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For many years, Warren Barnes sat in a cane-backed chair in the small space between the back door to Monique's Bridal and the the start of the concrete base that runs along the bottom of the breezeway in the 500 block of Main Street in downtown Grand Junction. Barnes befriended many who worked downtown and performed odd jobs for businesses there. (Gretel Dougherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

GRAND JUNCTION — To those who never knew his name, Warren Barnes was simply “the reading man.”

He was as much a fixture in downtown Grand Junction as the sculptures that line Main Street.

Warren Barnes was known to many in Grand Junction as “the reading man.” (Photo courtesy of Monique Lanotti)

For years, the grizzled old man could be found most days hunched over a book on a bench in a breezeway off Main. When the City of Grand Junction took out the benches because they attracted the homeless and the late-night rowdies, Barnes moved to a chair that a kind storeowner provided for him just off the breezeway, behind her shop.

Barnes was never known to beg. Never hassled anyone. He didn’t speak unless spoken to. A head nod would usually suffice for a “hello.” If his book was particularly good, he didn’t seem to even notice those passing by. In the past year, as age shrunk his skinny, bent frame and his wrinkles turned to deep creases, he often snoozed over his still open book.    

When the reading man was stabbed to death, his alleged killer told police he chose a homeless man. He said he didn’t think anyone would notice the loss of such a person.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Crusty old cowboy loved books and birds

Monique Lanotti owns Monique’s Bridal, a downtown Grand Junction store with caverns of spangly, frothy gowns. Monique’s, ironically, was also the hangout for a crusty old cowboy. 

Barnes could be found outside the back of the store, sitting against the often sun-drenched brick wall where Lanotti placed an old bamboo chair for him.

When Barnes, 69, wasn’t in his chair on the first day of March, a Monday, and he also didn’t show up at the PeopleReady temporary job agency that morning, Lanotti started the search for him. She phoned police after managers at PeopleReady told her they were also worried: It wasn’t like him not to show up to check on jobs. Fear for his welfare was heightened when his wallet was found at a boat ramp along the Colorado River, not a place he frequented.

Lanotti posted a photo of Barnes on Facebook asking people to watch out for him. It was shared 526 times. Facebook users weighed in with their worries, and many said they were praying for him.

Grand Junction Police would quickly validate all that concern. 

The news Barnes had been killed ricocheted with grief and outrage in the half-mile quadrant of downtown Grand Junction that made up his world. It was where he read, fed the birds, checked in for work daily, bought his noontime Subway sandwich, and kept a small camp high under a bridge within sight of the Mesa County Jail where his alleged killer is now locked up.

Downtown workers were stunned that a man they invariably call “gentle” and “quiet” had been the victim of a violent crime. He never asked for anything. He didn’t mingle much with Grand Junction’s homeless population. His friends were those who ran the PeopleReady agency, those he did jobs for, and the Main Street merchants and workers who “adopted” him, giving him books, the occasional pastry, ripe peaches, coffees with two sugars.

“Warren was the exception,” Lanotti wrote in a Facebook tribute to Barnes. “He worked a job , had a room he rented, and didn’t use any type of drugs.” 

“Why are you attacking me?”

According to the Grand Junction Police Department affidavit for the arrest of Barnes’ alleged killer, suspect Brian Cohee II told police that he chose Barnes randomly after planning a killing event and scouting homeless camps for about six months.

Cohee is a troubled 19-year-old whose nickname in high school was “Dahmer” because of his fascination with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer and with “death and morbidity,” according to the affidavit.

He lived with his mother, Terri Cohee, in a home where she has been licensed to run Terri’s Toddlers daycare since Cohee was 6-years-old. Brian’s father, Brian Thomas Cohee, a carpenter, lived elsewhere.

The affidavit for the arrest of Brian Cohee II stated that he had exhibited a red-flag behavior for violence: He told police he killed and decapitated a cat three years ago and kept the head and body in his home for three days before throwing it away. He described himself to police as “not caring for people.”

Cohee was arrested and charged on suspicion of first-degree murder, tampering with evidence and tampering with a deceased body after his mother found a white trash bag with what she thought might be a human head inside in her son’s closet.

Both parents were there waiting at the mother’s home to turn their son over to police after she made the call.

Cohee was forthcoming with the police. He waived his Miranda rights when they asked to question him. He laid out a story of a murder in gruesome details.

Cohee told officers that on the cold night of Barnes’ killing he dressed in blue coveralls, a mask and three pairs of rubber gloves to carry out his plan.  

He recounted seeing a person sleeping under a canvas tarp beneath a bridge close to downtown at about 11:30 p.m. Using a 12-inch kitchen knife he had been keeping in his glove box for the occasion, he began to stab the form under the canvas.

The 200-pound, 6-foot-1-inch Cohee told police the last words of the slight, gentle old man, as he began to stab him, were, “Why are you attacking me?”

Cohee told police he dismembered Barnes at the scene of the murder. In Cohee’s recounting in the affidavit, he tossed Barnes’ arms under the bridge. He took the head and hands home and put them in his closet. He took the remaining parts and threw them in the Colorado River near where Barnes’ wallet was found.

