Chapter OneThe Tumbledown Shack
After writing more than a thousand articles about homicide cases, I suppose it's natural that some of them blur slightly in my memory. However, there are those that I recall vividly, and I even remember my own life at the time I first researched their tragic details. The story that follows brings back gloomy recollections of four days when I was trapped by a blizzard in Wenatchee, Washington. The sheriff of adjoining Okanogan County had given me a ride from Seattle over the Cascade Mountains on November 16, 1978, and I planned to take the bus back after I'd talked to Chelan County homicide detectives. But a huge snowstorm clogged the mountain passes and no car, bus, train, or plane could get through. That meant I couldn't get home until the road thawed.
All the sidewalks in Wenatchee were covered with four or five inches of ice that weekend and many stores had closed. Stuck in a little motel, all I had to read was the police file of this horrifying case. I found no diversion from horror when I turned on the television set. The news had just broken that Reverend Jim Jones, the cult leader of the Peoples' Temple from San Francisco, had forced his hapless congregation to drink poisoned Kool-Aid at "Jonestown," in Guyana. Of his 1,100 followers, 973 were dead, and so were California state representative Leo J. Ryan and most of the staff and film crew who had gone with him to Guyana to investigate Jones. There was nothing for me to watch beyond blanket coverage of that story on every channel and a screen filled with a sea of bodies.
I spent those days completely alone in the dead of winter only thirty-five miles from where the case I was studying had happened in the blazing summer heat. By the time the ice thawed, I knew this story of two vulnerable young women by heart and it stays in my mind to this day.
Like those who died in Jonestown, the Chelan County victims had been lulled into the false belief that they were safe, and they too trusted enough that they failed to see the evil behind a pleasant facade.
It would seem that a double homicide that happened almost thirty years ago would have been solved by now. It has certainly not been forgotten. I still meet people who were closely connected to the victims, people for whom time has no meaning. Technically, it is an open case. Yet, over and over again, one man confessed to the murders of two beautiful young women. Was he telling the truth, or was he only throwing up a smokescreen that clouded the investigation so that the real killer was never caught?
You be the judge.
Chelan County, Washington, is only a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Seattle, but it lies on the other side of the mountains in eastern Washington, in a climate where the landscape is completely different. The weather, the vegetation, and the topography of Chelan County might as well be three or four states away. Chelan County is fruit-growing country, particularly Delicious apples, and vacation country, a place far away from the congestion of the increasingly industrial west sides of Oregon and Washington, where Portland and Seattle traffic rivals that of L.A. and New York City, and where new housing developments cover fertile valleys with cement streets and perfectly landscaped yards.
The town of Chelan is forty miles north of Wenatchee, and it exists mostly because of expansive Lake Chelan, the second largest inland lake in America. Tourists flock to Lake Chelan, where deep blue water cuts through dry hills for a hundred miles or more, ending at the isolated hamlet of Stehekin, accessible only by boat or seaplane. Visitors board the Lady of the Lake in Chelan for a four-hour leisurely cruise to another world. Vacationers and those attending conferences fill the myriad resorts curving along Lake Chelan.
The road between Wenatchee and Chelan winds through quite beautiful country. To the east, poplar trees stand like sentries and as windbreaks for the apple orchards close to the mighty Columbia River. Close to the town of Entiat, roadside stands sell fresh produce, honey, candy, pickles, and flowers. The water thundering from Rocky Reach Dam is awe inspiring, and its grounds thrill little kids; every thatch of spreading junipers provides shelter for rabbits and other little creatures, the descendants of Easter bunnies and abandoned pets released there decades before. Park rangers feed and watch over them. It all feels very safe and benign.
But farther north, the land becomes much more rugged. In high summer and early autumn, rolling hills burn brown, and tumbleweeds, wild daisies, and sagebrush are the only plants that grow. Too often, forest fires erupt and the land burns black as the wind carries flames from tree to tree and across roads. Animals - and humans too - can be trapped with no way out. Many come to Chelan County for reasons other than vacationing. When harvest time comes, migrant workers and young people with the stamina to work hard for several weeks head up U.S. Highway 97 to find jobs bringing in the crops.
