The Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Cousin Ronnie

Even as Robert Hansen made his initial appearance in this case through the person of Sandra Patterson, troopers would not — could not — dismiss Greg Nicholas as a subject of interest. That Greg was not alone the night Beth disappeared provided an intruiging possibility. Perhaps Greg’s cousin Ronnie could open a path that elevated Greg from subject to suspect.

Troopers immediately brought Ronnie in for an interview. Troopers first questioned him on 27 December, two days after Beth’s body was found.

They soon learned that it was Ronnie who had called Greg and asked him for a ride to the airport. In a very real sense, then, Greg’s December 22 adventure started there, initiated by that phone call from his cousin. Greg met Ronnie where he was then living, with the Stephens family at Thompson Manor, in the Mountain View area approximately 20-minutes away from the van Zanten’s.

Ronnie
Alternate Routes: Van Zanten residence to Stephens residence — Thompson Manor, Mountain View (Apple Maps; illustration Leland E. Hale)


Ronald James Broughton, December 27, 1971
“Greg and I smoked a joint after leaving the Stephens house (5:50 pm or so)… We went to Frieda’s apartment [Ronnie’s erstwhile girlfriend]. Frieda invited us in and I asked if she wanted to go to the airport and she said, “Yes.” She asked if we were drunk. We told her we smoked a joint. She gave me coffee and cookies…

“Later, after going to the airport to pick up Nikki [who was not on the plane], I asked Frieda if she wanted to go out. She said, ‘Yes,’ if she could find a babysitter. Greg said that his cousin Beth might babysit.”

This is a critical turning point in the narrative. One that pointed Greg toward Beth in, perhaps, an inalterable way. We know that Greg did, in fact, call Beth about babysitting. Some of her last words to her brother were that she was going to babysit for a friend of Greg’s and to have Greg wait for her if he showed up while she was at the store.

Ronnie Broughton (cont.)
“We went over to see Greg’s car; I think a kid by the name of Dave [Beth’s oldest brother] was fixing the car. After leaving the shop we could have went to Greg’s house to see if the girl would babysit. From there we went to the Montana Club.*

And then a little uncertainty: “Before or after we left the garage, Greg and I went downtown. I cannot remember if we went to Greg’s house before or after we were at Dave’s garage. I do know that Greg and I drove over to Greg’s house to see if Beth would babysit for Freda. We parked facing east in front of the house.”

“Frieda asked me to call at 9:00 or 9:30. I called her from the Montana Club. She said she didn’t know and wanted me to call her back again. I then left Greg and cashed an Alaska Scallop Fleet check at the Alley Cat and drank three Calvert’s and water. I made the [next] call to Freda at 10:00 or 10:30 pm.

Ronnie
Alley Cat, Anchorage: Bar Token

“I went back to the Montana and had two or three drinks. I then wandered around to the Elbow Room and Ole & Joe’s. I ended up at the Montana Club and went out to the Rabbit Hutch. I remember sleeping on the table. I was pretty drunk.”

Q: Was Greg with you all night?
A: Except two or three times when I left the Montana Club.
Q: How long were you gone?
A: Less than an hour. He was sitting with a girl from Kenai and a girl from Port Graham.
Q: Did you ever meet Beth van Zanten?
A: No. I waited in the car.

Ronnie had not exactly delivered a strike-out pitch. Assuming Ronnie was correct, Greg had about an hour to commit the crime. It was 11 minutes from the Montana Club to the van Zanten’s, plus whatever time it took to get Beth out of the house. That seemed doable. It was another 26 minutes from the van Zanten’s to McHugh Creek and another 20 or so minutes back to the Montana Club. By the time one accounted for Beth’s rape and escape, that’s more than an hour, easy. Not quite so doable.

Ronnie, of course, was drunk. In that scenario, time is more a notion than a reality. At the very least, troopers needed to get back to Greg. His initial chronology was not adding up.


* The Montana Club, which closed in 1984, was a legendary joint on Anchorage’s infamous Fourth Avenue. In its heyday, it hosted country legends Johnny Horton (“North to Alaska”) and Carl Perkins (“Blue Suede Shoes”), as well as Tex Ritter, Merle Travis and Hank Thompson. By the time of its closing, those halcyon days were long gone and Fourth Avenue was known as the most crime-ridden area in Anchorage.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

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