The air was crisp during the predawn hours in the Denver metro area on the Thursday morning of December 27, 1973. With temperatures in the low to mid teens, the area was still covered with the remnants of a series of winter snow storms that had heavily impacted the front range over the past week. The snow covered landscape provided a picturesque “white” Christmas for the Colorado Rocky Mountain Region, reminiscent of a Norman Rockwell painting. Yet, it was cold to the bone for anyone that had to spend any amount of time outside in this frozen landscape.
On the second official day of winter a major blizzard had hit the Denver metro area, lasting from Sunday through the early Monday morning of Christmas Eve. Officially leaving much of the area with a foot or more of fresh snowfall, powerful 30 to 40 mph winds had driven the snow into deep drifts. In addition to paralyzing the Denver metro area, the December 23-24 blizzard had closed Denver’s Stapleton International Airport overnight stranding thousands of holiday travelers. Some passengers were even forced to spend the night sleeping in their grounded airliners.
“Through the metro area, even snowplows and wreckers were getting stuck Monday Morning” A spokesman for the Colorado Division of Highways reported the agency had “thrown every available man and rig into it’s snow removal effort” with “some of the division’s trucks bogged down in deep drifts – a few reported as high as eight feet”.
Our family had missed the worst of inclement weather by driving some 250 miles west to Grand Junction on the western slope of Colorado the previous Saturday (December 23). It was customary for our family to celebrate at least a portion of nearly every holiday season with my uncle’s family and my grandparents. In fact, the previous Christmas (1972) had been our largest celebration of the holidays. My uncle had accepted a promotion that required him to move with his family to Alaska that following February. To send them off, our entire maternal side of the family had gathered at our home in Lafayette. This would be the last Christmas all of us would spend together.
This Christmas (1973), my uncle and his family had flown back down from Alaska to spend the holidays with family in Grand Junction and Moab (Utah). With their mother having trouble with her heart, both my mom and her brother especially wanted to be with my grandmother this Christmas. To allow our family to spend more time together in Grand Junction this year, my dad, a patrolman with the Colorado State Patrol (CSP), had traded shifts with another patrolman.
A Christian man with a strong moral compass, CSP Patrolman Thomas Ray Carpenter was known for his integrity and compassion. Dad was quiet about his faith, letting his actions speak louder than his words. Determined to “treat others the same way you want them to treat you”, Dad was respectful to everyone and careful never to be judgmental or demeaning of others. As a result, everyone that knew Patrolman Carpenter was well aware of his Christian faith and respected him for it.
After Dad completed his training, Dad was assigned to the small CSP District Office in Lafayette. Lafayette was a small town of around 3,500 residents located just twenty-six miles east of Boulder on Baseline Road and thirty-eight miles north of the center of Denver on US Highway 287. Although the CSP later moved this District Office to nearby Broomfield, our family continued to live in Lafayette where Dad had become established in the community. After I joined the Cub Scouts, Dad volunteered to lead a group of older boys in Webelos, and then Dad agreed to head the local Boy Scout Chapter.
“I was a fatherless youth growing up in Lafayette, Colorado. Officer Tom Carpenter was our Boy Scout Leader and one of the more significant influences on my youth. I remember the cloud over Christmas that year. I attended the funeral and I will never forget the image of all the law enforcement agencies that showed their support. Husband, Father, and Scout Leader Tom Carpenter will always be a positive memory in my thoughts.” – Warren Charter
Though quiet, Dad also had a dry sense of humor with and a penchant for teasing, something my mom never quite fully appreciated. Dad and my maternal uncle thoroughly enjoyed teasing us kids as well as each other. This led to a Christmas tradition in which Dad and my uncle to give each other a gift poking fun of one another. Perhaps enjoying his work too much, on more than one occasion Patrolman Carpenter took great pleasure in seeing the reaction of family and friends when Dad pulled them over while he was out on patrol. One time Dad pulled over my aunt and even order her to “keep her hands where he could seem them” using the PA System of the patrol car so my aunt did not know it was Dad.
