On Nov. 14, 1972, Gold Hill resident Jack Laughlin was heading home after a day of work at Stearns-Roger Corporation in Denver. It was dark and cold and the Sunshine Canyon Road was snowpacked and slick after a recent two-foot storm. He was eager to get home to the warmth of his cabin and his family.
He was about a mile east of Gold Hill, on the Shelf Road that winds along a sheer cliff before it drops into the town, when his headlights swept across the apparition-like image of a young girl waving her arms, flagging him down. She was not dressed for the winter conditions and a pair of handcuffs dangled from one of her wrists.
“What was going on?, I thought,” Laughlin said. “Had she been playing and somehow gotten lost or why else would she be in such a desolate place?” Filled with these questions, Laughlin pulled over and helped the girl into his car. She got in and turned to him asking him to take her to her parents in Boulder. Laughlin told her that they were close to his home in Gold Hill and that he would take her there and contact her parents, but when the girl told him her friend was dead and she had been shot three times, Laughlin knew he wouldn’t be going home.
In the next few minutes, Laughlin learned that Annabelle Kindig and her friend Jessica Schaffner had been abducted in Boulder by a man in woman’s clothes, had been handcuffed together and shot, falling off the edge of the shelf road, which drops steeply about a thousand feet down to Left Hand Canyon.
“The blast of the bullet hitting me in the leg knocked me off my feet, and we both fell off the shelf to the snow below,” Kindig said.
“At that point I stopped the car and checked her wounds to see if she needed immediate first aid,” Laughlin said. “She had no severe external bleeding, so we continued toward Gold Hill while she described what had happened with amazing clarity.”
She told him how the man had walked the two girls and his dog around an aspen grove at the west end of the shelf road before taking them eastward along the road to the point where they were shot. She had a lucid description of the abductor’s camper vehicle and its license plate number.
As they approached Laughlin’s driveway he saw that a meeting of the Gold Hill Volunteer Fire Department was taking place at neighbor Sean McWilliams’ house. He knew that several people with first aid experience and connections to the Sheriff’s Department would be there and he carried Kindig into the house.
The firefighters, although shocked at hearing what happened, jumped into action, administered first aid and called the Sheriff’s Department to start the search for the abductor and to send up a paramedic team. Their patient gave them a description of the man and the vehicle and the firefighters called dispatch, on a landline phone, to relay the information.
Within the hour, the suspect was stopped near the bottom of Sunshine Canyon. From Kindig’s description, they knew they had their man.
Thinking that there was a possibility that Kindig’s friend Jessica could still be alive, Laughlin ran home, changed clothes, picked up a handgun and climbing gear and drove back to the shelf road with neighbors Murray Eaton and Sean McWilliams who were at the Fire department meeting.
Realizing that the abductor could return to the scene, McWilliams was also armed. The men walked the aspen grove that Kindig had described and saw the tracks of the man, dog and two girls in the snow. It was heart rending, remembered Laughlin.
“We then followed the tracks eastward along the road to the point where she had climbed up the cliff. The slope was about 40 degrees and covered with deep snow. Drops of blood marked her path up the slope. We shined a light down the slope and could see what looked like a body about 50 feet below. The three of us descended and found Jessica lying face up in the snow. We could see that she had been shot in the area of the heart. We checked her for vital signs and there were none.”
It was a very emotional experience for all three of the men — one they have carried throughout their lives.
Boulder County Sheriff’s deputies arrived and when the men returned to Gold Hill they learned that the suspect, Peter Fisher, had been captured, placed under arrest and that Kindig had been picked up by an ambulance and was headed to the hospital in Boulder. It might seem that after Peter Fisher was convicted and sent to life in prison, that the story had ended.
In fact, for Kindig and all the people involved in the rescue and the arrest, the story was just beginning. How Kindig dealt with the horrors of that night, how a small town reacts to the events that shattered their self-image of safety and innocence, how the emergency teams still remember the courage of an 11-year old girl, was never really put to rest.
People went on with their lives, grew up, moved away and always wondered what had happened to Kindig and to other people who were involved in the tragedy.
