Monday, May 29, 2023

Exclusive: The Murder of A Rocket Scientist Goes Unsolved

Who Was Karl Jürisson, And Why Was He Killed?


*Editor's note: The murder of Karl Jürisson, a prominent engineer, happened in broad daylight in Nob Hill this summer. There have been many theories as to who killed Jürisson and why, none of which have been disclosed by police. Was it a high-profile project he was working on? Was it a case that his partner, a former prosecutor, was involved with? In this exclusive investigation, we speak with his partner, family and friends about why he was killed and what they are doing to keep his memory alive.

When Karl Jürisson walked out the front door of his partner’s house in a neighborhood south of the University of New Mexico, it's a good bet that he did not anticipate being gunned down. 

But that is what happened in the bright early evening light of June 20. 

Nearly three months later, cops have been quiet other than saying they are actively working on it. His partner, his family and his many friends are paralyzed by grief and don’t know how to begin to comprehend what happened in the minutes after he walked out and closed that front door behind him.

What Happened That Day?

In early news reports, neighbors and/or witnesses said someone confronted Jürisson in the driveway in what looked like a possible carjacking. They found him lying in the street and saw a man flee the scene. Jürisson died at the hospital.

Karl Jurisson and his partner Julia Downs

His partner, Julia Downs, was out of town when the murder happened. She is not exactly sure why he was there at that particular time on that Sunday, which happened to be Father’s Day. She said he would go over to check on her house randomly while she was away, sometimes stopping by to water plants or to fix things.

And that is about all that is publicly known about what happened that fateful summer evening.

Who Is Karl Jürisson?

Jürisson, 64, hailed from Minnesota, where he grew up with two sisters, one older and one younger and an older brother. His father Jaan was a World War II Estonian refugee. Jaan was a teenager when he along with a brother, fled their homeland of Estonia in 1944 as the then-USSR invaded. The boys were relocated in the United States as part of a humanitarian effort to resettle those left homeless by WWII. Once here, Jaan studied physics and math, worked for Honeywell’s Aeronautical Research and Development, started a business making boutique microelectronic chips and built a sailboat before dying at the age of 54.

Jürisson was a high school wrestler and wrestled at the University of Minnesota where he shared a dorm room with future Celtics players Kevin McHale.

Like his father, Jürisson became a rocket scientist. After getting an undergraduate and master’s degree in physics, he moved to New Mexico. Snagging an engineering job at RTW/Northrop Grumman here in Albuquerque, Jürisson began his love affair with New Mexico. In particular the outdoors, the mountains and even more specifically Taos. He was a skier, runner, sailor and musician. Loved ones say he was funny, intelligent, passionate, kind, a good storyteller and a lot of people’s best friend.

Jürisson retired from TRW/Northrop Grumman in 2012 but couldn’t sit still and took a job at the Quell Corporation developing lightning protection for a wide range of equipment such as spacecraft, launch missiles, aircraft and other vehicles.

His impressive resume lists some of the smart but fun things he got to do as a rocket scientist, such as working on space environments, space plasma cells and developing payload adapters. He received a number of awards and had several papers published. Some of his accolades include six awards for successful missile target launches, an award for work done on the James Web Space Telescope from NASA and several awards for smart things like instrumentation and shielded cable tester production. His publications include papers on small payload adapters in space, electromagnetic shielding and satellite interface circuit protection.

A Heartbroken Family

Jürisson’s mother, Norma, is 99 and has buried two sons and her husband. She said her son Karl was creative, always joking and energetic. She said she remembers he and his sisters making a sailboat out of a sheet and an old wagon. Norma said he was always trying to make her feel good and laugh. Jürisson would head to Minnesota to care for his mother when his sister was out of town. Norma said he was an excellent caretaker and would end the day with a kiss and an “I love ya mama!”

