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|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Love You Madly
By Michael Fleeman
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2011 Michael Fleeman
All rights reserved.
A night of frigid, blustery winds and light snow turned into a wet, gray morning, the clouds hanging low over the mountains of the glacier-carved valley. As he drove his four-wheel-drive Ford Expedition, Alaska state trooper Bob Claus kept an eye out for black-tailed deer darting onto the slick two-lane road. It was a weekend in November 2004, and the woods would be full of deer, and, Claus knew, men with high-powered rifles.
The road took Claus past familiar scenery: briny inlets, trout-filled streams, snowcapped ridges thousands of feet high and forests of spruce interrupted every few miles by the ravages of clear-cutting, the stumps standing gray like tombstones. The side of one mountain to his left was scraped clean of timber from a 1980s clear cut.
Even after a decade, the scenery never ceased to amaze Claus, an Illinois transplant, just as the scars from logging always saddened him. As one of two troopers, Bob Claus had patrolled wild and sparsely populated Prince of Wales Island for more ten years, working out of a small wood-framed building in Klawock, an ancient Indian fishing village that marks its heritage with a hilltop stand of totem poles.
Driving north out of Klawock, Claus was responding to a call that had come in to the trooper post about noon. No apparent danger loomed, just the prospect of a long cold day in the rain, but Claus had quickly learned that every venture in rural Alaska carried risks that no city policeman could imagine.
Prince of Wales Island is the largest of the islands in Alaska's southern archipelago, about the size of Delaware, but it has only 250 miles of designated road — 100 miles paved, the rest compacted gravel, full of potholes and washouts. A routine call could keep him out of the office for hours or days; a complicated call could turn disastrous quickly. Backup — if it could be summoned — might take hours to arrive. Most locations had spotty radio and cell phone reception, and medical services were minimal. Ambulances were converted pickups. The island has one twenty-four-hour doctor-staffed clinic in Klawock. The closest hospital was in Ketchikan, and no road went there. It was reachable by medevac helicopter, floatplane, or ferry.
To prepare for anything, Claus kept the Expedition stocked with camping supplies to last two to three days in the woods, boots with spikes for walking through dense forests, a stretcher, oxygen tanks, and a first-aid kit. He had the tools of investigation and crime scene analysis: tape measure, rules, evidence bags. For protection from man or beast — bears also prowled the woods this time of year, fattening up for winter hibernation — the truck was armed with rifles, shotguns, handguns, and lots of ammunition. Claus wore one Kevlar vest and kept a second as a spare.
He took a second precaution this time: an Alaska Department of Fish and Game trooper who shared office space with him accompanied him in the vehicle that followed.
His route this Sunday afternoon took him twenty winding miles around Big Salt Lake until the road hit a T intersection, one of just three major intersections on the entire island. A left turn would have led to the former logging camp of Naukati, twenty-five miles away over mostly paved surfaces, until the highway turned to crushed rock and continued for a bone-jarring seventy miles of twisting gravel road to the northernmost tip of the island at Labouchere Bay on the Sumner Strait. Claus turned right and went over a curving paved road toward the hamlet of Thorne Bay on the eastern side of the island on the Clarence Strait.
After several miles, Claus looked through rain-streaked windows and found his landmark: a gravel road marked by a small sign several yards to the right of the highway reading Forest Service Road 3012. He pulled off the highway, the Expedition tires crunching on the coarse rock, and came to a stop. He got out and, in the drizzle, met a deer hunter from Thorne Bay named Scott MacDonald.
Only about two thousand people lived on Prince of Wales Island, and Bob Claus knew virtually every one of them, including MacDonald. The thirty-two-year-old hunter worked for the Forest Service, inspecting second-growth groves that sprouted after logging. Glenn Taylor, the Fish and Game trooper following Claus, pulled up to the scene, and MacDonald relayed why the authorities had been summoned.
Scott explained that he had left home at about nine a.m. with the idea of spending his Sunday hunting in the woods off the main highway. He drove to the Forest Service Road 3012 turnoff and made his way down the abandoned gravel logging road. The road went up a steep mountainside through a vast open area from clear-cut logging about ten years earlier. Streams trickled down the mountain and cut small arroyos through the old road. On the periphery stood an old-growth spruce forest, prime deer hunting ground. Scott MacDonald saw three or four other people that morning, all probably hunters, but nobody he knew.
As he drove up a steep section where it continued to switchback through the clear-cut area, Scott MacDonald saw smoke rising about a quarter mile away as if from a chimney, but as far as he knew there were no cabins in the area. Through his binoculars he saw that the smoke originated from the blackened wreckage of a large vehicle, probably a van. Scott drove closer, got out of his truck, and hiked the rest of the way. The wreckage clung to the side of the mountain, having tumbled off the road and then becoming pinned against a log. The van itself wasn't on fire; the smoke came from smoldering branches and logs beneath it.
