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Alaska Underworld: More than 5 years after torsos wash up in Anchorage, cases remain unsolved

Editor's note: This story was produced by Andrew Holland and "America's Most Wanted" and is published with permission.

While investigating the homicides of two women whose torsos washed ashore in 2003, Anchorage detectives came across at least five other women who had turned up missing. Cops think they could all be linked by an underworld of sex and drugs. torsoBeluga Point juts out of Turnigan Arm, a rocky inlet that offers a sweeping panorama of migrating beluga whales chasing salmon. On the evening of June 18, 2003, the low tide along the coastline made the perfect playground for 11-year-old Kyle Loomis and his teenage sister, Amanda.

Kyle and Amanda were boulder-hopping when Kyle said he spotted something in the mud between one of the rocks. At first, they thought they were looking at the remains of an indigenous Dall sheep. They grabbed a stick and turned a limb over. Instead of the hoof they expected to see, they said they saw a human hand.

The brother and sister suddenly realized they were looking at a torso that was missing its head and legs. They thought the body could've been that of a child, possibly a small girl. Cops arrived on the scene just before the tide could sweep the remains back into the water. They bagged the remains and began their murder investigation.

According to Anchorage homicide detectives, the case was the first of its kind for the department.

"This discovery of these remains was unusual," Det. Kristie Ratcliff told America's Most Wanted. "Normally you don't find a dismembered body. Generally, you might have some decomposition or some animal activity. However, you have all the limbs."

And the first step of the investigation was to identify the victim. Autopsy reports revealed the victim was female. Investigators sifted through missing-person reports for possible leads. Forensic lab technicians also sent tissue samples and a rib bone to various labs to cross-reference a possible DNA match with their missing-persons database.

Police would have to wait for conclusive results.

Alaska is rich in geologic diversity and the outskirts of Anchorage are no exception. Its coastal wetlands, called mud flats, form when mud is deposited by the ebbing of the tides. Ducks often nest around the shallow tidal pools, which make for good hunting ground to locals.

On September 6, 2003, a father and son were duck hunting in the mud flats along the Ocean View area of Anchorage. They looked over and made a chilling discovery: once again, the tides had washed up the remains of another headless, legless female torso.

Investigators have told AMW that the cut marks of this Jane Doe were similar to those of the first torso discovered just up the coast three months earlier. Cops said they believe the two victims could have been murdered and mutilated by the same person but progress in the investigation would be at a standstill until they could identify the two victims.

The forensic team sliced the tattoo from the torso and rehydrated the skin so they could see it in greater detail.

Michelle Rotthe. torso victimA Turning Point Etched In Ink

After the second torso was discovered, Anchorage police were still scouring missing persons reports for leads that might reveal the identity of the two women. Unlike the first body, cops said the second torso provided clues they thought might identify who this woman was.

Mark Halterman, who works in the forensic lab, explained to AMW that there were numerous tattoos on the victim, including a distinct one on her lower abdomen that spelled "Marty's" in block-type lettering.

The forensic team sliced the tattoo from the torso and rehydrated the skin so they could see it in more detail.

After looking at the tattoo more closely, detectives said they surmised it was the work of an amateur, inked either on the streets or behind bars.

Cops then headed to the Hiland Mountain Correctional Facility, Anchorage's prison for female offenders.

Officer Dan Reeder arrived at the facility with photographs of the tattoo to see if some of the inmates recognized it. Reeder told AMW he talked to 30 or 40 inmates before interviewing a woman who he said helped point the case in a new direction.

"When I showed one of the inmates the photograph, she immediately pointed to where it was located at," Reeder said. "She at that point gave us the name of Michelle Rothe. I then contacted Mark Halterman back at the crime lab and he was able to run the prints."

Halterman told AMW he ran the name and was able to match the fingerprints to the torso.

The second torso was in fact, 32-year-old Michelle Rothe. Though Rothe was never reported missing, she was last seen in the spring of 2003.

A year after police identified Michelle, DNA results came back on the first torso that washed up at Beluga Point. Detectives confirmed her name was Desiree Lekanoff, a 22-year-old who had been reported missing by a former boyfriend.

