On a blustery October night at his Sand Lake duplex, 25-year-old Douglas Cleaves, his sister and two women friends had just finished dinner and were kicking back on the floor watching "Fame" when they heard two loud raps on the door.
What the …?
His sister glanced at the clock — 20 past midnight — and shot him a quizzical look. He nodded for her to answer. She did, and will never forgive herself for it.
Her brother was just putting his life back together after a detour through hell. Earlier that summer, at the end of an intense, drawn-out divorce, the court had awarded him custody of his nearly 2-year-old son, Robert. Doug was ecstatic, and talked incessantly about the life he and his little "Skooch" would have together. Then three weeks later, while working a construction job in Eagle River, he had a gruesome encounter with a high-voltage transmission line and saw his feet explode. He was lucky he didn't die on the spot, but he lost both legs, amputated below the knees.
So there he was, only a few weeks out of the hospital, grateful to be alive, dealing with brutal phantom-leg pain, getting around by wheelchair and crawling on his hands and knees, when those two knocks came on his door.
His sister rose, cracked it open and froze. On the porch stood a hooded figure — all but the eyes and mouth covered by a balaclava — wearing a trench coat, combat boots and gloves that gripped a large-caliber rifle. For a moment she thought it was one of Doug's buddies pulling a prank. Then her internal alarms kicked in and she tried slamming the door. The intruder wedged the rifle barrel into the doorjamb and burst in, bashing her against the coat closet, then looked around, shouldered the rifle and blew her brother away.
Oh my god! Oh my god! What just happened? Oh my god, my poor brother, my poor, poor brother…
Doug Cleaves was murdered Oct. 19, 1985. It's been well over 30 years, and no arrest has ever been made.
"He sat there with no legs, shot like duck in a barrel," his sister, Susan Ludwig, said from her home in New Jersey. "He didn't have a chance."
The ache for justice resides deep in her bones.
"It consumes me," she said. "We'd be surprised if the case was solved after this long; I just don't want my brother's memory to die."
The brother she knew was kind, good-humored, protective, stubborn. He was "a mountain" of a man, 6-foot-4, around 250 pounds. "Very good-looking."
Doug and Susan grew up with two older brothers on a 16-acre farm in Whitehouse Station, New Jersey, a small community 30 miles west of Newark. Born a little more than a year apart, the two relied on each other, especially as their parents went through an ugly divorce of their own. Doug loved hunting, riding horses, all things military and broad-sliding at 60 mph in his "field car," a black, '64 Chevy Impala.
"That's what we used to do," recalled his childhood buddy Ray Szczeck. "You'd cut the wheel really sharp and go sideways, then do a slow, graceful 180 on a wet, freshly cut hayfield."
Ray's friendship with Doug began in middle school one Sunday when he was raking leaves and Doug came ambling by and stopped to talk. And talk and talk. He was famous for that.
"Pretty soon we're standing there for like an hour, and Doug's telling me his life's story. I've known him for about 15 minutes and I already know he's a gung-ho Army freak. He wants to join the Army. And he wants to go to Alaska. Those were the two main themes of his life, even at the age of, like, 11. He was this gung-ho super patriot, like, 'kill a commie for mommy,' John Wayne and Corn Flakes. He loved guns, he loved the outdoors."
He was also fond of Marlboros and rotgut coffee, drinking it the way other kids drank soda.
"He would drink the worst kind of coffee, the skankiest, no-name, generic coffee, before he'd drink a Coke if he had the chance, I swear to God."
The introvert of the duo, Ray envied Doug's ability to connect with people.
"He could talk to a hippie freak, he could talk to a cop, he could talk to a rabbi, a farmer, a businessman, a man, woman, young, old. I mean, he could find common ground with anybody regardless of their age, sex, politics, whatever. He could talk to Joseph Stalin, dig him out of the grave and talk sense into him.
