The Mystery of Mike Rust Solved and A Killer Convicted
By Nathan Ward
The San Luis Valley locals knew who killed Mike Rust on the night of March 31, 2009, in Saguache County. They told us the killer’s name just days after we started making a film to celebrate Mike’s role as a pioneer in the sport of mountain biking, and to draw attention to the mystery of his disappearance. The locals knew who killed him, but as former Sheriff Mike Norris said “With no body, there is no crime. We just have to wait for someone to talk.” After eight years, someone finally talked.
Those eight years weren’t easy for Mike’s family and friends. After a flurry of activity when he went missing, everything essentially ground to a halt. The case file sat in the Saguache Sheriff’s Office and nothing seemed to be happening. Rumors swirled, psychics promised solutions, family members died, Mike’s homemade house decayed in the valley wind and sun, while others gleefully hoped Mike had just tricked the man and was hiding out in Mexico.
Mike’s family and friends never gave up looking for him. Marty Rust maintained vigil in the valley, and not a passive vigilance, as he followed every lead he heard – dropping cameras into mine shafts to look for remains, digging through the ashes of mysterious fire pits in the forest, showing the locals that the Rust family had not given up.
Annie Rust found a group of retired FBI agents who volunteered their time to help solve cold cases. One of them signed on to help find Mike, and he spent hundreds of hours and thousands of road miles on the case. This proved crucial later on when the case finally went to trial.
Carl and Paul Rust organized searches and later spent a great deal of time helping create the film about Mike. They toured the film on dozens of screenings throughout Colorado and renewed interest in Mike’s disappearance, an attention to the case that finally spread far beyond the San Luis Valley. In Saguache, they showed the film to hundreds of people living in the local area. It’s almost guaranteed someone in the audience there knew exactly what happened to Mike. However, in spite of all this effort, the Rust family still just needed one person to talk.
Following the tip, Deputy Clark picked up a young local man who showed him the exact spot where Mike Rust was buried, five feet deep in an old pig pen. The suspect turned out to be the exact person locals told us was the killer years before. The burial site was on his father’s land, just six miles from Mike’s house. The young man that turned him in was the killer’s son.
The authorities found a unique belt buckle on the remains of the body they unearthed, a buckle in the shape of bicycle rings, one that Mike was known to wear. With this, the Rust family knew their long lost brother had been found. An autopsy later confirmed it was Mike. The autopsy also showed he had been shot in the back of the head, executed.
Fast forward through months of court delays, in a part of Colorado that has too many cases to try and too few resources, to the end of November 2017 and the Saguache County Courthouse. It’s a grand structure in a tiny town in the middle of one of the most expansive high mountain valleys in America. It was the second day of jury selection in the trial of the murder of Mike Rust.
The potential jurors were dressed up a little but no one looked rich, a mix of men and women, young and old, white, Hispanic, Native American – a seemingly accurate representation of the San Luis Valley itself, independent salt of the earth people in a place where cultures intersect. Remote rural America.
The defense team’s plan became immediately apparent as they grilled each potential juror about their thoughts on self-defense, and whether or not they cared if the killer testified himself or not. From the outset, it felt like the defense wouldn’t be out to represent truth, but just to sow any doubt they could.
The killer sat there just yards away from Mike’s family. The teardrops tattooed under his left eye had been changed into a tattoo of a Christian cross. Because the jurors were supposed to think he was a normal citizen, and not a lifelong felon with a rap sheet stretching back 30 years, he wasn’t wearing handcuffs or his normal prison clothes. A dress shirt hid the ring of skulls tattooed across his neck and chest. The deputies there promised the court he had a “shocker” taped to his leg in case he tried to escape. There was no one on his side of the courtroom.
Jurors chosen, the trial started. On the other side of the courtroom sat Mike’s brothers, his sister, a few of his friends, the former Sheriff, the ex-FBI agent. It was interesting to witness the American justice system and not totally reassuring while it was happening. In a case like this, only one side of the story got to be told; the defense could make up any sort of tale they wanted for the killer. No one but Mike could tell Mike’s version of the story.
Summing up the days of the trial accurately in a few words here isn’t really possible, but some moments stand out.
