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: 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.

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The Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Suspicion

Given that Beth had planned to babysit for her (foster) cousin, Greg Nicholas, on the night she disappeared, he immediately came under suspicion. Interviews with family members started to fill in some troubling — and conflicting — details.

Beth’s mother, Kathleen, went through her daughter’s letters and found something that, in retrospect, seemed disturbing. In one of those letters Beth had written, “It’s not fun to date anymore.”

“My daughter didn’t want her cousin, foster cousin, Gregory Nicholas, staying on the same floor with her,” Kathleen told troopers after revealing that their bedrooms were next to each other. “It was a poor arrangement. I don’t know if he was getting out of line or if it was for reasons of modesty.”

She added that, “Greg did not get along with my daughter. They bickered with each other since they were four or five years old. This continued until her early teens, when he ran away. After he came back, I don’t have a specific recollection of my daughter’s and his demeanor. There was nothing outstanding. Their attitude toward each other hadn’t seemed to change.”

Beth van Zanten

This alone put Greg under greater suspicion. But a conversation with Kathleen van Zanten’s sister, Eloise Swoboda, brought nuance to that cut-and-dried portrait.

Born to an Alaska Native family, Greg was placed with Eloise as a three-year-old because his family had active TB. His mother died soon thereafter and Greg resented his father for not keeping the family together.

After running away from home, Greg was sent to a BIA school in Oklahoma. There was lots of fighting there, Swoboda said, mostly between Navahoes and Arapahoes. Swoboda said Greg was not a fighter. He was beaten so badly his jaw was broken and he suffered dental damage. They gave him plastic surgery but his face had never been the same. That said, Greg was good at art and math, according to his foster mother, even winning a national contest in Architectural Drawing at the BIA school. He was supposed to get drafting tools and a scholarship but got neither, due to what Swoboda called a “BIA foul-up.”

He instead returned to Alaska, where he was now a subject in a murder investigation.

“Gregory’s reaction upon learning of Beth’s death was that of shock and grief,” Swoboda told troopers. “Later, after being questioned by the police, he was very frightened because he felt the police thought he had done it and he had been out drinking that night.”

Eloise Swoboda added that, “Greg never gave an indication of sexual problems of any sort and I do not think he would attack Beth.”

As with most things in life, the truth of the trooper suspicion resided somewhere between the sentiments of Kathleen van Zanten and those of her sister, Eloise Swoboda.

Purchase Butcher, Baker

The Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Discovery

DECEMBER 25, 1971: On Christmas day, two brothers went to McHugh Creek, along Turnagain Arm south of Anchorage, to shoot photos. After days of blizzards and sub-zero temperatures, they were glad to be out of the house in balmy 40 degree weather. As he edged toward a waterfall for a classic shot, Dennis Lawler spied what looked like a mannequin, dropped at an odd angle and partially covered with snow. He craned his neck forward to get a better look. His discovery was a body: A young woman, nude from the waist down, a soft cover of downy snowflakes across her exposed thighs.

At the crime scene, troopers found a woman who seemed to match one of their missing persons reports: Young, fair complexion, long blonde hair. Her wrists were tied behind her back with speaker wire. The gag which had been placed over her mouth had fallen lower across her face. It appeared as though she had been sexually assaulted: her blue jeans were nowhere to be found. Also missing were her green, down-filled parka and rubber soled hiking boots; she had literally been stripped of all protection against the elements.


Somehow before her death, she had managed to escape her assailant. She literally ran for her life. Her first fall was fifty feet from the presumed location of the murderer’s car. With her hands bound behind her, and in snow three feet deep on a dizzying slope, it would have taken a superhuman effort to regain her feet and continue the descent into what must have seemed a black hole. She got within ten to fifteen feet of the waterfall, but somehow turned away at the last minute.

In the days since she’d gone missing, temperatures ranged from a low of minus five to a high of 22. She had frozen to death.

In the parking lot, the scene investigation led to the discovery of “donuts” in the pavement, made by a car circling the roadway, perhaps in a mad attempt to find Beth after she’d escaped the vehicle. At her autopsy the following day, they confirmed that she had been sexually assaulted: her bra had been cut, leaving a diagonal slash mark between her breasts; there was evidence of sexual penetration; semen was found in her womb.

Whoever did this was the lowest of the low.

UPDATE: August 6, 2018: There was also a gag on Beth’s face when she was found.

Purchase Butcher, Baker