Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.
Sometime in the afternoon of Nov. 3, 1966, West Anchorage High School senior William Michael “Mike” Christian left his parents’ home at 4306 North Star Road for the last time. After running some errands, he visited the Sundowner Drive-In theater off the Seward Highway near Chester Creek. After probably several mosquito bites, he stopped to call his girlfriend on the way out. According to her, he seemed in a good mood. He was going to wash his car, attend a car club meeting, and be home well before midnight. He hung up and then vanished.
He never made it to the car club or home. His parents did not worry about his absence at first, assuming he spent the night with friends. However, they grew instantly concerned when his beloved 1963 Impala sedan was discovered the next day, abandoned in town. By Nov. 6, the Alaska State Police, now the Alaska State Troopers, were actively investigating his disappearance. One officer was assigned near exclusively to the case.
The parents ran advertisements in the local newspapers offering a $500 reward, about $4,000 in 2021. Yet, the days after his disappearance quickly turned into weeks without any development. Increasingly unlikely tips and sightings piled onto each other, some perhaps the result of overactive imaginations fueled by dreams of a reward. Reports alternately placed him hiding out in Spenard, Paxson, or a cabin in the Big Delta region southeast of Fairbanks. Other reports claimed he had moved to the Lower 48 for work, or Canada, or even as far as Mexico. His mother even suggested he might be visiting some Seattle-area friends. Each weak lead was investigated and eliminated.
Three months later, the parents canceled the reward on the advice of the State Police. The somber update ran as a classified in the Anchorage Daily Times: “Reward regarding Mike Christian withdrawn as of February 27th, 1967.” Despite the suspicious details, like his abandoned car, Christian was officially considered a runaway. The case went cold. Resources were reassigned. Those closest to Christian remained haunted by the uncertainty, but the rest of the world moved on.
The breakthrough in the case came in 1974, eight years after Christian’s disappearance. All these decades later, a range of years like 1966 to 1974 does not seem like an exceptionally long span of time. But America both landed on and abandoned the moon in that time frame. While combat troops first deployed to Vietnam in 1965, that time frame covers the entirety of the Vietnam War draft and the American withdrawal in 1973. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy happened between 1966 and 1975, as did Woodstock, the Altamont Free Concert, the first Super Bowl, and Watergate. In 1966, the out-of-office Richard Nixon spent much of the year campaigning for other Republicans. He was elected president in 1968. In 1974, he resigned. Eight years can pass quickly for the individual, but they are also an eternity in history.
In 1974, former East High School student James Ronald Ethridge applied for a police position in Spokane, Washington. During the routine polygraph portion of the interview process, he was asked whether he knew of any unsolved felonies. Out poured a tale of petty teenage jealousies turned violent, the true story of what was not merely the disappearance, but the murder of Mike Christian. The case was reopened, much to the relief of his parents. His mother told the Anchorage Daily Times, “I’m so pleased with what they’re doing now. That policeman then wouldn’t listen to me and kept insisting he was a runaway.”
Mike Christian had spent the first few weeks of his senior year at East High. He preferred the atmosphere and friends there, but his address meant he was supposed to attend West High. Staff discovered the discrepancy and transferred him.
At East High, he met a girl as teen boys sometimes manage. Said girl had also dated fellow East High classmate Roger Padie, with perhaps some overlap. Because of this, Padie despised Christian and started carrying a gun in his car. On the night of Nov. 3, 1966, the two young men met on Sand Lake Road to discuss the matter. Padie reportedly told Christian, “I told you to stay away from my girl.” As Christian heatedly replied, Padie grabbed the .22 pistol from the car. Christian reached to wrestle the gun away, and Padie shot him in the head. Christian fell back against a car window, and Padie shot him again.
Padie loaded Christian into his trunk and drove off. Another classmate, Arthur Melickian, was driving down Turpin Road when he spotted Padie parked on the shoulder with a bad tire. They shifted the body to Melickian’s trunk and drove to Ethridge’s house. Melickian explained the situation to Ethridge and asked for help. The latter wanted nothing to do with the mess, and Melickian reportedly declared, “For God’s sake don’t say anything or I’ll swing, too.”
