Polly Sullivan murder: Vidocq Society shines a light

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Polly Sullivan kept lighthouses in her window, miniature beacons that illuminated the old military dorm at Lowry that had become Crooked Tree, a shelter for the once-homeless. Tenants saw it as comforting. But on Christmas Day 1998, someone walked into Polly's second-floor apartment and turned off the lights.

That's the start of the January 21, 1999 Westword story by Harrison Fletcher, "Keep a Light On," which detailed Polly Sullivan's life -- and death.

Polly's body was found in her apartment. She'd been beaten and stabbed to death. A then-48-year-old ex-con named Willie Safford was quickly charged with Polly's murder. He had been living on the first floor of Crooked Tree, but was about to be evicted for arguing with fellow tenants and being late on his rent; he had a long criminal record that included everything from robbery to aggravated assault to urinating in public. But Safford denied killing Polly, and authorities ultimately dropped the murder charge, saying they did not have enough evidence to take Safford to trial.

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Polly Sullivan.
And the case went cold. But today, the Denver Post reports, the discussion of Polly Sullivan's death will heat up in Philadelphia, where Denver police officers will present the case for review by the Vidocq Society, a crew of criminologists from around the world who will watch the presentation by Denver detectives, then offer solutions on how to solve it. Vidocq took up the case at the urging of Polly's sister, Linda Gruno, who wrote a six-page letter to the group asking that they look into the murder of Polly, whose body she'd identified. "Since that day," Gruno wrote, "when I am very tired, this is what I see: my sister in the morgue. I want to scream and never stop."

For the families of the victims, murder is never a cold case. And we were part of the extended family: Gruno was a longtime Westword music writer -- and Polly's sister. The girls had both been born in Oklahoma: Their mother was Irish and their father was Creek, and when Polly was one, the family came to Denver under the Bureau of Indian Affairs' relocation program. Their dad worked as an engineer for the state highway department, and their mom stayed home with the kids.

"Mom and Dad were really big into family," recalled Gruno in the Westword story on her sister's murder. "We never took vacations to Disneyland or the ocean. We always went to Oklahoma. Polly loved that. She always delighted in seeing other people. She loved and enjoyed people in a way I never understood."

Polly was just four-foot-ten, but she could be tough. She had rules for her tenants. But they also said she had the biggest heart.

The memories of Polly Sullivan have never gone cold.

The ripple effects of crimes go on and on. Kristen Stillman survived being imprisoned in a home in northwest Denver for a dozen years. Click to read Patricia Calhoun's "Spreading Her Wings."

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Robert Chase
Robert Chase

The Vidocq Society, named for French criminologist Eugène François Vidocq (the inspiration for Victor Hugo's Inspector Javert in Les Misérables), has been instrumental in solving any number of cold cases.

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