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Project Unsolved: Friends and detectives continue search for Jakeob McKnight's killer 26 years on

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Posted at 4:45 PM, Oct 27, 2017
and last updated 2017-10-28 14:14:51-04

Twenty-six years after 10-year-old Jakeob McKnight was brutally slain at a Lakewood, Colorado park, an old friend who was among the last to see him and a cold case detective aren’t giving up on bringing someone to justice—and they say the primary suspects haven’t changed after all these years.

Watch the report by Liz Gelardi and James Dougherty embedded below, or by clicking here.

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The greenbelt off South Wadsworth in Lakewood was a haven for kids in the summer of 1991—back when parents were, perhaps, more comfortable with telling their youngsters to get out of the house, get their energy out, and be back for supper.

There was a treehouse, plenty of woods and trails to scamper through, a creek to fish in, and a swimming hole at the park, to which throngs of neighborhood teens and their younger friends and siblings would travel by bike or by foot, any day they weren’t in school.

It’s where Rachel, who wished only to be referred to by her first name for this story, spent the day with 10-year-old Jakeob McKnight on the last day of his life. “That’s where we met; that’s where we all played. That was our comfort zone; that was where we felt safe,” Rachel told Denver7 at her home in suburban Denver.

“That’s where we would play in the creek, and we would catch crawdads and minnows and swing from the rope into the water.”

She shakes her head.

“And all that changed. It was our happy spot. It was our peaceful place, and after that it wasn’t.”

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“Times were different way back then,” Rachel says, remembering what she says was a more carefree era. “It was not uncommon to be gone all day long. Be home before the street lights.”

Jakeob's friend Rachel recounted their day together - which was the last of Jakeob's life. (Photo by James Dougherty/Denver7.)

 

Jakeob had met his brother Josh and two other friends down at the greenbelt on July 21 that year to swim. Rachel was there along with a few other kids from the neighborhood, most of whom were teens or younger.

She says it was a typical day at the swimming hole until a group of older kids—actually young adults—showed up. One of them, a skinny man with long hair, had met the boys at the park a day earlier and had seemingly taken a fondness to Jakeob that carried over to their encounter at the swimming hole.

He and one of his buddies had some bikes the kids thought were cool.

“I think that the bikes were what got our attention and had everybody talking to them,” Rachel says. “They were older, they were adults. They shouldn’t have been hanging out with kids but we were kids and we didn’t realize how weird that was at the time.”

PHOTOS: Gallery of scene, suspects, newspaper articles and Jakeob McKnight

The man who had become more interested in talking to the kids, who were actually less than half his age, took particular notice of Jakeob’s bright blue eyes, according to police records and Rachel’s recounting of the day.

Denver7 archive footage showed Chinn's mugshot and talked about his arrest on child sex charges that came before McKnight's murder. (Image via Denver7 archive)

 

“They talked to all of us. One of them was mostly obsessed with Jakeob—now that I look back, I would say obsessed. I would say very drawn to Jakeob, but we didn’t know better,” she says. “A lot about Jakeob’s eyes—it weirds me out a lot to think about now.”

The kids never could have known, but the man had also been released on bond just five days earlier after he was arrested that May and accused of molesting the 9-year-old child of an acquaintance.

He hung out with the kids for about 45 minutes before heading back over to his group of adult friends.

“Kind of lingering—not where we were, but they were kind of lingering,” Rachel says. “I remember when we left, it was like we’ve got to go because the street lights are about to come on.”

She took off for home, while Jakeob headed back to his own house on foot—his brother and friends just ahead of them on their bikes. Josh made it home, but his little brother never did.

“I heard that he didn’t come home. My friend Jamie told me,” Rachel remembers, saying she hoped Jakeob had just wandered off on the way back.

“He’ll be home. By the time we wake up, he’ll be home. We didn’t realize that life was going to change for so many people.”

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“I remember that case as a child,” says Lakewood Police Detective Bryan Feik. “I remember not being able to go outside by myself. My parents were very protective, not knowing if the perpetrator was still there.”

Feik, now a father himself, was also a young boy living in metro Denver in that summer of ’91, and says he was doing many the same things as Jakeob at the time.

Denver7's Liz Gelardi interviews Lakewood Police Detective Bryan Feik, who is still working Jakeob McKnight's case. (Photo by James Dougherty/Denver7)

 

“If Jakeob was here with us today we’d be roughly the same age,” he says. “Ten-year-old boys are doing what 10-year-old boys do…I think 10-year-old boys have such a level of innocence, and these kids were being 10-year-old kids. They were in a park; they were playing.”

Now in his 15th year with the Lakewood PD and fifth working cold cases, Feik is now confident that the perpetrator behind Jakeob’s murder is indeed still out there—either on the streets or behind bars.

He’s one of the detectives still working the boy’s case, which has never been closed, but which has also never led to any formal charges after nearly three decades—something he hopes to soon change.

“It is still the most heinous case that I’ve seen, and it would be one of those cases that gives the entire law enforcement community so much satisfaction to find the perpetrator and make an arrest,” Feik says. “Jakeob has not been forgotten and we would like nothing more than to give him justice.”

