She fell hard for the wrong guy.
She married the alleged grifter, and 12 years later, he would lead his wife on a surprise romantic nature hike in a national forest. But that celebration would mark Dr. Toni Henthorn’s last footsteps in her 50 years of life. For the successful, self-made Southerner and newbie mom would suffer a freakish death—plummeting from a 140-foot rocky scree with such blunt force that her body sheared 3-inch-thick pine tree branches, her boots went flying and, after striking boulders below, she lost so much blood that medics later struggled to pull a viable blood sample.
Now, her husband, Harold Henthorn, is claiming he’s innocent while standing trial in federal court in Denver, Colorado, on first-degree murder charges—accused of shoving Toni off a cliff in Colorado’s pristine sanctuary, Rocky Mountain National Park. The story has made national headlines, as Henthorn’s first wife also died in a freak accident.
Toni was also on her second marriage—and now, far away from Mile High, Toni’s first husband has been forced to carry on his life in Meridian, Mississippi, where he and his college sweetheart began a life together.
Filled with a sense of melancholy, Charles Richardson spoke to The Daily Beast about how wrong it was for Toni to go out in the worst way possible.
“The one thing is that Toni did not deserve this,” Richardson said. “She was a good person. She worked hard and she tried to do everything right.”
Prosecutors have already begun homing in on hard facts that they say will show the prominent ophthalmologist’s second husband was in fact a money-grubbing, calculated killer who had meticulously arranged his wife’s demise in order to rake in millions in life insurance payouts.
He chose the Deer Mountain trail just past 12:30 p.m. that day: a six-mile round-trip windy “robust” route that extends upwards of 10,000 feet in elevation.
Two hours had passed when the pair sat down for a picnic.
It was nearing 4 p.m. and they were going to have to hustle to make their 7 p.m. dinner reservations. But investigators say Henthorn suggested later that their plans went out the window when they spotted some wild turkeys and decided to follow them.
It was a bold decision to hike in the first place for Toni Henthorn. She’d gone under the knife multiple times to repair both knees, and according to federal prosecutor Suneeta Hazra’s opening statement at the pretrial back in May, Toni had “bad knees, had given up skiing, had several operations.”
The pair paused to take photos of each other. Harold Henthorn is seen “standing on that trail’s rocky ledge, clearly holding onto a tree,” Hazra notes. When Toni poses on that same knob “she’s seated in a cautious position, looking out.”
They were alone and as the prosecutor previously highlighted, there were no aid stations nearby or help anywhere in this deserted patch of Colorado hinterland.
As Toni tumbled down the cliff, Harold Henthorn “witnessed a blur while he was reading text messages.” But he allegedly had the wherewithal to gather up their backpacks and “made sure he had all their belongings,” according to Hazra’s rundown.
Soon after authorities arrived on the scene, prosecutors say, Harold Henthorn kept erroring when trying to detail how his wife slipped and fell.
Henthorn said it took him 45 minutes to get down to where Toni was dying. Yet when first responders tried it they clocked in at closer to five to seven minutes.
Chasing wild turkeys as a lark didn’t square with authorities either. “Henthorn told the investigators it was sort of a spontaneous decision to go to this area, but indeed, investigation has shown that he made numerous scouting trips to the park,” Hazra said.
And then there was the $30,000 diamond ring that was reported missing by Henthorn just after Toni fell. And the $4.5 million worth in life insurance the hubby was set to collect in the wake of his wife’s death.
At the trial last week, jurors saw exhibits showcasing Toni’s punishing fall and how her pink shirt and blue jeans were mangled, as well as brutal autopsy findings. Toni suffered a severed liver, punctured lungs, 13 broken ribs, internal bleeding, and a massive gash on her scalp.
Prosecutors say Henthorn also failed to explain away a map plucked from his car that day with a big, fat “X” marking the spot where Toni tumbled to her death.
Turns out, Toni wasn’t the first Mrs. Harold Henthorn to accidentally wind up dead.
Sandra Lynn Henthorn died of traumatic asphyxiation on May 6, 1995, after she was crushed under the couple’s car when they pulled over on a deserted road in Colorado, allegedly to help her husband change a deflated tire on their 1991 Jeep Cherokee Sport. Like Toni, Sandra Lynn had been married to Harold Henthorn for 12 years.
But originally when deputies investigated the death, homicide was ruled out.
In January 2013 the car-crushing case officially reopened and remains active, according to testimony in court papers and confirmation yesterday by a spokeswoman at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office. And authorities say the evidence, gathered and reinvestigated by detectives 20 years later, reveals eerie parallels with Toni Henthorn’s death.
Whenever Sandra Lynn’s death came up, the widower told people “bizarre stories,” prosecutors said. In one, a rod from a car jack “shot into his wife’s chest.” In other retellings, she died of a “head-on collision” of “collapsed lungs” while in “the cabin on the flight-for-life helicopter.” Henthorn allegedly had tried to tell a Sunday school class that his wife “died from cancer and lost a baby she was carrying to chemotherapy.”
Right after Sandra Lynn’s death, her husband allegedly rattled off “five variations of the events from that evening,” according to Douglas County Sheriff’s Detective David Weaver, who had taken the lead in reopening the case.
Captain Jason Kennedy recalled encountering Harold Henthorn at around 8 p.m. while responding to a distress call that a woman was pinned under a car.
The lawman described Henthorn as appearing “visibly shaken.”
“His eyes were darting back and forth as he was kind of surveying the scene,” Kennedy said during testimony during pretrial proceedings in May.
Captain Kennedy said Henthorn had described taking a jaunt with Sandra Lynn along Highway 67 through a small hamlet called Sedalia when “he felt the [front passenger’s-side] tire get spongy.”
