When the Denver Post hired Perry Mason's creator
to solve a murder in Colorado, things got weird fast
In the winter of 1949, CU student Theresa Foster was raped and murdered in Boulder. It was the first homicide for a CU student in their history, and the first murder in Boulder in nine years. The Boulder DA asked for help from multiple law enforcement agencies, including Denver's. The Denver Post went a step further.
The Post launched a campaign to catch Theresa's killer by hiring well-known pulp novelist Erle Stanley Gardner, creator of Perry Mason. Gardner had written more than 30 Perry Mason books when the Post hired him (and sold seven million copies a year). Gardner explained that he was being paid "...to assist the authorities. I am to try to present to readers of the Denver Post the situation as it might appeaer to the eyes of Perry Mason, the fictional lawyer-detective who has solved so many cases in my books."
In the following six months, the Post would print more than 230 articles about the case -- an average of 1-3 stories per day. Remarkably, Gardner was given a high level of access to police files and other information by the authorities. Local people would travel to the site of where Theresa's body was found to watch Gardner and Post writers investigate the scene. A pattern started: The slightest "clue" became fodder for another story. Gardner would find anything that could be tied to the crime (but ultimtely proved unrelated), the Post would print the the theories, and it encouraged readers to call police with tips. This would result in the Denver Police Department alone receiving an average of 200 calls per day.
One of the Post's founders had run a circus, and it showed. The paper reconstructed Theresa's last hours as a highly fictionalized renditon of events, complete with cartoonlke drawings of her abduction and assault. The Rocky Mountain News published its own rendition of the attack, imagining Theresa's cries for help and the killer's panic. The piece featured a close-up photo of "how the frenzy-filled eyes of the killer may have looked." A group of CU students protested, writing a letter reading "There never has been and there never will be an ethical basis for turning a murder into a three-ring journalistic circus." But the lurid stories continued.
Gardner's articles created amateur detectives who would try to solve the crime themselves. Two women found a bloody Army surplus parka in a culvert and gave it to Gardner's sidekick, Dr. Lemoyne Snyder, the "Sherlock Holmes of Michigan," to test before handing it over to medical examiners. Other items uncovered by volunteer searchers were similarly handled. One searcher turned over a blood-soaked piece of cardboard with what appeared to be a suicide note on it to Post reporters, who told her the items were useless, so they were thrown away.
Twelve days after the murder, a woman told Boulder authorities she believed her husband had killed Theresa. His name was Joe Sam Walker. The papers went wild. Gardner began writing his final article for the Post implying Walker was as good as tried and convicted. He credited the paper with breaking the case wide open.
Things got weirder. The Post had its own person conduct a polygraph test on Walker. He denied each allegation. The Post referred to his denials as a "confession."
Gardner went home to continue the Perry Mason series. It became the third-best selling series of all time, with sales of 300 million copies. (Gardner also wrote under the pen name A. A. Fair.)
Walker was convicted of murder and sentenced to 80 years to life, in part because a toxicologist said hairs found at the scene "resembled" Wallker's. No blood tests were run to match semen found to Walker's. In 1969, the Colorado Supreme Court vacated his conviction. In 1982, destitute, Joe Sam Walker hanged himself.
Gardner died in 1970, but his characters, and his books, continue to live. And so did his connection with Colorado. Later "Perry Mason" episodes were filmed in Denver. A book collector friend -- Bob Heapes, RIP -- got a job as an extra on the show. He solved a mystery of his own: The Case of the Frequently Filmed Extra. Bob was prominently featured in shots.
Gardner's books can be pricey. The copy of his first book -- shown toward the bottom of the page -- is for sale for $4,500 by a California dealer. His A.A. Fair books are harder to find, early hardbacks selling for $2,500 or so.
Sources: Alan Prendergast in Westword, FIRSTS magazine