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On the evening of June 30, 2003, tragedy struck the small town of Colon, Nebraska.
Dispatchers with the Saunders County Sheriff’s Office received a 911 call about a possible suicide: a friend of a woman named Sharron Erickson had called to report they’d found her body in her garage alongside a gun. Upon their arrival, authorities found Sharron lying in a pool of blood. Her head and face had been disfigured, to the point where she was unrecognizable.
How she died was a mystery. Although there were some clues, like blood smeared on a car door as well as a bloody shoe print, the scene of the crime prompted more questions than answers. The handgun that was found near her head did not have any bullets in it, and investigators did not find any shell casings at the scene. There was also so much blood that it hindered the investigation and authorities were forced to wait for an autopsy report in order to learn just how she died.
At 66 years old, Erickson was well known for the work she did in the community as the deputy county treasurer before retiring after more than 30 years on the job. Authorities didn’t know who could have wanted to hurt her. The crime itself was unusual just due to the setting — Erickson lived in a converted former grocery store, and her garage was across the street from her actual home, meaning she would have had to cross the street at some point in the night. But did she go willingly, or was she chased?
Investigators began to dig deeper and found signs of a possible forced entry at the back door of her home. The phone line had also been cut.
“There was some planning on the attack. Someone’s obviously trying to prevent her from calling for help,” Kevin Stukenholtz, Saunders County Sheriff, told “An Unexpected Killer,” airing Fridays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
They also found Erickson's bed unmade and an empty gun holster by it, suggesting the attack — possibly a burglary — may have come as a surprise, likely occurring some time in the night.
During the early stages of the investigation, authorities ran into a man named Rick Hartman, a post master and volunteer fireman who was known to have been close to Erickson. He seemed extremely interested in the murder, and when detectives learned Erickson would routinely give him a key to her house when she went out of town, they invited him for an interview.
When asked to give a formal statement, however, his demeanor changed and he refused, instead telling authorities he was leaving and they would have to arrest him if they wanted him to stay. Still, his alibi was proven true: His wife confirmed his claim that he’d been at home with her at the time of the murder. He didn’t have a criminal history either, so authorities moved on.
Investigators then focused their attention on a man named James Marrs, who lived in the area and was known for getting into trouble. When confronted by police, Marrs said he and Erickson had been acquaintances and he was shocked to learn what had happened to her. His alibi also seemed to be tight: On the day of the murder, he’d finished a roofing job in Kansas before going out drinking with friends. He claimed to have come home at around 1:30 a.m., and his mother, whom he lived with, backed him up.
But while Marrs seemed like a dead end, he did give them another tip, pointing toward a truck driver whom Erickson was known to argue with. That man would routinely park too close to her property or do other things that bothered her which led to confrontations between the two. However, when they attempted to find the trucker, they were unable to track his whereabouts.
With no arrests, the town was hungry for answers.
“That’s on the mind of probably all the citizens in this area and probably the scariest thing for law enforcement and the community. Is that person likely to offend again?” Stukenholtz recalled, adding later, “The town was on high alert.”
The autopsy report came in a week after Erickson's death. She’d died at some time in the night or in the early morning hours. She hadn’t sustained any gunshot wounds, despite being found with a gun near her body. Her cause of death was actually blunt force trauma and asphyxiation. She’d been beaten so badly that she suffered broken ribs and she had been strangled. What really shocked investigators, however, was discovering whoever her attacker was, they’d raped her.
Two days later, the trucker that investigators had been looking for came back into town and authorities were able to bring him in for questioning. He maintained his innocence, claiming that, even though he and Erickson didn’t like each other, he didn’t kill her and had been out of town at the time of her murder. When he provided receipts to corroborate his story, authorities were forced to release him and look elsewhere for suspects.
A break in the case came when the crime lab were able to finally piece together a DNA profile of the culprit, who’d left traces of semen on Erickson's clothes. For good measure, authorities tested Hartman’s DNA, and when that came back negative, he was finally cleared as a suspect.
They then collected DNA samples from everyone they could. 10 months later, they finally had a match: James Marrs.
The community was appalled. He’d lived near Erickson and had known her since he was a child.
“I was shocked to find out James Marrs was the perpetrator. We had never seen that kind of violence out of him,” Kyle Coughlin, chief deputy with the Saunders County Sheriff’s Office, said.
Even though Marrs had an alibi, authorities soon realized it wouldn't have been impossible for him to have been seen at home and then sneak out to commit the crime later that night. They arrested Marrs, and when seated in front of investigators, he was reluctant to speak. He maintained his innocence and kept claiming he wasn't able to remember anything.
He was charged with sexual assault and murder. Prosecutors’ case was bolstered by the testimony of five inmates who claimed Marrs had confessed to the murder during conversations with them.
Authorities did not have a motive, but they were able to piece together the series of tragic events that led to Erickson's death: James Marrs had been drinking heavily that night and broken into Erickson's house to look for money. He cut the phone line so she couldn’t call for help and forced the back door open. When Erickson heard the break-in, she confronted him with her gun and then likely tried to call 911. After realizing that the phone lines were cut, she probably ran to her car, where she kept her cell phone for emergencies. That was where Marrs caught up to her, attacked her, and killed her.
Police were unsure when the sexual assault took place, however, because Marrs refused to talk about it. Marrs, who was 27, did claim at some point that he and Erickson had had a casual sexual relationship, the Fremont Tribune reported in 2006. That allegation does not seem to have ever been proven.
During his trial, Marrs pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Still, the members of the Colon community were left to carry on with the hole in their hearts that Sharron Erickson left behind.
“She would do anything for you,” her friend and co-worker Don Clark told producers.
For more on this case and others like it, watch “An Unexpected Killer,” airing Fridays at 8/7c on Oxygen.
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