Grisly legacy of 'Eklutna Annie'

Actors speak for the departed in cemetery tour

Anchorage Daily NewsJuly 14, 2012 

A small bronze plaque, partially buried by sod at the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery, marks the grave of one of the most famous murder victims in Alaska history. The plaque doesn't have her real name -- no one knows what that was -- or even the name by which she is best known. And the date on it is probably wrong.

But there lies "Eklutna Annie," said to have been the first victim of serial killer Robert Hanson.

Hanson, an Anchorage baker, admitted to killing 17 women between 1979 and 1984, sometimes taking them to remote locations and hunting them down like wild game. The bloody spree has provided material for several books -- fiction and nonfiction -- episodes of television crime shows, documentaries and an upcoming major film, "The Frozen Ground."

Investigators confirmed the names of 16 of Hanson's victims. (Some believe the total is 21 or more.) But Annie has remained nameless since her remains were uncovered near a remote power line on July 21, 1980.

This year, 32 years and a day after Annie's body was found, Anchorage school teacher Rachel Gregory will portray the deceased woman, standing by her grave and telling visitors what little can be confirmed about Annie's life. Gregory is one of several actors who will depict personages buried at the downtown graveyard in a "Stories at the Cemetery" performance from 6 to 8 p.m. on Sunday, July 22.

The "Stories" event was started last year by volunteer cemetery researchers Bruce and Audrey Kelly and actress/storyteller Linda Benson. Admission is free, though donations are accepted and shared by the performers.

"We were making bets about how many people would show up," said Gregory, who last year portrayed Ada Blackjack, the sole survivor of a disastrous expedition to Wrangel Island in the 1920s. "We figured a couple dozen.

"There must have been a thousand."

Quirky tales

"Stories" builds on long-running annual tours of the cemetery started by the late John Bagoy. Distressed by the deteriorating condition of the graves of Anchorage pioneers, Bagoy threw himself into studying the site, plot by plot. He swept the grounds with a metal detector to uncover tin identification plates, which in some cases were all that was left of the original wood crosses that once marked where coffins were placed.

For "Stories' " inaugural year, Benson and company focused on local celebrities like Blackjack, painter Sydney Laurence's wife Jeanne, and publisher and Native rights advocate Howard Rock. But they also featured the graves of those killed in the notorious Cache Creek murders of 1939.

This year, the repertoire will feature more homicides, including men killed in misunderstandings or love triangles. Jeff Aldrich, a veteran of the Fairbanks Shakespeare Festival who has been performing in "bobrauschenbergamerica" at Cyrano's this month, will assume the role of a detective who comments on Annie and directs visitors to the nearby graves of four of Hanson's other victims.

The Kellys recruited Aldrich.

"It sounded cool to me," he said. "I'm into site-specific work and work that's integral with the community -- and this is both."

Some of this year's tales are more quirky than horrifying. Audrey Kelly (she portrayed Jeanne Laurence last year) will be Myrtle Wendler, the owner of Club 25 and the Wendler Building, said to be the oldest frame structure still standing in Anchorage. "I might give away my secret recipe for the Golden Comet," she said, slipping into character and referring to the club's signature drink. "I never divulged it until my retirement."

Bruce Kelly will be Frank Dorbrandt, a pioneer pilot with an airplane propeller for a grave marker. "You can always tell where the pilots are," Kelly said.

He described Dorbrandt as a cantankerous smuggler who gave federal authorities the fits, "a braggart, self-serving. He worked for all the air carriers but not with any one of them for very long. He was not a team player. But no one ever questioned his ability to fly."

Linda Benson will take the role of Ella Romig, wife of the doctor for whom Romig Hill is named. John Frazier will vamp it up as Wayne Hussy, one of the first openly gay men in town and self-proclaimed "First Empress of Alaska."

No name

Period costumes are key to the show. Aldrich will wear a trench coat and fedora. Gregory will be tarted up in a mini-skirt and netted midriff.

"I'm trying to get the clothes right to the best of my ability," she said.

The real Annie was wearing knee-high, high-heeled boots, a sleeveless knit top, jeans and a brown leather jacket when she died. Hanson told interrogators she was a topless dancer or a prostitute -- the same thing he said about all his victims.

Hanson didn't know her name but thought she might have been from Kodiak. (Police dubbed her "Eklutna" because of where she was found, not because she was thought to be from the village.)

A Daily News article on the 20th anniversary of her death described how Hanson drove her out of town in his truck, chased her when she ran and grabbed her by her long hair. She pulled a knife from her purse. He took the knife and stabbed her in the back.

"It was gruesome way to die," Gregory said. "It's a sad story but a good awareness tool, a way to talk about the way some people still treat women."

Annie was thought to have died a year before electrical workers found her remains. There was little left to identify her. The Alaska State Troopers' missing persons website says Annie was short, between 4 feet 11 inches and 5 feet 3 inches tall. And young, in her late teens or early 20s. She was "possibly white with American Indian/Native mix" and had "light brown to reddish-blond" hair.

Hanson was convicted and sentenced to 461 years plus life. He is in Spring Creek prison in Seward.

Annie was laid to rest in the Anchorage cemetery, then exhumed and relocated -- her third burial -- when the area where she was originally interred was designated for infants.

Her humble, relocated marker now sits between two elegant headstones under a massive blue spruce flanked by flowering lilacs. The plaque on Plot 21, Row 17, Section 14 of the cemetery is hard to find. It gives visitors no clue as to her place among the unsolved mysteries of Alaska's past. It contains just four words.

"Jane Doe

Died 1980."


Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

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