Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Scanning the Case Log

Two of Gilmour’s best leads had gone sideways — Greg passed his polygraph and Hansen had an alibi for the night of Beth’s slaying. Under those circumstances, he decided to take another look at the case log, which tracked all the leads phoned in by the good citizens of Anchorage. It was, if anything, a glance into the seamy underbelly of Alaska’s biggest city.

One gentleman, for example, generated six different case calls on four different days. All the reports were that he was jumping out of the woods on the horse trails. As Gilmour notes, “this guy is not just waving his lelly, he is stark, bareass naked.” He seemed to be, moreover, a bit of a fixture on the trails. Naturally, troopers asked why people were reporting him only now, inasmuch as none of them thought him dangerous or involved in the killing and rape.

case
Horse Trails, Anchorage Bicentennial Park

The response made sense: none of them knew that for sure and they wanted the cops to check him out. So they did. The guy had a really tight alibi. Even the D.A. was reluctant to charge him, given that in this case everyone seemed to know him and his only crime was showing up naked on the riding trails.

Another guy wasn’t so lucky. Troopers arrested a guy that picked up a 15-year-old, saying he’d give her a ride home, then forcing her to perform oral sex instead. He told her there was no use in reporting it, because without physical evidence it would be her word against his and, since she was smoking dope, it would get her put in the youth center.


Here’s Gilmour, reporting the rest of the story:

“She was really scared to come in and talk to us, but she thought this guy might be the killer. Anyway, it was good that she came right in (1), because we were able to get a positive acid phosphatase (AP) test by swabbing her mouth (2). It was really a kick when we were able to talk to the suspect.

case

“He gave us the normal drivel. Yeah, he picked her up; yeah, she had some dope in her purse and when she started smoking he wasn’t really sure what was going on because he had never seen or smelled m.j. before. But as soon as she started acting crazy, he put her out so that was probably why she was mad at him.

“When we told him about the acid phosphatase test he almost shit. He began to shiver, shake and do a real shake and bake. Then he began to cry and tell us how this would be upsetting to his wife.

“On the other side of the ledger, during the first year of Beth’s investigation one man was implicated in seventeen sexual assaults between the city and state. This guy went to trial a number of times and was acquitted because the women either drank with him or smoked dope — and all of them allegedly went out with him prior to the sexual assaults. Indeed, I was surprised at the number of people — women or the families of women — who called in and said that, while they didn’t think this would have any bearing on the case, that so and so had sexually assaulted them or someone they knew and maybe we should check him out.

We checked each and every one of them regarding their whereabouts the night we thought Beth disappeared. This was quite frustrating and had to be done with a great deal of care, since we had no complaint for a criminal investigation. It was these type of calls that made me believe the high number of rapes that rape centers across the country report, though they are never reported to the police.


(1) Analyses of post-coital swabs show that AP activity will markedly decrease after 24 hours and diminish after 48 hours.
(2) The male prostate gland produces and secrets into semen a high amount of the enzyme acid phosphatase (AP). Using a standard chemical reaction, a forensic laboratory can analyze a given stain for the presence of this enzyme. In the presence of Alpha-Naphthyl acid phosphate and Brentamine Fast Blue, AP will produce a dark purple color in less than a minute. The test for AP remains highly presumptive, however, due to the fact that vaginal secretions and other bodily fluids all contain detectable levels of this enzyme. In the modern era, DNA tests are used instead.

Source: Forensic Tests for Semen: What you should know, Forensic Resources, 2011


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press.

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Lab Results

As January dragged on, Walter Gilmour was called into the Director’s office, so that Col. Dankworth could brief him on changes in his job responsibilities. No matter the assignment, there was going to be a lab in his life: Gilmour was being shifted to drug investigations and, effectively, being taken off homicides. Even so, the Colonel asked, “By the way, are there any new developments on the McHugh Creek homicide?”

Always willing to say more than he should, Gilmour summarized the state of play.

