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Season 1, Episode 1 – God’s Backyard

Amy Wroe Bechtel went for a run in the Shoshone National Forest south of Lander one afternoon in July 1997.

She was never seen again.

Christine Penhale (TheTrueCrimeFiles.com) joined us in this episode to go over the basics of Amy’s disappearance. Here’s a link to her article covering the case.

Other links from Episode 1:

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Frozen Truth Episode 1: “God’s Backyard”

Child: Dad?

Scott: Yeah.

Child: Do you have garbage cans?

Scott: Do you want me to open your cookies? ‘Kay, now throw this in the trash, okay? Thank you.

Scott: Alright, story time. About 300 million years ago, a massive ocean all over what we call North America, and it’s receding. And as it recedes across North America, sediment, 2 miles deep, gets deposited in what we now call Central Wyoming. So millions of years go by, things dry out, and the Wind River Basin was formed.

Scott: What bud?

Child: Where’s the garbage?

Scott: Where’s the garbage? It’s right there. Thank you, bud.

Child: (indistinguishable)

Scott: Sounds good.

Scott: Alright, where were we? So about 3,500 square miles of that basin is the Wind River Indian Reservation. It’s where the Eastern Shoshone and Norther Arapahoe have lived side-by-side for about, well exactly 140 years. They’ve lived there since right after the Great Sioux War of 1876, which by the way they were on opposite sides of. And Chief Washakie, of the Shoshone, his treaty establishing sovereignty for the Shoshone, in I think 1878, but that was the last time the US government ever dealt with a tribe when dealing with sovereign land, ever since then it’s been done by Executive Order. Anyway, so 20 years after that, after that treaty, they find oil, this is 1884. They find oil on the basin – because you’ve got that (sic) miles of prehistoric green sediment, and that, plus pressure, plus time equals oil. 1891, a couple of years later, US government establishes a huge national forest, named after the Shoshone, and it’s 2.4 million acres, and it stretches, most of it is northwest right up against Yellowstone, but the Wind River Basin contains a small amount of that national forest. At its most southern, it gets right down past Lander.

This, if you’ve never been there, this area of the country is unlike any other place, especially the Wind River Basin. The largest population center is 10,000 people, and the rest of the basin is some of the most sparsely populated land in the least populous state in the country. It’s difficult to describe if you’ve never been there – the desolation. There’s nothing. It’s just nothing for hundreds of miles. And it’s probably going to be that way for a long time because you’ve got the Indian Reservation and the national forest, and the two towns, Riverton and Lander, are surrounded by land that is the same, pretty much the same, as it’s been for a thousand years or a million years even. It’s a cool place. It’s definitely not for everybody. It’s like the antithesis of human endeavor. It’s like the arc of societal development doesn’t exist there. Some live there because they feel like their culture is being cut from the rest of America, and some live there because they want nothing to do with the rest of American society. They say Montana’s “Big Sky,” and they say if you live in Alaska, it’s because you’re hiding from something. Wyoming is like the place for people who don’t want to live anywhere else, and it’s also the place that most other people wouldn’t want to live, which is why, it’s one of the reasons that people who live there do.

So when you’re talking about a young couple, just starting out in life – Amy Bechtel and Steve Bechtel; College sweethearts; They’re both young, extremely athletic; In their own rights, they’re world class; Amy as a runner, and Steve as a rock climber – Lander is exactly what they’re looking for. It’s a tiny, tight-knit community – some of the best rock climbing in that part of the country is right there in the mountains around Lander. Amy’s thinking about the Olympics in Sydney in 2000. She’s that good a distance runner. The Wind River Basin and Lander has everything they’re looking for, and they’re just starting their lives together. Just buying a brand new house. It’s nothing but 50 years of possibilities and the wide open Wyoming wilderness in front of these two.

July 1997, Amy goes for a run, and she disappears, right there in the Shoshone National Forest, and no one knows what happened to her. This is Frozen Truth, Episode 1. I’m Scott Fuller

Music

Scott: I’m going to be asking a lot of people for help in this project, and to get our bearings on this case to start with, we’re going to call somebody who has extensively researched this case and recently, so…

Phone

Christine: Hello?

Scott: Hi, Christine?

Christine: Hi

Scott: Hi, it’s Scott Fuller.

Christine: Hi, it’s nice to hear from you.

Scott: Well, thank you so much for… (Christine Penhale runs one of the fastest growing true crime blogs on the internet.)

