The Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Disappearance

I’ve written about the murder of Beth van Zanten multiple times — here, here, here and here. That the murder is still “unsolved” is part of its enduring mystery. That it may be Robert Hansen’s first murder promises an insight into the cold-blooded killer he eventually became.

But one element has long been missing here: the sordid details of the investigation. It was an investigation that quickly ran off the rails and slid across multiple dimensions. An investigation that, perhaps, let Robert Hansen off the hook.

In this series of articles, I will endeavor to fill in those details.

Beth van Zanten

DECEMBER 22, 1971
Celia “Beth” van Zanten, aged 18, was at home with two of her three older brothers. Her brothers were watching a movie and smoking dope. The movie was “The Whole World is Watching,” a made-for-TV movie loosely based on the campus radicals of the late ’60’s. According to her brother Tom, Beth joined them while the movie was in progress. “Beth did not start watching the movie with us,” he later told Troopers. “I do not know where she was. I think she was in the house.”

The three of them, along with older brother David and cousin Greg Nicholas, lived together in a large house on Knik Avenue in south Anchorage, near Northern Lights Blvd. They were essentially on their own. Their parents lived in another house, also in Anchorage.

Not that they lived separate lives; as Mormons, their lives were intimately bound together. That afternoon, for example, Beth had gone shopping with her mother, aunt and cousin. Her aunt, Eloise Swoboda, recalled that “Beth was very happy and was looking forward to Christmas.” While the kids watched the movie on Knik Avenue, their parents were at the Swoboda’s, where they stayed till midnight.

At some point during the evening, Beth decided that she wanted some soda, perhaps because of all the pot that was wafting through the room. There was no soda to be found, so Beth bundled up and headed toward the nearby Bi-Lo store, only blocks away. Before she left, she told her brothers that she was supposed to babysit for one of Greg’s friends and to have him wait till she got back. The time was somewhere near 8:30 pm — there was a commecial break for the movie from 8:32 – 8:34 pm, and another from 8:46 – 8:48 pm — and Beth knew she had to get to the Bi-Lo before it closed at 9:00 pm.

A witness saw Beth walking to the Bi-Lo between 8:45 and 9:00 pm. A neighbor claimed to have seen her on Northern Lights Blvd. at about 9:00 pm.

She never made it to the Bi-Lo. Her brothers didn’t report her missing until two days later. They assumed that Greg had picked her up on the way to the store and taken her babysitting.

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Darla Hansen: The Better Half of Robert Hansen

I’m not sure whether the filmmakers in “The Frozen Ground” meant to protect Robert Hansen’s wife or not. Whatever their motives, they renamed her, called her “Fran Hansen.” Her name is Darla. Darla Marie Henrichsen Hansen. That fact has been known since Butcher, Baker was first published in 1991.

Darla was Bob’s second wife. The one who, to some degree at least, knew what she was getting into. She married him in the aftermath of his Iowa arson conviction. Stood by him when he was arrested and convicted for trying to steal a chainsaw from an Alaska retailer. Stood by him when he was arrested and convicted for an attempt to kidnap a young woman — at gunpoint — from her apartment in south Anchorage. Visited him in jail, kids in tow, though even Bob knew it was profoundly humiliating for her. Stayed with him though he was verbally abusive to her and the children.

Darla Hansen
Darla Henrichsen (Hansen)

I met Darla Hansen in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s conviction for the murders of dozens of young women in Alaska. Those interactions, plus Sgt. Glenn Flothe’s insights into the woman, provide a glimpse into this complex person. What she knew, when she knew it, how she survived.

Darla told Flothe that she knew her husband was up to no good. She had, after all, already travelled that road. She thought, though, that it didn’t go beyond him seeing prostitutes in the wee hours before starting work at the bakery. And, really, who could imagine what Robert Hansen was actually up to? Even at his worst, he hadn’t been that evil.

Because Darla was deeply religious, she also thought she could help him. That getting Bob to attend church would guide him toward a path of righteousness. After each arrest, he deigned to go to church with her for a while. But Bob’s church was the Alaska wilderness; it was his refuge and his chief preoccupation, for both good and bad.

It was not too surprising then that, after many years, Bob and Darla ended up living separate lives. Darla had her own income source, from tutoring learning disabled children. She paid the house expenses, she took care of their two children. Summer vacations saw her and the kids going to Arkansas, where she had family. Bob stayed behind, ostensibly to mind the bakery. The money from the bakery, Darla told Sgt. Flothe, was Bob’s separate money. They did not mingle their funds.

By the time Darla decided to leave Anchorage in the aftermath of Bob’s crimes, that separation was complete, at least legally. She was divorced from Bob and the house was hers, free and clear. She told me her neighbors wanted her to stay in Anchorage, but she didn’t see how she could raise her kids there, not now, after all that had been revealed about their father. It was an eerie feeling as she guided me through the house, the stuffed animals that haunted Cindy Paulson still on the walls of the den.