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When Jakeob, his brother Josh and their friends left the greenbelt area, it was about 8:30, according to an exhaustive 2014 article by Kirk Mitchell of the Denver Post detailing the case. Mitchell writes that Jakeob—who was on foot and not on a bike like the others—separated and possibly went to a nearby 7-Eleven:

After they were out of sight, Jakeob entered a nearby a 7-Eleven, a female clerk at the store would recall later. He wasn’t alone by then though. He was accompanied by a man wearing several earrings on his right ear with long, waist-length dark hair. Coming from the greenbelt, Jakeob had to have crossed South Wadsworth Boulevard to reach the convenience store. It’s unclear at what point he met the man.

No one would recall seeing the boy after he left the 7-Eleven. His trail ends.

When Josh returned home without his brother, their father went out looking for Jakeob. He scoured the greenbelt and surrounding neighborhoods but couldn’t find his son, so he called authorities.

Nearly two-dozen officers and police dogs searched through the night for the boy without luck. The search continued the next day amid heavy rain and heavier hearts at the McKnight home.

Authorities work to recover Jakeob McKnight's body from the Lakewood greenbelt in this Denver7 archive footage.(Photo via Denver7 archive)

 

Around 4 p.m., one of the Arapahoe County search party crewmembers found Jakeob’s body partially covered by leaves under a large, toppled tree trunk not far from the swimming hole. Further investigation showed the young boy had been stabbed 24 times.

“Just the brutality that Jacob was murdered in is unique, especially to a small child that has done nothing wrong … It appears to be a crime of rage,” Feik told Denver7. “Jakeob was walking through the park by himself and all accounts were it was a crime of opportunity. Someone saw him as a very, very easy target.”

After talking with Josh and the boys’ friends, police quickly learned about the group of adults, including the man who’d taken an interest in Jakeob and his blue eyes. And the 7-Eleven clerk told officers about the long-haired man she saw talking to the boy.

A composite sketch was made from the man’s description that was distributed across Denver on posters, in newspapers and on TV that showed a skinny white man with long hair and bad skin.

Police realized a man who looked similar had recently bonded out of jail who was accused of sexually assaulting a young child—another tendency that can sometimes go hand-in-hand with crimes of passion, according to investigators.

At that, John R. “Felix” Chinn, then 22 years old, became a suspect in Jakeob’s murder. Mitchell, rounding up old stories from the time, gathers a description of the young man:

Chinn was described by one reporter as an androgynous-looking young man. Chinn’s father, Hiram “Dig” Chinn, a librarian, told a KCNC-Channel 4 reporter that his son’s interest in boys is “pure love.” In another TV interview he said his son would not have killed anyone, although he had personal problems that caused him to contemplate suicide. A friend of Chinn’s, Catherine White, told reporters at the time that Chinn was a “puppy dog,” too gentle to hurt anyone. She added that he was part of a group of “death rockers.” He was like a mother hen to many of the youths who hung out in downtown Denver.

“Everybody on Colfax knew who he was. He’s not a sociopath. I’ve seen him mad, but I’ve never seen him destroy anything,” White told a Denver Post reporter.

And while some may have touted Chinn’s docility at the time, state court records show a more chaotic life.

He was convicted of felony drug possession in September 1989 and, according to Mitchell, had spent time in a mental health treatment facility early in 1991 before his arrest in the child molestation investigation.

Police brought Chinn in for questioning a day after Jakeob was found dead. According to Feik, he readily told officers he’d talked with the boy.

“John himself admits to being in the park that day and to having contact with Jacob. You know he was there, you know he was in the area, you know he had the opportunity,” Feik says. “John Chinn commented on Jakeob McKnight’s eyes as being the most beautiful blue eyes he’s ever seen.”

John Chinn is seen in court after McKnight's death in this Denver7 archive footage. (Photo via Denver7 archive)

 

Mitchell writes that Chinn had talked Jakeob into agreeing to a photoshoot in upcoming days so he could take pictures of the boy’s eyes, but that Chinn adamantly denied being at the 7-Eleven with him or killing him. Mitchell also writes that several friends independently confirmed his alibi.

Still, since part of Chinn’s bond stipulation was that he have no contact with children, it was revoked two days later and he was arrested and jailed for the bond violation. He wasn’t charged with any new crimes related to Jakeob’s death.

Police interviewed the people that Chinn said he’d been with that day—one of whom, Tom Judge, would also become a suspect. But the heavy rain that fell the day after Jakeob was killed washed away blood, DNA and fingerprint evidence, making police and prosecutors’ efforts more difficult, according to Feik.

Several other leads seemed promising, Feik says, but ended nowhere. Judge and Chinn remained fairly uncooperative with further investigation and grand jury efforts, the detective said.

In August 1991, Chinn posted a $50,000 bond and was released, according to court records. In December, a judge dismissed the child sex assault charge against him when the victim’s mother said she didn’t want to put her child through testifying at the trial, according to Mitchell.

