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Man confesses in Phoenix to 1996 Cortez murder

‘It’s one of those things that you never forgot,’ police chief says

More than 20 years after 37-year-old Milton Lee was found dead in a pool of blood at Cortez City Park, a man has confessed to his murder, according to an affidavit.

Sergio Tito Rivera, 38, admitted he killed Lee to Phoenix police officers on Dec. 11, 2016, according to a Dec. 12 affidavit for an arrest warrant filed in Montezuma District Court. Rivera was 17 years old at the time of the slaying.

Cortez police officers found Lee, a Native American, northwest of the Colorado Welcome Center about 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 26, 1996, according to the arrest affidavit, written by Cortez Police Detective Gary Stevens.

Lee was lying face-down in a pool of blood with deep wounds to his throat, according to the affidavit.

Montezuma District Attorney Will Furse said Thursday that charges against Rivera were filed Jan. 6 for first-degree murder as a bias-motivated crime. Rivera has been charged as an adult, even though he was a juvenile at the time of the crime.

He was extradited from Arizona to the Montezuma County Jail on Dec. 11, according to Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Vici Pierce. His address was unclear.

Rivera told Phoenix Police Officer Christian Aguilar he slashed Lee’s throat twice and threw the murder weapon, a black-handled knife, into a friend’s backyard several days after the crime occurred, the affidavit states.

Rivera told Aguilar he chose to confront Lee because Lee appeared to be Native American, according to the affidavit. Prior to confronting Lee, Rivera told the officer he was upset about an argument he had with friends, the affidavit states.

Rivera said he grabbed Lee by the side of his coat and flung him to the ground. He placed his knee in Lee’s back, grabbed him by the hair, pulled his head back and slashed his throat twice, he told Aguilar in the affidavit.

A doctor later determined Lee had a severed artery, lacerated larynx and damage to his spinal column as a result of apparent knife wounds, according to the affidavit. The doctor also said Lee had been struck at the top of the head, which might have knocked him unconscious prior to the knife wounds.

Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane, who was head of the department at the time of Lee’s death, said Friday it’s a relief for the department to see the crime solved.

“I’m glad, simply because I know (Lee’s) family for years and years wanted some closure,” Lane said. “Now they’ll be able to do that. As far as his relatives are concerned, I’m happy for them.”

Lane remembered that the murder was brutal.

“It’s one of those things that you never forgot,” he said.

Rivera was listed as a suspect in Lee’s murder in 1996, but was not arrested at that time because of a lack of evidence, the affidavit states. Rivera’s confession matched details of Lee’s murder, police said.

It’s unclear in the affidavit why Rivera approached Phoenix police to confess. Aguilar and Phoenix Police Sgt. Stephen Roberts were not available for comment on Friday.

Rivera was still in the county jail as of March 15, according to a report from the Montezuma County Sheriff’s Office.

Rivera’s next court appearance is scheduled for April 20 at 3 p.m. in Montezuma District Court.

A preliminary hearing is scheduled for June, according to Furse. It’s unclear whether the case will proceed to trial.


The Journal Reporter Stephanie Alderton contributed to this story.

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