Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Family & Friends

Troopers had their hands full with what turned out to be a clusterf*k of witnesses. There were the people who knew Beth — family and friends who could speak to her character and her habits. There were those in the neighborhood who may have seen Beth on her way to — or at — nearby businesses. Finally, there were Greg Nicholas’ friends, who could either alibi him or not. In all of this, truth was a runaway child.

Family & Friends
The most haunting refrain from Beth’s family was the direct quote from her letters: “It’s not fun to date anymore.” It was a theme worth pursuing.

Troopers wasted no time contacting family friend, and Beth’s ex-boyfriend, Ed Tilbury. They ruled him out as a suspect — he was in Cold Bay, Alaska, a thousand miles away at the tip of the Aleutian chain — and had an airtight alibi for the night in question. Even so, Ed provided new insight into Beth’s psyche. “I would classify her as an extrovert,” he said, “even though she was quite naive.”

Family
Beth van Zanten

Fellow students at Anchorage Community College painted a similar picture.

ACC student Curtis Ebeling, focused on her naivete. “She had some beliefs that should not be allowed into the State of Alaska any newcomers. She had some wild idea about building a complex of lodges back in the bush, that would only be occupied by people of her choice.”

Another ACC student, David Crewsdon, told troopers that, “[Beth] was very friendly, had an extrovert personality… The impression I got from her was that she didn’t want to be involved with anyone and as far as I knew, she didn’t date anyone in particular… She would not hitchhike,” Crewsdon added. “And in fact I remember a conversation with another subject that she was lecturing to abolish hitchhiking.”

There was, in these impressions, the notion that while friendly toward family and people she trusted, Beth had a genuine loathing of strangers. The reality of her bound wrists reinforced the idea she had been taken against her will. Either that or… she was taken by someone she trusted.

School friends Andrea Taggart and Louise Hawkins added another dimension to that assessment. Taggart told troopers that, “I was in the Tiki Room [the night of December 22] at approximately 1:00 am.

The Tiki Room was in the Tropics Hotel on Spenard Rd. That was significant: It was across the street from the Fly-By-Night garage owned by Beth’s brother, David.

“I went to the bathroom and as I walked into the girl’s room, sitting on the counter, facing the door with her back to the mirror, was an individual I know as Beth van Zanten. I have known Beth for approximately ten years and have been in several classes at West High School with her. I noticed it was Beth and said, ‘Hi.'”

“She looked at me and smiled like if she should know me,” Taggart continued. “I went to the bathroom and came out and fixed my hair and tried to make conversation with her. I said, ‘How are you?’ and she said, ‘I am really blown away.’ I said okay and goodbye and left.

“Approximately 15-20 minutes later, she came out of the restroom and as I looked up I saw this tall person standing next to the bar. At that time I saw Beth walk up to him. He appeared to be getting some change and both walked into the lobby area. In a minute or two they returned and walked through the entire bar area and out the back door of the Tiki Room.

“Beth was wearing a green ski jacket and scarf… She looked like her hair was a mess, not combed or clean… She hung her head and looked droopy…

“Beth didn’t look good at all.”

“They were not drinking,” Taggart added. “The man was a white male, very tall, 6′ or 6’2″, rather skinny legs. I would say 180 pounds. He was wearing an OD-colored (olive drab) military type parka with a full hood and wolf appearance around it. Jeans, not bell bottoms. Black shoes. Clean hair, dark brown, 1″ or 2” below the ear. Not well-kempt. I’d say he was 22 or 24 years old — or younger. He had a large nose. I did not notice a beard or glasses.”

Hawkins told a similar story. “I saw Beth come through the front door with a man. She then went to the bathroom; while she was in the bathroom Andrea [Taggart] got up and went into the bathroom also. Pretty soon Andrea came back out and told me that was Beth van Zanten in the bathroom and she was stoned out of her mind. That she could barely talk to her…

“The man with Beth was young, early to mid-twenties. Thin, tall, 5’8′ to 6′, with long, dark brown hair. He may have been wearing light, horn-rimmed glasses and possibly a few days growth of beard on his face.”

