COLORADO SPRINGS — On Wednesday James Papol will be sentenced for a brutal murder he committed more than 30 years ago. In February he agreed to a plea deal for second degree murder and aggravated robbery in the death of Mary Lynn Renkel Vialpando. Former District Attorney Dan May helped prepare this case for trial and he sat down with FOX21’s Abbie Burke ahead of Papol’s sentencing to reflect on the journey to justice.
In 1988 Dan May was a Deputy District Attorney with the 4th Judicial District.
“I had been with the office just a few years and I had just started on the homicide team,” he said.
He remembers being called out to a scene on a sunny Sunday morning.
“The scene was still being processed, they had taped it off so the public couldn’t go through,” he said. “It was on a back alley off there over on Colorado Avenue.”
Officers said there had been a homicide and a young woman, later identified as Mary Lynn Renkel Vialpando, had been brutually attacked.
“When you look back at Mary Lynn’s life – she grew up in that area. Her whole family lives within blocks of that area. She felt very comfortable, very safe walking around,” said May. “It was her community.”
Police immediately interviewed Mary Lynn’s husband at the time, and learned she had left their home the night before, and she was upset.
“What happens is she’s out at a family wedding that night in Pueblo,” May said. “They come back, a couple of their relatives are going to stay with them at their house because they felt that they had drunk too much to drive home. Nobody knows for sure because Mary Lynn didn’t express, but she’s angry and when she gets angry the way she handles it is she just walks out. And she walks about the neighborhood until she cools down and comes back. That was her way of handling it.”
May said Mary Lynn’s husband, Bob, had injured his leg earlier that week and wasn’t able to keep up with his wife, so he eventually gave up his search for her and went to bed.
“He gets up early the next morning and he starts looking again. He’s very worried, nobody in the family knows where she is,” May said. “Now this is very unusual. He actually comes up on the tape there. They’ve taped off the alley and his worst fears are coming true. As he’s looking down the alley, she is covered, but one of her feet I think is out and he even remembered her socks.”
May said to make matters worse Bob then became the focus of the investigation and would remain so for years to come.
“Each new detective, they all know 55 percent of all murders of women end up being the husband, so they all start by focusing on him. And it really just tore that family up, wondering, ‘did dad do this? Did our son-in-law do this?’ And he was always adamant, always cooperative, always did whatever the cops wanted, but he was the focus of attention for a long time and it destroyed that family.”
At the time of Mary Lynn’s murder DNA was a new concept and it’s benefits were still unknown.
“Nobody knew what DNA was at the time,” said May. “And in fact we’re out at the scene and I turn to police and I say, ‘I’ve been reading about this new thing called DNA, would you guys collect evidence so that we can test for it?’ And they’re kind of like, ‘what’s DNA?’ Today, as I look back at the reports, one of the detectives actually wrote in his report, ‘we’re going to try this new technique called “D and A.'”
After convincing both the officers and the coroner to collect DNA evidence, May then had to find somewhere to get it tested.
“There wasn’t a single law enforcement lab in the entire country that did it,” said May. “Great Britain had a company named Cellmark that was doing DNA. They had moved a brand new branch over onto the east coast in 1987, less than a year before this crime. So we sent it to them, because it was the only lab we could find in the entire country that even did testing for DNA.”
There was also no DNA database in 1988.
“So what we would do is anytime we had a supsect we’d get a court order to take their DNA, send it out to Cellmark and see if you could do these one-on-one comparisons, which actually helped in this case because there were particularly one person, but two people that were pretty darn good suspects in this case, as the case developed over the next few months, that we were able to eliminate because it wasn’t their DNA,” said May.
So who did this mystery DNA belong to?
“In 1988 all we could do is comparisons to individual suspects and this defendant wasn’t on anybody’s radar at all,” said May.
However, May said he should have been.
“He was staying at a motel right across the street and normally police go to every house and every apartment and see if anybody knows anything. And looking through the reports, it doesn’t look like anybody was talked to in that motel,” said May. “So I don’t know if it wasn’t done or if somebody didn’t turn in a report, but he would have been right across the street.”
