Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Other Strangers

Within a week of Beth’s December 22nd disappearance, troopers found yet another pair of witnesses who’d reportedly seen Beth van Zanten on the same day she went missing. It was a bizarre tale, told by strangers. And hard to tell if the witnesses were telling the truth or wishing a truth upon an unsolved murder. They will go unnamed; let it suffice that these two strangers were mother and daughter. The mother did the talking.

“Last Wednesday afternoon we saw Beth van Zanten in the Valu Mart at around 3:30 or 4:00 pm. I went to the bathroom and entered the stall. As I sat down I heard someone say, ‘Get up off the floor, Beth.’ I heard no reply.


“After I got done, I opened the door to the booth and saw Beth van Zanten sitting on the floor with her back against the wall. She had no shoes or stockings and her coat was lying on the floor beside her. Her hair was brownish-blonde and she had a very pale complexion. Her coat was frost green, her hair was wet, she wore dungarees and her feet were purple from cold.

“She was smoking a cigarette, flipping the ashes with her left hand. Hair parted in the middle. I saw no shoes in the area.

“I asked her what the matter was. She said, ‘My feet are cold.’ I said, ‘Where are your shoes?’ She said she didn’t have any. I asked her if she wanted me to call the store manager. She said, ‘No,’ that she had walked a long way. Then she said she had to walk to Bi-Lo and meet someone in the parking lot.

“During the time we were talking, it appeared as though she didn’t want anything to do with my daughter or myself, as she kept looking at the wall, away from us.

“One of the outstanding things about her was that she had a wide mouth with thin lips. Her toenails were unpainted, as were her fingernails, and she had no facial makeup on. She was small framed, about 5’5”, possibly 150 pounds and almost flat-chested.

Both the mother and daughter made a positive ID of a photo of Beth van Zanten.

Given that troopers had already published Beth’s photo, as well as information about the coat she’d been wearing, and her missing boots, it was impossible to credit these two strangers with unique revelations, unknown to anyone but the cops. More perplexing was its eerie resemblance to the Tiki Room story told by Andrea Taggart and Louise Hawkins. Except… Andrea and Louise actually knew Beth van Zanten.

Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Neighbors & Strangers

Since Beth’s purported destination was the Bi-Lo convenience store, troopers did their due diligence and checked to see whether Beth actually arrived there. That wasn’t all. There was a nearby gas station that also sold soda. Yes, check that one, and any others in the vicinity. And check the neighbors too.

Convenience Stores

Connie Mack Hahn; worked Bi-Lo December 22, 1971
“I did work on 12/22/71, but I did not see that girl in there that night. I have seen the girl before in the past, but not that night.”

Kelly Grant; worked Bi-Lo December 22, 1971
“I don’t know the girl and I do not believe I waited on the girl when she was in the store.”

Glen Smalley; worked Turnagain Union 76 December 22, 1971
“I know the girl that was murdered very well. I have known her for 18 years. I did not see her at all that night.” Asked about Greg Nicholas, Smalley said, “The only Natives we had, that were drunk, were three Native males and one very drunk female Native. They were driving a late model blue Ford car.”

Geraldine Richards; worked Husky Bottle Liquor Store December 22, 1971
“I don’t recognize the girl and she has not been in here that I know of.”

Gas Station Attendant; worked Macey’s Service Station December 22, 1971
“I went to work at 8:00 am Wednesday and got off at 10:00 pm that night. I know Beth’s brother Joe and have numerous times seen Beth. I did not see her that night as we were quite busy here at the service station.”

Neighbors & Other Strangers

J. Dice; neighbor
“I know Beth. I saw her on December 22nd at approximately 9:00 pm, headed south on Captain Cook Dr., toward Northern Lights Blvd. She stood under a lamp post. A car had stopped, headed south on Captain Cook and the door was open. She was talking to someone in the car. I did not see her get in. It was a dark colored car, make unknown.”

