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.

Craig

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Hansen Faces Charges

In March of 1972, Robert Hansen went to trial for his Assault with a Deadly Weapon charge against the real estate secretary. In the vagaries of the criminal justice system, the kidnapping, rape and assault with a deadly weapon charges brought against him in the Sandra (Robyn) Patterson case were dropped in return for a no contest plea in the other case.

At his trial, Hansen’s minister — his wife Darla was extremely religous — testified on his behalf, portraying him as a good Christian man who provided an excellent Christian environment for his wife and family. Much was also made of the fact that Robert was a hardworking soul who worked two jobs to provide for his family. The good reverend recommended leniency in the charges against his lost little sheep.

charges
Robert Hansen at his 1972 arrest (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

Hansen was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment on the charges involving the real estate secretary, but the judge granted him a Suspended Imposition of Sentence (SIS). By June of 1972, Hansen had been transferred to a halfway house.

“Hansen was back on the prowl, driving the Avenue, whetting his appetite for excitement while still in the Half Way house.” Sgt. Glenn Flothe


Walter Gilmour was having none of it — for all the good it did him. The following excerpt is taken from an early draft of Butcher, Baker.

“I had not been persuaded by the goody two-shoes bullshit of the defense. I could care less that Hansen was a world class bow hunter who owned the record for a Dall’s sheep, even if it did have a fresh bullet mark in the horns. To me, he was just an ugly, pockmarked man who wore glasses and stuttered. To me, he was a clumsy, and therefore dangerous, kidnapper and rapist, who might very well have killed Beth van Zanten. Still, there was a general feeling among the Troopers at the time that Hansen was not our man. He was, so the feeling went, just too wimpy to fit the profile of a killer.

“I can usually take or leave the opinions of psychiatrists, and I only have confidence in their diagnosis when it happens to agree with mine. But after his arrest for the abduction of Sandra (Robyn) Patterson, Hansen was given a psychiatric evaluation by Dr. J. Ray Langdon, and I still find his thoughts illuminating. Dr. Langdon found that Hansen ‘exhibited a compulsive personality structure with thought disorder, perhaps with periodic episodes during which he dissociated in a psychotic rather than neurotic fashion.’ The good doctor concluded that, assuming his diagnosis was correct, Hansen’s mental illness ‘would be very difficult to treat successfully.’

“Langdon also included his evaluation the finding that Hansen ‘in his teens used to fantasize doing all sorts of harmful things to girls.’

“When all the psychiatric gobbledygook was cleared away, it was evident that Dr. Langdon didn’t think much more of Robert Hansen than I did. I thought he was a creepy little shit who was not a prime candidate for redemption. As far as I was concerned, Hansen’s fantasies as a teenager were becoming all too real as an adult. Unfortunately, mine was the minority viewpoint.”


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: Ron Broughton Returns

After Greg Nicholas pointed the finger at his cousin, troopers gave him the opportunity for a rebuttal or, at least, a reaction. Two days after talking to Greg, they caught up with Ron Broughton. And they confronted him.


INTERVIEW: Ron Broughton, January 7, 1972
“Greg has not been in contact with me. I do not know why he would point the finger at me, although he does many strange things.

“I have no knowledge of Beth or how she was killed. Greg never told me anything concerning Beth. As I stated before, I have no knowledge of the incident or am I involved. I do not believe Greg is involved.

Gilmour: You said you went to the garage. Where did you go after you went to the garage?

Ronnie: From there [the garage] we either went straight to the Montana Club or to Beth’s house. But we were together.

Gilmour: Were you together the whole time at the Montana Club?

Ronnie: No. I walked back and gave Greg a 10 dollar bill and told him I was going to the Alley Cat and cash a check.


The inconsistencies are rife here, even in this short exchange. Consider this one: Ronnie claims he gave Greg a 10 dollar bill. On December 26, Greg told troopers the following: “Ronnie did not have any money. I gave him $20.00.”

More than once, Ronnie testifies differently. Specifically, he twice refers to cashing an Alaska Scallop Fleet check at the Alley Cat bar. Yes, he had money. Hard earned money. Scallop fishing money.

