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Murder on County Road 243: Family questions investigation in Garfield County

Deputies missed a body in apparent murder-suicide case
Darlene and Tanner
Posted at 9:50 PM, Mar 10, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-11 00:30:30-05

DENVER — An apparent murder-suicide in a remote Colorado mountain town has left a family questioning everything after deputies missed a body and the case remained open for nine months.

Denver7 Investigates spent months looking into the murder on County Road 243 and discovered a Colorado Bureau of Investigation (CBI) forensic testing backlog is largely to blame for the stalled case, but that’s only the beginning of the story.

New Castle, Colorado is known for its tight-knit neighborhoods and stunning mountain views. It’s the same community where Ali Wagstaff grew up, worked, and went to school.

It’s also the community where deputies and the coroner ruled Ali’s grandmother, Darlene Brooks, died by suicide on April 10, 2022. What’s worse, it’s not the only death Ali is struggling to understand.

“It almost feels like we don’t have permission to grieve yet,” said Ali.

Ali Wagstaff
Ali Wagstaff

While on scene of the apparent suicide, deputies in Garfield County missed the body of Darlene’s 19-year-old son Tanner Zancanella, lying dead across the hall. More than a day after Darlene was found, the agency shifted to a homicide investigation.

Ali describes Darlene as the best grandma, who was smart, witty, and funny. That memory now paints a stark comparison to what could have been her grandmother’s last words: “I couldn't deal with pain anymore.”

The handwritten suicide note is now all Ali, and her family, can grapple with since the death of their loved one.

Darlene was found inside her home by her husband, Bill Zancanella, with a gunshot wound to the head. Beside her on the bed, their pit bull Gypsy was also shot dead. Instead of calling for help from their home, Bill drove 20 minutes down the road to a local grocery store, phoning 911 from there.

An audio recording of the 911 call showed Bill had difficulty providing basic information to the dispatcher, but he did tell them he was calling because his wife just died. A grocery store clerk helped Bill provide the dispatcher with the couple’s address located on 4412 County Road 243 in New Castle.

Family members explained Bill suffers from a traumatic brain injury stemming from a car crash several years ago, and his condition has continued to deteriorate.

New Castle, Colorado
New Castle, Colorado

A Garfield County deputy picked up Bill at the grocery store and drove him back to his house. During the drive, the deputy wrote in his case report that Bill couldn’t explain why he didn’t use the landline but said there was no cell service.

As deputies took over the case, they found Darlene’s finger still on the trigger when they arrived.

“It was immediately ruled a suicide," Ali said.

On April 11, deputies were called back to the house, 28 hours after they were first on the scene. Denver7 Investigates requested and reviewed the audio and dispatch records. The death investigator sounded distraught as she listened to the dispatch address — the same address as the day before.

The 911 dispatcher said, "It’s on 4412 County Road 243."

The Garfield County Coroner’s Office responded, “Oh no. OK.”

The 911 dispatcher said, “Yeah, it was uh, it’s gonna be a 19-year-old male…”

The Garfield County Coroner’s Office responded, “Oh, God. OK.”

They had missed a body. Tanner, 19, was Darlene and Bill’s adopted son from Hawaii. Bill’s nephew found him dead in his room, with a gunshot wound to the head.

Tanner Zancanella
Tanner Zancanella

Darlene’s daughter Julie Sands was there the day Tanner was found.

“I just jumped out of the car, ran into the house and ran into his room,” she recalled.

Julie said Lead Det. Megan Alstatt came to a quick conclusion about what happened.

“She comes out and she says, ‘Well, it appears that your mother shot and killed Tanner, then went into her bedroom and shot and killed the dog and then laid on her bed and shot and killed herself,’ just like matter-of-factly,” Julie said.

It was a suicide investigation now turned into a murder-suicide. Darlene’s family said questions circulated around why deputies didn’t find Tanner’s body. Then, the investigation went silent for nine months.

Julie said she spent the time debating how and why her mom would kill Tanner, describing it as tormenting.

“I mean, you can't grieve. You can't have any closure because you don't have answers. What do you do?” Julie said.

Denver7 Investigates sent an email to the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 9, 2023, inquiring about the status of the case. That same day, an otherwise dormant investigation took on new life.

Alstatt actively started working the case again, filing six new supplemental reports according to the case files. She conducted witness interviews, spoke with a neighbor of Darlene and Bill, and took an account from the grocery store clerk who helped Bill. She also downloaded and listened to Bill’s initial 911 call for the first time in nine months.

Denver7 Investigates learned the nine-month timeline was caused by a lag in evidence processing by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation. CBI currently has an up-to-year backlog for firearm ballistic testing, and the agency said it processes this evidence based on the urgency of a case.

The Garfield County Sheriff’s Office relies solely on CBI for its forensic testing and was waiting on CBI to produce a critical report about the ballistics in this case.