In the mid-seventies, nobody gave a second glance to the strangers and teenagers who stood beside the roads with their thumbs out. They were such a familiar sight that they became part of the environment. It was past the time of peace, love, and hippie beads, but many young people still clung to those beliefs, and they continued to hitchhike.
At various spots, the road north to Chelan suddenly disappears into black tunnels cut into the rock cliffs, only to emerge into blinding sunlight. There are well-maintained homes along the road to Chelan, but there are also gray pioneer shacks, long deserted and leaning toward the ground. In September and October, the fruit pickers arrive, followed in late fall by hunters stalking deer and elk.
Chelan County deputies expect extra work in autumn because so many transients swell the population. Sometimes the officers are called out for homicides, but the vast majority of calls are the result of drunken fights, over a bottle of "Mad Dog" or "Night Train" wine, among the nameless drifters who follow the crops.
It was 2:35 on Tuesday afternoon, September 30, 1975, when Deputy D. B. Mayo received a call from the radio operator at the Chelan Police Department. Someone had gone to the farm-labor office in town wanting to report a "possible rape." The attack had apparently occurred somewhere out in the county.
Mayo contacted Bill Myer, who was staying in a pickers' cabin at the Hesperian Orchards. Myer appeared agitated as he tried to explain what he'd seen.
"Me and my friend Hal Oxley were out hiking in the hills behind the orchards when we found a couple of chicks in a shed.... I think they've been raped," he said hurriedly.
Myer said he had been spooked by what he'd seen and didn't stay around long enough to check to see if the victims were alive or dead. If they were dead, Myer and his friend would become the first suspects, but Mayo didn't mention that. He simply studied the excited young man.
"But I'm afraid they might be dead," Myer said. "I can lead you back there where I saw them if you want."
Deputy Mayo urged the young picker to hop into his patrol car. They picked up Oxley, and the deputy sped to the area the witnesses pointed out. They directed him to Old Downey Road, which leads off U.S. 97, and headed up that road for a little over a mile, passing some weathered ranch buildings. The man who owned the ranch verified that there was, indeed, an old shed about two miles further on.
Since Oxley and Myer said they had stumbled upon the shack while they were walking in the rugged hills, they were a little disoriented and had trouble figuring out how to get back to the spot where they'd seen the girls.
Mayo drove along the increasingly rutted dirt road and was just about to turn back, when they suddenly spotted an old A-frame shed that weather must have battered for half a century. It was about to collapse.
"That's it," Myer said. "That's where I saw them."
The deputy eased out of his patrol car and started to walk toward the pile of weathered boards when suddenly a large gray dog - or wolf - bared its teeth at him and barked ferociously. He paused, and saw that it was a dog, probably a husky-German shepherd mix, that was barring the way.
"I'm pretty good with animals," Myer called out from the car. "Let me try."
For a fleeting moment, Mayo wondered if he might have walked into a trap. He was far from backup with two scruffy-looking strangers, and now Myer seemed able to get closer to the dog than he had. Maybe the dog already knew Myer. The deputy wondered if there really were two girls inside the shack.
But Myer seemed sincere as he talked calmly to the dog, and grudgingly the animal finally let him approach and allowed himself to be tied to a post.
Mayo peered into the old shed through some gaping one-by-eights, his eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness inside. The girls were there, all right. At this point, he had no idea if they had been raped, but they were most certainly dead. And they probably had been dead for days.
Even in death, the two girls - one flaxen-haired, the other with brown hair - showed signs of their former beauty. Their bodies were tanned and slender.
Mayo backed away from the terrible sight and ran to his patrol car to radio for help from the sheriff's headquarters in Wenatchee. There was no possibility that the girls had perished accidentally. From the mote-filled beams of sunlight that filtered into the shack, Mayo saw bruises and dried blood on their bodies. Either they had been attacked here in the shed or someone had carried their bodies here to hide them.