Based on these conversations, troopers interviewed the bartender and waitress who were working that night. Neither remembered seeing Beth. They also questioned Greg’s cousin; Ronnie Broughton told them:

“When I was at [Dave’s] garage, I went to the bathroom by our car. I did not go into the Tropics [Hotel] bar or bathroom that evening. I have never met or seen Beth van Zanten to my knowledge.”

Soon, troopers sent out a bulletin putting folks on the lookout for the young man Andrea and Louise had seen during the early morning hours of December 23rd.

A slender, long-haired young man believed to have been with Beth the night she disappeared is being sought. Troopers are also looking for the clothes Beth van Zanten had been wearing and ask any person finding a pair of blue jeans, a green down-filled parka or a pair of smooth, rubber-soled green hiking boots to notify authorities. 


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Lonesome Death of Beth van Zanten: Greg’s Second Take

Troopers called Greg Nicholas in for a second interview shortly after talking to his blood cousin, Ronnie Broughton. They needed a second take because the discrepancies were starting to mount, not only from Ronnie, but from Beth’s brothers. The key differences were, perhaps naturally, in the timing of Greg’s visits to the van Zanten household and the garage owned by Beth’s brother.

In his first interview, those events all seemed to happen at once. In his second take, troopers had him concentrate on that crucial timeframe.

Second TakeBeth van Zanten Memorial


December 27 Re-Interview, Gregory Nicholas
Chronology for December 22, 1971 (Summary)

  • 5:45 – 5:50 pm: At Stephens house.
  • 6:30 pm: At Freda Shannigan’s house.
  • 6:45 pm: Left Freda’s house.
  • 7:15 pm: Left airport for Jim Shannigan’s house [Freda’s brother].
  • 7:30 pm: Arrived at Jim Shannigan’s house.
  • 8:30 – 9:00 pm: Left Jim Shannigan’s house, took Freda home, then went to van Zanten residence.
  • 9:00 – 9:30 pm: Arrived at van Zanten’s.
    “I ran into the house front door. I can’t remember seeing anyone home. The house was all lighted up. I went upstairs and Beth was in her room. She was laying on her bed looking at books. That was the first time I was in her room… I was there for 3 minutes… She got up and then I left… Ron and I went downtown and parked in front of the Malemute Bar [next to the Montana Club]. No, we stopped by Dave’s garage from leaving van Zanten’s. We stayed 10 minutes.”
  • 9:45 pm: Malemute Bar.
  • 12:00 pm: Left bar.
  • 3:00 am: Started home.

Troopers already knew that Greg had left out one important detail. After weaving in and out of each other’s presence the night of December 22nd — with Greg and Ronnie going bar to bar, getting drunk — they ultimately left Fourth Avenue together. The two of them, in the company of three Alaska Native women, were stopped by State Troopers at about 1:00 am for drunk driving. The troopers made them take a taxi home.

The bigger question was: Did the timing finally add up? If Greg and Ronnie arrived at the van Zanten’s at 9:00 pm and stayed 3 minutes, they would have arrived at the Fly-By-Night garage by 9:12 pm (9:13 pm, when accounting for Greg’s move from car-to-house and back again). If they stayed for only 10 minutes, they should have left by 9:23 pm. It was another 11 minutes to the Montana Club, meaning they could have arrived by 9:33 pm. Greg’s 9:45 pm estimate was now seemingly in the ballpark.

It was possible, in fact, to line it up with Ronnie’s statement: “Freda asked me to call at 9:00 or 9:30. I called her from the Montana Club.”