Peering through a blown-out passenger window, MacDonald made a grisly discovery. He trudged back to his truck and drove down the mountain to where he could get a cell phone signal and called his mom, who worked as a business management supervisor at the Forest Service and knew the local law enforcement people. She put in the call to the trooper post in Klawock.
Claus asked MacDonald to lead him and Taylor to the scene. As he drove behind MacDonald, Claus paid close attention to their route. About one thousand miles of logging roads crisscross the island, almost none of them marked or memorialized on any maps. In rain or darkness it would be easy to become lost or disoriented even within earshot of the cars whizzing by on the main road. Claus wanted to be able to find this road again.
The first few miles took them across a relatively smooth road, and the caravan of three four-wheel-drive vehicles went along at a thirty-five-mile-per-hour clip. Along they way Claus spotted other trucks carrying hunters. The trooper stopped each one and asked if they had also seen a burning van. None had. After four miles the road branched into a Y, with MacDonald leading them along steeper, narrower road. Barely a lane wide, the road was of loose wet gravel, ravaged by potholes and washouts and littered with boulders and old logs. Claus noticed the road also was covered in car parts that he suspected had been dislodged from the van on its way up here. The road forked again, and MacDonald drove on a few hundred yards, stopped, and got out. Claus and Taylor parked their vehicles in a wide section of the road so they could turn around.
The men hiked through the rain over slippery rocks and branches toward the twisted, blackened heap lodged amid fallen timber logs, stumps, dirt, grass, and bushes. A blue vapor rose from beneath the wreck, steam forming off the rainwater creeping onto the smoldering undergrowth and logs in the nearly freezing temperatures. Up close, the vehicle appeared to be a minivan. The fire had scorched away most of the paint, with patches of the original purple remaining. Heat had blown out the windows all around and melted the license plate, now a glob of aluminum puddled beneath the rear bumper. Claus looked for the metal plates stamped with the vehicle identification number, normally affixed to the inside driver's-side door and on the dashboard, but found nothing but twisted metal and ash.
The trooper looked into the backseat area at what had prompted Scott MacDonald's call. Resting on the blackened remains of passenger seat was a skull beside a blackened human torso. Other charred bone fragments and a pile of ash lay nearby. The arms and legs had been burned off, as had the skin, hair and clothing. It was impossible to determine if this had been a man, woman or child. But these were definitely human remains.
Claus pondered his next step. In fifteen years as a trooper, he had handled every kind of case: burglaries, robberies, search and rescue, first aid, medical calls, drunken drivers, disorderly conduct, traffic accidents, and assaults of every stripe. This was the advantage of being only one of two troopers responsible for law and order on the 145-mile-long island. His experience also included a number of death investigations, including missing-and-presumed-dead persons, suicides, fatal accidents, and suspicious deaths that turned out to have medical causes. Every case came with its own challenges and often required improvisation. Hours could pass before a supervisor could even be reached. In past death investigations Claus would do an initial determination of the circumstances, photograph the scene, collect evidence, put the body in the truck, and call the medical examiner and "then ask for permission to do what we just did," he said.
But this case called for more caution. Of his death investigations in the course of his career, only three were homicides, and this one had all the hallmarks of a fourth. Claus could come up with no other plausible explanation for a body found burned up in the backseat of a suburban family vehicle on a desolate, barely accessible mountainside road. Asking Taylor to stand guard against any curious hunters, Claus made his way back down the hill to the main road, where he could get a cell phone signal.
He called the dispatch center, which routed calls for all the public safety agencies on the island, and reported the discovery of a burned van containing human remains on Forestry Road 3012 off the road to Thorne Bay. Claus asked to be advised of any missing-person or missing-vehicle reports on Prince of Wales Island, the trooper assuming jurisdiction. His next call went to his supervising lieutenant in Ketchikan to say that he had a likely homicide and to request help. Claus had no idea who owned the van or who the victim was and the two-man trooper post in Klawock lacked the investigative resources to find out. He asked for a crime scene technician and a fire investigator; headquarters in Anchorage would add one more person, a homicide detective. They were expected to arrive the following morning. Taylor guarded the crime scene until morning. Wildlife troopers are the game wardens of the state but are trained in police work. He then went to his home in Craig, the largest village on the island, and waited for the phone to ring.
