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.

messina
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.”

messina
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.

Joanna
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.


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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.

lucking
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.


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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.

decade
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.

decade
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.


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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


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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.


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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.


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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.”


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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.”


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