JAMESTOWN -- Ever since two bodies were found three days apart in September, residents were convinced there had been a murder-suicide in their small mountain town.
On Tuesday, Boulder County sheriff's investigators announced that they indeed think sex offender Thomas Altimus, 35, sexually assaulted and killed Solange Haikkala, 30, at her Jamestown home before shooting himself in the woods outside of town.
Haikkala died of blunt trauma to the neck, according to Boulder County Coroner Emma Hall, who ruled her death a homicide Tuesday.
Hall ruled Altimus' death a suicide, reporting that he died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head.
Haikkala's body was found Sept. 10 in her home at 18
Witnesses told investigators that Haikkala -- a teaching assistant for Boulder Valley schools -- and Altimus were both at a party the night of Sept. 9. Altimus reportedly offered to take Haikkala home, but she declined and left with another person. She arrived at her home at around 3 a.m. and went to a neighbor's house to check on her 12-year-old daughter, who often slept over there.
The neighbor, Rich Mastran, told the Camera on Tuesday that when Haikkala came to check in on her daughter, he didn't notice anything in her behavior to indicate she was worried about her safety.
"She wasn't acting different than any other night, and she wasn't acting like she was in fear of something," Mastran said.
Investigators say sometime after she left Mastran's house, at around 4 a.m., she returned home, where Altimus sexually assaulted and killed her. Mastran and her daughter found Haikkala's body when they went to check on her at 10:30 a.m.
DNA found on Haikkala was a match to Altimus, and several neighbors reported Altimus appeared to be upset when emergency vehicles responded to Haikkala's death. They reported last seeing him wander into the woods with a shotgun, where they heard a gunshot later that day.
Although his body was not found for three days, Cmdr. Rick Brough, of the Sheriff's Office, said it appears he shot himself that day.
Altimus was a sex offender who had been arrested in 2006 on suspicion of sexual assault on a helpless victim and pleaded guilty to sexual contact in Broomfield. According to the police report, in April 2006, he offered to let a woman stay at his house after they met at a birthday party. The woman agreed because she felt she was not sober enough to drive home, but then she said Altimus made unwanted sexual advances and touched her inappropriately throughout the night.
Jamestown residents said Altimus, who was also arrested in 2010 for failing to register as a sex offender, never gave them his true name and always struck them as strange.
Several people interviewed by investigators also said Haikkala appeared to be afraid of Altimus and said he might have done something to her in the past. Some witnesses say they overheard her once tell him, "What you did to me I've heard you've done to others."
Brough said during the course of the investigation, deputies learned Altimus may have attempted to sexually assault another Jamestown woman after she refused his advances. Deputies were attempting to locate Altimus to question him in Haikkala's death when they found his body.
Mastran, the neighbor who found Haikkala's body, said she often mentioned to him that Altimus "creeped her out." Haikkala had told her boyfriend that Altimus had once cornered her and acted inappropriately.
"He started playing weird games with her," Mastran said. "She saw right through him, but nobody took her seriously."
Robbin Papalucas, who had known Haikkala for 10 years, said she sensed her friend was in trouble and questioned why nobody bothered to report Altimus' behavior. Papalucas said she was just about to visit Haikkala, who had moved to Colorado from Santa Barbara, Calif., in October 2010 and told her friend she was not happy in Jamestown.
"I'm just beating myself up because I couldn't get her out of there in time," Papalucas said.
Finally, an answer
The conclusion of the investigation more than two months after the bodies were found confirmed what many people in the small town had already suspected.
"I think most people in Jamestown had a hunch," Mastran said.
The deputies who originally responded to Haikkala's death initially did not find the case suspicious. Brough said there were no obvious or conclusive signs Haikkala was murdered. He said there was some bruising on her neck, but some typical signs of strangulation were missing -- for instance, the hyoid bone wasn't crushed.
"I won't say she was strangled, but it appeared somebody put some pressure on her neck," he said.
Brough said investigators were waiting on toxicology and DNA tests from the Coroner's Office, which contributed to the delay in announcing any conclusions about the deaths.
Papalucas said she understands the investigative process can take some time, and she added that detectives were always calling her to keep her updated.
"Our main concern was coming to a final conclusion," she said.
Mastran said with the conclusion of the case, Jamestown residents can try to move on.
"People up here will be really glad to hear it's resolved," he said. "I mean, it's the worst thing that could have happened to her, but at least people can try and put it to a close."
But Papalucas said for Haikkala's family and friends, Altimus' suicide means they may never truly have closure.
"That coward doesn't have to face what he did, so on that level I'm angry," she said. "Solange was a precious person with a lot to offer, and she left behind a little girl who needs her mother. I'm dealing with the blow of the truth of this matter, and how unnecessary it was."
Friends said the daughter is staying with her grandparents.
Contact Camera Staff Writer Mitchell Byars at 303-473-1329 or firstname.lastname@example.org.