“I can’t say for sure about the McHugh Creek case,” Gilmour admitted, “but it seems that we just don’t have much information. One of the family members seems to be telling an implausible story with regards to his time table and when he last saw the girl. We have searched his car for physical evidence, but prior to the search he had hit a moose and there is hair and blood all over the car. We haven’t really turned up physical evidence that would link him to the crime.

Lab
Moose Crash Area, Kenai Peninsula

“Reed and I interviewed him, he admits that the photos taken in the parking lot look like the type of track left by his car,” Gilmour continued. “He says the photo of the footprint in the parking lot looks like the shoe print of the guy he was with, but he maintains he wasn’t there.

“He was overheard talking to another person on the phone, saying that he thought he was going to be arrested. He did ask questions about whether or not hair samples taken from him could also be from another Native. You know, whether or not his hair could be identified in the lab, the truth of the matter is that we really didn’t get any foreign hair from the victim combings, or any from her shirt, and that’s all we had to go from.”

Lab
McHugh Creek @ Turnagain Arm (Anchorage Daily News)

“So what’s all this about matching his hair or blood,” Dankworth asked.

“Frankly, he doesn’t know that we don’t have the hair, but someone has been telling him that even if we did have hair, and were able to get a lab match on the blood type from the sperm we recovered from the victim, even that won’t be conclusive. The only thing we really have is the wire that was used to tie her hands and we are playing hell getting the wire identified.”

Gilmour was right. They didn’t have much to go on. The investigation into Beth’s cousin as a murder suspect was at its end, though years later Gilmour would still harbor suspicions.


Walter Gilmour’s narrative is taken from the his early, typewritten notes on “Butcher, Baker,” written in 1983-84. Much of this material ended up on the cutting room floor, as the narrative shifted to the events surrounding Cindy Paulson, a full decade after Beth van Zanten’s murder. It is an honor to share it now, so many years on.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press.

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Polygraph

In 1972, the results of polygraph tests were inadmissible in Alaska courts. With some notable exceptions, they are still inadmissible. A 2015 Alaska Appeals Court case moved the needle a bit closer to the admissibility of these so-called “lie detector” tests, but the court noted that issues remain:

“[T] wo experts vigorously disagreed as to whether it was possible to accurately discern, from the physiological data collected during a polygraph examination, whether a person was being truthful in their answers during the exam… Dr. Raskin put the accuracy rate of a well-conducted polygraph examination at somewhere between 89 and 98 percent, while Dr. Iacono testified that the accuracy rate was considerably lower—somewhere close to 70 percent, on average.”

Polygraph

The dueling experts clearly reveal the core controversy: there is no scientific evidence that any pattern of physiological reactions is unique to deception. An honest person may be nervous when answering truthfully and a dishonest person may be non-anxious.

A particular problem is that polygraph research has not separated placebo-like effects (the subject’s belief in the efficacy of the procedure) from the actual relationship between deception and their physiological responses. One reason that polygraph tests may appear to be accurate is that subjects who believe that the test works and that they can be detected may confess or will be very anxious when questioned. If this view is correct, the lie detector might be better called a fear detector [emphasis added].  (American Psychological Association; The Truth About Lie Detectors, 2004)


WALTER GILMOUR: “We circulated a composite in the newspapers, produced lots of tips and an extensive log which revealed more about sexual abuse than one cares to believe, but no real breaks in the case. Meanwhile, Greg’s attorney’s were insisting he be given a polygraph test, which I resisted because if he passed it, they wanted me to stop treating him like a suspect. I was with Yogi Berra on this one: ‘It ain’t over ’til it’s over.’ But while I was out of town on police business, my superiors at the State Troopers gave him the box anyway.”


When Alaska State Troopers administered the polygraph test to Greg Nicholas in 1972, it was all about it being a fear detector. Greg’s emotional state prior to the test seemed to indicate he was somehow involved in Beth’s death. The polygraph hoped to test whether that impression matched Greg’s physiological responses.

Greg passed the polygraph test. That result indicated he was not responsible for the death or murder of Beth van Zanten. But… The polygraph operator admitted there was a possibility that the questions he asked were not geared to the “actual circumstances of the investigation.”

The operator indicated that Greg showed deception in response to two questions:

  • Have you ever participated in an unnatural sex act?
  • Have you ever used marijuana?

