Butcher, Baker: The Early Years, Pt. 1

Anchorage, Alaska
Christmas 1971

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.

Anchorage 4th Ave 1970's

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.

Kit Kat Club Anchorage '70s (Stephen Cysewski)

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

Denied by Hansen, Pt. 2: Mary Thill

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.

Mary Thill

Here’s what we know about Mary:

  • She was last seen in Seward on July 5, 1975.
  • Like Megan Emerick, she was a student at the Seward Skill Center.
  • Her husband was working the North Slope at the time of her disappearance.
  • A friend gave her a ride to the Seward Bakery, in the historic center of downtown Seward.

Downtown Seward (Google Street View)Seward Bakery (Ranting Raven Bakery)

  • Another friend reported seeing her at the Lowell Creek waterfall, a half-mile south of the bakery, and a two-minute walk from the bakery.
  • Mary was spotted at the falls between 1:30 and 2:00 p.m. She was never seen again.

Lowell Creek Waterfall (Google Street View)Lowell Creek Falls

And here’s what we know about Robert Hansen (according to court records and his confession):

  • On parole for an Assault with a Deadly Weapon charge involving a real estate secretary, Hansen was required to tell his parole officer his whereabouts; his parole records show that he was in Seward on the July 1975 weekend that Mary disappeared.
  • Before heading south, Hansen asked a friend if he knew any women he could party with in Seward.
  • Seward was, and remains, a small town. The Seward Bakery is one mile from the nearest boat launch — a distance Hansen could drive in three minutes.
  • Hansen had access to a vehicle throughout his stay in Seward.
  • In his confession, Robert Hansen evidenced a detailed knowledge of Seward — including the old Army gun emplacements at the former Fort McGilvray, just south of Lowell Creek, along the same road.

“[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)Robert Hansen flight map


  • Butcher, Baker (Amazon Kindle; Apple iBooks; Barnes & Noble NOOK; Google Play; Kobo eReader)
  • Statement of Robert C. Hansen, District Attorney’s Office Anchorage, February 22, 1984
  • The Charley Project: Mary Thill
  • National Missing and Unidentified Persons: Mary Thill

February Author Event: Barnes & Noble, Anchorage

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!

Barnes & Noble poster

Denied by Hansen, Pt. 1: Megan Emerick

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:

  • She was last seen in Seward, Alaska, on July 7, 1973.
  • She was a student at the Seward Skill Center (now called the Alaska Vocational Technical Center).
  • She was last seen walking out of a dormitory laundry room.
  • All of her personal belongings, including her identification, were left behind.
  • Her roommate searched for three days before reporting her disappearance.

megan emerick missing poster

And here’s what we know about Robert Hansen (according to court records and his confession):

  • On parole for an Assault with a Deadly Weapon charge involving a real estate secretary, Hansen was required to tell his parole officer his whereabouts; his parole records show that he was in Seward on the July 1973 weekend that Megan disappeared.
  • He had a “large boat” during the early ’70’s, which he used for scuba diving and fishing in and around Seward.
  • He learned to scuba dive by taking some divers he’d met on the Seward docks out on his boat to find sea cucumbers.
  • In his confession to the 1980 murder of Joanna Messina, Hansen admitted that he met her while “walking up and down the [Seward] docks and talked to the fishermen about different things and so forth, and just bullshit and talk.”

“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.”

megan emerick missing poster

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)

Robert Hansen flight map


Correction: Hansen was on parole for Assault with a Deadly Weapon, not attempted assault.