As my parents prepared to leave on Wednesday morning, Mom had a sense of foreboding. Mom was distraught with guilt, felling the need to stay longer with her mother instead of going back to Lafayette. Not knowing the next time that we would all be together, shortly before our family pilled into the car to leave my uncle had everyone gather in the front yard of the home of my grandparents to take a few pictures to commemorate the occasion. No one knew at the time these would be the last pictures taken of my dad while he was alive. With the pictures taken, the families said their goodbyes and Dad drove us back over the mountain passes to Lafayette so Dad could report to work early the following morning.
Following his short five day reprieve from work, the work day started early for Dad on December 27, 1973. Mom was still worried about her mother and had not slept well, so Mom did not get up early to make Dad breakfast that Thursday morning. Instead, Mom simply gave Dad a kiss goodbye, before she rolled over to sleep a little bit longer. With no garage at our home, our car had been parked outside in the frigid cold all night. To get to the CSP Broomfield District Office on time, Dad had to leave our house by 5:30AM to make an extremely cold 15-20 minute commute to work the “day shift” which started at 6:00 AM.
For his last shift, Patrolman Carpenter was not assigned CSP Patrol Car #131 that Dad had generally been driving. Since Dad had switched shifts with another patrolman, Dad was instead assigned CSP Patrol Car #181 to patrol a section of the Interstate 25 corridor stretching north from the Denver city limits (near the intersection with I-70) to the 104th Avenue exit. Known locally as the Valley Highway, Interstate 25 was the primary thoroughfare for traffic traveling north-south through the Denver metro area.
Like most large metropolitan cities, the typical workday commuter traffic on this section of the Valley Highway would have been heavily congested between 6:30 AM until around 9:30 AM. Due to the residual winter driving conditions, traffic likely would be traveling at slower speeds that morning, stretching out the morning commute by as much as 30 minutes to an hour longer.
As usual, Patrolman Carpenter departed the CSP Broomfield District Office on time and was driving to his assigned patrol area by 6:00 AM that cold Thursday morning. His assigned CSP patrol car, Car #181, was a new well marked white CSP Plymouth Fury cruiser with two overhead “bubble” emergency lights permanently mounted through the roof of the car. Fortunately for Dad, Car #181 would likely still have been warm from having been used on the “graveyard shift” by another CSP patrolman.
As he departed from the CSP office, Patrolman Carpenter likely would have driven Car #181 down US Highway 36 approximately ten miles to access his assigned patrol area on the Valley Highway. This section of US Highway 36, locally known as the Boulder Turnpike, was the primary expressway for traffic between Denver (south-east) and Boulder (north-west). Traveling south-east down the Boulder Turnpike, Dad would have then entered the southern end of his patrol area when the Boulder Turnpike merged into the Valley Highway.
Despite the frigid cold temperatures, Patrolman Carpenter diligently went about his work making vehicle stops after reaching his assigned patrol area on the Valley Highway. In the first 70 minute, Dad recorded in his log book making three self-initiated traffic stops. In the first stop, Dad issued the driver an verbal warning for driving a vehicle with defective equipment (possibly a brake light not working). In the next two stops, Dad issued verbal warnings to drivers for minor moving violations (possibly failure to use a turn signal or driving too fast for the conditions). Due to the minor nature of the vehicle stops, Dad did not notify the CSP Dispatcher of the stops.
Even though the patrol car radio was the only “line” of communication available for the CSP patrolmen, CSP procedures did not require patrolmen making self-initiated traffic stops to notify the CSP Dispatcher. Typically, when making a self-initiated stop a CSP patrolman did not notify the dispatch office unless traffic was impeded or some type of additional assistance needed.
At 7:11 AM, Patrolman Carpenter received his first call-out from the CSP Dispatcher and was assigned to investigate an accident at the Valley Highway and 84th Avenue. Dad notified the dispatcher that he was on the scene of the accident at 7:19 AM. The accident, located in the southbound left-hand lane of the Valley Highway, involved a gold 1969 Pontiac coupe that had failed to stop on the slick pavement before rear-ending a green sedan. Dad conducted his on scene investigation of the accident and ticketed the male driver of the gold Pontiac coupe for careless driving.