One supposes that more than a few folks would get “caught” on those two questions, whatever their involvement (or lack thereof). Gilmour was stuck. Or nearly so. There was one more interview subject in his stack of possibilities. That and the lab results.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Wassilie & Frieda

Wassilie is a Yup’ik name, (perhaps derived from the Russian, “Wassily,” given early contacts between the two groups). Many in the family hail from the southwestern reaches of Alaska, near Bethel. Counted among them are Moses Wassilie, noted artist and sometime-actor.

Wassilie
Bethel, Alaska

The Wassilie Wassilie we speak of here is not famous — or infamous, for that matter. Her story is much simpler. She was out on the town one night with friends, minding her own business, when someone went missing.

Frieda Shannigan, meanwhile, looms as the linchpin in Greg’s mad quest to find a babysitter. Without Frieda, it seems, there was no reason for Greg to contact Beth.


INTERVIEW: Wassilie Wassilie, Tuesday, December 4, 1972 (Investigator Zaruba)
“On December 22, 1971, I was at the Montana Tavern (sic) with Elsie Young and four other people. I know it was the 22nd because I remember getting mad at Elsie because she was ignoring me. On the 23rd I was home ill and on the 24th at about 10:00 am I took my cousin to the airport.

“I picked up Elsie Young at her house between 7:00 – 7:30 pm. We drove around for about 45 minutes. Then we went to the Montana Tavern about 8:15 pm. Elsie said she had to be home before 9:00 pm.

“Elsie and I entered the bar. We met this fellow and girl that Elsie knew from Kenai. We sat down and had a couple of beers. Then these two guys came in and sat down with us and began talking. They started talking about something. This went on for about 5 minutes.

“Then I said to Elsie I was going to leave. She finished her drink and we left. I got mad at her and she went back inside. I then got in my car and went back to my apartment… It is possible I picked up Elsie Young at 8:00 pm. We definitely drove around for about 45 minutes.

Zaruba: How long were you in the Montana Tavern?

Wassilie: We were in the Montana Tavern long enough for me to finish one beer and I drank about 3/4 of my second. This took about 20 minutes before the two guys ID’d in the photos came in. This could have been 5 or 10 minutes after 9:00 pm.

INTERVIEW: Frieda Shannigan, Tuesday, December 4, 1972 (Investigator Zaruba)
“I think it was Greg that told me he was living with a relative who would babysit if I wanted her to, but I said, ‘No.’ They tried to persuade me to go out, but I still said I didn’t want to go out. At no time did Ron or Greg say they were going to call up a babysitter.”


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Scene of the Crime: “Craig Has Always Been Wild”

CROSS-POST In 1982, Craig, Alaska, was a village with minimal police presence and a rough reputation. As one long time resident told a visiting reporter, “Craig has always been wild. And there’s no getting over that.”

There were only two cops – and no jail. There was also one Alaska State trooper; he was conveniently stationed in Klawock, seven miles north of Craig along a narrow, one-track road. Sometimes called, “Little Chicago,” alcohol-driven fights were common in Craig. Sometimes they turned into brawls. Sometimes firearms were involved. Back in the day, murders were an inconvenience, more likely to be ignored than punished. MORE>>>

Wild
Craig from the Water

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Elsie Young

Greg Nicholas was good friends with the Young family who, like him, were Alaska Natives. They were with him when his car hit a moose. One of them, Elsie Young, was allegedly with him at the Montana Club on the night Beth went missing. It made sense to interview them and confirm — or repudiate — Greg’s story. As with everything else, troopers got a little of both.

But by the time they finished with Elsie, the alarms were going off, if not loudly, then with a persistent, annoying hum.

Elsie
The Young’s were with Greg Nicholas when he hit a moose near Naptowne.


