DENVER (AP) - A single mother who vanished from western Colorado more than seven years ago led a double life as a paid escort with many unsavory clients, investigators say.
Among them was Lester Ralph Jones, 63, who was one of the last people to call Paige Birgfeld before her 8-year-old daughter reported her missing in June 2007.
On Friday, Jones was arrested charges of murder, kidnapping and arson. Authorities allege he killed Birgfeld, dumped her body and torched her car.
Police dogs found Jones' scent in Birgfeld's charred, red Ford Focus and said he was unable to explain a gas can near his desk at the RV dealership where he worked, according to a 46-page arrest affidavit detailing how Jones quickly emerged as the main suspect.
No attorney for Jones was listed in court records, but he denied any involvement when police interviewed him early in their investigation.
Detectives also questioned - and ruled out - at least eight other men, including Birgfeld's former husband and several other clients. Witnesses said one of those clients had an "arsenal of guns and a pile of cocaine."
Birgfeld was twice divorced and living with her three children in Grand Junction, about 200 miles west of Denver. Friends knew her as a devoted mother who sold kitchen wares and did other jobs.
"My daughter was vivacious, knock-down good-looking, had a terrific smile and was always optimistic," her father, Frank Birgfeld, told The Associated Press on Friday. "She just seemed to think somehow, some way she would manage through it all."
Her father said he was unaware of her double life until after she died and police learned she had worked for years as an escort, running a prostitution business called Models Inc. A former husband said Birgfeld was the lone employee, going by the name "Carrie," but convinced customers a variety of women worked there.
Her apparent double life attracted widespread attention to the mystery of her disappearance, including a "48 Hours" segment called "The Secret Life of Paige Birgfeld" in 2008.
Her skeletal remains were found in 2012, in a dry creek bed in a neighboring county.
When leads began to dissipate, the Colorado Bureau of Investigation's cold-case team was assigned the case.
Jones denied knowing anything about Birgfeld's disappearance when police questioned him in 2007 and denied ever using her service.
But a fellow escort told investigators Jones called Birgfeld for an appointment but canceled when he realized she was the ex-wife of a man with whom he worked at the local fire department. A review of his phone records showed they had communicated several times, including in the days leading up to her disappearance, the affidavit says.
Inside Jones' tool box, police found the handwritten phone numbers of other escorts and their bra sizes, along with a condom, Viagra and a pair of men's wigs.
They also found a food scale made by The Pampered Chef, whose kitchen products Birgfeld sold.
Police say the pages leading up to the day she disappeared were torn out of a day planner they found in her car.
When Birgfeld was kidnapped, police said she might have tried to leave a trail of clues for investigators to find her, as they found business cards from The Pampered Chef and Models Inc. scattered about the highway.
Officials still don't know how Birgfeld died.
Mesa County Sheriff-elect Matt Lewis told reporters that investigators continued interviewing Birgfeld's associates and studying evidence over the past seven years until they had enough to arrest Jones and be sure no one else was involved.
"We have never forgotten about Paige," Lewis said.
- By Sadie Gurman, AP Writer
(© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
for more features.