Harold Henthorn was a father figure to my four daughters, who are now in their 20s. I have known him for more than 33 years. He held my daughters as babies, and gave them valuable outdoor experiences at his cabin in the Rocky Mountains outside of Denver.
Harold always remembered their birthdays, and spent many holidays with us. His advice on financial matters also was appreciated. Then his dark side tragically reared up.
I testified against him in September 2015 for murdering his second wife Toni Bertolet. His motive: $4.6 million in life-insurance money.
I was married to the brother of Henthorn’s first wife — Lynn Rishell. She died when their Jeep suspiciously fell on her during a tire change. I believe Henthorn also murdered her for life-insurance money.
Harold secretly enlarged a life policy on me with forged signatures. I believe he planned to murder me next.
Here’s my story. This is a tale of murder, insurance fraud, deception, betrayal and personal tragedy. It also reveals how the life-insurance system broke down — how we can keep more predators from murdering for life insurance again.
We’ll start with the deaths of Toni and Lynn.
Relying on a skillfully built circumstantial case, a jury convicted Henthorn of pushing Toni off a 140-foot sheer cliff. She died as dusk was descending, on Sept. 29, 2012.
He lured Toni to a remote wilderness locale — no witnesses, certain death from a fall, and difficult access by rescuers. He rigged her murder to look like an accidental slip during a supposed wedding-anniversary hike. She knew nothing about the life policies.
Harold received life without parole in federal prison for first-degree murder on Dec. 8, 2015. His conviction took three painful years to achieve.
The FBI, U.S. Park Service and Douglas County Sheriff’s Department jointly investigated, ensuring Henthorn never kills again for life-insurance money.
Jeep fell on Lynn
Henthorn received $645,000 of life-insurance money after their Jeep Cherokee fell on Lynn during a tire change in the Denver area in 1995. Henthorn claimed a jack gave way after she’d crawled under the Jeep to retrieve a lug nut.
As with Toni, night was approaching in a remote area. Rescuers would be hard-pressed to respond quickly. An investigation of Lynn’s death is curently underway in Douglas County, Colo.
I also believe Harold set me up next. I was divorcing in 2009. Concerned for my financial stability, I agreed to let Harold take out a $250,000 life policy on me. It would pay $50,000 each to my brother and my four daughters.
“All told, Harold took out five life policies that we know about — three on Toni, plus one each on Lynn and me.”
I gave Henthorn my personal and medical information, trusting him with the paperwork. My finances had improved and more of his control issues surfaced by spring 2010, so I changed my mind. I bought my own policy on the two girls with another insurer. I told Henthorn’s insurance agent to cancel his policy, and believed the agent had honored my wishes.
Yet the original policy stayed in force behind my back. Harold secretly forged a revised version. He raised the limits to $400,000 and named himself as sole beneficiary.
Toni innocently convinced him to keep the policy as an anonymous gift to the girls and me, Henthorn later wrote me in a letter after I discovered the policy. He paid the premiums through December 2012. I learned about the policy only when the FBI and Park Service knocked on my door on April 24, 2013. They wanted to inform me about the secret policy and Harold’s cons. They also asked me in great detail about what I knew about the situation.
My life was under a microscope. Law enforcement would verify every small fact I shared. They even questioned if I was romantically involved with Henthorn, which of course I wasn’t.
All told, Harold took out five life policies that we know about — three on Toni, plus one each on Lynn and me. He was the sole beneficiary each time. Unemployed yet methodical and calculating, he stood to receive a small fortune if any of us met an untimely death.
I recall a family trip with Harold, me and my daughters in August 2012. We boated around Lake Travis, near Austin, Tex. He said he wanted to make this an annual family tradition.
I’m convinced he was grooming me, scoping out deserted coves where he would kill me for a life-insurance payout. I lived to tell about the insurance schemes; Toni and Lynn died. He killed Toni just seven weeks later.
Tried to cancel policy
That was Henthorn’s style … find a remote area, near nightfall when emergency response would be limited. And he made sure he was the only witness.
I began trying to cancel Harold’s policy on my life, starting May 1, 2013. Just call ING, prove who I was and sign a form, I figured. Hardly. An emotional 115-day battle followed.
Only the policy owner could cancel, ING first told me. Anxious and scared, I explained why I feared for my life. Federal officials suggested I call Harold and tell him to cancel the policy, but I just couldn’t.
Henthorn was a smooth-talking person. Contacting him would have been too difficult for me emotionally. By that time I had concluded he murdered Toni and Lynn. When I realized a man I cared about and had respected for more than three decades also planned to take me from my daughters, the feeling is like none other. It was too overwhelming for me to confront Harold directly.
My brother tried to reach Harold by email about canceling the policy — no response. A certified letter came back marked “undeliverable.”
