COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — A Pueblo man will be sentenced Wednesday for a brutal murder he committed more than 30 years ago when he was just 15 years old.
James Papol, now 48, agreed to a plea deal in February and faces between 40 and 60 years behind bars for second-degree murder and aggravated robbery in the death of Mary Lynn Renkel Vialpando. He originally faced first-degree murder charges.
Wednesday is a day Mary Lynn’s family and former District Attorney Dan May have been waiting for, but for some, the day comes too late.
“I loved her so much and you just can’t let that go,” said Cynthia Renkel, Mary Lynn’s older sister, who has spent nearly half of her life waiting to find out who killed her little sister and why.
“Somebody did something terrible to her and I wasn’t going to rest until that person was found and convicted, so it didn’t really take strength, it just took patience,” said Renkel.
Mary Lynn was brutally attacked June 5, 1988 in an alley in Old Colorado City.
“I haven’t seen any photos, I don’t want to see them, but I have read the autopsy report,” said Renkel.
According to that report, Mary Lynn was beaten, raped, stabbed and left to die in the street.
“She might have been saved if someone just would have looked out and called the cops,” said Dan May, who was a deputy district attorney at the time. He responded to the scene the next morning and still remembers what it looked like.
“You were kind of startled at the scene, at this horrible tragedy and the fight she put up and the struggle and the injuries she had. I mean almost every part of her body is injured, she fought so hard,” said May.
May was also there when Mary Lynn’s family found out the shocking news.
“Anytime you meet with the family it just touches your heart, just as a human being, so that stayed with me,” he said. “Then as you start learning about Mary Lynn, I mean she and Bob were a young newlywed couple, had a very very young daughter, just starting off in life, she’s trying to better herself, she’s going to Colorado Tech to get a degree. She actually had to ride a bicycle to get over there, so she’s going over on snow days, rain days. She’s just a good person, and you’re like how could this tragedy happen to somebody like this?”
It would take police until 2017–29 years later–to find Mary Lynn’s killer, even though he had been sitting right underneath their noses for years.
“This defendant wasn’t on anybody’s radar at all,” said May.
James Papol was just 15 years old in 1988, and investigators would learn later he had been staying at a motel on West Colorado Avenue with his mother at the time of Mary Lynn’s murder.
“James has a long criminal history but in 2002, 2003, he picks up six felonies,” said May.
He would plead incompetent in those cases and be sent to the state mental hospital for treatment, where he remained for the next six years.
In 2008, Papol was considered restored and sent to court, where he pled not guilty by reason of insanity. He was sent back to the state hospital, and a judge ordered his DNA be taken.
“Well, if he had been put on probation, the probation department had someone, they’d send him down and they’d take the DNA. Had he gone to community corrections or had he gone to prison again, they had somebody doing that,” said May. “The state hospital wasn’t geared up for that at all. They didn’t see it in the order, they didn’t have anybody that did DNA, so he goes down there and nobody takes his DNA in 2008.”
It’s not until 2015, when Papol misses a class at the state hospital and he’s put on escape notice, that law enforcement takes his DNA. But for some reason, the charge is never filed, so his DNA sits there for another two years.
“Finally an attorney with the Attorney’s General office says ‘yes, I think you can test Mr. Papol’s DNA, I think it meets these parts of the law,'” said May. “So they test it that fall, I think it was November 17, they put it in. By 4 a.m. the next morning the 18th, CODIS comes out and says ‘this is James Papol, you’ve got him. He’s the one that did this murder/rape and he’s in your state hospital right now.’ And that’s when we finally get our case.”
“It’s just unfortunate the way it was,” he said. “It’s not unfortunate. It’s a tragedy the way it was. It should have been solved years ago.”
May said had Papol’s DNA been run in 2008, Mary Lynn’s parents still would have been alive.
“My dad passed away without knowing who had done such a terrible thing to his little girl, and my mom lived to age 99-and-a-half and she also passed without knowing,” said Renkel. “So that was probably one of the hardest parts of this is that my mother lived that long and didn’t even know what happened to her daughter.”
Renkel said learning about the delay in justice is frustrating, but she said it’s time to put aside the “what ifs” and “what could have beens.”
“I feel that for the last 33 years almost I’ve been walking around with a little dark cloud over my head,” she said, adding that she is now working on forgiving the man who took her sister away from her.
“He does not deserve from me my passion and emotion for hate,” said Renkel. “I just want to be done with him, so the only way I can be done with him is to forgive him.”
May is also ready to see this case come to a close. After retiring last year, he volunteered to stay on and see it through.
“Part of me wants to go to trial, part of me is ready for trial. We prepared it for trial, we started trial, but it’s nice knowing he’s being held accountable,” said May. “It was nice knowing he had to stand up and say ‘I did this.'”
Renkel is not sure what life will look like after her sister’s killer is brought to justice.
“I don’t know how I will feel. I’m sure I will be very positive, and I am looking forward to that, because I can’t even remember how it felt not to have this dark cloud over my head,” said Renkel.
She and her brother plan to read victim impact statements to the judge on Wednesday. Both she and May said they are hoping Papol will receive the maximum amount of time.