder still. He slammed the tailgate. He took away one jack and ran through the whole scenario again. Nothing budged the car.
Finally, Detective Weaver took his foot and, in the same place where the original partial print was found, kicked the Jeep. Only then did it come crashing down.
Detective Weaver now had no doubts. “I know he killed her,” he says. The only question was whether Harold Henthorn would ever face any consequences. Not only for the death of the wife he’d just lost, but for the one who’d died so many years before.