Next I called his insurance agent, who sold the life policies on Toni, Lynn and I. Here are my views on what happened next:
• The agent had more than 20 years of ties (and commissions) to Henthorn, so he sided with Henthorn;
• He said Henthorn would have “done anything for a single mom” such as I. That included “anonymously” buying a life policy. I said “two women are dead and I believe I was next;”
• He told Henthorn I was ungrateful for all he and Toni had done for me; and,
• Still, he said he would talk with Henthorn about canceling. A month later he said Henthorn wanted me to write a two-sentence statement releasing Henthorn from liability involving the cancellation. I refused, deciding I wouldn’t give up control.
Policy was suspicious
How crazy. I couldn’t get a protective order. Yet Henthorn could fraudulently make himself the sole beneficiary of a $400,000 life policy that gave him every motive to murder me.
The Colorado Department of Insurance advised that I sue Henthorn in civil court for insurance fraud. I chose not to sue because I suffered no economic loss.
Finally I received a copy of the policy and reviewed it thoroughly. I had never seen it before, and Harold had forged my signatures. The agent and ING should have found many aspects of the transactions suspicious.
To name a few …
• The agent knew I lived in California and did not travel to Colorado to sign the forms. Yet the policy said it was signed in Highlands Ranch, Colo.;
• I was separated and divorcing when Henthorn created the policy. ING never should have allowed Harold to be the beneficiary. He had no insurable interest in me;
• No signature was required on the page listing beneficiaries. So I know for certain I didn’t see that page;
• My brother was listed as secondary beneficiary, yet he knew nothing about the policy either; and
• Nor would the policy pay out if Harold died. Thus he clearly had no personal interest in helping my daughters if I died.
ING finally sent affidavits for me to sign, attesting I had not signed the policy. Long weeks passed after I returned the signed forms. ING eventually cancelled the policy for the reason I gave them from the start: Harold had no insurable interest in me. It took 115 days to gain the peace of mind I deserved.
During the long investigation, I endured Henthorn telling Toni’s family that I opposed him and had made a big fuss over the policy. ... That I was bitter and wanted a life with him, he lied. ... That he would make me look stupid in court, he told one of Toni’s close friends. This added more stress to an already stressful situation.
“The judge asked the jury to use logic and common sense. The jury wisely did so, and convicted him of first-degree murder.”
I also went through big emotional battles over survivor’s guilt. Why would two beautiful, caring and giving women die while I lived?
Toni’s family believed I was innocent. We compared the similarities in the deaths of Toni and Lynn. I connected those dots as a witness at Henthorn’s trial for murdering Toni, even though the policy he took out on me was not admitted as evidence.
A financial expert also testified about the life policies on Toni and Lynn.
The case was tricky and circumstantial. Nobody had seen Harold push Toni off the cliff. The judge asked the jury to use logic and common sense. The jury wisely did so, and convicted him of first-degree murder.
The lessons of Henthorn’s case should help thwart others who seek to defraud and murder innocents.
Wrongdoers think they can get away with an insurance murder if there is only circumstantial evidence. Better knowing the warning signs can head off such schemes. Astute use of circumstantial evidence also can convict life-insurance murderers at trial.
This experience gave me much insight into reforms needed to shore up the life-insurance industry against fraud and murder. I am on a mission, and here are several needed reforms. Overall, more power over transactions must flow to insureds.
• Create a national database listing persons who are both owner and beneficiary of life policies. The database should list fraud alerts;
• Provide insureds a notarized and signed original copy of the life policy sent by certified mail. Only the insured can sign for the policy. Nor should faxed policies be allowed;
• Notify insureds about fraud alerts such as suspicious changes in policy limits. Henthorn added $300,000 to Lynn’s policy just a couple of months before she died. He took out three $1.5-million policies on Toni, saying that he had cancelled each one while secretly them in force; and
• Impose caps on how large a life policy you can take out. Base the limits on the insured’s income or financial contribution to the family.
I plan to pursue these reforms via state legislation in Colorado.
Another action step will be to file a complaint with the Colorado insurance department against ING and Harold’s insurance agent.
In general, insurers also should be far more vigilant in checking for suspicious policy transactions. Insurers should have discovered that Henthorn had no insurable interest on my life. We were not married or blood related, and I was still married.
The traumatic ordeal has spurred other changes in my life. I am active in a murder survivor support group. I also volunteer with a nonprofit called Bridges to Life, which works to reduce prison recidivism.
How sad that it often takes a tragedy to change laws, as with drunk driving and drug abuse. I am alive today because federal authorities used their many resources to stop a murderer. I am convinced he would have kept on killing, including me and others.
Most important, I am committed that my painful experiences will galvanize reforms that ensure Toni and Lynn didn’t die in vain.