This is an excerpt from Homicide Hunter Lt. Joe Kenda’s new book, Killer Triggers, in which the star of Discovery+’s new show American Detective with Lt. Joe Kenda says he shares “my memories of homicide cases that I investigated or oversaw. In each case, I examine the trigger that led to death. I chose this theme for the book because even though the why of a murder case may not be critical in an investigation, it can sometimes lead us to the killer.” The book is available on Kindle and in paperback today.
The Trigger: Rage, Revenge, and Money
I have a friend who was a master of disaster. He spent years working in areas devastated by hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, and fires. He had to quit when the images began to haunt him.
He couldn’t walk or drive anywhere without picturing destruction. He’d go through a perfectly normal, nice neighborhood, and his mind would send images of it ripped apart. Bodies in trees and shrubs. Houses shredded or burned to the ground. Trees toppled. Power lines down. Gas and water lines ruptured.
I understood perfectly. It was the same for me and most veteran homicide detectives. Everywhere we go, we expect to encounter murder and mayhem, even in “normal” suburban neighborhoods with white picket fences and neatly trimmed yards.
As I used to tell new recruits at the police academy, violence can happen anywhere, and it can come from anyone. There is no one profile for a murderer. They come in all shapes and sizes, all colors, all religions, all ages, and all socioeconomic levels. We learn to prepare ourselves for the worst from every person, in every environment and in any situation.
It’s not that we are demented, pessimistic, or cursed souls. We simply live with the knowledge that cruelty and violence can happen anywhere, at any time, even in the most seemingly serene settings.
And so it was in this case.
The Limbricks were known as a hardworking, churchgoing family living the American dream. They had a nice two-story red-brick house, guarded by a giant maple tree, on Potter Street in a middle-class Colorado Springs neighborhood.
Charles was a long-distance trucker, which kept him on the road for weeks at a time. His wife, Betty Jean, drove a school bus and held other jobs while raising their three daughters to adulthood.
Their youngest child and only son, Chuck Jr., was still at home, attending junior high school. He was a good student and known as the best singer and musician in his school and his church. He’d been something of a musical prodigy. He began playing drums in his church band at the age of five. Three years later, he added the bass guitar to his repertoire.
Chuckie and his mother shared a musical bond. She loved to sing gospel music in the church choir. He loved to sing with her and even wrote songs about her. Chuckie would later recall of his mother, “Music brought her a lot of relief from, you know, the pain she probably was feeling in her life.”
After saying that, he declined to explain the origins or source of her pain. Some would claim later that there was marital turmoil in the outwardly peaceful Limbrick home. Some even raised questions about infidelity on both sides.
We considered that scenario as the possible trigger in this case, but in truth, we never quite figured out what set off the killer. This one was a cypher. A lot of people who saw the good in Chuckie were shocked when the bad appeared.
And his dark side showed up time after time until, finally, after he’d caused a lot of pain, suffering, and death, his time ran out.
When forty-two-year-old Betty Jean Limbrick was murdered in September 1988 in her own home, neighbors expressed shock and grief.
She seemed like an all-American mom with a lot to live for. But when we took the call and went to her home, the much-admired Betty Jean was facedown at the foot of the stairs in the lower hallway of their split-level home and very much dead.
Nearly all the blood in her body had drained out and pooled around her.
“She was so well respected,” a neighbor told me. “She didn’t have an enemy in the world.”
“Well, no,” I said. “She had one enemy: the person who shot her, not once but twice, and killed her.”
Betty Jean typically came home after the morning shift driving a District 11 school bus, took a little break, and returned to drive her load of kids home after school. She didn’t make the second shift this time.
Her son had found her, according to the patrol officers at the scene when I arrived.
“Where’s he?” I asked.
The officer pointed to Chuck Limbrick, and my first impression was not a good one. He was sitting on the front-porch steps, with his head against a column, sound asleep.
Chaos reigns all around him. Flashing lights, cops, reporters, and ambulance crews. And the kid who just found his mother shot to death in their home is sleeping peacefully on the porch?
That’s not cool. It’s cold.
“Wake his ass up, and put him in a squad car. I don’t want anybody talking to him until we are ready,” I said.
Then I noticed that one of our detectives had another kid in a squad car, talking intensely with him.
“Who’s that?” I asked the patrol officer.
“That’s the son’s buddy. He was with him when they found her.”
The kid looks like a dog shitting razor blades. He’s shaking and bawling and jabbering away. The detective with him looked out the window of the squad car, made eye contact with me, and gave a thumbs-up.
I liked that. The buddy was shaken up, and he was a talker.
