Yavapai County Cold Case Solved With Help Of A Volunteer, Cigarette Butts

Michael E Lee [Photo courtesy Yavapai County Sheriff's Office]

YAVAPAI COUNTY – A volunteer and cigarette butts has led to the resolution of a 1980 cold case involving the murder of Michael E. Lee. David Ellsworth Widmer and his accomplice, Rocky Crabtree, both deceased, have been identified as suspects in the homicide by Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office (YCSO) Detective John McDormett and his team of dedicated cold case volunteers.

According to McDormett, on October 21, 1980, the body of Lee was found on a two-track road off highway 179 near milepost 300 in unincorporated Yavapai County. Lee, who was 29 at the time, was shot several times in the head with a .22 caliber handgun. Lee was an ironworker out of Indiana who was visiting the state. YCSO deputies were sent to the scene and an investigation was conducted. Cigarette butts and other items were collected from the scene.

The initial case floundered with no resolution.

In June of 2018 a YCSO Cold Case volunteer looked over the case and sent the cigarette butts to the Department of Public Safety lab for DNA testing. Two of the cigarette butts came back to a Widmer, who was 31 at the time of the murder. Widmer, who has an extensive criminal background, was not mentioned in the initial investigation.

The case was then turned over to a certified YCSO detective in October of 2018.

An investigation ensued in which additional items were sent in for DNA testing. The new investigation connected Widmer, through an unrelated 1980 Phoenix PD Report, to a person of interest from the initial YCSO investigation. Widmer was further tied to the victim and the scene through additional DNA findings. In addition, Widmer was connected to the crime through a large amount of circumstantial evidence.

The second suspect, Rocky Crabtree, was recently identified through an interview and investigation. Crabtree is believed to be an accomplice of Widmer’s in Lee’s murder. Crabtree, also a convicted felon, died in 1990. Detectives learned that David Widmer died in early 2019. Despite this the investigation continued.

The investigation established Lee knew both Crabtree and Widmer. The motive appears to be robbery.

According to investigators, the suspects were told Lee had a large amount of money on him and that he kept the money in a bandana on his leg. The bandana was cut off the victim’s leg. Widmer’s DNA was also found on the bandana. However, the suspects, believing the money was in the bandana, failed to check the wallet of the victim. Lee’s wallet was in a pocket of his pants and there was over $1,000.00 in cash in the wallet. The suspects did appear to take marijuana that was in Lee’s possession. However, based on interviews, it is believed that marijuana was “ditch” or “skunk” weed, which is marijuana of very low quality.

Through the extensive months long investigation detectives established Rocky Crabtree and David Widmer were the responsible parties in the death of Michael E Lee. If Crabtree and/or Widmer were still alive, detectives are confident that both men would have been charged. Michael’s family in the Midwest has been notified and they have expressed their appreciation for the resolution to this 40-year old murder case of their loved one.

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