To carry out that last part, Cohee had backed his car down a boat ramp in an area he knew well. His father had built a nearby “Save A Life Jacket” kiosk there eight years ago to provide donated life jackets to river floaters. 

Cohee’s car got stuck on the steep ramp next to the kiosk and became partially submerged. He reportedly asked a friend who reportedly drove into the area that night to help him to get it out of a popular recreation area that is often teeming with floaters, hikers and cyclists during the day.

“The kind of fellow we all should be” 

Barnes was not a drifter. He had been a lifelong resident of the Grand Valley. He was born into a family with eight boys and one girl. He told his downtown friends he worked in his younger days as a cowboy in the Book Cliff Mountains north of Grand Junction. He told those who asked that he had had a wife and had a daughter and a granddaughter. He would tell people he wasn’t homeless. He was known to rent a room at times.

His family members said through friends that they are not willing to talk about Barnes’ life in a time of grief and also during the prosecution of his accused killer, who will appear in Mesa County District Court this week for a review hearing with a public defender representing him. Like Barnes, his family members are reportedly very private.

Allie Telinde touches the bricks where a plaque will be placed as part of a memorial to Warren Barnes in the breezeway of the 500 block of Main Street in downtown Grand Junction. Telinde, a mortgage lender and friend of Barnes, is spearheading the memorial to Barnes who was killed in March. (Gretel Dougherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Those who knew Barnes as the reading man say he was intelligent and had a vast knowledge of Western history. He loved the outdoors. They believe he had a problem with alcohol. He was seen slipping a bottle from his ever-present backpack to take a nip.

He was a hard worker. He would carry boxes for store owners and clean up parking lots. At the temp agency, he hung drywall and took on roofing jobs even in his later years. 

“He was very private. I had to instigate the conversation,” said Jacque Gunderson, a hair stylist at nearby Estilos Salon who would regularly go out back to sit with Barnes and tell him about her sons. On her last interaction with him, she said she gave him a loaf of homemade banana bread.

“I think he probably liked it,” she said with tears in her eyes.

Marya Johnston, the owner of Out West Books on the other side of the breezeway, gave him publishers’ advance copies to read from her bookstore. He was an astute reader, she said.

Across Main Street, Beth Bauerle would regularly set a box of books outside the back door of her Main Paige clothing store for people to take. She said when she told Barnes he could take as many books as he wanted, he seemed shocked. He would spend long spells perusing the offerings before choosing a few that he would tuck into his ever-present backpack. He liked thrillers and Western history books the most.

A street musician from Arkansas who goes by the name of “Just Dan,’ said Barnes was always quiet and considerate to him and others who tended to congregate and hang out in the downtown area.

“He was the kind of fellow we all should be,” Dan said.

A bronze sculpture will fill the space left by Barnes’ death 

Tim Navin of Fruita describes how the larger of two U-shaped pieces in front of him at his Sparks Fly Studio will form the back of a chair in a memorial to Warren Barnes that he is creating. Navin said he expects to have the artwork finished by late summer. (Gretel Dougherty, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A scattering of old clothes and trash now litter the area near where Barnes was killed. Cars whiz by on a two-lane road during the day, headed to and from a Walmart and a collection of big-box stores. Cyclists and walkers pass by on a nearby pedestrian bridge. 

A shrine with Barnes’ photo, an orange hardhat printed with his name, and one of his denim jackets decorates one wall in the PeopleReady agency.

Dried flowers and a pheasant feather are tucked into an arched niche above where Barnes sat to read each day. The birds still come to that place where there used to be a human who would feed them bits of bread from a Subway sandwich — unless they were pigeons. Barnes didn’t like pigeons. In his sole known exhibition of aggression, he would throw rocks at them if they strutted in to take bread from his doves.

As Cohee’s case winds its way through the courts, a local artist is working on a permanent memorial for Barnes in the breezeway.

The bronze work was commissioned by a friend of Barnes, a 29-year-old mortgage lender who for years interacted with Barnes as she passed through the breezeway several times a day going from a parking lot to her job.

Allie Telinde cried as she recounted how Barnes would stand up and give her a gentle hug each day.

“He was always so sweet,” she said. “People probably wondered about this man hugging me when I was all dressed up in my fancy work clothes. But there was nothing creepy about it.”

She said the idea of creating a work of art in his memory came to her when she had gone to sit where he spent his time and to “say hi” to his spirit. She pursued the idea knowing that “a lot of people loved him.”

Telinde had no trouble making it happen. Fruita artist and ironworker Tim Navin offered to donate his time. At least four other businesses donated materials and labor. The City of Grand Junction OK’d the placement that is expected to be completed late this summer.

The memorial will be a bronze replica of Barnes’ chair  ̶  the chair his friends burned during a small ceremony, so no one else could ever sit in it. A bronze stack of books will sit on the chair, and bronze birds will be scattered around it.

A plaque will bear the name of Warren Barnes, the victim his alleged killer thought no one would miss.

Special to The Colorado Sun Email: Twitter: @nlofholm