The inexplicable execution of 16-year-old David Grunwald by Matanuska-Susitna valley teenagers he thought his friends has brought back horrible memories for some in the Interior Alaska city of Fairbanks.
It was there in 1990 that 16-year-old Cara Zastrow disappeared after a visit to a local shopping mall. She was reported missing after she failed to meet her boyfriend as scheduled.
There are some near parallels to the case of Grunwald, who dropped off his girlfriend and then disappeared. He was reported missing when he failed to come home.
As with Grunwald, authorities launched an intensive search and found the victim’s motor vehicle abandoned. There the similarities end. Alaska State Troopers in the Grunwald case quickly came up with a list of suspects.
It was not so easy in the case of Zastrow, although it would eventually turn out that, she, too, had met with people she thought her friends.
One of them was 18-year-old Sergio Colgan, a deeply troubled young man. He was 12-years-old when he suffered a gunshot wound in 1985. He claimed it was an accident, but two years later confessed to his mother the wound was self-inflicted in order to get attention.
When he added that he was again feeling suicidal, she got him into treatment at Charter North, an Alaska mental health clinic. It was there he told a roommate he’d fantasized about committing a murder and getting away with it. Several times the roommate would later recall, Colgan said he wanted to kill a female victim.
“The facts of this case are particularly chilling,” the judges of the Alaska Court of Appeal would write long after Colgan was caught, convicted and sent to prison.
But in the fall of 1990, Colgan’s sick obsession with murder was known to almost no one other than his buddy Eric Hughes, a friend since junior high.
“Horn-rimmed glasses frame his eyes. He looks bookish,” Anna Farneski, then a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner would write after visiting Hughes in jail in 1992. “The U.S. Marines issued him the glasses at boot camp before he confessed to murdering Cara Zastrow and implicated his accomplice.
“If he were not wearing the bright orange shirt and pants issued to maximum security inmates, Hughes could be taken for a college student.”
There is no record of how he was dressed on the night of Oct. 12 when he and Coglan pulled into the Bentley Mall parking lot at 4 p.m. With the long, midnight sun days over, it would be dark within two and a half hours.
Sitting in Coglan’s Pontiac, they watched Zastrow get out of her car and walk to the mall. Coglan, Hughes told Farneski, “said, ‘How about her?'”
Zastrow was known to both of the 18-year-old men. Colgan had dated her stepsister a couple of times. Both of the young men had gone to the same school as Zastrow. Now the two of them sat in the car thinking about murder and waited for her to emerge from the mall.
When she came out, Hughes approached and asked for a ride. Coglan’s car had broken down, he said, and he needed a lift. Zastrow was happy to help out. She drove him through town. He told her to turn south and they headed toward the Tanana River.
Coglan’s car pulled in behind them. When Zastrow saw him, Hughes told Farneski, “she became frightened. She asked if they were going to kill her.”
Hughes claimed not to remember his reply.
A brutal murder
Trooper investigator James McCann, a legendary Alaska detective, would call what happened next a thrill killing and one of the most cold-blooded he’d witnessed in his then 19 years in Alaska law enforcement.
Some readers will want to skip the Court of Appeals summary of what happened that follows:
“At the remote area, Hughes and Colgan taped (Zastrow’s) mouth and hands. According to Colgan, at this point Hughes told Colgan that he ‘couldn’t handle it anymore.’ Hughes got in Colgan’s car.
“Colgan then struck (Zastrow) in the back of the head with a handgun, knocking her unconscious. They placed her in the back of Colgan’s car. Colgan then drove to a remote spot on the Richardson Highway.
“As Colgan drove to this location, Hughes got in the back seat of the car and ripped off (Zastrow’s) clothes. When they arrived at their destination, Hughes and Colgan took turns raping (Zastrow). After they finished raping (Zastrow), they taped her feet together, taped her hands behind her back, and placed tape over her hands and eyes.
“As they drove from the scene of the rape, Colgan and Hughes discussed how to carry out the final part of the plan: killing (Zastrow). They decided that the easiest way to carry out (her) murder was to suffocate her by placing duct tape over her mouth and nose. Hughes placed duct tape around (Zastrow’s) nose and face. However, according to Colgan, the tape did not kill (her). Hughes completed the murder of (Zastrow) by pressing a tire iron against her throat, suffocating her.”
Hughes would later tell Farneski he just didn’t know what overcame him.
“The general public seems to feel that I’m some kind of animal,” he told her. “This is really an incredible situation for me. I certainly didn’t expect it to happen. I’m not a monster. This is by no means a definition of my character, of who I am.”
A lengthy search
After the murder, Hughes and Colgan buried Zastrow’s body in a remote are off Chena Hot Springs Road.
