Gone too soon: The life and death of Randy Wilson, Part 1

‘You can’t fill those shoes’: Teachers, students remember slain teacher

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Read part two here.

A wooden cross marks the lonely prairie crossroads where Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson was found dead in 2010. At the school, 16 miles south, Wilson’s final, stoic yearbook photo hangs in a hallway above the engraved names of students who have received a scholarship in his name.

Mementos of the father of five are everywhere: A mural of the mountains he loved outside his old classroom. A stone monument beside a mini amphitheater outside the school, with benches arrayed toward a lectern, dedicated to him. Around Kiowa, a town of about 740 people in Elbert County, stand bookshelves he built and basements he finished as a carpenter during summer breaks.

But the most poignant legacy Wilson left is the broken hearts of the teachers and students who knew him, who were left with memories of a rock of a man, a father figure of quiet grace and capability who was ripped from their lives.

“We’ve done our best to carry on what he left, but you can’t fill those shoes,” said Karen Carnahan, who was once a student of Wilson’s and now teaches at the same school.

At the age of 52, Wilson was found dead at the intersection of Kiowa-Bennett Road and County Line Road on a cold and rainy June day, with a bag over his head, his own belt around his neck and his hands bound behind his back. No suspects were ever named in the case, and more than seven years passed until the surprise arrest of Daniel Pesch, a longtime Summit County resident, in Littleton in December.

Pesch, charged with first-degree murder, is awaiting trial in the Elbert County Jail, just a few blocks from the school where Wilson’s memory remains so alive. A judge quickly sealed all records in the case after Pesch’s arrest, and few details are available. Pesch’s next scheduled court appearance is a preliminary hearing, where the prosecution will lay out evidence in the case against him, currently set for March 30.

Country home

Kiowa, 50 miles southeast of Denver, feels far from the Front Range megalopolis. It has been largely untouched by the development that has changed nearby towns in recent decades. Today, Elizabeth is home to a Wal-Mart and strip malls. Farther northwest, Parker now teems with office parks and big-box retail. Kiowa, though, remains part of the Great Plains.

Approaching from the west on Highway 86, the subdivisions, then the mansions, then the hobby farms fade away, and ahead stretches an infinite horizon. Kiowa is topped by an old water tower, visible from miles distant, like an inverse anchor rising into the sea of sky.

Tucked along Kiowa Creek, the town feels nestled in, the stately old courthouse bookending one end of Comanche Street, the town’s main drag. Outside the courthouse stands a stone memorial that reads in part, “In Memory of Pioneers Massacred by Indians,” in memory of the Hungates, a young family murdered by Cheyenne warriors on a ranch to the north in 1864.

Kiowa is the Elbert County seat and home to the annual county fair. But there is no stoplight along the town’s two-block main street, with its stretch of false-fronted bars and shops, and a church converted to a library. The town climbs away to the east, where Kiowa’s school — with an enrollment of roughly 250 from kindergarten through high school — crowns the hill.

It was here that Randy Wilson settled in his early 40s, after a career that had seen him teach science at schools around the United States and halfway across the world, to the Colorado town that would later be haunted by his unsolved death.

‘When he spoke, we listened’

Born in Utah and raised in Bozeman, Montana, Wilson majored in science at Montana State University and received his master’s degree in secondary education from Steward University in Georgia, according to his obituary. His first teaching job was in Mount Vernon, Washington, in 1981. He married in 1984, and had five sons with his wife Linda. Wilson’s teaching career took him to schools in California, Montana, Missouri, and Saipan, an island in the western Pacific.

The family came to Kiowa in 2000, and life changed soon after. Court records show Randy and Linda began divorce proceedings the next year, and in 2002 Linda moved out of state. Wilson’s ex-wife and sons declined to comment for this story.

Wilson taught a slew of classes — math, science, computers, architecture and consumer science — at Kiowa’s small K-12 school, which typically has fewer than 100 students in the high school grades. He strove to make lessons relevant, said Sarah McFarland, a former student who knew Wilson well and remains close to his son Weston, who still lives in Kiowa.

“In consumer sciences, he had us plan a budget, balance a checkbook, plan meals for a family, and even budget a wedding,” McFarland said. “We had to account for dresses, tuxedos, flowers — the whole nine yards.”

Wilson’s lessons drew from his life, she recalled.

“He pulled from his own experiences, from childhood, from raising kids to marriage,” McFarland said. “He would tell the story over and over about the day his fourth son was born. They didn’t have time to get to the hospital, so he had to deliver his son himself. He said it was the most humbling experience of his life.”

Wilson had an air that drew respect.

“He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, we listened,” McFarland said. “He could look at me and get me to tell him something I wasn’t going to tell anyone.”

Wilson was devoted to his profession, recalled Liz Morrone, Kiowa’s longtime school counselor.

“He would come early to study with kids, he would stay after school, he would come in on Saturday or whenever they wanted to study,” she said.

