Project Unsolved: Decades later, search continues for suspect in CU student Sid Wells' 1983 murder

One of the most high-profile murders in Colorado’s history remains unsolved after nearly 34 years, but police and prosecutors know who their suspect is and have an active warrant for his arrest.

The only problem is no one has seen Thayne Smika – or called him by that name, at least – since 1986.

Now, a retired detective who worked the case back in the early ‘80s is speaking up for the first time in years in hopes of bringing closure to a Colorado family and an end to a complex murder mystery that has puzzled Boulder for decades.

Watch Liz Gelardi and James Dougherty's video story in the player below or by clicking here.

A young man is murdered under suspicious circumstances

Sydney “Sid” Wells was a promising student at the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he studied journalism and was a member of the Navy ROTC program. He worked through college at the Boulderado Hotel.

But he was perhaps best-known around town in 1983 for being the guy who was dating Robert Redford’s daughter, Shauna, who was also a student at CU at the time.

That summer, Sid was living with one of his brothers, Sam, and Smika in the Spanish Towers condos on 29th Street just east of campus. The Wells family owned the condo and had bought it for their children to use while in college.

Shauna Redford and Sid Wells before his death. (Photo courtesy Wells family.)

 

But he had plenty of other friends and acquaintances. He also had some small-time involvement in the use and sale of cocaine, according to police documents.

And it was questions from Sid and friends regarding several grams of missing coke, a few hundred dollars, and Smika's behavior that police believe eventually led to Sid’s murder just before noon on Aug. 1, 1983.

According to court documents, Smika, who was 24 in 1983, was a jobless drifter who was trying to skirt paying bills and getting caught by authorities after failing to pay a mortgage on a house he’d bought with a friend a couple years earlier.

Smika had spent his younger days in North Platte, Nebraska and Akron, Colorado before eventually making his way to Boulder.

Sid and his brother needed a roommate and settled on Smika, but they weren’t close friends. Smika’s friends and acquaintances thought Smika to be messy, unkempt and temperamental, according to the court documents.

He also had a fondness for cocaine, according to police interviews with friends, a habit he could not afford. One friend said she’d never known him to have had a job.

Sid Wells before his death. (Photo courtesy Wells family.)

 

Sid, it turns out, had a decent amount of the drug – reportedly spending around $2,000 for an ounce at one point, though it wasn’t clear how he got the money.

But Sid was rarely home, according to friends, and was often with Shauna when he wasn’t working or at school. That, according to police interviews, made for easy pickings for Smika, who was apparently one of only two people aside from Sid who knew where he kept his stash.

Smika allegedly stole around 7 grams of cocaine from Sid on two different occasions, according to the court documents. But Sid and a friend confronted him about the missing drugs, and Smika blamed their disappearance on another man.

Smika concocted an elaborate plan in which he said he planned to stake out their apartment and wait for the alleged thief to come in and steal the rest of the drugs.

According to the documents, he told some of his friends, as well as Sid, that he was able to figure out who the culprit was, and that he went and got the man drunk, then “stole back” the drugs and money, which he was supposed to deliver to Sid on the morning of Aug. 1, along with his rent.

Things were going as planned for Smika, according to the documents, late on July 31.

Thayne Smika is seen after his arrest in October 1983. (Photo by KMGH-TV Denver7.)

 

Sid, Shauna and a friend eventually ended up back at Sid and Smika’s apartment, and they drank and used cocaine, according to the documents. Shauna went back to her place, which was also in Spanish Towers, and Sid, Smika and the other man stayed back and did more cocaine into the early morning hours.

At some point, Sid went up to Shauna’s apartment to stay with her. Smika stayed up until around 6:30 a.m. before he was seen by a neighbor moving a trash can outside and back inside, locking the apartment door and falling asleep.

What happened over the next several hours remains unclear, but by noon, Sid was dead. The documents detail several personal timelines from people interviewed by detectives that investigators say show Smika was his killer.

Shauna woke up that morning and left for work just before 11 a.m. She woke up Sid, reminding him that he was to have lunch with his mother at noon. When she came back around 12:15 p.m., her boyfriend was dead.

Smika told investigators he slept for a couple of hours that morning before he left to Akron at either 10 or 11 a.m. to visit his mother and sister, do laundry and get his hair cut and permed. Smika says he told Sid about the trip the night before.

