The story starts in Los Angeles. The year was 1977. Joe and Vickie Janson had two young daughters, Kristy and Sherry Janson. Wanting to get away from the “big city crime” of Los Angeles, California, the couple decided to move their family to an isolated area in La Plata County, Colorado, just 10 miles northwest of the small town of Bayfield, and 20 miles east of Durango.
It was an idyllic setting, especially compared to the bustling metropolis they had come from. A seemingly perfect place to raise their two young girls. Sadly, they were dead wrong.
The Janson family moved into their two story hide-away on a parcel of property they named “Hill Hollow Ranch”, a naming commemorated by a wooden sign hand painted by Joe. The girls loved it. So did Joe and Vicki, even though moving meant taking a salary cut. Joe had been an aerospace engineer for Rockwell International. He even had a hand in designing the J2 engines for NASA’s Apollo program, as well as the vertical ascent engines used in space shuttles.
Joe found work in Durango as a designer of factory equipment. Vickie owned and operated her own successful medical billing and bookkeeping service. She worked mostly from home, but later took on a one-day-a-week job as a receptionist for a dental office, as a favor for a friend. More on that later.
Six months after the Jansons made their move, another family took up residence in the adjacent parcel of land. Jim and Shirley Carter shared many similarities to the Jansons. They too had moved from southern California to get away from the city life with their two young children- their daughter, Jamie, who was just a couple of years older than Sherry, and their son, Aaron, who was the same age as Kristy Janson.
The children spent much time together and got along well for a time. But as the children grew older, their bond faded., Aaron and Kristy became antagonistic towards each other as their interests changed. Kristy became involved with her church and excelled at school. Aaron ignored his schoolwork in favor of gorey movies and trapping and hunting animals. One day, he threw a dead rabbit down a well, which didn’t sit well with Kristy. She told her dad, who in turn chastised Aaron. Aaron, in turn started bullying the younger Sherry, who in turn became bitter towards Jamie, and so it went.
Kristy and Sherry were very different, but were as close to each other as two sisters could be. Kristy was whip smart and cautious. Sherry was gung ho and loved life, including one of her newest favorite hobbies- catching butterflies. The Janson and Carter children all attended Bayfield Middle School and rode the same bus each day. The bus driver frequently saw Aaron bullying not only Sherry, but his own sister as well. By all accounts, Jamie was terrified of him. Rightfully so.
April 25th, 1983
It was a monday, so Vickie Janson was in the Durango Dental office that she worked at once a week. Joe Janson was busy making final preparations for a work meeting, also in Durango. The call came into Emergency Dispatch at 3:57pm. It was Jim Carter, reporting that his son had found his neighbor girls “cut up”. The 13 year old had called his father at work just moments before the 911 call.. Aaron told his dad that the Janson’s family dog had gotten free and wandered over to the Carter house. Aaron said he discovered the bodies when he returned the dog to their house.
La Plata Police Captain Nick Boyd had just patrolled the area moments before he got the call. He was on the scene within 5 minutes. The Carter children were home alone, as the Janson girls had been. When Boyd arrived at the Carter house, a sobbing and silent Jamie opened the door. When asked where the girls were, she simply pointed towards the dining room. Aaron stood against the wall, still holding the phone receiver and crying.
Boyd took the children with him in his Jeep. He not only needed Aaron to show him where the girls were… he also feared the killer was loose in the surrounding woods, and the nearest backup was still at least 10 minutes away. Aaron led Boyd to the Janson house. The front door was slightly ajar, but the home was otherwise undisturbed. Nothing was out of place. The replica and authentic rifles and revolvers mounted on the wall were untouched. Boyd searched the house room by room. Bedrooms- nothing. Bathroom- nothing. Living room- nothing. Then he stepped into the kitchen.
He froze when he saw her. Kristy Janson lay on the cold linoleum floor with a small halo of blood surrounding her head. Her throat was slit and Boyd saw stab wounds on her face and body. Too many to count. The blood spatter on her freckled face was not yet dry. He knelt down and touched her skin. She was cool, but not cold. She had very recently died. Boyd noted the relatively small amount of blood given the wounds. Had she been placed there after the murder?.
Boyd saw that the glass sliding door leading to the porch was open. He quickly checked the remaining 1st floor area then returned to the Carter children waiting in his Jeep. Boyd asked Aaron where the second girl was. The boy pointed to a hill about 75 yards away.