Christine: I’m Christine, and I’m a true crime writer. I run a true crime website called TheTrueCrimeFiles.com. My site focuses on unsolved murders and missing person cases, and I try to achieve a balance between well-known and lesser-known cases because I believe all victims deserve a voice. My site also offers guest posts by other writers and bloggers as well as true crime podcasts. It’s so creepy.

Scott: I was already familiar with Amy Wroe Bechtel’s disappearance prior to reading Christine’s article on her website about the case. It’s both thorough and concise, full of great information, but not too long.

Christine: Thank you very much. I think it was a lovely break from the academic writing I’m used to. That is usually very long winded and complex, where here it’s much more fluid and conversational and you can offer, like, abbreviated insights and try to make things really concise and easy for people to read. I really enjoy that challenge of trying to write in a new style. Like, I’ll write up an article, and it will end up being too long, I think. Really, like when people find a story online, how much time are they willing to invest in it? Maybe not more than 5 minutes. If you’re lucky, will they stay on your website to read a page? So it’s sort of like draw people in, get them interested, maybe they’ll comment, and then, slowly, they might think about the case and google it or share it and maybe generate some interest and conversation.

Scott: There seems to be a common thread among missing person’s cases that become infamous, especially the longer it takes to solve them. There are multiple scenarios to explain what happened to Amy Wroe Bechtel when she disappeared on July 24, 1997, and until one of those answers is proven to be true, none of the others can be excluded. Christine brought this up early in our conversation.

Christine: Right, I really compare Amy’s disappearance, with like Mora Burns’ disappearance, and Ray Gricar’s disappearance as ones that are truly mysterious, and I think part of that is because there are just so many options and theories out there about what could have happened to them.

Scott: Yeah.

Christine: As you mentioned earlier, some people really hold on to their pet theories and then don’t want to give it up even when new evidence comes to light. So I definitely find the missing person cases that can generate the most interest are the ones that have many options as to what happened.

Scott: Do you remember how you first learned of Amy’s case?

Christine: Oh definitely, yeah. It started back when I watched an episode of Disappeared. That’s when I first learned about it. I think it was in 2013 or so…

Disappeared: Amy Wroe Bechtel disappeared on July 24, 1997. When a person disappears without a trace, often the most critical information is hidden in their actions and words in the days before they vanish. Amy’s last known whereabouts may hold the clues to what happened to her.

Christine: It fascinated me so much that is was one of the very first ones I wrote about. I think it’s, like, the third or fourth article topic that I covered on my crime site. Interestingly enough, I found that one of the cases that I’ve done that has received the most comments so far is Amy’s case, so there’s definitely a silhouette of interest, even after 20 years later.

Scott: I asked Christine for a timeline of Amy’s activities up to the point where she was last seen.

Christine: In the morning, Amy left her apartment to run some errands. And then later that afternoon, she went to a photo store, where she gave him some film to be developed. She wanted, I think, to enter a photo contest of some kind. And then the person who worked at the store, who saw Amy, said that it looked like she was heading out for a run, but that she wasn’t all sweaty, so they didn’t think she’d been on a run yet. This is typically considered the last confirmed sighting of Amy. That was, I believe, at around 2 pm.  

Scott: The comprehensive timeline of what happens next was published in the Casper Star Tribune in June of 2007. We’ll link to it in the show notes for this episode at FrozenTruthPodcast.com.

Scott: 1997, July 24. It’s a Thursday. Amy Bechtel is last seen at the Camera Connection in Lander around 2:30 pm. Her husband, Steve Bechtel, calls a friend at 4:30 pm and reports having returned home to Lander from a trip to Dubois. Around 10:30 pm, the Fremont County Sheriff’s office is notified that Amy Bechtel is missing. July 25, around 1 am. Steve Bechtel’s friends find her car, a white Toyota Tercel Wagon, parked on the Burnt Gulch Road turnoff in the mountains above Lander, where she reportedly was to go running. Deputies get to the scene about an hour later, and by 3 am, a major search is on – with more and more people coming to the Loop Road scene to look. July 26, search and rescue teams using dogs, two private helicopters, and at least 100 volunteers search the area. July 27, the sheriff’s office takes an average of 1,000 calls an hour and expands the search area to a 20 or 30 mile radius of the car. A hand-held infra-red detection device is flown in from Cheyenne, and a helicopter from F.E. Warren Air Force Base joins the search. July 31, reporters are told the area is now considered a crime scene, and the search for Bechtel is scaled back as the possibility of foul play becomes more likely.

Scott: There has never been a confirmed sighting of Amy Wroe Bechtel after about 2:30 pm on July 24, 1997, and no confirmed trace of Amy of any kind has ever been found.

