Rare and antique coins can fetch a hefty price from dealers, with some coins much sough after for their value amongst collectors. Over the period of a decade, from 1980 to 1990, a vicious and unscrupulous killer targeted coin shops throughout the Western states of America, shooting to death coin dealers and shop owners, and stealing thousands of dollars worth of rare coins. These unsolved murders were being investigated by each state as separate incidents, until a survivor was able to give a description of the killer, which offered enough of a link between the crimes, leading to other investigators connecting them to one individual. The co-operation of various state law enforcement detectives meant the hunt for the "Coin Shop Killer" had become a multi-agency investigation. Through dogged and determined investigative work, the killer was eventually caught and his involvement was suspected in numerous unsolved crimes.
Numismatics is the study and collection of coins, banknotes as well as medals, and has become popular with both hobbyists and private collectors, whilst many shops and specialist stores are dedicated to the sale and exchange of coins, tokens, paper money and other forms of currency. The buying and selling of coins can be a very lucrative investment and business venture, and there are two distinct groups of numismatists who are part of the coin collecting world. The first are those who derive the simple pleasure of ownership and study of rare and antique coins, as either private collectors or amateur enthusiasts. The second are those who deal in coins and currency, and who are often known as the professional numismatists because they are able to authenticate coins for commercial sale through consulting experts such as archaeologists, historians and museum curators. It was this last group who were targeted by a cold-blooded killer who robbed and murdered coin dealers across the Western states of America during a decades long crime spree.
In April and May 1990, Legacy Rare Coins in Murray, Utah, was over the course of several days frequented by a polite Texan who said he wanted to invest in some coins. At closing time on 4 May, the co-owner, 29-year-old Kelly Finnegan, was putting away valuables in the safe when he heard the man murmured something. As Finnegan turned his head a shot rang out, and the small calibre bullet pierced his forehead. Although not seriously wounded, the dealer played dead and the gunman proceeded to steal around $60,000 worth of coins and other merchandise, before escaping. Finnegan described his attacker to police as a polite and friendly man who said he wanted to buy coins. He knew him as "Jim Stockton", and said he had visited to store on several previous occasions. Finnegan recalled "I had gotten used to him," and so he didn't worry that the man was hanging about as he put his valuables away at closing time. "He mumbled something that sounded to me like 'you dumb bastard.' He said it very lightly, and I turned around to say 'What?' In that split second he shot me."
That he turned his head was the only thing that save Finnegan's life, as the bullet just pierced the skin and he remained conscious. He remembers the man walked back and forth across his body for several minutes, removing gold and rare coins. He interpreted the shooters final remark to him as, "that I was dumb to trust him, I let my guard down, so he won the game." Murray police began an investigation into the attempted murder and robbery. Just over two months later, a similar crime was perpetrated in Montana. 60-year-old Charles Sparboe, a flamboyant self-made millionaire who had real estate and other interests, mainly occupied his time at his ten-year-old coin shop in Billings, Montana. The time and effort he put into his numismatics store was an expression of his life-long hobby, and he operated the shop with his 47-year-old likeable assistant Catharine Newstrom. On the hot afternoon of 31 July 1990, the bodies of Sparboe and Newstrom were found inside the Treasure State Silver & Gold Coin Shop. Both had been shot in the head, and some $54,000 worth of coins and gold was taken from Sparboe's shop.
At first these execution-style murders were believed by locals to have been the result of the no-nonsense talking and occasionally outspoken shop owner had incurred the wrath of some disgruntled collector and paid for it with his life. However, Sparboe had provided detectives with a clue to his killer's identity. He old man had voiced his concern about an odd new customer who started hanging around the shop. His son Jim and several others remembered the man well, and recalled that the customer had said he was a "farmer from Laurel, 15 miles up the road." Jim Sparboe told detectives the man said he "selling his farm, for $130,000, and wanted to invest the money in gold." The elder Sparboe thought it odd that the man had parked his silver Pontiac some distance away, and the walked to the store. The third time the "farmer" appeared, the younger Sparboe left the store, and it was the last time he saw his father and Newstrom. When he returned, he found his father and his assistant dead.
He described the man as having a gap between his front teeth and a scar on his right hand. He also noticed the man had "banker-smooth hands", not those of a farmer. This story told by the customer was remarkably similar to one told by a customer in a Kansas City murder several years previously. On 12 March 1988, LeRoy Hoffman of Kansas City, Missouri, was killed and his coin shop was robbed of several thousands dollars worth of coins. Hoffman had previously told his wife that a local farmer, who had frequented his store, had inquired about selling a large collection of coins. Hours after interviewing Jim Sparboe, Billings Detective Sergeant Jerry Archer, who had led the department's investigation, had sent a description of the crime and of the suspect out on police teletype. The following day, a Spokane, Washington police detective responded with information on a similar crime. Coin shop owner Leo Cashatt was killed by a gunshot wound to the head and his store robbed by an unknown assailant on on 14 July 1987. Murray police also responded because of the Finnegan case, and were soon Spokane sent out a copy of the composite drawing of the suspect.