After cresting the hill, Boyd found the body of Sherry Janson. She lay face down in a patch of fallen pine needles. Her throat had also been slit and she had several stab wounds on her back. Beside her lay a butterfly net. But beyond the scuffled ground that indicated Sherry had been running when she fell, there was no obvious evidence.
No isolated blood spots. No knife. No torn pieces of clothes or hair clutched in the dead girls’ hands.No sign of a struggle, nor were there were any signs of molestation. Each of the girls were fully clothed in jeans, blouses and sneakers. There was very little blood here as well. Boyd assumed the ground had soaked it up.
Nick Boyd would spend the next hour or so repeatedly detailing the crime scene to the multitude of police officers that came in waves to the once- peaceful Janson residence. He found this arduous and inefficient, but he was more than happy to fill in undersheriff Mike Bell when he arrived at the house.
Bell was a seasoned and well-respected investigator. He had seen plenty of horrific things in his 17 years of overseeing murder investigations, but none had affected him as much as this case. None of them had been as ruthless or as seemingly merciless as this one. Bell was a man of few words, and this day was no exception. There wasn’t much to say about this tragic scene.
Detective Jim Harrington arrived shortly after Bell. He was another seasoned lawman that wasn’t prepared for the aftermath of this particular crime. Harrington cut a classic Hollywood Western image. He was tall and thin, with a thick gray mustache, a large silver belt buckle, black cowboy boots and a strong western drawl.
As the mass of policemen fruitlessly searched the area, rumors began to swirl. It was a roving motorcycle gang… no, it was a satanic ritual. The rumors were many and varied, but none held a grain of truth.
A forensics team had been called to the site. While Bell and Harrington waited, they decided to re-enter the house to what they might have missed. Harrington found hair and blood in the sink. Someone had literally tried to wash their hands of the murder. A kitchen drawer was open. It was filled with kitchen knives. One of the knives lay on the counter above the drawer, next to a cutting board with a block of cheese that Kristy must have been preparing.
The pair of men then walked the trail back to the second body. A deputy had discovered a set of footprints and cordoned them off. For all Bell and Harrington knew, the prints could have belonged to one of the many officers trampling over the crime scene.
Search dogs were brought in. Their actions indicated to their handlers that the murder weapon was in a nearby pond, and the handler said “Whoever did it went down below that hill”. He pointed to a trail that led to the Carter house.
Deputy Sue Naholnik stayed with the Carter children in a nearby ambulance. She tried to comfort the kids. She felt bad for them and wanted to make this as painless as possible. Sue made small talk with the kids, but Jamie couldn’t ignore what was really on her mind. “I can’t believe they’re dead. We were just laughing and talking on the bus this afternoon.”
What could Sue say? After a melancholy pause in the conversation, Aaron spoke up. He said “Kristy was in the kitchen. She got it first. Then Sherry walked in. They got her out on the trail.”
Sue wondered how Aaron could possibly know who died first, as they were both surely dead by the time he found them. Jamie chimed in “Isn’t it funny that Aaron talked to Kristy right before she was killed?” He had talked to her on the phone to let her know he was bringing their dog back to them. Jamie thought it was funny that not even ten minutes could have passed from the time he talked to her to the time that he came back screaming that the girls had been cut up.
Sue left the kids briefly to tell Detective Harrington what she had just heard. She returned to the children, and not wanting to let them know what she was thinking, began making small talk again. She asked where they were from. Jamie answered- California. Sue said she’d love to go there someday. Aaron said “California’s okay, but it’s real hot there.” Well, you could always go to the beach to cool off, Sue said. Jamie replied that they weren’t allowed to go to the beach. She said they had been grounded from it because Aaron used to tear her dolls up all the time. One time, he got a hold of one of her dolls and tried to tear her smile off. That’s when they were grounded.
Harrington came in to talk to the kids. He began questioning Aaron. How had he found the bodies? At what time? Which one did he see first? Did he see anyone else? How was he feeling? As Aaron mumbled his answers, Harrington wasn’t really listening. Instead, he was examining the boy’s shoes, trying to see the soles.
Instead, he noticed something else. A spray of blood on Aaron’s dark blue denim jeans. It was nearly imperceptible but now that he saw it, he was locked in. He pointed to Aaron’s knee and said “Look here. Where did this blood come from?”
