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Season 1, Episode 2 – Junkyard Dale

Dale Wayne Eaton is the only inmate on Wyoming’s death row. He abducted and murdered Lisa Marie Kimmell in 1988.

Many believe he is responsible for other murders.

Much of the research on Eaton in this episode was provided by Radford University’s (Virginia) Department of Psychology, which has extensively compiled information on U.S. serial killers (Bancroft, Ayers and Bennett).

In his book, Rivers of Blood, Robert Scott chronicles the investigation into Lisa Marie Kimmell’s murder, and how authorities eventually associated Eaton with the crime. Scott also looks at Eaton as a suspect in other unsolved murders in the area.

Jon Billman’s 2016 article on Amy disappearance for Runner’s World is considered by many to be the pinnacle piece of journalism on the case. This article was one of the first to extensively detail Dale Wayne Eaton as a possible suspect in the Amy Wroe Bechtel case. (Listen for Jon on an upcoming episode!)

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Frozen Truth Episode 2: “Junkyard Dale”

Steve: This episode of Frozen Truth contains material that everybody should find offensive and that some listeners might find especially disturbing. Listener discretion is advised.

Cars Passing

Scott: You don’t know what you don’t know. You have instincts, gut feelings. They come programmed inside every one of us. And women are born with their own set of instincts. But instincts can be argued with. You can talk yourself into or out of any gut feeling. Especially if you’re young, say 18 years old. And if it’s a different time, say 1988. And it’s not like you’re in the middle of nowhere exactly. There’s lights. There’s restaurants. There’s other cars. What could happen? But that feeling is probably still there, though, for just a moment, but it’s easy to push down. And besides, there’s something strangely assured about the man who’s asking you to get in his van. He seems like he wants to help. And something else, too. This is Frozen Truth Episode 2, I’m Scott Fuller.

Music

Scott: The entire episode today, unfortunately, will be about a terrible human being. And there are people like Dale Eaton out there. We know this much better now than Lisa Marie Kimmell would have known it in 1988. Eaton abducted Lisa as she was traveling to see her boyfriend and eventually her parents along State Highway 26 in central Wyoming. The question we have to ask ourselves, as pertains to Eaton: is it possible that that crime was the only crime, of that horrendous nature, that this man ever committed? Or were there more? And if so, how many?

We know that Dale Wayne Eaton was born in February 1945. But nobody knows for sure where he was born, not even what state. When he was 15, Eaton’s family moved Dale to a small town in Colorado. The next year, his mother was hospitalized for attempting to set the family home on fire. Dale and his family, at this point, moved to Greeley, Colorado. This is where Eaton received his first psychological evaluation. From that evaluation, we now know that Dale’s father was at least sometimes present, but was also abusive to both Dale and Dale’s mother. Dale’s mother was probably the closest thing Dale had to a supportive figure during his adolescence. The same mother who tried to set her own house on fire.

The first psychiatrist to examine Eaton in 1961 cited severe emotional problems, which led to him being held back a year in school. Shortly after, Dale would be caught stealing while in possession of a weapon. He was remanded to juvenile detention in the Lookout Mountain School for Boys. Here he was introduced to a solid structure for maybe the first time in his life, and Eaton did well at the reform school. He was there for 2 years until the age of 19, during which time he developed a marketable skill.

He becomes good welder. Eventually he would own his own welding business, his experience in the reform school set Eaton on a positive track, at least for a while. For the next few years, Eaton is a productive member of society. He’s a member of a union. He’s a member of a local church, which he also helps construct. At age 26, Eaton marries an 18 year-old woman named Melody. It’s said that on that night, the couple’s wedding night, Melody asked him for a divorce. The couple remains married, though, and Eaton supports his wife financially, as best he’s able, but his work is not consistent. Melody is reportedly physically abusive and violent toward Eaton, though Eaton claims he never hit her back.

The stress at home begins to build within Eaton. Eventually, he moves in with a friend where he sleeps on the couch. During this stay, his friend’s daughter prepared a pork meal in a way Eaton disapproved of. In response, Dale Eaton chokes his friend’s daughter, and nearly kills her. Eaton’s constantly rocky relationship with his wife did reconcile though, at least to the point where by 1979, the couple has 3 children. Eaton becomes a father of 2 sons and 1 daughter. However, in that year, Melody files for divorce. The couple remain on some sort of personal terms following their 1979 divorce. They remarry at least once, but divorce finally in 1986. This final departure from his wife, among other things, appears to send Eaton over the edge. He’s evaluated by a psychiatrist for the second time in his life. He’s diagnosed with depression and something called Thont disorder, which appears to be an all-encompassing euphemism used at that time to generally describe mental illness. Tragically, at this point, Eaton turns himself into police. He says he fears his mental condition makes him a danger to others. However, he is not known to have committed a recent crime at that point, so there’s little police can do.