The Turnagain Heights neighborhood has changed considerably since 1971. New streets and new homes have come in. Businesses that were there at that time are now gone. Knik Avenue, Captain Cook Dr. and Northern Lights Blvd. are all there much as they were long ago. (Google Maps; illustration by Leland E. Hale)

Becky David; neighbor
“I did not know the van Zanten family or the daughter, but I have seen a pretty rough bunch hanging around the house. And also they hold some pretty loud parties.”

Other Strangers
Troopers interviewed a witness who saw Beth walking to Bi-Lo between 8:45 and 9:00 pm. A second witness saw Beth walking away from her house around 10:00 pm. Yet another witness claims to have seen Beth hitchhiking between 10:00 and 11:00 pm.

Several neighbors also claimed to have seen Beth hitchhiking, including one who said she had picked her up in the past. “That girl hitchhikes quite a bit. I guess she found what she was looking for.”

Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Insights

Walter Gilmour was shaken by this murder more than any other he’d experienced. Beth’s disappearance and death were beyond mysterious. Investigators still desperately needed insights into her behavior and actions the night she went missing. Something. Anything. Troopers scoured the greater Anchorage area, interviewing anyone and everyone who knew Beth or claimed they’d been friends.

More Insights
Diane Carlow: I have known Beth van Zanten for years. She was boy crazy, I suppose more than normal. I knew her boyfriend Ed… She also ran with a few of the Brothers motorcycle gang… She liked to walk. She walked everywhere. I don’t think she would accept rides from strangers. I don’t think she would scare easy, since she walked a lot by herself at night. I would classify her as an extrovert.”

Betty Haycox: “I would say Beth was quite shy, reserved.”

Mary McKinney: When Greg Nicholas asked Mary for a date, she asked Beth what she thought of him. “Don’t go out with him,” Beth told her. “I don’t trust him.” Asked her own opinion of Beth, Mary said, “I believe she was quite free with her body.”


Robert Michael Morgan (Friend of Greg Nicholas): “I went over to where Greg lived and met the girl who was killed. She was kind of fat.”

Bob Rettmar (ex-boyfriend): “She I guess was okay. Sort of quiet at times. Intelligent. Immature.”

McHugh Creek Falls, showing the upper parking area and the slope that Beth van Zanten descended as she tried to escape her captor. (photo: Jay Singer)

My own insights? I suppose some people are fully-formed at age 18; I know people for whom high school was, and will doubtless always be, the pinnacle. But jobs, travel, education, marriages and children are all sure-fire change agents. To say that Beth hardly knew herself at that age is an understatement.

There is a greater insight here, one that borders on cliche: as a species we hardly know anybody in a manner that approaches a true depth of understanding (though we keep trying). We are all pupae awaiting our next stage, be it butterfly, moth or mosquito. Or to blatantly mix metaphors, we are all blind men describing an elephant.

Not that any of this ever stopped someone like Walt Gilmour. The job of investigators is to sift through the rot and find the truth, no matter its name. At this point, they still had miles to go. And Gilmour would not sleep.

Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Family & Friends

Troopers had their hands full with what turned out to be a clusterf*k of witnesses. There were the people who knew Beth — family and friends who could speak to her character and her habits. There were those in the neighborhood who may have seen Beth on her way to — or at — nearby businesses. Finally, there were Greg Nicholas’ friends, who could either alibi him or not. In all of this, truth was a runaway child.

Family & Friends
The most haunting refrain from Beth’s family was the direct quote from her letters: “It’s not fun to date anymore.” It was a theme worth pursuing.

Troopers wasted no time contacting family friend, and Beth’s ex-boyfriend, Ed Tilbury. They ruled him out as a suspect — he was in Cold Bay, Alaska, a thousand miles away at the tip of the Aleutian chain — and had an airtight alibi for the night in question. Even so, Ed provided new insight into Beth’s psyche. “I would classify her as an extrovert,” he said, “even though she was quite naive.”

Beth van Zanten

Fellow students at Anchorage Community College painted a similar picture.

