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.

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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, 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, by Robert Hansen.
  • December 22, 1971: Celia “Beth” van Zanten hitchhikes to a local convenience store and is found dead at McHugh State Park on Christmas day. She’d been sexually assaulted; her hands were bound behind her back.

whodunit

whodunit

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 is acquitted at trial.
  • August 22, 1973: Zieger, supporting Wesley Ladd’s felonious bid to regain his massage parlor, kills 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.

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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.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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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.

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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.

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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.”


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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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.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

Craig