Tip leads reporter to story of mysterious deaths

Two wives die in freak accidents 17 years apart. One man was married to both women. Is he just unlucky or does he know more than he's telling?

Brian Maass is an investigative reporter for CBS Denver. Here, he recalls how he first got involved in reporting on Harold Henthorn and the unusual circumstances and coincidences surrounding the deaths of Henthorn's two wives. Maass appeared on Saturday's all-new "48 Hours" investigation, "The Accidental Husband."

DENVER -- It started with an anonymous emailed tip on Oct. 1, 2012, the kind that roll into this newsroom every day by the dozens.

Is a Colorado man unlucky -- or a killer?

A snippet of just two sentences, referring to a story we ran about Dr. Toni Henthorn dying two days earlier in an accidental fall from a Colorado mountainside while accompanied by her husband, Harold Henthorn: 'This man's first wife died in a tragic and freak accident as well," read the email.

That was it.

It's the kind of tip that's easy to ignore as it provides too little information, would be too hard to pursue, would be too much work and could be a complete waste of time. I pursued it anyway. Curiosity, I suppose. A tantalizing clue for a longtime investigative reporter.

This bare-bones tip would lead me on a nearly three-year journey through the lives of Harold Henthorn and his two dead wives, Toni and Lynn, and a trail of lies and deceit, shifting stories and heartbroken families.

When I sat down at my desk on that day in 2012 and saw that tip, I just felt whoever wrote it really knew something, a whole lot more than they put in their email. Someone was trying hard to tell me something.

Anniversary surprise caught on tape

The death the previous weekend of Toni Henthorn at Rocky Mountain National Park during an anniversary hike was unfortunately routine. It happens relatively frequently that people hiking in the Colorado backcountry slip and fall to their deaths. Accidents happen.

So when it happened to Toni Henthorn that weekend, the accident was hardly reported, barely newsworthy.

But that email got me curious: who was Harold Henthorn's first wife? What freak accident befell her? Could one man really have that much misfortune?

I spent hours researching who Harold Henthorn was, and trying to learn who his first wife was to see how she actually died. But since her death had also been ruled an accident, and had occurred nearly two decades earlier, it was extremely difficult to find any information about how she died and where she died.

I finally found one small 1995 newspaper article which described how she perished in a terrible accident when the couple's Jeep had fallen on her during a tire change. Odd. How many wives crawl under their car during a tire change? With their husband standing there?

Brian Maass, an investigative reporter for CBS Denver, says a tip led him to investigate a story about a businessman who had two wives die in unusual accidents. "48 Hours"

It was starting to appear that Harold Henthorn was extraordinarily unlucky with his two wives, a car crushing one, another falling from a cliff 17 years later; both in remote areas with him as the only witness, and Harold Henthorn the beneficiary in both cases of large life insurance policies.

When Henthorn didn't respond to letters, calls and emails, I dropped by his house.

"I've really got to run," he said, before speeding away in his BMW.

Harold Henthorn didn't want to proclaim his innocence or talk, but his neighbors did. They described him as extraordinarily controlling, manipulative and creepy.

Based on autopsy reports, internal law enforcement sources, family interviews , interviews with seasoned homicide investigators and months of deep research, my first report on the man we called "The Hard Luck Husband" ran in October 2013. It would be followed by dozens more stories leading up to the announcement on Nov. 6, 2014 that federal authorities had arrested and charged Harold Henthorn with the death of Toni Henthorn, his second wife, and the "accidental" death of his first wife, Lynn, was reopened.

The current Douglas County Sheriff, Tony Spurlock, told me during an interview in January of this year he no longer thinks it is an accident, calling Lynn's death suspicious. However, he said he is not prepared to call it murder, and now will only call it an open and active death investigation.

The justice system was fully engaged.

As one of Toni Henthorn's brothers told me, "To have two wives die in freak accidents, well, the odds are better you will win the Powerball lottery. Nobody has that much bad luck."

The story of Harold Henthorn and his two wives who suffered such untimely deaths is far from over.