Ice and Bone: Tracking an Alaskan Serial Killer
By Monte Francis; WildBlue Press; 2016; 392 pages; $16.99
As Anchorage reels from the news that the recently killed James Dale Ritchie could be the city's latest serial killer, a recent book about a murderer who stalked the streets and took at least five lives has been drawing considerable attention. "Ice and Bone: Tracking an Alaskan Serial Killer" by Monte Francis tells the story of Joshua Wade, who twice dominated headlines over high-profile murders in 2000 and 2007.
The first was the beating death of Della Brown, an Alaska Native woman found in an abandoned building in Spenard in September of 2000. After a lengthy trial notable for a lack of physical evidence, poor work by the prosecution and by a highly skilled defense team, Wade was found innocent of all charges except evidence tampering. Despite widespread belief that he was the culprit, he was a free man by the end of 2004.
The second time he came to the public's attention was when he was tied to the 2007 disappearance of Mindy Schloss, a psychiatric nurse practitioner and neighbor of Wade's who went missing that summer and whose body was later found in Wasilla, shot execution style. Because he had used Schloss's ATM card to withdraw money from her account, the crime rose to the federal level and carried a possible death penalty. Rather than risk a trial he pleaded guilty to shooting Schloss and admitted to killing Brown in exchange for a life sentence without parole.
Exceptional journalistic work
Francis, an award-winning television journalist from the San Francisco Bay area who moonlights as a true crime writer, stumbled on the story in 2014 while researching unsolved homicides. An article from September 2000 in the Anchorage Daily News discussed efforts by city police to solve the killings of six women — five Native and one African-American — over a 16-month period. That story was published in the wake of Brown's murder and before Wade was arrested in connection with it.
Speculating that the killings were linked and that Wade had carried them out, Francis traveled to Alaska and started digging. He plowed through news reports from the time, trial transcripts, police records and other sources, which he draws upon heavily. He also met with family members and friends of the victims, investigators, prosecutors and jurors. He interviewed people who knew Wade, including his father and sister.
A tremendous amount of exceptional journalistic work went into this, and the book that emerges is richly detailed and deeply sensitive toward the victims and those who loved them. And while in no way forgiving to Wade, Francis seeks to locate the human deep inside him that went terribly wrong, apparently from a very young age.
The first part of the book covers the killing of Brown. Abandoned by her mother as a child and a victim of domestic and sexual abuse throughout her shortened life, she was living in a trailer park with a sometimes-violent man and struggling with alcohol and drug problems at the time of her death. Yet she was also very loving toward her mother and family, who she only came to know as an adult. In exploring Brown's life and her mother's grief, Francis displays tremendous compassion and honors her memory well. He makes the loss feel personal to his readers.
Between Brown's murder and her body's discovery, Wade bragged about the killing to several people and took them to see the corpse. Eventually one of them came forward and Wade was arrested, but there was no physical evidence tying him to the scene. Additionally, those he had admitted the murder to were themselves petty criminals and easily discredited by the defense. To enormous public outrage, Wade walked.
Deal with authorities
The Schloss disappearance and killing was where Wade tripped himself up. Apparently he only intended to rob her house, thinking she wasn't home. When she emerged from the bedroom where she'd been sleeping, he abducted her and drove her north to Wasilla in her car, where he killed her. A suspect from the start, he became a fugitive until his capture some weeks later after a brief hostage situation that ended without bloodshed.
A few years after admitting to the Brown and Schloss murders, Wade confessed to killing three men in a bargain with authorities to get transferred out of Alaska's correctional facility in Seward, where he felt he was too well known, and into the federal prison system, where he hoped he would just be a number. Most who know him, however, suspect he has left a much longer trail of victims behind him.
Citing the work of serial killer researcher Harold Schechter, Francis considers the numerous ways Wade matches the profile of a psychopath. Raised in a broken home, angry with his mother, his father absent, sexually abused at a young age, he was using drugs by his preteens and in trouble with the law soon after. More telling, both his sister and father say Wade hates women and both suspect that he has killed many of them. He also carries a particularly strong animus toward Alaska Natives (at least two of the men he admitted killing were Natives, the third has never been identified). Where he differs from the mold is that his murders all appear to have been spontaneous and committed in anger rather than the result of methodical planning. This quirk fits with the other killings Francis believes Wade carried out. If they were his victims, it doesn't appear that he stalked them. They just crossed his path at the wrong time.
In the end, Francis reminds us that even when murders are solved, the cases are never truly closed, writing:
"Although Joshua Wade has spent almost a decade behind bars (in Alaska, Indiana and now Texas), his evil acts continue to have repercussions in many people's lives. The FBI is confident Wade has killed at least five people and we can speculate about at least a few other unsolved crimes, but the true number of his victims reaches into the dozens. That's because murder is never just a solitary act; the consequences for the victim's loved ones often play out in the most unfortunate and tragic of ways for years following the crime."
David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer and critic.