Frisbees sailed off a Colorado mountainside last weekend – a symbolic gesture to remember two young lovers killed 17 years ago to the day in a Littleton sandwich shop, their murderer never found.
Stephanie Grizzell, 16, and Nick Kunselman, 15, met in middle school and became fast friends. After fellow students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold entered their high school, Columbine, in April 1999 and killed 12 of their classmates and a teacher, they became even closer, according to Stephanie’s mother, Kelly Grizzell.
“Although they had just gone through the tragedy at the high school, they were coming through it so good and they were so happy,” she said. “We just really felt like that might be the last hard thing that we went through.”
But 10 months later, not long after midnight on Valentine’s Day 2000, the two were killed just a few blocks south of the high school. Kelly never knew her daughter left the house that night.
She says she and Stephanie had been at home – her relaxing, Stephanie doing homework most of the Sunday night.
“She sure didn’t tell me about going down there that night,” Kelly said. “I didn’t know anything about that; that wasn’t something she did.”
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‘I remember falling to the ground’
After her mother went to bed, Stephanie snuck out and drove to the Jefferson County Subway shop, where Nick was working.
“The last thing I said to her was, ‘Goodnight. I love you,’” Kelly says. “I’ll never forget that.”
When Kelly got up the next morning, she turned on the news. She had also noticed Stephanie’s car was gone from the driveway, where it had been the night before.
“The news flashed that there had been a double murder at a Subway sandwich shop in Littleton,” Kelly says. “I continued to watch, and then they panned the camera and I saw her car in the parking lot. I still didn’t know why her car would be there, but had no idea that it could be her. I was very worried.”
Fear set in, which quickly turned to panic for Kelly. And the wave of emotion roared over her when police and news cameras showed up at her house.
“It was just awful. I can remember somebody saying, ‘Is this the mother?’ and you can’t imagine – you’re hoping there’s somebody standing behind you, or that they’re not really looking at you, or that you’re dreaming,” she says. “I can remember bits and pieces after that…it was February; I didn’t have a coat. I remember falling to the ground.”
Kelly says she thought the case would be solved within the first few days. But those days turned into weeks, then months, then years.
“I thought that we would have the answers, like I say, within the first day or two, so 17 years – it’s been a very long time,” she says. “I certainly never thought I would still be asking for help and for resolution to this.”
Investigation turns up suspects, evidence, but no arrests
Police initially had a description of a suspect: He was described as a white male, 16 to 20 years old, 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-8 inches tall, weighing 150 to 170 pounds, clean shaven, with blondish hair. He was wearing blue jeans, tennis shoes, a black ball cap and a black coat with a red lining or a red shirt.
That description turned up hundreds of leads, some all the way across the country in South Carolina and Florida. Several people even confessed to the crime after it got national attention with the Columbine connection, but those confessions turned out to be false.
There were suspicions that a drug ring that was apparently operating out of the sandwich store had been involved with the teens’ murders, as nothing was taken from the store, which closed months after the murders. But an investigator says interviews from more than 50 drug cases didn’t turn up any new evidence.
The case has been handled by several different investigators with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and outside agencies. They have 40 binders filled with information related to the case that include more than 150 items of evidence and hundreds of interviews.
“That evidence has been sent to multiple labs around the country and around the world, and we’ve come up with no solid leads in this case,” says Elias Alberti, a cold case homicide investigator with the sheriff’s office.
Alberti says there weren’t many people around the area at the time the murders occurred, and thus, there haven’t been many leads. Even the scant DNA evidence at the scene hasn’t turned up any new suspects.
“This case has been submitted to DNA and to the lab multiple different times, to the Colorado Bureau of Investigations,” Alberti says. “We’ve done fingerprints, all the standard stuff that we do investigating a crime, and we’ve got nothing off those.”
Alberti, a dedicated cold case investigator, has spent a year on the case. Sgt. Wayne Holverson, with the sheriff’s office’s homicide unit, was an investigator on the case from 2004-2007 and now oversees the homicide unit.
“We’ve spoken to friends, family and customers [from] that day and just no one knows anything or has come forward yet to say anything,” Holverson says. “I think that’s the frustrating thing, is that you can see in front of you the amount of work that’s been done on it, and yet it seems like you keep coming back to a dead end.”
He says the sheriff’s office was shaken by the murders when they happened since they were 10 months out from the Columbine massacre, the investigation the agency was wrapping up at the time.
“It was hard on everyone to think these two Columbine kids lost their lives and we couldn’t immediately get someone in jail,” Holverson says.
He says he hopes that a renewed focus on and publicity for the case might help bring forth new leads after 17 years.
“We don’t have a motive or reason of why these two kids lost their lives that night,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what they’ve heard, we’d love to hear from [people with possible leads]. We can find out pretty quickly in interviews whether or not this information is valid…it’s more the people talking is the evidence that we’re going to need.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Stephanie’s mother and friends, who have bonded over Stephanie’s death and continue to fight for justice.
Family, friends continue fight for justice
“Probably the hardest part is not knowing why,” said Amanda Williams, who was a close friend of Stephanie and Nick’s when they were killed. “It’s just hard because they were so young and we just don’t understand. Going through Columbine and then having to kind of relive all these bad things…we had to do it all over.”
But she and Kelly, among others, have never given up hope and have forged a deep bond.
“I think one of the biggest things is when they were killed, Kelly was really afraid that we were just going to disappear,” Williams says. “We just never left her side…we were with Kelly the whole time, and now, here we are 17 years later and we still talk all the time and come visit – I mean we really are family.”
“It’s been 17 years…we haven’t lost hope. We still feel like the case will be solved if someone could come forward,” Kelly says. “It would be wonderful after so many years.”
“In the beginning, you don’t think you could possibly walk through another day, but you just go on for the hope that you’re fighting for her to get the justice,” she says. “And it would just mean the world if we could, after all these years, get some justice.”
And authorities are still working tirelessly on Stephanie and Nick’s case after all this time, though Holverson says it’s hard not being able to share all the information with the families.
“We can’t bring the family in and open up all these books and show them what we’ve done because it is an open investigation,” Holverson says. “To be able to go to court and be able to hear all the testimony, it would be a special day.”
In the meantime, Kelly, Williams and others make the trip to the top of the mountain where Stephanie and Nick are memorialized each Valentine’s Day.
“Regardless of weather or anything, we always make a point of getting together on that day, paying our respects and just kind of feeling the joy and letting them know that we’re still there for them and we’re still looking,” Kelly says.
“We bring flowers and our biggest thing is throwing Frisbees off the side of the mountain,” Wiliams says.
She hopes, especially for Kelly, that the cold case is someday solved. Until then, they will continue to remember the young lovers killed on the day dedicated to lovers – tossing Frisbees, just as Stephanie and Nick did while they were alive.
“I think especially for Stephanie’s mom,” she says. “This person needs to be found and held responsible for what they did.”
Anyone who may have information regarding Stephanie Grizzell or Nick Kunselman’s murders is asked to contact the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office at 303-271-5606 or Colorado Bureau of Investigation at 303-239-4300.
The Family of Homicide Victims and Missing Persons is also a resource for families of murdered and missing persons and does extensive work in Colorado.