I’ve written about the murder of Beth van Zanten multiple times — here, here, here and here. That the murder is still “unsolved” is part of its enduring mystery. That it may be Robert Hansen’s first murder promises an insight into the cold-blooded killer he eventually became.
But one element has long been missing here: the sordid details of the investigation. It was an investigation that quickly ran off the rails and slid across multiple dimensions. An investigation that, perhaps, let Robert Hansen off the hook.
In this series of articles, I will endeavor to fill in those details.
Beth van Zanten
DECEMBER 22, 1971
Celia “Beth” van Zanten, aged 18, was at home with two of her three older brothers. Her brothers were watching a movie and smoking dope. The movie was “The Whole World is Watching,” a made-for-TV movie loosely based on the campus radicals of the late ’60’s. According to her brother Tom, Beth joined them while the movie was in progress. “Beth did not start watching the movie with us,” he later told Troopers. “I do not know where she was. I think she was in the house.”
The three of them, along with older brother David and cousin Greg Nicholas, lived together in a large house on Knik Avenue in south Anchorage, near Northern Lights Blvd. They were essentially on their own. Their parents lived in another house, also in Anchorage.
Not that they lived separate lives; as Mormons, their lives were intimately bound together. That afternoon, for example, Beth had gone shopping with her mother, aunt and cousin. Her aunt, Eloise Swoboda, recalled that “Beth was very happy and was looking forward to Christmas.” While the kids watched the movie on Knik Avenue, their parents were at the Swoboda’s, where they stayed till midnight.
At some point during the evening, Beth decided that she wanted some soda, perhaps because of all the pot that was wafting through the room. There was no soda to be found, so Beth bundled up and headed toward the nearby Bi-Lo store, only blocks away. Before she left, she told her brothers that she was supposed to babysit for one of Greg’s friends and to have him wait till she got back. The time was somewhere near 8:30 pm — there was a commecial break for the movie from 8:32 – 8:34 pm, and another from 8:46 – 8:48 pm — and Beth knew she had to get to the Bi-Lo before it closed at 9:00 pm.
A witness saw Beth walking to the Bi-Lo between 8:45 and 9:00 pm. A neighbor claimed to have seen her on Northern Lights Blvd. at about 9:00 pm.
She never made it to the Bi-Lo. Her brothers didn’t report her missing until two days later. They assumed that Greg had picked her up on the way to the store and taken her babysitting.
Purchase Butcher, Baker