INTERVIEW: David Young, Wednesday, December 29, 1971 (Investigator Benson)
“On Wednesday my sister (Elsie Young) saw him (Greg) in the Montana Club. She told me she saw Greg.” [Wednesday, December 22, was the night Beth went missing]

INTERVIEW: Elsie Young, Monday, January 3, 1972 (Investigator Zaruba)
“Around 9:00 pm on 12/22/71 I ran into Greg Nicholas at the Montana Tavern (sic). He was with his cousin Ron someone. There were four of us sitting a a table: Wassilie Wassilie, Mary Schofield, Clifford Dolchock and myself.

“Greg and his cousin came into the bar. They came over and were talking to us. They ordered drinks. Greg had a Christian Bros. straight. His cousin had whisky and water… We sat and talked for about two hours…

“[And then] on Sunday [January 2] around midnight I was home asleep on the couch when Greg came over and pounded on the door. I let him in and he appeared as though he was running. He said the cops were suspecting him of killing his cousin and he wanted me to say that on the night of 12/22/71 I was with him from 9:00 pm until midnight, and he told me that I wouldn’t be involved in this and not to be scared. Greg looked scared at the time. He said he really wanted me to help him and to speak nothing but the truth.

“This morning Greg came over to my house and we talked. He said the cops were suspecting him of killing the girl and that they suspected him of drugs. I asked him how he and his cousin got along and he said they just didn’t get along and that they just roomed next to each other. He said he had tried to be nice to her and talk to her and then he dropped the subject.

“Greg had a knife in a pouch on his belt when I saw him on 12/22/71 and also in Kenai [when they hit the moose], because he cut a piece of tape for me. I don’t know if he still has the knife.”

That Greg was afraid the cops suspected him in Beth’s murder raised the possibility he had a reason to be scared. That he had a knife was significant: Beth had been slashed across the chest, with knife marks between her breasts.

Elsie Young deserved another interview. More than anything, troopers wanted her to confirm the timeline of her interactions with Greg. At this point, the timeline was everything. Was it possible that she was with Greg on a different day?

RE-INTERVIEW: Elsie Young, Tuesday, January 4, 1972 (Investigator Zaruba)
“I know I was in the Montana on 22 December because that was the same day I broke up with my boyfriend. There is no way I could be mistaken about the date.

“I know I met Greg in the bar at 9:00 pm because Wassili picked me up at 8:00 pm and we drove around until about 9:00 pm. Then we went to the Montana.

“I’m certain Greg took me home at 12:00 pm because I checked my watch for the time because I had to go to work the next day. I was with Greg all that time. I did not see Beth van Zanten.

“Everything I have told you in both my statements is true. I will take a polygraph exam.”

Zaruba: When was the last time you talked to Greg?

Elsie Young: Greg called from the Tiki Room last night at 6:00 pm.

(cont.) “Monday morning at 9:00 am Greg gave me $20 for cab fare to come out and see you. Greg never gave me any money before Monday morning and he has never given me any money since. Greg did not ask me to tell you any lies at all; however, he did say if they ask you if I gave you any money, don’t tell them.”


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Moose Tracks

In the days following Beth’s disappearance, Greg Nicholas experienced a major misadventure. On Christmas Eve, he hit a moose and totaled his car. Who could have guessed that a large ruminant would be involved in the destruction of evidence? Hint: Anyone who lives in Alaska.

In interviews, meanwhile, Greg continued to insist that he had not seen nor picked up Beth after stopping at her house on December 22nd. But there were problems there too. Greg waivered on some things. Was that the alcohol talking? Or something more insidious.


INTERVIEW (cont.): Greg Nicholas, December 26, 1971; AST Investigator Benson (excerpts)

“I drove to Kenai on Friday night [December 24] with Elsie Young, Tessi Young and Dave Young. We left Anchorage at 7:30 pm, stopped at the Bird House* for a few drinks. At Mile 81 of the Sterling Highway (five miles from Naptowne), I struck a moose. Troopers did not come. A state highway man came. The state man towed it, the car, to Naptowne.”

“I don’t think I went to the shop [Fly-By-Night] to see Dave. I really got drunk.”

“Ron [Broughton, Greg’s cousin] said he was going to a bar downtown. He did not use my car.”

“The last time I saw Beth was at her house. I have not seen her since. I do not know anyone else who saw her.”

