Closing Time

Date Published 06.25.07
Florence, Montana, population 878, has always been small; the Irish immigrants who came down from Missoula to settle Florence in 1889 called the town “One Horse.”

Today, located between two spectacular national forests, Florence sees more horses, but the name still fits. An online business directory shows one car repair shop, florist, restaurant, and attorney.

Florence, Montana

The town is so small that when I called local police about the murders of three women in a Florence hair salon in 2001, I said, “I’m calling about the murders?” I paused, because I didn’t have the women’s names right in front of me. It turns out I didn’t need the names. “Hold on,” the receptionist said, and transferred me directly to the Sheriff.

The Murders

It was 11 a.m. on November 6, 2001 when a customer pulled up to the Hair Gallery in downtown Florence for her manicure appointment. She noticed an oddly dressed man walking away from the salon. He wore an unusual wide-brimmed hat, possibly a fedora or top hat, and was dressed in a black, calf-length duster coat. Later, he would come to be known as the “oddly dressed man,” and other people in Florence would remember seeing him that day, too.

The Oddly Dressed Man

But the customer didn’t think much of it at the time. It was the middle of the day, and the Hair Gallery was located on U.S. 93, the busy highway that connects Florence to Missoula, twenty miles to the north. People milled about nearby.

The woman entered the back entrance of the salon, expecting to greet owner Dorothy Harris, 62, a chipper grandmother who was known for the crafts she made.

Dorothy Harris

Instead she found Harris’ body lying in a pool of blood just inside the door. When authorities arrived, they discovered two more bodies - Brenda Patch, 44, a manicurist, and Cynthia Paulus, 71, a customer who had stopped by for her weekly appointment.

The women’s throats had been deeply slit. Then-Sheriff Perry Johnson described the violence as “horrific,” and said there was a tremendous amount of blood at the scene. Later, police would determine that 30 minutes before the murders Dorothy Harris had visited a bank a 20-minute drive away, so she couldn’t have been at the salon long before she was killed.

It had taken someone just minutes to transform the cozy business with the “All About Nails” sign outside into a scene that investigators would later be quoted as saying was the single most brutal they'd witnessed in their careers.

The Hair Gallery

Worst of all, there was no apparent motive. No money was taken, and there was no evidence of sexual assault. The best lead was the Oddly Dressed Man. In a town where everybody knows each other, he was a stranger. Witnesses provided similar descriptions - a top hat, maybe a fedora, and a black duster coat; it was a vaguely unsettling get-up from a century ago. Bloodhounds tracked the man’s scent to a nearby pasture and then lost him. The Oddly Dressed Man had disappeared as mysteriously as he’d arrived, like a shadowy figure in a low tipped hat from a film noir.

The case went cold. A follow-up article in the Missoulian touched on the frustration of investigators, and mentioned that the murders were unlike anything in the FBI’s files on mass murder.

But were they?

Great Bend

It was September 4, 2002, less than a year after the Florence murders, when a customer pulled up to the Dolly Madison Cake-Discount Bakery in Great Bend, Kansas. An unfamiliar man was locking up the front door and told the customer the bakery was closed for the day.

A short while later, a delivery man used a key to enter the back door and found the bodies of clerk Mandi Alexander, 24, and customer Mary Drake, 79. The women were lying in pools of blood, stabbed to death with a sharp object.

Mandi Alexander

As in Florence, motive was elusive. Only a small amount of money was missing. There was no evidence of sexual assault. Police were baffled by the audacity of the killer; he’d struck during the evening rush, in an open store. Despite a solid composite sketch and hundreds of leads, the man seen locking the front door was never found.

I first became aware of the Great Bend homicides when I was sent a link to a MySpace page created in Mandi Alexander's memory. Kathye Phelps, Mandi’s friend, maintains the page and strikes a determined note throughout (“We will never give up!” is the headline). Kathye has obviously been deeply affected by her friend’s murder. She introduces readers to Mandi, whom she describes as a sweet, loving mother of two young children, this way:
You never know how much a person affects your life until they are no longer here.

Unfortunately this page is not maintained by Mandi Alexander herself. This page was created to try to help in getting the word out about what happened to Mandi. Someone somewhere knows something. It only takes one little piece to complete the puzzle.
As I read the details of Mandi’s case, I was immediately reminded of the Florence murders. The similarities were striking. Both incidents occurred in small towns that have busy state highways running through them; both involved the stabbing deaths of multiple females in small businesses; both occurred during the day, without any apparent motive. Finally, both cases centered on a mysterious man seen leaving the premises around the time of the murders.

Fortunately, in both cases a composite sketch of the main suspect had been generated. I placed them side by side for comparison.

Then I called the Great Bend police and talked to Detective Terry Millard. We talked for a while about the particulars of the case, and how they didn’t think it was a robbery. We discussed several different scenarios for motive. The murders had clearly vexed investigators; they wanted to solve this one.

“Does Florence, Montana mean anything to you?” I asked. Det. Millard paused. “How did you know?” he asked. Then he answered his own question. “You’ve seen the composites, I bet,” he said.

I had.

On the left is the Great Bend suspect; on the right, the Oddly Dressed Man seen in Florence on the day of the murders.

“I agree, there’s a real similarity,” Det. Millard said. “We’ve talked to Montana several times. We’ve shared information. But...." He trailed off.

So far, nothing had come of it.

In Montana, Ravalli County Sheriff Chris Hoffman was less forthcoming. According to a lengthy article in the Missoulian, investigators have a suspect they like for the murders, but they're keeping a tight lid on the details. The suspect is a small-time meth dealer, currently incarcerated, who grew up in Florence. It's unclear how much evidence they have on him, and they haven't publicly made a move in the case in years.

"All I can tell you is that we're at a critical point in the prosecution of this case," Sheriff Hoffman said, "and I don't want to say anything more."

"Are you aware of a similar crime in Great Bend, Kansas?" I asked.

"Yes, I am," he said. "I don't want to say anything more."

Someone who does want to say more is Kathye Phelps. In an email to True Crime Diary, she describes Mandi as "very reserved, quiet, soft spoken & somewhat shy. I do know that she would have fought for her life. She loved her children with all of her heart."

Kathye didn't know about the Florence murders; it remains to be seen whether there's a connection. Either way, she's determined to find justice for her quiet friend. "This is something that we will never forget nor will it ever be left to go unsolved," she writes. "We will find out who did this, we will not stop searching & we will never give up."

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.