When Charles Thurman Sinclair died of a heart attack in an Anchorage, Alaska, jail cell last month, he was mourned by his family and by dozens of detectives in police departments from Missouri to Alaska.
His relatives saw the loss of a sportsman and loving family man. Detectives, however, lost the chance to question the man they are convinced left a trail of bodies across the West. Police and the FBI have linked Sinclair, 44, a former coin-shop owner, to 11 homicides, one attempted murder and two rapes. He may be responsible for 15 murders, authorities believe.
The murders began 10 years ago. Many victims were coin dealers who were also robbed. But it wasn’t until this summer that investigators in several states, who had been trying to solve separate crimes, suddenly realized they were all looking for the same man.
“It was one of the unique joinings of police departments” in a widespread investigation, said Pete Piccini, a deputy sheriff in Jefferson County, Wash. Piccini became involved while investigating the disappearance and presumed murder of a vacationing California couple.
“We all felt (Sinclair) was a serial killer of the same stature of oTed Bundy,” he said, referring to the now executed Florida sex murderer who was convicted of three murders but suspected of dozens more.
“We are still working on known and unknown crimes,” FBI special agent Ken Marischen said in Anchorage. “There’s a lot of unanswered questions. The only one we know knew the whole story took it to the grave with him.”
The break came when police in Billings, Mont., began investigating the July 31 murders of Charles Sparboe, a 60-year-old coin shop owner, and his assistant Catharine Newstrom, 47. Both had been shot in the head. Some $54,000 in coins and gold was taken from Sparboe’s shop.
A composite drawing of the suspect provided by Sparboe’s son and a description of the crime sent out by Billings police triggered recognition in several squad rooms.
The common link between most of the murders was coins. A killer, a beguiling character who talked a lot, would go to a coin shop, often many times, pretending to be a customer, but in fact stalking his victims. The victims would get used to seeing him. Then one day he would return, usually near closing time, rob and shoot to kill with a small-caliber weapon--always in the head.
According to police accounts the unsolved crimes linked to Sinclair include:
--The Everett, Wash., murder of David Sutton on Jan. 27, 1980. He was found in his antique shop, dead from a gunshot wound to the head from a .38-caliber gun. Some $80,000 worth of silver dollars was taken.
--A similar robbery and killing of Mishawaka, Ind., coin shop manager Thomas Rohr on Aug. 28, 1985.
--The Vacaville, Calif., killing of coin-shop owner Ruben Lucky Williams on Nov. 1, 1986, also shot in the head and robbed.
--The Spokane, Wash., robbery-homicide of coin-shop owner Leo Cashatt, shot in the head July 14, 1987.
--The Kansas City, Mo., killing of LeRoy Hoffman on March 12, 1988. Coins worth several thousand dollars were missing. A stranger who said he was a local farmer had been in the store several times before this murder. The farmer wanted to sell his coins, and on the day Hoffman died, the shop owner told his wife he was going to buy a “large collection.”
--In Murray, Utah, on May 4 of this year Legacy Coin shop co-owner Kelly Finnegan was shot in the head with a small-caliber gun, but survived. Finnegan said the shooter had recently been in the store several times before, saying he was from Texas. Finnegan described his attacker as a polite, friendly man who had said he wanted to buy coins. Instead, after the shooting he stole about $60,000 worth of merchandise.
“I had gotten used to him,” the 29-year-old Finnegan recently recalled, so he didn’t worry that “Jim Stockton” was hanging about as he put his valuables in his safe at closing time that day. “He mumbled something that sounded to me like ‘you dumb bastard.’ He said it very lightly, and I turned around to say: ‘What?’ In that split second he shot me.”
The fact that Finnegan turned his head saved his life, he believes. The bullet pierced his forehead, but he was not seriously wounded and stayed conscious. He fell to the floor, pretending to be dead. The man he later identified as Sinclair walked back and forth across his body for several minutes, removing gold and rare coins.