After the accident, the gold 1969 Pontiac coupe was towed to Gavito’s Towing on 58th Avenue. To complete his investigation, Patrolman Carpenter followed the towed 1969 Pontiac. Dad reported to the CSP dispatcher at 8:23 AM that he would be out of service for a few minutes at Gravito’s Towing. For the next thirty minutes, Dad careful reviewed the damaged 1969 Pontiac and completed his report without any additional delays to the morning commuter traffic on the Valley Highway.
At 8:56 AM, Patrolman Carpenter reported to the CSP Dispatcher that he had returned to service. To return to his assigned patrol area on the Valley Highway, Dad would have taken 58th Avenue west back to the intersection with the Valley Highway. After, Dad resumed his assigned area of the Valley Highway, Dad made another self-initiated vehicle stop a short time before 9:30 AM.
This time, Patrolman Carpenter stopped a northbound car on the Valley Highway just before the 62nd Avenue bypass. The northbound car was driven by a male driver and had three other occupants. As before, Dad did not notify the CSP Dispatcher of the vehicle stop. Dad informed the driver that one of the tires on the car was very bad and needed to be replaced. As Dad had done previously, Dad did not issue the driver with a citation, choosing to let the driver off with only a verbal warning for driving a defective vehicle.
As a Division of the Colorado Department of Public Safety, one of the primary functions of the CSP was to “promote safety” and “protect human life” by notifying motorist if their vehicle were unsafe to drive. Depending on the severity, It was up to the discretion of the CSP patrolman to issue a warning or cite the motorist if the unsafe issue had not resulted in property damage (an accident).
It had been over five years since Patrolman Carpenter had taken a pay cut to join the CSP. Dad had joined the CSP so he could make a difference in his community by helping others. During his career with the Colorado State Patrol, there were no records of any complaints ever filed against Dad. Yet, there were several letters of commendation. In one such letter, the motorist stated Dad “found a place to turn around and came back to assist us. I have never been treated better”, Patrolman Carpenter “was so helpful and courteous with thoughtful understanding.” At the age of 31, Dad had recently passed his sergeants exam and was entering the prime of his career.
After warning a driver of the bad tire, Patrolman Carpenter continued patrolling north on his assigned section of the Valley Highway. Sometime around 9:35 AM, Dad exited the Valley Highway to take the Boulder Turnpike north-west to Boulder. Dad was making his way to attend a scheduled 11:00 AM hearing at the Boulder County Courthouse regarding a speeding citation. Approximately ten miles from the CSP Broomfield District Office, Dad passed through the busy intersection with Broadway to enter the westbound on-ramp of the Boulder Turnpike.
With a traffic light to help manage the multiple lanes of traffic, Broadway remains one of the principle north-south arteries transversing the Denver metro area. Running parallel to the westbound on-ramp until it merges with the Boulder Turnpike is the lightly traveled Bronco Road. In 1973, the small homes facing south along this segment of Bronco Road overlooked the westbound on-ramp. Around 9:35 AM, this congested and well populated intersection was one of the last places anyone would expect a patrolman in a marked patrol car to make his last call in the clear view of everyone that happened to be there that morning (see: End of Watch – part 1).
“Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms…If anyone serves, they should do so with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ…” – 1 Peter 4:10-11
 The Denver Post,. “Wind-Driven Snow Chokes City”. December 24, 1973: Page 1. Print.
 Luke 6:31, New American Standard Bible (NASB).
 The Officer Down Memorial Page (ODMP),. 2016. “Patrolman Thomas Ray Carpenter”. https://www.odmp.org/officer/reflections/2820-patrolman-thomas-ray-carpenter.
 Wayne C. Keith, Colorado State Patrol Chief, 1973 “Eulogy of Patrolman Thomas Ray Carpenter”.
 New International Version (NIV).
© C. Carpenter and Surviving December, 2017. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.