The mysterious unsolved murders of Richard Barnes, Lynn Patrick and Michael Alexander occurred approximately 20 years ago and is one of 36 cold cases in Coconino County.
The cold case opened Oct. 25, 1999. The bodies of the three victims were discovered in and around a trailer in the forest outside Bellemont, a small, unincorporated community near Flagstaff. No arrests were made, and the triple homicide has been labeled a cold case by the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office.
Chuck Jones, a retired FBI agent who works for the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office Cold Case Squad, is the investigator who led the reexamination of the case between 2005 and 2015.
Jones described some of the challenges in investigating the slaying of Barnes, Patrick and Alexander that have caused the case to remain unsolved for 20 years.
“Lack of evidence at the crime scene: that is the biggest thing that made it very difficult to go anywhere with it,” Jones said.
Investigators returning to the case even soon after officials completed their work on the scene found the site looked dramatically different than it did the day the crime was discovered.
The area had been marked for logging, and once investigators cleared out the scene, many of the trees at the site were quickly cut down.
“That part of the forest where [the victims] were camping — they were going to harvest the wood out of there, and lumber companies could come in there and cut those trees down,” Jones said. “Within a week, all the trees that were around the trailer were gone.”
The main evidence available to Jones was photographs of the scene, but as the area became largely unrecognizable, it was difficult to put the pieces together and understand what happened.
“You’ve got these photographs that show where this person was lying, where this was and where these empty casings were, and then you look at it a week later and it doesn’t make sense, because all those great big trees that were there are gone,” Jones said.
Despite the challenges of understanding the case, Jones needed to know exactly how the scene was laid out and how events unfolded if he was going to make any progress.
Over the course of three weeks, Jones used every available piece of evidence to painstakingly recreate the crime scene.
“The photographs were the best thing I had … I think they missed a few things here, so I redid the crime scene,” Jones said. “I looked at everything we had — the autopsies, all those photographs — and I put it all back together.”
Jones combined his re-creation of the scene with a critical piece of information that was overlooked by the original investigators: the medical examiner’s report. Jones eventually developed a new theory for how the homicides occurred.
His theory involves the perpetrator or perpetrators wounding Alexander, killing Patrick and Barnes, leaving the scene and then returning to kill Alexander and shoot the other two victims again, who were already dead.
“I’m starting to put it together … Alexander had gotten up and moved, and I think the perpetrator, or perpetrators — I think there was more than one, had left the scene for a while, came back that evening and saw that Alexander wasn’t laying there like when they left,” Jones said. “They find [Alexander] out there, and he’s still alive, but he’s going to die, because he’s bleeding, and they put that bullet in his head, and he’s dead after that. Then, I think they walked back to the trailer … they popped a slug right into both of them.”
Despite his breakthrough with the crime scene, Jones’ investigation never got much further. Similar to the initial investigation, the cold case detectives were unable to discover any evidence linking the shooting to a suspect.
During his investigation, Jones’ interviews focused on associates of Patrick, including her husband and people with whom she had business dealings. However, one key individual he sought to speak with, a man Patrick had borrowed money from and never paid back identified only as Brown, died a couple of years before Jones had a chance to interview him. The people Jones was able to interview did not have information that could advance the case.
When the Cold Case Squad was actively reexamining the case, they brought in an outside team of experts to help. The team included retired specialists in law enforcement from Philadelphia, but even they were unable to make much progress.
Alia Rau is a former Arizona Daily Sun reporter who now writes for The Arizona Republic. She handled the Daily Sun’s coverage of the 1999 murders.
Rau recalled her experience reporting the case and the rarity of the circumstances.
“I covered public safety for the Daily Sun at that point, so I was doing all the crime and murder stories,” Rau said. “I couldn’t think of another triple homicide we had during that time. Maybe a couple of doubles, but a triple was pretty uncommon.”
As part of her initial coverage, Rau visited the site of the homicide near Bellemont. She was able to get to the scene shortly after the police first arrived.
“We didn’t normally go out that far to cover, but because it was a triple, it was worth going out there for that, and one of the photographers even went with me,” Rau said. “I remember that we were out there fast enough that the cops were still out there.”
Rau recalled several details from her time at the crime scene. The journalist explained how the sheer number of shots fired, and the isolation of the site specifically, stood out to her when she visited.
“There were a couple things: I remember how it was just this little trailer in the middle of the forest — kind of nowhere — and I remember how there were a ton of those little flags, and I remember that they were saying there were a lot of shots fired,” Rau said.
Joe Sumner, a former National Park Service criminal investigator and a detective with the Cold Case Squad, discussed the nature of many of the cases they look at and how they create unique challenges for the team.
“This is a big county with major highways going through, and a lot of the victims that we have differ from the cold cases in a city for instance,” Sumner said. “They’re dumps. The people could have been killed someplace else, or they’re at least from someplace else, and they’re not initially identified. By the time they’re identified, critical evidence could be lost, and witnesses are impossible to find because they can be traveling through.”
While there was not much physical evidence in the 1999 case to reexamine with new equipment, Sumner explained how technology that was not available when many cases were first investigated can be useful to investigators returning to a case.
“We’ve had more success with the old cases going back with fingerprints, because fingerprint technology has actually improved, too,” Sumner said. “So, we’ve closed cases from the ’70s and early ’80s using fingerprints.”
While the 1999 triple homicide case remains open, the cold case squad has had numerous successes over the years. Additionally, catching the culprit is not their only goal. Identifying remains and bringing closure to the friends and family of victims is also a major part of their work.
Sumner described the favorable outcomes of many of the squad’s other investigations.
“We’ve identified some unidentified. That’s part of our cases,” Sumner said. “We’ve closed some cases. We’ve identified suspects that we are sure have committed the crimes who have since passed away.”
Sumner had a few points for the public to know about the work of the cold case squad.
“We’re still doing it. The victims are not forgotten,” Sumner said. “The other thing that the public should know is, if they have anything that could help with the cases, they should come forward — they should talk to us.”
While the cold case investigators have turned their attention elsewhere after reexamining all the evidence, they have no plans to close the case of Barnes, Patrick and Alexander until it is solved.
“Even if you don’t have any evidence, and you’ve got nothing to work on, you do not close it. You keep it open,” Jones said. “You never know when somebody is going to stumble into the office and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got something I need to tell you.’ You might find something.”
To report information on this case or any others, contact the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office at (928) 774-4523.