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.


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

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.


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Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: The Wire

Forensics, then as now, always play an important role in murder investigations. At a very high level, there are two parallel paths with forensic evidence: what you find and what you can to do with it. Troopers were struggling on both fronts.

Physical evidence was sparse. No foreign hair was found in any of the victim combings or her clothing. The sperm found in her womb could have been dispositive but, at the time, forensic scientists could only make blood, not DNA, matches. Her time of death was also uncertain: the forensic pathologist told them that the low temperatures and cause of death delayed rigor mortis. The only piece of physical evidence they really had was the wire used to tie Beth’s hands.

Troopers were also playing hell getting the wire identified. One of Gilmour’s investigators had been all over town, to every possible business that might handle such an object. The wire was a double-strand, black and white stereo wire, with indications it was made in Japan. While one trooper tried businesses, another contacted Interpol, asking if they could track down the manufacturer and identify an American outlet for that product. That too was proving impossible.

Wire

One hope stood out: the wire could have come from a G.I. who’d been in Asia. There was, after all, a war going on in Southeast Asia. Alaska was a major military transport point for Vietnam and other points east. And then there was this: one of Beth’s ex-boyfriend’s was in the military. And at one time, before he was sent to Vietnam, they were supposed to get married. Stationed at Fort Wainwright, the ex-boyfriend had in fact been in Fairbanks at the time of Beth’s disappearance.


INTERVIEW: William Frederick Smith, Beth van Zanten’s ex-boyfriend
December 22, 1971

  • Went to work and Sergeant Bennett gave me the day off at approximately 1:00 pm.
  • 2:00 pm: My brother and I got a Christmas tree.
  • 5:00 – 5:30 pm: I went to Fairbanks to pick up my sister and fiancé.
  • 8:00 pm: Met their Alaska Airlines plane in Fairbanks. The two women went shopping at Penney’s and I got gas.
  • 11:00 pm: Got home and stayed there.

There was more. Bill’s brother could account for his whereabouts since December 21st — the day before Beth went missing. As far as the wire — and everything else — was concerned, this was a dead end. Not only was Smith elsewhere during the time of Beth’s murder, he had moved on to another relationship.

And that wire Detective Rice spied at Robert Hansen’s house? Languishing.


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Robert Hansen Dies at 75

Serial killer Robert Hansen died Thursday, August 21, at an Anchorage hospital. He was 75. His death appears to be from natural causes. According to the Alaska Department of Corrections, Hansen’s health had been declining for the past year.

The Anchorage Dispatch News quotes retired Alaska Trooper Glenn Flothe on Hansen’s death. Fittingly, it is Flothe who gets the last word.

“On this day we should only remember his many victims and all of their families, and my heart goes out to all of them,” wrote Glenn Flothe, a retired Alaska state trooper who was instrumental in Hansen’s 1984 capture.

“As far as Hansen is concerned, this world is better without him.” Flothe wrote.

Glenn Flothe in 1982, shortly after Robert Hansen’s arrest.

Flothe

The Anchorage Dispatch has additional coverage of Hansen’s transfer to the Anchorage Correctional Complex, prior to his death. According to troopers, Hansen had “Do Not Resuscitate” paperwork on file with the Department of Corrections. He got his wish.

The Publicity Sales Bump

Butcher, Baker is in its fourth, and perhaps final, print publication cycle. I say perhaps because I’ve been wrong before. But the last year has provided me an eye-witness perspective on the difference publicity makes in book sales.

One of the “jobs” I’ve had over the last year and a half is to track Butcher, Baker sales. We wanted some independent accounting in our discussion with Todd Communications. As it turns out, Amazon has some amazing tools for tracking book sales, with data from Nielsen BookScan.

