Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Frustration, Politics, Reality

Then-Corporal Walter Gilmour had reached a point in the Beth van Zanten case where, in his own words, “I couldn’t sleep for shit and I needed help.” At the peak of his frustration, he sought out fellow trooper Sgt. Don Church. Now assigned to Alaska’s statewide unit of major crime investigations — the Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) — Church had met Gilmour when he was a recruit in the state police.

Even then, Church was a certified hero: during the 1964 earthquake, he was instrumental in saving hundreds of lives as he sent seismic warnings all over the villages in the Aleutian Chain, using his marine radio. He did more than that.

A coveted award citation from the National Police Officers of America noted the following of then-Trooper Church:

“On March 27, 1964 after completing a regular tour of duty this officer learned of an impending tidal wave and with complete disregard of his own safety spread the alarm to villages along his post. He continued for several days to search and rescue victims despite all obstacles.”

Gilmour needed a place to lay his frustration. More than that, he needed the guidance of this man who always stood cool under fire.

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Trooper Donald D. Church in 1964 (Click for Details)


The two of them met at Leroy’s Pancake place in mid-town Anchorage. Gilmour wasted no time getting to the point.

“Don, I’m really up a duck’s ass with this case. The Colonel thinks I’m pushing too hard but he won’t be specific as to what he is talking about and I’m not sure where he is getting his information. I really feel that I can make this case but there seems to be things going on that I’m not aware of. What do you think? Are we missing anything that should be done on this thing?”

Sgt. Church was immaculate as usual, always dressed in a suit and tie. He seemed to ponder the question as they were sitting there and, at one point, Gilmour thought he was not going to answer.

“Well,” says Church, “welcome to the real world. When you were in Fairbanks, you had everything your own way. And that’s why you were brought down here so that they can keep an eye on you. Then when things went your way on the Mayo case (1), you really pissed some of them off. Now you are stumped and they feel free to criticize your methods. It doesn’t make any difference what you do. If you don’t solve the case, you’re wrong.”

And then Church took Gilmour into the politics of frustration. He point-blank told him that another officer, Sgt. Anderson, was now a rival in the minds of both trooper leaders and, worse, his fellow officers. In part that was because Sgt. Anderson was the kind of trooper they admired: calm, collected, got along well with the local D.A.

“Some of the men worked for Anderson before you came along and some see themselves getting included in the CIB,” Church told him. “So they’re over brown-nosing him. Some guys think you are all wet thinking that this case is going to be solved. The worst part is that I have been told it doesn’t make any difference one way or another.”

“Shit, Don, you gotta be shitten me,” Gilmour replied. “What the hell. I was talking to the Director and he told me I could have anything that I needed and to see you if I needed any help.”

“That’s what I mean. Anderson wants the CIB to take over this case. But they are still calling it a local case. I told them you should keep the case, but they really want to take it, so they are going to be second-guessing you all the way along. If the Statewide theory of a criminal investigation bureau is going to have credibility, then they will need staff authority.

“And,” Church continued, “if this case isn’t solved they will decide that the CIB should have line authority. Even if the case is solved, you just got lucky again. Either way you’re the loser. Anyway, I heard that they are going to reorganize and put all the investigations, both local and statewide, under Anderson. That will give him enough to make Captain. Which might not be too bad; at least then there will be no question who is working for who. Because Anderson is the one with the real authority anyway.”

Gilmour’s frustration now met reality. As he later mused, “The thought that the men who were working under my command really felt that their best career bet was to show loyalty elsewhere always made me feel that I couldn’t be sure everyone was as enthusiastic for my plans and guidance as I might have wished.”

It was all there. Frustration. Politics. Reality. Truth was, none of it helped Gilmour solve the van Zanten case one way or the other. Some way, some how, they needed a break.


(1) In September, 1971, a Birchwood youth and his adult companion were found dead down a slope from the Glenn Highway in the Sheep Mountain area. According to police, Lorance Zimmerman, 44, of Spenard, and Paul Hair, 11, of Birchwood were last seen leaving Hair’s home on an errand to Gunsight Mountain. Police would not speculate on how the pair died, but the vehicle they’d been riding in was not found.

The vehicle was later located in Fairbanks. Troopers sent Gilmour to Fairbanks and he ultimately fingered a 21-year-old drifter named Willis B. Mayo, an escapee from the prison farm in Palmer, who was eventually arrested in Washington state for the murders. But not without controversy. The Fairbanks district attorney complained about what he saw as interference by Gilmour, because an Anchorage-based trooper had taken over an investigation in the Fairbanks Police jurisdiction.

For more on the Mayo case, get Cold Crime, by Tom Brennan.


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