Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Arrest & Trial

When it came time to arrest Gary Zieger in the Mason murder, several pieces of evidence were critical. The trucker identified both Zieger’s truck and Zieger himself in a line-up. The inverted tires on Zieger’s truck matched the tracks found at the scene, where it was evident from a pool of blood that the truck had been stopped and the body dragged deeper in the pit where it was eventually found.

The friend’s statement had placed Zieger at the gravel pit — and in the truck when they picked up a female hitchhiker. We had further obtained a search warrant for Zieger’s truck and ran a precipitant test on three small blood spots splashed up by the dash in the interior of the vehicle. Zieger claimed he had been hunting rabbit; the precipitant test came back positive, which indicated human blood. 

We later found the site near a creek where Zieger had washed the truck, with those same weird tire tracks. There was no question that we should arrest him.

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And although the M.O. was somewhat different, I now had the strong feeling that it was Zieger who was responsible for the death of Beth van Zanten. A part of me wanted to arrest him on that murder too.

At Zieger’s murder trial, everything that could go wrong went wrong. An FBI agent who had helped test the tires found on Zieger’s truck testified that the inverted tire was on the left rear of the vehicle instead of the right front. That meant he had the truck going in entirely the opposite direction in the gravel pit, testimony that was not exactly a ringing endorsement of the cops. A scientist who was a hematology expert was brought in as a defense witness. He was asked to specify the range of applicability in the precipitant test.

“Is there any blood besides human blood that can bring a positive reaction to the precipitant test?” he was asked.

“Yes,” came the forthright reply.

What the defense line of reasoning failed to reveal was that there is only one other living being which produces a positive on the precipitant test: an orangutan.

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Most damaging, however, was the testimony of a store clerk who claimed she knew ZeZe Mason and had cashed one of ZeZe’s checks on the 22nd of August. Mason had disappeared the 14th of August and we placed her death on the same day. Although the pathologist who did the autopsy initially indicated she had died within 24 to 48 hours of the time we found her, on August 28th, he later corrected it to say it was much earlier — that the chill of the gravel had slowed rigor mortis and other signs of death, like insect growth.

If ZeZe had been alive on the 22nd of August, as this store clerk testified, there was no longer a clear link to anyone as her killer. We produced the cancelled check, the store’s dated ticker tape, even the store manager. All the information indicated by the clerk was wrong. The check had been cashed on the 12th of August, prior to ZeZe’s disappearance.

The witness was unshakeable. She didn’t know anything about the checks or when they were cashed. She was certain she had seen ZeZe on the 22nd of August. When all was said and done, Gary Zieger was acquitted.


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