Not long after Robert Spangler learned he was dying of cancer, detectives came knocking at his door on the chance he had something he might want to get off his chest before the end came.
He didn't disappoint them.
Spangler matter-of-factly admitted killing his family in 1978 and pushing his third wife to her death at the Grand Canyon 15 years later, investigators said.
Now Spangler, 67, is under arrest on murder charges.
Detectives had had Spangler under suspicion for years, and some of his former in-laws suspected the worst of him all along. But the alleged confession came as his shock to friends and neighbors, who knew him as an all-around good guy who refereed youth soccer and acted in dinner-theater productions.
"He's the kind of person you'd like as a next-door neighbor until you find out about him," said neighbor Joyce Williams.
Sheriff's investigator Paul Goodman refused to speculate as to why he confessed after all these years.
"A friend of mine said it's kind of like a golf game," Goodman said. "You get a great swing, a hole in one. Then you got to walk to the next hole and do it again."
By his own reckoning, Spangler may not be around for a trial; he told people in August he had been given six months to live. However, Phoenix authorities said they have noticed no significant worsening of his health.
In any case, prosecutors said his condition had no bearing on the question of whether to bring charges.
"He still committed the crime, so it doesn't matter how much time he has to live," said Michael Knight, spokesman for the Arapahoe County district attorney.
Spangler has been indicted by a federal grand jury in Phoenix in the 1993 death of Donna Sundling Spangler, wife No. 3. On Monday he was charged in Colorado with murdering his first wife and two children because, according to prosecutors, he was dissatisfied with family life.
He is being held in Phoenix. Prosecutors said no decision has been made on whether to seek the death penalty. Spangler has yet to hire a lawyer.
Over the years, Spangler worked for Honeywell Corp.'s camera and instruments division, served as public relations director for a nonprofit organization, and was a part-time disc jockey at a radio station.
Spangler was raised in Ames, Iowa, where a laboratory at Iowa State University is named after his father, a civil engineer. In the mid-1950s, Spangler married his high school sweetheart, Nancy Stahlman, and they moved to the Denver area, where they raised two children.
In 1978, Nancy Spangler, 45, son David, 17, and daughter Susan, 15, were killed in their home in suburban Denver. A gun and typewritten suicide note were found near the mother's body.
Spangler initially told police he had been at work, though gunshot residue was found on his hands. A year later, he told police he returned home and found his wife sitting in a chair with a gunshot wound to the head. He said he saw the gun nearby and handled it.
Authorities at the time concluded the mother killed the children and then herself.
"We couldn't believe it then, and we still don't believe it," said Nancy Spangler's stepmother, Joan Stahlman. "Robert didn't come to see her father after Nancy died. That seemed strange. We never heard a word from him."
Spangler later remarried and then divorced in 1988. The ex-wife died in 1994 of a drug overdose, and Spangler has not been implicated.
In 1990, Spangler married Donna Sundling, an aerobics instructor. The couple were visiting the Grand Canyon in 1993 when she plunged 200 feet to her death. Spangler told police he turned away to adjust his camera and when he turned back, she had disappeared.
But relatives said she was afraid of heights and very agile.
"The reason it was so suspicious is he had her cremated before her mother even got out there," said cousin Shirley Dixon.
Spangler remarried again in September. Spangler, who played John Hancock in a dinner-theater "1776" last summer, was set to appear in a new production until he started struggling with his lines. According to prosecutors, he was diagnosed with lung and brain cancer.
After hearing the news, detectives paid a visit to Spangler.
"I felt, given the right circumstances, he would confess," Goodman said, "and that's how it ended."
Roy Meiworm, who was dating Spangler's daughter at the time of her death, said Spangler's confession sent him into shock.
"I lost about 20 minutes of my life," said Meiworm, now 42. "I can't tell you how upsetting it is to find out everything you've been told was wrong. It's taken me 22 years to even enjoy Christmas again. I have a feeling this is going to be another tough one."
When other friends compared notes, they looked at each other in shock.
"He told all of us different stories," said Lauri Lacy, who worked with Spangler as a soccer referee.
Spangler told the referees his first wife committed suicide after their daughter died of a heroin overdose and their son was killed in a car accident. Lacy's husband thought both children had died in a car accident. Some in the theater group heard one wife had died of cancer.
Spangler's new wife, Judy, was caught off guard by the confession, neighbor Kay West said. The wife refused to comment, but West said: "Judy said she was numb. Obviously there was a side to him that none of us know. Everybody was duped."