Vet Comes Clean: Don’t Lie on a Murder Investigation

At some point, one supposes, it was inevitable that either the vet would come clean or his  wife would become involved. And so it was that the latter scenario came to be. His wife had skin in the game — a life to protect, a reputation to defend. A man to stand by. Take it away, Tammy Wynette


Walter J. Gilmour

“The vet’s dutiful wife — overly dutiful, in my opinion — was insistent that her husband was innocent and pressured Lucking into giving the poor man a polygraph to prove it. Lucking agreed, and the vet showed up for the test accompanied by a woman who could be counted on in times of trouble.

“Apparently she had come to hold his hand.

“It didn’t do any good. He failed the polygraph. The polygraph technician, moreover, said that the readings were particularly strong when the vet was asked if he ever had sexual relations with the deceased.

Polygraph exams are not the most refined, or reliable, of tests. A pathological liar can pass them with ease. On that basis, the vet was again administered the polygraph. Once more, he failed. Finally, he decided to come clean.

“‘I was having an affair with Joanna,’ he admitted. ‘But I didn’t kill her. I mean, it’d be a lot easier just to divorce my wife if she found out than to kill Joanna.’

“The veterinarian was ultimately cleared of suspicion, but not before a great deal of time had been wasted. With him out of the picture, moreover, Lucking found himself in an unusual position. He had started with a multitude of possibilities. And when all was said and done, he was left with none.”

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John Lucking (l) and Walter Gilmour (r)


One of the earliest lessons I learned about criminal investigations centered on this case. Gilmour was very clear about it: Don’t lie on a murder investigation. Even the smallest of lies leads investigators to one — and only one — conclusion: the suspect is lying because he committed the crime.

The way Walter explained it was: “How do I separate the times you’re telling me the truth from the times you’re lying? I can’t. If you lie to me once, how do I know you’re not lying about the nine other things you told me?”

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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Talk, Talk, Talking to the Veterinarian

With a new lead pointing to a local veterinarian as a promising suspect, it came down to one thing. Interview the vet. Let him tell his story. Get to the details. 


Walter J. Gilmour

“We questioned the veterinarian at length. Throughout it all, he stuck to his story. He did not deny knowing her or helping her out.  But, he insisted, that’s as far as it went.

“Yes,” he said, “I did do some veterninary work on her dog free of charge — I repaired a torn paw.”

“No,” he said, he had not been having an affair with Joanna Messina.

“Lucking was nevertheless convinced that the informant was telling the truth and that Joanna Messina, moreover, had not lied about her affair with the vet. It appeared, then, that the doctor was violating the cardinal rule of homicide cases: he was lying to investigators, which meant he was likely guilty of Joanna Messina’s murder.

“The reason, we figured, was pretty simple: the vet had gotten tired of having his rent paid in sex and demanded that Joanna vacate the premises. The affair was over, finished. Joanna had only one choice, as far as the vet was concerned. Move out and move on.

“Joanna had other ideas. She didn’t want to live in a campground.

veterinarian
Campground on Kenai Lake, near where Joanna Messina’s body was found

“Joanna says, ‘Wait a damn minute, doc. I’m gonna tell that wife of yours that you’ve been examining my body in a most unprofessional manner in exchange for my monthly room rent.’

“So the doctor figures why throw away my career for the sake of this woman? He takes her on a nice little vacation to the local gravel pit. Problem solved. And as a vet, he probably knew how to handle her dog. That helped solve the mystery of the missing dog, too. It was, in fact, a neat little package of explanations. Almost too good to be true.”

veterinarian
Kenai Lake, near Seward, Alaska

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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Back to the Source: A New Lead Emerges

With the various threads of the story leading them into a morass of leads, it seemed logical to get back to the source. That meant interviewing the woman who had reported Joanna missing. She knew her well enough to be concerned about her disappearance. Maybe she knew something else too.


Walter J. Gilmour

“As things would have it, Joanna had stayed with the woman who’d reported her missing. Had, in fact, stayed with her just before making her move to the campground. This woman told us that she had essentially kicked Joanna out of her house. She was, in fact, a source who had a lot more to report.

“She informed us that, prior to staying at her house, Joanna had been booted out of the rooming house by the veterinarian. More intriguing, she told us that Joanna has been having an affair with the vet. The informant was fairly sure, moreover, that Joanna hadn’t merely been fantasizing, although the relationship seemed to have reached mythic proportions in her mind.

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Sled Dogs, Kenai Glacier near Seward, Alaska

“This is the kind of lead that is just too damned good to neglect. Lucking pursued it with vigor. One of his first contacts was the vet’s secretary. She laughed at the thought when Lucking suggested it.

“Wny do you laugh?” Lucking asked.

“It’s just absurd, that’s all,” she replied. “The doctor would never have an affair.”

“How do you know?” Lucking persisted.

“If you knew him, you’d see what I mean,” came the secretary’s reply.

source

“After several more interviews like this, Lucking decided it was best to reinterview the informant, who was the source of — and only support for — the allegation. No one but her seemed even remotely convinced that the vet was having an affair with the victim. On reinterview, however, she stuck to her story. She was able to convince Lucking. The vet became a prime suspect in the murder of Joanna Messina.

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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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.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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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.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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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.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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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.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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Walter J. Gilmour: Hansen Interviewed After Third Party Report

In this installment, Walter Gilmour talks about the follow-up interview of Bob Hansen conducted by Investigator Sam Bernard. From the police perspective, they were doing things by the book. In this case, though, the chapters in the third party reporting system got slightly out of whack.

