Murder suspect no stranger to false confessions

Dan Pesch still awaiting trial in cold-case death of Kiowa teacher

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Six days before Christmas 2017 came shocking news: Authorities had arrested a man in the 2010 murder of Kiowa High School teacher Randy Wilson.

Elbert County investigators charged Daniel Pesch, a longtime Summit County resident, with first-degree murder in the death of Wilson, a beloved science teacher found dead at a country crossroads more than seven years earlier. Wilson, 53 when he died, was found in a ditch with a bag over his head, a belt around his neck and his hands bound behind his back.

Little was known about the case against Pesch until May 2018, when a court hearing revealed that the charges against Pesch were based almost exclusively on months of his strange, ever-changing confessions. Pesch, investigators testified, described significant details of the crime scene wrong. His DNA was nowhere to be found on evidence from the scene. His grandfather testified that a logbook placed Pesch halfway across the state the night Wilson died.

Nearly 10 months after his arrest, Dan Pesch, 35, still sits in the Elbert County jail in Kiowa awaiting trial for the murder of Wilson — a crime he confessed to many times. Pesch's arraignment, which has seen repeated delays, is scheduled for Oct. 15.

Today, though, Pesch says the confessions were an act of suicidal desperation — a cry for attention born of mental illness, drug abuse and stress.

Interviews with Pesch's family members and acquaintances, conducted by phone from around the country, and court records shed light on the mysterious murder suspect: a hard worker and caring friend, but also a man given to darkness and lies, with a history of seeking punishment for crimes he didn't commit.

'The quintessential nerd'

Pesch's mother, described as a drifter suffering from schizophrenia, put him up for adoption not long after he was born, family members said. Pesch's father is unknown.

Pesch was adopted by his maternal grandparents, and spent much of his childhood in Old Forge, a little town in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. His grandparents declined to be quoted on the record for this story.

There was no shortage of drugs and liquor around town, said Adam Smith, who was close with Pesch in school, but Pesch was strait-laced.

“He was kind of the quintessential nerd,” Smith said. “He got A's and B's, read a lot of books — Stephen King was his favorite.”

Pesch enrolled at the University of Central Florida in Orlando in 2001. He studied criminal justice and legal studies, hoping to go to law school, he said.

“We drank together a lot,” remembered Eric Jepson, one of Pesch's fraternity brothers.

“Dan was happy-go-lucky,” Jepson said. “But eventually it seemed like he was drinking more than normal. He was always really fidgety. He'd change the subject a lot.”

Pesch said in a September phone interview from the Elbert County jail that he began taking Adderall, a medication often used to treat attention-deficit disorder and hyperactivity, in college. He said he finished a bachelor's degree, but university records show he dropped out in 2004.

Out West

By 2007, Pesch was in Colorado, working for a ski resort.

Ann — who asked that her real name not be used due to the sensitive nature of Pesch's case — was one of several Old Forge kids to move to Colorado after graduation. She was thrilled to find out Pesch lived nearby in 2008.

“I invited him over — I was genuinely excited to see him,” Ann said. “He got drunk and just started melting down. He said he'd done something terrible, that he was a horrible person. He wouldn't tell me what he did. He passed out and left the next morning. I reached out a few times after that, but I never heard back.”

In 2010, Pesch said in the recent interview from jail, he contacted the Chaffee County sheriff to falsely confess to a series of burglaries that had been reported in a Salida newspaper. An affidavit shows someone sent police a series of anonymous emails, linking Pesch to the crimes. The first email — which listed Pesch's phone number — was sent on June 19, just days after Wilson was found dead hundreds of miles away on the prairie.

Another email to Chaffee County authorities mentioned Pesch encountering "a random guy named Mike they found while on bikes" while burglarizing homes. Police in the area at the time were conducting a well-publicized search for suspects in the disappearance of Mike Rust, a Saguache mountain biker who had gone missing while chasing after alleged burglars who got away on dirt bikes. Another man has since been convicted of Rust's murder.

Pesch consented to fingerprint and DNA analysis in the burglaries, which showed no connection to the crimes. Pesch was never charged in the case.

Pesch offered little explanation for his confession.

“Just looking for attention, I guess,” Pesch said.

Pesch was evicted from his apartment that winter, court records show. Pesch's roommate at the time declined an interview request.

Starting over

By the spring of 2011, Pesch had landed on his feet, working for a popular Breckenridge restaurant.

Pesch began dating Kim Nuzum, a manager at the restaurant, in 2011.

“He was so easy to talk to,” Nuzum said by phone from Louisiana, where she now lives with her and Pesch's two daughters. “He was one of my best friends.”

Eventually Pesch was promoted to manager. Other restaurant employees from the time recall Pesch as a solid friend and boss.

“He worked really hard,” said Faye Reynolds, who worked with Pesch. “Even in the middle of rushes when nothing was going right, he never lost his cool.”

Parenthood

In 2015, Nuzum discovered she was pregnant, and Pesch was an excited father-to-be, she said. Their daughter, Avery, was born at the end of August 2015.

Nuzum got pregnant again in 2016, and the thought of two babies was nerve-wracking, she said.

“I was a mess,” she said.

