GRAND JUNCTION, Colorado—When a popular 34-year-old soccer mom never returned home from a picnic nine years ago, her disappearance sent a shock wave through her community.
Grand Junction is a mining town on the furthest tip of Colorado’s remote Western Slope halfway between Salt Lake City and Denver. At first glance, it is quiet and picturesque; but it is also a highway stop-off point for criminals with bad business on the brain. Investigators searching for Paige Birgfeld would soon discover that the single mother of three had something in common with her home town: pretty on the outside, but with a dark secret underneath.
Any hopes of her being found alive were extinguished when Birgfeld’s red Ford Focus was discovered burning in a parking lot just two miles from her home. Birgfeld’s body was not in the car, but several clues survived the fire. Investigators recovered her day planner with pages from the last four days of appointments ripped out. Someone didn’t want to cops to know who she was planning to meet.
Over the following weeks, searchers combed hundreds of square miles of hot, high-country desert on foot, ATV’s, and on horseback looking for the missing mom. A team of tracking dogs followed a cadaver scent from the torched car to the nearby Gunnison River, but the team found no exit scent leading out of the water. At the same time, investigators were listening to her voicemail messages, and interviewing the last people who called her.
Mesa County sheriffs would finally call off the search for Birgfeld’s body, but as they peeled back the puzzle of her last hours, they discovered a double life: The devoted soccer mom by day was spending her nights running “Models Inc”, a lucrative escort service. Birgfeld was in such demand, she had to change her voice while arranging trysts on the phone to make it sound like she had a stable of women available for business. Appointments were getting out of hand as more and more lonely men turned to the woman who called herself “Carrie.” All of those clients were suspect and would become an investigative nightmare for law enforcement. And many of them would end up testifying in a courtroom that saw a parade of prostitutes, ex-lovers, and broken family members tell what they knew about the back-door life of Paige Birgfeld.
It took nine years and two trials to convict Birgfeld’s murderer. But late Tuesday afternoon, a crowded courtroom watched as one of her former clients, 65-year-old Lester Ralph Jones, was found guilty of killing and kidnapping her after making an escort appointment in June 2007. Birgfeld’s lifelong friends and volunteers who searched the desert canyons in vain for her body hugged and cried. Jurors in this second trial took three days, with a much-needed holiday break in-between, to decide. But the jurors in the first trial had a much harder time with a verdict and in the end, could not reach a unanimous decision as to Jones’s guilt. The problem, they said, was that there was too much reasonable doubt, and no physical evidence linking Jones to the murder, just a complicated web of cellphone pings and voicemails to prove that Jones and Birgfeld were in contact just before she vanished. The crime scene was too compromised to turn up any fingerprints, DNA, or hair and fiber evidence to link Jones to the killing.
Her bones turned up in 2012, discovered by a hiker. They had been washed down a dry ravine a half an hour outside of Grand Junction. Wrapped around her skull was a tattered piece of grey duct tape. Jones was arrested in 2014.
Months of testimony in both trials went from brutally gruesome, to pornographic, to miserably sad. Birgfeld’s daughter, Jess, was only 8 years old when her mom went out for a picnic and never came home. She described a loving mother who routinely hauled all three children in the family van to their dance recitals, McDonald’s meals, and soccer practices while juggling side businesses selling Pampered Chef products and baby slings.
“Christmas was the best thing. We had a big tree. One year we got a puppy,” a now-18-year-old Jess told the jury. A tear escaped her eye from behind her glasses as she was shown a picture of the energetic mother who saw such a need for a mom’s support group, she started one.
There were painfully embarrassing moments. Like when the district attorney showed Birgfeld’s father one of his daughter’s black bras, Frank Birgfeld, admitted from the stand, “I was completely in the dark about this whole adult world thing.”
Birgfeld’s first husband, Ron Beigler, was the last known person to see her alive. He testified that the two of them were reigniting their relationship; but, that he refused when she had asked him to strip for Models Inc. “I wanted her to quit. She said that she would quit if I wanted her to,” Beigler told the courtroom before explaining why.