Sam Wells had gone on an overnight camping trip and was set to return around 1:30 p.m.

But he got home early, around 11:45 a.m. He spent a little over half an hour airing out his sleeping bag and cleaning out his car before going upstairs to his apartment.

The door was unlocked, as it typically was.

But when he walked inside, he found Sid dead on the floor with a gunshot wound to the back of his head.

Sid Wells is seen before his death. (Photo courtesy Wells family.)

 

A nearby chair had been overturned, and the coffee table was moved aside.

There was blood spattered on a magazine on the coffee table – close to a note Sam himself had left saying he was going camping, as well as another note from Smika:

“Sid/Sam I’ve gone home to visit my folks for a couple of days and I’ll be back Tuesday or Wednesday. Thayne.”

Sam called police, who arrived shortly afterward. Shauna showed up a few minutes later.

Sid was killed by a single gunshot wound to the back of the head from a .20-gauge shotgun shell shot at a near-horizontal, but slightly downward trajectory, the coroner’s office found, deeming Sid’s death a homicide.

Investigators pay a visit to Smika's mother's home

Investigators wasted no time paying a visit to Smika in Akron. But part of his story didn’t add up from the beginning: His mother was away on a trip to Fort Collins all week.

And his younger sister told investigators that the first thing Smika did when he got home that day was wash a bag full of clothes – some of which may have been bloody, a friend later relayed to investigators.

Detectives found a .20-gauge shotgun and several cartridges in his closet in Akron, and took those into evidence. They also found a box of shells with three missing.

The story made headlines across Boulder County when Smika was tabbed as a suspect, though a friend was quoted in the paper as saying he’d said the other man – whom Smika had allegedly stolen the drugs and money from – was to blame.

But more tips started rolling in. One man who lived across the street from Spanish Towers told detectives he was certain he’d seen Smika walking quickly and strangely across the parking lot with something long and stiff shoved up his sleeve.

Another man who lived next door to the Wells brothers told investigators that he’d heard a loud bang, similar to a gunshot, at the time the coroner determined Sid had died. A maid corroborated hearing a similar noise around the same time.

Smika charged, but DA's deal throws case into disarray

Smika was arrested on Oct. 6, 1983 for first-degree murder.

Fred Neitzel, now retired, was one of the Boulder Police Department detectives on the case at the time, and says that a host of evidence played into the decision to arrest Smika, but his note saying he was leaving town may have been the biggest factor.

“There was blood spatter underneath the note, which would mean the note was written after the death,” Neitzel said. “So that’s when we started thinking maybe Thayne isn’t so innocent.”

He says he was confident in his work and the department’s conclusions.

Detective Fred Neitzel and Robert Wells sit down to discuss Sid's case with Denver7. (Photo by James Dougherty/Denver7 Photographer.)

 

“I believe the motive was the money and the cocaine, and that Thayne got found out from Sid that he was not being up and up,” Neitzel added.

But during a grand jury process to determine if and what charges Smika might face, Neitzel discovered in District Attorney Alexander Hunter’s case file that the office had reached an agreement with Smika that the grand jury would not be able to come back with a “true bill” charging Smika with any criminal conduct – effectively meaning he wouldn’t face any charges no matter what the grand jury found.

“I knew at that point nothing was ever going to come from that grand jury,” Neitzel said. “I’m thinking, no, that’s not real; that’s not right. The whole thing was extremely frustrating.”

Smika would be off scot-free for the time being, which infuriated the still-grieving Wells family.

“The grand jury was the biggest shock for my family and the most difficult thing to deal with,” said Robert Wells, Sid’s older brother. “How in the world could this possibly happen? How can a district attorney actually handle his grand jury in such a manner? It’s disturbing on so many levels.”

Robert was enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard at the time of his brother’s death, but has long maintained an active role in the investigation.

He went on to work in law enforcement and as a special agent, and has since founded the Families of Colorado Murder Victims and Missing Persons (FOHVAMP), which helps families of victims in unsolved murder and missing persons crimes seek help in closing their cases.

The FBI wanted poster for Thayne Smika. (Poster courtesy Federal Bureau of Investigations.)

 

“[Smika] gets a get-out-of-jail-free card – a letter from the DA saying, nope, we got a grand jury going on but we’re not going to indict you. Why?” he wonders.

