Is An Innocent Man Behind Bars? Park Estep Has Served 10 Years for a Murder a Mass Killer Now Admits

updated 11/05/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/05/1984 01:00AM

On Sept. 2, after he had served nearly 10 years in Colorado State Prison on a murder conviction, Park Estep received a phone call that sent hope flooding through him. The call came from Bob Brown, a private investigator working with Estep's attorneys. Brown nearly exploded with the good news. "We have found the man who did it," he told Estep. "We have a confession from the guy who did it." Estep went dizzy with relief. "My heart stopped," he says. "My brain stopped. If you'd been doing 10 years, what would your reaction be?"

The confession that Brown had obtained was a long and detailed admission by convicted serial killer Ottis Toole, 37, that he had committed the 1974 Colorado Springs murder for which Estep had been sentenced to serve at least 20 years in prison. When the story broke in Colorado newspapers, Governor Richard Lamm announced that he would act "within the hour" to free Estep if the original prosecutor of the case, El Paso County District Attorney Bob Russel, would agree. But Russel, 54, who is in the midst of a tough reelection campaign for the prosecutor's post he has held for 20 years, won't free Estep because he says the confession is "tainted." He adds, "Can you believe this is happening to me just before my election? I'm going to lose votes if people think I have convicted an innocent man."

So Park Estep, 35, former Army engineer, Vietnam veteran and divorced father of a 10-year-old daughter, remains in jail. His only hope now is that a judge will order a retrial when his plea is heard on Oct. 31.

Estep's entanglement with the criminal justice system began on Sept. 19, 1974. Late that night a man entered Suezy's Oriental Massage Parlor in Colorado Springs, pulled a gun and demanded money from proprietor Sun Ok Cousin and masseuse Yon Cha Lee. The women surrendered $60 but that did not satisfy the intruder. He tied up Lee, stabbed her and sliced her throat, nearly killing her. In another room he raped Cousin and shot and stabbed her to death. Before fleeing he set both women on fire. Lee survived and at first described the assailant to police as a 6'2", 195-pound man who drove a white pickup.

On Oct. 30 police arrested 5'10", 150-pound Park Estep, a Spec 4 in an engineering battalion at nearby Fort Carson. He had a full mustache and drove a red pickup. Estep, who had no previous criminal record, denied any connection to the murder. He was sick on the night it took place, he said, and had been at home with his wife, Rozanne, and their newborn daughter. His wife confirmed his story and passed a lie-detector test. Estep's Army-appointed attorney, Richard Borchers, also proclaimed his client's innocence for years after his involvement in the case ended. "I never believed—ever—that he committed the crime," says Borchers, who is now a Colorado state district judge. "The case should be reopened in the interest of justice. There should be a new trial. Park was a good soldier, a good human being.... The command at Fort Carson thought the world of Park Estep."

Estep was charged with murder, robbery, assault, arson and rape. The case rested almost entirely on Yon Cha Lee's eyewitness identification of Park, even though she continued to insist that her attacker had been clean shaven. In court she identified the mustachioed Estep—but only after the prosecutor pointed him out to her. On March 16, 1975, after two days of deliberation and several deadlocked ballots, the jury finally convicted Estep of all the charges except rape. Then, strangely—considering the brutality of the crime—the jury recommended leniency. Ignoring that recommendation, the judge sent Estep to prison on consecutive terms, making him ineligible for parole until 1995. "I was stupid enough to really believe in the system," says Estep. "Then came the verdict and I was angry."

Angry, but not resigned, Estep appealed his case with the aid of attorney Richard Tegtmeier and private investigator Jerry Mosier, both of whom worked on his case for years without pay. Two years after the jury's verdict, a Colorado appeals court reversed Estep's conviction and ordered a new trial. But prosecutors appealed that decision, and in 1978 the Colorado Supreme Court reinstated Estep's conviction.

Shortly after he lost that appeal, Estep asked his wife to divorce him. "I said there was no point being married in name if we couldn't be married in fact," he explains. His ex-wife later remarried and lives with their daughter, Miriam, on a farm in the Midwest. Miriam knows both her jailed father and her stepfather as "Daddy." Despite their divorce, Rozanne still staunchly backs her former husband. "I don't just believe he is innocent," she says. "I know he is."

His legal appeals seemingly exhausted, Estep remained in prison, working as a clerk, reading history and science fiction, and in 1981 converted to Judaism. Then, in 1983, Texas police arrested Ottis Toole and Henry Lucas, who claim to have killed more than 100 people, including a woman slain in Colorado in 1974.

Reading of that confession, private detectives Brown and Fred Cope—both former deputies in the El Paso County sheriff's department—wondered again about Estep's claim of innocence. They interviewed him in prison and in late August traveled to Florida State Prison to interview Ottis Toole on death row. Toole proved to be cooperative: "You guys want me to tell you about when I went to the steam bath in Colorado...." He admitted the killing and described in grisly detail both the crime and the building in which it was committed. "Y'all found the lady lying on the front floor with the hell shot out of her," he told them. Toole's details matched with the 1974 statements of Yon Cha Lee. He also fit her original description of the killer—and he said he was driving a white pickup.

When news of Toole's confession broke, District Attorney Russel called a press conference and charged that the private investigators had fed Toole the details of the crime in order to give a concocted confession the ring of truth. "We set out from the beginning to prove that the Toole confession was false," Russel said. "I don't want this killer Estep back on the street."

In late September Russel and an aide traveled to Florida to interview Toole. A videotape of the meeting shows that, at first, Toole defended his confession. Then, after 85 minutes of skeptical cross-examination by Russel, he stopped insisting that he was the killer. "Okay," he told Russel. "If you say I didn't kill her, then maybe I didn't."

Upon his return to Colorado, Russel announced that Toole had recanted his confession. To Jerry Mosier, the investigator for the defense, Russel's actions are selfishly political: "He is concerned with only one thing in this matter—and that is how it will affect his election."

Meanwhile, Park Estep awaits the decision on his motion for a new trial with renewed optimism. "I eventually will get a new trial," he predicts. "I expect to be acquitted. I don't believe I can be convicted. On the other hand, I didn't believe it 10 years ago either." If he is freed, Estep might become a defense investigator, or he might rejoin the Army, receiving more than $150,000 in back pay because he was kept on the rolls until his honorable discharge in early 1983. If his professional plans are vague, his personal plans are not. "We have a daughter who was 9 weeks old when I was arrested," he says. "If I get out, a big part of my plans will be getting acquainted with her."

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