In the 1970s and 80s, Anchorage, Alaska, was a boom town. Workers, mostly men, flocked to the remote city seeking employment constructing the trans-Alaska oil pipeline. Naturally, businesses catering to them — especially red-light businesses like prostitution, strip clubs, and porno shops — flourished.
It’s the nature of all these kinds of work that they attract a more transient labor force. Men and women would come and go frequently, so it didn’t seem concerning to the Anchorage Police Department when some of the city’s sex workers began disappearing.
As Anchorage grew, more houses and roads were built in what had previously been wilderness areas surrounding the city. In July 1980, a road crew working in an area near Eklutna Road made a grisly discovery: the skeletal remains of a young woman. An autopsy would reveal her cause of death was a stab wound to her back. However, with no identification or other clues, she could not be identified, and the case of “Eklutna Annie” went cold.
Later that month, another woman’s badly decomposed body was found in a gravel pit near Seward, Alaska. She was identified as Joanna Messina, a cannery worker. She had been shot with a .22 caliber weapon. But her case, too, went cold.
Then, in August 1982, two off-duty Anchorage police officers were moose hunting in a remote area of the Knik River when they stumbled across a shoe sticking out of the mud. Upon closer inspection, they could see the shoe was attached to a partially buried leg. They called in the crime scene unit, which uncovered the body of a young woman in a shallow grave, her eyes blindfolded with gauze. They also found .223-caliber bullets in her skull and chest.
The woman was identified as Sherry Morrow, a sex worker who had been missing for almost a year. Her boyfriend said the last time he saw her, she was going to meet with an unidentified client who had offered her quite a bit of money to pose for nude photos. She had never returned.
When he was shown the clothes and jewelry Morrow had been wearing, her boyfriend noted to police that an arrowhead necklace, a good-luck charm that she never took off, was missing.
Now with three murdered women found in two years, and 12 women gone missing during the same time, the Alaska State Police began to suspect what many of Anchorage’s sex workers already knew: there was a possible serial killer preying on the city’s most vulnerable women. A task force was organized to find the killer and bring him to justice.
On June 13, 1983, the Anchorage Police Department got an unusual call: a truck driver described picking up a partially clothed woman running down Sixth Avenue, handcuffed and hysterical. She had flagged the driver down, and, when she got in, he could see bruises and other evidence that she had been assaulted. Rather than going to a hospital, she asked him to take her to a motel. Once he dropped her off, he called the police.
At the motel, police found 17-year-old Cindy Paulson, still handcuffed, huddled fearfully in a room.
She told police a nearly unbelievable tale. She had been engaging in sex work, and one night she’d picked up a small, skinny client with a pock-marked face who wore glasses and spoke with a stutter. She got into his car — which she described in detail — and as soon as she was inside, he handcuffed her to the door and pulled a gun on her. He then drove her to his house in the middle-class suburb of Muldoon.
Paulson described the den she was taken into, where the walls were covered in stuffed and mounted hunting trophies and a pole in the center of the room. She was chained to that pole, she told police, while the man repeatedly raped and tortured her.
Paulson recalled that the man kept telling her that even if she escaped, no one would believe her, and that he had friends who would lie for him and give him an alibi.
Eventually the man laid down on a nearby couch and slept. When he woke up, he unshackled her from the pole and told her to get dressed. He handcuffed her and forced her back into his car, telling her he was taking her to his cabin in the woods.
She said he drove to Merrill Field, a small municipal airport not far from downtown Anchorage. There, he began loading firearms and other equipment into a blue and white Piper Super Cub airplane. While he was distracted, Paulson escaped from the car and fled.
Officer Greg Baker was the investigator assigned to the case. As he was taking Paulson home, she insisted on returning to the airfield so she could identify her attacker’s plane. Sure enough, the Piper Super Cub was still there. An airport employee was able to find the plane’s registration: it belonged to a man named Robert Hansen.
Hansen was known to the police — he ran a successful bakery that many officers frequented. He was also known as a skilled and avid hunter; he had set several local hunting records and won quite a few hunting contests. He was also active in the local Lutheran church.
With Paulson safely back home, police paid a visit to the address listed on Hansen’s registration. The home was exactly as Paulson had described it, and the vehicle parked in the driveway matched her description as well.
Hansen, who fit the description Paulson had given, right down to the stutter, was polite and cooperative, but denied the allegations. He claimed the young woman was simply trying to extort him, a respectable member of the community. He also said he didn’t see how it was possible to rape a prostitute, anyway.
He gave police permission to look inside his house, a tidy middle-class home he shared with his wife and two children, who were away on vacation. The basement was just as Paulson described it, but there were no chains or shackles evident.
Hansen gave police an alibi for the night of the attack: he had been visiting with friends. The friends confirmed Hansen’s alibi.
With the only evidence of the attack being the statement of a teenaged sex worker, and the respectable family man having an alibi, the case was closed.
But Baker couldn’t shake his suspicions. He had taken Paulson’s original statement and could tell she was telling the truth; her examination at the local hospital had proven that she had been attacked and shackled just as she had said.
