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.


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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.

source
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: 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.

report
’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.’

report
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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Walter J. Gilmour Leads the Trooper Academy

We continue with excerpts from the previously unpublished writings of Walter Gilmour. In this installment, he talks about his time at the Trooper Academy in Sitka, now called the Public Safety Training Academy. Walt was the Director of the Academy from 1975 to 1977. [Full disclosure: my ex-wife worked as a rape-sensitivity training instructor at the Academy during Walter’s tenure.]

Maj. Walter J. Gilmour

“In 1975, I was transferred to the Alaska State Trooper Academy in the rain-soaked and isolated environs of Sitka, which is situated on an island in Southeast Alaska. I remained there until 1977 and, during that time, I missed out on direct knowledge of Robert C. Hansen’s continuing escapades. Still, I would participate in an exercise that would impact Hansen’s ability to carry on his sickening and dangerous game.

academy
Sitka, Alaska from the water

“Trooper training is rigorous, comprehensive and, frankly, designed to weed out candidates who fall short of our admittedly high standards. The State Troopers Academy also sees itself as a progressive institution, one which is concerned about bringing Troopers into the world who not only understand those who commit crimes, but the victims of those crimes. An ability to relate to the victim is not just a forward-looking police concept, but goes a long way toward the solution of a crime, since the victim can be one of the firmest links to the perpetrator.

academy
Public Safety Training Academy, Sitka, Alaska

“Some of the most insidious crimes police have to deal with are sexual offenses, especially rape. The assailant is often known by the victim, but because of mishandling of the victim on the part of police and the courts, rapes are underreported, under-prosecuted and subject to an abysmally low conviction rate when they are prosecuted. In the mid-70s, while I was at the Trooper Academy, it was determined that we needed to do a better job when it came to handling rape cases.

“Our response was to institute several changes to our approach to sexual offenses. At the Academy, we began to incorporate a rape sensitivity component into trooper training. Using role playing and lectures by recognized experts in rape victim advocacy, we hoped to increase trooper awareness of the special problems presented by rape cases, including the sometimes paralyzing trauma experienced by the victim.

“At a statewide level, it was recognized that we also needed to do something to increase the reporting level in rape cases. We found that victim distrust of the police was one of the greatest obstacles to overcoming the underreporting of rape. Since at that time a network of rape crisis centers specializing in victim advocacy was starting to spring up across the state, it was suggested that we could overcome those difficulties by instituting a third-party reporting system. In this system, rape crisis centers served as intermediaries between victims and the police, and hopefully narrowed the gap between the two.”

This new program would ultimately lead troopers back to Robert Hansen.


Exploring Sitka: Credit: Perfect Little Planet

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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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Bob Was Busy

Gary Zieger was killed on November 27, 1973. There’s no question that he was busy between August 1972 and his death, with scores of murders in his wake. As it turns out, Robert Hansen was also busy. And it’s all the more remarkable because from March 1972 to November 1973, Hansen was in a halfway house for the assault and attempted kidnapping of a real estate secretary.

busy
Robert Hansen in a lineup photo (courtesy Alaska State Troopers)

We defer to Maj. Walter J. Gilmour for the narrative:

“As for the other suspect in Beth van Zanten’s murder, Robert C. Hansen was apparently a model convict at the halfway house. The fact that he had a trade — he had stayed a baker like his father — made him seem more salvageable than most who embark on a criminal career. It didn’t hurt that he had a family, either, or other interests that made him appear normal. Aside from his avid participation in bowhunting, at which he evidently excelled, Hansen had a strong love of fishing and boating.

“And so it was that Robert Hansen spent the 4th of July of 1973 boating in the waters off Seward, to the south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula. Perhaps it was just coincidence that Megan S. Emerick would be reported missing three days later, on the 7th of July. A young woman enrolled at the local trade school, with no known record of trouble, her body has never been found.

“By November of 1973, Hansen was paroled on the Assault with a Deadly Weapon charge and went free. He was seemingly able to keep his nose clean, for a while at least, and began to fade from police attention.”


It is important to note here that Hansen’s Fourth of July trip to Seward was cleared by his parole officer. It is also crucial to note that Hansen ventured to Seward by himself. His wife, Darla, disliked boating and the long-haul from Anchorage to Seward with a boat in tow.

On his own, without adult supervision, Robert Hansen was capable of the most heinous crimes imaginable. And some that cannot be imagined. Like killing young Megan Emerick and tossing her overboard into the depths of Resurrection Bay, her body never to be found.


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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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: 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.