Thirty years ago today, Durango Police Department responded to a call about a robbery and shooting at the now-closed Junction Creek Liquors. Officers arrived at the scene, and in the basement discovered the body of Dennis Sleater, a 24-year-old Fort Lewis College student who worked part-time as a clerk at the liquor store, which used to be located in front of Durango High School at 2300 Main Avenue.
According to police reports, acquaintances of Sleater’s had come to the store to buy liquor and began yelling for the attendant when they did not see him. Instead, they found his body and an open cash register.
Sleater, discovered facedown in the basement, had been killed by two gunshot wounds to the head.
He was the second person to be murdered in Durango within a month.
On Nov. 10, 1985, a passenger on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad caught sight of a grisly scene from the train window: the decaying body of David Tyler, another local man, in a truck bed parked outside Tyler’s auto shop in the 1400 block of Main Avenue.
Tyler was 36 and co-owned Automatic Transmission Exchange.
Both Sleater and Tyler seemed to have much in common. Reports at the time suggested the two men were drug users, gay and knew each other. And 30 years later, neither of their deaths have resolution.
Over the past three decades, police have amassed a string of dead-end leads, the most compelling of which involved a gay Amish man named Eli Stutzman who was in Durango at the time of Tyler’s and Sleater’s deaths.
Police reports indicate Stutzman and Tyler knew each other and possibly attended the same party in Durango on Nov. 8, 1985, just two days before Tyler’s death. A witness also reported seeing a man resembling Stutzman near the scene of Sleater’s death.
Death uncannily seemed to occur wherever Stutzman was. He was linked to but never convicted of the 1977 death of his pregnant wife, who died in a barn fire, and the 1985 death of his young son, Danny, who was discovered in a roadside ditch in Nebraska. When questioned, Stutzman claimed the boy died from illness, and he abandoned the body out of fear.
In the late 1980s, Stutzman was convicted of the 1983 murder of a former roommate when he was living in Austin, Texas, and served 16 years of a 40-year sentence. He was paroled in 2005.
Stutzman’s apparent suicide in 2007 rekindled interest in the cold cases when police obtained Stutzman’s DNA and fingerprints, but they did not match with a bloody handprint discovered at the scene of Tyler’s death.
Author Gregg Olsen, who wrote Abandoned Prayers, a book investigating Stuzman and the murders, thinks law enforcement at the time simply didn’t try hard enough to solve the murders.
“I really don’t think the police did a good job,” Olsen said, repeating what he told The Durango Herald in 2007. “It just always felt odd to me that there were two murders that occurred close in time, probably by the same killer, they had a maniac in the area (Stutzman), and they didn’t try that hard to solve the case.”
Gregory Berwald of Farmington who formerly worked in Tyler’s auto shop told the Herald in 2007 that he remembered Tyler having what appeared to be a serious conversation with a man resembling Stutzman just a few days before Tyler’s death.
Police allowed Berwald to walk through Tyler’s auto shop after his death to see if anything triggered his memory. Berwald reported a bloody scene with fragments of skull in a corner, and the word “fag” scrawled in blood on the wall.
Durango Police Department released about 70 pages of incident reports from the two cases late last month as part of an open-records request filed by The Durango Herald. Over the years, police have received occasional tips from individuals claiming to know who murdered Tyler. Sex and drugs were consistently components of the stories.
In 1990, one woman told police that three local men were responsible for killing Tyler with a lead pipe. All were heavily involved with cocaine, she said. According to her account, she said she knew this because one of the men, with whom she had a relationship, had told her personally. She claimed in the report that the men were sexually involved with one another and one “would pay his rent by having sex with David Tyler.” She also said another man implied to her that he left the message in blood on the wall.
Then according to a 2008 police report, Durango police picked up a man who also claimed he knew several local men to be Tyler’s killers. According to the man, they “beat the guy’s head in” because Tyler owed money for a drug deal and referenced the “artwork” on the wall.
Sgt. Deck Shaline, a detective, said Friday that police have not to date developed any new leads “that would benefit either of these cases.”
One of the peculiarities about the files is what isn’t there: While there is a report detailing police’s discovery of Sleater’s body and the crime scene, the report describing how Tyler was found was not included in the documentation provided. Lt. Ray Shupe said record-keeping in the 1980s was not as efficient as it is today.
Since then, both cases have grown cold, and despite evidence and testimonies pointing to a potential serial killer, they remain disconcertingly open and unresolved 30 years later.