Pesch started to buckle under the stress, he said from jail.

“My job wasn't going that well,” Pesch said. “I started drinking a lot more. I felt like I was treading water — badly.”

That November, with Nuzum in her third trimester, Pesch had another run-in with the police.

An “anonymous tipster” told police that Pesch was a drug dealer, and told law enforcement where and when to find him, according to an affidavit in the case. When police pulled him over, they found numerous driver's licenses scattered on the floor of the car, as well as an illegal collapsible baton.

Pesch said in September that the licenses were fake IDs he had taken from bar patrons, but the affidavit says he didn't say as much to police.

Charges in the case were eventually dropped because a drug dog sent to search the car leaped through the car window without consent, rendering the search illegal.

Pesch, when asked if he was the anonymous tipster against himself, replied: “No comment.”

'He wasn't sleeping'

Pesch and Nuzum's second daughter, Savannah, was born in December 2016, a month early. The baby stopped breathing not long after she was born, and was rushed from Frisco to a Denver hospital (Pesch says they were flown in a helicopter; Nuzum said they were taken by ambulance).

Pesch was fired from the Breckinridge restaurant in the spring of 2017, and told Nuzum it was because his manager “didn't like him.”

Facing a rent increase and poor job opportunities, the family moved to the Denver area, renting a three-bedroom apartment near Southwest Plaza Mall in south Jefferson County.

Pesch seemed to be unravelling, Nuzum said.

“He wasn't sleeping,” Nuzum said. “I'd catch him outside drinking in the middle of the night.”

Pesch's relationship with his grandparents had gone south, Nuzum said, and he seemed to take it hard when they didn't call him for his birthday in June 2017. By the end of the month, investigators testified, he had begun messaging Elbert County deputies, making vague insinuations about being involved in a crime.

Nuzum discovered a lengthy first-person narrative about killing Wilson on Pesch's computer that summer, she said, but Pesch told her it was an entry for a writing contest based on an unsolved crime he'd read about on a “ghost hunter” Facebook page.

Pesch was fired from a Denver-area restaurant job in August 2017. He sustained a concussion in a fall the day he was fired. (Pesch said he was taking Avery out of the bathtub when he slipped; Nuzum said both girls were with her at the time.)

Nuzum said she discovered Pesch had been spending hundreds of dollars a month on alcohol.

Eventually, Nuzum said, rent checks started bouncing, which Pesch blamed on his bank account being “hacked.”

Unbeknownst to Nuzum at the time, Pesch met with Elbert County investigators several times that summer, each time offering more tidbits about his purported involvement in Wilson's death.

“I was enjoying playing this game of cat-and-mouse,” Pesch said.

Shortly before Thanksgiving, Nuzum told Pesch that his grandparents had sent her a letter in support of her taking full custody of the girls.

“That sent him over the edge,” Nuzum said.

While Pesch was hospitalized on a 72-hour mental health hold, Nuzum took off for her parents' home in Louisiana with the girls.

Nuzum said she told some friends that they could help themselves to items from the apartment, and Pesch returned home to find his family gone and the apartment ransacked.

In the weeks that followed, with eviction proceedings looming, Pesch sank deeper into a spiral of depression, he said.

“They sent me out of the treatment facility with a bunch of psych meds,” Pesch said. “I was drinking a lot on top of that. It was just me in that empty apartment with my cat.”

Pesch ramped up his contact with Elbert County investigators through December, making increasingly erratic statements about Wilson's death. At Southwest Plaza, he left handwritten letters confessing to the crime, and scrawled a confession on the windows of his apartment the day before he left for the last time. Pesch also sent an “anonymous tip” to Greenwood Village police that he killed Wilson, Pesch said.

Just days before Christmas, Pesch told investigators he was thinking of fleeing the country, and they summoned him to Kiowa. He obliged, and Elbert County Sheriff Shayne Heap arrested Pesch in Elizabeth.

In jail

Pesch struggled to break free from deputies in the jail parking lot, according to an affidavit.

“I think I realized the enormity of what I'd done,” Pesch said.

Pesch began asserting his innocence shortly after his arrest.

“I think I did it because I wanted to put myself in a position where I'd have no choice but to kill myself,” Pesch said. “But once I was in here, I couldn't bring myself to do it.”

Pesch said he's had lots of therapy in jail, and hopes to be released so he can return to his family. He said he's been diagnosed with adjustment disorder, in which a person's response to stress is more extreme than appropriate.

Nuzum said she's eager to have the father of her daughters back, though she struggles with what she's learned about him.

“I feel like part of me is missing,” Nuzum said. “The girls ask about their dad every day. Avery seems more sad than before. The littlest thing sets her off.”

Pesch said he wasn't thinking of Wilson's family when he confessed.

“I'm horrified I've dragged them through this,” Pesch said.

The outcome of the strange case is far from assured.

“We're waiting on some reports to see if this case needs to go to trial or if there's something else that can be done here,” said Chris Wilcox, the lead prosecutor in the case, at Pesch's last hearing, held on Sept. 17.

In the meantime, Pesch said he's spending his time reading novels, and working on some stories of his own.

“I have a very active imagination,” he said.

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