The last time anyone ever saw a 17-year-old schoolgirl named Megan Emerick was a summer day in 1973, when she walked out of a dorm laundry room in Seward and disappeared without a trace.
For weeks, then months, then years, there was never a word of her fate. Seasons changed and memories faded. As possible evidence flittered away, new, pressing cases arose. Family members died. But 35 years later, suspicions linger.
Could it be that from his cell in Seward's Spring Creek Correctional Center, Alaska's most infamous serial killer can peer out across Resurrection Bay through barred windows and see where he hid Emerick's body? That's precisely what police and prosecutors, aided by a few convicts who say they know, are trying to find out.
The question now -- more so than whether Megan, like at least 17 others, died in the gun sights of Robert Hansen -- is where her body is hidden.
This spring, the Seward Police Department called for help from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and landed two cold-case investigators in the fishing town on the edge of the Kenai Peninsula. They suspect Hansen is to blame. They're not alone.
"It certainly added up that way," said Dan Emerick, Megan's brother. "He was in town the day she disappeared, and when she disappeared she left all of her belongings there. All of her personal effects, ID, everything. I mean, there was nothing missing.
"I didn't believe then and I don't believe now that she just ran off."
To the public at the time, Megan's disappearance warranted little more than a glance. Like so many others, she was just another missing girl. The event was noted by a few fliers and short notices buried inside local newspapers. Now those fleeting nods to her existence are among the only public records there ever was of a girl named Megan Emerick in Seward.
Earlier in life, the quiet girl from the quiet town of Delta Junction would go out on the Yukon River to hunt and fish with her family, her brother recalled. She liked horses and motorcycles and rock music, and, still at a young age, left to attend school at the new Seward Skill Center, now the Alaska Vocational Technical Center.
Then in the summer of 1973, Emerick got a letter from his mother. Megan was gone.
Details about her disappearance were few. On July 7 that year, Megan went to do her laundry at the girls' dormitory at the Skill Center. Witnesses spotted her at the dorm after she finished. She walked out and was never seen again.
A person she lived with searched for three days before reporting her to police, said Tom Clemons, chief of the Seward Police Department. Police questioned people who knew her -- including a handful who took polygraph tests and passed -- but got nowhere. It looked likely Megan had met with foul play, but there was no evidence to support it. On the record, Megan had simply vanished.
The suspicion came years later. In the early 1980s, bodies started turning up in Eklutna and along the Knik River drainage. Mostly prostitutes in shallow graves who had once been reported missing, then forgotten. Alaska had a serial killer.
Hansen was a baker who owned a shop in a mini-mall at Ninth Avenue and Ingra Street. He lived with his wife and children in Muldoon. His family knew nothing of his dark pastime.
He made his mark in Alaska history at a time when vice ruled the nights in downtown Anchorage. Construction of the Alaska pipeline in the 1970s drew prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers and con artists with the promise of a quick buck. Often, those who came left as abruptly as they showed up, unnoticed and missed by no one.
While Hansen's prey initially included any woman who caught his eye, he quickly learned that prostitutes and strippers were harder to track and usually less missed, said Glenn Flothe, the Alaska State Trooper, now a retired captain, who put Hansen in prison. All the women Hansen confessed to killing were, he told investigators, low women, prostitutes and strippers.
"He tried to make us think that he had some kind of moral code, but the reality was that these street girls and the girls in the bars were easier victims," Flothe said.
Hansen was a pilot who abducted his victims and took them to isolated places, sometimes by car, sometimes by airplane. Some he raped and brought back to town, reminding them that police would believe the word of a respectable bakery owner over a hooker's, if it came down to that. Others, investigators claimed, he set free so he could hunt them down like animals with his rifle, leaving behind only a body and a shell casing.
In 1984, Hansen confessed to killing 17 women and raping 30 others over the previous 12 years. In his confession, he hesitantly detailed the crimes and later led investigators to the grave sites. They located a dozen bodies. The rest have never been found.
There were maps found in Hansen's Anchorage home. Marks on them matched the locations of the 17 bodies Hansen confessed to murdering. But there were more than 17 marks, two of them in the Seward and Resurrection Bay area.
"There was girls that he did not talk about, but there's also marks on the map that, to this day, remain unidentified," Flothe said. "We assume that two of those marks belong to Emerick and (Mary) Thill out of Seward."
During his investigation, Flothe compiled a list of missing women who were likely Hansen victims. In many cases, his picks were right. Among the dozens on the list were Emerick and Thill, a 23-year-old woman who vanished in downtown Seward two years after Megan did. Her case was equally baffling: A friend had dropped her off to go to the library. She never got there and was never seen again.
"At the time that I investigated it, I did come up with both of those names -- Emerick and Thill -- and they were on my list of potential victims," Flothe said. "If I was still investigating Hansen they would still be on the list."