"This happened so many times it's not even funny. We would stop someplace like a convenience store, and Doug would be standing in line and out of the blue start up a conversation with the guy ahead or behind him. I'm sitting out in the car waiting, they'd come out, and 20 minutes later they'd still be standing there smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee like they were old school chums. And I'm like, 'Come on, man, come on, come on, let's go!' And he's like, 'Yeah, yeah, be right there.' I don't know many times we were late for something because of that."
Doug also had a deep respect for elders and showed genuine interest in them, including Ray's father, a World War II vet, not an easy man to get to know.
"He wouldn't even talk to most of my friends, he'd just kind of ignore them, pretend they weren't there," Ray said. "But Doug was the exception. He could talk to Doug better than he could talk to me."
Among favorite memories is the day Doug absconded with his brother Don's motorcycle, and pulled in front of Ray's place where he and his dad were working in the garage.
"He doesn't even get his helmet off and smoke starts pouring out from underneath the gas tank and the seat. So I run out there, and me and Doug are jumping around like rabid monkeys. We just don't know what the hell to do. And my dad looks up and comes walking out.
"(Doug) doesn't know what the hell he's going to tell Donny when he asks what happened to his motorcycle. So my dad says, 'Get in the car.' So we get in the car and my dad drives us 15 miles to the Honda dealer, and he wrangles a deal for some used parts and pays for them.
"Now, my dad wouldn't have walked across the driveway to piss on most of my friends had they been on fire. But he thought so much of Doug that he gets these parts, gets us home and sits out there for three hours rewiring this motorcycle."
A marriage gone south
By the time Doug was a senior, he'd lost interest in school and become a serial class cutter. He eventually dropped out, took off for Alaska, got his GED and joined the Army. As Ray saw it, Doug had already accomplished two of his life's goals by the time he was 20.
Although not a big drinker, he loved his pot. Everyone who knew him knew that. On Doug's first trip home from Alaska, traveling mostly on military hops, he arrived at the Newark airport in full military dress at about 1 in the morning. Ray picked him up.
"So we get outside the terminal, we're walking out to the car and he flips his head forward, takes his hat off and says, 'Here, I brought you something.' And he gives me this big-ass bag of pot. Ha! Yeah, he had it underneath his hat the entire way."
Back then, possessing and cultivating small amounts of marijuana for personal use at home was legal in Alaska, but that was irrelevant, according to military law. Still, he never got caught.
Doug served four years in the Army as an artilleryman and paratrooper, left with an honorable discharge and a good-conduct medal, then joined the National Guard. He worked a variety of jobs, including as a bouncer for the then-happening nightclub Swiftwater Bill's, for Hudson Air Service in Talkeetna and as a truck driver.
Five years after taking off for Alaska, Doug called his mother to tell her his girlfriend was pregnant. Charlotte Palmer was barely 20 when they married in February 1983, and their son was born about six months later. The marriage did not go well for either of them. Charlotte filed for divorce in April 1984.
For more than a year, they duked it out in court over custody of their son, with claims of unbecoming parental behavior and domestic violence on both sides, court records show. She claimed he was a pot dealer, and that he did cocaine. He denied that — not the smoking-pot part, but selling it, as well as the cocaine accusation.
Those testifying on her behalf said he told bogus stories of his military exploits. He denied ever saying such things. His friends and family, however, were under the impression he was a member of some kind of secret operations unit. If he had been involved in covert overseas missions, his Army records, obtained from the national archives, contain no mention of it. Several witnesses backed up his claim that he never smoked pot around his son, nor would he allow his friends to.
On July 27, 1985, after several continuances, a parade of character witnesses, custody investigation reports and psychological evaluations, Palmer Superior Court Judge Beverly Cutler found Doug the more stable of the two and awarded him custody.
Charlotte's visitation was limited to 48 hours every other week, plus four hours on her son's birthday, with the alternating Christmas Eves and Christmas Days until the boy turned 8. As time passed, the decision stated, visitation could be increased if determined to be in the best interest of the child. Both were ordered to take parenting classes.