The numbers tell quite a tale. I’ll let them do most of the talking… In the first graph, you can clearly see three sales spikes:

  • First, when the film was announced (The Frozen Ground)
  • Second, when Todd Communications re-published Butcher, Baker
  • Third, when Christmas sales took over

Butcher, Baker Sales: 2010-2012
Butcher, Baker sales, 2010-2012

In the second graph, you see the magnitude of the Christmas spike. Book sales jumped to a recent high (highest sales were during the book’s first printing in 1991; we sold close to 100K). Of course, you can also see the steady decline in sales from that high-point onward. Indeed, Butcher, Baker, is headed back toward “normal” levels (note the pre-July 2011 line in the graph above).

Butcher, Baker Sales: September 2011-June 2012
Butcher, Baker sales, 10-2011 to 6-2012

Go See: The Frozen Ground, the movie inspired by Butcher, Baker. Opening in theaters December 2012.

James Eagan Holmes On Drugs

Well, you know, this guy’s pretty much a hated person.

Accused mass murderer James Eagan Holmes.James Eagan Holmes.

It’s easy to see why. 12 dead. 58 injured. Bug eyes. Orange hair. Who in America loves a crazy man with tons of guns?

The Colorado criminal justice system agrees. They’ve lobbed 142 criminal charges against the dude, 24 of them homicide, plus the injured, plus the bombs. Not sure about the homicide math. 12 dead does not equal 24 homicide charges. But ok, whatever. It turns out the dual charges are based on different legal theories.

And yet… My most immediate thoughts on this homicide say… Darkness, Darkness by Jesse Colin Young.

Most Anticipated Movies 2012: The Frozen Ground?

IMDb, the movie database, has a social feature that encourages fans to put together lists of their most anticipated movies. It’s a fun feature, not to be taken too seriously, but a peek into the psyche of the devoted movie-goer nonetheless.

My question is this: where does The Frozen Ground, the movie inspired by Butcher, Baker, show up on these lists?

The answer is “pretty high up.” Here’s a sampling. Of course, this is a very selective sample. What did you expect? There’s more than a few lists where… um… The Frozen Ground is nowhere to be found. You can find those lists on your own!

Movies We HAVE to see in 2012 (lulie1810)IMDb - lists

30 Most Anticipated Movies of 2012 (simon-evgp) IMDb - lists

Movies That I Can’t Wait Till They’re Released (lbtrev) IMDb - lists

Most Waited to See in 2012 (cristianoumberto) IMDb - lists

The Most Anticipated Movies of 2012 (romtonkon) IMDb - lists

Harry Marks Quits Reading

So this Harry Marks dude announces he’s going to quit reading for a year. Ok. Sure. Count me skeptical.

This whole stunt reminds me of the Breatharian, Wiley Brooks. Brooks, like many Breatharians, claims he can live solely on light and air. He doesn’t need food. Or drink. Which is fine, if you can get away with it.

In 1983 he [Brooks] was reportedly observed leaving a Santa Cruz 7-Eleven with a Slurpee, hot dog and Twinkies. He told Colors magazine in 2003 that he periodically breaks his fasting with a cheeseburger and a cola, explaining that when he’s surrounded by junk culture and junk food, consuming them adds balance.

I imagine the same fate will strike Mr. Marks. He’ll get busted reading a food label. Or someone will spot him reading a highway sign. You know, something like “Detour Ahead.” At some point, he’ll need to find the EXIT. Or choose something from the MENU. I’m not saying it’s going to happen at a Santa Cruz 7-Eleven. But it could. It really could.

Hey, Harry. No cheating.

Microsoft Decides

Last November, I speculated as to which, if any, eBook format Microsoft would support in Windows 8 tablets.

[Mistakenly, I also ranked Windows Media Center as “more central” to Microsoft’s media consumption story. What? It’s just one piece of the puzzle. Anyway. Always willing to admit mistakes.]

And now it looks like we have our answer. A $1.7 billion answer, by the way. Call it the Nook. From Barnes & Noble.

