Inside Boulder detectives‘ month-long search for answers in an Arkansas landfill

For weeks last summer, employees of the Boulder Police Department and the Boulder County District Attorney‘s Office stood under the blistering Arkansas sun, combing through an entire county‘s trash, searching for something.

They were searching for answers. They were searching for Ashley Mead.

Months earlier — on Feb. 15, 2017 — a gas station worker in Okmulgee, Okla., had noticed a purple suitcase inside a dumpster. Finding it odd, the woman opened the luggage and made a gruesome discovery.

It contained the a 25-year-old Boulder woman who‘d gone missing three days earlier.

Ashley Mead ()

Shortly after that discovery, Adam Densmore — Mead‘s ex-boyfriend, and the father of her 1-year-old daughter — was charged with her murder and the dismemberment of her body.

But police only had part of Mead‘s body — and had no idea how she died.

“I think from the beginning we knew one of the biggest challenges in this case was that the pathologist was not able to determine manner and cause of death, which is something that you have in most homicide prosecutions,” said Boulder Assistant District Attorney Ken Kupfner, the lead prosecutor on the Densmore case.

“And understanding at the very beginning of this case that would be our biggest challenge to overcome, not being able to prove to a jury manner and cause, we were working with the Boulder Police Department, and very supportive of making sure we did absolutely everything that could be done in order to make that determination.”

That need for answers is how a glimpse of Densmore in the footage from a gas station‘s security camera led 41 people from the Boulder Police Department and the DA‘s office to an Arkansas dump, searching over the course of a month through 2,003 cubic yards of trash. Only to come up empty.

Even without the evidence that police believe still might be buried in that landfill, a Boulder County jury last month found Densmore, 33, guilty of first-degree murder, and the details of that month-long search were whittled down to an hour‘s worth of testimony in a three-week trial.

But for the people who spent all those hours digging through garbage, that summer was about more than finding evidence to present at trial. That summer was about trying to help a family find answers. That summer was about trying to find Ashley.

This is the story of that summer.

‘We had him on camera‘

In March of 2017, Boulder police were able to obtain data from Densmore‘s phone and tablet that helped them after he left Boulder with Mead‘s body and their 1-year-old daughter.

They saw his drive from Boulder to his parents‘ house in Louisiana, where he dismembered the body, to his grandmother‘s house in Arkansas and then on to Oklahoma, where he ultimately was found and arrested.

And between Louisiana and Oklahoma, stops at gas stations.

Adam Densmore shows little reaction as he is found guilty on all counts in the murder and dismemberment of his ex-girlfiend, Boulder‘s Ashley Mead, at the conclusion of a three-week trial at the Boulder County Justice Center last month. ()

“He was stopping and dumping things throughout his journey, there‘s no doubt about that,” said Boulder police Detective Jeremy Frenzen, one of the lead investigators on the case. “And it was most likely parts of her body.”

Frenzen‘s co-lead investigator, Detective Kara Wills, used the data to try to track down surveillance footage of Densmore.

And it was on a surveillance camera at a Valero gas station in the small town of Morrilton, Ark., that police finally caught Densmore on film. In the top of the screen, Densmore can be seen pulling his car up next to a dumpster, taking something out of the back seat and tossing it into the trash bin.

“We had suspicions he dumped evidence at other dumpsters, but we couldn‘t prove it,” Wills said. “This was the one time we had him on camera, physically putting something in the dumpster.”

Added Kupfner, “There was blood located on the back passenger seat where he removed the item that he threw in the dumpster, kind of heightening our interest in finding whatever was in the dumpster.”

Wills was able to track down the pick-up and dumping schedule for the trash company that serviced that dumpster, and determined whatever was in the trash bin that day was now in a section of the Morrilton Sanitary Landfill, located at 51 Dump Road, about an hour‘s drive outside Little Rock, Ark.

Workers there were even able to tell Wills what section of the landfill she needed to look in, and agreed to move their operations to a different area.

It would be a longshot, but Boulder police saw what might be their only chance to find more evidence crucial to the case. So Detective Sgt. Barry Hartkopp went to the command staff and the city manager‘s office and asked if his detectives could search a dump 1,000 miles away without knowing what exactly they were looking for.

“I had thought we were going to have to argue it and justify it a bit, but there was none of that,” Hartkopp said. “Right away they were very supportive. I think we all recognized that, morally, we needed to do this for her family.”

