Unsolved Murder: Did Alaskan Serial Killer Robert Hansen Kill Beth van Zanten?By Leland E. Hale April 17, 2017
Christmas Day 1971 in Anchorage, Alaska broke at a balmy 40 degrees above zero, a welcome relief from the arctic cold front that gripped the city only days before. At the height of the storm, gale-force winds snapped power lines and lifted a 20 by 20 foot cornice off the side of a mountain, depositing it in the middle of Seward Highway. But now, with the promise of blue skies, folks in Anchorage were propelled out of their houses and into the light.
Among those driven into the sun were Gary Lawler and his brother, Dennis. They’d travelled south on the Seward Highway, along a strip of water called Turnagain Arm, to take photos of the wilderness that lay at their feet. Armed with Dennis’s ancient camera, they decided to stop at Bird Point, one of their favorite spots, and then work their way north again, taking photos along the way.
Almost by chance, they stopped at McHugh Creek State Park, 12 miles north of Bird Point. Built between two intersecting ridges on either side of its namesake creek, there was a waterfall that Dennis wanted to capture. On a small ledge about 20 feet below a picnic area, he found the perfect spot: A steep overlook that cast the gnarled creek bank in a perfect cone of sunlight.
Dennis struggled to focus the camera from this awkward perch, pushing it deep into his ribcage to maintain his balance. Then, behind a bush no more than ten feet in front of him, he spied what looked like a mannequin, dropped at an odd angle and partially covered with snow. He craned his neck forward to get a better look. It was a body: A young woman, nude from the waist down, a soft cover of downy snowflakes across her exposed thighs.
Back in the parking lot, Dennis told his brother about his gruesome find. “Are you sure,” his brother asked. “Because if it’s a body…”
“We’ll have to report it to somebody.”
In 1971, “boomers” were taking over the streets of downtown Anchorage, lured by the promise of the get-rich oil discovered on the North Slope. Along Fourth Avenue, which comedian Bob Hope once called, “the longest bar in the world,” they packed the bars and saloons, looking for drugs and drinks in places with names like The Silver Dollar and The Nevada Club. But that’s not all they were looking for; there were nights when the Cadillacs were parked three deep so the prostitutes could ply their holiday trade.
Three miles south, in Spenard, massage parlors were springing up like mushrooms. The parlors were barely disguised fronts for prostitution, run by men who kept a pistol close at hand. No place seemed safe; no one seemed safe. Already that year, an 18-year-old real estate secretary had been confronted at her apartment by a man who wanted to force her into sex at gunpoint; she screamed, the assailant ran, and her roommates called the police. Anchorage was turning into a cop’s nightmare. For Sgt. Walter Gilmour of the Alaska State Troopers, that Christmas Day would be the worst. He didn’t realize it yet, but he was about to experience his first brush with future serial killer Robert Hansen.
The sergeant was just finishing the last knot in his tie when the phone rang. He was fresh from the shower – after a day of cross-country skiing with his family – and on his way to his in-law’s house for Christmas dinner.
“Sgt. Gilmour, this is dispatch,” the female voice said, detached and professional. “We have been advised that a woman has been found dead in McHugh Creek campground. Patrol is on the way, sir, but we wanted to alert you.”
Christmas dinner would have to wait.
Troopers soon learned that a woman named Celia “Beth” van Zanten had gone missing on December 23rd. Just 18 years old, she was on her way to a local convenience store when she disappeared. At the crime scene, they found a woman who seemed to match the description: Young, fair complexion, long blonde hair. Her wrists were tied behind her back with speaker wire. She had been sexually assaulted, and her chest slashed with a knife. Somehow before her death, she had managed to escape her assailant. She literally ran for her life. Her first fall was fifty feet from the presumed location of the murderer’s car. With her hands bound behind her, and in snow three feet deep on a dizzying slope, it would have taken a superhuman effort to regain her feet and continue the descent into what must have seemed a black hole. She got within ten to fifteen feet of the waterfall, but somehow turned away at the last minute. In the days since she’d gone missing, temperatures ranged from a low of minus five to a high of 22. She had frozen to death.
