A 21-year-old woman named Mary accepts a ride from a man in the ski town of Breckenridge, Colorado, and is raped and severely beaten with a claw hammer. The attacker, Tom Luther, was traced through his truck and apprehended. Luther told a psychiatrist that Mary reminded him of his mother. The psychiatrist concluded that the attacks might have resulted from his mother’s physical and extreme verbal abuse.
Whatever the cause, Luther reportedly told an inmate at the time that “the next girl won’t live. They’ll never find her body.” Sure enough, within months of Luther’s release in 1993, a 20-year-old woman, Cher Elder, disappeared after being last seen leaving a Central City casino with Luther. At around the same time, another young woman was the victim of a brutal knife attack. An unidentified man had responded to her advertisement for a used car and then stabbed her multiple times as she showed him the car. Luther, the obvious suspect in Elder’s disappearance, fled east.
In West Virginia, Luther raped and beat a hitchhiker in 1994. He was caught and convicted for that attack and then returned to Colorado. Cher Elder’s body was finally found in 1995. She had been shot three times in the back of the head, but her body was so decomposed by the time it was found that evidence of sexual assault or other trauma could not be determined.
The victim of the 1993 knife attack saw Luther’s picture in the newspaper which later resulted in his conviction for that crime. While in prison, Luther wrote to his former girlfriend, “Strange, isn’t it, that I am what I detest in a human being. It wasn’t sex at all. It was assault and anger, pure meanest [sic] from a subconscious level. I can’t deal with the lack of self-control I have. I guess I really am dangerous if I can hurt people like this.” Still, the judge refused to allow the jury to consider these statements, or his previous rape convictions, at the Cher Elder murder trial. This set off an uproar when a lone juror refused to vote for first-degree murder.
Luther received a 48-year sentence for second-degree murder. Elder’s family and the other 11 jurors began to lobby to change one of the fundamental precepts of American criminal justice–the unanimous verdict.