The prosecution put the killer’s common-law wife on the stand. She looked scared and never made eye contact with the killer once. The prosecution showed the jury a letter the killer had written to her from prison. In the letter he said he had a way to get the $25,000 reward money the Rust family was offering. When he got out, they would take the money and run away together.
The prosecution called the killer’s son to testify, the young man who told authorities where to find Mike’s body. Like his father, he’d already been in and out of jail for years. He sat slouched and insolent on the stand, never making eye contact with his father. “They already knew all about it, so why not just show them where he was,” he stated, referring to the spot where Mike was buried. How long had he known where Mike was buried? Since the night it happened? It’s obvious that the authorities made a deal with him, because he was hustled off the stand before he could say anything else.
Mike was found buried on land owned by the killer’s father, in a hole also filled with trash, auto parts and chunks of concrete. Under oath, the father dutifully repeated the story presented by the defense, although the more he talked, the more his distress showed. After the killer’s son showed Deputy Clark where Mike’s body was hidden, and before the authorities dug it up, the father visited the killer in prison and told him the police were going to search the property. The killer told his father and his wife to dig up and move the body before the authorities could find it. The father testified, “I said, we ain’t going to dig up no body!”
Both the father and the wife claimed to know nothing about the crime before this, but it didn’t feel like they were telling the whole story.
Philip Romero was in prison with the killer. Romero was escorted into the Saguache courtroom dressed in prison orange, shackled hand and foot. He looked and acted every bit the felon, but the story he had to tell was crucial. He testified that the killer had approached him in late 2015 or early 2016 to ask him advice. Romero said the killer told him he used to “break into this guy’s house every so often, steal marijuana, and move things around just to fuck with him.” Then one day, the killer said he and Mike had some trouble back and forth and “I just got out of my truck and shot him. Shot him with his own gun.”
“I had some trouble getting him into the back of my truck, and then I buried him,” Romero testified the killer told him. Romero said the killer planned to tell his lawyer that Mike had the gun and it went off as they wrestled. The killer then told his lawyer that it was self defense and that was how he was going to get away with it. Romero had never been to the San Luis Valley before and said he had no idea who Mike Rust was.
The prosecution continued their case by bringing forward many experts from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) who worked on the case, including the El Paso County Coroner who conducted the autopsy on Mike’s remains. The coroner testified that the cause of death was a gunshot to the back of Mike’s head. In all their arguments, the defense never once mentioned this deadly wound or how it might have occurred. Their omission was not overlooked by the jury.
Over the course of the investigation, the killer gave several interviews to the ex-FBI agent and CBI investigators. In each interview, he told a different story about how Mike Rust was killed, eight different versions of the story in all, each including different people and motives. In the last interview he gave to CBI Agent Pat Crouch, after Mike’s body had been discovered on his father’s land, the killer stated, “I’m going to try to get off on self defense. I’m going to get a good lawyer and see what happens.”
In their final arguments the defense continued their efforts to sow doubt into just one juror. True to their profession, they stood by the killer to the end. The prosecution presented the jurors with all eight different stories the killer told investigators, the expert testimony from the CBI and local authorities and told the story like we think it happened.
After deliberating for just four hours, the jury came back with guilty verdicts on all accounts. The sentences: guilty of first degree murder with intent and a slew of other charges, life without parole. The defense immediately stated their intent to appeal, on the taxpayer’s dime, and defend the killer again.
In the end, even though it took a few years, the citizens of Saguache came through for the Rust Family. No one can blame an informant for saying what they know when they do, whether it’s sooner or later. We don’t know who they are, or what their motive was for keeping Mike’s disappearance a secret.
As for the appeal, hopefully the outcome is the same. A few members of the law have stated, off the record, they don’t believe the killer acted alone in murdering and hiding Mike. If the killer wasn’t alone, maybe he will decide to tell the court who else was involved and they will be brought to justice too. If not, Mike has been found. A killer convicted. Hopefully his brothers, sisters and friends feel some peace, even if they never know the whole story of what happened out there in the sage and dust on that dark night in the San Luis Valley.
Nathan Ward is a cinematographer and director of The Rider & The Wolf, a documentary about the disappearance of Mountain Bike Hall of Fame cyclist Mike Rust. www.RiderandWolfMovie.com. You can watch the film at www.vimeo.com/129852104