On Saturday night, Aug. 18, their questions were answered. The people who were involved in Kindig’s rescue gathered for the first time since that night in 1972 at Laughlin and Linda Laughlin’s home in Gold Hill to meet each other and relive the event in an effort to celebrate Kindig’s life and the role they played in her survival. Their stories and memories will be included in a book about Kindig’s life, her story of evolving from anger, hate and sorrow to forgiveness, love and support for other victims.
This unique reunion began when Kindig, now married and living in Grand Junction, called Laughlin at his home in Borrego Springs, California, last fall. She called to thank him for saving her life. Amazed and relieved to hear from her, Laughlin called her back, learning she was now married to Dave Miglia and has an 18-year-old son. She has gone through therapy, has written Peter Fisher a letter of forgiveness and is just about finished with the book, “Footsteps Out of Darkness.”
Laughlin said he offered to host a party so that Kindig could give “hugs and thanks” to the Gold Hill people who helped her. Also invited were Boulder County District Attorney at the time Alex Hunter and Sheriff at the time, Brad Leach.
On Saturday, Kindig and Miglia drove past the cabin on the corner where the Gold Hill Fire Department was meeting that night and went to the Laughlin cabin where she and Laughlin met and hugged each other. In November, it will be 40 years since that one night changed all of their lives. The story of their kidnapping and Schaffner’s murder stunned the Boulder and mountain communities.
It was Kindig’s 11th birthday and after the party she asked if she could walk her friend Jessica Schaffner part way home as it was getting dark. The girls lived near Chatauqua Park. According to an account later given by Fisher, he saw the girls walking along the street as he drove by in his motor home. He drove past them and walked back to talk to them.
He told the court during his sanity trial that he asked them if they would like to see his dog. At that time he was dressed in women’s clothes, including green tights, a wig, a poncho and a purse, in which he carried a gun. When the girls entered the motor home, he pulled out the gun and handcuffed the girls together, saying their wrists were a lot smaller than the others. He said he realized the girls were younger than he thought.
Fisher drove up Sunshine Canyon, and when he stopped, he let them out, shooting them four times. He said later that he was afraid they would tell. All reports at his sanity trial said he appeared to have no remorse. Fisher is still incarcerated in a prison in Burlington. Although he comes up for parole every year, he has not shown up for the hearing in a few years and former District Attorney Alex Hunter said he is not going anywhere.
At Saturday night’s gathering, the guests gathered around Kindig who has never left their thoughts. At one point she said she always wondered if they had ever thought of her as she had thought of them.
Kindig told the group, “As Dave and I talked, I realized that there were probably people who would have struggled through the trauma of that night, who would like to know I grew up and turned out okay. I realize now that I wasn’t alone, that I had angels on my shoulder. I want to celebrate you. . .Without you I may not have been here.”
The group gathered in a circle on the patio overlooking the town as the sun set. They introduced themselves and then spoke briefly of their memories and what has been in their heart since 1972. Most of the rescue workers had been in their 20s back then, long-haired hippies. Brad Leach and Alex Hunter had just begun their careers as sheriff and district attorney. Kindig, 50, is a pretty, strong-looking, poised woman who projects humor, warmth and kindness. It was obvious she felt nothing but love for this group of people who, she says, are her heroes.
Alex Hunter told Kindig, “As hard as it was for you, this is how we would like all of our cases to go.”
Leach said that Kindig’s description of the man and the van and the fact that it had temporary plates was the key to the arrest and conviction. Without that, there wouldn’t have been a case.
“You took him off the streets. That’s what you did,” said Hunter who has been in touch with Kindig all her life. Whenever a parole hearing came up, he would comfort and reassure her that Fisher was not getting out. Sometimes they talked for hours. He would calm her fears and help her move on with her life.
Hunter said that Kindig’s case was the most important in his 28-year history as district attorney. His career began with Kindig and ended with Jon Benet Ramsey, and 200 murder cases were in between. He told Kindig that he was there to honor her and that he was grateful to still have her in his life.