It seemed the killer had a specific method of operation, which would prove to be the link between crimes. The suspect would go to a coin shop, often many times, where he would ingratiate himself with the owner, talking a lot and pretending to be a prospective buyer. He was in-fact stalking his victims, familiarising himself with their habits and routines so they would become accustomed to seeing him. Then one day he would return, usually near closing time, to rob and shoot to kill using a small calibre weapon, and always in the head. Detectives across several states had been trying to solve separate crimes, but now it seemed possible they were all looking for the same man. A similar modus operandi of the killer was linked to several other homicides involving the murder and robbery of coin dealerships.
It was suspected the same killer was responsible for the murder of David Sutton of Everett, Washington, was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head on January 27, 1980, and his antique store robbed of $80,000 in silver dollars. This crime was similar to that of Thomas Rohr of Mishawaka, Indiana, who was killed during a robbery of the coin shop he managed on August 28, 1985, as well as the murder of Ruben "Lucky" Williams, of Vacaville, California. He was killed on 5 November 1986, with a gunshot wound to the head, and his coin shop, the Golden Hills Coin Exchange, was robbed. These murders stretched back across ten years, and all the victims were coin dealers who had been robbed.
Spokane detectives called again to say that another shop owner had recognised a customer from the previous April, named J.C. Weir. They were able to locate a Washington state listed silver Pontiac registered to a J.C. Weir. Det. Sgt. Archer said "Spokane let me know this man's driver's license in Washington had been surrendered in Wyoming.", so Billings detectives contacted Wyoming officials in Jackson Hole, the Wyoming address listed on the new license. This would turn out to be a dead end, with Sheriff's deputies there relaying that the address was phoney. However they did find a silver Pontiac at the local airport, and inside was a .22-caliber handgun, a silencer and coin wrappings from the Sparboe robbery. At the same time, Deputy Sheriff Pete Piccini in Jefferson County, Washington, was the lead investigator working the unsolved case of the disappearance of Robert and Dagmar Linton. The couple, from Stockton, California, went missing from their trailer while camping at a Washington State campground on the Olympic Peninsula on 22 August 1986.
Robert and Dagmar Linton
During the Summer of 1986, the Linton's headed towards the northwest with the intention of reaching Vancouver to see the World’s Fair. During their first month of travel, as they made their way northwards, they frequently contacted relatives back home. However, when they reached Washington State, the telephone calls abruptly stopped. The red and white trailer they had been travelling in was found by a campground staff member empty at a campground in Washington. On 23 August 1986, their pick-up truck was discovered abandoned at the Seattle-Tacoma Airport. Inside the mostly clean vehicle was found small amounts of blood in the wooden ceiling material of the camper shell, which included three distinct blood types, those of Robert, Dagmar and a third from an unknown individual. The trailer showed signs of a struggle, and despite their bodies not being discovered, investigators concluded the Linton's had been murdered.
The transactions made by the killer using the Linton's credits allowed Paccini to trace where they payments were being made across several states. In one particular instance, a large, bearded white man with his right hand bandaged was seen using the Linton's credit card to purchase an expensive clarinet. Once the credit card's activity was reported by the media, the card's usage stopped. During this investigation, Paccini interviewed numerous suspects, including a suspicious looking man with a bandage on his right hand who frequented a pawn shop. Paccini interviewed the bandaged-handed man because of his suspicious behaviour, but with no grounds to arrest him, the man was released. When Piccini saw the original Billings teletype, he at first discounted a link, because the man seen using the Linton's cards were bearded and neither victim was a dealer of coins. But then he learned through Billings investigators that the suspect they were tracking had lived in Deming, Washington, which was not far from where a Linton credit card had been first used.
By now the search for the suspect had become a multi-state investigation, "It was one of the unique joinings of police department" in a widespread investigation, said Piccini. Piccini began his own investigation, and found that the suspect's teena-ged daughter played the clarinet, and that her school records had been transferred from Washington to Alaska. Meanwhile Billings detectives pursued a lead from Airline personnel at Jackson Hole, who said that a J.C. Weir had flown to Anchorage two days after the Sparboe-Newstrom murders. When they inquired further, they discovered the suspect had been picked up by his wife Debbie, who then sold around $15,000 worth of gold there. It appeared J.C Weir had moved with his wife and two children to Kenny Lake, an isolated enclave roughly 85 miles north of Valdez.
Archer along with another Billings detective and several Alaska state troopers made an arrest there on 13 August 1990. They were greeted by a burley outdoorsman, and Archer noticed the man had a gap in his front teeth and a scar on his right hand. Inside his pocket was one of Kelly Finnegan's antique pocket watches and his son was found to be wearing a Rolex watch that was previously owned by the co-owner of Legacy Rare Coins. The man was eventually identified as 44-year-old Charles Thurman Sinclair, who used a variety of alias including J.C. Weir and Jim Stockton, and was suspected in as many as eight murders and one attempted murder. Piccini also suspected Sinclair of involvement in Linton disappearances in August 1986, as well as the rape of a real estate agent that same month, and the November 1987 kidnapping and murders of a vacationing Canadian couple, including the rape of the woman.
