Twenty hours of hearings on the Barry Morphew murder trial in the disappearance of his wife Suzanne Morphew in May 2020 wrapped up on Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 24, without any plea by Morphew, or a judicial decision on whether or not the case will go to trial.
“I have 25 pages of notes and I’ve heard 20 hours of testimony,” said Colorado District 11 Chief Judge Patrick Murphy. “This will take some time,” he added, telling the courtroom that he would meet with the attorneys to set a schedule for the next steps.
Murphy did not appear perturbed by a request from the disappointed defense attorneys Dru Nielsen and Iris Eytan who wanted the judge to make an immediate decision regarding whether the case will go to trial, saying “We are begging the court to at least rule on proof of evidence today … so Mr. Morphew doesn’t have to sit in jail.”
“I’d rather make the decision correctly, rather than expeditiously. The evidence, either way, is the same,” said Murphy. “I’m going to have to put quite a bit of effort into laying out that evidence so it’s clear in my head. I’m not doing it today.” He paused slightly and added — “I’m not a robot.”
The parties to the case have until Sept. 3 to file their briefs, and that day the court may decide to release the arrest warrant affidavit. A 1:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 17 in-person hearing is scheduled at which time the attorneys can make their arguments for and against going to trial, and the judge will make his ruling regarding a trial.
Chaffee County resident Suzanne Morphew (49) disappeared over Mother’s Day weekend, May 9-10, 2020. Her husband Barry Morphew (53) was arrested nearly a year later, May 5, 2021, and was charged with first-degree murder, tampering with a body, tampering with evidence, and attempting to influence public servants.
Over the course of nearly four days of the pretrial hearing, the courtroom heard evidence presented by 11th District Attorney (DA) Linda Stanley and Jeffrey Lindsey of that office, and from the defense attorneys, both suggesting different versions of what may have happened.
The first two days of the pretrial hearing (Aug. 9-10) had laid out a marriage relationship troubled by finances and emotional abuse, an ill wife who was alleged to have been having an affair, and of a controlling husband who worked long hours and spent his spare time hunting.
But the final two days presented scenarios of what could have or might have happened that fateful weekend — with the DA’s office laying out factual evidence; about GPS cell phone locations and activity, a cell phone in untrackable airplane mode for hours, strange trash drops, the use of a tranquilizer gun, large amounts of cash as well as tranquilizer syringes in a gun safe in the garage, the claim of a left turn the morning of May 10 to follow a bull elk, and Morphew’s suggestion to an FBI agent asking about receiving immunity if he”bared his life” to him.
For their part, the defense attorney’s job was to plant the possibility of other scenarios of what might have happened; including the presence of a love affair, and of unknown DNA (described as male) on the handlebars and seat of Morphew’s bike, which was found discarded along CR 225 near U.S. 50, perhaps suggest she was accosted on the road. They brought in DNA evidence found in her car (parked in the garage) that revealed three partial DNA strains that appeared connected to three unsolved sexual assault cases in Arizona and Illinois.
What the courtroom heard
The courtroom heard significant testimony from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) the Chaffee County Sheriff’s Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), who began by covering GPS tracking of cell phone activity. The testimony of FBI agent John Grusing, identified as an expert in no-body homicides was important to the DA’s case.
Murphy reminded the court that “this isn’t just a pretrial hearing, this is a proved-evidence hearing,” which allowed a bit more latitude for the presentation of alternative theories about what may have happened to Suzanne.
Grusing, who spent months interviewing Morphew noted two particularly odd things: first that Morphew spoke of his wife in the past tense. Second, that by March 5, 2021 Morphew had suddenly turned to him and asked whether he could be receiving immunity “if he bared his life” to him.
On May 6, just a few days before she disappeared, Suzanne had sent Barry a text saying “I’m done,” leaving speculation that she was announcing she was leaving him. That same evening of May 6, the two went to Moonlight Pizza for dinner. Within one day, Suzanne had posted a list of 50 grievances about her marriage to the cloud.
On May 7, she had new tires put on her high-end bike at a bike shop in Salida.
Suzanne’s phone has not been found. Morphew’s phone was seized by law enforcement on May 13, the same day law enforcement took control of the home. Within his phone were found residual images; where the “I’m done,” message appeared. He had responded with multiple texts threatening suicide.
Suzanne Morphew, who stayed in regular text contact with friends including Jean Ritter, and her sister suddenly ceased communicating late Saturday afternoon, May 9.
On May 9, according to Barry, they had a steak dinner, sex, and retired early. His phone appeared in airplane mode (where its location could not be tracked) for about six hours. His phone showed activity around 3:58 a.m. near where the bike was found, and again when he left before sunrise on May 10 (Mother’s Day), he said, to drive to a Broomfield Holiday Inn for his work job.
According to Under Sheriff Andy Rohrich, who accompanied Morphew to his home at 10:39 p.m. the night of May 10 to get an item of clothing for the search dog scent, something was off. “When I saw the video I realized he’s not even trying to call her phone. According to him, it’s the last place he saw his wife and he’s not looking for her, He’s not looking at the bed …he’s not trying to call her.”