It was just the first time James Papol would slip through law enforcement’s fingers.
“We then get up to 2002, 2003,” said May. “James had a long criminal history, but in 2002, 2003, he picks up six felonies.”
May said Papol pleaded incompetent on those cases and was sent to the state mental hospital for the next six years.
“So now we get up to 2008, when they finally say he’s restored and you can process him in the courts, if you will,” said May. “He comes into court in 2008, we work out a plea bargain – or our office does. I wasn’t involved at all because nobody knew who this guy was, other than these six felonies. On three of his cases he pleads not guilty by reason of insanity and is sent to the state hospital. On two of his cases he gets guilty pleas with probation concurrent with the state hospital, so they send him there. And the sixth case they dismiss.”
In 2007 Colorado passed a law that all convicted felons have submit their DNA into a database, so a judge ordered Papol’s DNA be collected.
But according to May, this is where Papol slips through the cracks again.
“Well, if he had put on probation, the probation department had someone – they’d send him down and they’d take the DNA,” said May. “Had he gone to community corrections or had he gone to prison again, they had somebody doing that. 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.”
Seven years later, when Papol finished his sentence, his case was closed, despite the fact that his DNA was never taken.
“In 2015 he’s still with the state hospital, he’s out on residency, but he still has to come in for classes – and he misses a class. So they put him on escape status,” said May. “So, he’s picked up in 2015 for escape out of the state hospital. Now they have a contract with CSPD at the jail to take his DNA, so they take his DNA as part of the escape charge.”
But there’s another problem.
“Pueblo never files the escape charge,” said May. “They just dismiss the charge. So now his DNA sits there, having been taken for an escape, but nobody knows what to do with it.”
May said the Colorado Bureau of Investigation couldn’t find a case to attach the DNA to when they were preparing to test it – so it sits there for another two years.
“They’re trying to figure out legally under our statues whether they can legally test this DNA,” said May. “Now we’re up to 2017, so almost 30 years later. Finally an attorney with the Attorney’s General office says ‘yes, I think you can test Mr. Papol’s DNA.’ 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 hopsital right now.'”
After more than three decades of escaping justice, Papol’s time had finally run out.
“It’s just unfortunate the way it was,” said May. “It’s not unfortunate, it’s a tragedy the way it was, it should have been solved years ago.”
“It would have been nice to get his DNA in 2002, 2003. It should have gotten in the court order in 2008, and tragically Mary Lynn’s parents were still alive then and this was eating that family up, ‘who killed our daughter?’ By the time we actually tested in 2017 her parents are deceased, so they died not even knowing who killed their daughter – tragically – and we should have known in 2008,” he said.
In 2017, when Papol was finally identified, May was the elected District Attorney in the 4th Judicial District and was running the DA’s office.
“Just knowing it was solved was probably the first time you’re like, ‘wow, we solved this case!’ It’s been around forever and ever and ever. This is fabulous that we can do this. Second was meeting with the family for the first time and being able to tell them and they have all sorts of different types of emotions, but at least now we know who did it and we know who didn’t do it,” said May. “We can start moving forward. And I think that was a moment, I’m not even sure I could even express the emotions I had in just being able to sit there with them, everybody in the family, and be able to say, ‘we’ve got some good news for you. We know who did this, we’re going to prosecute this guy.'”
But justice would not come swiftly. Papol was only 15 years old at the time of the crime, which presented challenges in the legal system.
“Our law since 1988 has changed several different times of whether you’re allowed to prosecute a 15-year-old for murder or not, and under what circumstance you can or not, and even what type of hearings you get or not,” said May. “The defense was obviously fighting to keep him in juvenille court, and we were saying, ‘no we’re allowed to transfer him to adult court.’ So we worked through a lot of ‘do you use ’88 procedures or do you use 2018 procedures?'”