Aaron looked down surprised. He said he must have brushed against one of them when he found them. Harrington knew a spray doesn’t come from incidental contact with a motionless body. He stopped the interview. On the way out of the ambulance he looked back one more time. He finally got a view of Aaron’s soles. They matched the prints found by Sherry’s body. Harrington rounded up Bell, Boyd and Sheriff Al Brown. He said “I think the boy did it. He’s the one.”
An order went in for the pond to be pumped and searched for any evidence- particularly a murder weapon. In the meantime, Aaron was taken to be more formally interviewed at the La Plata County Courthouse by Mike Bell and Al Bell, another detective unrelated to Mike. He gave a good enough story at first. He came upon Kristy in the kitchen. He got scared, so he started to run home when he found Sherry. He didn’t hesitate and ran home from there.
But while Mike Bell questioned Aaron, he noticed a blood spatter on the boy’s shirt. Two blood spatters on his clothes erased any shred of doubt in Bell’s mind. Detective Harrington called to touch base. Harrington told Bell that they didn’t find much at the house. Just a bit of blood on the ceiling, and they were making casts of the footprints going back and forth from the bodies. Bell stopped Harrington. What do you mean back and forth? The kid said he ran straight through to get home. The footprints told a different story.
Just a few offices away from Bell and Carter, Assistant D.A. Vic Reichman began to research the juvenile laws for what could be the biggest case of his career. While reading the criminal statutes and Children’s Code of Colorado, he discovered a petition that stated juvenile offenders can’t be tried as adults if they were under the age of 14. Aaron’s birthday was May 7, 1969. He was 12 days from turning 14.
Just twelve days prevented Reichman from escalating the case and trying Aaron Carter as an adult. But what did that mean in terms of sentencing?
Section 19-1-114 answered the question. “A commitment of a child to the department of institutions shall be for a period not to exceed two years, except that the committing court may renew the commitment for an additional period not to exceed two years. “
This was the worst news possible. This meant that even if he was convicted of a brutal double murder, he would only receive two years- possibly four years maximum? Had Aaron committed the murder two weeks later, he could have gotten life in prison.
But first things first. The decision had to be made as to whether Aaron would be held or allowed to go home. There wasn’t enough evidence for anybody involved to feel comfortable arresting a 13 year old. Careers and reputations were on the line.
Harrington, Reichman, Mike Bell and Al Bell followed the Carters home to allow Aaron a change of clothes after he gave them his blood stained garments. On the way, Reichman made the hard decision. “Let’s take him tonight.” He felt he had no real choice. While in Aaron’s bedroom, Bell questioned him again. Aaron was becoming cocky while answering. It was clear that he felt he just had to get through this night and he’d literally be home free.
But then Bell asked him again- “did you run by the sewage pond?” When Aaron answered “No, I already told you, I went from their house to mine by the trail”, Bell snapped back at him, saying “you’re lying!”. Aaron was startled by the sudden change of tone. It was the first time any of the officers had confronted him on an answer. Bell pressed him. “You’re not telling the truth. You’re lying about your route, you lied about touching the bodies, you lied about everything.”
Aaron was shocked, but held firm in his denial. Both Bells began their verbal attack. “Knock it off, damn it! You killed those girls! “
“You killed them. We know you killed them. You killed Kristy. You stabbed her over and over. Then you chased Sherry down and murdered her on the trail. You caught her and stabbed her until she hit the ground.”
“Then you went back and stabbed Kristy some more. It’s all over.”
“You told the lady in the ambulance which girl was killed first. How did you know?”
“Damn it, Aaron, just admit it! We’ve got the proof.”
Aaron lowered his shoulders and quietly said he needed to talk to his dad. The Bells stepped out, while Aaron confessed to his father. Aaron was taken to jail and charged as a Juvenile Delinquent due to his age.
While awaiting trial, the investigation continued.
The sewage pond was pumped and searched by Deputy Dave Allmon. He swept the bottom of the pond meticulously with a metal detector. He found nothing but a bowling pin and an aluminum ladder. Odd things to find in a sewage pond, but obviously not the murder weapon he was searching for. He reluctantly gave up and the sewage pond filled back up with sludge.
Joe Janson went through the house with investigator Bob Shanks to see if anything stood out. Shanks pointed to the open knife drawer in the kitchen. He asked Joe if anything was missing. Joe noticed an empty green sheathe. “Yes- a Forschner knife.” It was a 14” butcher’s knife that he had recently special-ordered. Nothing else was out of place.
