Walter J. Gilmour: Facing a New Decade of Homicides

In this installment, Walter talks about the escalation of terror that struck the women of Anchorage as the decade of the ’80s began. It was during this decade that Robert Hansen descended to his most unhinged, with woman after woman disappearing from the streets of Anchorage. The hope was that it wouldn’t take another decade to solve these mysteries.

Walter J. Gilmour

“By the time we got to the summer of 1980, we knew we were into an entirely new ballgame, though we weren’t exactly sure what game we were playing, or by whose rules. That fateful summer, two bodies were discovered, though they were found miles apart and there seemed to be nothing connecting them.

“On the 17th of July, powerline workers found the decomposed remains of a woman who to this day is unidentified. Her distinguishing feature was her long black hair and, because her body was found near Eklutna, north of Anchorage, she has been called ‘Eklutna Annie’ ever since. The forensic examination indicated she had been dead for about a year.

Eklutna Annie

“Just days later, the body of a young woman was found in a gravel pit near Seward, on the Kenai peninsula. The investigator in this case was John Lucking, an experienced investigator who also happens to be a friend of mine. Lucking is the kind of guy who’s too good looking to be a cop, but he has the body of a fullback, so he is anyway. He’s been known to cause waitresses to spill drinks by his charm and presence alone, but in this case, charm and good looks weren’t enough.

John Lucking w/ Hansen’s maps (1982)

“Lucking was called to the scene of an apparent homicide by the local authorities. When he got to the site in a remote area off the highway, he was told that a bear had been in the vicinity. The bear was gone when he got there, but it was evident that one was active in the area: portions of the victim’s body had been eaten by the hungry omnivore. As Lucking began to conduct his scene investigation, however, the bear returned. That was not a good sign.”

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Walter J. Gilmour: Hansen Interviewed After Third Party Report

In this installment, Walter Gilmour talks about the follow-up interview of Bob Hansen conducted by Investigator Sam Bernard. From the police perspective, they were doing things by the book. In this case, though, the chapters in the third party reporting system got slightly out of whack.

Walter J. Gilmour

“While he awaited word from the victim, Barnard interviewed Hansen. In that October 14, 1975 interview, Hansen denied abducting or raping any woman on the 25th of September. In fact, he told an entirely different story.

“According to Hansen, all he knew anything about was a ‘dark haired girl’ who he had met at the Kit Kat Club in Anchorage the previous summer, when his wife was out of town. He said they had struck up an acquaintance and she had agreed to go to her place for sex. As they drove to her residence, the girl told him it was going to cost $100.

Kit Kat Club, 1977 (courtesy Lynn McConnell photographs and papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage — 1977)

“I became upset,” he said. ‘And decided to drive the dancer back to the Kit Kat Club. She got mad, started saying obscene things and c-calling me names. But I didn’t do nothin’ to her…”

“Do you own a pistol, like the one the victim described?” he was asked.

“I’m a convicted felon. I can’t own a gun… Besides, I-I was in Seward th-that day, fi-fishing.”

“In the typically zany sequence that seemed to dog us to Hansen’s benefit, two days after Barnard talked to Hansen, he got a call from Sheryl Messer. The rape victim had positively identified the photograph as that of her assailant. Messer also said the dancer still refused to talk directly to the police out of fear for her life. The case was put on hold and, if we got lucky later on, would end up in an archive somewhere in Juneau, the state capital.”

A couple of things to notice here. The first is that, in the face of third party reporting, Hansen played the naif, like he was the dumbest of the dumb, fresh off an Iowa farm. Why you know, I was talking to this here girl in that there club and she said she wanted to take me home. I thought it was just cuz she liked me and wanted to screw my brains out. (You can supply your own midwest twang.)

Second, as part of his alibi Hansen places himself in Seward. In Seward, where not one but two women disappeared during his visits to that remote coastal town: Megan Emerick and Mary Thill. In this case, the third party reporting system managed to eke something unintended out of the ever elusive baker.

Robert Hansen Police Lineup Photo

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Walter J. Gilmour: Third Party Report Gets Results

The third-party reporting system was less of a bust than Gilmour thought. Because of it, troopers had a report. That report led to further investigation. They were getting somewhere. The third-party report was taking them there. Just not as far as they’d like.

