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The 1972 unsolved murder of Celia “Beth” van Zanten has always bothered Alaska State Troopers who investigated the serial-murders of the late Robert Hansen. In my first visit to Alaska to research Hansen’s crimes, AST Maj. Walter Gilmour took me by Beth’s house in one of his initial introductions. He was visibly shaken, even then, more than a decade after the crime.
Now, in a new article published in The Lineup, I take another look at that crime — and evidence that points to Robert Hansen as the perpetrator.
READ THE ARTICLE HERE
On August 28, 1972, the body of 20-year-old Zingre “ZeZe” Mason was found in a remote gravel pit near Sand Lake, south of Anchorage. She had been stabbed multiple times. Her body was completely desanguinated; a large pool of blood was found near her body, indicating she’d been killed at that spot before her body was moved to its final resting place, deeper in the gravel.
As troopers investigated further, they learned that ZeZe lived in the area, worked for an airline, and was seen hitchhiking in the vicinity. In fact, a truck driver delivering a load of gravel had seen two men in a yellow 4-wheel drive truck pick up a young woman matching her description. When the driver returned for another load a half hour later, he saw the same young woman, in the same truck, farther into the gravel pit, accompanied by only one male.
Already, there were gruesome parallels to the murder of Beth van Zanten.
Shortly thereafter, troopers got a phone call from a woman who identified herself as the girlfriend of a man who was in the yellow 4-wheel drive truck on the day ZeZe Mason was last seen alive. She wanted to make sure troopers were looking for the right person. That person was not her boyfriend, she insisted. It was someone else.
A guy named Gary Zieger.
Gary Zieger (Anchorage Daily News)
Troopers had come across Gary Zieger before. He was implicated in the murder of a young Alaska Native male, and identified as the shooter, but never prosecuted because his accomplice was too afraid to testify against him.
When troopers moved in to arrest Zeiger, several pieces of circumstantial evidence proved critical. The gravel truck driver identified both Zieger’s truck and, in a line-up, Zieger himself. The tires on Zieger’s truck, one of which had been mounted in an inverted fashion, matched tracks found at the scene. His friend’s reluctant statement placed Zieger at the gravel pit with a young, female hitchhiker. Three small blood spots found on the dash of the truck were tested; Zieger claimed he’d been hunting rabbits, but the test came back positive, indicating human blood. Troopers later found the site near a creek where Zieger washed his truck.
At Gary Zieger’s murder trial, everything that could go wrong went wrong. The FBI agent who tested the distinctive tire tracks mixed up the position of the tire on the vehicle and confused the jury in the process. A hematology expert brought in to discuss the precipitant test used to identify the blood on Zieger’s dashboard was caught by a trick question.
“Is there any blood besides human blood that can bring a positive reaction to the precipitant test?” he was asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
What the defense line of questioning cleverly left out was that only one other living organism produces a positive on the precipitant test. An orangutan.
Gary Zieger was acquitted. Emboldened, he would go on to commit several additional murders, including the execution of Johnny Rich in a plot to take over his Spenard massage parlor. He was also implicated in the murders of the wife and stepson of a prominent Anchorage nightclub owner. Those were two killings too many.
While troopers made preparations to arrest Gary Zieger for his latest round of murder and mayhem, somebody else got to him first. They 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 his gut, in what was strongly believed to be a contract killing.
Dead or alive, Sgt. Walter Gilmour continued to think Zieger a strong candidate for Beth van Zanten’s murder. There were even witnesses who suggested he looked a lot like the composite picture of a man reportedly seen with Beth on the night of her disappearance.
That conviction on Gilmour’s part was not without its irony. In their follow-up after Zieger’s death, troopers found an informant who said Beth’s cousin had lived with Zieger in the month’s after her death when, presumably, he was no longer welcome in the van Zanten household. Gilmour was never sure what to make of that coincidence.
If, indeed, it was a coincidence. Those were strange days in Anchorage. And Robert Hansen wasn’t the only killer at work.
Sgt. Walter Gilmour of the Alaska State Troopers was just finishing the last knot in his tie when the phone rang. He was fresh from the shower – after a day of cross-country skiing with his family – and on his way to his in-law’s house for Christmas dinner.
“Sgt. Gilmour, this is dispatch,” the female voice said, detached and professional. “We have been advised that a woman has been found dead in McHugh Creek campground. Patrol is on the way, sir, but we wanted to alert you.”
Christmas dinner would have to wait.