Morrone said she was dazzled by the breadth of Wilson’s knowledge.

“He could talk about the physics in a bowl of soup as you stirred it.”

Wilson was a father figure for a lot of kids, said Carnahan, his former student.

“We had a lot of students who didn’t have a great relationship with their dads, and he was that strong male figure in their lives,” she said. “Even the bad kids respected him, because they knew he cared about them, too. He could help with any subject. Kids would even bring him their English papers for editing.”

Wilson was a godsend for a rural district trying to build up its technology programs at the dawn of the internet age, said Greg Kruthaupt, the former superintendent of Kiowa schools who hired Wilson.

“Randy was off the charts intellectually,” Kruthaupt said. “His understanding of technology was in the top 5 percent. His brain was like a sponge.”

Kruthaupt once briefly suspended Wilson from teaching, after an anonymous caller informed police that a student had built an inert bomb-like device for a school science fair, a project supervised by Wilson. The incident was the subject of a New York Times article.

Police confiscated the device, and Kruthaupt put Wilson on leave with pay while the incident was investigated. Wilson was soon reinstated, and neither he nor the student faced charges.

Kruthaupt said it didn’t damage his view of Wilson.

“He just got so close working with students that he didn’t think about the impact,” Kruthaupt said. “It was four months after 9/11 and people were just edgy. A ‘bomb’? Give me a break. It was about the scientific method.”

A man of faith

McFarland remembered the day she heard her sister-in-law was diagnosed with late-stage cancer. She thought of her little niece who would be without a mom.

“I completely lost it,” she said. “I sat on the floor in the hallway rocking back and forth. The halls were empty, nobody in the school. Then here comes Mr. Wilson. He sat there with me while I cried. It meant everything to me. He didn’t ask what was wrong, he just sat there. Teenage girls cry a lot. He figured out something was wrong.”

Wilson was a calming presence in the school.

“There was a student who died a couple years before Randy, in a car wreck,” remembered Polly Ehlers, who teaches fourth and fifth grades. “Something that always struck me: at the student’s memorial, which we held in the school gym, everyone was just a wreck. But there was Randy, in his suit, out front directing traffic and parking. Somehow that helped me keep it together. Of course, only a couple years later, we would hold Randy’s memorial in the same gym.”

Wilson’s suit stands out in another memory. McFarland remembered him coming to a sermon at a newly formed Baptist congregation, which at the time was meeting in the school cafeteria. Wilson was the only parishioner in a suit.

“That was that Montana boy in him,” she said. “To him, that was just how you dress for church.”

Faith played a strong role in Wilson’s life, Ehlers said.

“He could quote Bible passages off the top of his head. He had read the Bible cover to cover — twice.”

After his divorce, Wilson never dated again, according to McFarland.

“He told me that once he was married, he was married,” said McFarland. “He never talked about dating because in his mind he was going to be faithful to his wife even though they were divorced.”

Many roles

One of Wilson’s more low-key but vital roles was as the school’s de facto computer repairman, several people recalled.

“Because he was so quiet, the holes he filled we didn’t even know about became so obvious,” Ehlers said. “He was amazing with computers. If you got yourself into a bind, or a panic that you broke it, he’d calmly come in and fix it. We weren’t sure anyone could do that again.”

He was willing to fill in wherever necessary, remembered Cherie Wyatt, a fellow high school science teacher who taught alongside Wilson.

“I remember we had a teacher who left in April. Randy just stepped in and did substitute lesson plans for her class while still teaching his own.”

Wilson often elevated the level of discourse, Wyatt said.

“Lunches aren’t nearly as fun anymore. We would laugh and talk about deep scholarly things. He was so well read in the arts and classics. I was in heaven.”

Wilson had a dry, sometimes subtle sense of humor.

“He told me during the science fair, when I was whining about it, he said, ‘I found a project even you can do,’” Carnahan said. She recalled it involved potatoes.

Both Carnahan and McFarland remembered him making fun of their cowboy boots.

“I’d wear these wild-colored boots, and he’d say, ‘ugh, they’re making me puke!’ ” Carnahan said.

McFarland said she saw a different side of Wilson on a class trip to Glenwood Springs. The kids rushed to the hot springs pool not long after they got off the train, and close behind them was Wilson.

“Somebody was splashing me like crazy, and I turned around to see it was Mr. Wilson,” she said with a laugh.

McFarland, like Carnahan, went on to become a teacher herself, teaching elementary in Calhan, south of Kiowa.

“I think of him all the time,” she said. “I wonder what he would think. I try to take lessons from what he did. He truly loved us. We were like his surrogate children, and that’s how I try to approach teaching.”

“He would ask me all the time after I graduated, ‘Are you a teacher yet?’ The last time I saw him, I said, ‘Will you stop asking me that? You’ll be my first phone call after that happens.’”

McFarland never got to make that call.

Read part two here

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