In both cases, Flothe said, Hansen was in town. But being in town doesn't prove murder. And Hansen denied any role in the disappearances.
The cases went cold. When Megan's mother died in 1996, she went to the grave never knowing what happened to her child. Her brothers moved on, resigning themselves to knowing she was dead, but not why or how.
In the basement of the Seward Police Department, Megan's missing person report collected dust until this spring, when dispatcher Sheila Squires came across it while reorganizing archives.
"She just took an interest in the case," Clemons said. "I said, 'Well, go for it. Every little bit helps. I'll oversee it and I'll make sure you're following what you need to do, but I'm not going to assign anybody to this because you're working on speculation.'
"But as we're getting into this thing, there's things that are being brought out today that they never saw back then."
Seward police contacted Megan's brothers and told them the case was back under active investigation. They asked for genetic samples in case they found Megan, a request the brothers granted. But the brothers didn't have much hope for finding their sister, who would now be 52 years old. Police weren't able to pin down what happened back in the '70s. Now it's been half a lifetime.
"I thought it was a little strange they were still thrashing that old thing" Emerick said. But, "it'd be nice to have closure."
It turns out, there might be some new information.
At the center of the new law enforcement interest are two convicted felons who, after serving time in Spring Creek with Hansen, say he told them where he buried Megan. They also claim Hansen kept a map of the location in his cell and that they copied it.
"Some of this may be far-fetched. Some of it may be not," said Janet Franson, the investigator working the case for the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. "At least what I've been able to track down and verify, it's been good info."
Hansen was convicted of just four of his murders in a deal that sparred him having to go to trial 17 times. Now an old man in dubious health, Hansen is serving 461 years plus life.
He did not reply to a letter requesting an interview. Department of Corrections spokesman Richard Schmitz described Hansen as a "model inmate" who minds his own business and wants others to do the same.
The convicted serial killer has never talked publicly about his crimes and, since his sentencing, will not talk to police either, Schmitz said. Still, it's conceivable he might have talked to others, he said, especially Manfried West, also a murderer, who once was Hansen's cell mate.
West and a former inmate, Ken Gage, claim to have information on Megan's burial site, Franson said.
Both men have their own baggage. In 1993, West shot and killed Joe Vogler, the 80-year-old founder of the Alaskan Independence Party, during a botched robbery.
Gage, who roomed a few cells down from Hansen, was indicted in 1998 on charges he posed as a cop, served a warrant on a prostitute and fondled her, then tried to blackmail her for sex in exchange for dropping fictitious charges. He pleaded no contest to attempted sexual assault, forgery and impersonating an officer.
Now out on parole, Gage says Hansen told him he took Megan to a remote cabin in the Seward area accessible only by boat, where he killed and buried her. The other woman who went missing two years later, Thill, Hansen similarly killed but dumped in Resurrection Bay, Gage says.
As proof of his claim, Gage offers his so-called close relationship with Hansen in prison. And the claim he has a map to Megan's grave.
'LET'S MAKE A DEAL'
That's where the flow of "new" information ends. So far. In exchange for the map, Gage is trying to broker a deal that would end his parole and probation restriction.
Gage says he's willing to hand over his materials only after his parole and probation are rescinded. He is not willing to turn them over first, and get his reward after the body is found. He doesn't trust the state to keep its end of a bargain, he said.
"All I'm asking is to get paper-free so I can start my life over again," Gage said. "If they are willing to drop my stuff, I am willing to give over everything that Bob has told me."
Assistant attorney general Patrick Gullufsen, a cold-case prosecutor for the state Department of Law, said he has asked troopers to look into Gage's claims but there are no immediate plans to meet his demands. There are more promising and urgent cases to work, and investigators will deal with Gage when they have time, he said.
"It's not that we don't want information that might assist in finding a victim who heretofore has not been found," Gullufsen said. "One of our investigators is looking into the whole thing. We're not ignoring it, but we're cautious about it."
Caution may be prudent: Gage's claims mirror investigators' suspicions readily available in places like the 1991 book "Butcher, Baker." And while investigators have long suspected Hansen in the girls' disappearances, they never were able to find a cabin he owned near Seward, Flothe said.
While officials may be skeptical of Gage's information, Schmitz confirmed Gage and West were at Spring Creek together with Hansen. Whether the killer would have given them accurate information is anyone's guess, he said.
Gage claims the only authentic copy of the map is in the hands of his Palmer-based attorney, Chad McGrady, for safekeeping. McGrady's receptionist said he received repeated messages seeking comment for this story and would return them "when he wants to." He never called.
"This might all be a fairy tale. I don't know," Franson said. "But if there is a map, track it down, find out where this information leads, hopefully to where we can track down Megan's body. Because she's out there somewhere."
Find James Halpin online at adn.com/contact/jhalpin or call him at 257-4589.