I found it helpful to inspect a crime scene before talking to any witnesses, victims, or suspects. I like to form my own impression of what went down before hearing their stories.
I walked in the house—neatly kept, not flashy, but nice enough. I walked down a short flight of stairs to the lower level, where Mrs. Limbrick’s body remained. The walls around her had blood spray on them, which is indicative of a high-velocity bullet wound. The gunshot produced a cloud of blood, a red mist, causing the spatter pattern.
The blood pool around the body was difficult to avoid as I bent down to make a preliminary check of her fatal wounds. I hated stepping in blood, for all sorts of reasons, but sometimes there was no other way to get to the victim.
I practically had to squat down in it to examine her head wound, a single-entry close-contact gunshot to the left temple. The gun had to be only inches from her head when fired. Now, that might have been an indication of a suicide, except that there was also a gunshot wound in her right hand and shoulder. The bullet entered at the joint of her middle finger and exited from her palm, then went through her shoulder.
The hand shot was likely the first. The second shot, fired directly into her head at close range, looked like something an assassin would administer.
This was not something you’d expect to see done to a hardworking, churchgoing mother of four in middle America. The weapon was a serious piece of firepower: a .357 Magnum.
Reading the Signs
This woman thought to lack enemies had suffered an extremely violent attack at the hands of someone who made sure she did not survive it. This looked like a personal vendetta killing to me, one in which the killer knew the victim and, for whatever reason, hated her.
Unlike so many of the homicides I’d handled, this one did not serve up an immediate list of likely suspects. The victim did not live in a high-crime area teeming with violent criminals and drug abusers. She did not stay out late at night in bars, nightclubs, or strip joints.
Had she come home and encountered an intruder, or a burglary in progress? That was one potential scenario. Another possibility, as mentioned earlier, was that Mrs. Limbrick did have an enemy, and not just someone who coveted her church pew or wanted her bus-driving job.
This enemy wanted her dead and gone from this world. Who could hate sweet-natured Betty Jean Limbrick that much?
Our investigation was already hindered by the fact that the killer had at least a two-hour head start on our investigation. You may have heard me mention this before, but I hate giving bad people a head start.
Call me competitive if you must, but I do not like being late to the starting line. That gives the killer too much time to toss the weapon into a river, drive a hundred miles from the murder scene, or dream up a decent alibi.
I would have been perfectly okay with setting up a hotline for local killers. They could have called me immediately after dispatching their victims, thus eliminating any lag time in my pursuit of them. Maybe that was hoping for too much, but a guy can dream, can’t he?
I’d finished my preliminary examination of the victim’s wounds when one of our officers asked me to come upstairs. Our search had turned up Mrs. Limbrick’s purse, which appeared to have been rifled. The zippered pockets of her wallet were all open, and while several credit cards were present, along with her driver’s license, there was no cash in her wallet.
For all I knew at that point, Mrs. Limbrick was a proud member of our cashless society, but the condition of her purse and contents suggested someone had gone through it in a hurry.
We came upon additional evidence supporting the possibility that the victim may have interrupted a burglary in progress. A couple of lamps were turned over and some furniture moved around. Even so, we didn’t find clothes thrown out of closets, or drawers dumped upside down, which is usually the case in residential burglaries.
At first, we couldn’t find any sign of forced entry, but our crime scene team did find a screen pulled off an open rear window to the house. There were footprints in the dirt under it. They photographed them and made molds for evidence.
While I was taking note of all this, my guys reported that Mrs. Limbrick’s car was nowhere to be found. We’d been told she usually parked it in the garage, but it was not there.
I had my guys put out a bulletin on the missing car and its license plate number, notifying all law enforcement agencies in the state and region that we were looking for the vehicle.
We were also looking for the husband, Charles Limbrick senior, whom we hadn’t been able to reach. A neighbor gave us the name of the trucking company he drove for, and we had them track him down for us. He was eight hundred miles away, which is the start of a good alibi, but we needed to check it out, certainly.
We’d picked up some rumors that the Limbricks were having marital difficulties, and there were even reports of an affair—or two. Nobody had any names or eyewitness accounts of strangers showing up late at night when Charles was on the road. So we took notes and filed them in our brains for future reference.
Charles senior was on our list of potential suspects, especially after a neighbor told us he’d been talking about buying a handgun, ostensibly for his wife’s protection while he was on the road.
Being interested in buying a gun for your wife doesn’t make you a killer, but it kept him high on the list of people we wanted to talk to. The annals of crime over the centuries certainly contain cases in which a jealous or wandering husband shoots his wife and then tries to make it look like a burglary gone bad.
