A jury in Denver on Monday convicted Harold Henthorn of pushing his wife of 12 years over a 128-foot Rocky Mountain cliff to her death. His motive, investigators say, was $4.7 million in life insurance. Henthorn faces life in prison when sentenced on December 8.
The murder-for-insurance story has become all too common this year. More than a dozen cases have been filed across the country, mostly involving the death of spouses who are heavily insured.
There’s another common thread in many of these cases over the years: murderers have killed previously. Investigators now are convinced Henthorn killed his first wife in 1995. She died when the couple’s Jeep fell off a jack while changing a flat tire on a remote road, crushing her beneath it. Henthorn collected $600,000 in insurance in that case.
So the question must be asked: If investigators had dug just a little deeper back in 1995, and gathered a bit more evidence, could they have prevented or at least deterred Henthorn from killing again? Maybe. Maybe not.
Investigators might not even have known he’d taken out a life insurance policy on her. We often hear from detectives in homicide investigations, asking about how they can find out if a policy exists. This suggests that other investigators don’t bother asking. Learning that a murder victim is heavily insured is crucial because it often opens the door to other motives and evidence.
The other thing we’ve learned from exploring these cases is that killers often are smart and calculating. They research their potential crimes on the Internet. So it’s good that the Henthorn case is receiving widespread coverage. It sends a signal that killers get caught and punished for this crime, and hopefully that causes people to think twice.
Let’s hope so.
About the author: Dennis Jay is executive director of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud.