Murder on a Mountain Bike
When 60-year-old Tim Watkins disappeared on a stretch of singletrack outside Colorado Springs, no one suspected that the truth of how he died would rip the community apart
Around 10 A.M. on Friday, September 15, 2017, Ginger Chase-Watkins called the Old Town Bike Shop in Colorado Springs looking for her husband, Tim Watkins. She hadn’t heard from him in more than 24 hours.
A bike mechanic and lifelong outdoorsman, Watkins was known to spend nights in the wild, something he had done since he was a boy in Palmer Lake, Colorado, the town where he and Ginger grew up and still lived. But lately he’d been sleeping in his car, often parked at a local trailhead, to escape the turmoil in his personal life.
When Ginger had arrived home from work the previous night at 8:30, she’d seen Watkins’s car in the driveway but noticed that his custom-built Tessier mountain bike was missing. His absence struck her as odd, but she was exhausted from a string of 12-hour workdays as a medical-imaging technician. Knowing that Watkins had terrible night vision, she texted him asking his whereabouts—Was he visiting his parents, who lived nearby? Having a beer at O’Malley’s Pub?—then fell asleep. When she woke up the next morning, he still had not come home. She texted again and then left for work at 6 A.M.
Watkins, 60, had not been in a healthy state of mind recently. He had been struggling with memory loss for at least a year—a result of hitting his head too many times as a kid, he said—and financial problems had put his marriage in limbo. Ginger had supported them for months before he found work, but a few days before he disappeared, she asked him to leave the house. It was less a separation than an attempted reset, she said months later when we spoke at her home. “I just felt like I wasn’t getting any help, and I needed a minute to myself,” she said. Tears ran down her cheeks. “I have such hurt about that.”
In the months before his disappearance, Watkins had battled depression and even considered suicide. Still, now that he was employed at Old Town, Ginger knew he would never skip work. “I thought, This is not like Tim,” she said. “He’s out there, he’s hurt, we need to find him.”
Watkins knew how to handle himself on a bike. He basically created the mountain-biking scene in Palmer Lake and Monument, sister towns half an hour north of Colorado Springs in El Paso County. He and Ginger lived three blocks from Pike and San Isabel National Forest, home to a vast network of singletrack, much of it off the map—unless you had the map that Watkins made himself, which served as a fat-tire bible for new arrivals.
Ginger reported Watkins missing after she called Old Town, and she posted information about his disappearance on social media the next morning. A local search party formed; around 2 P.M. on Saturday, a volunteer found a cycling shoe on the side of Mount Herman Road, three feet from an upright beer can and not far from the popular Limbaugh Canyon Trail. Ginger confirmed that it was her husband’s shoe—a size 42 Pearl Izumi. Years ago his feet had been disfigured in an accident, and he almost never took a step without his shoes on. She figured he couldn’t be far.
More than 2,700 people live in Palmer Lake, but when Watkins was growing up, the population was closer to 1,000. He was a daredevil, tearing down Balanced Rock Road on two wheels and using his shoes for brakes. In his twenties he grew into a powerful mountain biker, if not a graceful one. He bounced around Colorado, ski-patrolling at Loveland and riding singletrack in Crested Butte, where his brother David settled. “He was always chasing incredible dreams,” David says.
Eventually he landed back in his hometown, got married, and had two children—Arielle, now 27 and a mother herself, and Isaac, 25. His first marriage ended in 1993, and in 2000, he opened Monument’s only bike shop with his second wife. He undercharged and overdelivered, supporting the scene in his spare time. It’s likely that no one built more local trails than Watkins did.
“He was this amazing angel up there, and everybody knew him,” says two-time Olympian Alison Dunlap, a longtime friend and riding partner. “But he was a quiet leader. He didn’t brag. He had his bike shop, and he just loved to ride.”
Dunlap met Watkins, who was 12 years older than her, in 1987, when she moved to Colorado Springs to attend college. They became close friends and frequent riding partners during her rise in the sport. Watkins often led her on rides around Mount Herman Road, where trails like Bobsled and Stoopid and Mule snake through the forest. His local favorite, however, was always Limbaugh Canyon—a stunning creekside singletrack that he helped build, lined by wildflowers and aspen groves.
By 2014, Watkins had been divorced twice—the second happened about a decade after the first—and was losing hope of finding a partner when he and Ginger started dating, nearly 40 years after they’d been childhood friends. He liked to think he could save people, and she needed love and support: she’d lost her sister to diabetes, her father to esophageal cancer, her son to suicide, and her brother to lung cancer, the last two deaths happening just a few months apart in 2010. “After my son took his life, I lived in this house with the shades drawn and tried to be invisible,” Ginger said. “And somehow Tim knew that I needed help. I worked nights, and I’d wake up and he’s out shoveling my driveway. I was mortified, like, somebody found me out. But he just knew that I was hurting.”
One day Watkins asked Ginger, a recreational mountain biker, to go for a ride. She was intimidated, but he was patient, and they bonded over the sport. A month later, they fell in love during a trip to Crested Butte. Ginger says Watkins brought her back to life, and friends say she did the same for him. “I just wanted to bring the world to him and bring him to the world,” she says.
They married in September 2015 at the annual Vinotok fall harvest festival in Crested Butte. They lived there for a year, including three months in a tent, before returning to Palmer Lake in September 2016. That’s when Watkins started to struggle. He’d suffered through depressive episodes before, often feeling like a screwup because he never made much money. This time was no different. When he couldn’t find work back home, Ginger’s sole-provider role wore her down and created tension.
Compounding things, Watkins’s memory problems worsened. He was forgetting people’s names and where he was going. He repeated himself in conversation, which added to his despair. Two weeks before he disappeared, he thanked Isaac for spending the day with him. “If it wouldn’t have been for hanging out with you today,” Watkins told him, “I don’t know that I wouldn’t have taken my own life.”
Isaac made his father promise he would never kill himself. “I shouldn’t have even said that,” Watkins replied.
The day before Watkins disappeared, he and Isaac got together to split a six-pack and watch a movie. Ginger had asked Watkins to leave a few days earlier, and he was worried about their future as a couple. After the movie, he loaned Isaac $20, a sum that likely ate up much of his savings. Then he called Ginger and asked to come home. “Of course, you big goofy redhead,” she told him. “Get your butt home. I’ll be there in a half hour.”
Watkins called Isaac to let him know he had a place to stay—and to thank him, once more, for being there when he needed someone. “I appreciate how good a young man you are,” he said in a voice mail. “I’m grateful for a good son.”
The following morning—Thursday, September 14—Ginger got up for work at 5:30. Watkins rarely rose that early, but he did that day. It was Ginger’s 52nd birthday. He hugged her and asked if she wanted to go out to dinner. She said she’d rather save it for their weekend trip to Vinotok—a getaway they both hoped would get their relationship back on track.
Watkins spoke to a friend around 11 A.M., which is how it was determined that he left his house for a mountain-bike ride around 10:30 or 10:45. Ginger got home that night to find his bike gone, then went to work again the next morning. It was only after she called Old Town that she started to panic.
The Palmer Lake Police Department decided not to initiate a search right away because there were no extenuating circumstances, such as Watkins being on medication or a reason to suspect foul play. After Ginger posted news about his disappearance on Saturday morning, locals started combing the trails west of town—as Isaac had been doing since the previous day when Ginger told him his father hadn’t come home. Isaac didn’t think his dad had gone back on his promise about suicide, but he also didn’t rule it out.
“I made sure that search and rescue knew the background—that he could be somewhere away from the trail, trying not to be found,” Isaac says. “So we were looking in some obscure places that were special to him.”
By noon on Saturday, the civilian search party numbered 60. Some thought Watkins had crashed and couldn’t move. Others wondered whether a mountain lion had attacked him. (Watkins once had a mountain lion leap over his head when he stopped to pee during a ride.)
Three hours after Watkins’s shoe turned up on Mount Herman Road, a searcher found his bike resting on its side next to a spruce tree, as if Watkins had laid it down and gone for a hike. The bike was fewer than 50 feet uphill from Forest Service Trail 715, a.k.a. Limbaugh Canyon, but completely hidden from view. The front tire was flat, and the gearing suggested that Watkins was going downhill when his ride ended. The bike was roughly a quarter mile north of where Limbaugh Canyon Trail breaks off Mount Herman Road.
Spurred by the discovery of Watkins’s shoe, the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office launched an official search that afternoon, involving both humans and dogs. It continued Sunday morning, aided by 120 friends of Watkins’s and concerned locals who spread out off-trail. One of the civilians discovered Watkins’s cell-phone case, grocery card, and various other wallet contents scattered along Mount Herman Road, half a mile west of where his shoe was found. That was past the Limbaugh Trailhead, heading away from Palmer Lake, which struck people as odd. Then, just after noon, as Ginger and Isaac hiked above the trail, their radio crackled.
“We need help down by where Watkins’s bike was found,” someone said.
“What kind of help?”
“We need the coroner.”
Ginger and Isaac sprinted down the mountain. Ginger wailed as she tried to get to Watkins before someone tackled her. She got up and was tackled again.
According to sources familiar with the investigation, Watkins had been shot in three places and buried beneath logs and branches in a shallow depression 40 yards west of the Limbaugh Canyon Trail. Bullets had grazed his ear and injured his hand; the likely fatal shot, from a .22 caliber, entered near his ribs and never exited. Closer examination of his front tire later revealed that it had also been shot. Watkins is the first mountain biker known to have been murdered during a ride.
There was still a banana in his pack, suggesting he was killed early in his outing, before he stopped to eat it. Whoever shot him had taken his hydration pack, jacket, helmet, phone, shoes, and socks.
No one knew why he’d been shot—whether it was intentional or an accident that the killer tried to cover up. Watkins had no known enemies. He was not confrontational. But it was hard to ignore the attempt at hiding the body. As Ginger says, “It’s one thing to accidentally shoot somebody. It’s a whole other thing to bury them.”
The El Paso County Sheriff’s Office won’t comment on its investigation into Watkins’s death, and any records about the case (which is still open) are not publicly available. Various theories have emerged about what happened. The first of them—murder—gained traction eight days after Watkins was found, when police in Woodland Park, a town 20 miles west of Monument on Mount Herman Road, arrested a then 31-year-old transient named Daniel Nations on unrelated weapons charges. After that the El Paso Sheriff’s Office charged Nations with felony menacing for an incident that took place in late August. According to the arrest affidavit, Nations accosted and threatened a passing dirt biker with a hatchet at his campsite on Mount Herman Road after placing logs in the road that forced the rider to stop. Woodland Park officers searched Nations’s car and found a hatchet and a .22-caliber rifle, according to media reports, the same caliber bullet that killed Watkins. Nations’s wife and two young children were with him at the time of his arrest.
Additionally, detective Jason Darbyshire of the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office told Outside that Nations had acted aggressively during a road-rage incident in Monument around the same time. Nations “got out of his vehicle, confronted another driver, and ended up kicking and breaking their windshield,” Darbyshire said, adding that the incident “escalated very quickly.” A judge’s gag order prevented that case report from being released.
At the time of his arrest, Nations was a registered sex offender who was convicted of indecent exposure in South Carolina in 2007 and domestic battery in Indiana in 2016. Circumstantial evidence led Colorado officials to question him about Watkins’s murder—he’d been spotted driving back and forth on Mount Herman Road during the search and glaring at volunteers, according to multiple searchers. Although investigators questioned Nations about Watkins, they never named him as a suspect. Three months after his arrest, prosecutors cut a deal with Nations that allowed him to plead guilty to the felony menacing charge and receive no jail time.
Detectives told Watkins’s family that they had no evidence to link Nations to the murder scene: ballistics tests were inconclusive, meaning the bullet inside Watkins was too deformed to match its striations to the murder weapon, and DNA tests were also inconclusive, though it’s unclear whether Nations submitted DNA.
Nations was extradited back to Indiana in February to face charges in three counties for, among other offenses, failure to register as a sex offender and possession of marijuana. He pleaded guilty and served time in multiple jails. He agreed to an interview with Outside twice during his time behind bars, but each time he was transferred or released before law enforcement made him available. In early July, he returned to the Colorado Springs area to see his children. Subsequent attempts to contact him were unsuccessful, though he did give a tearful interview to the Colorado Springs Gazette in August in which he called the Watkins allegations “preposterous” and said, “I’m not what they made me out to be.”
Katelyn Nations, who filed for divorce after her husband’s arrest in Colorado, did not respond to multiple interview requests. She told the Gazette that she bought their .22-caliber rifle a week before Watkins was killed. She said Nations had access to it, but that it was primarily for protection from other transients and thieves.
Another possibility is that someone shot Watkins accidentally, then hid him to conceal the crime. If that happened, the culprit could have been one of the many sport shooters who have frequented Mount Herman Road for decades—even after the practice was banned there by the U.S. Forest Service in 2014. The conflicts between trail users and shooters is fueled, some say, by the zone’s close proximity to Interstate 25 and lenient management by the Forest Service. The situation was serious enough that multiple locals told me they’d long worried that a mountain biker would get shot in the area. “I always said it’s going to take a death for the Forest Service to try to rein in the shooting,” said Brad Baker, who often rode with Watkins and assisted in the search.
To get a sense of how a shooting accident might happen there, I started by driving up Mount Herman Road from Monument. Its intersection with Red Rocks Drive is a spot where mountain bikers often park before riding farther up the dirt road and connecting with a trail. Signs declaring NO SHOOTING are posted every mile near town, then higher on the road at a handful of pull-offs that mark departure points for various trails.
Watkins usually pedaled up Mount Herman Road to a place called Shooter’s Alley, a popular sport-shooting hangout on top of a rocky bench that overlooks Limbaugh Canyon. A short singletrack starts there and quickly connects to Forest Service Trail 715 at a four-way intersection, where it contours the hillside before diving down into Limbaugh. Watkins’s body was found just downhill from that intersection.
Shooter’s Alley is one of three heavily damaged shooting sites near the crime scene. Despite the 2014 ban, you can still find stuffed animals in tatters and shredded paper targets. Across a quarter-acre swath down the hill from Shooter’s Alley, dozens of trees, some up two feet in diameter, are either pockmarked by bullets or sheared near the base, weakened by so many shots that the wind blew them over.
In addition to the local regulation prohibiting the use of firearms here, there’s a federal law that prohibits unsafe shooting on all U.S. government land, regardless of which agency manages it. “The regulations say things like no shooting in an occupied site, you have to have a backstop, you can’t shoot a tree,” says Dave Condit, deputy supervisor for Pike and San Isabel National Forest, whose 2.75 million acres includes Mount Herman Road. “You also can’t leave trash lying around.”
Which means that pretty much everything that was happening on Mount Herman Road, in plain sight of anyone who passed, was illegal. Several locals told me that they had seen people shooting down the middle of the road. Jim Latchaw, who estimates he’s ridden Limbaugh Canyon close to 2,000 times, once saw someone peppering the singletrack while he was riding it. “I could see where the bullets were hitting, right on the trail,” Latchaw says. “I was shouting for them not to shoot, but they shot anyway.”
To understand why this practice continued for decades, with virtually no law-enforcement patrols—locals who rode or hiked the trails along Mount Herman Road multiple times per week estimated that they saw an official presence just a handful of times each year—it’s important to remember where it was taking place. El Paso County is one of Colorado’s most conservative areas. The Air Force Academy, Fort Carson Army base, and Focus on the Family, a socially conservative Christian advocacy group, all call El Paso home, as do hundreds of thousands of gun owners.
As mountain biking grew around Mount Herman, so did the close calls. Six locals told me they have heard bullets whiz past their heads while riding, close enough to feel the displacement of air. Isaac Watkins recalls camping in Limbaugh Canyon as a teenager when a bullet suddenly exploded the rocks a few feet away from where he was sitting. “I thought I was being targeted deliberately,” he says.
Watkins hated having to deal with shooters, but he never provoked them. “I witnessed him with a shooter multiple times, he was very friendly,” says a longtime friend and riding partner of Watkins who asked to remain anonymous due to fear of retribution from sport shooters. “He rode up and said, ‘Hey guys, I’m not against shooting or anything, but I just want to let you know there’s a trail right down below, where your bullets are going.’ Usually they’d say, ‘Oh, OK, I didn’t realize there’s a trail down there. We’ll make sure we’re shooting into a backstop.’ ”
Interactions weren’t always so cordial, though. Trucks on Mount Herman Road were known to pass cyclists extra close and accelerate as they passed, showering the riders with dirt and rocks. “You knew it was intentional,” says Alison Dunlap. “I would never have ridden that road alone.”
Brian Mullin, a board member with Friends of Monument Preserve, which builds and maintains trails in the area, says his group tried to convince the Forest Service that shooting along Mount Herman Road was unsafe. The organization invited people in power to come see for themselves, including county commissioners, Forest Service staff, a TV news team, even a representative from the NRA. “It took five years of intense pressure and lobbying” to convince the Forest Service that a shooting ban was necessary, Mullin says.
The Forest Service typically assigns just one law-enforcement officer to each ranger district. The agency always has the option to take immediate action and enact changes to its rules, but Condit says he tries to avoid closures as a management solution. (A Forest Service spokesperson declined Outside’s request to interview the district’s law-enforcement officer; the spokesperson also declined to comment on the county’s investigation into Watkins’s death.)
When the Forest Service finally banned shooting on Mount Herman Road, Frank Landis, then the agency’s outdoor-recreation planner, justified the decision by citing “18 months of consistent close calls.” The drama didn’t end with the ban, though. Soon after it was imposed, state senator Michael Merrifield, a longtime friend of Watkins and a frequent Limbaugh Canyon visitor, pedaled past a father squeezing off rounds with his two sons in front of a NO SHOOTING sign.
“You’re not supposed to be shooting here,” Merrifield said.
The father turned and glared. “Maybe I’ll make you the target,” he said. Merrifield kept going.
Sport shooting—and the spent piles of shells, ratty couches, and bullet-riddled televisions that Watkins and other locals begrudgingly helped dispose of—was a problem throughout the forest, including on Gold Camp and Rampart Range roads outside Colorado Springs. In 2015, a 60-year-old grandfather named Glenn Martin was killed by an errant bullet while camping with his family, roughly 20 miles from where Watkins was shot. Martin’s killer has never been found.
Merrifield, who recalls an incident in 2011 or 2012 in which a bullet barely missed his head while he was riding in Limbaugh Canyon, decided a few years ago to stop going to Mount Herman Road. “In my opinion, the sheriff’s office and the Forest Service didn’t put enough manpower into it,” he says. “You didn’t have to hike to find people breaking the law—it was obvious. You could drive along and people would be shooting right by the side of the road. I don’t think law enforcement was doing nearly what they should have to enforce the law.”
When asked whether he initiated a conversation to change the protocol, Merrifield said he did not. “It just never came to my mind until after Tim got killed,” he says. “And I was so angry and frustrated. I haven’t had the opportunity to say anything, and I don’t know what good it would do.”