Walter J. Gilmour

“While he awaited word from the victim, Barnard interviewed Hansen. In that October 14, 1975 interview, Hansen denied abducting or raping any woman on the 25th of September. In fact, he told an entirely different story.

“According to Hansen, all he knew anything about was a ‘dark haired girl’ who he had met at the Kit Kat Club in Anchorage the previous summer, when his wife was out of town. He said they had struck up an acquaintance and she had agreed to go to her place for sex. As they drove to her residence, the girl told him it was going to cost $100.

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Kit Kat Club, 1977 (courtesy Lynn McConnell photographs and papers, Archives and Special Collections, Consortium Library, University of Alaska Anchorage — 1977)

“I became upset,” he said. ‘And decided to drive the dancer back to the Kit Kat Club. She got mad, started saying obscene things and c-calling me names. But I didn’t do nothin’ to her…”

“Do you own a pistol, like the one the victim described?” he was asked.

“I’m a convicted felon. I can’t own a gun… Besides, I-I was in Seward th-that day, fi-fishing.”

“In the typically zany sequence that seemed to dog us to Hansen’s benefit, two days after Barnard talked to Hansen, he got a call from Sheryl Messer. The rape victim had positively identified the photograph as that of her assailant. Messer also said the dancer still refused to talk directly to the police out of fear for her life. The case was put on hold and, if we got lucky later on, would end up in an archive somewhere in Juneau, the state capital.”


A couple of things to notice here. The first is that, in the face of third party reporting, Hansen played the naif, like he was the dumbest of the dumb, fresh off an Iowa farm. Why you know, I was talking to this here girl in that there club and she said she wanted to take me home. I thought it was just cuz she liked me and wanted to screw my brains out. (You can supply your own midwest twang.)

Second, as part of his alibi Hansen places himself in Seward. In Seward, where not one but two women disappeared during his visits to that remote coastal town: Megan Emerick and Mary Thill. In this case, the third party reporting system managed to eke something unintended out of the ever elusive baker.

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Robert Hansen Police Lineup Photo

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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Walter J. Gilmour: Third Party Report Gets Results

The third-party reporting system was less of a bust than Gilmour thought. Because of it, troopers had a report. That report led to further investigation. They were getting somewhere. The third-party report was taking them there. Just not as far as they’d like.

Walter J. Gilmour

“The victim was a dancer at an unnamed Anchorage nightclub, who had met her assailant at the club one evening and given him her phone number. The man called her on the 28th of September and made a date, telling her to meet him at the Fork & Spoon restaurant. When she arrived for her rendezvous, he pulled a gun and forced her into his car — but not before the woman had memorized the license number, make and model of the car.

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’70s Anchorage, 4th Avenue Anchorage, where the club scene was centered (photo credit Stephen Cysewski)

“The assailant drove the dancer north of Anchorage to a state park in Chugiak, where he raped her, performed cunnilingus on her and forced her to perform fellatio on him. He was, she reported, demanding as he expressed his commands, telling her, ‘If you don’t do as you’re told, I’ll kill you.’

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Ptarmigan Valley Trail, Chugiak, Alaska

“He added that he worked on the pipeline, and that he and a friend who also worked the pipeline were raping women in the Anchorage area. Then he played what he saw as his high card. ‘Besides, I know you won’t be a good witness against me. You’re a nude dancer and prostitute.’

“Despite the tenousness of the lead, Investigator Sam Barnard followed up and checked the car’s license number with the Division of Motor Vehicles. His routine investigation revealed that the license had been issued to Robert C. Hansen. Barnard went to the listed address and observed a 1974 Volvo station wagon that perfectly matched the vehicle identified by the anonymous dancer. Knowing this much, Barnard then procured an unmarked photograph of Hansen and gave it to the victim through Sheryl Messer.”

report
1974 Volvo station wagon

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

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Gilmour’s Take: Robert Hansen vs Third Party Reporting

The third party reporting system instituted in Alaska helped move the conversation about sexual assault to a different place. Victims did feel more comfortable talking to advocates than going straight to the police. And having these advocates with them in court helped move prosecutions forward. But the third party reporting system couldn’t close every gap, as Gilmour soon discovered.

Maj. Walter J. Gilmour

“In the summer of 1975, Robert Hansen asked his parole officer for permission to go to Seward for the Fourth of July holidays, saying he wanted to go fishing. Fishing for what, he didn’t say, though after his parole officer granted permission, he asked a friend if he knew any girls in Seward he could party with. Though I didn’t know about it, or have any reason to connect it to anything at the time, Mary K. Thill was reported missing in Seward on July 5, 1975. Like Megan Emerick, who had disappeared two years earlier, Mary had no record of prostitution and her body has never been found.

reporting
Seward, Alaska (and Seward boat harbor)

“It was also in 1975 that the third party rape reporting system would come back to haunt us. In late September of that year, Hansen was at it again. This particular incident made the Catch-22 of third party reporting painfully evident — and added a new twist to the pinball game that Hansen’s relations with the criminal justice system had become.

“On October 5, 1975, Sheryl Messer of the Anchorage Rape and Assault Center dutifully reported to Investigator Sam Barnard that an adult female had informed her she’d been abducted and raped by a caucasian male on September 28th, in Anchorage. Messer said the victim had sworn her to secrecy concerning her name and refused to talk to the police herself, out of fear for her life.

“That was the Catch-22. Police wouldn’t have known about the rape without the third party reporting system. But if the victim wouldn’t talk to us, there was not too much we could do.”

Copyright 2018. All rights reserved.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Order my latest book, “What Happened In Craig,” HERE and HERE, true crime on Epicenter Press about Alaska’s Worst Unsolved Mass Murder.

Craig