The woman I met was a tall, big-boned woman who radiated a quiet, almost resigned, strength. Intelligent, too. In all her years of wandering the Midwest with Bob, before they moved to Alaska, she managed to get a Master’s degree in Education. But Bob was her blind spot.

To my mind, the same Christianity that kept her whole and gave her hope was the Christianity that forgave Bob his sins, that kept her with him, if only for the sake of the kids.

When I attended one of Darla’s Bible study groups at a private home south of Anchorage, I was struck by the steadfastness of her religious community. These church friends let me know that “they knew,” and were standing by her. The topic that day was about “talking to God.” Bible verses were read to illustrate the practice. Each attendee testified to his or her own experiences. When it came Darla’s turn, she confessed to talking to God every day. That was not shocking.

But even these deeply religious people were slightly taken aback when Darla said, “Sometimes God talks to me.”

Darla missed it, but one of the attendees discretely rolled his eyes.

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More Thoughts… Cindy Paulson

By the time the movie “The Frozen Ground” was made, Cindy Paulson was married with three children. She worked with the filmmakers and, according to the credits, told her true-story for the first time. [Well, the first public telling of her story, anyway.]

She did not get to “straight” in one clean shot.

Judging from the movie’s treatment, her life was a lurid mess in the immediate aftermath of her encounter with Robert Hansen (1),(2). So raw were her emotions that, when District Attorney Vic Krumm told a hushed courtroom Robert Hansen had confessed to the murders, Cindy ran from the room in tears. Not long after a small celebratory dinner, when Hansen’s conviction came in and it looked like she’d turned her life around, she was back on the streets. It was what she knew.

It’s her emotional honesty and vulnerability that strikes me today, thirty years on. That and her “street smarts.” And her contradictions.

Especially her contradictions.

All smart and sassy one minute, leading with her streetwise self, then quickly turning into a wide-eyed teen, trying to capture the youth she’d been denied. Plotting bodily harm to Robert Hansen and then realizing she, too, might be harmed. Impetuous — wanting to run the minute he took her from his house to the car — yet patient — waiting till he was at his airplane and visible only from the waist down before attempting her escape.

Those cracks in her life story were what let the pimps in. They were also what let Robert Hansen in. Someone could promise Cindy Paulson almost anything — and she’d run toward it. Disappoint her, however, and she was just as likely to run the other direction. It was what she knew.

Run from her parents? Check. Run from her pimp? Check. Run from Robert Hansen.

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Cindy Paulson
Cindy Paulson

(1) I will quibble with one “detail” of “The Frozen Ground.” The film has Cindy move in with Sgt. Flothe and his family. In all my interviews with Sgt. Glenn Flothe — and his wife — there was NOT ONE mention of Cindy coming to live with them. Befriend her, yes. House her, no.

She was instead living at a safe-house (and, to repeat, the family who ran the safe-house attended Darla Hansen’s church). Before the safe-house, she was living in a “party house” on Anchorage’s Government Hill. It was there that Flothe effected the rescue that (temporarily) got her out of the pimps and ho’s routine.

I know, I know… it’s “the movies.” The filmmakers chose implied sex (living with Flothe) over irony (living with church folks who worshiped with the killer’s wife). It probably cost them a half-star in their rating.

(2) Actually, I can quibble about several details in the movie. But I’ll leave it at that. Quibbles.

Robert Hansen’s Flight Map

First off, thanks to the wonderful students at the University of Alaska – Anchorage who met with the Butcher, Baker authors on 7 November 2013. Your questions, your curiosity and your passion are remarkable.

One of the things I discovered during our interaction was how interested you were in the victim map that Robert Hansen kept, using a flight map as a starting point. The map is gruesome documentation of Hansen’s savagery and cruelty — and the single best image of the scope of his crimes. Each colored circle represents a possible victim burial place. There are 24 circles in all.

Robert Hansen’s Flight Map (annotated by AST Glenn Flothe)

Hansen's flight map


  • Blue Circle = Hansen admits victim
  • Yellow Circle = Hansen denies victim

Frozen Ground: The Distribution Game, Part II

That the film industry is one in transition is oft-discussed. In North America, movies are increasingly watched at home — hence the success of Netflix. Globally, it’s a somewhat different story, as this piece from PWC notes:

China will become the fastest-growing filmed entertainment market in the world, expanding by a CAGR of 14.7% from 2012 to 2017, followed in the Asia Pacific region by Thailand (10.5%) and India (9.9%). Other markets with double-digit CAGR are Venezuela, Russia, and Argentina. The larger traditional markets in North America and Europe are comparatively stagnant, with 1 to 3% growth in general.