During this time in 1982 and 1983, 4 female bodies are found across central Wyoming. The victims are all in their late teens or early twenties. 3 of them are eventually identified. Belinda Grantham was strangled to death. The body of Naomi Kidder was found naked. She had been strangled to death with a wire ligature. The cause of death of Janelle Johnson was never determined, but she had been raped and bite marks were left on her shoulder.

After being released from psychiatric evaluation, Eaton moves to his uncle’s property in Moneta, Wyoming. There he lives in a converted bus, which is off the grid. The residence is little more than a bed, a propane stove, no electricity, and not much else. Eaton’s personal hygiene becomes increasingly bad. He spends his time scavenging for food and supplies, while trying to hold down various part time jobs. In a short time, he’s gone from living in a relatively comfortable home in Cheyenne, to literally living out of a van on his uncle’s property in the middle of nowhere.

On March 20th 1988, Dale Wayne Eaton abducted Lisa Marie Kimmell in Fremont County. The 18 year old, Lisa, was driving from Denver to Cody, Wyoming to visit her boyfriend. Over a period of days, Dale Wayne Eaton sexually assaulted Lisa Marie Kimmell. 6 days after her abduction, Eaton gave Lisa a roast beef dinner, dressed her up in socks and panties, and drove her to a bridge 70 miles away. He struck her in the head with a lead pipe, stabbed her with a large knife 6 times, and dumped her body over the bridge into the shallow water below. Kimmell’s body was found in the North Platte River 3 days later. The case becomes famous as the Lil’ Miss Murder because of the vanity license plates on Lisa’s car. But Dale got away with it. Dale Wayne Eaton was never a person of interest in that case.  

A few months later, Eaton’s uncle’s son, the son of the man who owns the property, where Dale Wayne Eaton is staying, and now where Eaton has committed several violent crimes, comes to stay with Eaton there. During this time, Eaton’s cousin notices some odd things on the property. Some of which, Eaton is able to explain away. In January of the following year, and about 9 months after the murder of Lisa Marie Kimmell, Dale Wayne Eaton and his cousin decide to take a road trip together. According to the cousin, they visit Utah (Salt Lake City and Clearfield) then Elko, Nevada. Eventually the 2 decide to stay in Nevada. Eaton gets a job and his cousin attends school. During this time, Eaton becomes involved with a woman. This woman is the only other intimate relationship Eaton has, ever, that we’re aware of. The girlfriend in Nevada reportedly refers to him as Junkyard Dale.

The Nevada plan is short lived, though, and Eaton returns with his cousin to the property in Moneta, Wyoming. Eaton remains in Wyoming consistently from 1989 to 1994. During these 5 years, he can be connected to towns all over the central part of the state. In the fall of 1994, Eaton travels again, this time to Idaho and Colorado.

Amy Wroe Bechtel went missing from the mountains around Lander, in central Wyoming, in July 1997. Less than 2 months later, a family of 3, a husband, wife, and young child, are traveling from Washington state across the country through Wyoming. This is from an article appearing in the Billings Gazette in 2004, written by Greg Tuttle:

Shannon Breeden and her husband, Scott, and their 5 month old son, Cody, were driving from Michigan to Washington state in September 1997 when their van broke down on Interstate 80, about 40 miles west of Rawlins. Breeden said they tried unsuccessfully to get someone to stop and help them. They spent the night in the van and we’re running out of water the next morning when a man pulled up. Dale Eaton seemed concerned for the stranded family and offered them a ride in his van to Rock Springs, where they could get help. Afraid of spending any more time stranded on the side of the desolate stretch of highway, they accepted Eaton’s offer. It was about 9:00am when they climbed in Eaton’s van and headed West toward Rock Springs. Breeden said she was uncomfortable with Eaton right away: “I thought to myself, ‘he looked like a serial killer,’” she said. “But I’m kind of a hippie Mom, and I told myself not to judge and think like that.” After a while Eaton said he had to relieve himself and pulled the van off the highway at a maintenance exit.

