For a brief time in the 1940s, a two-story Folk Victorian home in Denver’s West Highland neighborhood spooked residents and vexed police. Neighbors jammed the operator lines for the police department on their rotary phones to report “ghost lights’’ coming from the home with the peaked roof and windows that resembles eyes.
Two would-be housekeepers gave up their employment and fled in horror after encountering a shadowy figure in the house late one night. North Denv
er kids would run into the yard as an act of bravery. Helen Peters who lived in the house alone with a mending hip described a supernatural presence wandering around. She moved some 240 miles away to Grand Junction to live with her son.
And it wasn’t mass hysteria or hallucinations brought on by then illegal marijuana or from opium lingering in medicine cabinets dating back from the dawn of the 20th century.
The house had been the scene of a grisly murder. Helen’s 73-year-old husband, Philip Peters, had been bludgeoned to death in his own home. And he didn’t want to go: strands of hair from his killer littered the bloody crime scene mixed with broken pieces of a revolver handle. While the signs of Philip Peters’ fierce battle for life were clear, there were no leads on a suspect.
The haunting started the weeks following the murder of Peters, a retired railroad auditor. Most people would write this off as a piece of local folklore, but in less than 10 months, reality proved more sensational than you could imagine.
On October 17, 1941, Philip Peters was bludgeoned to death in his own home. Denver police officers described it as one of the most brutal crimes they had ever seen, and told reporters that only the mind a true psychopath could commit such a deed.
The altercation started in the kitchen and ended in Peters’ bedroom where the victim sustained 37 wounds to his body. The most puzzling piece of the killin
g is that there was no evidence of forced entry into the North Denver home.
Investigators were baffled over the case.
After discovering the battered body, signs of an altercation, and rusty pistol handle fragments, they had no leads pointing to a suspect.
Shortly after the murder, Peters’ wife moved back into the house, but the strange noises and circumstances of her husband’s death captured the neighborhood’s imaginations. The caretakers assisting the Widow Peters were so frightened that they flew out of the house for good, but even after this incident spectre was still not found.
The unexplained noises continued and eerie feeling a ghostly presence persisted to the breaking point for the widow. Mrs. Peters must have had enough and moved to Grand Junction with her son and left the house abandoned during a harsh winter.
Following the homicide and Mrs. Peters’ departure, the police were called to abandoned house on many occasions either to continue to search for clues for a suspect or investigate reports of a ghost lurking about the house. The Denver police went as far as to conduct stakeouts across the street from the ghost house to find clues into the reported haunted house.
One summer evening, coffee was what finally gave Coneys away when neighbors spotted a figure in Peters’ kitchen from a bedroom window. They called the police, who entered the house to find that the stove was hot and the kitchen smelled of fresh coffee. Months of speculation and suspense gave way to action. The police rushed into the haunted house looking for the being behind the ghost lights and eerie presence
Denver Police Detective William J. Jackson was one of the officers on scene. He climbed the stairway ventured to the bedroom door to the second floor bedroom door to discover it locked from the other side. The police forced the door open and didn’t see a phantom presence but spotted a man’s foot disappearing through a trap door to the attic crawlspace.
The phantom behind the ghost lights who captured the imaginations of the West Highland neighborhood turned out to be a flesh and blood man.
Regardless of nickname, the gaunt ghost or Denver Spider Man, Theodore E. Coneys was an unwanted and previously unknown roommate who killed Peters’ after being caught lurking about the retired railroadman’s North Denver ho
me for weeks. He was there hiding in a tiny attic crawlspace after Peters’ body was discovered. He was in the house as the police collected evidence for the case and scoured the house to find clues leading to the phantom killer who they thought escaped the house on 3335 West Moncrieff Place.
Coneys and Peters knew each other through a guitar and mandolin society meeting hosted in Peters’ home. Peters’ wife said that she remembers Coneys from the musical club decades ago. Prior to his return to Denver Coneys spent some time working as an advertising salesman in Tonawanda, New York, but the loss of his job and money made him a wanderer.
He survived with whatever funds he had by living in a flophouse, but when he couldn’t afford even that, Coneys turned to Peters, now in his early 70s, for some sort of support.