 

‘We‘ve never tackled something of this magnitude‘

The first thing Boulder investigators did when they realized a search of landfill would be necessary was talk to other Colorado police departments that had conducted similar searches in the past. But in talking to agencies in Westminster and Commerce City, it became clear to Boulder police that having their search take place in a different state would be a large hurdle.

“We‘ve never tackled something of this magnitude before in any of our careers, so we started reaching out to different agencies,” Hartkopp said. “The one thing that we continuously heard from all these agencies that have been doing landfill searches is that it‘s resource intensive, it‘s personnel intensive, and it‘s going to be virtually impossible to do out of state.”

Luckily for Boulder detectives, they found themselves an ally in the Morrilton Police Department. They Arkansas department helped quickly secure the landfill, helped with getting equipment to the site, and even arranged meals and housing for the out-of-state searchers.

“They bent over backwards to accommodate us,” Hartkopp said.

Morrilton police Chief Sonny Stover said he oversees 23 officers, so a department of his size relies a lot on cooperation with other small agencies.

“We want to extend that to outside agencies if we can,” Stover said. “We want to be helpful.”

Between a few short-term vacation rentals — one of them belonging to a Morrilton officer — and hotel rooms, Boulder police had housing set up for the searchers. As for assembling those searchers, the department wasn‘t picky. Everyone from dispatchers to Chief Greg Testa and his deputy chiefs volunteered for shifts.

“They were right there beside the other officers and dispatchers and investigators,” Hartkopp said of the department‘s top brass.

All told, the search would end up costing the city of Boulder $292,660.87, with $110,652.93 for search equipment, $83,945.92 for overtime, and $97,971.02 for travel and food.

The search was split into four week-long shifts, with a crew of 10 to 12 people flying down each Sunday to replace the outgoing crew. One supervisor would stay in the state an extra day or so to help the next wave of people coming in.

“We wanted to carry that over to the next group so we didn‘t reinvent the wheel each week,” Hartkopp said.

With the equipment in place, housing secured and the searchers signed up, it was time to head to Arkansas.

 

‘That‘s a smell you will never forget‘

On June 4, 2017, the first week‘s workers arrived in Morrilton and quickly realized that, even with a plan in mind, the realities of working in a landfill required being adaptable.

“It was definitely a lot of trial and error,” Frenzen said.

At the beginning of the search, an excavator would dump a load of trash in a line, where searchers would go through it. When they were done with that line, a bulldozer would clear the trash and the excavator would dump a new line of trash. Over and over again.

“It was dump from 6 in the morning to 6 at night,” Hartkopp said.

Detectives originally had planned to look for receipts from businesses near the gas station where Densmore had dumped the evidence, but the searchers quickly realized that was not going to work.

“That was a little bit idealistic,” Frenzen said. “A receipt doesn‘t stay a receipt. We learned that quickly.”

Instead, the searchers realized the best way to make sure they were searching in the right area was to check the dates of newspapers they were finding and look for Valentine‘s Day cards to make sure they were near their target of Feb. 15, 2017.

“It was kind of funny watching the emotions, though,” Hartkopp said. “When you found a newspaper from the 15th or the 16th, somebody would call it out and everybody would get excited and really into it, but if you found something totally off, like from March or Christmas, it was deflating.”

In addition to needing to look at newspapers and receipts, searchers had to set aside any bones they found. This meant a lot of drumsticks and wings.

“Way too many chicken bones,” Frenzen said. “Hundreds, if not thousands.”

And then, of course, there were the conditions. The heat index was above 100 degrees on many days during the search, and that would have been bad enough before remembering that all of this took place in the middle of a landfill.

“That‘s a smell you will never forget,” Hartkopp said.

“And you smelled it while you were eating,” Wills added. “Our base camp was just right below where the dump was, so you‘re eating and you‘re still smelling it.”

The team had a designated safety officer who stood on the line and watched all of the searchers for signs of fatigue and heat exhaustion.

“We only have one opportunity at finding the evidence we are looking for, so we want to make sure that everybody was on their game the entire time,” Hartkopp said. “There were instances where we would have to pull people off the line and send them back down to home base so they could recoup and take an extended break.”

Eventually, though, the system became more streamlined. The investigators moved their search area closer to the area of the dump they were searching. Rather than one line at a time, the excavator would lay out a second line or third line of trash for the searchers to immediately move to when they finished combing through the first. There was no wasted time, no wasted motion.

“They really had this down to an art by the time we were done,” Hartkopp said.

Then, starting in the third week and entering the fourth week of the search, police began seeing more and more newspapers from the date range they were looking for. It seemed like only a matter of time.