“Jack [Beth’s father] told me early Thursday that Beth was missing. [She disappeared on Wednesday.] I don’t know anyone who would have harmed her. I don’t know anyone that went and picked Beth up at her house. I did not drive south of Klatt Rd. on December 22, 1971. I did not pick up Beth along the road or at any place on December 22, 1971.”

Moose
Klatt Rd. in relation to McHugh Creek & van Zanten House


* The Bird House was a ramshackle legend of a bar along Seward Highway, south of Anchorage. Its floors were permanently slanted, the result of having survived the 1964 earthquake, which put it on about a 10 degree angle. Visiting patrons pinned panties, paper notes and sundry items to its walls in tribute to its tilted charm. It was as Alaska as it gets. It didn’t survive the ’90’s; an electrical fire burned it to the ground.

Moose
Bird House @ Bird Creek


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Bob Talks Christmas

Robert Hansen was ultimately asked to make a statement as to his whereabouts on December 22nd, the night Beth van Zanten turned up missing. His statement was not expansive in any sense of the word. Instead, Hansen gave them the most consise statement possible. It was as if, somehow, the cops wanted him to pay for each and every syllable, then wrap it up like a Christmas present. He was detemined not to do that.

Went to work at 4:45 December 22, 1971. Got through work at 2:00 p.m. Went home to 327 Thomas Court. Spent the rest of the afternoon from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. with my wife and sister-in-law and daughter, then left to Larry Bivins’ on 6th St. for pizza supper. Left there about 10:30 went home with my wife and daughter. Went to bed about 11:00 p.m. Got up again about 4:30 dressed and arrived at work about 4:45 a.m. Thursday and worked until 2:00 p.m.

Hansen makes nine references to the time of day in his handwritten statement. Nine. Only once did he underline a time. 10:30 p.m.

It so happened that Beth disappeared from her house at approximately 9:00 p.m. in the midst of the Christmas season. Hansen is consciously stressing that he was somewhere else until after Beth went missing. He seems well aware of the timeframe when she disappeared. He has an alibi, dammit.


Sgt. Glenn Flothe on Hansen’s statement:

“We know now that Hansen would go days without sleep and finally crash for a couple of hours and go again. A good alibi is one close to the truth — he had plenty of time [to kidnap, rape and assault Beth van Zanten].”

Christmas
Sgt. Glenn Flothe


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: The Wire

Forensics, then as now, always play an important role in murder investigations. At a very high level, there are two parallel paths with forensic evidence: what you find and what you can to do with it. Troopers were struggling on both fronts.

Physical evidence was sparse. No foreign hair was found in any of the victim combings or her clothing. The sperm found in her womb could have been dispositive but, at the time, forensic scientists could only make blood, not DNA, matches. Her time of death was also uncertain: the forensic pathologist told them that the low temperatures and cause of death delayed rigor mortis. The only piece of physical evidence they really had was the wire used to tie Beth’s hands.

Troopers were also playing hell getting the wire identified. One of Gilmour’s investigators had been all over town, to every possible business that might handle such an object. The wire was a double-strand, black and white stereo wire, with indications it was made in Japan. While one trooper tried businesses, another contacted Interpol, asking if they could track down the manufacturer and identify an American outlet for that product. That too was proving impossible.

Wire

One hope stood out: the wire could have come from a G.I. who’d been in Asia. There was, after all, a war going on in Southeast Asia. Alaska was a major military transport point for Vietnam and other points east. And then there was this: one of Beth’s ex-boyfriend’s was in the military. And at one time, before he was sent to Vietnam, they were supposed to get married. Stationed at Fort Wainwright, the ex-boyfriend had in fact been in Fairbanks at the time of Beth’s disappearance.


INTERVIEW: William Frederick Smith, Beth van Zanten’s ex-boyfriend
December 22, 1971

  • Went to work and Sergeant Bennett gave me the day off at approximately 1:00 pm.
  • 2:00 pm: My brother and I got a Christmas tree.
  • 5:00 – 5:30 pm: I went to Fairbanks to pick up my sister and fiancé.
  • 8:00 pm: Met their Alaska Airlines plane in Fairbanks. The two women went shopping at Penney’s and I got gas.
  • 11:00 pm: Got home and stayed there.

