Murder of cheerleader from Columbine Valley remains a mystery after nearly 50 years

Nearly half a century since Marilee Burt was killed, investigators want answers

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Marilee Burt never made it home.

Burt, 15, decided to walk home from Goddard Middle School in Littleton on Feb. 26, 1970, after a scheduling mixup left her without a ride from cheerleading practice.

She was never seen alive again.

The next day, searchers found the girl dead -- nude, strangled and bearing evidence of sex assault -- in Deer Creek Canyon.

Nearly five decades later, nobody has paid for the crime.

"Every cop has a case that sticks with them," said Bruce Isaacson, a retired Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office detective who oversaw the case for many years. "This is that case. This is when my family started locking our doors."

Burt, the daughter of a family still well-known for its car dealerships, was an ambitious girl who was excited for her future, remembered Ruth Falkenstein, who in 1970 was a guidance counselor for Littleton Public Schools.

Falkenstein met with Burt the day she disappeared, to plan her very first high school schedule.

"She was a bright gal, and such a pretty little thing," Falkenstein said. "She was so excited to try out for the high school cheerleading team. I remember she wore her green-and-yellow cheerleading uniform to class that day."

That evening, after a basketball game, Burt's ride didn't arrive, and she decided to walk the mile and a half from Goddard to her family's home in Columbine Valley, according to Colorado Bureau of Investigation case files.

About a mile into her route home, her older brother Raymond, driving home, passed Marilee walking down Middlefield Road, but didn't initially recognize her because her hair was in pigtails, which she seldom wore.

As he drove on, Raymond recalled seeing a man in a pickup pull over to talk to the girl. It was the last anyone saw of her.

"It was awful, just dreadful," Falkenstein said. "We were a closer-knit community back then. It made people paranoid."

As the days, months and years went by, investigators chased down leads, but nothing panned out.

Detectives going over the case found a viable DNA sample taken from Burt's body in an evidence locker in 1998, Isaacson said, and in the years since have used it to exclude nearly two dozen suspects, including all members of her family.

"We had seven or 10 suspects we really thought could've been our guy," Isaacson said. "We even exhumed a body to test it. But we never got a hit."

The case still draws a half-dozen or so tips a year, said Niki Bales, the Arapahoe County investigator who now oversees the case.

"This is our second-oldest cold case, but it's the one that still gets the most calls," Bales said. "It rocked the community. Nobody's ever forgotten it."

These days, the DNA sample is automatically run against a national DNA database every day, Bales said, but it has yet to find a match.

"We've eliminated so many," Bales said. "It's going to take that one person calling in with something they didn't think was important."

Burt's family members could not be located for this article.

Isaacson holds out hope that enough time has gone by that someone is ready to share what they know.

"I understand why people protect family and friends, but there comes a time to give that up," Isaacson said. "It's been a long time. Even if the perpetrator was a teenager, they'd be in their 60s now. Maybe they're dead. But cases like this need to be solved."

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