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Search Continues at Ranch Where Graves Are Suspected

February 7, 1986

STRATTON, Colo. (AP) _ Authorities today resumed searching a 2,880-acre ranch for a ″needle in a haystack″ as they seek bodies of people rumored to have died for their roles in a stolen vehicle ring or for arguing over low wages.

What really happened at the McCormick ranch, where two human skeletons were unearthed this week?

Theories swirled about this tiny eastern Colorado town as state and local investigators used backhoes and shovels to look for more remains at the sprawling ranch. Some say up to seven more bodies will be found.

″Seven, eight or nine, in that range,″ Kit Carson County Sheriff Sharon Heinz today.

Authorities in Denver say a probe into an alleged ″chop shop″ at the ranch led to revelations about the bodies. Others say the developments confirm long-standing local rumors about mysterious disappearances of hired hands.

Undersheriff Jeff Ekberg and Chuck Clapper, who now leases most of the ranch, say Michael McCormick, son of the former owner, told authorities Tuesday that there were eight graves on the land.

His father, Thomas McCormick, 52, of Aurora, was charged this week with the 1983 murder of an Idaho trucker whose body was found 100 miles west of here, near Denver.

Michael McCormick, 29, is in custody on felony charges related to the dead trucker’s stolen rig.

″We’re searching for something that would prove a violent death,″ Kit Carson County Coroner Bob Hendricks said late Thursday. ″It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack.

″We have proven the fact that there are two bodies buried on the ranch. They do connect with the McCormicks. What we need is conclusive evidence.″

Heinz said Thursday she has not heard a motive for any violent deaths at the ranch.

Unidentified FBI and Denver police sources told The Denver Post on Thursday that a years-long probe into an alleged ″chop shop″ at the ranch was dropped two years ago for lack of evidence. A chop shop is a place where stolen vehicles are dismantled.

One of the leads pursued during that probe was the alleged use of skid-row workers from Denver as drivers for stolen vehicles and their subsequent disappearances, the sources told the newspaper.

Jim McCormick, Thomas McCormick’s 58-year-old brother who lives in Stratton, dismissed speculation that his brother is in any way connected to the men’s deaths.

″It’s just too ... wild,″ he said Thursday. ″I spoke to him today in jail and he said if he did something like that, he’d have gone and hung himself.″

Former Kit Carson County sheriff George Hubbard, in a telephone interview Thursday, said rumors of something wrong at the ranch stretch back more than a decade. The problems were linked to McCormick’s known preference for hiring farm hands from temporary help services in Denver, he said.

″Somehow these fellows seemed to disappear and we never could find them,″ Hubbard said of several hired hands who worked the McCormick place. ″It made us wonder if they’d been the victims of foul play, but we never could get enough evidence to go out and dig.″

In addition to county authorities, the FBI, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and Denver police, the probe has included the Jefferson County district attorney and police from the community of Wheat Ridge. It was there that trucker Hubert Donoho was last seen alive in 1983.

Authorities said Thomas McCormick was born on the 2,880-acre ranch and raised his three children there. In 1981, he walked away from the ranch and mounting debts from his cattle-feeding operation.

The land, valued at the time at $2 million, was foreclosed by Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Co., which leases to Clapper.

Briefly Thursday, searchers believed they might have found evidence of a third skeleton. The coroner said later that, as far as he could tell, the decalcified remains at that site were of cattle, not humans.

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