Walter J. Gilmour

“The victim was a dancer at an unnamed Anchorage nightclub, who had met her assailant at the club one evening and given him her phone number. The man called her on the 28th of September and made a date, telling her to meet him at the Fork & Spoon restaurant. When she arrived for her rendezvous, he pulled a gun and forced her into his car — but not before the woman had memorized the license number, make and model of the car.

’70s Anchorage, 4th Avenue Anchorage, where the club scene was centered (photo credit Stephen Cysewski)

“The assailant drove the dancer north of Anchorage to a state park in Chugiak, where he raped her, performed cunnilingus on her and forced her to perform fellatio on him. He was, she reported, demanding as he expressed his commands, telling her, ‘If you don’t do as you’re told, I’ll kill you.’

Ptarmigan Valley Trail, Chugiak, Alaska

“He added that he worked on the pipeline, and that he and a friend who also worked the pipeline were raping women in the Anchorage area. Then he played what he saw as his high card. ‘Besides, I know you won’t be a good witness against me. You’re a nude dancer and prostitute.’

“Despite the tenousness of the lead, Investigator Sam Barnard followed up and checked the car’s license number with the Division of Motor Vehicles. His routine investigation revealed that the license had been issued to Robert C. Hansen. Barnard went to the listed address and observed a 1974 Volvo station wagon that perfectly matched the vehicle identified by the anonymous dancer. Knowing this much, Barnard then procured an unmarked photograph of Hansen and gave it to the victim through Sheryl Messer.”

1974 Volvo station wagon

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Gilmour’s Take: Robert Hansen vs Third Party Reporting

The third party reporting system instituted in Alaska helped move the conversation about sexual assault to a different place. Victims did feel more comfortable talking to advocates than going straight to the police. And having these advocates with them in court helped move prosecutions forward. But the third party reporting system couldn’t close every gap, as Gilmour soon discovered.

Maj. Walter J. Gilmour

“In the summer of 1975, Robert Hansen asked his parole officer for permission to go to Seward for the Fourth of July holidays, saying he wanted to go fishing. Fishing for what, he didn’t say, though after his parole officer granted permission, he asked a friend if he knew any girls in Seward he could party with. Though I didn’t know about it, or have any reason to connect it to anything at the time, Mary K. Thill was reported missing in Seward on July 5, 1975. Like Megan Emerick, who had disappeared two years earlier, Mary had no record of prostitution and her body has never been found.

Seward, Alaska (and Seward boat harbor)

“It was also in 1975 that the third party rape reporting system would come back to haunt us. In late September of that year, Hansen was at it again. This particular incident made the Catch-22 of third party reporting painfully evident — and added a new twist to the pinball game that Hansen’s relations with the criminal justice system had become.

“On October 5, 1975, Sheryl Messer of the Anchorage Rape and Assault Center dutifully reported to Investigator Sam Barnard that an adult female had informed her she’d been abducted and raped by a caucasian male on September 28th, in Anchorage. Messer said the victim had sworn her to secrecy concerning her name and refused to talk to the police herself, out of fear for her life.

“That was the Catch-22. Police wouldn’t have known about the rape without the third party reporting system. But if the victim wouldn’t talk to us, there was not too much we could do.”

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Walter J. Gilmour Leads the Trooper Academy

We continue with excerpts from the previously unpublished writings of Walter Gilmour. In this installment, he talks about his time at the Trooper Academy in Sitka, now called the Public Safety Training Academy. Walt was the Director of the Academy from 1975 to 1977. [Full disclosure: my ex-wife worked as a rape-sensitivity training instructor at the Academy during Walter’s tenure.]

Maj. Walter J. Gilmour

“In 1975, I was transferred to the Alaska State Trooper Academy in the rain-soaked and isolated environs of Sitka, which is situated on an island in Southeast Alaska. I remained there until 1977 and, during that time, I missed out on direct knowledge of Robert C. Hansen’s continuing escapades. Still, I would participate in an exercise that would impact Hansen’s ability to carry on his sickening and dangerous game.