Investigators spoke to neighbors. They were told that several cats started disappearing after the Carters moved in. One woman gave an account of finding her cat with it’s eye torn from it’s socket. She stated that Aaron Carter showed up at her door mere moments later, excitedly explaining that her cat had gotten into a fight with his -cat. He saw it. He swore he saw it.
She thought it was unbelievable, but she couldn’t really question him, as the Carter’s cats were suffering similar misfortunes. According to Aaron, a bear or something, had gotten to their cats. They were all torn up. Of course, there had been no bear.
The autopsies on the Janson girls revealed that the knife wounds were far more numerous and malicious than originally believed. Kristy’s face and throat had been slashed repeatedly, and she had been stabbed in the abdomen several times. The murderer attempted to gouge Sherry’s eyes out and stabbed her in the shoulder and back over and over again.
More revealing than anything else though, was that in addition to being stabbed, the girls had been bludgeoned repeatedly. Kristy had been hit so hard on the back of the head that that it shattered her skull and damaged her brain. She was beaten again on the head and the face. Sherry was also hit from behind and again, hit repeatedly on the body and legs. The blunt force trauma had been overlooked previously because of the severity of the knife wounds.
This would explain the small amount of blood from the victims. If they were bludgeoned to death before they were stabbed, the blood would not be as viscous. There was hope that at least they did not suffer as much as it initially seemed. But what was used to club the girls? Something heavy and blunt. The bowling pin found in the sewage pond?
Deputy Allmon couldn’t stop thinking about the pond. He had searched it thoroughly, but there had to be a knife in there somewhere. He asked Detective Harrington for a second chance. Harrington agreed.
Once more, Allmon drained the pond and searched the bottom tirelessly, even digging into the muck at the bottom so he could be sure. Nothing. Then he noticed something, not on the bottom of the pond, but sticking out of the bank, right below what would just earlier be the waterline. It was a black plastic handle. He pulled it out. All 14 inches. It was a butcher’s knife.The brand was marked on the handle: Forschner.
Though Aaron Carter initially entered a “not guilty” plea, there was an admission of guilt that was recorded and presented to Carter’s attorneys. They detailed the murders, but were recorded while Aaron was under hypnosis. As this isn’t a concrete method of obtaining information, I’m not going to include it here. Aaron was provisionally diagnosed under the guidelines of the mental health bible, the DSM- as having Adjustment reaction of adolescence with undersocialized aggressive behavior. In other words, he failed to establish a normal degree of affection, empathy or bond with others and rarely showed appropriate feelings of guilt or remorse. A now fourteen year old Aaron changed his plea to “guilty”, and, per the statutes of the time, was remanded to the Closed Adolescent Treatment Center or the CAT Center, in the Denver suburb of Lakewood.
He had a rocky start to his incarceration. After two years, he was indeed recommitted for a period of two years. However, he learned the tricks of the system and, citing good behavior and successful rehabilitation, was set to be released 8 months early. But in May of 1986, while on a day pass, Aaron was caught shoplifting a video cassette from a convenience store. While this was considered a serious offense by the CAT Center, it only delayed his release by two months. Aaron was released on December 22, 1986, a full six months early. It didn’t take long for him to find trouble again. He had been caught slashing a tire and lied to the officer about having a criminal history. Keep in mind that this was 1986- before online databases were universally used. Between the shoplifting and the tire slashing, Aaron was sentenced to serve another two years in a juvenile facility. But just like last time, he was released early for good behavior after only 11 months.
Aaron Edward Carter has been in trouble with the law multiple times in the years following his release, including a 1999 attack on a woman he was dating in Ventura, California. He menaced her with a sword and choked her unconscious.. Carter was sentenced to a four year prison term in 2000 for that assault. His last known location is Oxnard, California.
Kristine Anne Janson and Sherry Lee Janson now rest forever together at Greenmount cemetery in Durango. Kristy would have been 46 years old at the time of this recording. Sherry would have been 41.
Joe and Vickie Janson stayed in their family home until 2010, running a successful architectural business. They now reside in Arizona City, where Vickie speaks to thousands of people about her story in churches and women’s retreats. Joe and Vickie became advocates for juvenile criminal law reform and have helped new state legislature get passed in Colorado.