“Because she could get killed for one.”
The picnic basket she brought that last day was found in the trunk of Birgfeld’s burnt-out car.
At about the time of the car fire, searchers started finding pieces of Birgfeld’s life strewn along Highway 50, outside of town: blank checks, her business cards, one gold high heeled pump. Prosecutors theorized that Jones put Birgfeld in the trunk of her car and drove her into the wilderness before he killed her. They believe Birgfeld threw her personal articles out of the trunk in a desperate attempt to lead authorities to them.
“She was terrified,” said Birgfeld’s father, Frank, tells The Daily Beast. “I think she finally realized she couldn’t talk herself out of this.” If there’s one thing that tore him apart during the trial, Frank says, it’s that he wished he could have told her to go straight home to her children that terrible night.
Five of Birgfeld’s clients reluctantly testified for the defense in both of her trials including one man who paid Birgfeld a total of $14,000 for sexual encounters, all the while writing fake company invoices to pay for them. Another person of interest to take the stand was the ranch hand who made an appointment with her the night she disappeared. “This is John at the Motel 6,” his voicemail played for the courtroom, “Just wondering if you’re coming out or not.” But to the defense, the most suspicious of Birgfeld’s johns was George Corraluzzo, a cocaine addict so obsessed with Birgfeld he called her 20 times the night she disappeared. But Corraluzzo couldn’t defend himself in court because he drowned in 2011.
“He was a good boy,” his mother Rose sobbed to the jury.
But it was Lester Jones, an RV mechanic, who was targeted by investigators right away. A convicted felon who had once used her services for a $400 erotic massage, Jones was also one of the last people to have a phone conversation with Birgfeld. Days after she went missing, he was interrogated by the Mesa County Sheriffs Office for a total of eight hours, denying all the while that he killed her. There was more to Jones’s background that made him suspicious in the eyes of investigators. He had served time for the first degree assault and and attempted kidnapping of his first wife. Lisa Nance, who looks a lot like Paige, said Jones stalked her and even stole a plane to follow her to Oklahoma where she was in hiding. Though her nightmare with Jones happened in 1999, she was still so afraid of him, her hand was shaking when she pointed him out in court.
At Jones’s workshop, sheriffs deputies found a Pampered Chef scale, a gas can, a black bra, condoms, Viagra, phone numbers of various prostitutes, and a wig. In the trash, they found the package to the disposable phone Jones used to call Birgfeld the week she went missing. Jones denied it was his phone even though he was seen on surveillance footage buying it.
But authorities didn’t have a body, so they didn’t arrest Jones until 2014, two years after Birgfeld’s bones were found. Jones’s attorneys maintained his innocence, arguing that any one of the five other suspects who were former clients of Birgfeld could have killed her. They attacked the sheriffs’ investigation for not seriously considering anyone but Jones and for mishandling evidence.
The first trial ended up in a hung jury. There were three of the 12 who said there wasn’t enough physical evidence to convict him because there were no forensics to tie Jones to the murder. No fingerprints, no DNA, no fibers, etc. The car had been torched and her bones revealed nothing. The duct tape was wrapped around her skull. No one ever found the roll. Mesa County District Attorney Dan Rubinstein told The Daily Beast that in the second trial, he relied less on dog scent evidence and explained the cellphone data more clearly and that’s what he thought made the difference. He also discounted all five suspects the defense brought up very well in closing. In short, he explained why the five johns couldn’t have done it, so Jones was left.
Rubinstein took a chance taking Jones to trial a second time. But he says he saw plenty of damning evidence in cellphone and computer records: “I felt like there was proof beyond a reasonable doubt there, and that the family deserved one more crack at it.” The second jury of seven men and five women took three days to convict Jones.
“We pulled 12 people off the street and kept them over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays. They gave it the attention they needed to decide that Lester Jones is the only person who could have done this.”