In the parking lot, investigators found a collage of tire prints spinning in lazy, concentric circles, indicating that the woman’s abductor had been looking for her. With the rain starting to drizzle, Gilmour watched dismally as the evidence melted before his eyes. The police ended up taking photographs instead. Their scene search of the surrounding area, meanwhile, turned up a silver belt buckle and, later, a black leather belt. In the snow, near the body, investigators also found tufts of yellow tissue paper. That was all they ever found.
Their next move was to canvass Beth’s neighborhood and interview family members. Everyone they spoke to offered statements that were soon contradicted. Her brothers seemed to be stoners, who barely noticed Beth’s comings and goings. Gilmour’s “best” suspect was Greg, her Alaska Native foster cousin, who lived with the family and was said to have a fractious relationship with the victim.
Out clubbing and drinking the night Beth disappeared, Greg had allegedly arranged for her to babysit for one of his friends. His accounts of his whereabouts the night of December 23 ranged from vague to imprecise, though he was rarely alone during a long night of carousing. Worse yet, although Greg claimed to have talked to Beth – at the house, on the night of her disappearance, to ask about babysitting – her brothers said they never saw him.
The most anyone could say with certainty about Beth’s foster cousin was that he was drunk that night. So drunk that Anchorage Police eventually stopped him, and his friends, and made them take a cab home. Neighborhood witnesses, meanwhile, reported seeing Beth as late as 11:00 the night she disappeared. She was hitchhiking. Some of Gilmour’s investigators thought that’s precisely what this was. A hitchhike-type case, where a stranger picks up a woman and brutalizes her, confident his identity will never be learned.
Sgt. Gilmour worked the case for 24 hours straight before he got his first break. He was at his makeshift office in a trailer, the schoolroom clock nearing 21:00 hours. The place was silent, nearly empty. Suddenly, the intercom came on…
“Sgt. Gilmour. Line two.”
On the other end of the line was a senior officer in the troopers. J.P. was one of the first Alaska Natives to join the troopers, a man whose exploits in rural Alaska were legendary. When he called, you listened.
“Hey, look,” he said. “I’ve been hearing about that dead girl down to McHugh Creek. I think I got an informant that may be able to help you.” J.P. told Gilmour that the informant might have been working the street. Gilmour said he’d talk to anyone; only later did he learn that the informant was J.P.’s daughter.
Sandra Patterson was 18 and working the streets to pay for her heroin habit. She told Sgt. Gilmour that on the night of December 19th, she was in the parking lot of the Nevada Club when she was kidnapped at gunpoint by a man who said he’d kill her if she didn’t do what he wanted. She described him in detail. Between 23 and 28 years old. Probably 5’ 8” or 5’ 9”. Slender. Wearing horn-rimmed glasses.
After binding her hands with leather shoelaces, he drove her south on the Seward Highway. Along the way, he kept pulling off the road, telling her he wanted to make love to her. He tried to kiss her. Made her strip down so she couldn’t escape. Said he wanted to slash her bra with his knife.
She kept telling him, “No, I don’t want to do it in the car.”
He finally got a motel, deep into the Kenai Peninsula at Cooper Landing, 98 miles south of Anchorage. They tried to have sex, but he failed to orgasm; Sandra didn’t want him to snap again – he’d already slapped her hard across the face – and her passivity seemed to thwart his pleasure. He expected her to fight, just like other girls he’d had; from the way he acted, she was sure he had killed them. On the way back to Anchorage, he threatened to kill her if she ratted him out. Once, he drove her deep into the wilderness, and she had to talk him back.
In those days before computers, cops had what they called the “asshole book,” with photos of every pervert and predator they’d come across. Sandra scanned it page-by-page and column-by-column. “That’s it,” she finally said. “That’s him.”