There was more. Bill’s brother could account for his whereabouts since December 21st — the day before Beth went missing. As far as the wire — and everything else — was concerned, this was a dead end. Not only was Smith elsewhere during the time of Beth’s murder, he had moved on to another relationship.

And that wire Detective Rice spied at Robert Hansen’s house? Languishing.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Vehicle Search

Physical evidence at the McHugh Creek murder scene was pathetic at best. With the warming temperatures of Christmas Day, the ability to capture tire or boot prints was hampered by the thaw. The search for Beth’s missing clothing turned up nothing. All they had was the wire that bound her wrists and the scraps of clothing she still wore. But this much they knew: Beth was brought to the scene in a vehicle. The search for that vehicle now assumed heightened importance.

Soon enough, troopers impounded Robert Hansen’s vehicle and brought him in for questioning. They needed to search the minutiae of his life. But they missed at least one potentially crucial piece of evidence.

Accompanying Sgt. Hughes to the Hansen residence, where they impounded the vehicle believed to have been used in Sandra Patterson’s kidnapping, was Anchorage Police Detective Ron Rice. It was Rice who spied a spool of wire in Hansen’s garage. Rice who mentioned it to Sgt. Hughes. Rice who was told that they couldn’t seize that wire, because they lacked a search warrant for the garage or items other than Hansen’s vehicle.

INFORMATION: On 12/28/71, along with a warrant for the arrest of the suspect, Mr. ROBERT C. HANSEN, a search warrant was obtained upon probable cause for his vehicle, a 1967 Pontiac, Alaska License Number 36042. This warrant was executed at Mr. HANSEN’s address, 327 Thomas Circle, at approximately 4:30 p.m. on 12/29/71 and the seized vehicle was towed by a wrecker to the Anchorage City Police garage, where it was placed under guard until 12/29/71, at which time it was searched.

Search

On 12/29/71 at approx. 8:30 a.m. at Anchorage Police Dept. Garage Warehouse a search warrant was served upon a ’67 Pontiac, license #AK 36042, for the purpose of obtaining numerous items which were listed upon the search warrant.

A complete examination of the vehicle was conducted by Lab Tech Suave, who removed numerous fingerprints from the outside and inside of the vehicle. Photographed the vehicle both inside and outside and the trunk area.

An examination of the inside interior of the vehicle revealed it to be moderately clean and free from debree [sic[. The front ashtray was full of coins and had the appearance of never being utilized by cigarettes. The back two ashtrays and the right rear contained the contents of numerous napkins and a Lark cigarette butt. The left rear ashtray contained the contents of a Marlboro cigarette butt.

Located in the glove compartment was miscellaneous personal papers and a folding pocket knife. On the floorboard of the front seat was a candy wrapper, Hershey. Located in the trunk of the vehicle were numerous items which would be utilized in hunting and camping. Among these items was a Buck hunting knife and one hammer. The latter two items were removed and confiscated as part of the search warrant. Also, among the items in the trunk was a brown Army blanket, which was photographed and vacuumed for contents. The following items were removed from the vehicle which had been listed on the search warrant:

    1. Vacuum sweepings.
    2. Ashtray contents.
    3. Folding knife.
    4. Vacuum sweepings.
    5. Vacuum sweepings.
    6. Ashtray contents.
    7. Buck hunting knife.
    8. Candy wrapper.
    9. One hammer.

Sgt. Hughes should have gone to a judge and amended the search warrant, so that it included items like the wire they saw in Hansen’s garage. Troopers already knew that Sandra Patterson had been bound. Was there something that prevented him from acting? Perhaps and this showed in the caution Hughes displayed.

Sandra had stipulated that she was bound with leather shoelaces, not the wire which was found on Beth van Zanten. That was enough difference to give a half-clever defense attorney plenty to work with. Still… There were enough other similarities between these two cases that a reasonable judge could probably have been convinced, if only because it was logical to presume that the evidence didn’t stop at the car.


Purchase Butcher, Baker