And yet the doubts persisted. Had they perchance coordinated their stories? After all, both Ronnie and Greg were trying to reconstruct an evening that had gone sideways in many, unexpected ways. The second take didn’t change that. As troopers pulled on all the threads in their probe, they learned one other thing: there was always another surprise around the corner.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Thoughts on Christy Hayes: Between the Quick and the Dead

For Robert Hansen, the “idea” of The Bush was a place where women could scream and no one would hear them. Christy Hayes was too quick for that. When Hansen failed to get her to The Bush — when she refused to go where he wanted to go — when she, finally, refused to relinquish herself to him — these were the things that saved her life.

It could have turned out otherwise. The troopers would end up with a long list of could-have-been-otherwise. But Christy kept working Hansen’s last good nerve until he was out of ideas. Next time will be different, he told himself. Next time will be different.

Quick


One supposes that Christy Hayes thought sex with Robert Hansen would be quick and dirty. She already had his money. Just go to his camper, do the deed, and be done. She brushed off his suggestion that they take his airplane to Palmer. Christy was all about business. She had three kids waiting at home. This was to be a brief diversion.

Christy Hayes never lost sight of what was most important.

Once inside the camper, Christy stripped naked. Hansen did not. This was another clue. Suddenly there was a silver colored revolver, a stern lecture about cooperating, and guitar wire to bind her feet and hands. Hansen shoved her onto the camper’s bunk, locked her in the camper and drove off, to destinations unknown.

Back in the camper, Christy Hayes went full mama bear.

This man needed to understand that she didn’t have time for this nonsense. “This gotta be quick. I gotta get back to my kids,” she shouted from the back of the truck. “If I don’t get back, they ain’t gonna have no babysitter.”

“They gonna be by themselves. You hear me? I don’t want nobody messin’ with my babies. You hear me?”

Her shouting served to divert Hansen’s attention. He was already paranoid about getting stopped with a woman in his car. No way he could explain this one. He had to get off the main roads, take the back way to Muldoon.

This was no longer about the money, or the sex. This was about her kids.

While Christy Hayes seemed nonstop with her mouth, her hands were twice as busy. Hansen could hear, but barely see her. Soon, she was out of the restraints. Maybe… Nope. The camper door was locked. From the outside.

Suddenly, the brakes slammed, sending Christy to the floor. There was the gun again, pointing at her head through the open window, between the cab and the camper. Christy ducked. Hansen jumped out and ran to the back, determined to regain control.

Quick
Robert Hansen, 1969 (courtesy Anchorage Times)

Christy knew that “quick is, as quick does.” She squeezed through the open window and into the cab of the truck. Locked the window behind her. Locked all the doors. Find the damn key and drive away from here.

Not that quick. Hansen had the truck keys.

The keys gave Hansen only a small measure of control. He tried to reason with her. Fail. He tried to reason with her using his revolver. Double Fail. “Just give me my clothes,” she demanded. She didn’t want to go naked on this chill October night. Fail.

In the cab of the truck, Christy Hayes went full mama bear.

When she started tearing out the truck’s wires, Hansen could no longer keep his patience. When he shattered the side glass, Christy Hayes skipped into the night. That morning, she would hug her kids like no other.


Purchase Butcher, Baker

Butcher, Baker: Hidden City, Pt. 2

There’s a wonderful bit in the Robert Hansen portion of Hidden City: Anchorage where Marcus brings in professional tracker Ty Cunningham to give a sense of what Hansen’s victims were up against. It’s an extremely powerful segment. Except that the segment was filmed in winter snow. According to Robert Hansen:

“This was a summertime project.”

Since Hansen’s wife was a teacher, and often travelled during the summer, it kind of makes sense, you know? When the cat’s away, and all that… But let’s not take this summertime thing too far. Hansen kidnapped and raped a woman back in 1971, just days before Christmas.

Of course, he also had the good sense to take that victim to a motel.

Bonus: Video Clip: Hidden City Anchorage: Tracks of Terror (tracking in the snow)

What about the chase? It is, after all, a recurring theme in discussions about Robert Hansen. Well, the chase started the minute he first stalked his victims. But in Hansen’s universe, the chase was always (out)balanced by questions of control.