Finnegan interpreted Sinclair’s final remark to him, he said, as “that I was dumb to trust him, I let my guard down, so he won the game.”
Officials were also looking into Sinclair’s relationship to other crimes in northwest Washington not related to coin shops: namely, the disappearance of the vacationing California couple in August, 1986, the rape of a real estate agent that same month and the November, 1987, kidnaping and killings of a vacationing Canadian couple, including the rape of the woman.
Until the the Billings murders of Sparboe and Newstrom on that hot July afternoon, neither the various state authorities nor the FBI had been aware of a possible serial killer.
The connection between Sinclair to this and other crimes emerged not long after detectives arrived at the Treasure State Silver & Gold coin shop on Billings’ Grand Avenue.
A flamboyant self-made millionaire, Sparboe had real estate and other interests, but spent most of his time at his 10-year-old coin shop, an expression of his lifelong hobby. Newstrom was his likable assistant, the mother of two who had worked for Sparboe for 25 years.
At first, the execution-style murders left some locals wondering if the tough-minded and occasionally outspoken shop owner had stepped on someone’s toes once too often, and paid for it with his life.
As it turned out, Sparboe died only because he owned a coin store. But unlike most of the other victims, he had provided a clue to his killer.
Sparboe voiced concern about an odd new customer who was hanging around. Because he did, Sparboe’s son Jim and others remembered the man well, and their composite drawing led to the identification of Sinclair.
Jim Sparboe recalled that the customer said he was a “farmer from Laurel, 15 miles up the road.” The customer told a story police later found remarkably similar to one told by the customer in the Kansas City murder. The man said he was “selling his farm, for $130,000, and wanted to invest the money” in gold, Jim Sparboe said.
The elder Sparboe wondered why the man, with a gap between his front teeth and a scar on his right hand, had parked a silver Pontiac some distance away, and then walked up. Jim Sparboe noticed the man had “banker-smooth hands,” not those of a farmer.
The third time the man appeared, the younger Sparboe left the store, leaving the “farmer” alone with his father and Newstrom. When he returned, he found his father and Newstrom dead.
Within hours, Billings Det. Sgt. Jerry Archer, who led his department’s investigation, had sent a description of the crime and the suspect out on the police teletype. Within a day, Spokane police responded that they “had a similar crime"--the July, 1987, killing of coin shop owner Leo Cashatt.
Murray police also responded, because of the Finnegan case.
Billings police sent out their composite drawing. Spokane detectives again called back to say another shop owner recognized it as a customer from last April named J.C. Weir. In time, police would find that name to be an alias for Sinclair.
Washington state listed a silver Pontiac registered to a J.C. Weir, and “Spokane let me know this man’s driver’s license in Washington had been surrendered in Wyoming,” Archer said. So Billings detectives contacted Wyoming officials in Jackson Hole, the Wyoming address listed on the new license.
Sheriff’s deputies there said the address was phony. But they found a silver Pontiac at the local airport. Inside was a .22-caliber handgun, a silencer and coin wrappings from Sparboe’s shop.
Meanwhile, in Jefferson County, Wash., Deputy Piccini was still working the unsolved 1986 disappearance of Robert and Dagmar Linton of Stockton, Calif.
Soon after the couple disappeared while camping on the Olympic Peninsula, a large, bearded white male with a bandaged right hand had been seen using the Lintons’ credit cards to buy several items, including an expensive clarinet. The Lintons’ truck was later found at the Seattle-Tacoma airport.
Piccini saw the original Billings teletype but at first discounted a link, he said, because the man using the Lintons’ cards was bearded. But then he learned through Billings police that the suspect they were tracking had lived in Deming, Wash., not far from where a Linton credit card was first used.
Pursuing his own investigation in Deming, Piccini discovered that the suspect’s teen-age daughter played the clarinet, and that her school records had been transferred from Washington to Alaska.