ACC student Curtis Ebeling, focused on her naivete. “She had some beliefs that should not be allowed into the State of Alaska any newcomers. She had some wild idea about building a complex of lodges back in the bush, that would only be occupied by people of her choice.”

Another ACC student, David Crewsdon, told troopers that, “[Beth] was very friendly, had an extrovert personality… The impression I got from her was that she didn’t want to be involved with anyone and as far as I knew, she didn’t date anyone in particular… She would not hitchhike,” Crewsdon added. “And in fact I remember a conversation with another subject that she was lecturing to abolish hitchhiking.”

There was, in these impressions, the notion that while friendly toward family and people she trusted, Beth had a genuine loathing of strangers. The reality of her bound wrists reinforced the idea she had been taken against her will. Either that or… she was taken by someone she trusted.

School friends Andrea Taggart and Louise Hawkins added another dimension to that assessment. Taggart told troopers that, “I was in the Tiki Room [the night of December 22] at approximately 1:00 am.

The Tiki Room was in the Tropics Hotel on Spenard Rd. That was significant: It was across the street from the Fly-By-Night garage owned by Beth’s brother, David.

“I went to the bathroom and as I walked into the girl’s room, sitting on the counter, facing the door with her back to the mirror, was an individual I know as Beth van Zanten. I have known Beth for approximately ten years and have been in several classes at West High School with her. I noticed it was Beth and said, ‘Hi.'”

“She looked at me and smiled like if she should know me,” Taggart continued. “I went to the bathroom and came out and fixed my hair and tried to make conversation with her. I said, ‘How are you?’ and she said, ‘I am really blown away.’ I said okay and goodbye and left.

“Approximately 15-20 minutes later, she came out of the restroom and as I looked up I saw this tall person standing next to the bar. At that time I saw Beth walk up to him. He appeared to be getting some change and both walked into the lobby area. In a minute or two they returned and walked through the entire bar area and out the back door of the Tiki Room.

“Beth was wearing a green ski jacket and scarf… She looked like her hair was a mess, not combed or clean… She hung her head and looked droopy…

“Beth didn’t look good at all.”

“They were not drinking,” Taggart added. “The man was a white male, very tall, 6′ or 6’2″, rather skinny legs. I would say 180 pounds. He was wearing an OD-colored (olive drab) military type parka with a full hood and wolf appearance around it. Jeans, not bell bottoms. Black shoes. Clean hair, dark brown, 1″ or 2” below the ear. Not well-kempt. I’d say he was 22 or 24 years old — or younger. He had a large nose. I did not notice a beard or glasses.”

Hawkins told a similar story. “I saw Beth come through the front door with a man. She then went to the bathroom; while she was in the bathroom Andrea [Taggart] got up and went into the bathroom also. Pretty soon Andrea came back out and told me that was Beth van Zanten in the bathroom and she was stoned out of her mind. That she could barely talk to her…

“The man with Beth was young, early to mid-twenties. Thin, tall, 5’8′ to 6′, with long, dark brown hair. He may have been wearing light, horn-rimmed glasses and possibly a few days growth of beard on his face.”

Based on these conversations, troopers interviewed the bartender and waitress who were working that night. Neither remembered seeing Beth. They also questioned Greg’s cousin; Ronnie Broughton told them:

“When I was at [Dave’s] garage, I went to the bathroom by our car. I did not go into the Tropics [Hotel] bar or bathroom that evening. I have never met or seen Beth van Zanten to my knowledge.”

Soon, troopers sent out a bulletin putting folks on the lookout for the young man Andrea and Louise had seen during the early morning hours of December 23rd.

A slender, long-haired young man believed to have been with Beth the night she disappeared is being sought. Troopers are also looking for the clothes Beth van Zanten had been wearing and ask any person finding a pair of blue jeans, a green down-filled parka or a pair of smooth, rubber-soled green hiking boots to notify authorities. 

Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Greg’s Second Take

Troopers called Greg Nicholas in for a second interview shortly after talking to his blood cousin, Ronnie Broughton. They needed a second take because the discrepancies were starting to mount, not only from Ronnie, but from Beth’s brothers. The key differences were, perhaps naturally, in the timing of Greg’s visits to the van Zanten household and the garage owned by Beth’s brother.

In his first interview, those events all seemed to happen at once. In his second take, troopers had him concentrate on that crucial timeframe.

Second TakeBeth van Zanten Memorial

December 27 Re-Interview, Gregory Nicholas
Chronology for December 22, 1971 (Summary)

  • 5:45 – 5:50 pm: At Stephens house.
  • 6:30 pm: At Freda Shannigan’s house.
  • 6:45 pm: Left Freda’s house.
  • 7:15 pm: Left airport for Jim Shannigan’s house [Freda’s brother].
  • 7:30 pm: Arrived at Jim Shannigan’s house.
  • 8:30 – 9:00 pm: Left Jim Shannigan’s house, took Freda home, then went to van Zanten residence.
  • 9:00 – 9:30 pm: Arrived at van Zanten’s.
    “I ran into the house front door. I can’t remember seeing anyone home. The house was all lighted up. I went upstairs and Beth was in her room. She was laying on her bed looking at books. That was the first time I was in her room… I was there for 3 minutes… She got up and then I left… Ron and I went downtown and parked in front of the Malemute Bar [next to the Montana Club]. No, we stopped by Dave’s garage from leaving van Zanten’s. We stayed 10 minutes.”
  • 9:45 pm: Malemute Bar.
  • 12:00 pm: Left bar.
  • 3:00 am: Started home.

Troopers already knew that Greg had left out one important detail. After weaving in and out of each other’s presence the night of December 22nd — with Greg and Ronnie going bar to bar, getting drunk — they ultimately left Fourth Avenue together. The two of them, in the company of three Alaska Native women, were stopped by State Troopers at about 1:00 am for drunk driving. The troopers made them take a taxi home.

The bigger question was: Did the timing finally add up? If Greg and Ronnie arrived at the van Zanten’s at 9:00 pm and stayed 3 minutes, they would have arrived at the Fly-By-Night garage by 9:12 pm (9:13 pm, when accounting for Greg’s move from car-to-house and back again). If they stayed for only 10 minutes, they should have left by 9:23 pm. It was another 11 minutes to the Montana Club, meaning they could have arrived by 9:33 pm. Greg’s 9:45 pm estimate was now seemingly in the ballpark.

It was possible, in fact, to line it up with Ronnie’s statement: “Freda asked me to call at 9:00 or 9:30. I called her from the Montana Club.”

And yet the doubts persisted. Had they perchance coordinated their stories? After all, both Ronnie and Greg were trying to reconstruct an evening that had gone sideways in many, unexpected ways. The second take didn’t change that. As troopers pulled on all the threads in their probe, they learned one other thing: there was always another surprise around the corner.

Purchase Butcher, Baker

The Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Cousin Ronnie

Even as Robert Hansen made his initial appearance in this case through the person of Sandra Patterson, troopers would not — could not — dismiss Greg Nicholas as a subject of interest. That Greg was not alone the night Beth disappeared provided an intruiging possibility. Perhaps Greg’s cousin Ronnie could open a path that elevated Greg from subject to suspect.

Troopers immediately brought Ronnie in for an interview. Troopers first questioned him on 27 December, two days after Beth’s body was found.

They soon learned that it was Ronnie who had called Greg and asked him for a ride to the airport. In a very real sense, then, Greg’s December 22 adventure started there, initiated by that phone call from his cousin. Greg met Ronnie where he was then living, with the Stephens family at Thompson Manor, in the Mountain View area approximately 20-minutes away from the van Zanten’s.