Troopers soon learned that a woman named Celia “Beth” Van Zanten had gone missing on December 23rd. Just 18 years old, she was on her way to a local convenience store when she disappeared. At the crime scene, they found a woman who seemed to match the description: young, fair complexion, long blonde hair. In the days since she’d gone missing, temperatures ranged from a low of minus five to a high of 22. She had frozen to death.
Beth Van Zanten
In the parking lot they found a collage of tire prints spinning in lazy, concentric circles. With the rain starting to drizzle, Gilmour wanted to grab the tire prints as quickly as possible, knowing there was nothing that could cast water. He watched dismally as the evidence melted before his eyes. They ended up taking photographs instead.
Their scene search, meanwhile, turned up a silver belt buckle and, later, a black leather belt. In the snow, near the body, investigators also found tufts of yellow tissue paper. That was all they ever found.
That night, Sgt. Gilmour found himself back at the McHugh Creek parking lot on patrol, just as a partially clad young woman made a break from a shadowy figure who was about to bring her down. “Halt, asshole,” the sergeant screamed.
The suspect didn’t halt, but overtook the young woman and started to rape her.
“You son of a bitch, I’ll kill you,” Gilmour cried as he grabbed the assailant by the neck and started to choke him. His hands went completely through the rapist’s neck and were covered in blood.
Their next move was to canvass Beth’s neighborhood and interview family members. Everyone they spoke to offered statements that were soon contradicted. Her brothers seemed to be stoners, who barely noticed Beth’s comings and goings. Their “best” suspect was Greg, her Alaska Native foster cousin, who lived with the family and was said to have a fractious relationship with the victim.
Out clubbing and drinking the night Beth disappeared, Greg had allegedly arranged for her to babysit for one of his friends. His accounts of his whereabouts that night ranged from vague to imprecise, though he was rarely alone during a long night of carousing. Worse yet, although Greg claimed to have talked to Beth – at her house, on the night of her disappearance, to ask about babysitting – her brothers said they never saw him.
The most anyone could say with certainty about Beth’s foster cousin was that he was drunk that night. So drunk that Anchorage Police eventually stopped him, and his friends, and made them take a cab home.
Neighborhood witnesses, meanwhile, reported seeing Beth as late as 11:00 the night she disappeared. She was hitchhiking. Some of Gilmour’s investigators thought that was precisely what this was. A hitchhike-type case. Greg was eventually cleared by a polygraph; Gilmour still thought him the most likely culprit, but the likelihood grew increasingly remote.
The sergeant worried the case for 24 hours straight before getting their first break. He was at his makeshift office in a trailer, the schoolroom clock nearing 21:00 hours. The place was silent, nearly empty. Then, suddenly, a sound.
“Sgt. Gilmour,” came the intercom. “Line two.”
On the other end of the line was a senior officer in the troopers. J.P. was one of the first Alaska Natives to join the troopers, a man whose exploits in rural Alaska were legendary. When he called, you listened.
“Hey, look,” he said. “I’ve been hearing about that dead girl down to McHugh Creek. I think I got an informant that may be able to help you.” J.P. told Gilmour that the informant might have been working the street. Gilmour said he’d talk to anyone; only later did he learn that the informant was the trooper’s daughter.
Sandra Patterson was 18 and working the streets to pay for her heroin habit. She told Sgt. Gilmour that on the night of December 19th, she was in the parking lot of the Nevada Club when she was kidnapped at gunpoint by a man who said he’d kill her if she didn’t do what he wanted. She described him in detail. Between 23 and 28 years old. Probably 5’ 8” or 5’ 9”. Slender. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses.
Robert Hansen, Anchorage Courthouse, 1972. He was there to answer Assault with a Deadly Weapon charges against a real estate secretary.
After binding her hands with leather shoelaces, he drove her south on the Seward Highway. Along the way, he kept pulling off the road, telling her he wanted to make love to her. He tried to kiss her. Made her strip down so she couldn’t escape. Said he wanted to slash her bra with his knife.
She kept telling him, “No, I don’t want to do it in the car.”
He finally got a motel, deep into the Kenai Peninsula at Cooper Landing. They tried to have sex, but he failed his orgasm. He expected her to fight, just like the other girls had. On the way back to Anchorage, he threatened to kill her if she ratted him out. Once, he drove her deep into the wilderness, and she had to talk him back.
In those days before computers, cops had what they called the “asshole book,” with photos of every pervert and predator they’d come across. Sandra scanned it page-by-page and column-by-column. “That’s it,” she finally said. “That’s him.”
