- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 8, 2006

COLORADO SPRINGS (AP) — When Sheriff Terry Maketa announced a Colorado inmate was taking responsibility for a string of bodies across half the country, he proudly credited three retirees with cracking the case.

They have been dubbed “The Apple Dumpling Gang” by admiring members of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Department, but don’t confuse the three unpaid volunteers with the bumbling dolts from the Disney movie of the same name.

With a combination of experience, finesse, meticulous organization and that most precious of resources, time, Charlie Hess, Lou Smit and Scott Fischer — two former lawmen and a retired newspaper publisher, respectively — helped coax confessions from Robert Charles Browne to as many as 49 slayings between 1970 and 1995.

So far, authorities have corroborated some of Browne’s claims in six cases.

The sheriff said he had no reservations about turning over sensitive information from the case file to the three volunteers.

“A lot of agencies are probably reluctant to use volunteers in sensitive areas, just because of bias or maybe the threat to full-timers,” Sheriff Maketa said. But Mr. Hess’ deft interviewing skills led the sheriff to give him and the others a crack at Browne in 2002.

At the time, Browne, now 53, was serving a life sentence in Colorado for the 1991 murder of a 13-year-old girl, Heather Dawn Church.

“We were sitting around having coffee one morning before coming into the office, looking for something to do, and the subject came up about contacting individuals who had been handled and were potential, or possible serial killers,” Mr. Hess recalled.

“And I think Scott asked Lou, ‘You’ve been around forever. Who would be at the top of your list as a potential serial killer that’s already incarcerated?’ And Lou immediately came up with Robert Browne.”

Mr. Smit, 71, is a retired Colorado Springs police investigator who had worked on the Church case and always felt there was something strange about the way Browne abducted the girl and left her body in the wilderness.

Investigators handed the three a rambling, taunting letter Browne sent to authorities in 2000 in which he hinted at a string of killings. Over the years that followed, Mr. Hess exchanged letters with Browne.

Mr. Hess and his partners — including Mr. Fisher, a 60-year-old former newspaperman and publisher of the Gazette in Colorado Springs — would decipher Browne’s often cryptic notes and delicately, patiently press him for more information.

“Our letters back to him were a composite of our thoughts as to what we thought would turn him on to the point where he would be willing to share more detailed information,” Mr. Hess said.

Press too hard, express disgust or appear to judge Browne, and the killer would clam up. But Mr. Hess kept at it, occasionally securing small favors for Browne, such as getting him an outside doctor or a certain book.

It was painstaking work, full of intrigue and frustration, but it paid off.

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