Melickian and Padie shifted their search for assistance to the home of two more classmates, Ken Wise and Roman Lenz. Christian was moved again, now to the trunk of Lenz’s car. An unnamed female classmate was at the house, and the five of them loaded into the car and began driving west on 15th Avenue.
By now, the conspiracy was at its peak. Six Anchorage teenagers — Padie, Melickian, Ethridge, Wise, Lenz and the unnamed girl — knew of the murder and had transferred the body between three different vehicles. It is frankly shocking that the details remained a secret for as long as they did. If not for the audacity of a man with the details of an unsolved murder on his conscience applying for police work, the truth might never have emerged.
Still, the entire debacle nearly came unraveled after Anchorage police soon pulled the car over. As Melickian later testified, “It was just a routine check. We weren’t speeding or anything.” The officer did not search the car, and they were released. From there, the group drove around Anchorage, dropped off Wise and the girl, and continued east on the Glenn Highway.
Lenz pulled off onto what was then an unnamed dirt road at Eagle River, drove for a distance, and stopped. Lenz and Padie buried the body in a shallow grave while Melickian stayed by the car. This moment was the last time anyone saw Mike Christian, dead or alive.
Two weeks later, Melickian dropped out of school and joined the Marine Corps. Padie also failed to graduate and worked around town before being drafted. He served in Vietnam, where he earned four citations, including the Purple Heart. He returned to Anchorage and worked as a truck driver.
Ethridge’s confession reached the local news during the summer of 1974. As the troopers reopened and built their case, Padie knew the walls were closing in on him. The buildup lasted for months, as the lack of a body hindered the troopers. Padie took the opportunity to threaten potential witnesses. But finally, on May 9, 1975, Padie was arrested and indicted for first-degree murder. The statute of limitations on the accomplices had expired in 1971.
The first trial ended in a mistrial after the prosecution failed to lay the necessary foundation for certain evidence that was subsequently deemed inadmissible, if impossible for the jury to disregard. In both trials, the defense struggled with the presentation of the case, with how to portray the now mature Padie for his teenage crime. They emphasized his work and military record. Padie told the court, “I’m sorry about what happened. I didn’t mean for it to happen . . . it’s just done.” His attorney recommended probation.
District Attorney Joe Balfe focused on the premeditated aspects of the murder, including his decision to carry a gun to an argument about a love triangle. Balfe noted that if Padie had been unarmed during the confrontation, “Mike Christian would be alive today.”
Sensing where things were going, the defense offered a deal, a no-contest plea on a lesser charge of manslaughter. The prosecution accepted. On July 21, 1977, Judge Victor Carlson sentenced Padie to 15 years in prison.
There are no real winners in this story. No one ever found Mike Christian’s body. Padie did lead investigators to the site, but animals had long since done what they do. Still, the judgment did offer some small reminder that justice can still be obtained, even when delayed. And the past is rarely so well hidden that it cannot be discovered.
Bruder, Gerry. “Man Charged in Slaying.” Anchorage Daily Times, May 9, 1975, 1.
“Former Padie Classmate Says Christian’s Death Planned.” Anchorage Daily Times, September 16, 1976, 2.
May, Liisa. “Missing Youth Case Reopened.” Anchorage Daily Times, June 19, 1974, 1, 2.
“Police Hunt for Student Lacks Clues.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 15, 1966, 1.
“Police Seek Missing Boy.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 7, 1966, 28.
“Police to Check Big Delta Cabin for Missing Boy.” Anchorage Daily Times, November 26, 1966, 2.
“Reward regarding Mike Christian.” Anchorage Daily Times, February 28, 1967, 24.
Rogers, Barbara. “Hearsay Evidence Claim Brings Padie Mistrial.” Anchorage Times, September 17, 1976, 3.
Rogers, Barbara. “School Chum Tells Body’s Burial Spot.” Anchorage Times, September 15, 1976, 2.