Zastrow would remain missing through the winter and into the summer of 1991 while Fairbanks wondered what had happened. McCann and other investigators chased reports of various characters seen around the Bentley Mall.
A pair of soldiers from nearby Fort Wainwright were charged with vandalizing and looting Zastrow’s abandoned car. But Zastrow remained missing. Colgan seemed to have fulfilled his perverted fantasy to kill someone and get away with it.
Only he couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He had to share his success with someone. In January 1991, he confessed the murder to a psychologist who he had been seeing after yet another suicide attempt.
“Despite being warned by the psychologist that the psychologist was required to report child sexual abuse which he learned of during counseling,” court records reflect, “Colgan told the psychologist that he and a friend had raped and murdered a sixteen-year-old girl.
“The psychologist talked to an attorney about his duty to disclose this information and concluded the law required him to report it. The psychologist told this to Colgan and arranged for Colgan to talk with an attorney.
“At this point Colgan told the psychologist that he had made up the story about the murder because he wanted attention. The psychologist told Colgan and his counsel that he had to report the incident, and called the State Division of Family Services. The police contacted the psychologist, who told the police about Colgan’s statement.”
While law enforcement authorities were starting their investigation, Colgan was madly attempting to reach Hughes to organize a cover-up. But there was a problem. Hughes was in basic training in California and out of reach.
McCann identified Hughes and got to him before Colgan did. It didn’t take long to get a confession. The murder had been haunting Hughes.
“I felt really sad. I felt really sorry,” Hughes told Farneski. “I’d be walking through the mall or sitting at Denny’s (restaurant) and I just wanted to apologize to strangers for what I had done.
“I would think, ‘I can see the sun, feel the rain, listen to the radio, take a drive, and she’ll never have a chance to do that again.”
Why, why, why?
“The murder of Cara Zastrow and the subsequent arrest of Eric Hughes and Sergio Colgan has consumed Fairbanks during the past 14 months,” the News-Miner noted. “The community continues to struggle with the question of why the murder happened.”
Farneksi was assigned to put that question to Hughes. She got no real answer.
Colgan had obvious issues, but Hughes didn’t fit the mold of a killer. He was the American boy next door, according to friends: quiet, well-mannered, no trouble with the law, shot the photographs for the school yearbook, wrestled for the school team, skipped some classes to shoot pool or play video games, but still graduated with his class in 1990.
He dreamed of becoming a police officer. He knew Zastrow well. He packed groceries at the supermarket where she worked as a cashier. He was friends with her stepsister. He knew her step mother, who also worked at the supermarket.
When Colgan started talking about committing a murder, Hughes said, he just went along. It was like a joke. It wasn’t really going to happen. It was a game.
He kept going along.
And then he was a murderer.
“He said he does not know why he did it,” Farneksi wrote.
This is the stuff of nightmares: to have a friend or, worse, a child brutally killed for no reason, to have them die simply become someone wanted to see what it was like to commit murder.
No real closure
Hughes and Colgan both pleaded guilty to first degree murder and were sentenced to life in prison. Colgan later appealed his sentence.
“In arguing that his sentence is excessive, Colgan points out that at the time of the offense he was nineteen years old and had no prior criminal record,” the Appals Court justice’s wrote.”He suggests that he reported the offense to the psychologist in spite of being warned of the lack of confidentiality. He contends that the record shows that he is extremely remorseful, that he has a good employment history, and that he has good prospects for rehabilitation.”
The court didn’t buy it.
The justices noted the trial court testimony of forensic and clinical psychologist Dr. David Sperbeck, who examined Hughes and explored the nature of the crime.
It was Sperbeck’s view that “the acts are among the most serious that I have ever seen.” He predicted “very little rehabilitative potential in a person who methodically plans and meticulously carries out a . . . complicated series of acts which resulted in the . . . murder of a victim, as . . . in this case.”
No one had an answer to the question “why.”
Colgan is today housed in the Goose Creek Correctional Center not that far west of where Grunwald’s body was found after the latest inexplicable murder. Colgan teaches barbering to other inmates in the state prison.
“It’s definitely something that not just makes the time go by, but enriches everyone along the way,” he told Anchorage TV station KTVA in August. His students praised him.
“There’s no problem he can’t solve. He’s just an excellent teacher,” said Jeron Batts, one of the students.
“Most of the students in the program are scheduled to be released sometime during the next few years,” KTVA reported. “Colgan, however, will never leave. He killed Cara Zastrow in Fairbanks in 1991.”
Colgan appeared on camera. His face showed no sign of remorse.
“First degree murder,” he said, his head nodding behind his spectacles. “Ah, 99 years without parole.
“So, I’ll be able to continue to teach a lot of barber school classes after this so long as it continues to be successful.”
And maybe someday Colgn will be able to explain why.