Leach also said that the case was his biggest, “But it has stuck with me that there was also joy to be had. Kindig lived and we got the bad guy. From the tragedy, good things happened. Victim’s programs were formed. We realized that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real and we have to deal with it, and the way we look at victims has changed.”
Kindig thanked Sean McWilliams for having her into his house that night and apologized for bleeding on his couch. McWilliams said Kindig had been the strength of the whole night, that she had an incredible presence of mind and power to get the necessary information out.
Gold Hill resident Kris Gibson said she was 15 at the time of the incident and has always thought that Kindig was so brave. “I held you as an icon and I am so honored to meet you. I hope sharing your story will help others.”
Tonya Ryan, who was nine years old at the time of the kidnapping, said she had been waiting for her parents to come home, but knew something was wrong. Her father was Mark, a law enforcement officer on the University of Colorado campus and he had been looking for a man who was a suspect in several assaults who fit Fisher’s description. Ryan’s mom Mary was helping treat Kindig at McWilliams’s house.
Ryan and her sister Hannah said that night put an end to their sense of security in their small town. No more were they allowed to roam freely in and around town.
At the time, Laughlin and Linda’s children, Amy, 9, and Aileen, 7, were not far from Kindig and Jessica’s age, so the abduction and murder became personal. They had raised their daughters to beware of abduction situations and had chosen Gold Hill as a close-knit community where people knew and looked out for each other. While they talked about the incident with their girls and pointed out the need to scream and run if confronted with a similar situation, they tried to avoid scaring them with too much reaction. Sadness for the impact on Schaffner’s family, on Kindig’s family and on Kindig’s future life was the most lasting feeling they talked about.
Every time Laughlin drives up the road where he picked up Kindig he remembers that night. Every time Peter Fisher comes up for parole he thinks about it again. “I thought about contacting Kindig after she recovered from her wounds, but felt it would be best not to bring up the memories. What a wonderful surprise to hear from her after all these years and find out that her life has been so good.”
Laughlin’s wife, Linda, remembers answering a knock at the door and finding Gold Hill Inn owner Frank Finn with a stricken look on his face. He had been at the fire meeting and explained the situation Laughlin had faced to prepare her for the impact the family was about to deal with.
“I immediately told the girls I needed to go to the fire meeting briefly and subsequently met Laughlin coming towards me down our long driveway. We decided, as we walked, to tell the girls together when he returned and we knew the entire situation. We told them later that evening keeping the conversation as factual but supportive in our advice of what to do if they were ever faced with an abduction. They seemed to understand without due cause of fear, which may have been a factor of their ages.”
Conversation lasted past sunset when the group went inside to sit in front of a fire. Alex Hunter continued his story about fighting the insanity plea. The defense had tried to convince the jury that Fisher had been damaged by working with prescription drug chemicals. It didn’t fly. Fisher is now 76 years old and Hunter said he will make sure he remains in prison the rest of his life.
Although Kindig has healed, it was a long process. She attended Fairview High School for awhile but ultimately dropped out. Later she went to Mesa State College in Grand Junction. What happened to Kindig and Schaffner became the call to action by a group of men and women to form a support group for victims of physical and sexual assault. Five years ago, on their 35th anniversary, Kindig was asked to speak at the Moving to End Sexual Assault meeting and found the experience to be uplifting and has been involved with the organization ever since.
On November 8, Kindig will talk about her experience, the exit from pain and darkness to her arrival at a place of forgiveness and light. The event will be at the Boulderado Hotel where she will speak, almost exactly 40 years later, of the tragedy that changed so many lives. Kindig will have her book, “Footsteps Out of Darkness,” an autobiography, self help paperback available. For every book that is sold, $1 will go to MESA. After that the sale of the book will go nationwide.
Kindig’s husband, Dave, said her involvement in helping others has made her a different person and that she can finally enjoy a birthday.
Kindig said that after getting to meet the caring people who helped her get through the worst moments of her life, “I can put all the bitter angry stuff aside and just let my heart fill with love for you.”