We know that Hansen worried about the intangibles. The known unknowns. The women had to be alone when they reached the rendezvous. Hansen always picked a spot where he could see everything and everyone. Even early on, he used a restraint of some type, eventually graduating to handcuffs. By his own admission, he was obsessive about the mechanical reliability of his car when he kidnapped women. Didn’t want to break down with some woman in handcuffs.

Those control issues extended to the bush. Even in the bush there’s the risk that some hooker can outrun him, even for a little while. She can kick her heels off, right? And, you know, the Alaska bush ain’t no frickin’ island. Those were troubles he just didn’t want. Given all that, it’s my view that he started shooting sooner rather than later.

Loss of control, baby. Not so good. And being “in control” ultimately trumped other considerations. Including the chase. He really, really liked this “game.” Lose control, you lose everything. In fact, there was one who got away. Yeah. She was the one who brought him down.

Quotes from Robert Hansen’s Inconvenient Confession (February 22, 1984)

RH: I only, I only used the airplane three times and maybe if I kept on going like that I would have had a problem… [But] where I have my plane parked there isn’t a lot of people in and out right there and the girl was almost more scared of being in the airplane than she was scared of me…

GF: Scared of being in the airplane. You mention that this area was pretty populated but in the winter time with skis you were somewhat unlimited as to where you could go. Your privacy was pretty much up to you. Or were you concerned about flying a long time? You mention three girls but I’m just wondering, with skis, you know in the winter, you could go just about anywhere.

RH: I could but winter time wasn’t the time to do it. Things were dormant in the winter time. This was a summertime project.

GF = Glenn Flothe
RH = Robert Hansen

Want to learn more about the Robert Hansen murders? Read “Butcher, Baker,” by Walter Gilmour and Leland E. Hale. More here…

Butcher, Baker: Hidden City, Pt. 1

If you saw last night’s great Hidden City episode on Anchorage, you were treated to an excellent — and highly-graphic — overview of the Robert Hansen murders. One of the segments featured the ballistics test on the murder weapon which, as host Marcus Sakey points out, was critical to getting a Robert Hansen confession and conviction.

The true story of the ballistics test on the murder weapon is actually MORE dramatic. Much more dramatic.

Trooper Sgt. Glenn Flothe’s plan was to send the rifle to the FBI Quantico, Virginia, lab for the ballistics. To make sure it got there, he requested that a Trooper hand-deliver the weapon. That request was turned down, so the rifle was sent to Virginia by mail.

Then Flothe got a call from the FBI. Wondering where the rifle was. It hadn’t arrived as expected. As you might imagine, Sgt. Flothe went into a panic. This was the crucial piece of evidence. And now it had gone missing. If only they’d let him hand-deliver that weapon… If only…

Bonus: Video clip of ballistics test, with Bob Shem of the Alaska State Crime Lab.

Thankfully, there was a happy ending. Days later, the rifle showed up on a loading dock. It was sent on to the FBI Quantico, where ballistics tests proved it was the murder weapon. Close call. Way too close.

Want to learn more about the Robert Hansen murders? Read “Butcher, Baker,” by Walter Gilmour and Leland E. Hale. More here…

Robert Hansen’s Attic (with murder weapon)

Cache of weapons found in Robert Hansen's attic. Included is the murder weapon.

Hidden City: Anchorage

Marcus Sakey’s Travel Channel series, Hidden City, recently filmed in Anchorage, Alaska. Among the topics: Robert Hansen. Well, of course; Hansen is the state’s worst serial murderer. (The series calls it Robert Hansen’s Most Dangerous Game.)

The show marks the incredible resurgence of interest in the “Butcher, Baker” story. First the movie, The Frozen Ground. And now a Hidden City episode.

The episode also covers the infamous Blackjack Sturgus murder. Sturgus, the first police chief in Anchorage, was shot in the back with a bullet from his own gun. He is said to haunt the Anchorage Hotel, working on the ultimate cold case. His own.

