Common Denominator

Date Published 01.14.10
The building already looked eerie.  It's a great gothic structure, a castle on a hill in a town of otherwise modest architecture.  With its foreboding stone facade, its dramatic stained glass windows, the Lewiston Civic Theatre was the kind of place that sparked the imagination and inspired ghostly storytelling.

The town of Lewiston, in northwestern Idaho, is situated in a deep valley, across the Snake River from its sister city, Clarkston, Washington.  Native Americans, mining, and ranching shape the area's history.  But something in its more recent history shapes the small town too --- something deeply unsettling, a real-life murder mystery that took place inside the Civic Theatre amid the half-finished sets, scattered costumes and darkened stage lights, an incident that would forever mark the building as not just spooky but haunted.  Haunted meaning disquieted, because although the disappearance of three people from the Civic Theatre one autumn night 27 years ago has never been officially solved, neither has it been a real mystery who's responsible.

Lewiston Civic Theatre

Kristina Nelson, 21, and her stepsister Jacquelyn "Brandy" Miller, 18, were originally from Boise.  They were living in Lewiston while attending Lewis-Clark State College.  On the evening of Sept. 12, 1982, Nelson left a note in her apartment for her boyfriend, indicating that she and Brandy were going downtown to do some grocery shopping at the Safeway store.  A possible route downtown would have taken them by the Civic Theatre; Nelson had once worked there.

The Civic Theatre was preparing at the time to put on The Pirates of Penzance.  Steven Pearsall, 35, who worked as a janitor there, had recently helped build a pirate ship that rolled on a dolly and included several ropes for actors, as pirates, to slide down.  Steven's girlfriend dropped him off at the theater around midnight on Sept. 12.  The theater was normally empty at that time, and Steven said he was going to do his laundry and practice his clarinet.  Witnesses saw him enter the basement door.  He was never seen again.

Steven's disappearance was out of character.  He'd left behind his clarinet, which he treasured, at the theater.  A paycheck was left behind at his apartment, and his car was parked at a friend's house.  Steven was described as shy, softhearted, and easygoing --- he wasn't a dabbler in dangerous activities.  It seemed certain that something terrible had happened to him.

Steven Pearsall

What that was became clearer when it was discovered that Kristina Nelson and Brandy Miller had vanished too.  Their purses, checkbooks and contact lenses were found at Nelson's apartment, suggesting that they didn't mean to be away for long; family members said it was highly unlikely either girl would run off.

Tracing timelines and routes, investigators concluded that the young women had either passed by the theater or gone inside for an unknown reason on their way to the grocery store.  An attack took place.  Investigators believed Steven Pearsall was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time.

And they believed they knew with whom he had tragically crossed paths.  Someone else had been in the theater that night, a man I'll call Lawrence.  Lawrence was involved in many of the theater's productions, and in fact had worked earlier that day with Steven building sets.  He told police he left the theater at some point in the evening to get some pizza, returning around 10 p.m.; he said he slept soundly from 10 p.m. until 4 a.m.  He heard nothing, he said.  He saw nothing.

One investigator would later describe Lawrence's demeanor while being questioned as "overly dramatic" with a "staged reaction," but he was involved with drama so it was difficult to discern if he merely had a theatrical persona.

According to Lawrence, three people vanished into thin air while he slept nearby.  Investigators weren't buying it, especially when they realized, with shock and increasing curiosity, that they were already familiar with Lawrence, that they knew him as a man who had the disturbing habit of being the last person around when someone disappeared.  He was, in fact, one of the last people to see Christina.

Christina White didn't feel well.  It was Saturday, April 28, 1979, and Christina had gone to the Asotin County Fair.  But the 12-year-old was feeling ill from the heat, and her mother suggested she get a damp towel to cool herself.  Christina went to a friend's house, where she was apparently given a towel and use of a phone.  She called her Mom; reports vary on whether her Mom told Christina to walk home or there was an arranged pick-up.  Either way, Christina and her new white 10-speed bike she rode to the Fair were never seen again.

One report says Lawrence told police he had been around Christina shortly before she vanished.  Other sources say the house where she was given the damp towel was his; Christina's friend was Lawrence's stepson.  Locals recall that Lawrence offered to help search for the missing girl.

It's unclear how suspicious investigators were of Lawrence at the time of Christina's disappearance, but by the Civic Theatre case their interest was piqued, especially when they uncovered an episode in Lawrence's past, from a time when he lived in California.  The incident remains murky, but it apparently involved Lawrence, a hunting knife, and proximity to a dead girl, possibly while she was lying in repose at a funeral home.

There were other cases.  The Lewis-Clark Valley is not heavily populated, but between 1979 and 1982 they had a spate of five unsolved murders (two of those are disappearances in which the victim is presumed dead).

On June 26, 1981, Kristin David, 22, a University of Idaho student, disappeared while riding her bike between Moscow and Lewiston.  She was biking to her job at Twin City Foods.  Witnesses saw her on Highway 95 near Genesee, but she never made it to her destination.

Eight days later, a headless torso and leg were discovered on the north shore of Snake River in Clarkston.  The next day, more body parts, all wrapped in clear plastic bags, were found downstream.  One source said in an email message that Lawrence was one in a group of people who found the bags of remains, but that's unconfirmed.

Kristin David

What is certain:  Lewiston authorities believe the same person killed Christina White, Kristin David, Kristina Nelson, Brandy Miller, and Steven Pearsall.  One Lewiston Police Captain went as far as to say he's "99 percent certain" who the killer is.  But they don't feel they can prove it in a court of law.

Lawrence refused to take a polygraph.  He railed against the police, threatening to sue for harassment.  On March 19, 1984, a teenager's hat blew off his head while he was collecting cans in a canyon near Kendrick and while attempting to retrieve it he came across the remains of two people.  Bright clothing and nail polish indicated they were women.  Kristina and Brandy had been found.

Even though rope discovered with the bodies was traced back to the Civic Theatre --- possibly extra rope from the pirate ship Lawrence had been building with Steven --- police didn't have enough hard evidence to arrest Lawrence.  Without Steven's body there would always be a hole in the case, that lingering question.

So Lawrence continued to live, work and even thrive in the community.  He continued working and acting at the Civic Theatre.  He joined the Clarkston Chamber of Commerce.  He played an instrument in a local wind ensemble.

If Lawrence is a serial killer, he's an unusual type.  He's not the social misfit whose lack of eye contact masks a tremendous rage.  He's large physically --- he's said to be around 6 '5" --- and in personality, a show-off who loves the stage and the power he commands there.  One senses the events in and around Lewiston in the late '70s and early '80s were a game to him.  It's interesting to note he never tried to deny to the police how close he was to the disappearances --- I was in the theater, but asleep; yes, I just saw Christina. It's as if he was daring them to prove his guilt.  It's as if he knew they couldn't.

Lawrence lives in another state now.  Lewiston investigators are said to keep an eye on him.  Traces of him can be found on the Internet; they're mostly comments left on conservative chat boards.  He's a fan of Rush Limbaugh.  He's interested in survivalist topics, and in one message he urges a fellow gun enthusiast to get a Ruger for his survival kit.  Then he adds this:

By the way, don't neglect edged tools/weapons in your survival kit.  After you've shot your dinner rabbit, preperation is much easier if you don't have to gut it with a rock.  It can be done, but it's not fun.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary:
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.