Scott was sitting in the passenger seat, holding the baby as Eaton stepped out of the van. When he returned, Eaton told her to move to the driver seat because he wanted to rest. Breeden obliged and got behind the wheel. Eaton climbed in and stretched out on a bed in the rear as Breeden started the van. She had driven only a short distance when something caught her eye. She turned to see Eaton holding a rifle on her husband and her baby. He said, “Drive down this road.”

The road was a 2 track dirt trail leading away from the highway. “When I saw nothing in front but desert, I thought if I’m going down, I’m going down right here” Breeden said. Breeden pushed her foot on the accelerator and turned the van in a tight circle, trying to knock the rifle away from Eaton. Eaton jumped forward and tried to grab the keys out of the ignition. Breeden’s husband jumped out of the van with the baby. With Scott on the baby out of the van, Breeden also fled from Eaton, jumping into the dirt and scrambling toward her husband. But Eaton grabbed her, and the two went down next to the van. The rifle fell out of Eaton’s reach. But he grabbed a knife from under the passenger seat of the van.

Breeden jumped on Eaton’s back, and the man spun her down to the ground and put a knife to her ribs. Her husband grabbed Eaton’s arm to keep the knife from plunging into her. He said, “Let go, or I’ll kill her.” Scott grabbed the rifle with his other hand, and hit Eaton on the head, breaking the wooden butt. Eaton went down but started to get up. Scott lunged at Eaton to keep the knife away from his wife. The two wrestled, and during the struggle, Eaton was stabbed in the chest. The wound slowed Eaton long enough for Breeden to grab the broken rifle and fire shot into the dirt. He said, “If you fire that again, it’ll blow up and kill you.” She handed the rifle to Scott who beat Eaton several more times until the man had said he had enough. When Eaton gave up the fight, the couple grabbed their baby, jumped into the van, and fled. They stopped about a mile away at a maintenance area where they were able to call for help.

Arrested for the attempted abduction, Eaton takes a plea.  After serving just 99 days in jail, he is conditionally released. He soon violates one of those conditions – that he can only travel to and from work in his van – and is eventually arrested in July 1998, almost exactly one year after Amy Wroe Bechtel disappeared.

Dale Wayne Eaton has been incarcerated every day since then, but the first murder he was publicly connected to was not that of Lisa Marie Kimmell. Rather, in 2001, in a fit of rage, Eaton killed his cell mate. After being publicly linked, via DNA, to the Lisa Marie Kimmell case in 2002, authorities searched the Moneta property where they find most of Kimmell’s car buried there. Eaton is found guilty of Lisa’s murder and is sentenced to death on March 20, 2004.

Reporter: Dale Wayne Eaton’s lawyers say he should get a new sentencing hearing because of an error by his trial attorney and because the prosecutor did not disclose a working relationship he had with a key prosecution witness. Eaton was convicted in 2004 of raping and murdering 18-year-old, Lisa Marie Kimmell. The new claims were filed in late September and were added to a petition filed in August. Amani Richard. Wyoming Radio News.

Scott: Eaton’s fate took a turn 4 years after he was supposed to have been executed.

News 1: Breaking news just in the news room now on a 26-year-old Denver murder case. Dale Eaton sentenced to death back in 1988. This is for the murder of a Denver teenager, Lisa Kimmell. This happened in Wyoming.

News 2: But a district court just overturned that verdict and ordered a new sentencing hearing, and the state of Wyoming can still refuse to grant this hearing. If so, Eaton would get life in prison

Scott: Okay, I’ve got what we’ll call the legal timeline for Dale Wayne Eaton. This takes us from the time when he’s linked to Lisa Marie Kimmell’s murder, via DNA, to 2018. A lot of people are under the impression that he can’t be charged for Lisa M– I’m sorry – He can’t be executed for Lisa Marie Kimmell’s murder. That is not necessarily true. That issue is still pending. It is possible that Dale Wayne Eaton will face the death penalty for a second time. But to get there, let’s start at the very beginning. When is Dale Wayne Eaton linked via DNA to Lisa Marie Kimmell? I have, from 2 excellent sources, diverging versions of this story, or this detail. As we know, Eaton is arrested in 1998 just about a year after Amy disappears. He’s violating a condition of his conditional release, and he fails to show up for work. So at that point, he’s arrested.

