It seemed like something from a television detective show -- but it wasn't over in an hour. On May 3, 2003, a 21-year-old Talkeetna woman living in Anchorage was reported missing. Her disappearance coincided with a mysterious fire. Local and federal law enforcement poured in resources to find out what had happened. Posters popped up. Armies of volunteer search parties scoured the Alaska countryside.
Within days, nearly everyone in Alaska knew who Bethany Correira was.
It would be a year before her remains were partially recovered from a remote gravel pit and another four before her landlord, Michael Lawson, was sentenced for the murder.
A new book, "Finding Bethany: A Memoir" (Todd Communications), reveals the step-by-step investigative and prosecution work that solved the case. (Read an excerpt here)
Former Detective Glen Klinkhart, who played a key role in bringing Correira's killer to justice, spent four years writing it to show "how things go from beginning to end," he said.
But "Finding Bethany" is more than an insider's view of how police solved a complicated homicide. Klinkhart takes pains to note the contributions of average citizens. "I wanted people to know about the miracle that occurred during this terrible tragedy, the people in the middle of all these headlines."
He mentioned Correira's friends from Talkeetna who moved to Anchorage while the search was underway, a 12-year-old who took the bus to the station each day after school to help with office work, and jeweler Josh Jennet, who cleaned and repaired the victim's jewelry before Klinkhart returned it to the family.
"Josh never told anyone what he did," Klinkhart said. "He wouldn't take any money for it. That's why I had to put him in. I wanted readers to know about all these people."
He also wanted Anchorage residents to get an idea about how good their police department is. "Our success is no secret," he said. "It's teamwork. A group of different people with different ways of looking at things. I'm just the thread that holds it together."
In places, the book breaks away to describe other deaths that have involved the author. The murder of his sister in 1981. The search for two boys, Malcolm and Isaiah Johnson, later found drowned in a tragic accident near their home. The discovery of a woman's torso off Beluga Point.
Particularly eye-catching is a chapter on the murder of Cynthia "Cindy" Henry, sort of a mini-police procedural tucked into the larger Correira narrative. "I wanted to have her in there because this was not a white girl from Talkeetna," Klinkhart said.
Henry was 36, Native and homeless. Unlike Correira, she was not considered a "top priority" by his bosses. There were no rallies, mass searches or multi-departmental press conferences. The Daily News published 59 articles or letters about Correira between the time she was declared missing and the sentencing of her killer. Henry, whose case coincided with Correira's, was mentioned in a total of six articles from the time her body was discovered under the A Street bridge (October 2002) and the sentencing of her killer, Roger Wade McKinley (November 2008).
In Klinkhart's telling, however, her case was being worked just as hard. "I had to learn how to live on the street," he said. "I grew up in Anchorage, but still, this was a side of the city I knew nothing about."
A crucial clue was a palm print in blood. There was no collection of such prints in Alaska, or anywhere except the police departments of the very largest cities. "I had to create my own database," he said. He began asking officers to collect such prints when they arrested people and to solicit prints from people acquainted with the victim.
Henry didn't have the big publicity, but she did have friends. Lots of people in the homeless community knew her as a kind person. They lined up to have Klinkhart take their prints, partially in hopes it might help catch the killer but also as a kind of show of street solidarity for the victim. "I never had anyone say no to taking their palm print," Klinkhart said.
A tip, careful interrogation and -- yes -- a matching print eventually broke the case six years after the murder.
The development of a palm print database was an innovation, but hardly the only one in which Anchorage has led the way over the years. Klinkhart himself started APD's first cybercrimes unit in the 1990s. "No other city this size had one," he recalled. "We had to go to a judge and explain what email was, what AOL was."
In the Correira case, the department used cellphone triangulation -- now a staple device on "CSI"-type cop shows -- where cellphone tower records pinpoint the location of calls. Klinkhart said he thought that it may have been one of the first times, if not the first, that such evidence was used to solve a murder.
Today Klinkhart is a computer security specialist. He retired from the APD after 17 years, not long after the Correira case was resolved. The department is not perfect, he said, and pointed to places in the book where he described problems with superiors. But the officers he worked with on the Correira case were as motivated as the 12-year-old office boy. "I had to order people to get some sleep," Klinkhart said.
And they are very good at what they do. "Our solve rate for homicides in Anchorage is 90-94 percent," he said. "Nationally it's 64 percent."
Of course, not every murder has a made-for-TV ending. The killing of Desiree Michelle Lekanoff, the woman whose torso was found off Beluga Point one month after Correira went missing, has never been solved. Nor has the case of Michelle Rothe, whose body was found a few miles away at around the same time.
That doesn't mean they won't be. "We tend to solve one or two cold cases every year," Klinkhart said. "I always tell people: If you're going to murder somebody, don't do it in this town."
Reach Mike Dunham at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM