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

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