Alternate Routes: Van Zanten residence to Stephens residence — Thompson Manor, Mountain View (Apple Maps; illustration Leland E. Hale)

Ronald James Broughton, December 27, 1971
“Greg and I smoked a joint after leaving the Stephens house (5:50 pm or so)… We went to Frieda’s apartment [Ronnie’s erstwhile girlfriend]. Frieda invited us in and I asked if she wanted to go to the airport and she said, “Yes.” She asked if we were drunk. We told her we smoked a joint. She gave me coffee and cookies…

“Later, after going to the airport to pick up Nikki [who was not on the plane], I asked Frieda if she wanted to go out. She said, ‘Yes,’ if she could find a babysitter. Greg said that his cousin Beth might babysit.”

This is a critical turning point in the narrative. One that pointed Greg toward Beth in, perhaps, an inalterable way. We know that Greg did, in fact, call Beth about babysitting. Some of her last words to her brother were that she was going to babysit for a friend of Greg’s and to have Greg wait for her if he showed up while she was at the store.

Ronnie Broughton (cont.)
“We went over to see Greg’s car; I think a kid by the name of Dave [Beth’s oldest brother] was fixing the car. After leaving the shop we could have went to Greg’s house to see if the girl would babysit. From there we went to the Montana Club.*

And then a little uncertainty: “Before or after we left the garage, Greg and I went downtown. I cannot remember if we went to Greg’s house before or after we were at Dave’s garage. I do know that Greg and I drove over to Greg’s house to see if Beth would babysit for Freda. We parked facing east in front of the house.”

“Frieda asked me to call at 9:00 or 9:30. I called her from the Montana Club. She said she didn’t know and wanted me to call her back again. I then left Greg and cashed an Alaska Scallop Fleet check at the Alley Cat and drank three Calvert’s and water. I made the [next] call to Freda at 10:00 or 10:30 pm.

Alley Cat, Anchorage: Bar Token

“I went back to the Montana and had two or three drinks. I then wandered around to the Elbow Room and Ole & Joe’s. I ended up at the Montana Club and went out to the Rabbit Hutch. I remember sleeping on the table. I was pretty drunk.”

Q: Was Greg with you all night?
A: Except two or three times when I left the Montana Club.
Q: How long were you gone?
A: Less than an hour. He was sitting with a girl from Kenai and a girl from Port Graham.
Q: Did you ever meet Beth van Zanten?
A: No. I waited in the car.

Ronnie had not exactly delivered a strike-out pitch. Assuming Ronnie was correct, Greg had about an hour to commit the crime. It was 11 minutes from the Montana Club to the van Zanten’s, plus whatever time it took to get Beth out of the house. That seemed doable. It was another 26 minutes from the van Zanten’s to McHugh Creek and another 20 or so minutes back to the Montana Club. By the time one accounted for Beth’s rape and escape, that’s more than an hour, easy. Not quite so doable.

Ronnie, of course, was drunk. In that scenario, time is more a notion than a reality. At the very least, troopers needed to get back to Greg. His initial chronology was not adding up.

* The Montana Club, which closed in 1984, was a legendary joint on Anchorage’s infamous Fourth Avenue. In its heyday, it hosted country legends Johnny Horton (“North to Alaska”) and Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”), as well as Tex Ritter, Merle Travis and Hank Thompson. By the time of its closing, those halcyon days were long gone and Fourth Avenue was known as the most crime-ridden area in Anchorage.

Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Informant Statement

What Sandra Patterson told Trooper Sgt. Don Hughes would come to stand as the early archetype for all of Hansen’s kidnappings, rapes and, ultimately, his murders. She was among the lucky ones, though she too feared she would be killed. Indeed, Sandra was barely able to talk Hansen down at the crucial moment and, even then, was convinced things could have gone either way. Her statement to Hughes was a study in terror and survival. A statement that showed an evil seed, poised go grow.

Remember this: the year of Sandra’s assault is 1971. Hansen’s deadly quest would not be stopped until 1983. That’s a lot of time. Too much time. Especially when one considers that the D.A. did not pursue charges resulting from this incident, instead rolling them into the charges that resulted from his attempted kidnapping of a real estate secretary.

Whether they knew it or not, prosecutors were teaching Robert C. Hansen a lesson: when the victim is a prostitute, you can get away with almost anything.