If a guy was looking to kill his wife and put a lot of miles between the murder scene and himself, a veteran long-haul trucker would know how to put the pedal to the metal and skedaddle.
A Cool Customer
Once we’d checked on the whereabouts of the victim’s husband and completed the preliminary search of the home and the victim, I turned to interviewing the teenage son, who had called us after discovering her body in their home.
Charles Limbrick Jr., known as “Chuck” or “Chuckie” to family and friends, was widely hailed as a promising young musician and singer. He was charismatic and popular, according to neighbors and classmates we had interviewed along their street.
I told my guys to keep that in mind when we talked to him the first time. After finding him asleep on the porch after his mother’s murder, I wasn’t impressed. But maybe I had him wrong.
People respond to tragedy in different ways. Teenagers are strange even in normal situations. All those raging hormones and unwired brain paths can result in odd behavior. So I cut him some slack, figuring he’d been through a horrific situation—one of the worst I could imagine.
“Chuck, I know this is a horrible time for you, and I’m sorry for this interruption, but I’m leading this investigation,” I said. “We want to find the person who did this and bring him to justice. So I need you to tell me how you found your mother.”
He’d been crying and tried to gather himself, but he sputtered only a few words out before he choked up. He took a minute, then offered a quick summary of the day’s events.
Chuck and his friend Chris had met after school and gone to the Citadel Mall. They left there and went to Chuck’s home, but it was locked up. They went to the home of a neighbor, Bill Robinson, who kept an extra key to their house for just such occasions.
The buddy, Chris, had stayed outside with Robinson when Chuck went back and opened the front door to the house. Chuck said he found his mother dead and called for his neighbor and his friend to come in the house.
The kid lost it at that point. We didn’t push him. There would be time to dig into his story later. I thought it sounded a little too pat.
My initial opinion of him was confirmed by his response when I expressed sympathy over his mother’s death.
“Yeah,” he said.
Yeah? Oh, my, you are a cold fish, choirboy.
That didn’t seem like a really heartfelt response.
There is an expression in law enforcement represented by the initialism JDLR. “Just Doesn’t Look Right.” This was one of those JDLR situations.
Hitting the Target
With the on-the-road husband ruled out, our investigation was going nowhere fast, but then some more welcome automotive news arose.
One of our patrol units called in, reporting they had found the victim’s car just two miles from the Limbrick home.
Thanks, I needed that.
I headed to its location, outside a Target store in a shopping center parking lot. Our crime scene team went over it, looking for fingerprints, traces of blood, a weapon—anything that might help us identify the suspect, who, we assumed, stole it and drove it to this spot.
They turned up nothing to help the case, but just the location of the car interested me. Why would the killer drive it only a couple of miles before ditching it? Why take it at all if that was as far as you wanted to go?
Now, maybe the killer had another car, the proverbial getaway car, parked at the Target store. Or maybe our suspect stole another car there and took off. But stealing the car after murdering its owner seemed a risky move. If someone had seen the driver in the car, it would link that person directly to the murder. Why take that risk?
I couldn’t come up with many good reasons for heading to Target after committing a murder. Then again, I can’t think of many good reasons for going shopping. I’m not a shopper. I do my hunting and gathering on the job.
The car’s location was an odd twist in the case. We followed it up by canvassing employees and assorted mall rats in hopes of finding someone who had seen the driver park it.
Back then security cameras weren’t everywhere as they are today. If this had happened in more recent times, we probably could have found some footage of the car and driver traveling between the murder scene and the Target parking lot.
The widespread use of security cameras has been a boon to law enforcement in that regard. I know that people complain about privacy violations, but my response is, “If you don’t break any laws, why would you worry?”
Checking security cameras would be one hell of a lot easier than trying to find someone who had seen a single car pull into a three-thousand-space parking lot a day or two earlier. It would have been helpful if Mrs. Limbrick had owned a cherry-red Maserati or even a zebra-striped Ford Explorer—something that stood out from all the other vehicles.
But she didn’t. She drove a typical working-mom car, a 1976 Buick Limited. Four-door, white top, blue body. A General Motors generic car. They probably sold a couple hundred thousand of them. And millions of others that looked just like them.
We turned up a few regulars who had noticed her hardly noticeable car because they parked nearby, but they all had different timelines of when it showed up.
This is why many detectives go bald from tearing out their hair. Fortunately for my own locks, I was more of a nail biter. Real nails. Steel. I chew ’em and spit out bullets.
My dentist loved it, by the way. The cost of my broken molars put his kids through college.
The story continues in Joe Kenda’s book, Killer Triggers, which was published March 9, 2021, Blackstone Publishing. This excerpt is copyright 2021 Joe Kenda, and is used with permission.