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'Finding Bethany' details detective's quest to solve horrific murder

David A. James
Author and former Anchorage Police Department detective Glen Klinkhart. Bill Roth

"Finding Bethany: A Memoir" by Glen Klinkhart

Todd Communications, 2013, 304 pages, $15.00

The disappearance of Bethany Correira from her Anchorage apartment in May 2003 gripped the entire state of Alaska. The young woman, just 21 at the time, vanished without a trace the same day that a fourplex next door to her duplex was gutted by fire. Early investigations showed no link between the two incidents. The fire was ruled accidental, while examinations of Correira's residence found no signs of foul play. With no arson and no body, there was no evidence of a crime.

For one Anchorage detective, however, things didn't look right. Correira, he believed, was not the type to run off without telling her close-knit family. Owing partly to a painful personal experience, he also thought the fire was too coincidental to dismiss.

While Corriera's parents, friends, and some persistent reporters kept the story in the public eye, homicide investigator Glen Klinkhart pursued the case for more than a year, eventually accumulating sufficient evidence to pin murder, arson, and evidence-tampering charges on the man he suspected was responsible from the outset.   

"Finding Bethany" is Klinkhart's insider account of this widely publicized case, as well as a personal story of why he was driven to solve it. It's a compelling and fast-moving book that offers readers a taste of the frustrating and often tedious labor involved in piecing together the details of an awful crime and the emotional toll this can take on those who do such work.

For Klinkhart, the case was personal. Years earlier his elder sister had been sexually assaulted and murdered in the family home when still a teenager, and her killer had set the house afire in a failed effort at covering up the crime. This incident, which opens the book, left a permanent mark on Klinkhart, and many years later led him into homicide investigations after he joined the Anchorage Police Department. 

Following his instincts

Klinkhart wastes little time on his personal life. Following a quick summary of his sister's slaying and his early career, he briefly recounts several high profile murder and disappearance cases he worked on. From then on, however, this is Corriera's story. 

Klinkhart took a missing person call at Corriera's apartment the same morning as the fire. The fumes from the neighboring conflagration greeted him as he arrived, stirring unwanted memories. Once inside the apartment he met with Corriera's mother, Linda, who he immediately felt kinship with and who quickly convinced him her daughter wouldn't have taken off without telling someone.

What follows is a detailed chronology of how Klinkhart pinned Bethany Corriera's murder on Michael Lawson, a middle-age construction contractor with -- as Klinkhart slowly discovered -- a lengthy history of violent assaults on women.

Before he knew anything about Lawson's past, Klinkhart had already decided he had something to do with the Corriera's disappearance. While he had an alibi (he and his brother Robert had been at home watching NASCAR the previous day), Lawson had placed two quick phone calls to Corriera on the morning she vanished. Since Lawson managed the duplex Corriera lived in, and since she was employed part time cleaning the buildings, this wasn't necessarily hard to explain. From the moment Klinkhart first encountered him, however, the detective couldn't shake his suspicions.

Horrendous details

Over the following chapters, Klinkhart explains his nuanced investigation. While it lacks the drama of a crime novel, it's every bit as fascinating for showing how detectives work. Meticulously sifting through electronic data and digging through Lawson's arrest history isn't glamorous, but it helped bring the conviction. 

Klinkhart built his initial case on Lawson's cell phone records. The towers his phone connected to placed him near the duplex at the time of Corriera's disappearance. Finding other charges to hold Lawson on while nailing down additional murder evidence was also tantamount. So was getting his brother Bob to turn state's witness. All this was done quietly while under intense public scrutiny. 

In what is likely a legacy of authoring countless police reports, Klinkhart writes in quick, get-to-the-point sentences, wasting few words. This isn't to say the book is light reading, however. This is true crime. The details are horrendous and very painful to read. 

Klinkhart lets readers know the case impacted him heavily, but he doesn't go on at length about it. This is a smart move in an era when too many writers indulge in excessive self-examination. Only once do his own emotions overwhelm the narrative. This moment springs from his love and empathy for the Corrieras and his shared experience of losing a family member to murder. It's well timed to the story he's telling, and then he moves on. He's also careful not to take sole credit for making the case, repeatedly stressing the considerable teamwork that went into solving it. This is a well balanced, deeply human, and at times unexpectedly uplifting story.

Difficulty of getting a murder conviction

Alaskans won't be able to read this book without thinking of the more recent kidnapping and murder of another young Anchorage woman, Samantha Koenig. That story was similarly subjected to extensive media coverage, and again some residents voiced heavy criticism of police who, by necessity, kept the public in the dark as they closed in on the perpetrator.

In this context, the book becomes a much-needed elucidation of how difficult achieving a murder conviction can be. It puts a human face on the investigators who strive to build an airtight case before making an arrest. Moving too quickly can lead to a killer walking free. "Finding Bethany" shows why, as difficult as it sometimes is, it's important for the public to be patient. No one wants justice served more than the people looking to serve it.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.