“Him” was Robert C. Hansen, later known as the “Butcher, Baker.” Gilmour learned that he’d been arrested barely a month before on the Assault with a Deadly Weapon charge involving the real estate secretary. When he kidnapped Sandra, he was out on his own recognizance, awaiting trial for the November incident. This man had no shame. Sandra, meanwhile, was ready to speak her piece.
“You know,” she said, “I may be doing something that some people don’t think is totally acceptable, and it may not be. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because that Robert Hansen guy is probably a premeditated, cold-blooded killer, who has killed before.”
Sandra stubbed out her cigarette with force before continuing.
“He said he killed before, and everything he said was absolutely true. Everything he said he would do to me came true, everything he said he would do, he did. Every threat he made, I believed. And if he says he’s killed people, I believe he’s killed people. And if you’ve got a young girl who’s been killed around the same time and in the same area, then I believe it was Hansen who killed her. I believe he’ll kill me, too.”
Hansen steadfastly denied his involvement in the death of Celia “Beth” Van Zanten. The similarities between her abduction and Sandra’s are worth noting: they were taken to the same area, their hands bound; they were stripped to prevent escape, their bras slashed (or threatened to be); they were sexually assaulted. It is also worth noting that Beth Van Zanten’s house was within a mile of the real estate secretary’s apartment. Hansen had cruised that area before.
Anchorage locations mentioned in this post
Robert Hansen was charged in Anchorage Superior Court with Assault with a Deadly Weapon for the attempted abduction of the real estate secretary. He was charged with Rape, Kidnapping and Assault with a Deadly Weapon in the Sandra Patterson case. On March 24, 1972, the Patterson case was dismissed in exchange for a no contest plea on the attempted abduction.
Hansen was ultimately convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment. He was transferred to a halfway house on June 17, 1972, and placed on work release from that facility. He was paroled on November 1, 1973. His criminal career was far from over. In fact, one could say it was just beginning.
In 1971, you could sit in the bar at the top of the Westward Hotel and watch a stream of transport planes lumbering into Elmendorf Air Force Base. They were bringing the wounded back from Vietnam and, though the war was winding down, for years they’d been a predictable drone, going long into the night.
Fourteen stories below, the “boomers” were taking over the streets of downtown Anchorage, lured by the promise of the get-rich oil discovered on Alaska’s North Slope. Along Fourth Avenue, which comedian Bob Hope once called, “the longest bar in the world,” they packed the bars and saloons, looking for drugs and drinks in places with names like The Silver Dollar and The Nevada Club.
That’s not all they were looking for; there were nights when the Cadillacs were parked three deep so the prostitutes could ply their holiday trade.
Three miles south, in Spenard, massage parlors were springing up like mushrooms. The parlors were barely disguised fronts for prostitution, run by men who kept a pistol close at hand. No place seemed safe; no one seemed safe.
Already that year, an 18-year old real estate secretary had been confronted at her apartment by a man who tried to force her into sex at gunpoint. Anchorage was turning into a cop’s nightmare.
That Christmas would be the worst.
Christmas Day in Anchorage broke at a balmy 40 degrees above zero, a welcome relief from the arctic cold front that gripped the city only days before. At the height of the storm, gale-force winds snapped power lines and lifted a 20 by 20 foot cornice off the side of a mountain, depositing it in the middle of Seward Highway.
But now, with the promise of blue skies, folks in Anchorage were propelled out of their houses. Among those driven into the sun were Gary Lawler and his brother, Dennis. They’d travelled south on the Seward Highway, along a strip of water called Turnagain Arm, to take photos of the wilderness that lay at their feet.
Armed with Dennis’s ancient camera, they decided to stop at Bird Point, one of their favorites spots, then work their way north again, taking photos along the way.
Almost by chance, they stopped at McHugh Creek State Park, 12 miles north of the point. Built between two intersecting ridges on either side of its namesake creek, the park offered spectacular views of Turnagain Arm and the surrounding mountains. On a small ledge about 20 feet below a picnic area, Dennis found the spot he wanted: a steep overlook that cast the gnarled creek bank in a perfect cone of sunlight.
He struggled to focus the camera from this awkward perch, pushing it deep into his ribcage to maintain his balance. Then, behind a bush no more than ten feet in front of him, he spied what looked like a mannequin, dropped at an odd angle and partially covered with snow. He craned his neck forward to get a better look.
It was a body. A young woman, nude below the waist, a soft cover of downy flakes strewn across her exposed, awkwardly placed thighs.
Back in the parking lot, Dennis told his brother about his find. “Are you sure,” his brother asked. “Because if it’s a body…”
“We’ll have to report it to somebody.”