Rohrich said Suzanne’s purse, with wallet, cash, credit cards, and her medical card were found in the car. “The medical card is significant to me because she had an appointment the next day for her cancer treatment,” said Rohrich. He later said that if she was indeed fleeing the marriage, that leaving the cash would have been odd.
There was a missing 18 to 19 miles on Barry Morphew’s truck that could not be accounted for in his May 10 travel between their rural county home and Broomfield where he said he went to check on the progress of a landscaping job. He told law enforcement that he turned left not right upon leaving his home early the morning of May 10 because he saw a bull elk and decided to follow it to see where it would shed its antlers. He told the Sheriff’s office that he got as far as the Garfield Mine and turned around.
Rohrich, a hunter, and former animal control officer, testified that bull elks shed their antlers much earlier in the season, not in May.
That same day, Morphew didn’t just go to the Broomfield Holiday Inn. He made no less than five stops at places as random as Men’s Wearhouse and McDonald’s where he appeared to drop off trash and he visited his job site. Asked if he would have had time in the six hours that his phone was not trackable (1:17 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.) to dispose of a human body, Agent Grusing said yes.
Workers from Morphew’s landscaping business who reported to the rented hotel rooms in Broomfield (he had left the room to return to Chaffee and one of his employees was to stay in his vacated room), reported a strong smell of chlorine fumes in the room and wet towels all over the floor.
Defense attorneys responded with information that the chlorine odor was because the rooms were above the indoor pool area of the motel.
In the days following her disappearance, Rohrich said that while he observed Morphew attempt to cry, “there were no tears. It was crocodile tears.”
Morphew was quoted as saying that he “was in shock for five days after she disappeared.”
Grusing said the GPS tracking of Morphew’s phone on Saturday afternoon revealed an odd behavior; a phone circling and circling in the home’s yard for several minutes. Asked about it, Morphew told him he was shooting chipmunks.
According to CBI Agent Gary Graham, a search of the home had revealed a tranquilizer syringe needle cap in the dryer mixed in with Morphew’s laundry. A tranquilizer gun and box of sheathed needles containing tranquilizer chemicals were found in the garage gun safe.
FBI agent Grusing told the courtroom that he consulted a Colorado Parks and Wildlife vet Lisa Wolf, with extensive experience in tranquilizing wild animals. She said that if a 120-pound person was tranquilized, they wouldn’t just drop unconscious, that a large dart meant to go through an animal hide would cause a considerable hematoma. Then they would likely do as animals do – run around in circles, getting progressively wobbly, unstable, developing brain hypoxia — and trouble breathing, until they passed out. That activity matches Barry’s GPS phone track.
By the time Morphew was arrested, Grusing had spent four months interviewing him. CBI agents had interviewed him a total of 24 hours over months. Grusing said he had noted Morphew’s strict religious interpretations of things including a comment when presented with the possibility that his wife might have been leaving him for another man, Morphew said “It’s a marriage for life. I’m a godly man and it’s a marriage for life.”
For their part, defense attorneys raised three possible scenarios that cast doubt on the charges. According to them, Barry said that his wife drank and used drugs and that a person she bought drugs from may have done something to her. They noted how often Barry pointed out that in photos, “her eyes were glazed because she was high or drunk”.
They raised the possibility that people leaving to start a new life may leave all vestiges of their identities behind. Without providing a reason, they referenced Barry’s claim that he had $70,000 to 80,000 in cash in the gun safe in the garage, and that according to Morphew it was missing.
They brought up the foreign DNA on the bike and the possibility that the most obvious thing had happened — that she had been grabbed from her bike ride by an unknown assailant.
The DA’s office reminded the courtroom that only a few days before she disappeared, the bike had been in the bike shop for new tires, where several workers would have handled it.
Among the biggest surprises, the defense revealed what was described as partial DNA from three separate unknown males was found on the glove box of Suzanne’s Land Rover, and in a rear passenger seat. FBI Agent Joseph Cahill, which defense referred to as an adverse witness, testified that the FBI had run the DNA swabs through their national database and that it came back as a possible match with the profiles of three unsolved sexual predator attackers.”
Cahill said that the partial DNA strands weren’t enough to arrest someone (if they knew who they belonged to). But Forensic scientist Morgan Duge, who analyzed the samples, found that the samples from the glove box matched an unsolved sexual assault case in Tempe, Arizona. Then another case turned up in Arizona, a third in Illinois.
But, Cahill added, “Forensic Scientist Caitlin Rogers says it’s a lead, not a match.” He went on to explain to the judge that this evidence was the subject of what law enforcement refers to as a keyboard search — where two scientists compare what they see to determine if they should try to develop the concept further. In this case, he said, “she told me it was limited genetic data.”
The car was found parked in the garage at the Morphew home. No explanation was given as to what connection the DNA might have to Suzanne’s disappearance, other than it might indicate the presence of someone else at the tidy home.