Suzanne Morphew died by homicide with tranquilizer chemicals present in body, according to autopsy report

Missing Woman Colorado
In this Thursday, May 6, 2021, image from video, Barry Morphew, center, appears in court in Salida, Colo. Morphew was accused of killing his wife, who disappeared in 2020. The charges against him were dropped in April 2022 before a trial could begin, but the release of the autopsy findings are all but certain to renew law enforcement interest in him.

Updated at 11:44 a.m. on Monday, April 29, 2024

The autopsy report in the death of Suzanne Morphew shows that experts believe she was killed by “unspecified means,” but that tranquilizer chemicals typically used on animals were found in her body.

The autopsy report from the El Paso County coroner released Monday says Suzanne was killed, “by unspecified means in the setting of butorphanol, azaperone, and medetomidine intoxication. These drugs are marketed as a compounded injectable chemical immobilizer for wildlife providing pharmacologically reversible analgesia, sedation, and immobilization.”

Morphew, who would have been 52 when her remains were found, was last seen alive on Mother’s Day 2020. Her remains were located last fall near Moffat in Saguache County.

The release of the autopsy findings are all but certain to renew law enforcement interest in Morphew’s husband Barry, who was previously charged in her murder before the case was dropped.

Barry Morphew's legal history

Barry Morphew was arrested for the murder in 2021.

Law enforcement recovered a dart gun, empty darts and a needle to inject tranquilizer chemicals into darts in his gun safe. But during cross-examination in Morphew’s 2021 preliminary hearing, authorities admitted they did not find tranquilizer chemicals in his home.

Barry Morphew previously said he used tranquilizer darts when hunting to collect antlers without killing deer.

Morphew was charged with murder in the death of his wife of 25 years. However, a judge dismissed the charges in 2023 at the request of prosecutors, following accusations that they failed to turn over potentially exculpatory evidence.

The body of Suzanne Morphew had not been located at that point. The charges were dismissed without prejudice, meaning they could potentially be refiled.

Barry Morphew has maintained his innocence.

Response from Barry Morphew's legal team

In a statement, Barry Morphew’s attorney, Jane Fisher-Byrialsen wrote that the family has “agonized over Suzanne’s disappearance.”

“This included not only the pain of the loss of their wife and mother but also the false accusations and prosecution of Barry Morphew. The Morphews have prayed the authorities would remove their blinders and not only find Suzanne, but find the suspect responsible for her disappearance and murder. However, the Morphews are left with more questions than answers and a lack of justice for Suzanne, the family and the community.”

In a follow-up email, another Barry Morphew attorney, Iris Eytan, noted that the chemicals found are used in Colorado by ranchers, hunters and wildlife officials. 

“They are a controlled substance and the authorities should be tracking down the specialized vets in the area that were able to prescribe it, who they prescribed it to and when,” wrote Eytan.

The assertion that tranquilizer drugs are used in hunting was challenged by 33-year wildlife officer Renzo DelPiccolo, who is retired from Colorado Parks and Wildlife. He told CPR News that he never once encountered a hunter using tranquilizer darts.

Tranquilizers were commonly used by wildlife officials, “but absolutely never heard of hunters using it,” said DelPicco, who retired in 2020. He said the use of tranquilizers for hunting is illegal.

“You certainly could kill the animal, harassing the animal,” DelPicco said. “You run risk to yourself, because tranquilizers are very dangerous to people, and that’s why it’s important to be trained in the use of them.”

The disappearance of Suzanne Morphew and the investigation and arrest of her husband became a true crime sensation, featured in mainstream programs like 48 Hours and podcasts and YouTube shows. 

The director of the Colorado Bureau of Investigation, Chris Schaefer, said in a statement that he understands the intense interest in the case.

“The investigative team assembled to work this case continues to follow the evidence and only the evidence as we seek justice for Suzanne’s death,” Schaefer wrote.

Clarification: Suzanne Morphew was 49 when she disappeared. The coroner's office reported her age as 52 at the time her remains were recovered. A previous version of this story was unclear on that point.

Correction: This year of Barry Morphew's arrest in his wife's death was incorrect in the initial version of this story. Morphew was arrested in 2021.

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