In the end, the judge ruled that the 1988 rule applied and the prosecution asked to have Papol moved to adult court. to which the judge agreed.
“So he’s being prosecuted as an adult and faces adult penalties, as he should,” said May.
Finally, trial could begin.
“We actually started trial, we had two trials potentially, one was whether he was sane or not and the second was whether he was guilty or not,” said May. “We set the trial in the fall, we started the trial, we were part way, we were just finishing our jury selection and about ready to start our evidence on whether he’s insane or not, when our trial got canceled for COVID.”
The judge declared a mistrial and the trial was postponed until 2021, after May was set to retire.
“So now I’m off the case,” he said. But May was determined to see the case through, so he went to Michael Allen, the new District Attorney – and his former Deputy District Attorney – and asked to stay on the case.
“It’s a case that I was very vested in,” said May. “I know all the witnesses.”
Allen agreed to let May volunteer, which came as a suprise to the defense team.
“I think the defense thought I was gone. They said ‘Goodbye, Dan. It was nice to see you,’ I think the defendant thought I was off the case,” he said. But when news broke that May was staying on, he said suddenly, the defense team wanted to make a deal to avoid first-degree murder charge.
“He’s pled guilty to 2nd degree murder, his range is 40 to 60 years in adult prison,” said May. “The judge on the sentencing date will pick a number between 40 and 60 and whatever she picks, that’s the number.”
May said it was a difficult decision to make.
“I have my feelings of what he ought to get,” he said. “Obviously we can’t go for the death penalty anymore in the state of Colorado, which is what he ought to get, but quite frankly he’s 47, 48 years old. You add 40 to 60 to anybody’s sentence and at some point you have to ask at what point am I doing this just for the principal of things?”
May said Mary Lynn’s family agreed.
“They’ve been waiting a long time for this to be resolved,” he said. “They overwhelmingly wanted to take this plea bargain. They’ve been waiting since 1988. It’s really destroyed their family in many ways and affected them personally in many ways, not for the good. At the same time we filed charges in 2018, we tried to get trial once, we couldn’t do it. COVID is still pending, it’s still hanging over the court system so they were also getting frustrated.”
He said based on those factors, he thinks it was a good deal.
“When you look at what the family wants in this case, when you look at his actual age compared to the sentence that he’s getting, I think it’s a fair plea bargain.”
Part of the deal required Papol to admit to the court what he did.
“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.'”
But May said Papol has yet to show any remorse for what he did, and called his account of that night in court chilling.
“I’ve never seen anybody that cold,” said May. “That was kind of shocking just to hear his so matter of fact way of describing what he did.”
Mary Lynne’s case may finally be coming to a close, but May says it’s one that will stick with him forever.
“At the scene here’s this innocent person who clearly ran into just an evil person,” he said. “She put up a heck of a fight.”
He also said she possibly could have been saved.
“In talking with the coroner, now we know she died from a slow bleed on her brain. She might have been saved if someone just would have looked out and called the cops,” he said. “The screams were such that people up the hill in the motel up there could hear her screaming. They live off Colorado Avenue there, none of them looked out the window. If they would have looked out, she was right under there, she could have been saved.”
May said at sentencing he wants to make sure the judge knows everything that took place that tragic night.
“It will be one of the longest hearings I’ve ever done, because we’re going to be calling a number of forensic evidence people. Because we think the judge ought to know the struggle that went on out there, and the fight that went on out there, and what all happened to her,” he said.
Members of Mary Lynn’s family also plan to share victim impact statements at Papol’s sentencing.
May said this case should give hope to other families waiting for justice.
“It used to be you had to have a lot of DNA to be able to do a test, now we can do it on extremely small parts of DNA. So as we’re going back to some of these cases they have what they now call Touch DNA where just by touching somebody you left your DNA, you couldn’t do that even 10-20 years ago.”
And he said the new advances in science are helping solve old cases too.
“We’re going back and going through the evidence and we’re catching these people and we’re solving them.”