Her wrists were tied behind her back with speaker wire. She had been sexually assaulted, and her chest slashed with a knife. Somehow before her death she had managed to escape her assailant. She literally ran for her life.
Her first fall was fifty feet from the presumed location of the murderer’s car. With her hands bound behind her, and in snow three feet deep on a dizzying slope, it would have taken a superhuman effort to regain her feet and continue the descent into what must have seemed a black hole.
Excerpt from Butcher, Baker
In 1975, Robert Hansen returned to Seward for another 4th of July. Another woman went missing. Another woman “denied by Hansen.” Her name is Mary Thill; she was 22-years-old at the time of her disappearance.
Here’s what we know about Mary:
Downtown Seward (Google Street View)
Lowell Creek Waterfall (Google Street View)
And here’s what we know about Robert Hansen (according to court records and his confession):
“[There are] gun emplacements down here at Seward… where they used to have some rather large caliber cannons that were supposed to protect the town of Seward. They got some up there and they got some up on top of the hill… [And] someplace in here there is more Army docks… Anyway, outside the iron doors here I used to scuba dive quite a bit.”
It is tempting to think that Hansen went to the bakery, spotted Mary, followed her to the parking lot at the Lowell Creek waterfall, picked her up and then took her to his boat. That we’ll never know. What we do know, from the Joanna Messina case, is that he had ulterior motives for striking up conversations with unknown women.
“I believe this impulsive act of seeing, following, and later trying to abduct a non-prostitute surfaced several times throughout his chicken killing career, which included Emerick and Thill of Seward and possibly other unclaimed map X’s.”
Sgt. Glenn Flothe
Robert Hansen Flight Map (Seward and Resurrection Bay detail)
Can’t Miss Event
Thursday February 16, 2017 6:00 PM
Tom Brennan and I will be at the Anchorage Barnes & Noble store on February 16th at 6pm, for an Author Signing and Discussion. We’ll be discussing Tom’s latest book, Dead Man’s Dancer, and the true-crime classic, Butcher Baker, two of Alaska’s most notorious murder cases.
There will be a book signing and then we’ll take audience questions. Get ready for a lively discussion!
The Anchorage Barnes & Noble is located at 200 East Northern Lights Blvd. See you there!
Robert Hansen’s flight map was key to identifying his victims; State Troopers surmised — correctly — that the marks on his flight map corresponded to burial sites. But Hansen insisted that not all the marks on his flight map identified victims; while he admitted to 17 marked burial sites, another five — four of them in the Seward area — he denied.
One of the women “denied by Hansen” was Megan Emerick, who was 17-years-old at the time of her disappearance. Here’s what we know about Megan:
And here’s what we know about Robert Hansen (according to court records and his confession):
“In the spring I would take my boat and pickup and camper and drive to Seward and leave it, then just drive a car back and forth [from Anchorage].”
The distance from the Seward Skill Center, where Megan was last seen, to the Seward docks where Hansen kept his boat, is about an 11-minute walk (one-half mile). In Hansen’s confession to the Messina murder, he said he tried to lure her onto his boat, but failed because she needed to be at a job call for the local cannery:
“I met her and I talked to her and… I had my boat down there and was talking [to] her that I was going to go out, out the next day fishing and so forth, would she like to go along, you know.”
Finally, there is the “problem” of Robert Hansen’s flight map. It shows not one, not two, but three marks in Seward’s Resurrection Bay. Marks which, in many other cases, showed where he’d left bodies.
During his confession, Hansen denied it.
Anchorage DA Vic Krumm: “Way back in the early ‘70’s, there were a number of young women from Seward…”
Robert Hansen: “Ah… out of Seward gentlemen, I never had anything… anything to do with any girls out of Seward.”
I don’t believe him. He visited Seward often, kept a boat there, had a way of talking up folks hanging out at the docks and, on at least one occasion, took those folks out on his vessel. You be the judge.
Robert Hansen Flight Map (Seward and Resurrection Bay detail)
Correction: Hansen was on parole for Assault with a Deadly Weapon, not attempted assault.
This month’s edition of The Lineup, a community website for fans of true crime and horror, features an excerpt from Butcher, Baker.
A must read for fans of true crime, the excerpt is the gripping account of those horrific moments when everything in Robert Hansen’s criminal career hung in the balance. It features an unlikely heroine, 17-year-old Cindy Paulsen, whose instincts and drive for life changed things forever. Cindy was one of the fortunate ones.
Her fellow dancers were not so lucky.
Paula Goulding Gravesite on the Knik
And if you’re a true crime fan, and haven’t checked out The Lineup, you should!