The typical day of scallop fishermen begins with the sound of dredges being hauled, as scallop vessels operate around the clock, making 15 to 21 dredge tows daily. The crew brings the dredge aboard and empties its contents onto the deck where they collect scallop “keepers.”

Ron

It is possible, of course, that the subtlety of meaning has gone missing in these exchanges. Perhaps Greg meant that Ronnie didn’t have any cash, hence the need to front him some money. But that interpretation strains credibility. As in all things with this case, it devolved into inconclusiveness within inconclusiveness. Gilmour was nearing the end of the string, in more ways than one.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

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

True Crime: “What Happened in Craig” Available – Update

In the enthusiasm for my latest book, I got a little ahead of myself. I announced that the ebook was ready for pre-order, with delivery by September 1, 2018. As those who pre-ordered “What Happened in Craig” know, that option is no longer available. A cancellation notice has been sent in its place. My apologies.

So now comes the correction. Instead of the ebook, the print version will soon be shipping (September 18, 2018). And it is the print version that is now AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER. HERE TOO. Got that? Me too!

Best of all, “What Happened in Craig” will also be ready for purchase at your favorite LOCAL BOOKSTORE. Hooray!

Available

available

UPCOMING Appearances: Alaska Book Week

I’ll be at Alaska Book Week to talk about true-crime and my latest book, “What Happened in Craig.” Hope to see you all there!

  • Anchorage Barnes & Noble, Wed. October 10, 5-8 pm
  • Alaska State Trooper Museum (FOAST), Anchorage, Thu. October 11, 5-7 pm
  • University of Alaska Anchorage Library, Fri. October 12, 4-6 pm

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: Deception

After talking to Greg’s friends, some of the troopers got the impression they might be covering for the perpetrator(s). That Elsie Young admitted Greg had paid for her taxi fare, yet told her not to tell the cops he’d done so, looked an awful lot like deception. But there was now another possibility: it wasn’t Greg who left the Montana Club that night; it was his cousin Ronnie. Was he responsible for Beth’s murder, instead of Greg?

Gilmour especially felt the need to unravel the deception and get to the true story, which he felt Greg and his friends had somehow withheld. He might have missed one distiction: his belief that Greg might be withholding information was predicated in part on Elsie Young telling the truth. Deception sometimes takes funny turns. Gilmour nonetheless decided to take another run at Greg. During the course of the interview, Greg Nicholas quickly managed to turn the topic toward his cousin Ronnie. The cops were in no mood to stop him.


INTERVIEW: Greg Nicholas, January 5, 1972 (Gilmour & Reed)
“I don’t think Ronnie is mean, but he could very easily become mean. He is always talking about his muscles and strength. He is totally a different type of person than me. I am not really scared of him, but in the back of my mind I was. So I watch myself at screaming at him.

“I went to Beth’s to see about the babysitting because I was in a hurry to get to Beth’s; then I went to the Fly-By-Night because I wasn’t in a hurry to get downtown. I wanted to stop at the garage around 9:00 or 9:30.

“Ronnie was wearing real hard boots. I can draw a picture of them. (A drawing was obtained of Ronnie’s boot from Greg. Photo lineup showing a number of footprints taken at McHugh Creek Campground was shown to Greg.)

Deception
McHugh Creek Campground – Snow

“The slick-sided foot print that is big looks like Ronnie’s shoe print… I think from your photos it looks like my car and Ronnie may have been at the campground. ‘Oh yeah,’ Greg continued. ‘I did give the key to Ronnie that night.’ Ronnie told me earlier he wished he could take my car. I told Ronnie, ‘If you take me to work and bring me back, I’ll give you the key.'”

Deception

“Yeah, it looks like my car and Ron’s footprints were in the McHugh Creek Campground to me. Ron is the only person who had my key. I had some new keys made up in Kenai. I kept two and gave one to Ron. Ron is the only person who could have used the car while I was in the bar. I think most people notice, Ron is different. Ask Elsie and Mary.

Deception

“Ron knew about my calling Beth. He was listening very close and probably on his way to pick her up. If Beth was sexually molested and hair was found, Ron’s hair would probably look just like mine, wouldn’t it? Well, things look pretty bad for me; it looks like either me or Ron. So I think I’ll leave.

GILMOUR: What are you waiting for to tell the whole story?

GREG NICHOLAS: I am waiting for 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