Microsoft agreed to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in Barnes & Noble’s Nook division on Monday, giving the bookstore chain stronger footing in the hotly contested electronic book market and creating an alliance that could intensify the fight over the future of digital reading.

ePub is now the official winner in the eBook format wars. Why do I say that? It’s the eBook format supported by nearly everyone. Apple. Sony. Adobe. Kobo Reader. Blackberry Playbook. Everyone except Amazon, which uses a proprietary variant of the Mobi format; to be kind, they also support a command-line ePub converter called KindleGen. Woo woo.

Oh wait… I’m missing something… Amazon owns 60% of the eBook market. And the U.S. Department of Justice apparently wants to help them get back to 90%. Winner: Mobi.

At any rate, here’s what Microsoft has decided:

  • On the eBook format side, Microsoft chooses ePub by investing in the Nook Division. It’s the primary eBook format for the Nook Color and that’s the future. Winner: ePub.
  • On the device side, the news release says the Nook Division will create a Nook Reader for Windows 8. That reader will likely read multiple format types (the Android-based Nook already does), with ePub prominent among them. Winner: ePub.

eBook Prices & Monopoly

The classic construction has it that monopolies enforce higher prices. And in the current suit by the U.S. Department of Justice, accusing book publishers of price collusion on eBooks, the bad guys are the ones raising prices. By that definition, Amazon could not be a monopolist. They want lower prices. Way lower prices.

The reality is a little more complex. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that Amazon is not a monopoly. Where does that lead us?

The business literature is filled with examples of how firms use lower prices to gain market share or competitive advantage. In the Amazon case, we have the example of “penetration pricing,” or price discrimination. That’s exactly what they’re doing:

Setting lower, rather than higher prices in order to achieve a large, if not dominant market share.

The question, of course, is whether any of this can lead to an eBook monopoly for Amazon. This much we know:

  • When any firm gains competitive advantage, it can begin to dictate terms to its suppliers. Take Wal-Mart, for example. Or Apple’s iPhone/iPad supply chain.
  • Before Apple and agency pricing, Amazon had 90% market share. They had the eBook market to themselves and were pricing aggressively to gain competitive advantage. The adoption of agency pricing, to my mind, proves they were on their way.
  • With the advent of agency pricing, Amazon’s eBook market share fell to 60%. Barnes & Noble gained 25%, Apple gained 15%.
  • Almost as soon as the U.S. DoJ announced a settlement with three of the six parties on the collusion allegations, Amazon announced it would again lower eBook prices.
  • As it must. Under the settlement, the publishers are required to “to grant retailers – such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble – the freedom to reduce the prices of their ebook titles.”

REPLAY: Amazon gains 90% share of the eBook market?

The sad thing here is how many apologists (sorry, I lack a more elegant term) contend that there is “spin” involved when making the argument that Amazon is lowering prices to gain competitive advantage. In the most egregious example, Peter Scheer makes the specious claim that Amazon cannot be simultaneously selling eBooks AND Kindles at a loss.

Now, both of these statements can’t be true. It’s not possible for Amazon to both (1) sell e-books at a loss in order to reap big profits on Kindle devices, and (2) sell Kindles at a loss to reap big profits on e-books. It may be doing 1 or it may be doing 2, but it can’t be doing both at the same time.

Of course, Peter Scheer is correct. Unfortunately, he’s casting the question in such a way that the only logical answer is the one he wants. Getting to first causes, let’s pose the question differently:

To gain a dominant market share in eBooks, Amazon is willing to sell eBooks AND Kindle Readers at a loss. Because, really, you can’t have one without the other.

Still sound “impossible?”

Again, think Wal-Mart. They sell lots of things, make money on many of them and can afford a few losses elsewhere. Same for Amazon. The idea of using those few losses to gain a dominant position in one corner of a business has to be… Ummm… Appealing. And, up to a certain point, it is perfectly acceptable business behavior. There are other examples… Take Dell. Or Nokia, just for starters.

We grant that this strategy doesn’t always work, or doesn’t work forever. But it’s always nice to have powerful friends helping you out along the way.