After six years, Vernon’s death is finally avenged
Jason Garner, the man who was with Gypsum resident Coty Vernon when she disappeared in February 1998 has been convicted of first-degree murder by a Grand Junction jury. Prosecutors persuaded the jury that Garner, now 27, stabbed Vernon in a drug-fueled rage six years ago.The presiding judge immediately imposed the mandatory sentence of life in prison, without parole.”I’m glad it’s over, and I’m glad he won’t be able to hurt anyone else. He’s where he needs to be,” says Gypsum resident Janet Reid, Vernon’s mother, of the Dec. 17 jury decision. Vernon was 18 at the time of her disappearance; Garner was 20. “It’s sad for everybody. His life is ruined, and our daughter’s [life] is gone,” she adds.Reid credits the resolution of the convoluted case to many factors, including some initial work by a pair of former Eagle County Sheriff’s investigators. She also cites the persistence of her ex-husband, Terry Vernon, in pushing for a grand jury investigation five years after Coty’s disappearance, despite the fact that, at that point, her body had not been found. Midway through that grand jury session, in December 2002, an elk hunter found Coty’s skeletal remains in a ravine about 10 miles southeast of De Beque, near the Garfield-Mesa County Line. An autopsy revealed sharp force injuries on the skeleton, consistent with knife wounds. The grand jury issued an indictment for Garner on a charge of murder. Case starts in Eagle CountyAccording to Eagle County Sheriff’s Office files, Reid last saw her daughter on the evening of Feb. 15, 1998. Vernon was accompanied by a friend, Jason Garner, a stocky, 20-year-old man from Grand Junction with some local ties, whom she had been seeing for about two weeks. Garner had spent some of his school years in the Eagle Valley. The couple indicated they were on their way to Grand Junction, where Garner lived with his grandmother.Case records compiled by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office indicate that Garner had a history of drugs and domestic violence. He was on unsupervised probation for previous problems at the time he started seeing Vernon.The couple was seen in Grand Junction late in the evening of Feb. 17, 1998, as they were leaving town, presumably to return to the Eagle Valley.Vernon was not seen again, but on the morning of Feb. 18, Garner walked to a ranch house in the middle of isolated country, south of I-70 in rural Garfield County, and asked to use the telephone, indicating he was stranded. There was no sign of Vernon.When interviewed by Garfield County authorities, Garner told the first of several conflicting stories. He says Vernon had picked him up in Grand Junction the previous evening for the ride back to Gypsum. He could not account for what happened afterward, saying he woke up on the ground in a remote area. During that interview, Garner claimed no drugs or alcohol were involved. At some point, he reportedly told an officer he needed some help finding his girlfriend, who was lost on a mountain.Law enforcement officers located Vernon’s car but did not locate her. When they realized Garner was wanted on some outstanding warrants, he was initially taken to the Garfield County Jail, then transferred to Eagle County.That was when he asked to talk with Greg Beaumont, then a detective for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, who had been involved in a previous case involving Garner.Beaumont, who is now an investigator for the Fort Collins police department, said Garner told him that the pair had been partying in the backcountry, and using methamphetamines, when they became separated. Garner indicated the pair had been walking, calling back and forth to one another, but he lost contact with Vernon.That interview played a significant role years later in both the grand jury investigation and the murder trial.”With his own words, he placed himself there … out there with her in the middle of nowhere, and she is murdered,” notes Beaumont. At one point, Garner indicated that he was so high on drugs that he imagined two additional people were in the back seat of the car.Some investigative work in the case was stalled by confusion between agencies over jurisdiction. At Beaumont’s request, the National Guard used helicopters to canvass the area where Vernon’s car was found, with no results. Beaumont and a fellow Eagle County investigator, James van Beek, traveled to the De Beque area and searched Vernon’s car. It was van Beek who found Vernon’s coat hanging from a tree, some distance from her vehicle. Coty Vernon could not be found, despite some intensive search efforts.Beaumont recalls that, at some point, Garner commented to a fellow jail inmate that searchers were looking too low on the mountain for Vernon, and indicated her body was up higher.Eventually, investigators from Eagle, Garfield and Mesa counties agreed that they had suspicious circumstances, but not enough evidence of a criminal act to pursue charges. Garner was released. It was five years before a hunter stumbled across Vernon’s body.”Eagle County [law enforcement] did an awesome job. Greg and James did things they didn’t even have to do. They worked this case so faithfully and tirelessly,” says a grateful Reid.Grand jury investigatesReid says she instinctively knew that her daughter was dead two days after Coty disappeared. Worried, Reid was pacing around her Gypsum home, wearing one of Coty’s sweaters.”I knew that she was in trouble. I had the most awful feeling in my heart and soul that wherever she was it was dark, cold and she was scared,” recalls Reid. She prayed.”At about 4:30 a.m., I felt like her spirit passed. It was over. Whatever … there was no more to be done,” she recalls.Without a body, or proof of a crime, the case stalled. Garner continued to find trouble. At the time the grand jury investigation was under way, he was facing theft and fraud charges. His record includes convictions for drug possession, trespass, assault and drunken driving. It was Coty’s father, Terry Vernon, who kept pushing the case. He posted a $10,000 reward for information about her disappearance. He mailed out flyers to businesses between Eagle and Grand Junction. Several times, he flew from his home in Florida to look for her. Coty’s parents always suspected that Garner was responsible for her death. Terry Vernon also pushed for a grand jury investigation.Beaumont and van Beek testified both before the grand jury and at Garner’s trial last week, along with more than 40 other witnesses. Defense attorneys argued that Garner did not know what happened to Vernon after the two got separated, while walking for help after their vehicle got stuck on a rural road.After 12 hours of deliberating, the jurors found Garner guilty of first-degree murder.”In my opinion, the whole driving force that solved the case was Terry Vernon,” says Beaumont.A life lostGarner’s conviction does bring some peace to Coty’s family.”We got the right person. There’s no doubt in any person’s mind,” says Reid. “We finally do have justice. It doesn’t make you feel good, but justice has finally been done in this case,” she continues.Still, there is unrest. She worries that her daughter may have lived for at least a day after being stabbed. She frets that, had Garner alerted authorities sooner to start a search, her daughter might have survived.Just finding the body would have saved the family five years of hopelessness.And, she wonders what went wrong with the pretty girl with the hazel eyes and brown hair, who was smart enough to graduate from high school at age 16, and who had always dreamed of going on to college to become a lawyer.Beaumont shares some of those thoughts.”They [Garner and Coty] had known each other for two weeks. It is a shame. They got into meth, and it screwed up their lives … I would still like to think that, at some point, maybe she could have straightened her life out,” he observes.”She just hooked up with the wrong person, one time. That’s all it takes. Kids don’t realize that,” notes Reid.Reid admits that she will probably never really know what Garner did to Coty. She rationalizes that “everything happens for a reason.””I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with what happened to my daughter; but I hope somehow I will be able to use it to help other families and kids,” she says. Reid plans to get involved with a family counseling center in Edwards.”Maybe my story will make a difference in someone’s life,” she concludes.
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