News Reel: The Fremont County Sheriff’s Office say even though it’s a cold case, they are still following up on tips, and they even have a new lead.

Detective Sgt. John Zerga: We still believe there’s that person out there, that one person that has that type of information. We need that tip or that lead, and we did develop some new stuff that me and the FBI agent, myself and the FBI agent are looking into.

News Reel: Amy disappeared on July 24, 1997. Authorities believe she went on the Loop Road to look at the course of an upcoming 10K race. Detective Sergeant John Zerga took over the case about a year and a half ago. He isn’t revealing what the new lead it, but despite it being a cold case, it’s a case that stays fresh in the minds of local residents and anyone that’s heard about it.

Detective Sgt. John Zerga: From such a small community where we don’t have a lot of criminal activity, especially in that time to just go up in the mountains for a run and then just disappear. And basically, just disappear without any traces of evidence for the officers to follow up on.

News Reel: This is Victoria Fregoso reporting for County10.com

Christine: In the car were Amy’s keys, sunglasses, and a To Do List, which I think the To Do List is pretty critical. It really helps, I think, map out where she was that day and what she was doing because when she did things, she crossed them off: she dropped off recycling earlier in the day, she switched over a bunch of utilities, and she went to the photo shop, and that was crossed off. The last thing was for her to go on a run, and that was never crossed off.

Scott: Sometimes local news reports, immediately after an event like Amy’s disappearance, can yield nuggets of information that have been overlooked overtime. These details need to be taken with a grain of salt, however, because sometimes initial information about a case like this is confused or misreported. There is not much in the way of very vocal and very immediate reports from the day or two after Amy disappeared in 1997. Keep in mind this is a very sparsely populated area of the country. They have a couple of local radio stations. They have a couple of local newspapers, and that’s about it. The nearest media market is Casper. So far, the closest and most recent story I’ve been able to find was from July 29, which is a full five days after Amy vanished.

In that story and a follow up story dated August 1 from K2 in Casper, we learn that initially authorities believed it was more likely that Amy was lost and injured. The Sheriff’s Office at the time even expressed hope that she might yet be alive, even a week later, because of her excellent physical condition. These stories indicate that Amy’s wallet was missing, which her family says was odd, given that she never took it with her when she went running. Members of Amy’s family also indicated in those first news reports, they thought it was strange that Amy would be running there at all. They said that’s probably not the place Amy would’ve gone for her daily jog. This might be an important piece of information, but it’s also possible that some members of Amy’s family simply didn’t know that she was in the process of planning a 10K race at that location.

The K2 article also gives us a very interesting piece of witness detail, which places Amy’s car at the spot on the loop road where it was eventually found at about 3:00pm. This could be a very important addition to Amy’s timeline, but we also need to bear in mind that this information is third-hand – from first an unnamed witness, through authorities, and then via the reported news story?

Christine:  I do think it’s slightly possible that someone could have hit Amy with their vehicle and panicked and then maybe taken her body, but if no one was around, I don’t know why they just wouldn’t leave the body there. I really don’t think she went there and killed herself, which I’ve seen written as a possibility. I really don’t think she ran off to start a new life. I really doubt that she was attacked by an animal because I think there would be some evidence of that found somewhere along the route, like blood or ripped clothing. You think they would have found…like the dogs might have found some trace of her path or some sort of evidence of that sort of attack.    

Scott: This is kind of a morbid bit of research I’m doing here, but I’m searching our fatal animal attacks in Wyoming. There have been five. Is that all? There have been five fatal bear attacks in Wyoming. All by Brown Bear, and none of those five have been remotely close to Lander: Yellowstone, Bridger Teton National Forest in Wyoming – that’s up in northwest Wyoming, Yellowstone, Yellowstone, Shoshone National Forest – let me see, but where – east of Yellowstone.

And all the way back in the 1890s, a poor man named Phillip Henry Vetter was killed by a bear in Greybull, Wyoming. He was a buffalo hunter who told a fellow hunter a week before that he was “Going out for some bear.” And a week later, another hunter seeking shelter from the rain broke into Phillip’s cabin and found him dead there. On a newspaper, Phillip had written in blood the words, “I’m dying.” Terrible story, but there have been no recorded bear attack fatalities remotely close to the area we’re talking about in Amy’s case.