Instead of asking fo
r financial assistance, Coneys cased the home and found an entrance to what would become his nest. Coneys was 59 at the time, well beyond his prime, had no family to speak of or prospects, so why not live in an crawl space?
The Brutal Act
During the five weeks Coneys was skulking out in the attic, Philip’s wife was in the hospital recuperating from a broken hip. While his wife was in the hospital, Peters had his nightly dinner at a neighbor’s house across the street.
Coneys would venture down from his snug attic quarters to pilfer food from the icebox. Only enough so any theft wouldn’t raise suspicion. Most of the people who lived near the Peters were younger fa
milies and considered the elder couple the grandparents of the block.
When the neighbors who helped Mr. Peters during his wife’s hospital stay noticed that he didn’t come over on the evening of Oct. 17 for dinner, they crossed the street, found a way into the house and discovered Peters’ motionless, bloody body on the bedroom floor.
That afternoon, the law of averages caught up with Coneys a few hours earlier when his presence was discovered by Peters.
“I thought Peters had gone over to the home of neighbors for dinner as was his custom,” Coneys said in his defense. “That’s why I came down fro
m the attic.”
At one point during the struggle, Coneys reached for an old revolver that Peters used as a hammer and brought down the butt of it on his victim’s head. The rusty revolver proved broke into pieces and that is when Coneys grabbed the stove shaker to finish off the 73-year-old Peters.
In a Denver Post story following Coneys’ capture, the killer reenacted the scene for the police and demonstrated how he washed his bloody hands at the kitchen sink after the battle, rinsed off the shaker and then slipped up the stairs to his attic hiding place.
While most people would flee the scene of the crime, Coneys scurried back to his attic lair where he had been hiding for more than a month and nested there for nine more months.
The utilities were turned off and an empty icebox didn’t deter Coneys from his nest. He scavenged for food in the basement and lived off of strawberry preserves and collected snow for drinking water.
Coney’s trial was held at the old West Side Court Building, located on the Speer Boulevard and Colfax Avenue.
Supporting evidence from the state included tests revealing substances found on an old gun (which the prosecution claimed Coneys used to beat Peters to death) was human blood and fragments of human hair that were identical with hair taken from the dead man.
Coneys claimed self-defense for the attack on Peters’ saying that he was attacked because he was caught raiding the icebox. In an effort to avoid the death penalty, Coneys decided to take the stand.
Dr. Leo Tepley, a psychiatrist not brought to the stands in Coneys’ defense, described the defendant as “a creature of complete frustration, crushed with the rejection by society of the wares he had to offer.”
The psychiatrist framed the story that Phillips’ attic became a haven for Coneys and that it would finally give him the long-sought seclusion from society he hated for ignoring his considerable capabilities.
Under cross examination, Coneys repeatedly denied that his intent was to steal from his future victim. He had the opportunity following the murder, but Coneys said retreating to the attic was proof that theft wasn’t the reason behind what he did.
“I couldn’t have gone down. I was too numbed — yes, that’s it, numbed — physically and mentally. Good God! My only emotion was horror at what I’d done. I simply haven’t what it takes to be a killer.”
Photographic evidence of the victim evoked fear and apprehension from Coneys as he was instructed by the prosecutor to point out details of the death room. Lastly, the prosecution brought up to the stand Phil K. Peters of Grand Junction, the son of the slain man, concerning the two pistols Coneys admitted using as a bludgeoning weapon. One was rusted and disintegrated on impact, while the other appeared to have been from Peters’ drawer.
The younger Peters testified that he examined the drawer the day before while searching for a tie for his father and didn’t see any gun and that he hadn’t seen the gun since 1908. Nor did he see the old rusty gun about the house in any of the visits to his parents home. It took the jury only 90 minutes to convict Coneys of first degree murder, but chose to opt for life imprisonment instead of death, which the prosecution had asked for.
On Nov. 18, 1942, Coneys arrived at Canon City prison to serve his life sentence. He worked as a clerk in the prison electrical shop until April 1963, when old age forced his retirement to the prison hospital where he died on May 17, 1967. He was buried in Mountain Vale Cemetery in Canon City instead of the prison graveyard. Prisoner
He spent nearly 27 years being known as prison No. 22813 in the Colorado Corrections system, but North Denver residents familiar with the story will forever know him as Denver’s Spider Man.