Chinn was clear of any charges in both cases, though police were still scrutinizing him for Jakeob’s murder.

The county coroner's office recovers McKnight's body from the greenbelt in Lakewood in Denver7 archive footage. (Photo via Denver7 archive)

 

A few days after the charge was dismissed, Jakeob’s father and uncle went to the greenbelt and burned down the stump under which the boy’s body was found. But the police and district attorney never pursued charges against the grieving family.

At the same time, however, they hadn’t been able to secure any charges on Chinn or anyone else either.

“As far as if he was responsible for this crime, we don’t know. We have not been able to establish the evidence needed to pursue charges. We know that he had a history of that type of behavior, we just do not have that evidence that we need,” Feik says.

Chinn had a run-in with more teens that he was questioned over. Other suspects, including Judge, were probed but never arrested on charges relating to the boy’s murder.

“This certain group has been talked to numerous time and they have not been consistent in their account,” Feik says. “There’s definitely deception and we have not been able to get past the deception.”

Judge died in 1997, and despite police putting together dozens of binders full of notes and evidence in the case, the leads went dry.

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That changed, at least for Rachel, in 2012.

John Chinn is seen in a 2012 booking photo, after his arrest on child exploitation charges. (Photo courtesy Arapahoe County Sheriff.)

 

“In the paper, years later—I threw up,” she says. “I kind of lost it. Like, I didn’t even have to read the article. I saw his picture and then freaked out.”

Chinn had again been charged with a sex-related crime involving children. This time, he was accused of having more than 50 disks and other media with at least three-dozen child porn images or videos on them. The items were discovered when his house was targeted in a drug distribution sting. Police suspected they heard his voice in some of the videos, according to Mitchell’s report.

He faced new child sexual exploitation charges, in addition to the drug distribution charges.

“I knew who he was when I saw his picture,” Rachel says. “It just makes my insides turn…but to see that it was child porn, it brought back a lot of feelings.”

But Chinn was able to plea down the two felony sex charges to one misdemeanor count of sexual contact without consent. Paired with his drug conviction, he was sentenced in February 2015 to five years of probation, according to court records.

But just eight months later, Littleton police arrested Chinn again on another felony count of sexual exploitation of a child-video/20+ items. He pleaded guilty in April 2016 to the same charge, and was sentenced to four years in prison.

“His face was still with me, without a doubt,” Rachel says. “That’s who I firmly believe killed my friend.”

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For now, it’s known that one of the two or more suspects in the case isn’t at-large in the community.

Chinn, now 48, remains imprisoned at the Bent County Correctional Facility; his next parole hearing is scheduled for August 2018. His mandatory release date is Sept. 23, 2019.

John Chinn's latest Colorado Department of Corrections mugshot, which is undated. He is serving four years on a child exploitation guilty plea. Chinn has long been considered a suspect in McKnight's death, but has never been charged. (Photo courtesy Colorado DOC.)

 

And while Feik and his partners at the department say they still haven’t ruled him out as possibly being Jakeob’s killer, or as knowing who did kill the boy, the detective says he and his team are going back over everything and trying new scientific methods to try and glean any new evidence out of the case.

“There’s been a group of suspects throughout the years and that group of suspects has not changed. We have been unable to eliminate any of that core group as a suspect and we really have not identified any additional suspects,” Feik says.

“So we’ve been going through prior statements and analyzing prior evidence. Evidence has been resent to state labs as well as private labs in an attempt to find any additional evidence—whether it would be DNA, fingerprints—any evidence that we can find.”

And he says that while the rain that day has always made evidence collection in the particular case difficult, he hopes that what has been collected, and any new evidence or testimony that comes forward, can help nail down who killed Jakeob.

"We know somebody saw something,” he says. “We know somebody saw one of these perpetrators with evidence on their body. The perpetrator could have told them about the crime.”

Rachel now has a son of her own, and says Jakeob’s murder has affected the way she’s raised him. She says she felt it was important to tell him about her old friend.

“He knows because without telling him, he doesn’t realize the importance of it,” she says.

And she says she hopes talking about Jakeob’s case publicly will help finally bring his family and everyone else involved some sort—any sort—of closure after all this time.

“I’m not the only one who thinks about Jakeob every day—you know, the investigators, his family. That makes me said,” she says. “[A conviction] would mean that Jakeob wasn’t forgotten. It would mean that his parents were able to see justice, I mean, if you can even call it that. I don’t know if I would be able to call it justice after 26 years.”

But she, like the detective working to solve Jakeob’s case, believes someone knows who his killer is, and that they’re still alive.

“Somebody is still out there—whether they’re walking among us or they’re in prison, or wherever they are—they’re still out there. Somebody has just been able to go to sleep every night, which baffles me beyond words,” she says.

“What kind of monster can do that?”

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Anyone who wishes to contact police with information about Jakeob McKnight’s murder can call the Metro Denver Crime Stoppers at 720-913-7867 or the Lakewood Police Department at 303-987-7111.