Sitka, Alaska from the water

“Trooper training is rigorous, comprehensive and, frankly, designed to weed out candidates who fall short of our admittedly high standards. The State Troopers Academy also sees itself as a progressive institution, one which is concerned about bringing Troopers into the world who not only understand those who commit crimes, but the victims of those crimes. An ability to relate to the victim is not just a forward-looking police concept, but goes a long way toward the solution of a crime, since the victim can be one of the firmest links to the perpetrator.

Public Safety Training Academy, Sitka, Alaska

“Some of the most insidious crimes police have to deal with are sexual offenses, especially rape. The assailant is often known by the victim, but because of mishandling of the victim on the part of police and the courts, rapes are underreported, under-prosecuted and subject to an abysmally low conviction rate when they are prosecuted. In the mid-70s, while I was at the Trooper Academy, it was determined that we needed to do a better job when it came to handling rape cases.

“Our response was to institute several changes to our approach to sexual offenses. At the Academy, we began to incorporate a rape sensitivity component into trooper training. Using role playing and lectures by recognized experts in rape victim advocacy, we hoped to increase trooper awareness of the special problems presented by rape cases, including the sometimes paralyzing trauma experienced by the victim.

“At a statewide level, it was recognized that we also needed to do something to increase the reporting level in rape cases. We found that victim distrust of the police was one of the greatest obstacles to overcoming the underreporting of rape. Since at that time a network of rape crisis centers specializing in victim advocacy was starting to spring up across the state, it was suggested that we could overcome those difficulties by instituting a third-party reporting system. In this system, rape crisis centers served as intermediaries between victims and the police, and hopefully narrowed the gap between the two.”

This new program would ultimately lead troopers back to Robert Hansen.

Exploring Sitka: Credit: Perfect Little Planet

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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Whodunit?

The lonesome death of Beth van Zanten remains a “whodunit.” No one was ever convicted of this crime, much less arrested. That doesn’t prevent me from having a “reasoned” suspicion.

At the end of the string, there are three suspects: Beth’s cousin Greg; convicted serial-killer Robert Hansen; and certified psychopath Gary Zieger, also a serial killer. Let’s consider each of them in order.

Beth van Zanten

Cousin Greg: In the classic “motive-opportunity-evidence” triangulation of criminal investigations, Greg scored highest in “opportunity.” He lived in the same house as Beth, even had the bedroom next to hers. A motive was alluded to — that there was sexual tension between them — but never adequately established. Along the evidence dimension, the best information was Greg’s request that Beth babysit for him on the night she disappeared. The trouble is, Greg cannot convincingly be put anywhere but downtown Anchorage, drunk and high with his cousin and their friends.

It is also worth noting that Walt Gilmour kept a wary eye on Greg in succeeding years; Gilmour never found another reason to suspect him.

Robert Hansen: With Robert Hansen, we’re looking at a burst of incidents, each one representing an escalation of violence worse than its predecessor. These actions occur in the space of a month, leading up to Beth’s disappearance and murder. Hansen was arrested and convicted in conjunction with the first two.

  • November 21, 1971: the attempted kidnapping at gunpoint of real estate secretary. Hansen followed her home, used a lame excuse to get into her house, then returned days later with a gun, threatening to kill her if she screamed.
  • December 19, 1971: the kidnapping of a teenage prostitute, who was bound and taken south along the Seward Highway and the Kenai Peninsula, where she was raped, and her life threatened at gunpoint, by Robert Hansen.
  • December 22, 1971: Celia “Beth” van Zanten hitchhiked to a local convenience store and was found dead at McHugh State Park on Christmas day. She’d been sexually assaulted; her bra slashed with a knife; her hands bound behind her back.



Gary Zieger: Gary’s first known act of rape and murder occurred in the summer of 1971, with the killing of a young Native boy whom he’d forced to perform fellatio. Zieger was fairly “silent” until the following summer — and then the summer after that — when his killing spree spiked.