Statement of Sandra Patterson (excerpts)
A week ago, last Sunday morning, December the 109th, I was in the Nevada Cafe* having a cup of tea around 3:00 or 4:00 a.m. I went out to start my car and let it warm up, and as I walked out the door of the cafe, I noticed a car drive up and park. I continued on out and started my car and then turned around and started back into the cafe, at which time I noticed the driver of the car, apparently waiting for me at the door.

As I walked in, he said something to me — I don’t recall what — and I brushed it off. As I started to go on into the cafe. this man pulled a gun out from underneath his coat and pointed it at me and said something to the effect, not to give him any trouble, and that the gun was a .22 caliber gun. He held it under his coat and pointed it toward me and told me to go and get into his car, which I did.

After I got into his car, he took my purse from me to be sure I didn’t have any protection. This man was somewhere between 23 and 28 years old, it looked like, about 5’8″ to 5’9″, skinny, had blonde hair cut fairly short, bluish-green eyes, kind of a turned up nose and his face was kind of lumpy. He was wearing horn-rimmed glasses. He was dressed warm, had a coat or jacket on and had G.I. type pants and dark heavy boots.

After getting into the car, he held the gun on me, holding it in his left hand and driving with his right hand. The gun looked like an automatic rather than a revolver.

Route Out of Anchorage (Apple Maps; illustration Leland E. Hale)

He drove out of the parking area onto Gambell Street and went south. He turned right, either on Fireweed or Northern Lights Boulevard, and drove on Arctic Boulevard, where he made a left turn and continued south on Arctic. Just before getting to Campbell Creek, he stopped and tied my hands and feet with leather shoe laces. He tied my hands behind my back. I think he had the shoe laces in his pocket.

Hansen Binds Sandra’s Hands & Feet (Apple Maps; illustration Leland E. Hale)

He told me he would beat me up if I gave him any trouble at all. He said that he intended to keep me for two days and then if I cooperated with him, he would bring me back to town and let me off within a block of my car. He told me he was going to take me to Kenai to some cabins.

* The Nevada Cafe was only blocks from Hansen’s place of work, the Safeway Bakery at 9th & Ingra. As Walter Gilmour observed, criminals often perpetrate crimes very close to where they work or live.

Purchase Butcher, Baker

The Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Informant Interview

After Sgt. Gilmour’s initial interview of Sandra Patterson, the case was turned over to Sgt. Don Hughes for further investigation. Gilmour learned that trooper brass thought Hughes was more by-the-book and had a better relationship with the D.A.’s office. They were also wary of Gilmour; they had convinced themselves that he was pushing too hard. What they hadn’t counted on was a case that would grow so many disparate threads.

What follows are excerpts from Hughes’ Investigative Report.

“On 12/26/71, SANDRA PATTERSON came to Alaska State Trooper Headquarters, along with her father, J. PATTERSON, to register a complaint of abduction, ADW [Assault with Deadly Weapon] and rape.

Miss PATTERSON reported that she had been accosted at gunpoint at a local cafe in the early morning hours of 12/19/71 and forcibly taken to the Kenai Lake area by a white suspect. Suspect bound victim’s hands and feet. After raping her and threatening her life and voicing threats against the victim’s parents and her small child, he brought the victim back to Anchorage.”

Investigative Report, Sgt. D.W. Hughes, 12/28/1971

SANDRA PATTERSON was interviewed on 12/27/71, at 2:00 p.m. at the Alaska State Trooper Headquarters.

“In the preliminary discussion of this case, Miss PATTERSON indicated that the reason she had not reported this incident is because she was fearful of harm to herself, her child and/or her parents because of the threats the subject had made to her. After talking to Miss PATTERSON she stated she would register a complaint.

“Miss PATTERSON was shown five black and white head and shoulder photos, which included pictures of DONALD S N., DAVID J R., WILLIAM JOSEPH H., CHARLES E S., and ROBERT CHRIS HANSEN. All of these individuals wore horn-rim glasses and were in the same general age group. Upon viewing these photos in a group, she immediately, with no hesitation pointed to the photo of ROBERT C. HANSEN and stated very definitely, “that’s him.”