Mark your calendars! We’ll be watching. Hope you will, too.

Air Date: Tuesday, September 21, 2012.

Travel Channel: Hidden City – Anchorage

We received an update this week on the Travel Channel series, “Hidden City,” starring Marcus Sakey. Its February 21, 2012 episode (episode 112, if you track these things) will feature Anchorage, Alaska.

One of the segments will focus on Robert Hansen. Well, of course.

These things tend to run in cycles. As Aaron Godfred, our film producer friend notes, “It seems like everyone is all hot and bothered about Hansen.” You know, there’s the movie, starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack (The Frozen Ground). Some other projects that are in the works. And now this.

Well, we are pleased to announce that we’re helping with the Hidden City episode. Yeah. I took some photos of Robert Hansen’s house “back in the day,” (after visiting and talking to his ex-wife, Darla). At least one of these photos made it into “Butcher, Baker.”

The production company (Crazy Legs Productions) saw the book. And now they want the photo. Glad to oblige. Proper credit, please!

Odds & Ends

A few tidbits that caught my attention during the holidays. Or about the holidays. Or ignoring the holidays, for as long as possible.

Book & Movie News

  • Alaska filming has ended on “Frozen Ground,” starring Nicolas Cage and John Cusack.
  • From the you-can’t-make-this-up department: As the story goes, there’s a scene [in Frozen Ground] where a moose menaces the teenage hooker-heroine who helps nail Hansen. So they rounded up a regular street moose that promptly got spooked and charged for real.
  • Anchorage even cooperated with moviemakers by delivering an early big dump of snow.

Black Friday/Monday News
Mobile (and cyber) sales are finally taking off, as recent IBM data for Black Friday shows.

  • 10.3 percent of online sales came from mobile shoppers.
  • 17 percent of all shoppers used mobile devices to track exclusive offers and sales updates.
  • iPhone continues to lead all mobile device traffic at 6.58 %, followed by Android at 5.20% and iPad at 4.71%.
  • Equally interesting, iOS led mobile device traffic at 11.29% compared to 5.20% for Android. Or more than double.

The biggest change here is the that retailers like Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Macy’s and Apple targeted mobile devices with shopping apps, notifications and alerts. In the grand scheme of things, this tells us at least two things: First, retailers have found ways to go directly to consumers and skip Google’s intermediating engine; second, it further explains Amazon’s strategy of putting out a device that’s a pipeline to their retail experience — and which, by the way, also skips Google’s intermediating engine.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

  • Finally, there’s this story about how two recent market studies leave out iPad sales in their tablet market reviews. This lets them write headlines suggesting that “a large group of consumers are looking for alternatives [to the iPad tablet].”
  • But it’s not true, actually. John Gruber estimates that the iPad actually has, oh, something like 89% of the market. Which means that 11% are truly looking at alternatives — and some of them bought HP tablets at fire sale prices.

Here & There

Today’s blog is a grab-bag of stories, culled from a range of sources. We’ve still got crime on our mind.

First up, Frozen Ground film news fresh from Alaska.

  • We have a couple of shots of Nicolas Cage in Anchorage. In this slideshow, Cage is seen on the Frozen Ground set. And what would a Nicolas Cage story be without some smack from gossip site TMZ? Their spy camera captures him purchasing a $2,000 ivory-handled knife.
  • The Anchorage Daily News reports that Alaska filming on “Frozen Ground” could wrap by Friday, November 18 — a one-month shooting schedule.
  • The Alaska backlash against film subsidies, meanwhile, is starting to heat up. More on this issue in another post.

We also have an update on the Mike McQueary story, in what amounts to another round of media counter-attack. I’m guessing anyone who follows the news is already aware of these revelations.

What’s worth comment here is that the basis for much of the reporting is a 23-page grand jury presentment. A summary document. It leaves out details. That gives the folks involved a brief-window to manage the news by releasing self-serving details of their own. My money is still on Sara Ganim, the intrepid reporter who first broke this story.