  • August 28, 1972: Zingre “ZeZe” Mason is found in a gravel pit near Anchorage International Airport. She was last seen hitchhiking in the vicinity. She was raped and stabbed to death. Evidence points to Zieger, but he was acquitted at trial.
  • August 22, 1973: Zieger, supporting Wesley Ladd’s felonious bid to regain his massage parlor, killed Anchorage club owner Johnny Rich.
  • November 26, 1973: Gary is implicated in the murder of nightclub owner Jimmy Sumpter’s wife and step-son in a burglary that netted $20,000 in cash and jewelry.
  • November 27, 1973: Gary Zieger is killed by a shotgun to the gut at Milepost 110 of the Seward Highway.

Maj. Walter J. Gilmour, being the tenacious cop that he was, always kept an open mind as to “whodunit.” I don’t have the same professional limitations.

Robert C. Hansen is whodunit.

Within the span of a month, Hansen had stalked and kidnapped (or attempted to kidnap) two women, both in their late teens. Beth van Zanten, also in her late teens, was kidnapped and taken to McHugh Creek. She was bound and sexually assaulted, just like the young prostitute Hansen kidnapped only days before. Beth escaped and froze to death.

Yes, Hansen had an alibi. When he was arrested in the rape and kidnapping of Cindy Paulson, he also had an alibi. An alibi that later proved false.

But I’m open-minded, too. Leave a comment and let me know whether or not you agree with my assessment.

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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Bob Was Busy

Gary Zieger was killed on November 27, 1973. There’s no question that he was busy between August 1972 and his death, with scores of murders in his wake. As it turns out, Robert Hansen was also busy. And it’s all the more remarkable because from March 1972 to November 1973, Hansen was in a halfway house for the assault and attempted kidnapping of a real estate secretary.

Robert Hansen in a lineup photo (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

We defer to Maj. Walter J. Gilmour for the narrative:

“As for the other suspect in Beth van Zanten’s murder, Robert C. Hansen was apparently a model convict at the halfway house. The fact that he had a trade — he had stayed a baker like his father — made him seem more salvageable than most who embark on a criminal career. It didn’t hurt that he had a family, either, or other interests that made him appear normal. Aside from his avid participation in bowhunting, at which he evidently excelled, Hansen had a strong love of fishing and boating.

“And so it was that Robert Hansen spent the 4th of July of 1973 boating in the waters off Seward, to the south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula. Perhaps it was just coincidence that Megan S. Emerick would be reported missing three days later, on the 7th of July. A young woman enrolled at the local trade school, with no known record of trouble, her body has never been found.

“By November of 1973, Hansen was paroled on the Assault with a Deadly Weapon charge and went free. He was seemingly able to keep his nose clean, for a while at least, and began to fade from police attention.”

It is important to note here that Hansen’s Fourth of July trip to Seward was cleared by his parole officer. It is also crucial to note that Hansen ventured to Seward by himself. His wife, Darla, disliked boating and the long-haul from Anchorage to Seward with a boat in tow.

On his own, without adult supervision, Robert Hansen was capable of the most heinous crimes imaginable. And some that cannot be imagined. Like killing young Megan Emerick and tossing her overboard into the depths of Resurrection Bay, her body never to be found.

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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: The Killer Is Killed

With Gary Zieger now confirmed beyond all shadows, and all doubt, to be a merciless killer, the authorities knew they were in a race against time. They quickly named him one of two suspects in the Sumpter murders. And they had their motive: having been convicted in the Cordova dynamite theft, he needed money for his appeal. Funny thing: around twenty thousand dollars in cash and jewelry had been stolen from the Sumpter home.

Police served Zieger with a warrant to impound his truck in connection with the Sumpter murders. From here, some of the details get sketchy. In one rendition, the officers offered to take Zieger into protective custody, but Gary turned them down. In an alternate take, he asked his attorney to call police, requesting protective custody, a request that was denied. In any event, Gary Zieger the killer was now on his own.

Gary Zieger and his Dodge truck

From here, we’ll let Maj. Walter Gilmour take up the narrative, in his never-before-released commentary on Gary Zieger.