Airline personnel at Jackson Hole told Billings detectives that a J.C. Weir had flown to Anchorage two days after the Sparboe-Newstrom murders. Additional inquiries revealed that he was picked up by his wife, Debbie, who then sold about $15,000 worth of gold there.
Sinclair had moved with his wife and two children to Kenny Lake, an isolated enclave about 85 miles north of Valdez. Alaska state troopers, with Archer and another Billings detective along, arrested the burly outdoorsman there on Aug. 13. Archer noticed a gap between the suspect’s front teeth and a scar on his right hand. He also had one of Kelly Finnegan’s watches in his pocket.
Piccini obtained a search warrant to go through the family’s belongings kept in storage units in Washington. Officers found unspecified items linking Sinclair to the Spokane and Vacaville murders. “And we came up with the clarinet” purchased with the Linton credit card, he added.
Sinclair was the youngest of four children from a working class family in Jal, a small oil and gas town in the southeastern corner of New Mexico. The real J.C. Weir was a former classmate at Jal High School.
His father died when Sinclair was young, townspeople remember, and his mother supported the family by running a coin laundry and taking in ironing. “He was an average student, not particularly different from anyone else,” John Cooper, one of his former teachers recalled.
A longtime coin buff, Sinclair started a coin shop during the 1970s in Hobbs, 40 miles north of Jal, using his own collection as a base.
He did well, locals recalled, and then branched out to selling guns. He renamed his shop the Shooter’s Supply and catered to people who could afford $800 to $1,000 hunting rifles, collectible guns and even automatic weapons.
Sinclair was apparently well-liked, widely remembered as a friendly, outgoing man who " could talk to anybody.” He and his wife, daughter Pam and son Michael enjoyed competitive shooting, one friend said, “as a family thing.” Sinclair often hunted with several law enforcement officers who were among his customers.
But one day in 1985, Sinclair’s shop burned. He was investigated for arson, according to Hobbs police, but was not charged. Soon after, he defaulted on a bank loan, officials said, and when the lender moved to reclaim guns put up as collateral, Sinclair left town with his family.
New Mexico then accused his wife, in absentia, of embezzlement for failing to turn over more than $30,000 in hunting and fishing license fees sold through the store.
The way Sinclair left Hobbs surprised local residents, but not the fact that he did. One close friend who did not want to be identified said “he told me he wanted to set back on his heels for a few years, that he had enough of six-day work weeks. He said he had enough money saved to buy a place with some acreage, get some mules and some horses. That maybe he’d get into real estate.”
By the time police caught up to Sinclair in Kenny Lake, “he had no visible means of support,” said Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Charles Grutzmacher.
The family had been living on the second floor of a rented wood-frame house with no bathroom, and an outside privy.
After Sinclair’s arrest, his wife Debbie was extradited back to New Mexico, where she pleaded not guilty to the embezzlement charges and was released on bail. She told authorities she never questioned her husband about his activities or source of income, and authorities say she and Sinclair’s children are not suspects in the murders.
The family, especially the children, have been “devastated,” one friend reported. When they talk about their father, he said, they wistfully recall a different man who “made a real effort to teach them about animals, taught them a lot about themselves, about being independent and self-sufficient.”
Many in Hobbs who remember Sinclair say they are shocked to learn that Sinclair could have been a killer. “It’s like a puzzle but you can’t see the picture because half the pieces are missing,” one friend said.
When he died, Sinclair left behind more questions than answers. Police hoped he would talk to them, but he did not. Then he suddenly died, alone in his cell, of “heart failure,” according to a preliminary autopsy.
“I’m disappointed,” said Finnegan, who hoped to see Sinclair prosecuted for shooting and robbing him. “I feel cheated.”
“I’m not convinced we know everything this guy did,” Billings Sgt. Archer said. “We may never find out.”
“For me this all but closes my case,” Piccini said. “Have you ever been on a train, rolling down a track, feeling everything was great, when you go across a trestle and the track just stops? That’s the only way to describe how I feel. What’s left to do but go back the way you came?”