Joanna Messina Backstory: On the Road to Find Out

Once troopers identified Joanna Messina, they could begin to piece together her story. Like many people before her, Joanna had come to Alaska seeking something. Something new. Something different. Something bigger. Or maybe it was just an escape that she craved. An escape from the mundane details of an ordinary life.


Walter J. Gilmour

“Joanna Messina’s tale almost seemed to fit the ’60s and ’70s more than 1980. Trained as a nurse, Messina had left her husband in New York and wandered west, leaving her family behind without much of a goodbye. With her trusty German Shepherd, she had hitched her way to Alaska, ostensibly to find a job in a cannery.

“When she arrived, broke and hungry, Messina gravitated to a rooming house in Seward, which had recently been purchased by a veterinarian and his wife as a tax write-off. The vet was spectacularly naive about good business practices, and notably lax about collecting rents. Joanna apparently found conditions there to her liking. Upon interviewing some of the other residents of the rooming house, Lucking found that Joanna spent most of her time in her room reading books, confident in her belief that the world owed her a living.

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Historic Van Gilder Hotel, Seward, Alaska

“Residents of the rooming house also reported that Joanna had estranged a great number of her fellow boarders, both through her own behavior and that of her dog, who was portrayed as over-protective to a fault. Most of the people who had known her dog wondered how anyone would be able to kill her while the dog was in the vicinity — and the dog apparently never left her side.

“No dog was ever found near her body, however.

“In a case like this, where the victim had evidently managed to alienate a great number of people, possible suspects are everywhere. We learned, for instance, that Joanna had a running feud with the rooming house manager, who reportedly kept a cache of guns. To help us narrow down our search, we interviewed the woman who had reported Joanna missing.”

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Brown & Hawkins dry goods store, Seward, Alaska

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


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Her Name is Joanna

As John Lucking’s homicide investigation continued, he struggled to identify the victim and her possible killer. For a while, it seemed like the latter was the more promising avenue. It wasn’t. But troopers soon had a first name. Joanna.


Walter J. Gilmour

“Witnesses in the area had seen a ramshackle camper parked in the vicinity several days before the body was found, so Lucking’s initial investigation centered on discovering the identity of the person who owned the camper. The owner of the camper, however, had been out of the area at the suspected time of death — some two months prior to the discovery of the body — and was immediately cleared of suspicion. The next line of questioning was to determine whether or not he had seen anything suspicious, but that line of questioning also failed to produce anything.

joanna

“The subsequent steps in any homicide investigation are two-fold: first, interview anyone and everyone in the surrounding area, because they may have seen something which links the victim to her assailant. Second, establish the identity of the victim, because in many cases the assailant is known by the victim. In this case, the first step was much easier than the second.

“Checks with missing person’s reports eventually turned up the name of a woman who might fit the identity of the body we found. Acquaintances reported leaving her at a campsite just north of Seward. When they returned to check on her, she was gone. Their fears aroused, they reported her missing.

“In most cases like this, where the body has been partially or even totally destroyed by predators or natural decomposition processes, a key to the positive identity of the victim rests upon dental records, since the teeth resist destruction and dentists can often be relied upon for fairly complete x-ray and other charts. At the time of her death, the victim was using the name of Joanna McCoy, and we learned that she was originally from New York State. She had recently come to Alaska in search of who knows what. A check with authorities in New York, however, did not turn up a Joanna McCoy who matched our victim in age and specifics.

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Joanna Messina

“Further investigation, fortunately, revealed that the victim had also used the name of Joanna Messina, and it was under this name that we met with success. We located her family in New York State, secured dental records and made a positive I.D.”

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


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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John Lucking and the Black Bear

In investigating a possible homicide on the Kenai peninsula, Investigator John Lucking ran across a black bear. Black bears are the most abundant and widely distributed of the three species of North American bears — an estimated 100,000 black bears inhabit Alaska — so it was not something entirely unexpected.

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Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game

The black bear is the smallest of the North American bears; adults stand about 29 inches at the shoulders and are about 60 inches from nose to tail. Males are larger than females, and weigh about 180-200 pounds in the spring. Black bears have adequate sense of sight and hearing, but have an outstanding sense of smell. In this case, the bear’s nose likely led it to trouble.


Walter J. Gilmour

“If you have ever been the object of a 200 pound black bear’s attention, especially one intent on protecting its food source, you know that these beasts can be troublesome. While some people believe black bears are less dangerous than grizzlies, that’s not true in Alaska, and even less true if they’re feeding.

lucking

“As Lucking and his fellow investigators stared down the possibility of becoming another link in the food chain, they determined they had better scare the bear away. Scare tactics didn’t work, though, and the bear became yet more menacing and protective of its repast. They couldn’t let the bear destroy their evidence, either, so the only logical course was to destroy the bear.

“The black bear is a protected species in Alaska, so to kill one is tantamount to homicide. The wildlife in Alaska, moreover, have some pretty zealous protectors in the form of Fish & Wildlife Police, also somewhat derisively known as ‘fish cops.’ Although it was quickly evident — once the bear had been taken care of — that we had a homicide on our hands, the hue and cry that was raised focused almost exclusively on Lucking’s destruction of the hapless bear. Needless to say, that element of the case became an unwanted distraction.”

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


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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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.

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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.

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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.”

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


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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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.

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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.

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Robert Hansen Police Lineup Photo

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


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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