The other possibility I can think of when it comes to animal is mountain lion. There are zero known or suspected fatal cougar attacks in the state of Wyoming. Mountain lion attacks are even rarer than bear attacks, as it turns out. Just for fun, let’s check out wolf attacks because I know that will come up as well. Let’s see, 1908 Spring Valley, Wyoming: “Two men competing in the 1908 New York to Paris race, driving through Spring Valley, Wyoming, say they heard wolf howls and a pack of wolves surrounding them. They tooted their horn, and when that was not effective, they began shooting at the wolves, killing several of them.” And if you believe that story, (laughing) that’s it. That’s it. That’s the only reported wolf attack in the state of Wyoming, and I’m not sure I buy it. Anyway, animal attacks are a lot rarer than people think they are – certainly a lot rarer than I assumed them to be.

Scott: Some perspective of crime in Wyoming versus the country and crime in Fremont County versus Wyoming. So the state releases quarterly crime reports. They give totals for the state and then they break them down by each crime by county and by city. In the most recent quarterly report, which is third quarter, 2017, so relatively recently, there were seven reported murders in the state of Wyoming during that three month period: July, August, September, 2017. That would average out to about one murder every two weeks.

In all of 2016, which is the most recent full year that we have, there were 19 homicides reported in Wyoming, which would be just about five per quarter. In that year, 2016, the state cleared more that 85% of those homicides. Which is a pretty good number especially considering it’s a statewide number. The case is cleared when police arrest a suspect and that suspect is charged. What happens next, whether conviction, plea, or acquittal, is not factored into the clearance rate. Clearance is arrested and charged, and that case is cleared. So 85% of 19 homicides is all but a couple – relatively good.

The most recent quarterly crime figures from Lander, which is where Amy lived, show no murders in those three months of July, August, and September of 2017, but there were also no rapes, no reported robberies, no aggravated assaults, no burglaries. The only crime reported to the state by Lander police during that three month period last year were 42 larcenies and two motor vehicle thefts. And as for Fremont County, The Fremont County Sheriff’s office, which is the lead agency on the Amy Wroe Bechtel case, they did not submit stats to the most recent report, but I have seen them report to other quarters. There are relatively few violent crimes in Wyoming, yes, but its per capita murder rate is surprisingly high compared to the rest the country. Some of that obviously is a correlation with being the least populous state in the country. Wyoming has been ranked 50th in population since 1985, but in 2016, the last full year of stats that we have, the murder rate was lower in 16 other states than it was in Wyoming. In the year Amy disappeared, 1997, Wyoming had the 13th lowest murder rate in the country.

Bottom line, all things considered, Wyoming is a relatively safe state from the standpoint of statistics. It’s been in the bottom half of every single criminal category for most of the last several decades. Wyoming is a relatively low crime state and Lander in Fremont County is a relatively low crime area within the state of Wyoming.

Scott: August 1. The FBI blocks off both ends of the Loop Road. Motorists must check in before they can drive through. Around this time, Steve Bechtel cuts short an interview with County and FBI investigators after an agent reportedly accuses him of killing Amy. According to Steve, the FBI agent said, “I have evidence that proves you killed Amy, and we would like to have you take a polygraph test right now to prove you didn’t.” Steve retains Jackson lawyer Kent Spence, son of famed defense lawyer Gerry Spence to represent his interest in the investigation. Spence advises Steve against taking a polygraph, as investigators and Amy’s parents and brother have implored him to do.

August 6. Steve Bechtel’s home and pickup truck are searched by Fremont County authorities who need DNA samples of Amy’s, such as hair and toenails. Officials are also looking for additional items that may result in new clues, such as a diary.  

Scott: Have you ever heard the 911 call that Steve made?

Christine: I have never heard the 911 call that Steve made, but I’ve read the transcript of what he said, and I’ve definitely, as you mentioned, been kind of disturbed by his 911 call.

Scott: Yeah, I asked about the 911 called because it is remarkably difficult to get ahold of the actual audio. It turns out that Wyoming law is unlike most states where 911 calls are more accessible through official inquiries, both because of the age of the call, how long ago it was, and this new law that they have passed since. I have, or anybody else, has no legal right to it. The public has no legal right to it. So…

Christine: Oh, really?

Scott: If you…

Christine: Yeah, because I have never been able to find it, I’ve only ever found transcripts of it.

Scott: Yeah, I’ve heard the creepy part. In fact, in that Disappeared episode, they play just that little snippet of the call where he says, “I’m missing a person. Do you happen to have one?”

Steve Recording: Hi, this is Steve Bechtel calling, and I’m missing a person. And I was wondering if you maybe had an extra?

Christine: I mean, I do think, like, you must suspect that it would be very useful to listen to the whole call because maybe in context that isn’t quite as terrible as it seems. I’m not sure how that could be possible, but, perhaps the call was 10 minutes long, and this is just the one snippet people choose to really… whether or not that’s tied into if he did something with Amy or not, who knows.