The call came that night at 9:45 p.m. The Craig Police Department had received a report of a missing person and a missing purple minivan. Fifteen minutes later Claus called a familiar number. The phone was answered by Carl "Doc" Waterman, a real estate broker in downtown Craig and one of the most respected citizens on the island. Since moving from Anchorage seventeen years earlier, Waterman, who owned Island Realty, had handled the sale or purchase of many of the homes, vacant and wooded lots, and businesses on all of Prince of Wales Island. Doc was also a mover and shaker in town, serving on the school board and a member of the Girl Scout council.
Doc told Claus that his wife, Lauri, was missing and so was her minivan.
This was a jolt to Claus. The Waterman and Claus families had known each other for years, going back to when the Watermans' fifteen-year-old daughter, Rachelle, and her older brother, Geoffrey, went to elementary school with Claus's two daughters. Claus's wife taught school in Craig, Doc was president of the school board, and Lauri worked as a teacher's aide. The two families saw each other at school functions and at church. Lauri and Doc occasionally visited Claus's home for social gatherings, the last one just a couple of weeks earlier. Claus's older daughter had once dated Geoffrey, who was now away at college, and the two young people had remained friends. Claus's younger daughter, Stephanie, had long been a friend of Rachelle's: the two girls most recently traveled together with Lauri to the mainland town of Haines, four hundred miles to north, for a school honor choir event. Claus's wife had tutored Rachelle in geometry.
Doc Waterman explained that he had spent that weekend in Juneau for a Girl Scout council meeting, flying home Sunday morning. Several times he called home from his cell phone to check in with his wife, but the calls went to the answering machine. Doc left messages to say he was on his way home, then boarded his flight. The plane stopped in the island town of Sitka, three hundred miles to the north, where at the small airport Doc coincidentally ran into Rachelle. A high school junior active in music and sports, Rachelle was returning from Anchorage, where she had spent the weekend competing in a state high school volleyball tournament.
From Sitka, they took the same flight to Ketchikan, where they boarded separate floatplanes for forty-five-minute flights to the hamlet of Hollis, a water-landing and ferry port on the eastern side of Prince of Wales Island. Together they drove a friend's truck west across the island to Craig, with 1,400 residents. They arrived about three thirty p.m. at their home at 604 Ocean View. The Watermans owned one of the nicest houses on the island: three bedrooms, den and living room over three levels on a packed gravel street with a spectacular view of Bucareli Bay and the spruce-choked islands of the Alaskan archipelago.
Entering the house through the garage, Doc and Rachelle noticed that Lauri's minivan was not there. Lauri would usually greet Doc or Rachelle when they came home from trips. They went upstairs to the main level, where the living room, kitchen, and Rachelle's room were located. Doc continued up to the third-floor master bedroom, unpacked, and checked the answering machine. All three messages had been left by him during this trip; none had been played before. He deleted them.
Her purse, normally kept in a small pantry between the kitchen and living room, was also gone.
Doc reasoned that Lauri must be out on an errand. She kept a busy schedule — she had told him she would be volunteering for a chamber of commerce dinner the night before — and Doc thought she may be out helping clean up. His hopes dimmed as he went into the kitchen, where he found an empty wine bottle (Doc recalled it was on the counter; Rachelle later said it was in the trash). Lauri rarely drank — at most a wine cooler while they were socializing — and Doc never knew her to imbibe at home alone.
Doc went back upstairs and inspected the master bedroom more closely. The bed was unmade, the sheets thrown back, which also was strange. Lauri and Doc "shared the habit," he later said, of making their bed first thing in the morning. On the bathroom counter, he saw that his wife's wedding ring set had been left behind. He had never known her to leave the house under any circumstances without them.
His wife and her car were gone; there was no note, no message on his cell phone.
Taciturn by nature, Doc later described himself as feeling only "a little bit concerned," and held out hope she was somewhere nearby. He drove to the building that had housed the chamber of commerce banquet the night before looking for his wife's 1998 purple Plymouth Voyager minivan with a rear-window sticker that read "Craig Panthers," the high school mascot, but it wasn't there. He tried the other logical places his wife could be: the high school on the main road just outside of town, then the Catholic church in Klawock. Still no sign of the van or his wife.
Doc returned home. He doubted his wife would have driven any farther than Klawock. When she was younger, she'd brave any of the island's treacherous winding streets, hauling Rachelle and Geoffrey and their friends to T-ball games over unpaved roads. Now, at age forty-eight, Lauri had become cautious, rarely venturing even outside of Craig. She kept to flat, paved roads, and wouldn't even drive on the newly paved highway to the ferry terminal in Hollis since the road was so winding.
Excerpted from Love You Madly by Michael Fleeman. Copyright © 2011 Michael Fleeman. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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