“We were hitting it pretty steadily in week four,” Wills said. “I was convinced we were going to find something.”

 

‘Morale just kind of started to dwindle‘

Entering the final week of the search, spirits were high even as the end loomed.

“I think we were just, ‘This is the week. We‘re going to find it. We‘re going to do this,‘” Wills said. “We had narrowed down a really good area to search.”

Back in Boulder, Hartkopp said the mood also was optimistic.

“Everybody back here would get a text and be all excited thinking this would be the text,” Hartkopp said.

But after about two days, searchers had exhausted that pocket of trash. They tried to go back to areas of the landfill where they had earlier success, but now they were seeing newspapers from late February and even March.

“The morale just kind of started to dwindle, because we weren‘t hitting on those dates,” Wills said. “But people weren‘t taking breaks, they were just going to the tent to get water. Everybody was just ready to get through as much as we could.”

It was becoming clear that, while they had located the area where most of the trash from that time period had been dumped, the evidence they sought must have been moved by a trash compactor or something else.

“That was now on our mind,” Frenzen said. “What if that particular dumpster full of trash got pushed to the back or left up front? It was just a daunting feeling.”

Added Wills, “Right after the dump shuts down you have all the vultures and animals coming in and picking apart things. Just seeing that week after week, you kind of got a little discouraged.”

By July, the department had been searching the Arkansas landfill for almost a month and still had no new evidence. Going into the search, Boulder police had set a four-week deadline, knowing the department would not be able to fund and staff a search much longer than that.

Hartkopp said the department had maybe been prepared stretch resources to go an extra week if the investigators felt they were close, but with stormy weather moving in and no sign they were searching the right area anymore, they called it off.

“What we realized was, we spent that four weeks on it, and we knew that if we wanted to continue to search it absolutely thoroughly, it was going to take at least another four weeks, and it was just not going to be feasible to continue for another four weeks,” Hartkopp said. “I think we felt like we hit our best chance area.”

And so, on July 1, after dozens of people spent 10 hours a day digging through trash, five days a week, for four weeks, the search came to an end.

“That last day was really emotional,” Wills said. “People were upset, they wanted to keep searching.”

Kupfner said even though they obviously wanted to find something, he wasn‘t surprised they didn‘t.

“We knew it was going to be a very difficult task, and one that did not have a high degree of success,” Kupfner said. “We knew that going in.”

“I think I was a little more optimistic,” Wills said. “I was hopeful.”

 

‘It wasn‘t for lack of trying‘

Police and prosecutors didn‘t have much time to dwell on the search. Densmore‘s trial still loomed, and Kupfner knew he now would be faced with proving a murder without being able to tell jurors how the victim died.

“The Boulder Police Department did everything they possibly could, and we had what we had,” Kupfner said.

Sure enough, Densmore‘s attorneys honed in on that fact at his trial in April. But Kupfner said it was something he was prepared for. During the trial, Wills to testify about the search as the jury was shown drone footage taken from above the landfill.

“I think it played out at trial exactly the way we had anticipated, from the standpoint of the defense defending on ‘they can‘t prove how this occurred,‘ and us being in a place where we could show we had exhausted all reasonable methods for trying to make a determination,” Kupfner said. “It wasn‘t for lack of trying.”

After a little more than a day of deliberation, the jury came back with .

“It was a relief they saw the same things we did,” said Wills, who, along with Frenzen, was present for the entire three-week trial as an advisory witness.

“It was a huge win for the department and all for the effort and time and energy that went into it from our agency, the DA‘s office and all the agencies all around the country and that put a lot of time and effort into it as well,” Frenzen added. “And, most importantly, I think Ashley‘s family got justice.”

Kupfner said that even without the entire body, seeing how much work the police department put into the search for Mead‘s remains was important for the jurors. But Frenzen said the search was not just for the trial.

“Of course, it‘s a hugely important piece because we want to be able to answer questions about how Ashley died,” Frenzen said. “But the family was of equal importance to us, as far as doing everything we could to recover any part of their daughter, of their sister, that we could.”

The first-degree murder charge carries an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, so Densmore‘s sentencing on Friday will largely be a chance for Mead‘s family — and possibly even Densmore himself — to address the court.

“My hope is that someday, Adam Densmore will decide to share with us more details that only he knows,” Frenzen said.

But until that day, Densmore will be the only person who knows for certain what police were searching for that summer under the Arkansas sun.

“Personally, I think that there is something there, based upon all the evidence we saw with the video and with the vehicle,” Hartkopp said.

“He put something in that dumpster.”