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Murderer who shoved<br>wife into GC admits guilt<br>

PHOENIX — Standing face-to-face with wife Donna of three years on a steep trail in Grand Canyon National Park, Robert M. Spangler decided he wanted out. So, on the morning of April 11, 1993, Spangler pushed her over the trail's edge in what U.S. Attorney Jose de Jesus Rivera called a "cold-blooded" act.

Horseshoe Mesa was one of Donna Spangler's final views before her husband pushed her in.

In a plea agreement entered into federal district court in Phoenix on Dec. 27, Spangler admitted his guilt to first-degree murder in the death of Donna Sundling Spangler. The 68-year-old Grand Junction, Colo., man, who will be sentenced to life in prison on March 12, also killed his first wife and two children years earlier in 1978.

"Spangler is a vicious killer who has been brought to justice," Rivera said. "It is difficult to comprehend how he could kill his wives and children in such a cold-blooded manner. The tenacity of those who were determined to bring this killer to justice is to be commended."

The terminally-ill Spangler will be sentenced to life in prison under the plea agreement, which was in conjunction with agreements from the Arapahoe County (Colo.) District Attorney's Office.

Details of the murder came to light in Spangler's confession, told in court documents through the agreement.

Spangler and Donna Sundling met on April 11, 1989, exactly four years to the day before the murder. The following year, she became Spangler's third wife.

About six months after the wedding, the couple moved from the Littleton, Colo., area to Durango, Colo. Donna Spangler was an aerobics instructor with five grown children and five grandchildren from her first marriage.

After the first year, the couple's lack of similar interests became obvious and the marriage grew strained. The marriage seriously deteriorated in the spring of 1993, but despite that, the couple made plans to hike the Grand Canyon together in April of that year.

Spangler, a popular country music deejay for KRSJ-FM in Durago, Colo., loved hiking the Grand Canyon. He vacationed at the Canyon many years and his home was filled with photos from those trips. But according to investigators, she did not share his enthusiasm for backpacking in the Grand Canyon and was not a strong hiker. Friends say she was even afraid of heights. Still, she agreed to the trip.

Upon their arrival to the Canyon, Spangler opted for a hike down the Grandview Trail, located off East Rim Drive. The route is well-used by hikers, offering spectacular views on a quick descent.

About 2,600 feet below the rim lies Horseshoe Mesa, the first destination for the Spanglers. After reaching that point, they hiked off the east side of the mesa down the difficult Page Spring Trail to Hance Creek. The couple camped the night of April 9 at the creek.

The following day, the couple remained in the area, hiking back up to a spot below a rugged section of the Page Spring Trail. There, they camped at the entrance to the historic Last Chance Mine, which is actually illegal.

From that spot near the mine, Spangler could get a good view of the trail below and above. The following morning, Easter Sunday, would be his wife's last.

"At 11:24 a.m. on April 11, 1993, the defendant appeared at the National Park Service backcountry office at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon," the plea agreement reads. "This is where hiking activities at the Canyon are coordinated.

"The defendant stood in the back of the line of people waiting to speak with the rangers. When he was called forward, he told the ranger, 'yes, please, can you help me ... my wife has fallen off the redwall on Horseshoe Mesa. She fell to her death.'"

Spangler went on to tell the rangers that she was posing for a photo when she fell. He said that he scrambled down to her body and found that she was dead. He then washed her face, covered her body with a tarp and hiked out of the Canyon.

Rangers found his wife's body under a blue tarp against a tree underneath a steep cliff area off the Page Spring Trail. Under the tarp, the woman's body was covered with a red bandana. Various items belonging to her were found in descending order from a point on the trail, suggesting the place where the fall originated.

From the point of her fall to her resting place, the distance was about 160 feet. A medical examination of Donna Spangler's body showed she sustained massive injuries, including abrasions, contusions, lacerations and multiple fractures of the neck, chest and lower extremities.

The defendant's first wife, Nancy, and their children, David and Susan, also suffered violent deaths. Spangler married Nancy Stahlman in 1955 with David born Nov. 27, 1961, and Susan coming along Aug. 14, 1963. The family moved from Ames, Iowa, to Littleton, Colo., in the early 1970s.

By 1977, it was common knowledge that Spangler was having a romantic relationship with a woman, Sharon Cooper, the plea agreement says. Spangler met her at work and she would later become his second wife.

On the morning of Dec. 30, 1978, a teen-age neighbor friend of Susan's snuck into the home. The friend wondered why his repeated phone calls were not being answered. The boy found 15-year-old Susan dead, laying in her bed. He then went to 17-year-old David's room and found a bloody scene with his body partially off his bed, his face on a pillow.

When police arrived, they also found the body of 45-year-old Nancy Spangler slumped over in a chair, dead with a gunshot wound through the center of her forehead. A Smith and Wesson .38-caliber revolver, partially covered with a sock, was located a few feet from the body.

A typed "suicide" note was also at the scene, indicating Nancy had killed the children and then herself. The typed note was signed with a handwritten "N."

Through the court documents, Spangler said he admits that in 1978, he was enamored with Cooper and felt that murder would be easier than going through a divorce. Additionally, he said his new girlfriend was not a person who liked children.

Spangler said he lured his wife into the basement of the house with a "surprise" and asked her to sit in a chair and close her eyes. Spangler killed her with a gunshot to the head.

Afterward, he went upstairs to the bedroom of his sleeping daughter and shot her in the back, killing her quickly. He then went into his son's bedroom and shot David from a distance. Spangler said his son did not die right away, so he suffocated him with a pillow.

Spangler said he typed the suicide note in the days before the murder and got her to sign it like she would a Christmas letter that the defendant had written.

Spangler admitted that he was not happy in his marriage with Donna. Although he can't say how far in advance he planned her death, he made up his mind at some point on the morning of that April 11, 1993.

"When they reached that spot in the trail, he pushed her off the trail to her death," the plea agreement reads. "He explained that he knew that there was no place above that point on the trail that he was certain a push would result in her death. He pushed her face to face, saying that she was a small woman and was no match for him in the struggle."

Spangler's second wife, Sharon, who was the author of a Grand Canyon hiking guide, died of a drug overdose at his Durango, Colo., home on Oct. 2, 1994 at the age of 52. The couple was married in 1979 and divorced in 1988. He was not implicated in that case and although investigators were initially suspicious of her death, they reportedly have strong evidence that Spangler did not take her life.

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