Scott: Yeah, it’s a strange thing to say. I don’t need to point out that what Steve Bechtel said to the 911 operator that night makes him look like a suspect in Amy’s disappearance. But I would like to point out that 911 calls can be very misleading when you try to use them as a barometer for whether or not the person making the call might be involved in a crime, especially misleading to wee lay people who are outside of law enforcement and don’t possess any formal psychiatric or psychological credentials.

During the last 10 years or so there’s been some cutting edge, really interesting research, being done on whether or not there are predictive indicators inside a 911 call – from tone of voice to phrases being used – as to whether or not the caller had something to do with the crime that they are reporting. I wanted to learn more about this research, so I reached out to a retired police deputy who’s been conducting research into whether or not law enforcement can glean clues as to a 911 caller’s involvement in a crime, just based on the 911 call itself. Here’s the response I got:

“Thank you for your interest in our research. Unfortunately, we only assist law enforcement. We don’t want our research being used by those to try to fool investigators, and if publicized in a podcast, that’s exactly what would happen. I hope you understand.”

Certainly an understandable objection. But suffice it to say, we’re a long way from a definitive, say, software that can analyze stressors in the voice or the phrases used in a 911 call, and say, “Yep, there’s the guy that did it,” or not. So all of these 911 calls, including Steve’s, are subjective.

Christine: And a lot of people point to Steve’s guilt because he was initially cooperative, but after he refused to take a lie detector test, he then as people say, “Lawyered up,” and distanced himself from the investigation, so that also, some people believe, signals his guilt.

Scott: Steve’s alibi for the day is a climbing friend name Sam Lightener. They claim they were scouting a climbing spot in Dubois, which is an hour and 15 minute drive from Lander, and did not return home until after Amy had driven south of town into the Shoshone National Forest. Police have reportedly confirmed from a gas station receipt that at least Sam was in Dubois that day. Steve’s alibi is plausible, but it’s also not complete. Steve’s account for the day implies he may not have been able to commit the crime, but it also doesn’t completely rule out the possibility. One of the reasons this case remains unsolved is simply a lack of evidence. There is no physical evidence reportedly found at Amy’s car or anywhere on the Loop Road. The only reliable circumstantial evidence against Steve is the strange phone call he placed to police on that night and the disturbing diaries found by police in the couple’s home.

Scott: The other thing about Steve is a lack of motive.

Christine: Right. Why marry her if he was just going to kill her? Why not just divorce her? Why kill her? I have never read anything about a big insurance policy or anything other than maybe if all… if you take seriously what’s in his journal about dominance and control and wondering how to murder someone and hide their body, if all of that is true and if all of it was, like, seriously his thoughts and not just songs for his band, then maybe she didn’t want to be controlled anymore.

Steve: Let’s go ahead and establish that Steve is a diabolical criminal, but first let’s establish that he was in the area for the crime and had a motivation to do the crime. And those writings are songs that my band did in high school. They’re stories that I wrote that I submitted to short story magazines. It’s sort of a trash heap, but, you know, way to get rid of feelings. You know, I can write them then not.

Christine: With what I know about police procedures now, and… I don’t think I would take a lie detector if I was asked to take one. That’s not necessarily a signal of guilt. Typically, the stranger abduction and murders are the rarest, and usually the least likely. But if it isn’t Steve then if it isn’t an accident, it basically is, then, a stranger abduction and murder.

Scott: Though suspected by law enforcement, Steve Bechtel was never arrested in connection with Amy’s disappearance. At least a third of all women killed in the United States are killed by male intimate partners: husbands, boyfriends. That’s a staggering statistic. A third of all women killed are killed by people who they, at one point in their lives, held closest to them. But it also means the vast majority of women killed in the US are killed by somebody else. That somebody else is almost never a serial killer. Almost never. That’s coming up in Episode 2.

Transcribed by Charles Fournier

4 Comments

  1. Alan Fuller March 4, 2018

    Excellent beginning. Anxious to hear the next podcast. Truth is stranger than fiction . Hopefully the truth will out!

  2. Judith March 6, 2018

    Loved the podcast and the subject matter. Look forward to future podcasts.

  3. Tiffany September 8, 2018

    It was her husband

  4. Concerned citizen December 23, 2018

    Interesting comment about Steve being at first cooperative then lawyering up. No mention how it was after blaintenly being told they had proof he murdered her. I’d love to see how you would have reacted to that!

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