Piccini obtained a search warrant to sift through the family's belongings kept in storage units in Washington, and there officers found numerous items linking Sinclair to the Spokane and Vacaville murders. There were instruments for the creation of false identifications, piles of maps, C-4 explosives, claymore land mines and various valuable and rare coins. "And we came up with the clarinet", said Piccini, purchased with the Linton credit card, he added. Under the weight of this evidence, along with the scars on Sinclair's right hand which matched the description of the man with his hand bandaged, Sinclair was held in prison on a $500,000 bond in Palmer, Alaska while Montana authorities were seeking extradition. Montana authorities charged Sinclair with the murders of Charles Sparboe and Catharine Newstrom and requested his extradition to stand trial. Utah authorities added charges of attempted criminal homicide and aggravated robbery for the attack on Kelly Finnegan at Legacy Rare Coins. Meanwhile detectives set about trying to find out all they could of the mysterious Charles Thurman Sinclair.
Charles Thurman Sinclair
The youngest of four children from a working class family, Sinclair grew up in Jal, a small oil and gas town in the southeastern corner of New Mexico. One his many alias came from a former classmate at Jal High School, the real J.C. Weir. His father died when he was still young, and his mother supported the family by operating a coin laundry business and taking in ironing. John Cooper, one of his former teachers recalled "he was an average student, not particularly different from anyone else." Sinclair developed a fascination for coins, and from this he started a coin shop during the 1970's in Hobbs, situated 40 miles north of Jal, and used his own collection as a starting point. Locals remembered he did well, and soon branched out into selling guns. Due to the demand he renamed his store the Shooter's Supply, and catered for people who could a price range of $800 to $1,000 for collectable guns, hunting rifles and even automatics.
He was remembered as a friendly and well-liked, outgoing man who "could talk to anybody." Along with his wife Debbie, daughter Pam and son Michael, they enjoyed competitive shooting "as a family thing", and Sinclair would often go hunting with several law enforcement officers who were among his customers. His prosperous business came to an end in 1985 when Sinclair's shop burned down. According to Hobbs police, he was investigation for arson but not charged. Soon enough he defaulted on a bank loan, and when the lender moved to reclaim his guns as collateral, Sinclair promptly left town with his family. His wife, Debbie Sinclair, was accused in absentia by New Mexico of embezzlement for failing to turn over more than £30,000 in hunting and fishing license fees sold through the store. Many Hobbs residents were surprised by the way Sinclair left, but not by the fact that he did. One of his close friends who wished to remain anonymous said, "he told me he wanted to set back on his heels for a few years, that he had enough of six-day work weeks. He said he had enough money saved to buy a place with some acreage, get some mules and some horses. That maybe he'd get into real estate."
At the time of his arrest, Sinclair and his family had been living on the second floor of a rented wood-frame house with no bathroom, and an outside privy. "He had no visible means of support," said Alaska state trooper Sgt. Charles Grutzmacher. After Sinclair's arrest, his wife was extradited back to New Mexico, where she pleaded not guilty to the embezzlement charges and was released on bail. She would tell authorities that she had never questioned her husband about his income, and authorities believed she and Sinclair's children had no knowledge of the murders. On October 30, 1990, Charles Thurman Sinclair died of heart failure in an Anchorage, Alaska jail cell. His death would leave behind more questions than answers. Police had hoped he would talk to them, but he never did. According to a preliminary report, he suddenly died alone in his cell, of "heart failure". His only know surviving victim, Kelly Finnegan had hoped to see him prosecuted and said of his death, "I'm disappointed, I feel cheated." Whilst Billings Sgt. Archer said "I'm not convinced we know everything this guy did, we may never find out." His family, especially his children were devastated over his death. One friend reported that when the children talk about their father, they wistfully recall a different man, who "made a real effort to teach the about animals, taught when a lot about themselves, about being independent and self-sufficient."
Law enforcement were equally devastated by Sinclair's death, as it meant they were left without answers. Piccini, who had doggedly hunted for Sinclair over the deaths of Robert and Dagmar Linton said, "For me this all but closes my case. Have you ever been on a train, rolling down a track, feeling everything was great, when you go across a trestle and the track just stops? That's the only way to describe how I feel. What's left to do but go back the way you came?." Many Hobbs residents who remember Sinclair said they were shocked to learn that he could have been a killer. One friend said, "It's like a puzzle, but you can't see the picture because half the pieces are missing." Sinclair's death left associated cases without the closure of convictions or further information required. "We all felt (Sinclair) was a serial killer of the same stature of Ted Bundy," said Piccini. FBI special agent Ken Marischen said, "We are still working on known and unknown crimes. There's a lot of unanswered questions. The only one we know knew the whole story took it to the grave with him."
Written by Nucleus
Written by Nucleus