“Later, during the interview, a book of colored photos was secured from Anchorage City Police Department containing sixty colored photos of individuals, some in line-ups and some individual photos. Miss PATTERSON looked through this book and on the last page she excitedly pointed to the photo of ROBERT C. HANSEN. She then stated that there was no question about this being the man that had picked her up.”

Purchase Butcher, Baker

The Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: The Informant

Beth’s foster cousin notwithstanding, troopers were still looking for an informant, or informants, who could help them break their case. “Sometimes one phone call, as insignificant as it may seem to the caller, may be just the one we need,” noted one trooper.

“The day after news of the murder hit the papers, Sgt. Walter Gilmour got a phone call. On the line was a senior officer in the Alaska State Troopers, John Patterson. “Hey look,” he said, “I’ve been hearing about that dead girl down to McHugh Creek. I think I got an informant that may be able to help you.”

Excerpt From: Walter Gilmour & Leland E. Hale. “Butcher, Baker.”

That informant was a teenage prostitute who had been kidnapped in downtown Anchorage, then raped and nearly murdered in a two-day ordeal along the Seward Highway.

Anchorage in the 1970’s

Sandra Patterson was 18 and working the streets to pay for her heroin habit. She told Sgt. Gilmour that on the night of December 19th, she was in the parking lot of the Nevada Club when she was kidnapped at gunpoint by a man who said he’d kill her if she didn’t do what he wanted. She described him in detail. Between 23 and 28 years old. Probably 5’ 8” or 5’ 9”. Slender. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses.

After binding her hands with leather shoelaces, he drove her south on the Seward Highway. Along the way, he kept pulling off the road, telling her he wanted to make love to her. He tried to kiss her. Made her strip down so she couldn’t escape. Said he wanted to slash her bra with his knife.

She kept telling him, “No, I don’t want to do it in the car.”

He finally got a motel, deep into the Kenai Peninsula at Cooper Landing, 98 miles south of Anchorage. They tried to have sex, but he failed to orgasm; Sandra didn’t want him to snap again – he’d already slapped her hard across the face – and her passivity seemed to thwart his pleasure. He expected her to fight, just like other girls he’d had; from the way he acted, she was sure he had killed them. On the way back to Anchorage, he threatened to kill her if she ratted him out. Once, he drove her deep into the wilderness, and she had to talk him back.

In those days before computers, cops had what they called the “asshole book,” with photos of every pervert and predator they’d come across. Gilmour pulled out the book and showed it to Sandra. She scanned it page-by-page and column-by-column. “That’s it,” she finally said. “That’s him.”


“Him” was Robert C. Hansen, later known as the “Butcher, Baker.” Gilmour learned that he’d been arrested barely a month before on an Assault with a Deadly Weapon charge involving a real estate secretary. When he kidnapped Sandra, he was out on his own recognizance, awaiting trial for the November incident. This man had no shame. Sandra, meanwhile, was ready to speak her piece.

“You know,” she said, “I may be doing something that some people don’t think is totally acceptable, and it may not be. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because that Robert Hansen guy is probably a premeditated, cold-blooded killer, who has killed before.”

Sandra stubbed out her cigarette with force before continuing.

“He said he killed before, and everything he said was absolutely true. Everything he said he would do to me came true, everything he said he would do, he did. Every threat he made, I believed. And if he says he’s killed people, I believe he’s killed people. And if you’ve got a young girl who’s been killed around the same time and in the same area, then I believe it was Hansen who killed her. I believe he’ll kill me, too.”

From all appearances, troopers had the informant who could help them solve Beth van Zanten’s murder.

When the Anchorage Police interviewed Robert Hansen on December 29, 1971, he claimed to have only vague memories of the Patterson incident, at one point claiming, “I can’t remember going down there (to the Nevada Club)… just doesn’t seem like I would just before Christmas.” Then he abruptly called off the interview, saying he wanted to talk to his attorney – and his doctor.

