Evolution Of A Story

Date Published 03.17.08
One of the ways I find stories to write about is by using Google Alerts. I put in key words like “homicide” and “missing,” for example, and Google sends me news stories that relate to those topics. Some stories I delete immediately for lack of interest, or because the case takes place too far away, like Australia, and I don’t think I can add much to it.

Other stories I file away for later; they glimmer with the promise of something intriguing, and I save them for when I have time to dig deeper.

The other day I decided to revisit a brief and cryptic story that appeared on February 26 out of Missouri. I'm glad I did. Pulling on the strand of available but sparse information unraveled a darker, much more complicated story, one that hints at a most unusual serial killer.

The article describes the exhumation of a 47-year-old Missouri man who died in 1992. The man's death was unremarkable at the time, and no autopsy was done. But now the FBI is reexamining his death. The article says the FBI is also looking into at least two other deaths in Utah that might be related.

Another story about the exhumation was similarly vague, but had a more provocative title: "Could Missouri autopsy lead to serial killer with Utah ties?"

The FBI was being tight-lipped, but I knew I could probably connect some dots through online research. It's exciting when you know only certain facts about a breaking case and then go digging, uncovering small, seemingly innocuous details --- a message left on a memorial guestbook, or an announcement about a job change --- that you arrange to reveal an incomplete, but ominous, picture. The most mundane fragments of everyday life can take on new meaning.

That's what happened when I went digging in this case. I won't name names --- the official investigation is still ongoing and has been characterized to me as “sensitive” --- but because I plan on writing about the case again in the future, I’ll share some of what I discovered.

The first thing I did was look up public records related to the exhumed man. I quickly found the name of his wife at the time of his death. I’ll call her Alice.

I noticed Alice has used at least three last names, suggesting several marriages. I looked up her known addresses, and found that sometime after her husband’s death in Missouri she moved to another state: Utah. The focus of the investigation became clearer.

Alice was definitely living in Utah by 1999. A brief announcement in The Enterprise, a business journal based in Salt Lake City, reported in June, 1999 that Alice had been appointed executive director of a local chamber of commerce. The announcement listed her last name as something other than the exhumed husband's, and mentioned that Alice had been a former member of an Iowa chamber of commerce.

Using the last name listed in The Enterprise and the town in Iowa mentioned, I found a listing for a man who is roughly the same age as Alice. Records indicate Alice and the man are related or associated in some way; because she had his last name, I’m assuming it was by marriage. I couldn’t find an obituary for the man, so I’m not sure if he’s still alive.

So it appears that between her husband's death in Missouri in 1992 and her subsequent move to Utah, Alice was married, likely for the second time, in Iowa.

But by 1999 she was in Utah. That year she married a man I’ll call Randall.

An online search of Randall’s name reveals him to be a much beloved man in his 60s who lives about an hour and a half from Salt Lake City. A young boy lists Randall as his inspiration, because, despite Randall’s mechanical heart and amputated leg, he “always lives life to the fullest and makes everything fun and exciting.”

Randall was born in 1943 and served in Vietnam. He had six children with his first wife, and worked for many years as an industrial engineer. In 1976, he joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In 1999, he married Alice.

In 2003 Randall had a heart attack, and was given a Left Ventricular Assist Device. He was a popular figure in his neighborhood, telling everyone about his miracle heart and passing out candy to the children.

I know this because it’s in his obituary. Randall died, “quietly at his home,” on January 4, 2007.

Three weeks later, Alice’s father died. He was 82, and his death doesn't appear at all suspicious. But his obituary does help fill in some blanks about Alice's early years. Her father was in the United States Air Force during WWII, and then settled in the small town in northeastern Missouri where he grew up. He and his wife had Alice and a son, who appears to have died during adulthood. Alice’s father owned and operated a garage in town for nearly forty years.

Alice gave the eulogy at his funeral.

At this point I’m getting a clearer picture of Alice. The leadership role at the chamber of commerce and giving the eulogy suggest a confident, possibly even extroverted woman. I know she had four children and at least two, possibly three, husbands. It appears that later in life she became a Mormon.

I’m assuming the FBI is investigating the first husband’s death in Missouri, and Randall’s, but I don’t know about the third one. It could be the second husband, or some other associate of Alice’s.

Her children appear to be well-adjusted --- married, thriving in various careers, athletic and bright. I study a picture of a sweet, smiling, white-haired older woman holding a child on Alice’s son’s blog. She is attractive and appears in good shape for her age. The accompanying text describes a visit from “Grandma.” The wife in the family refers to her own mother in other pictures, so it's likely this is the husband's mother. This is Alice. She hugs the toddler, looking like a kindly Mormon grandmother. She looks nothing like a serial killer.

But a hint of tension exists. Alice’s son’s wife has posted a photo album of the family's Christmas vacation in Utah. Her sister-in-law, Alice’s daughter, leaves a terse message: “Where are the pictures of (husband's name) side of the family?” There’s no answer.

Two out of Alice’s four children are in medical-related fields, including respiratory therapy and sleep studies. I don’t know why that unnerves me, but it does.

I track down someone who knew the family in Missouri when the first husband died. She tells me his death was a total shock. He was “the kindest man you could ever meet.”

Alice told everyone it was a heart attack and chose not to have an autopsy done.

People always thought that was odd, the source says.

The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@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.