Now consider this in the context of The Frozen Ground release schedule. The Argentina release, for example, has moved to December 12, 2013 (where it will be known as [correction] Cazador de mujeres – Hunter of Women). But countries across Europe and Asia have already seen the film’s debut, the one exception being the all-important China market (which should be on track for a 2014 release; the film has already appeared in the Taiwan market).

As noted in our previous blog post, distribution decisions restricted the North American theatrical release — but reflect the changing dynamics of the North American film industry toward the home market and away from the theatrical market, where it seems only blockbusters survive.

Recommendation: If you like Nicholas Cage, see the movie. If you followed the Hansen case, see the movie. And then, when you feel the need for more soda and popcorn, read “Butcher, Baker.” If you want to support a great institution in the process, order it from the Alaska State Trooper Museum.

Frozen Ground: The Distribution Game

I missed this detail in my earlier posts, but the Anchorage Daily News has a great story explaining why The Frozen Ground movie has not enjoyed a wide theatrical release. Dunham quotes Ron Holmstrom, who played Hansen’s lawyer and is an Anchorage-based board member of the Seattle Local of the Screen Actors Guild. Holmstrom explains why the movie did not premiere in Anchorage, where much of it was filmed.

“The reason that Anchorage is being skipped… has to do with a fight among theater chains, producers and distributors that involves, among other things, the video on demand (VOD, home pay-per-view) release of ‘Frozen Ground’ on the same day that it opens in American theaters.”

It wasn’t just Anchorage that was affected. Few cities saw “The Frozen Ground” reach theaters.

Holmstrom adds: “I spoke with both Lionsgate, the theatrical distributor, and Grindstone, the VOD distributor. They assured me that because of the VOD release, the big cinema chains refused to do a wide release.”

This is, of course, a business decision. The principals behind “The Frozen Ground” are Emmett/Furla Productions (they drove the film from its inception). Emmett/Furla are in tight with Lionsgate and Grindstone Entertainment Group, after signing a 10 film deal in 2012. From the PR piece announcing the deal:

The Grindstone collaboration with Emmett/Furla and Cheetah Vision has generated a string of successful features starring notable A list actors, including: the thriller SET UP, starring Bruce Willis, Ryan Phillippe and Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson; the crime drama FREELANCERS, starring Robert DeNiro and Forrest Whitaker; the high octane FIRE WITH FIRE, starring Willis, Josh Duhamel, Rosario Dawson and Vincent D’Onofrio; and the serial killer thriller THE FROZEN GROUND, starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack. The next film slated for release from Grindstone’s partnership with Emmett/Furla is the crime thriller EMPIRE STATE, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, THE HUNGER GAMES’ Liam Hemsworth and Emma Roberts.

So if you happen to live in New York, Dallas, Phildelphia or… Wasilla, Alaska (pop. 8,456)… You were lucky… Otherwise, it’s VOD (If you have Redbox in your area, you might be able to get it there, too).

Recommendation: If you like Nicholas Cage, see the movie. If you followed the Hansen case, see the movie. And then, when you feel the need for more soda and popcorn, read “Butcher, Baker.” If you want to support a great institution in the process, order it from the Alaska State Trooper Museum.

Saw “Frozen Ground” the movie: Three 1/2 Stars

I just saw “The Frozen Ground,” the movie inspired by Butcher, Baker. It’s available through October as an On Demand movie (check your local listings).

Aside from the usual complaints about what happens when movies try to condense the narrative that’s only possible in books, I have several observations:

  • Scene I missed the most: In the actual investigation, Holcombe (AST Sgt. Glenn Flothe) learns of Robert Hansen’s sordid past while standing next to AST Major Walter Gilmour as they’re peeing at the urinals.
  • AST Sgt. Holcombe’s (Cage) wife in Frozen Ground is largely unsympathetic. The real wife here, Cherry Flothe, interacted with Cindy Paulson on a regular (and always supportive) basis — usually by phone, when Glenn was unavailable. Cherry was an unswerving believer in Glenn, even when others had doubts. In this case, the real thing is much, much better than the fictional thing.
  • Nicholas Cage turns in a strained but credible performance as Glenn Flothe (Holcombe). My “Butcher, Baker” co-author, the inimitable Walter Gilmour, once joked that the first instinct was to put all the asshole cops on the dancer murders. They only succeeded when they put a nice cop (Flothe) on the case.
  • My biggest (positive) surprise was Vanessa Hudgens as Cindy Paulson. She deftly manages to communicate the edgy vulnerability of the real person. Kudos — if Hudgens fails, the movie fails, because the credibility of everything else depends on that performance.
  • The aerial shots of the Chugach Mountains, the Knik River and Anchorage were stunning at times. More than anything, the Hansen murders call up a sense of people and place — and the place is inseparable from how Hansen’s crimes were committed and how he got away with them for so long.
  • Strangest moment #1: Holcombe (Cage) describes Robert Hansen as a stutterer. Yet Hansen (Cusack) barely stutters. Probably a good acting decision. But still a WTF moment.
  • Strangest moment #2: Hansen’s entire interaction with the (white) pimp/enforcer. People, people, people… Robert Hansen was (justifiably) terrified that every human interaction was a route to the unraveling of his elaborate cover. He went to GREAT lengths to make sure no one ever saw him with any of the young women. And then went to great lengths to scare, secure and isolate them. To think that he would blithely order a “hit” on Cindy Paulson is magical thinking on the part of the filmmakers (yes, it adds drama; I would argue it’s gratuitous, that it just gives the actors some action sequences, but… Nevermind).
  • And, yes, there were jailhouse rumors about a hit on Cindy. Or more accurately, talk about how Hansen wanted her to just go away (as in pay her to leave town). Those are two different things. I say: consider the source. Yeah. The jailhouse.