Purchase Butcher, Baker

The Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Cousin Greg

Beth’s foster cousin Greg Nicholas gave his first trooper interview on December 26th, the day after Beth was found. As was customary in these cases, they asked him to provide a chronology of December 22nd, the day Beth disappeared. He tried his best to remember every detail.

It was a challenge: the interview took place at the Fly-By-Night garage, where troopers were also talking to Beth’s brothers. To make matters worse, Greg had been on a major drunk the night Beth disappeared. The troopers noticed something else: he was clearly nervous while Sgt. Walter Gilmour was at the garage. Rollie Port observed him quivering and crying; he got the impression that Beth’s foster cousin was hanging around the family in an attempt to appear normal. Of course, it was also true that Gilmour gave Greg the evil eye as he scanned the premises for a match to the wire found on Beth’s wrists.

McHugh Creek: Slope & Waterfall (Jeff Wasson)

Greg Nicholas wasn’t the only one who was scared. That evening the Anchorage Suicide Prevention Center got a call from a 17-year-old who told them his friend’s sister had been found dead at McHugh Creek because “she knew too much.” The young man admitted he had been at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in June and had been seeing a doctor since then. He also admitted he had used a “lid of grass and mescaline.” He was not suicidal, he insisted. Just very, very frightened.

December 26 Interview, Gregory Nicholas
Chronology for December 22, 1971 (Summary)

  • 5:30 am: Got up and got dressed.
  • 7:00 am: Arrived at work [Insulator at E.J. Bartells Co.]
  • 4:30 pm: Arrived home
  • ~4:30 pm: Received call from his cousin, Ronnie, who needed a ride to meet a friend at the airport at 6:00 pm. Quickly took a bath, cleaned up and left without eating dinner.
  • 5:30 pm: Arrived at the Stephen’s residence, where he met Ronnie. The two of them then left to Freda Shannigan’s house; they picked her up and left for the airport. Their friend was not on the plane. They left the airport and went to Freda’s brother’s house.
  • 7:30 pm: They arrived at Jimmy Shannigan’s house.
    8:30 pm: Left for Freda’s house. Ronnie helped Freda take some things inside. Greg and Ronnie then left for the van Zanten residence, so they could drive Beth to a babysitting job for Freda Shannigan. On the way, they decided to stop at the Fly-By-Night garage, owned by Beth’s oldest brother, David, so Ronnie could see Greg’s “new” car.
  • ~8:30 pm: Greg and Ronnie arrived at the Fly-By-Night garage. They smoked a joint and stayed about a half hour. They then left for the van Zanten residence, where they stayed for about “three minutes.”
  • 9:00 – 9:30 pm: Greg and Ronnie left for the Montana Club in downtown Anchorage, where they arrived at about 9:30 pm and met friends.

“We stayed at the Montana Club until time unknown,” Gregory told troopers. “I really got drunk and Ronnie got half-loaded.”

That drunk part was problematic. Greg’s story had him multiple places at the same time — or at times that didn’t add up. And if the troopers thought they had things figured out despite Greg’s inconsistencies, Beth’s brothers collectively threw them for another loop.

The two brothers who’d been at the house with Beth couldn’t remember what they’d had for dinner on the 22nd, besides “some kind of ham.” They didn’t agree on the exact time their sister left for the Bi-Lo, with a time discrepancy that covered a half-hour. When they did agree, it muddied the waters: they claimed not to have seen Greg after he left the house at 6:00 pm; the next time they saw him, they said, was at 4:00 pm the next day.

The mystery now touched on how Greg Nicholas managed to enter and leave the house in the 9:00 pm timeframe but not rouse any glimpse of recognition by the two van Zanten brothers.

And then oldest brother David van Zanten upped the ante. “I think she had an abortion in November,” he told troopers. “The father may have been Ed Tilbury, who is at Cold Bay. Ed is my [business] partner.”

Another suspect?

Purchase Butcher, Baker