LITTLETON, Colorado—Dust was blowing everywhere at the city dump, so TV news photographer Chris Schumann wiped his videocamera lens. When he wiped again and looked, he realized the object he thought was a branch dangling from a backhoe’s shovel was a human leg.
It belonged to Jennifer Blagg, who had been missing for seven months.
“I thought, ‘Wow, it was in the spot where her husband’s company dumps the trash,’” Schumann said.
Jennifer and 6-year-old daughter Abby went missing in November 2001. Jennifer’s body was found in the summer of 2002, and Michael Blagg was arrested two days later. (Abby remans missing.) In 2004, he was convicted of murdering his wife, but this month he is getting a second chance to convince a jury that he is innocent. He’ll be walking into a Colorado courtroom just two days after his 55th birthday, for a rare retrial.
For 16 years, Blagg has denied he had anything to do with Jennifer and Abby Blagg’s disappearance, but prosecutors are determined to prove once again that the Navy veteran of Desert Storm is the only person who could have shot his wife in cold blood while she was sleeping.
Jennifer, 32, and Abby went missing from their comfortable two-story Grand Junction home on a cold November morning in 2001.
At first, townsfolk thought Abby was kidnapped by strangers. The search for Abby continued for years after her mother’s remains were discovered; some speculated that the girl’s tiny body was lost in the mountains of trash where Jennifer was found.
Connie Flukey, who ran an exhaustive search and rescue mission through western Colorado’s red rocks and desert canyons, says some people still think Abby’s dad buried her somewhere special because he loved her so much.
“It’s very sad to me that he didn’t say where his daughter’s body is at,” she told reporters.
During Blagg’s first six-week trial, prosecutors painted the the so-called family man as a porn addict. He wanted his wife gone, they alleged.
“We tried not to believe it, but everything pointed to him,” says Schumann, who sat outside the crime-scene-taped Blagg home for days while the cops stomped in and out.
Inside, they found a note Jennifer wrote about a recent fight they’d had. It was stashed between the pages of a book called Love Your God With All Your Mind.
To this day, Blagg insists that when he left for work at 6 a.m., Jennifer and Abby were still in bed, and when he returned home at 4:20 p.m., they were gone. He had called several times that day to check up on his family with no answer.
At trial, the district attorney played his upbeat messages: “Hello, my beautiful bride. I hope you’re out and about doing all kinds of cool and nifty things.”
At first, the Blaggs’ super clean reputation in their evangelical world kept investigators guessing. The family led prayer meetings and consulted God for guidance every day. “I believe the Lord will bring them home,” a distraught Blagg told reporters as the search for his wife and daughter wore on.
But in the months after Jennifer and Abby went missing, Blagg was unravelling. In December 2001 he moved out of the family home. A month later, he was caught on company surveillance tape stealing a paper shredder and a table. He was fired from his job, and then slashed his wrists in an attempted suicide after being questioned by the cops about missing jewelry—only pieces that had been insured.
In an interrogation with police, Blagg described the huge amount of blood he found in the master bedroom. “I had no idea what had happened... I just knew that it was bad… whatever it was, it was bad,” he said.
The autopsy determined that Jennifer had been shot in the face at close range, her dental retainer still in her mouth. In the master bedroom, although Jennifer’s side of the bed toward the pillow is stained with blood, it did not appear that she fought off her attacker. There was no other blood around the bed, but in the garage, inside the family minivan, investigators found blood drops on the steering wheel, on the gas pedal, and on the inside passenger door. Police never found the 9mm handgun that killed her.
By April, police went public with their theory: that Jennifer and Abby Blagg had been taken from their home in the family van.
In June, soon after Jennifer’s remains were uncovered, Blagg, who had since moved to Georgia to live with his mother, was arrested for first-degree murder in the death of the wife he called “the most enthusiastic, wonderful, loving woman you’d ever want to meet... a Lord-loving woman.”
It was this reputation that puzzled investigators who could not see a motive for a stranger to kill the beloved stay-at-home mom whose diary was filled with Bible verses. Furthermore, Jennifer’s journals revealed the picture-perfect marriage was in trouble: her health was failing, there was little sex, and Michael was distant.
It took the jury 23 hours to convict Blagg. He was sentenced to prison for life without parole.
Ten years later, Blagg’s case got new life. His conviction was overturned when it was discovered that one of the jurors in his original trial failed to mention during questioning that she had suffered domestic abuse. A judge ordered a retrial, and because the Blagg name is so well-known in Grand Junction, the new trial was moved to Jefferson County, a suburb west of Denver.
Michael Blagg’s second trial starts Feb. 20 and is expected to take six weeks.
“It was such a horrifying story, it hit people close to home,” says Grand Junction Daily Sentinel crime reporter Gabrielle Porter.
“Grand Junction is a sleepy little town with big city crimes,” adds the photographer, Schumann, whose image of Jennifer Blagg’s body being scooped from the landfill is one of the most horrific of his career.
After 16 years, he will be traveling the four hours across I-70 East to the Denver area to cover the retrial, one of the only journalists still working who remembers that day. It’s been so long, there are new attorneys and investigators on both sides; although, some of the original detectives will be testifying.
Blagg’s mother has passed away, but his brother and sister are still fighting for his innocence. This fall, they went to court in an attempt to introduce an alternative suspect in Jennifer’s murder, arguing in court records that their brother never had a criminal record and loved his wife and daughter too much ever to harm them. A judge turned down their request.
After years of bizarre developments, Abby Blagg’s whereabouts is still the biggest mystery in the case. Today, she would be in her twenties.