Ana Romero Jürisson is his daughter. She says there are so many amazing things about her dad that made him unique and wonderful that it is overwhelming to narrow them all down. Genuinely kind, always inquisitive, silly, engaging, helpful, enthusiastic learner and teacher are just some of the words she used to describe Jürisson as a father.

“He loved meeting people, hearing their stories, trying to understand people better.  He admired and respected others for whatever skills and experience they brought to the table,” Ana said. “He was always available to help with math and physics homework for me, my husband, my stepson and neighbor kids.”

Ana, a survivor of childhood cancer, said they went through it together. He was her protector but encouraged her to take risks and push herself. And she did, and she is smart like her dad. She is currently a physical therapist, but she is also an attorney. She is a marathon-type runner, and running was something they did together.

“He would ask if I was going alone, and if I said 'Yes,' he'd say 'OK, fine, I'll go.' Because he didn't want me running alone. I could always motivate him to come with me with a promise of coffee along the route too,” Ana said. “He was more than my dad, he was my best friend.”

Sisters Mary and Ann have fond memories of their brother. The memories include their spirited conversations, the creativeness he encouraged in others and his silly sense of humor. Mary said she and Jürisson had long conversations about science and math, the James Web Space Telescope (which Jürission worked on), the Jupiter Project, along with other smart things like the Michaelson-Morley Experiment. Ann said that her brother’s ego as a rocket scientist was not too big to ask for help from her, a former Montessori teacher, to identify a couple of planets in the night sky. She said her brother called while driving through Arizona to help him identify two bright planets in the sky. She said a children’s song about the planets helped them identify the glowing balls of light. “There is such a huge empty space where Karl was that it is impossible to express with words the loss,” Ann said.

A Love Cut Short

Downs is Jürisson’s partner of almost eight years. To say she is devastated is an understatement. "Losing him feels as if someone cut off my arm," she said. Jürisson was keeping an eye on her house while she was in Panama. Downs is a former prosecutor for the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s office. They met by accident through his daughter, who worked at the same office. Downs left there in 2017 to form her own practice.

“Being 21 years my senior Karl and I were an unlikely couple, but it became clear a year into the relationship that we were meant for each other.  He was my soul mate,” Downs said.  They both shared a love of adventure and spontaneity and Downs said they were even spiritually married during an impromptu ceremony in Taos. “Karl was a unique blend of masculinity, sensitivity, strength, compassion and intellect. They don’t make men like Karl anymore,” she said.  

The question of what happened on the night of June 20 plays out over and over in her head. She said if this was an armed robbery or carjacking, he would have given them whatever they wanted. “Karl was such a positive person. The only thing he really hated was a bully.  Karl essentially was a pacifist. He would never start a fight, but if one was started he would finish it,” Downs said. “He lived his life to the fullest. Karl was, in short, a beautiful human being intellectually, spiritually and physically. He made people laugh and smile.  He loved the planet and wanted to change the world. He and I expected to live and laugh together much longer than we were allowed.”

Detectives Quiet

Criminalistics and forensics take time. Nothing has been released by the Albuquerque Police Department. “Active leads are being worked as we speak, which include search warrants and interviews. We are optimistic that these warrants and interviews will give us much better evidence and understanding of what happened that day and possibly who is criminally liable,” spokesperson Gilbert Gallegos said.

Cheers To Karl!

Scrolling through social media, Jürisson seemed to make friends wherever he went. The local High and Dry Brewery created and dedicated a lager to Jürisson called the “Karl Abides Light Lager.”

At Geckos Bar & Grill in Nob Hill, an empanada has been named after him. The Baltic Pirukad is made with wild boar, spices and yogurt. Here in New Mexico, the land of delicious empanadas, that is quite a compliment.

In his obituary, the Taos Community Fund was named as the place for people to donate to his memory. The contributions are being directed to the Taos Ski Valley Fund.

Let’s all hope somebody, somewhere knows who pulled the trigger. Anyone with any information about this murder should call 242-COPS or Crime Stoppers 843-STOP.


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