Recommendation: If you like Nicholas Cage, see the movie. If you followed the Hansen case, see the movie. And then, when you feel the need for more soda and popcorn, read “Butcher, Baker.” If you want to support a great institution in the process, order it from the Alaska State Trooper Museum.

Butcher, Baker; Frozen Ground; Fair Game

This too will pass… but indulge me for a moment while I eat sour grapes…

This should be a happy week. The movie version of the Robert Hansen serial murder case, called Frozen Ground, is enjoying a limited opening in theaters somewhere in America. But in the grand scheme of things, um… There’s not as much happiness as I would have liked…

My book, Butcher, Baker, is an afterthought in all of this. A coulda, woulda, shoulda. My gut sense is still that it shouldn’t have come to this, but life is complex and sometimes co-authors (and literary agents) don’t see eye-to-eye. I am trying to be diplomatic.

To add insult to injury, I just got a mail from Amazon, touting Fair Game, another book about Robert Hansen. Calling it “the Definitive Account of the Crimes of Alaska Serial Killer Robert Hansen.” For the record, I just want to say “bullshit.”

But you be the judge. Read both books. See the movie. Look at the arc of the story. Pay attention to how long it takes Cindy Paulson to appear in each version (and yes, it’s true, the publisher made us give her a pseudonym; think of her as the 17 year old who got away).

And Bernard, no hard feelings. Really. Congratulations. Fair Game, right?

Frozen Ground (The Movie): U.S. Premiere

Well, well, well, kiddies… The news of the world now reveals that… The movie inspired by “Butcher, Baker” — also known as the Frozen Ground — is now going to premiere in the U S of A.

You heard right. Premiering in the U.S.A. On 23 August 2013. Not sure where… Or how many screens. But… Here’s the link: Frozen Ground @IMDb. Congratulations everyone, especially Mr. Scott Walker, for whom this is a Hollywood directing debut.

BTW — why do I keep saying Frozen Ground “The Movie?” Because it wasn’t that long ago that a Google search of “Frozen Ground” brought up “Frozen Ground Beef” recipes… And yes, I posit here, now and forever… that “Frozen Ground” is a shitty name… Actually, an ab-so-lute-ly shitty name… Especially compared to the (ahem) original.

Them’s the breaks, kids. Them’s the breaks. Take no risks and nothing will happen either to you or for you. I’ll take my risks, thank you. I’ll put myself out there. Mindful that, as a friend reminds me, “the writer always gets screwed.”

No matter. You can still buy the original work on Amazon. Yes. And I don’t make a penny (that’s the way how it works; see above). “Butcher, Baker” is the real thing. No made up scenes. No gratuitous drama because, really, it isn’t necessary. This is true edge of your seat stuff. And, no, I haven’t seen the movie…

Frozen Ground: Argentina Update

Having just returned from Argentina (it was great, BTW), I now have another update on the release of “Frozen Ground.” Thanks to my friend Elisa, here’s a link to an Argentine web site ( with the following update (Spanish):

Basada en una historia real, un policĂ­a del estado de Alaska se une a una joven mujer que ha escapado de un asesino serial, para encontrar al delicuente y llevarlo a la justicia.

ACTORES: Nicolas Cage, Vanessa Hudgens, John Cusack.
GENERO (genre): Suspenso.
ORIGEN: Estados Unidos.
DURACION: No informada
CALIFICACION (rating): No disponible por el momento

ESTRENO EN BUENOS AIRES: 07 de Marzo de 2013

Rough translation: Based on a true story, an Alaska State Trooper meets a young woman who has escaped from a serial murderer, finds the offender and brings him to justice.