Charlotte's attorney called the decision "cruel" and filed a motion for a new trial. The motion was denied.
Doug's victory lap didn't last long. Three weeks after winning his custody case, on July 18, 1985, he and another man were unloading steel at the Roundtable Pizza construction site near Carrs in Eagle River when the crane's boom clipped a power line, shooting 115,000 volts of electricity down guy wires and through their bodies. A reporter at the time described seeing the men's fingerprints etched onto the beam and small drips of the melted steel on the ground where they'd been standing.
As Doug lay in the burn unit recovering from injuries and the loss of both legs, Charlotte filed a motion in Superior Court to modify the custody arrangement, making the case that rather than caregivers looking after Robert while Doug recovered, that her son should be with her. The court disagreed, and modification was denied. On Sept. 20, she filed an appeal to the Alaska Supreme Court.
To hell and back
Registered Nurse Laura Cronick (now Murray) was among those who took care of Doug during the two months he spent at Providence Alaska Medical Center. She remembers a steady stream of visitors and how determined Doug was to not let his disability define him. He talked of skydiving, learning to fly and climbing Denali. But he wasn't an easy patient.
"He was difficult to work with because he wanted to move forward so quickly," she remembers. "And he was angry … which is just a normal part of that sort of horrific, life-changing injury. His life changed in split seconds, so dramatically. Of course he was angry. He was grieving the loss of his limbs, the loss of a lifestyle. Nurses get that; we totally expect that and respect the process."
Although Doug's fingertips were fried in the accident, he insisted on changing Robbie's diapers as soon as he was able. He threw a birthday party for him from his hospital bed when the boy turned 2.
Doug's sister never heard him complain. "And I know he was in pain," Susan said. "He would get phantom pains really, really, really bad in his legs."
Nor did he lose his sense of humor. He thought it hilarious when a flyer from a podiatrist came in the mail. When asked how much height he'd lost, he'd say, "Oh, about 2 feet."
"He was so focused on Robert it was like he didn't even care about his own body," said friend John Watkins II. "I mean, all he could think about and talk about was Robert. Being Robert's dad was everything to him. That's the reason he survived, quite frankly."
John was among those who visited Doug regularly at Providence. As Doug's discharge date drew near, John busted him out of the hospital in his wheelchair for a night on the town, a night that ended at Chilkoot Charlie's.
"The nurses told me to be in before midnight, and I don't think I got him back before like 2:30 or 3 in the morning. Oh God, we were laughing and laughing. He was so glad to be out of the hospital. I'm pretty sure we were singing at the top of our lungs when we rolled back. At least two, maybe as many as four of the nurses really read me the riot act. 'We told you no later than midnight. Blah, blah, blah.' We were just laughing and singing, 'Oh, sorry, we forgot what time it was.' They chewed me out, and got me a blanket and let me sleep in his room."
Doug was discharged in late September. Susan quit her job and came up from New Jersey to help look after Robbie while Doug got situated into his new life. He was looking forward to a hefty settlement from the accident, and planned to use the money to start his own air taxi business. He dreamed of learning to fly, and of how he and Robbie would explore Alaska together.
But once he settled into his new place in Sand Lake, he had less than four weeks to live.
A killer comes calling
Robbie wasn't there the night his father was murdered. It was Charlotte's weekend, so the boy was with her.
That night, Doug, Susan and two women friends had a late dinner that included king crab legs and Champagne. One was a woman Doug was dating, a dancer at the Great Alaskan Bush Co. The other was his dear friend Laurel, who after more than 30 years is still too traumatized to have her last name used since the killer was never caught. The four of them were on the floor watching TV when, just after midnight, someone banged on the door.
It's not easy for Susan to relive the worst moments of her life, but she wants people to know what this "monster" did to her brother. Here's what she remembers after this hooded figure burst into the room.
The first bullet missed, went through the wall and almost hit the woman living in the other side of the duplex. Doug rose to his knees, put his hands out and pleaded, "Hey, don't shoot, I understand what's going on, don't shoot. We can work this out."
"I remember looking over at Douggie and seeing a little red spot on his forehead above his eye. And then I saw his eye come out of skull, and then he just went over backwards. I didn't look at him. I couldn't look at him."
After putting four bullets in Doug, the killer coolly turned and walked out.
With Susan paralyzed by shock, Laurel slammed the door, and the three of them ran screaming into the back bedroom. Susan grabbed the phone off Doug's desk and dialed 911 while the two others hid in his closet. Laurel didn't realize until later she was covered in gore.
When the cops banged on the door, Susan was too terrified to open it. She ran back to the phone and made the dispatcher promise it was officers and not the killer.
"She said, 'Yes, open the door.' I opened it, and guns were pointed at my head. I put my hands in the air, then without looking, pointed at my brother. I never looked at him again. I felt I'd be disrespecting him if I looked at him all bloody on the floor."
As neighbors milled about in their bathrobes, the police got the three women out of the house and questioned them separately into the early morning hours. Susan then made that unbearable call home. It was 7 a.m. when the phone rang in New Jersey. Her mother, at first happy to hear her voice, fainted when she heard the news.
"I went right down on the floor," recalls Ruth Cleaves, 86.
"It just ripped my mother apart," Susan said. "She could never deal with it. It broke her."
All these years later, Susan still wakes up in the middle of night haunted by images she has never been able to shake from her head. October is especially rough, when she relives her brother's murder over and over and over.
John Watkins was among those who went back into the duplex to get Susan's things and pack up Doug's belongings. And it was all still there, the evidence of what happened, on the walls, the floor, the couch.
"I got really messed up over it," he said. "I mean, he was shot two or three times in head, twice in the chest, I believe. I had nightmares for a long time about being in the hospital and trying to put his head back to together."
Whoever killed Doug Cleaves wanted him dead bad enough to execute him in front of three people. Doug seemed to know what it was about. "We can work this out," were his last words. His friends and family had their own strong suspicions, which may or may not have been correct, and were convinced the case would be solved, and solved soon. When the murder investigation stalled, Doug's mother sold a piece of property and put up $25,000 in reward money for information leading to the arrest and indictment of the person who killed her son.
But nothing came of it.
With Doug dead, the custody appeal was moot. Charlotte got Robert, moved out of state with her boyfriend and started a new life. Once they married, the boy got a new last name. Doug's family and friends never saw him again.
Unbeknownst to Susan until recent years, her mother, concerned about her grandson, hired a private detective in 1988 who tracked down Charlotte and her husband on the opposite side of the country. He reported back that they lived in a tidy brick house, that Robert had a new brother and a sister, and seemed to be healthy and in good hands.
Once Susan learned about the private investigator and read his report, she started her own search for her nephew. Two years ago, she found him. He's now 33, a father himself, and going through his own tumultuous divorce.
"The first six conversations I had with him, all I did was cry because he sounded so much like my brother. I said, 'I don't think you know anything about me but I'm your aunt …' I'd close my eyes while talking to him, and it was like being with my brother again. I was so grateful to have finally found him.
"I asked what he knew about his father. He said nothing, except he was told he was a drug addict and sold drugs and that's why he was killed. I said right then, 'Nothing could be further from the truth. Nothing.' "
(Neither Robert nor his mother responded to requests to be interviewed for this story.)
Susan has told Robert stories of his father, and has sent him his baby book, as well as photos of Doug and the two of them together. She wants him to know the Doug Cleaves she knew. She wants him to know how much his father loved him.
"He loved his son more than any man I've seen love his son."
Being able say these things to Robert brings her the only sense of peace she's known since the night she answered those ominous raps on her brother's door.
"For me, it's brought closure letting Robert know how much his dad loved him, and that we've always loved him and have never forgotten him."
Debra McKinney is a longtime Alaska writer and co-author of "Beyond the Bear." She lives on Lazy Mountain near Palmer.