The lonesome death of Beth van Zanten remains a “whodunit.” No one was ever convicted of this crime, much less arrested. That doesn’t prevent me from having a “reasoned” suspicion.
At the end of the string, there are three suspects: Beth’s cousin Greg; convicted serial-killer Robert Hansen; and certified psychopath Gary Zieger, also a serial killer. Let’s consider each of them in order.
Beth van Zanten
Cousin Greg: In the classic “motive-opportunity-evidence” triangulation of criminal investigations, Greg scored highest in “opportunity.” He lived in the same house as Beth, even had the bedroom next to hers. A motive was alluded to — that there was sexual tension between them — but never adequately established. Along the evidence dimension, the best information was Greg’s request that Beth babysit for him on the night she disappeared. The trouble is, Greg cannot convincingly be put anywhere but downtown Anchorage, drunk and high with his cousin and their friends.
It is also worth noting that Walt Gilmour kept a wary eye on Greg in succeeding years; Gilmour never found another reason to suspect him.
Robert Hansen: With Robert Hansen, we’re looking at a burst of incidents, each one representing an escalation of violence worse than its predecessor. These actions occur in the space of a month, leading up to Beth’s disappearance and murder. Hansen was arrested and convicted in conjunction with the first two.
- November 21, 1971: the attempted kidnapping at gunpoint of real estate secretary. Hansen followed her home, used a lame excuse to get into her house, then returned days later, threatening to kill her if she screamed.
- December 19, 1971: the kidnapping of a teenage prostitute, who was bound and taken south along the Seward Highway and the Kenai Peninsula, where she was raped, and her life threatened, by Robert Hansen.
- December 22, 1971: Celia “Beth” van Zanten hitchhikes to a local convenience store and is found dead at McHugh State Park on Christmas day. She’d been sexually assaulted; her hands were bound behind her back.
Gary Zieger: Gary’s first known act of rape and murder occurred in the summer of 1971, with the killing of a young Native boy whom he’d forced to perform fellatio. Zieger was fairly “silent” until the following summer — and then the summer after that — when his killing spree spiked.
- August 28, 1972: Zingre “ZeZe” Mason is found in a gravel pit near Anchorage International Airport. She was last seen hitchhiking in the vicinity. She was raped and stabbed to death. Evidence points to Zieger, but he is acquitted at trial.
- August 22, 1973: Zieger, supporting Wesley Ladd’s felonious bid to regain his massage parlor, kills Anchorage club owner Johnny Rich.
- November 26, 1973: Gary is implicated in the murder of nightclub owner Jimmy Sumpter’s wife and step-son in a burglary that netted $20,000 in cash and jewelry.
- November 27, 1973: Gary Zieger is killed by a shotgun to the gut at Milepost 110 of the Seward Highway.
Maj. Walter J. Gilmour, being the tenacious cop that he was, always kept an open mind as to “whodunit.” I don’t have the same professional limitations.
Robert C. Hansen is whodunit.
Within the span of a month, Hansen had stalked and kidnapped (or attempted to kidnap) two women, both in their late teens. Beth van Zanten, also in her late teens, was kidnapped and taken to McHugh Creek. She was bound and sexually assaulted, just like the young prostitute Hansen kidnapped only days before. Beth escaped and froze to death.
Yes, Hansen had an alibi. When he was arrested in the rape and kidnapping of Cindy Paulson, he also had an alibi. An alibi that later proved false.
But I’m open-minded, too. Leave a comment and let me know whether or not you agree with my assessment.
Purchase Butcher, Baker