The Hunter?

Date Published 04.18.11
Some small updates before I post Part 2 about EAR/ONS.

First, I did an interview about true crime, and writing about true crime, with Tristan Dufresne over at his blog Almost Always Books.  Read it here.

Second, those of you who follow TCD know that I've long been interested in a man named Joseph Henry Burgess.  You can read about Burgess here and here.

Burgess, an American who fled to Canada in 1968 to avoid the draft, was the main suspect in the murders of a young couple on Vancouver Island in 1972.  Evidence suggests Burgess crept up on the couple while they were sleeping and shot them in the head, point blank, with a .22 caliber rifle.

He was never charged with their murders.  By the time the bodies were found, Burgess had disappeared.  He was a fugitive, on the run for 37 years.  No one knew where he was; many in law enforcement believed he had committed suicide, or was dead.

Then, in 2009, sheriff's deputies in a small mountain town in northwestern New Mexico were involved in a shoot-out with a mystery man known locally as "The Cookie Bandit."  The Bandit, who was living off the grid in the Jemez Mountains, had been stealing supplies from local cabins for years.  A stakeout was organized to try and capture him.

Both a sheriff's deputy and the Cookie Bandit were killed in an exchange of gunfire during the stakeout.  Fingerprint analysis revealed that the mystery man known as the Cookie Bandit was Joseph Henry Burgess.

As far back as 1972 Burgess was reading survivalist manuals, saying that he wanted to live like a hermit in the wilderness.  I believe after he fled Vancouver Island he did just that, hiding out in remote wooded areas with his gun.

His ability to navigate the rugged Jemez Mountains, and his skills in surviving there, were remarkable, and indicate that he likely lived off the grid in this manner for decades.

Burgess killed the couple in '72.  He murdered a New Mexican camper in 2006, and the sheriff's deputy in 2009.  Who else did he kill in between?

There's a string of unsolved cases, mostly murders of couples in woodsy settings across the west and northwest, that bear some intriguing similarities.  No known motive; remote locations, often campgrounds; the use of a gun.

New information suggests another two cases can be added to the list of possibilities.


The little two-year-old girl appeared abandoned at the Kmart.  When asked about her parents, she could only reply that, "Mommy is in the trees."

This was December 12, 1985, in Spanaway, Washington.  It took a few days, but finally the toddler was identified.  Her name was Crystal.  She had set out that morning with her parents, Michael Riemer, 36, and Diana Robertson, 21, to check trap lines and look for a Christmas tree in the woods.

Michael Riemer worked as a roofer and boosted his income in the winter months by trapping mink, coyote and muskrat.  He was an experienced outdoorsman, and knew the area along the Nisqually River, in southern Pierce County, well.

Riemer and Robertson had a rocky relationship, but they were known as loving parents.  Family members feared the worst, knowing that they'd never leave their young daughter behind at a store.  Despite a search, Riemer and Robertson couldn't be located.

Michael Riemer and Diana Robertson

Then, in February, a man and his dog came upon Riemer's 1982 Plymouth truck on a snow-covered logging road.  There was blood on the passenger seat.

Diana's body was discovered nearby, under several inches of snow.  She'd been stabbed 17 times; a tube sock was knotted around her neck.

A large manila envelope lay under the truck's windshield.  "I Love You, Diana," it said.

Michael Riemer was nowhere to be found.

For the next 25 years, a shadow of doubt hung over the missing Michael Riemer.  Local police records revealed that a few months before the disappearances Riemer had been arrested for assault, after Robertson filed a complaint.  There was a history of domestic issues between them.

Had he killed Robertson, perhaps scrawling the envelope note in some sort of maudlin grief after the fact?  Had he dropped his daughter off at Kmart, and then fled?

No one could say for sure.  But there were other factors to consider, and they only deepened the mystery.

Four months earlier, on August 10, 1985, a couple named Ruth Cooper, 43, and Stephen Harkins, 28, had left Tacoma for a camping trip in the woods; their campsite was about 15 miles from where Diana Robertson's body was eventually located.

On August 14, Harkins was found dead in his car.  He was in his sleeping bag; he'd been shot in the forehead.  A few months later Cooper's body was found, about a mile and a half away.  She'd also been shot.

Intriguingly, Cooper had a tube sock tied around her neck, just like Robertson would several months later.  The knots are said to be the same.

There seemed to be only two possibilities.  Either Michael Riemer was responsible for all three murders, and was a fugitive, or he was the fourth victim of an unidentified serial killer.

Years passed.  Many of the original detectives retired, or moved on.  Riemer and Robertson's toddler daughter, Crystal, was raised by relatives.

Then, on March 26, a hiker traveling along an old logging road, about a mile from where Robertson's body had been found 25 years earlier, came across a partial skull.

Michael Riemer was no longer missing.

The mystery is far from solved.  Authorities appear no closer to knowing what really happened on that snowy logging road in December 1985.  The tube sock parallel seems significant, coming as it does just months before and 15 miles away.

Evidence that Riemer is responsible:

His daughter was spared, and left at a busy store, clearly in the hopes that she'd be found soon.  This compassionate gesture doesn't correlate with anything I know about a remorseless killer of strangers like Joseph Henry Burgess, but it's not impossible.

Riemer was known to trap in the area where Harkins and Cooper's bodies were found.  He clearly had a temper, and outbursts of violence.  He carried a gun.  It's possible he killed them in some sort of territorial dispute, then returned months later to the same general area, a place where he was comfortable, to kill his girlfriend and himself.

The "I Love You, Diana" letter is curious.  It's the kind of thing a suicidal lover might scrawl after he's killed his girlfriend.  On the other hand, it's also the kind of thing that might be written if a couple were being terrorized by a stranger in the woods and thought they had little time left.

Evidence that supports a serial killer:

Extensive searches for Riemer were done back in the '80s when Robertson's body was found.  Doesn't the fact that it took 25 years to find him suggest he was likely buried, or in some way concealed?  How do you commit suicide and bury yourself?

Rifle shell casings were found around Riemer's truck back in '85, though it's unclear if they were related to what happened to the couple.

Burgess's last known location was Vancouver Island, where he was seen reading up on living like a bushman.  It's not inconceivable that when he reentered the United States, he moved around along the northwest coast.  He had ties to that area of the country, and was later found to be living in the woods in a survivalist manner.

Victim Stephen Harkins was found shot in the head in his sleeping bag.  Burgess shot his victims in the head while they slept in sleeping bags on the beach.

Harkins and Cooper's dog was found shot to death.  In one of the cases I think fits the woodsy couples murder pattern ---- Bauman and Haugen, Oakridge, Oregon, 2005 --- their dog was shot at the campsite.

Now that Riemer's remains have been found authorities can hopefully find more evidence to settle what happened.  Advanced forensic testing should result in some answers.

In the meantime, there still exists a mysterious pattern of unsolved couples murders in the northwest --- all in outdoor, woodsy settings, most involving  gunshot wounds to the head, all without known motive. 

Here is a custom Google map of seven such murders.  They remain unsolved.

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.