Even though he had been told to close the case, Baker dug into Hansen’s past. He soon discovered that far from the squeaky-clean, upstanding citizen he pretended to be, Hansen had some very disturbing crimes on his record. He had arrest records going back to the 1960s, including an arrest for attempted rape at gunpoint and two arrests for kidnapping, rape, and assault with a deadly weapon — exactly like what had been done to Paulson. Yet in each instance, he was either not prosecuted or was given an extremely light sentence.
Baker knew about the state police task force working on the potential serial killer, and felt Hansen might make a good suspect for those crimes as well. But he had been ordered to drop the case.
Then, on Sept. 2. 1983, another road construction crew, working in an area near the Knik River so remote it could only be accessed by a boat or plane, unearthed another woman’s body. The woman would be identified as 17-year-old Paula Goulding, who was, like the other victims, a sex worker. Found in her grave was a .223 cartridge; ballistics tests would show it came from the same rifle as the one used on Sherry Morrow.
Now Baker could not keep his suspicions to himself. He wrote up a report detailing his suspicions, and delivered it, along with a copy of Hansen’s arrest record, to Sgt. Glenn Flothe, who was in charge of the Alaska PD’s “topless dancer” task force. Flothe recognized that Hansen looked good for these murders, and Paulson’s account of her attack fit with the evidence in the murders. But without any physical evidence tying Hansen to the murders, they couldn’t even get a search warrant.
So Flothe went to the FBI for help. There, pioneering criminal profiler John Douglas developed a profile of the killer: someone who was well integrated and liked in the community, who worked for himself so he would have no one to answer to for his time, an avid outdoorsman, but with low self-esteem who was afraid to talk to women. Douglas said the suspect would likely have a speech impediment of some type.
The profile fit Hansen perfectly. But a profile alone isn’t enough to secure a search warrant. So the Alaska State Police set out to find the only witness who could offer incriminating statements against him: Cindy Paulson.
But finding her would prove to be difficult. She had left Alaska soon after her attack, and as a sex worker, she was not on any employment rolls. However, they did eventually track her down for questioning.
They also brought in Hansen’s friends who had given him an alibi for the Paulson attack. Under questioning, they retracted their statements.
Now, with Paulson’s and the friends’ statements, along with the profile, police were able to obtain a warrant to search Hansen’s home. It was the first time in US history that information from a criminal profile was used to obtain a search warrant.
Oct. 27, 1983, Alaska State Police met Hansen at his bakery and persuaded him to come to the station for questioning. While he was in the interrogation room, other officers searched his plane, vehicles, and home while his wife and children waited outside.
At first, there seemed to be nothing of any evidentiary value. But in the attic, underneath some insulation, they found a stash of weapons — including a .223 Mini-14 rifle, which would prove to be the weapon used to kill Morrow and Goulding. They also found, hidden behind a panel in his trophy room, several items of jewelry and IDs belonging to the victims — including Morrow’s arrowhead necklace.
The most damning piece of evidence, however, was hidden behind the headboard of his bed: an aviation map of the Anchorage area with more than 20 “X” marks drawn on it. Three of the marks were locations where victims had been found, leading investigators to believe that there were more yet to be discovered.
At first, Hansen denied everything. But faced with the overwhelming evidence against him, he eventually confessed to killing 17 women — mostly sex workers — and raping 30 more.
He told police that he had begun in 1971, attacking any woman who caught his eye. But he would get caught for those attacks, so he began targeting sex workers, who wouldn’t be missed. He said he would take his victims out to the bush in his plane, and if they resisted or upset him in any way, he would turn them loose, naked, in the Alaska wilderness, and hunt them like prey. He would toy with them, allowing them to believe they had escaped, before killing them. He would then re-dress them as an act of control, taking pieces of jewelry or other “trophies” to keep for himself.
He agreed to take investigators to the burial sites of his other victims in exchange for allowing no publicity of his case, so as to protect his family.
Feb. 27, 1984, Hansen pled guilty to the only four murders that could definitively be tied to him by ballistics: that of still-unidentified “Eklutna Annie,” Sherry Morrow, Paula Goulding, and Joanna Messina. He was also charged with the kidnapping and rape of Cindy Paulson.
He was sentenced to 461 years plus life with no possibility of parole.
Once the spring thaws of 1984 came, Hansen took investigators to 17 of the burial sites, but thanks to bears, wolves, and other scavengers, the remains of only 11 or 12 of his victims (sources differ) were ever found.
Hansen refused to give the police any information on the other marks on the map, near Resurrection Bay. Police suspect two of these marks belong to the graves of Mary Thill and Megan Emrick, though Hansen denied killing them.
Hansen was held in a couple prisons before eventually ending up in the Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward, Alaska, where he was incarcerated until May 2014. That was when he was transported to the Anchorage Correctional Complex for medical care due to his failing health. Three months later, in August of 2014, he died of natural causes. He was 75.