Smika was eventually let out of custody, and stayed around the area for a couple years. A warrant for his arrest on forgery charges was issued out of Denver in early 1986, but he was never arrested and the warrant was eventually dropped.

Smika's family says the last time they heard from him was in 1986, when he said he was leaving town. According to court documents, he told his family members to get passports in order to be able to visit him, implying that he would be leaving the country, but his family claims they haven’t heard from him since either.

An abandoned car registered to his father, who said he gave the car to Smika before he left town, was found in Beverly Hills, California in 1986, but there was no sign of Smika.

New DA furthers investigation, obtains new arrest warrant

Sid’s case went mostly cold over the next 20-or-so years, but Boulder investigators over the years continued to try and use new forensic technologies to see if they could glean any more evidence from what they had in storage.

After years of consulting with the manufacturer of the shotgun shells used in Sid’s murder and the ones found in Smika’s closet in Akron, investigators were eventually able to learn that the three shells were uniquely old when they were used, had all been loaded into Smika’s shotgun, and all had the same chemical makeup.

Multiple experts confirmed it was highly likely that the shell used to kill Sid was a match to the other two shells investigators found, something Netizel says is the most “damning” evidence in the case.

Thayne Smika has not been seen since he disappeared in 1986, though his car was found in California. (Photo by KMGH-TV/Denver7.)

 

“I’m 100 percent. I have no doubt in my mind that that shotgun was responsible for Sid’s death,” Neitzel said.

Several other rounds of DNA testing at labs across the country, including the FBI Laboratory, turned up scant evidence directly linking Smika to Sid’s murder, though they did find some circumstantial blood evidence.

But Smika was still off the radar, and nobody had looked at any of the new evidence hard enough to pursue new charges.

The former DA, Hunter, served as the Boulder County District Attorney from 1973 to 2001, when Mary Lacy became head of the office.

But in 2009, Stan Garnett took over as district attorney, with a newfound interest in the case.

Sid’s murder happened a mile from where he lived in 1983, and the grand jury incident happened just as he was getting out of law school at CU.

He started reviewing the case, its evidence and how it had progressed through the new analyses. He also reviewed the grand jury decision by Hunter.

Although he says he doesn’t know what went into Hunter’s decision or why the former DA decided to reach the agreement with Smika, he says he’s still left with questions.

“I don’t know why the grand jury was handled the way it was. I don’t know why anybody would enter into an agreement like that. It didn’t make sense to me when I first heard about it,” Garnett said. “I don’t know why anyone would ever agree ahead of time not to respect the decision that a grand jury is going to return.”

Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett discusses filing the new warrant for Smika's arrest. (Photo by James Dougherty, Denver7 Photographer.)

 

So he started putting together another arrest warrant for Smika, which Boulder County District Court Judge Roxanne Balin approved on Dec. 2, 2010 – more than 27 years after Sid’s murder.

It carries first-degree murder charges, a $5 million bond and the conditions that Smika have no contact with the Wells family should he ever be caught.

“My view is the warrant could’ve been approved long ago, and had it been, it’s possible that Mr. Smika might’ve been found more quickly,” Garnett said.

And though Robert Wells remains cautious because of the case’s handling over the years, he says he’s hopeful that the renewed warrant will turn Smika up somewhere.

“The guy who you believe has done it has never been brought to justice,” Robert said. “My brother is dead, and I’m angry that the system didn’t work better then. I’m angry that the system let me down. [But I’m] optimistic that something is going to happen.”

Neitzel, who has seldom spoken publicly about the case after his 1990 retirement, says he believes Smika is Sid’s killer, saying there’s “not a doubt” in his mind that is the case, and that he hopes to see Smika arrested.

“It’s something I would like to see before I’m gone,” Neitzel said. “Sid really seemed like he was a victim that should never have been. He didn’t deserve being murdered.”

And though Robert and his remaining family members say they still continue to feel Sid’s loss and it is sometimes a challenge to find hope, he says he’s “optimistic” that Smika will be found at brought to justice.

“We’re revictimized on a daily basis because our loved one is not there to share that moment with us. It kind of rips you to the core,” Robert said. “But as long as they’re not giving up, we have hope.”

Now it comes down to finding a man who hasn’t been seen or identified in 31 years.

“I’m still hopeful. I’m still hopeful,” Robert said. “I believe it’s possible that he still is out there.”

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