“Although Zieger was free [after his acquittal in the ZeZe Mason murder], we still had him under surveillance. Once a killer, always a killer. In the months after his acquittal, I got a call from Trooper Meyers, one of the troopers assigned to me. He was on his way to a movie with his wife when he spotted Zieger driving a different truck. He immediately gave me a call, postponing his evening’s entertainment in the line of duty.

“Say, Walt, I just saw Zieger driving a new truck. Never seen it before. I got the license number for you.”

“That night, two people were found shot to death in a suburban home.”

“Our first sweep of the neighborhood for witnesses didn’t turn up anything. On a second attempt we came across an elderly woman who’d been up late to water her plants on the night in question. She lived across the street from the Sumpters, and had seen an unfamiliar truck parked out front. She’d also had the presence of mind to take the license number. Sure enough, it matched the plate on the truck Trooper Meyers had seen Gary Zieger driving the previous evening. Gary Zieger the killer had struck again.

“While we were making preparations and mobilizing to arrest Gary Zieger for his latest round of murder and mayhem, somebody else got him first. We found him at mile 110 of the Seward Highway, just up the road from where Beth van Zanten had met her fate. He was sprawled in the middle of the pavement, with a fatal shotgun blast to the belly.

Milepost 110, Seward Highway Gary Zieger’s body was found here, near Beluga Point (courtesy Vanya Keyes, Google Street View)

“Though by no means a neat ending, with all the loose ends tied in place, the murderous career of Gary Zieger had finally come to an end. I wouldn’t miss the asshole. Although I had no positive proof that he was Beth van Zanten’s killer — we had found similar wire at his house, but the FBI discounted the match — I felt a certain sense of relief, knowing that at least Gary Zieger would kill no more. And somewhere in the recesses of my mind, I was sure Gary Zieger was just as likely responsible for Beth’s murder as anyone else I had come across in my investigation. There were even people who suggested that Zieger looked a lot like the composite picture of the man purportedly seen with Beth on the night of her disappearance.

“My conviction that Zieger was involved in Beth’s death was not without its irony, either. In our follow-up after Zieger’s death, we found an informant who told us that Beth’s cousin Greg had lived with Zieger in the months after her death, when he presumably was no longer welcome in the van Zanten household. I was never sure what to make of that connection. But there it was.”

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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Zieger Kills Again

With John Rich dead, Gary Zieger still had the stolen dynamite and marijuana stash charges to worry about. His trial came in October, two months after the Rich murder, and he was convicted on all counts. He decided to appeal the ruling. But attorney’s cost money and Zieger didn’t have any, certainly not the ten-thousand-dollar advance his attorney wanted.

But Zieger had an idea where to get it. Jimmy Sumpter owned two of Anchorage’s most popular topless joints, the Kit Kat Club and the Sportsman Too. And he was rumored to keep a huge stash of cash at his house.

Zieger (Stephen Cysewski)

On November 26 something awakened Sumpter at about 2 A.M. He thought it was the sound of a window breaking, but decided it was not a noise but a premonition. That, in turn, gave him good reason to check his clubs. Sumpter was at war with the Brothers motorcycle gang, which was attempting to control the flow of topless dancers into Alaska and to organize the girls at his clubs. These were the cutthroat days in Anchorage, when pipeline money was surging and everybody wanted in on the action.

As Sumpter left the house, the intruder quietly unlocked the broken window, slipped into the house, and went looking for cash and jewelry. When he entered the master bedroom, Sumpter’s forty-year-old wife, Marguerite, heard him and screamed. The burglar shot her and set the bedroom afire, then ran to the basement where he shot Marguerite’s sleeping thirteen-year-old son, Richard Merck, in his bedroom.

Richard’s sixteen-year-old sister had heard her mother’s screams and ran out of the house, unseen. She returned after the intruder left, kicking in a basement window in an attempt to rescue her brother from the growing fire. She found him dead in his bed. Investigators said whoever killed Marguerite Sumpter and her son escaped with twenty thousand dollars in cash and jewelry.”

Excerpt from: Tom Brennan, “Cold Crime”

Jimmy Sumpter, blaming the Brothers gang for the murders, put out a $10,000 reward for information. The Brothers knew better. And soon, the troopers did too. In canvasing Sumpter’s neighborhood, they came across a terrified woman who’d seen a Dodge pickup truck leave the scene. She’d taken its license number. Bang. It belonged to Gary Zieger.