Many locals have stopped riding Limbaugh Canyon. Others have armed themselves. “I still go up there every day, but I brought a little pistol with me for a while,” says Latchaw, who is 73 and fought in Vietnam. “It’s just a five-shot .38, real small. I hate to carry it.”
Some hope Watkins’s death leads to a civilian ranger team—or at the least, tighter Forest Service enforcement. “We’ve got to change how we’re policing this area,” says Rob Meeker, 39, who grew up in Monument and helped organize the civilian search. “I think that would be one of the best ways to honor Watkins—make Mount Herman Road a place where people feel safe to ride again. Right now I’d go ride it, because I have my .40 on my hip, but a lot of the biking community is scared to ride some of the best trails in the state. And that’s bullshit.”
“We’re not against shooting,” says the friend of Watkins who asked not to be named. “We’re against—well, literally, there is a Forest Service–system trail right where the bullets land.”
In early January, I met four of Watkins’s friends to retrace the route he likely took the day he died. We rode up to Shooter’s Alley, where bullet-riddled trees looked like beavers had gnawed them down to stumps. The first time I visited, two weeks earlier, I’d seen a handmade sign taped to a tree, apparently challenging Watkins’s killer to a gunfight.
Leave a date and time and location. Let’s finish this up.
You will not win, this is not your mountain, this is our mountain,
THIS IS TIM’S MOUNTAIN.
The sign was gone when we rode through the four-way intersection and descended into the canyon. I could see why Watkins loved this ride. You feel like you’re totally removed from the world, when in fact you’re just off an interstate.
What happened to Watkins remains a mystery. Everyone has theories, but the questions linger. Was he ambushed and robbed by a transient? Targeted as a mountain biker? Accidentally hit by a sport shooter, then killed to cover up the mistake? Was he pedaling when he was shot? Was his body moved?
Several people have wondered if the killer removed Watkins’s shoes because he or she was unfamiliar with cycling cleats and couldn’t get them off the pedals. If that level of tampering was involved, how did no one else see anything on such a popular trail? A pair of mountain bikers who rode into Limbaugh from Mount Herman Road that day, roughly 30 minutes before Watkins would have passed through, said they noticed nothing unusual.
“I was trying to rationalize all the rational motives, but I get the feeling this was maybe just an irrational act,” Isaac says. “I don’t really see anybody benefiting in the long run.”
Watkins’s family and friends yearn for closure, but the case took another twist on September 2. Kevin Rudnicki, a 20-year-old Palmer Lake native, went hiking on Mount Herman and never returned. A weeks-long search failed to find him. Just before he left, his mother reminded him to be careful because of what had happened to Watkins. He was last seen on the same trail where Watkins was killed: Limbaugh Canyon.
Ginger participated in the search for Rudnicki, which brought back hard memories from a year ago. The day after searchers found Watkins’s body, she and Arielle joined Meeker and Meeker’s father and hiked to the site. As a group, they carried two shotguns, two handguns, and a rifle that Meeker’s dad used to cover them from a distant ridge. Ginger crawled into the shallow hole where Watkins had been buried, an image that still terrifies her.
“I have these nightmares of him being aware of what was going on,” she says. “I mean, he was out there for three days. Did he die right away? The death certificate said it was within seconds, but I don’t know.”
She was sitting in her living room, petting one of her Ibizan hounds. A framed photo of Watkins hung above a framed photo of her son, Josh, who died seven years earlier. “It’s more than I know how to deal with,” she says.
One of Watkins’s friends named a trail after him along Mount Herman Road and put up a sign. People hug the sign as a way to connect. Ginger rides there, too, though she’s not ready to ride Limbaugh again.
“It’s a minute-to-minute, day-to-day process,” she says. “I still can’t wrap my head around how you go for a mountain-bike ride and are murdered.”