DNA cold case: Colorado police seek suspect identified in 1963 killing of Girl Scout

DECKERS, Colo. — Nearly 57 years after a Colorado Girl Scout counselor was found raped and strangled in her tent during a camping trip, authorities say that genetic genealogy has helped them identify her killer.

The body of Margaret Elizabeth “Peggy” Beck, 16, of Denver, was found inside her tent Aug. 18, 1963, at the Flying G Ranch, a Girl Scout campsite in the Pike National Forest. The case remained unsolved, though strides have been made over the years to find justice for Peggy, who was a senior at North Denver High School.

“In 2007, a John Doe DNA profile was created from evidence originally collected from the crime scene, and the profile was entered into the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS),” Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader said in a recent news release. “In June of 2019, a more comprehensive profile was created and submitted for investigative genetic genealogy testing.

“Investigators followed up on obtained leads and were able to determine the DNA was that of James Raymond Taylor.”

Taylor, who was 23 years old at the time of the murder, was last seen in 1976. If still alive, he would now be 80 years old.

A warrant was issued in April for his arrest.

Taylor’s last known location was in the Las Vegas area, though his family, who helped authorities definitively identify him as the source of the DNA in Peggy’s death, has not seen or heard from him in more than 43 years.

Schrader said during an April news conference that he hopes Peggy’s family can achieve some closure. The teen’s mother, Merna Lee “Margie” Beck, died in 1974 at age 51, according to online records.

Her father, Vincent Beck, died in 2009 at age 88. The oldest of four daughters, Peggy is survived by her siblings.

“Her three sisters are alive, and this is a painful time for them, to have this wound reopened,” Schrader said, according to footage from CBS Denver.

In a statement read by investigators, her sisters mourned their loss.

“She was loving and protective of her family, and we will cherish the memories we have of her forever,” the statement read.

An August 1963 Associated Press story that ran in the Greeley Tribune reported that Peggy’s body was found the morning of Aug. 18 by her tent mate, who had spent the night in the infirmary because of a cold.

The Girl Scout troop was scheduled to head home that day after five days camping in the forest.

A scouting director told police Peggy had gone to bed around midnight following a singalong, the AP reported. Three adults and 24 campers were asleep nearby, but the closest tent to where Peggy slept was about 30 feet away.

“It was first believed that the girl died of natural causes but (then-Jefferson County Coroner Ken) Raynie said that five finger marks on her throat were not apparent until later in the day,” the AP story read.

A news story in the days immediately following the killing indicated that police questioned one man at a Canon City bus station because he had scratches on his face. Investigators said Peggy had scratched her killer as she fought for her life.

Read a 1963 story about Peggy Beck’s killing below.

Multiple potential suspects were named by police in the subsequent months, including a man who had previously spent 25 years in prison for the murder of an Eagle County sheriff’s deputy. The man, James Sherbondy, became a suspect after he stopped meeting with his parole officer around the time of Peggy’s killing, the AP reported.

A second man who was suspected in Peggy’s death, as well as in a killing that same year in Arizona, was ultimately cleared of suspicion in both, media reports said at the time.

It was not clear if Taylor’s name came up in the murder investigation prior to his DNA being identified. Investigators said he lived in Colorado in the early 1960s and worked at a television repair shop in Edgewater, CBS Denver reported.

It was unclear when he left Colorado.

Authorities said Peggy, a longtime Girl Scout, was excited about the trip on which she was slain. Though she had been a Scout for years, the trip marked her first time as a counselor.

Her body was found when she failed to show up for breakfast, the news station reported.

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