The Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: The Informant

Beth’s foster cousin notwithstanding, troopers were still looking for an informant, or informants, who could help them break their case. “Sometimes one phone call, as insignificant as it may seem to the caller, may be just the one we need,” noted one trooper.

“The day after news of the murder hit the papers, Sgt. Walter Gilmour got a phone call. On the line was a senior officer in the Alaska State Troopers, John Patterson. “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.”

Excerpt From: Walter Gilmour & Leland E. Hale. “Butcher, Baker.”


That informant was a teenage prostitute who had been kidnapped in downtown Anchorage, then raped and nearly murdered in a two-day ordeal along the Seward Highway.

Informant
Anchorage in the 1970’s

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.

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, 98 miles south of Anchorage. They tried to have sex, but he failed to orgasm; Sandra didn’t want him to snap again – he’d already slapped her hard across the face – and her passivity seemed to thwart his pleasure. He expected her to fight, just like other girls he’d had; from the way he acted, she was sure he had killed them. 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. Gilmour pulled out the book and showed it to Sandra. She scanned it page-by-page and column-by-column. “That’s it,” she finally said. “That’s him.”

Informant

“Him” was Robert C. Hansen, later known as the “Butcher, Baker.” Gilmour learned that he’d been arrested barely a month before on an Assault with a Deadly Weapon charge involving a 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.”

From all appearances, troopers had the informant who could help them solve Beth van Zanten’s murder.

When the Anchorage Police interviewed Robert Hansen on December 29, 1971, he claimed to have only vague memories of the Patterson incident, at one point claiming, “I can’t remember going down there (to the Nevada Club)… just doesn’t seem like I would just before Christmas.” Then he abruptly called off the interview, saying he wanted to talk to his attorney – and his doctor.


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