After they got out, Kennedy said, Harold Henthorn declined the services of a Good Samaritan named Dwight Devries who had U-turned to help.
Instead, Harold Henthorn acted “rude” and insisted he wanted Devries to “get out, to leave.” Going it alone, Henthorn allegedly tasked his social worker wife to hold a flashlight and keep track of the lug nuts while he changed the tire. When he threw the flat in the rear of the Jeep “the jack gave way, and he heard [Sandra] Lynn scream and yell [sic] yell for him,” according to the story he gave the officer that night.
Henthorn said he saw his wife helplessly pinned and then “got her out from underneath the vehicle” with a second jack and began performing CPR, Kennedy said.
The Denver-bound Montoya family—Patricia, Theodore, and Joseph—were passing by in a truck and happened on the horrific scene and pulled over.
While admitting some of them had been drinking most of the day, they also said they “might have got [Sandra Lynn] out from under the car,” according to Detective Weaver.
Patricia Montoya said she ran to the nearest house she spotted to call 911. She said she returned to the bloody scene and saw her family members, not Harold Henthorn, giving Sandra Lynn CPR—and she said that Henthorn warned them to not touch his dying wife.
At this point, she told the detective, “Henthorn had a… shocked look on his face.” The story the husband told her was that his wife had managed to get trapped under the car after attempting to recover a rogue lug nut that rolled underneath it.
More emergency personnel arrived and Sandra Lynn’s body was airlifted to Swedish Medical Center in Englewood, Colorado, but surgeons there couldn’t save her.
Later, authorities say, Henthorn couldn’t get his story straight. The jack that was supposed to be used with the Jeep had supposedly malfunctioned. So instead he had two so-called “boat jacks” in the car to use as subpar backups. Authorities say Henthorn explained that he had three jacks because he had been changing tires so frequently since they were remodeling their house.
But Henthorn also allegedly told a medic that he had Sandra Lynn “changing the tire because he didn’t know how to change a tire,” Detective Weaver added.
During another telling, Henthorn said he had pleaded with Sandra Lynn to not touch the Jeep and to “stay at least six feet away,” Weaver said.
All of the findings from Sandra Lynn’s death were granted admission in Henthorn’s trial by a judge.
A year before Toni’s fatal fall off the cliff, there was another close call for Mrs. Henthorn #2.
FBI Special Agent Grusing, who testified in the preliminary hearing, said Toni Henthorn was also struck in the back of the neck around 10 p.m. on May 28, 2011, while inside the couple’s cabin in Grand Lake, Colorado. Her husband had “erected spotlights because a light had blown” and in that instant Toni Henthorn was “picking up glass when she was hit” by a sheet of plywood, which knocked her out cold and fractured her vertebrae.
In one report of the incident logged by an emergency responder, Harold Henthorn acknowledged he was up on a higher deck and reportedly “flinging the wood.”
It was at this time in the spring of 2011 that Toni Henthorn was already worth a fortune as a dead woman. Moreover, prosecutors say, Harold Henthorn had been changing life insurance policies on his wife, ensuring every penny went to him as the sole beneficiary, and not their daughter Haley, who was 7 years old at the time.
Later, the feds discovered that Sandra Lynn Henthorn also had a trio of life insurance policies taken out on her, around $600,000 at the time of her death. According to a local CBS affiliate, Henthorn cashed out the policies.
Meanwhile, Toni’s ex-husband, Charles Richardson, told The Daily Beast that Toni had sacrificed everything in order to become a doctor and then seemed to toss it away by unloading her “lucrative practice in Jackson [Mississippi]” to run off with Mr. Wrong.
“Given all things equal it’s extremely rare for a physician in her forties with such a successful ophthalmology practice to sell it and go to a far-reaching state for the only reason that [Henthorn] demanded it,” Richardson said.
The now 54-year-old periodontist remembers Toni as a high-achieving academic who dedicated every waking hour to being “financially independent.”
“We were college sweethearts,” he said. “I was in the dental school and she was in the medical school at Ole Miss.”
As an academic in a mostly male-dominated medical school, Toni was a standout. “She was extremely strong physically and very driven,” Richardson said of his ex-wife, who lettered in high school basketball.
The couple was forced to be far apart when they each accepted residencies in different cities; he was in Birmingham, Alabama, and she was marooned in Jackson, Mississippi.
“It was hard to find a place that needs a periodontist and an opthamologist,” he said. “So basically we found Meridian [Mississippi] and moved here and lived here about a year.”
But the distance and gap of time had changed their relationship and the couple “just grew apart” and Toni (then Toni Bertolet) and her husband “decided to part ways” in 1992.
He suspects his ex-wife’s solitude got the better of her when she began searching on the conservative dating website ChristianMingle to find a life partner.
“She was extremely lonely and Toni was very, very quiet,” said Richardson, who has since happily remarried and is raising two teenagers. And then Toni met Harold Henthorn, a self-proclaimed moneyman or “fund-raiser” who brokered deals with nonprofits.
Richardson says that regardless of what happens with the trial, Toni and Henthorn’s daughter, Haley, will grow up in safe and loving hands with Toni’s family.
“[Haley] will be taken care of,” Richardson said. “They’re good people with extreme financial means… They are self-made and made their millions themselves. Every dime of it.”
But even with all the money, he realizes that can’t bring back their Toni. “They lived the American dream and to have this happen to their daughter...” he said before choking up.
Richardson remembers that when friends and family came in contact with Toni’s new man, they were instantly underwhelmed. “The sad thing is, in all the people I knew that met him, there was a preponderance of them saying when they met him they got an ‘icky feeling,’” he said. “Every single one said that.”