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Colorado mountain murder tale ultimately flawed

Published October 3, 2003 at midnight

Janice Dodson and her new husband, Bruce, went hunting in Colorado one fall. An experienced hunter, Janice was taking Bruce on his first outing.

Instead of coming home with fresh game, though, Bruce ended up dead from three gunshot wounds, one dead center through his chest. Several years later, his wife (who'd remarried and become Janice Hall) was sentenced to life for his murder.

Dead Center is the story of the investigation, written by Frank Daniels, the district attorney for western Colorado. Though ultimately flawed, it has all the elements you'd need for a gripping read: mystery, suspense and high stakes.

Daniels suspected Janice early on in the case. But he freely admits that, had the victim only been shot once, the case would never have reached his office. Bruce Dodson would have simply become another statistic, a hunter who was accidentally shot to death, and his grieving widow - quite visible and vocal when it came to that grieving - would have been a half-million dollars richer from insurance money.

Unfortunately for her, though, her first shot was wide of the mark, and it took two more rounds to accomplish her goal.

Even so, building a case against her was a long and laborious process. To begin with, the murder weapon was never found. Further, Janice's previous husband was hunting nearby on the Uncompahgre Plateau, which, according to Daniels, ". . . in hunting season becomes something of an armed encampment." Was he somehow involved?

The pressure on Daniels and the investigators who worked the case was exacerbated by the fact that their suspect had remarried, and they feared that she might kill again.

Friends and associates of Janice told wildly conflicting stories about her, which isn't surprising, because she gave different accounts of her life and times to virtually everyone she met. "The accusations of lies and truths flew back and forth. When the interviews and reports were reviewed later, I was sure of only one thing: It was our job to find out which was which."

Daniels and his team worked hard, and he does a good job of delineating the particulars of what it takes to conduct an investigation that builds a solid case.

Even so, there were some gaps here and there, and they allowed lead defense attorney Alex Williams to rip into the prosecution during his closing argument. Daniels is quite candid about how he felt during this period: "I wanted to get up and tell Williams off. I was incensed by the fabrications, the implications and insults, but held myself in check."

Tried in Grand Junction, Janice was convicted and sentenced to life. Her appeal was denied last year.

The story of her apprehension and conviction is a promising read. Unfortunately, though, Daniels, who collects petrified and fossilized wood and has written a book on the subject, can't resist bringing his hobby into this story - which doesn't help move the tale along.

It's too bad his editor didn't step in and excise those portions. It would have made Dead Center more of a bull's-eye and less of a stray shot.

Ed Halloran is a Denver-based author and journalist.

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