“Him” was Robert C. Hansen, later known as the “Butcher, Baker.” Gilmour learned that he’d been arrested barely a month before on the Assault with a Deadly Weapon charge involving the real estate secretary. When he kidnapped Sandra, he was out on his own recognizance, awaiting trial for the November incident. This man had no shame. Sandra, meanwhile, was ready to speak her piece.
“You know,” she said, “I may be doing something that some people don’t think is totally acceptable, and it may not be. But that’s not why I’m here. I’m here because that Robert Hansen guy is probably a premeditated, cold-blooded killer, who has killed before.”
Sandra stubbed out her cigarette with force before continuing.
“He said he killed before, and everything he said was absolutely true. Everything he said he would do to me came true, everything he said he would do, he did. Every threat he made, I believed. And if he says he’s killed people, I believe he’s killed people. And if you’ve got a young girl who’s been killed around the same time and in the same area, then I believe it was Hansen who killed her. I believe he’ll kill me, too.”
When the Anchorage Police interviewed Robert Hansen on December 29, 1971, he claimed to have only vague memories of the Patterson incident, at one point claiming, “I can’t remember going down there (to the Nevada Club)… just doesn’t seem like I would just before Christmas.” Then he abruptly called off the interview, saying he wanted to talk to his attorney–and his doctor. He was already moving toward a psychiatric defense in the case involving the real estate secretary; he would use the same explanation for the rape and kidnapping of Sandra Patterson.
By the time of his sentencing in March of 1972, Hansen had convinced the judge that he wasn’t so dangerous after all. He was married and had a child. His church friends testified to their high regard for him; his employer told the court he was a “capable and willing worker.” His psychiatrist persuaded the court that these offenses were related to Hansen’s manic depression. As the judge put it at Hansen’s sentencing, “I believe that this offense was committed, as the doctor tells us, during a period of disassociation, which he states is a condition which arises from your mental condition.”
Robert Hansen would perfect the “upstanding citizen” defense—drawing upon it each time he had a suspicious run-in with the women of Anchorage. It worked. The Patterson case was dismissed in exchange for a no contest plea in the assault of the real estate secretary. Robert Hansen was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment, on the condition that he continue to receive psychotherapy because, the judge noted “your condition is one that may be treatable.” He was paroled on November 1, 1973, less than two years later.
Robert Hansen steadfastly denied his involvement in the death of Celia “Beth” van Zanten. During his 1984 confession, he was asked about taking a girl to McHugh Creek in 1971. Hansen blurted out “Van Zanten case,” then said, “No. I didn’t have nothing to do with that… They asked me about the van Zanten case when I was in trouble with the [Patterson] girl [back in 1971]. But no, I didn’t have nothing to do with that.”
The murder of Beth van Zanten has never been solved, but the similarities between her abduction and Sandra’s are worth noting: They were taken to the same area, their hands bound; they were stripped to prevent escape, their bras slashed (or threatened to be); they were sexually assaulted. It should also be said that Beth van Zanten’s house was within a mile of the real estate secretary’s apartment. Hansen had cruised that area before. Indeed, Hansen admitted to stalking women throughout his criminal career–starting with the real estate secretary, whom he spotted in downtown Anchorage and then followed home, and continuing through Sandra Patterson and many others.
Sandra Patterson’s words were prophetic. Twelve years later Robert Hansen admitted to murdering 17 women, though police believe he killed many more. The tragedy was that, for a brief moment in 1971, there had been the opportunity to stop him. Instead, he became the worst serial killer in Alaska history.
True crime author Leland E. Hale, along with Sergeant Walter Gilmour, detail the horrific true crime story of Alaskan serial killer, Robert Hansen, in their book Butcher, Baker: The True Account of an Alaskan Serial Killer.
Download the book on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iTunes.
Leland E. Hale is the author of the novel Huck Finn Is Dead and, with coauthor Walter Gilmour, the true crime book Butcher, Baker. The story of Alaska serial killer Robert Hansen, Butcher, Baker inspired the 2013 film The Frozen Ground. Hale has also worked in the energy, aerospace, and software industries. He lives in Washington State.
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Featured photo of Robert Hansen: Courtesy of Alaska State Troopers