CBI’s report concluded the same gun was used to kill Darlene, Tanner, and the dog: Darlene’s .38 Rossi revolver. CBI was able to finish its report just four days after Denver7 Investigates reached out about the status of the investigation.

Once completed, the case was closed, and the reports became open to the public.

Ali said the sudden movement in the case made her feel as if the sheriff’s office had not investigated much in the nine-month interim. She and Julie both agree the case files spotlight what they believe was an inadequate investigation.

“They didn't do anything until you all contacted them,” she said. “It makes me appreciate you all a lot. But it's really frustrating for us because I've been asking for this stuff since April.”

Denver7 Investigates took the 70-page case report to retired Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock. He reviewed the files and was asked to provide his unbiased opinion, based on his 43-year tenure in law enforcement.

“I think the investigation is accurate. It's just — they cause themselves to be questioned more because of these other circumstances,” Spurlock said.

Spurlock said the lack of evidence collected by deputies the first day likely impacted some of their ability to investigate Tanner’s death.

“The next day, when they're now changing it to homicide,” he said. “Now they're having to play catch up."

Spurlock addressed records showing Garfield County deputies never got a formal statement from Bill. They also never collected his clothes the first day, despite a search warrant dated April 11, 2022, detailing them as items of interest the following day when the case became a homicide investigation.

“They made a decision, which way to go. And they said, ‘Yeah, we're not going to take his clothes. We're comfortable with what we see here.’ And that decision now has caused people to question them,” Spurlock said.

Spurlock also reacted to the witness interviews, conducted nine months later.

“I think it probably should have been done sooner. It should have been done as close to the event as possible, so you have immediate recollection,” he said.

“It’s irresponsible lack of follow-up,” Julie said.

Denver7 Investigates tried requesting standard operating procedures for Garfield County death investigations to understand how the sheriff’s office missed a body that day. The inquiry revealed the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office does not have any written policies or procedures for how deputies should investigate a death.

‘I had no idea it would become what it did’: Denver7 investigator on rural Colorado murder case full of ‘twists’

Most Colorado agencies do have death investigation policies, including Clear Creek County, an even smaller agency with fewer staff.

“I always recommend that you have a standard operating procedure on major events. It's really just good practice,” Spurlock explained.

Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario said he does not believe his agency needs a death investigation policy.

“We don't really have a manual on what's the best way to do a death investigation, because every death is unique,” he said. “I see no reason to have a death investigation policy in our organization.”

Vallario also backed his agency’s investigation and the decisions made by his deputies on scene the first day, saying they did not have the legal authority to conduct a full search. Instead, they were only able to conduct what’s known as a “protective sweep.”

Ali and Julie said they believe deputies should have been able to see the shape of Tanner’s body under the sheets while sweeping the house. But because Bill told deputies he had not seen Tanner in some time, Vallario argues his deputies had no reason to believe someone else was inside the home.

“It really didn't lend to us to do an extensive search, nor do we have the legal authority to do an extensive search,” Vallario said. “Particularly on a response to a suicide, which isn't a crime in Colorado.”

According to the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, a protective sweep should be conducted, “when an officer acts to protect his or her safety.” In practice, this means deputies searched the home to ensure an imminent threat was not inside.

“It is unfortunate. And obviously, you know, it could be a little bit embarrassing, of course,” Vallario said when asked about his deputies missing a body.

Darlene’s loved ones said what Vallario claims to be “embarrassing” for his agency has been devastating for their family.

“Having nine months of this going on and on — it's just been so painful for us,” Ali said.

Regardless of the sheriff doubling down on lack of policy, Ali and Julie still called for a public apology on behalf of his office.

“I apologize. I mean, certainly, I would say that it could have been done better,” Vallario said.

Despite the sheriff’s apology and his office providing the evidence they believe proves this was a murder-suicide by Darlene, Ali and her family still do not believe they will ever have the answers they need because of how the investigation was handled.

“Please don't call my grandmother a murderer without having proof because they still don't have proof,” she said. “Everybody should be treated as a suspect. Treat me as a suspect.”

For Julie, the unknown in her mother’s suicide death has made this the worst year of her life. She and Ali spent the past nine months running through every possible scenario, struggling to believe Darlene would have killed Tanner.

They also wonder how different the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office’s investigation may have been had deputies found Tanner’s body on April 10, launching a homicide investigation from the start.

“They will be missed. And they deserve justice,” Julie said.

We reached out to Bill’s power of attorney multiple times. He declined to comment on the case.

Denver7 Investigates also discovered CBI has a backlog for other forensic evidence, not just firearm ballistic testing. Next Friday night at 10 p.m., a Denver7 Investigation digs into how the backlog impacts the timely processing of cases across our state, and how the CBI’s new director is promising change.

If you know of someone contemplating ending their life, the national suicide and crisis lifeline is 988. The phone line runs 27/4, and is free.