Now, Gary Zieger had two widely divergent groups after him. It was simply a question of who got there first.

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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Gary Zieger Goes Free

While in jail on the ZeZe Mason charge, Gary Zieger met a gangster wannabe named Wesley Ladd. Ladd was nothing if not a schemer, and once Zieger was free, he met up with him again. Ladd tried to involve Gary in plan to hustle fish but when the price of halibut dropped, they decided to hustle marijuana instead. They’d buy it cheap in Anchorage and sell it dear in Cordova. Along the way, one of their crew introduced Zieger to a man who worked for a drilling company that occasionally did blasting work. Zieger asked if he could buy some dynamite.

A free Gary Zieger was a man made for trouble.

Near noon the next day, on the road from Valdez back to Anchorage with Ladd and the another accomplice, Zieger stopped for gas. A trooper pulled him over and searched his truck. He found not only two cases of dynamite but eleven pounds of marijuana. Zieger was arrested and taken to Anchorage, where he was jailed on a fifty-thousand-dollar bond. He was charged with burglary, grand larceny, and possession of narcotics with intent to sell.

Not free anymore.

Wesley Ladd with police after his murder arrest (Anchorage Daily News)

Then Zieger was released from jail. The prosecutor fought his release, presenting psychiatric testimony from the ZeZe Mason murder trial that described Zieger as “immature, impulsive, aggressive, anti-social and extremely hostile with proneness to acting out his hostility.” The judge reduced Zieger’s bail from $50,000 to $1,500.

Ladd put down the cash bond and Zieger was free once more.

Soon, he was engaged in Ladd’s plan to wrest control of a massage parlor from a serial entrepreneur named John Rich. As Kim Rich notes in her book, “Johnny’s Girl,” it was then that things took a turn toward darkness.

“Well, the conversation again picked up concerning John Rich and the massage parlor… we were all seriously talking ’bout doing away, one way or another, with John Rich, and we’d get in on the massage parlor. I don’t think it had actually been, at this point, I don’t think it had actually been anybody committed themselves exactly how we was going to get rid of Rich, but the fact was there, that we was going to do something to recover that massage parlor, and getting him out of there would be one of the necessary moves.

Well, at this time I had made several efforts to contact John Rich, but I had not contacted him. I had not seen him at all no where. And, uh, I mean, this went on for a period of, it must have been four or five weeks, just talking about doing something. And finally Gary [Zieger] says, “Well, if you can’t find him, take Benny and I. We’ll find him. We know better that you do anyway.”

From Wesley Ladd’s confession to AST Jim Vaden

In short order, Ladd and his accomplices dreamed up a scheme to have John Rich sign a power of attorney document that wrested control of the club from Rich. After several back-and-forths getting the document right, they set out to find John Rich. They found him at a local auction, where one of Ladd’s sidemen told Rich he knew someone who wanted to buy two shotguns. They agreed to meet once the auction was over, at eleven at PJ’s, one of the clubs owned by John Rich. Until then, Ladd, Ramey and a third accomplice drove around, picking up Gary Zieger at the last minute.

At PJ’s, Gary Zieger and a guy named Benny Ramey forced John Rich into is own vehicle, grabbed his keys and drove him to Eagle River, where they expected him to sign the power of attorney. “If I sign this, you’ll kill me,” Rich told Wesley Ladd when confronted with the proposition. “I’m afraid I won’t walk out of here.”

“John, we talked it over, you got my word,” Ladd said. “We aren’t going to hurt you.”

Ladd and Rich argued. Suddenly, Ramey walked over and slammed his gun against John Rich’s head. “Just sign the damn papers! We don’t want to hear any more crap,” he said.

While Ladd was out of the cabin, Ramey alleged that Gary Zieger attempted to force him to shoot John Rich. Ramey says he refused. Zieger then fired. When Ladd returned, he found John Rich lying on the floor. He was dead.

Based on “Johnny’s Girl,” by Kim Rich and “Cold Crime,” by Tom Brennan.

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