While the three men waited for help, they filled a battered metal dish with water from their canteens for the dog, which had stationed himself loyally next to his owners' bodies, possibly waiting there for days.
Right after receiving Deputy Mayo's call, Chief of Detectives Bill Patterson and detectives Jerry Monroe and Tillman Wells had left their offices in Wenatchee and headed north along the Columbia River.
Careful not to step on physical evidence that might have been left behind at the murder site, the Chelan County investigators squinted into the dilapidated structure. The brunette lay closer to the entrance than her companion. She was partially clothed, wearing hiking clothes and boots. And dried blood covered what they could see of her body. Someone had apparently tossed her backpack on top of her, perhaps in a hurried attempt to hide her body, perhaps as a gesture of remorse for what he had done to her. Most of her wounds appeared to be in the upper portion of her body.
The second girl's body was nearby. She was nude, and her jeans, thick-soled hiking boots, and backpack were beside her. The blond girl had fought her killer: her hands had wounds from a sharp object.
Who were they? The dead young women looked so much like the hundreds of girls who moved through the Chelan County area in picking season. They were obviously experienced campers and their gear had been well used. How they had come to be in this lonely shed so far off the main road was a puzzle. It would seem that they would have to have been familiar with the region to even know the ramshackle structure was here. Either that or they had been led here by someone who knew about it.
Not knowing the victims' names, the three detectives temporarily dubbed them "Victim Number One" and "Victim Number Two."
They lifted the blond girl's backpack carefully from the shed. Maybe Victim Number Two's belongings would help identify her. The bag contained the usual: clothes, makeup, camping gear. But they also found two prescription pill bottles from a pharmacy in Lincoln City, Oregon. The name "Pat Weidner" was on one bottle; the other prescription was for "Brad King."
They found a purse in the shack, and it contained $59.08. The detectives also fished a tin can from one of the packs, and it had two $10 bills in it - emergency money perhaps. Robbery was an unlikely motive for double murder.
The purse held a Social Security card and an Oregon driver's license, both in the name of "Beverly Mae Johnson." Her birth date was listed as May 14, 1952, and her description was 5 feet 3 inches and 110 pounds. The address was also in Lincoln City, a resort town along the Oregon coast. She'd been very young, only twenty-three.
Tentatively, Patterson figured that the petite blond girl was Johnson, and the taller brunette was almost surely Weidner. That was much easier to deduce than whatever reasons had brought the victims hundreds of miles from home to a rundown shack in the wilderness.
Dr. Robert Bonafaci, the Chelan County Medical Examiner, arrived at the scene with Detective Don Danner. Bonafaci said that it appeared that both women had died from having their throats cut. Patty Weidner, who had been taller and huskier than her friend, had probably had no warning of danger. Either she had been asleep or she hadn't expected to be attacked because she apparently had put up no fight at all. But Beverly Johnson, who looked to weigh no more than a hundred pounds, had fought valiantly. She had the deep cuts in her hands - defensive wounds. Whether rape had been the motivation for such violence would have to be determined at the autopsy.
Dr. Bonafaci gave his OK for the bodies to be transported to Wenatchee to await postmortem examinations. Now the Chelan County detectives could move in to work the crime scene.
Patterson felt both girls had been killed in or near the shed. Blood droplets marked the sandy soil and led them to a spot about six feet from its entrance. Here, there had been a large puddle of blood, long dried now into a dark brown segmented splotch. They found even more blood fifty-six feet away, and in several areas where the dog had dug frantically into the soft soil. These too bore traces of his mistresses' blood.
Had the victims screamed for help? It would have done little good. They were miles away from anyone who could have rescued them. No one on the ranch two miles down the road could have heard their screams.
Patterson and his crew of
detectives wondered if the dog
might prove to be their best - albeit
silent - witness.