County judge moves murder case forward

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— The criminal case against the man accused of killing a Steamboat Springs woman earlier this year will go forward, Routt County Judge James Garrecht ruled Monday morning.

After a preliminary hearing that lasted about an hour, Garrecht determined there is enough evidence for Thomas Lee Johnson to be tried for first-degree murder in the stabbing death of Lori Bases, 31. If convicted, Johnson would be sentenced to life in prison or executed.

A second Class I charge, felony murder, was dismissed by Garrecht.

Johnson, dressed in orange jail clothes, showed no emotion when Garrecht made his ruling. His case was bound over to 14th Judicial District Court in Steamboat Springs. His first appearance in front of Judge Richard P. Doucette is set for 10 a.m. Jan. 16.

As for a motive, authorities have speculated that Johnson believed Bases was interfering in his relationship with a woman named Kim Goodwin, who was one of Bases' closest friends. About three weeks after the murder, Goodwin married Johnson in Las Vegas. The two are now estranged and Goodwin is seeking an annulment, although a hearing on that matter has been postponed until after the criminal proceedings against Johnson.

Assistant District Attorney Kerry St. James was unable to prove to Garrecht on Monday that there was enough evidence to support prosecuting Johnson for felony murder. Felony murder occurs when someone is killed during the commission of another felony. St. James filed the charge against Johnson because the 30-year-old man from Longmont allegedly took steps to cover up the slaying of the attractive, redheaded Bases by making it look like a sexual assault had occurred.

Johnson's attorney, Norm Townsend, argued the charge should be dismissed after Steamboat Springs Detective Robert DelValle testified Monday there was no evidence that suggested Bases was sexually assaulted prior to her death.

"There is no evidence of a rape or an attempted rape," Townsend said. "DelValle could not point to anything."

APRIL 10: Lori Bases, 31, of Steamboat Springs reports her Toyota sport utility vehicle has been vandalized after finding the vehicle's interior slashed. APRIL 11: Bases reports her vehicle's tires have been slashed. MAY 12: Bases is found dead at about 12:45 a.m. by her roommate at her residence at 1620 Steamboat Blvd. MAY 28: Thomas Lee Johnson marries Bases' best friend, Kimberly Goodwin, in Las Vegas, Nev. JUNE 22: Steamboat Springs Police Capt. Richard Crotz listens to a telephone conversation between Johnson and his ex-wife, Michelle Linnebur. During the conversation, Johnson allegedly admits to killing Bases. JUNE 23: Johnson is arrested by authorities when he returns to Steamboat Springs by bus. He is arrested at about 7:45 p.m. near the intersection of U.S. 40 and Mount Werner Road. JUNE 28: Johnson is formally charged by the district attorney's office with four counts: first-degree murder, felony murder, first-degree criminal trespass and criminal mischief. SEPT. 11: Lack of results on evidence sent to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's crime laboratory delays a preliminary hearing. DEC. 4: After a preliminary hearing, Routt County Judge James Garrecht binds Johnson over for trial for first-degree murder, first-degree criminal trespass and criminal mischief. The judge dismisses a fourth charge, felony murder. JAN. 16: Johnson is scheduled to make his first appearance in 14th Judicial District Court.

St. James countered with his version of the crime:

"He intended to go up there, kill Lori Bases and stage it as a rape," the prosecutor said.

That wasn't enough, however, for Garrecht to sign off on the felony murder charge.

"There is no evidence that the defendant attempted a sexual assault," the judge ruled. "There is evidence that there was premeditation to commit a murder and there was a plan to stage a sexual assault as a cover up. But beyond this plan there was no overt acts to commit the sexual assault."

Johnson was living in California in the weeks after the murder. He was arrested in Steamboat Springs on June 23 after arriving here by bus. It is unclear why Johnson, who reportedly had been to Bases' home prior to the murder, returned to the Yampa Valley after her death.

DelValle, who is the lead investigator on the case, gave information in public for the first time Monday about how Bases was found in her apartment at 1620 Steamboat Blvd. just before 1 a.m. on May 12.

The 31-year-old woman was discovered by her roommate lying face down on the floor between the living room and a hallway that leads to two bedrooms. She had been stabbed numerous times and had wounds all over her body, including her neck. According to an autopsy, Bases bled to death.

"I noticed a number of cutting- and slashing-type wounds on her body that were caused by a sharp instrument," DelValle said in court.

DelValle also testified about why police arrested Johnson.

Capt. Richard Crotz was at Johnson's ex-wife's home to interview her about the man she divorced in 1996. While he was at Michelle Linnebur's, Johnson's ex-wife, the phone rang and Crotz was allowed to listen in on a conversation between Linnebur and Johnson. During the conversation, Crotz allegedly heard Johnson admit that he had planned to hurt Bases when he went to her apartment May 11. A portion of the phone call was reportedly taped.

"He says he went to Lori Bases' house," DelValle said. "He stabbed her. The knife went through her. He cut himself. He stabbed her multiple times."

After the stabbing, Johnson left the residence only to return a short time later to make sure the woman was dead, DelValle said.

Johnson also reportedly told Linnebur he brought with him items to stage a rape and make it look as if the crime had been committed by one of Bases' ex-boyfriends. Johnson also told Linnebur he used a stun gun in the attack, the detective said.

"He said he stunned her and shocked her with it multiple times," DelValle said.

Johnson claims he was not in Steamboat Springs when the murder occurred. He told police he was in Pueblo at the time in question.

Authorities don't believe that alibi. They point to evidence that indicates Johnson was involved in an accident on May 12 about 10 miles from Bases' home on Rabbit Ears Pass.

Johnson rented a 2000 Mitsubishi Montero Sport on May 11 in Denver, DelValle said.

St. James believes Johnson drove the vehicle up from Denver, committed the murder and then returned the vehicle after business hours on May 12.

Authorities contend that Johnson wrecked the vehicle on Rabbit Ears Pass on his way back to Denver. They say pieces of the vehicle that were left at the scene match damaged areas of the Mitsubishi.

Johnson has admitted he wrecked the sport utility vehicle but said he did so on Interstate 25 between Colorado Springs and Pueblo. The vehicle has been in the possession of the Steamboat Springs Police Department for the past four months.

During cross-examination Monday, DelValle admitted that neither Johnson's nor Bases' blood was found in the Mitsubishi. DelValle also testified that shoeprints found at the murder scene do not match any of the shoes that investigators confiscated from Johnson.

DelValle and officer Rich Brown of the Steamboat Springs Police Department also gave testimony about vandalism to Bases' Toyota SUV in April.

On the morning of April 10, Bases found her vehicle had been broken into and the seats and dashboard had been cut up. The next morning, the SUV's tires were found slashed. A total of $6,400 in damage was caused to the vehicle, DelValle said. Two days before the vandalism, Goodwin was staying with Bases and the two women thought they saw Johnson drive by outside Bases' apartment.

On suspicion of the vandalism, Johnson has been charged with first-degree criminal trespass and criminal mischief. If Johnson is convicted of the trespass, he faces six months to eights years in prison. The mischief carries a punishment of between one and 16 years.

DelValle testified that Johnson's brother told police about the crime.

Townsend argued that Johnson's brother was under duress when he made that statement.

Townsend also pointed out that Bases herself told police she did not believe Johnson was responsible for the vandalism.

To reach Gary E. Salazar call 871-4205 or e-mail @amigo.net

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