Now that cops had the identities of both women, Det. Mark Huelskoetter said they needed to find a common link between the victims.

He and the other homicide detectives found that connection around Spenard Avenue, which local cops say is Anchorage's main thoroughfare for prostitution. According to police, both victims had once worked there as prostitutes.

Like every major city in the U.S., Anchorage has its own seedy underbelly of crime. But Sgt. Kathy Lacey, who works the Anchorage Vice Squad, said prostitution's history in Alaska is unique.

She told AMW the age-old racket exploded onto the scene in the 1970s when oil exploration was at its peak. Some of the men who built the Trans-Alaska pipeline would drive to Anchorage after weeks in wooded isolation in the Northern Slopes, anxious to spend their hard-earned cash on a cold beer and a good time.

Women were few and far between in Alaska back then, which fueled the public's demand for prostitution.

"There were lots of stories of women coming up from the Lower 48 [states] just to work prostitution here because of the money," Lacey said. "Lots of men, and hardly any women, so that's kind of a great recipe right there."

According to Lacey, times have changed, and many women now head north for other reasons.

"We attract a lot of people who are trying to escape something in the Lower 48 -- either a lifestyle, a marriage, a family, a failure. They see this as a way to go up north and start over."

After a string of bad luck, many women like Desiree Lekanoff and Michelle Rothe end up on the streets, in a dangerous world of drugs and sex.

Sgt. Lacey told AMW that despite her role to enforce the laws, she still views prostitutes and their plight with sympathy. "We know they're breaking the law, but we also see them as victim. You have to look at why these women are out there," she said.

Desiree Lakanoff torso victimTwo Paths On One Road

According to Phyllis Faccio, a former prostitute herself, Desiree was barely a teenager when she was on the streets.

"Des didn't have a chance. She was 12 or 13 years old when she was thrown out of her house. And she was, ‘I need that money I need it now. And I can close my eyes and forget about anything for a minute or two.'"

Like Desiree, Michelle also knew the bleak realities of street life. Her mother, Ruth MacMullen, said her daughter relocated to Alaska because she thought it would be an idyllic setting to raise a family.

"She really wanted to be married and have a baby. And she got pregnant and she had a tubal pregnancy, and then after that she could never have children and that sort of sent her of the deep end," MacMullen said. She went on to say her daughter most likely succumbed to drug addiction and prostitution after the downward spiral of depression that followed the miscarriage.

Another former prostitute, Heather McMenamin, told AMW that Michelle had always wondered what it would be like if she could get off drugs and off the streets. "Michelle had a lot of life in her, ya know. And she wanted better for herself. She just too far into the lifestyle," McMenamin said.

During their investigation on the Lekanoff/Rothe case, Anchorage detectives told AMW they came across at least five other names of women who had turned up missing in Anchorage. Between 1993 and 2001, Traci Vicent, Jeri Brommels, Kelly Dunn, Robin Van Sickel and Samantha Kent had all vanished without a trace. Cops think they could all be connected by Anchorage's underground world of sex and drugs.

"We don't know that they're connected to Michelle or Desiree, and we're not assuming that," Det. Ratcliff said. "And we're not assuming that they're not connected. Some of these women could have cleaned up their life, possible moved back to the Lower 48 or possibly changed their name."

The tides haven't washed up any more torsos on the Alaskan coast since the bodies of Michelle and Desiree. So after several years of calm, why haven't we heard of more victims?

"There could be other victims out there that we have not found, yes," Det. Ratcliff told AMW. "It's possible. It's easy to dispose of something that you don't want found. There are lots of areas to do that in Alaska."

Ratcliff's partner, Det. Huelskoetter, said that whoever murdered and mutilated the women could have moved to another part of the U.S.

"This person, since we've discovered these two bodies, may have decided to change the way they dispose of somebody," Det. Huelskoetter. "They may have moved."

If you know anything about the Unknown Alaska Serial Killer, or the murders of Michelle Rothe and Desiree Lekanoff, call our hotline right now at 1-800-CRIME-TV.

This article is published with permission from America's Most Wanted, which aired the story in early January 2009. View the original story here.