When I heard about plans to make a movie about Alaska serial killer Robert Hansen, something didn't sit right.
Hansen admitted to raping and killing at least 17 women 30 years ago, sometimes tracking them through the woods and shooting them like animals. He's still alive at age 72, sitting in prison in Seward. I imagine him reading about himself in magazines, as portrayed by John Cusack, in the planned film, "The Frozen Ground." Will he find it gratifying? He dominated the news for years in the '80s and once threatened to write a book. What does it say to make him famous all over again?
His is a twisted story, but it isn't "Law & Order"-style fiction. These were real women. Women who lived in Alaska. Women who suffered and died. Some of their bodies are still out there. What about them?
I went through a thick file of yellowed newspaper clippings about Hansen on Thursday. I intended to write a column about the women whose deaths might be portrayed in the film. I wanted to know more about them, to get a sense of who he had taken from the world. I wasn't expecting what I found. Or more accurately, what I didn't.
There are more than a hundred mentions of Hansen in print, mostly in stories published in The Anchorage Times and the Anchorage Daily News 25 years ago. There are long narratives about his childhood and his psychological profile. But his victims are barely described.
The list of his victims and suspected victims isn't complete. Names in stories have different spellings. I wrote them down as I read: "Eklutna Annie," an unidentified body, Angela Fedder, Lisa Futrell, Roxanne Eastland, Tamara Pederson, Georgia or Sherry Morrow, Joanna Messina, Paula Goulding or Golden, Andrea Altiery, Teresa Watson, Delynn Frey, Malai Larsen, Karen Baumsguard, and Sue Luna. Years later, Mary Thill and Megan Emerick, two young Seward women, were also linked to the case.
Outside of Emerick and Thill, the dead "girls," as they are usually called, are almost always identified as dancers and prostitutes, working "on the fringe." They are all in their 20s, one story says, "slim, usually busty." Stories mention drug problems or strip clubs where they worked, like Good Times or Wild Cherry or Murphy's Law. Reporters always specified whether the women danced topless or nude. Rarely does it appear they looked for other details, for family members or friends who could describe the victims, for what led them into the Alaska sex trade. News coverage wouldn't be handled the same way today.
The dead women come across as faceless and interchangeable, almost as they must have been to Hansen, who targeted "bad" women he saw as promiscuous, women he suspected nobody would miss. (Through 12 long years of raping and killing, even with dancers and strip club owners reporting him to police, nobody caught on.)
It isn't hard to pick up on attitudes that helped Hansen get away with his crimes in the stories. The women should have known the world was full of men with deadly appetites. They put themselves at risk by being promiscuous. Some of the blame is theirs.
"Many persons close to the women feel they were routinely exposed to bizarre and often deadly dangers," read one story in The Anchorage Times. "At the same time there was no one pushing for a solution to their absence because, says one bar manager, "that was supposed to be one of the hazards of their jobs."
model Eklutna Annie
A few paragraphs down, the reporter interviewed the manager of the Wild Cherry about dancer Georgia Morrow, who disappeared in 1981 at the age of 23.
"She was really gullible. She could be talked into anything. When I heard (she'd been killed) I thought, gosh, it was almost inevitable."
Of the same woman, this time referred to as Sherry, a Daily News reporter wrote, "Perhaps it was both naivete and greed that doomed Sherry Morrow when she left with Hansen in November 1981."
Family members make only a handful of appearances. A few women had children. At least one had been disowned. Another family sent up a private investigator, who concluded "the woman had dropped out of sight for her own reasons, perhaps because she couldn't face her family." An Associated Press story about the death of Angela Feddern, 26, headlined "Daughter's death: Some relief, no surprise," includes a quote from her mother, on whether she knew her daughter was a prostitute.
"That was the life she chose," she said. "Angie just couldn't find it in herself to go out and get a thinking job."
One newspaper column, written by Suzan Nightingale in 1984, mentions a woman organizing a funeral for Hansen's victims. The woman had managed to gather a few, rare, personal details about them. Sue Luna was too tender-hearted to housebreak her puppy, the column says. Paula Golden was a health nut.
Somewhere out there may be the adult woman, who will undoubtedly be featured in the film, who brought Hansen down. She is described only as a "16-year-old prostitute" or a "17-year-old prostitute." A child.
She told police that Hansen picked her up, took her to a home, raped her and tied her up overnight. She escaped as he was preparing to take her away in his plane. Police didn't believe her at first, even though Hansen had been investigated for similar reasons before. Hansen was a respected bakery owner. A friend gave an alibi. (Hansen told the friend he picked up a prostitute while his wife was out of town and she turned on him. The friend thought this was reasonable and agreed to lie to police.)
Ideally, Hansen should die in obscurity. But it's not going to go that way. For the sake of his victims, I can get behind retelling the story. If the writers do their research, we'll get a window into the attitudes that let Hansen slip off again and again. And maybe we'll also get to see the women he killed as more than promiscuous "women on the fringe." It may be our last chance to see them as they really were: imperfect human beings with their own stories, who didn't deserve their fate.