Theory A is that his DNA wasn’t tested for 4 years, or somehow wasn’t linked to the Lisa Marie Kimmell case for 4 years. The second account I have is that it’s at that moment, that point, when Eaton’s DNA is linked right away to the Lisa Marie Kimmell case, but that the information is kept secret, it is not released to the public. Either way, by 2002, we know they made the link because they dig up Lisa Marie Kimmell’s car on the Moneta property. What follows is a peek inside our criminal justice system and the appeals process of capital cases post-conviction. And it’s a bit, let me warn you, it’s a bit frustrating. So, the easiest part of what happens next was trial and conviction. He’s tried. He’s convicted. Wyoming jury sentences him to death. Boom, boom, boom. Death warrant is signed, and the state of Wyoming is officially on paper consenting to taking his life: the life of Dale Wayne Eaton for killing Lisa Marie Kimmell. But then the appeals process starts.

8 months after conviction the first appeal on Eaton’s behalf actually comes from the public defender’s office. The claim is inadequate council. That appeal is denied 6 months later. Immediately after that appeal is denied, Eaton’s lawyers spend the summer of 2006 claiming in court that the instructions to the jury in his murder trial were flawed, and they also argued that the Wyoming statute that was used to convict Eaton didn’t exist when he committed the crime. Which happens to be true. But nonetheless, that appeal is denied in September. 2 years later, another appeal, and this time with the appeal is to the highest court in Wyoming, the Wyoming State Supreme Court, in a claim that Eaton received ineffective counsel in his murder trial. Here is their argument to the Wyoming State Supreme Court. Eaton’s lawyer at his trial took a strategy that was probably designed to try to save his client’s life. The strategy was basically, acknowledge Eaton’s the guy, that he killed Lisa Marie Kimmell, but argue that the crime was not premeditated. So the defense’s position is basically, “Yes, my client’s a murderer. Find him guilty of murder, yes, but find him guilty not of first degree, premeditated murder, but of second-degree murder.” And in Wyoming, the difference between the 2 is the death penalty.

So, in 2008 in front of the State Supreme Court, Eaton’s appellate lawyer is arguing that that’s not real…that’s not a murder defense at all, that’s inadequate council. And they argued a couple other things, including jury selection, that it had been unconstitutional. They argued that Eaton shouldn’t have stood trial in the first place, that he was not capable. But this appeal was denied by the highest court in the state of Wyoming. So at that point, an execution date is set. It’s set for…it’s set for December, which is 2 months down the road at this point. But then a month later in November, back comes the Wyoming Supreme Court. They grant a stay of execution while Eaton’s lawyers draft an appeal to the United States Supreme Court. 3 months later, the US Supreme Court, highest court in the country now, refuses to hear the case. And that’s often what they do. They won’t take the case one way or another, so it gets kicked back down to the most recent ruling.

2 weeks after the US Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case, the Wyoming State Supreme Court again orders a stay of execution while other appeals are prepared. 2009 in June, a new lawyer for Eaton now, files an appeal, this is where it gets fun, this time arguing that the Wyoming State Supreme Court basically didn’t do its job, in the first appeal in front of it, that the State Supreme Court failed to adequately review Eaton’s appeal. That’s what this new appeal says. At this point, they’re basically just stalling for time because that appeal is made to a lower Wyoming court. It’s made to the Natrona County District Court. Eventually, that appeal ends up in front of, guess where, the state Supreme Court, and surprise, surprise, the Wyoming Supreme Court doesn’t want to hear a case arguing that it, itself failed to do its one and only job. So again, execution date is set for Eaton.

We are getting close to the end of the road now in terms of appeals, but Hail Mary pass. December 2011 now, a federal appeals court gives a green light to Eaton’s inadequate representation at trial defense appeal. That appeal is greenlit, a second time 5 months later by a different federal judge.  And 2½ years after that, so now we’re in November 2014, comes the boom. US district judge Alan B Johnson issues a 375-page ruling. I have a pdf of it in front of me here. And this grants a conditional writ of habeas corpus, which in this case basically means the judge wants a do-over in the sentencing portion of Eaton’s case, only. He’s still guilty of murder, but the judge here, has ordered the state to reargue Eaton’s capital sentence. The state has a period of time at that point, I think it’s 3 months, to decide whether or not it wanted to do that. If not, it says right here in the order, or in the ruling, if not, then automatically Eaton’s sentence would default to life in prison. This becomes important from the standpoint of the state because there is now no chance, at all, Dayle Wayne Eaton will ever get out of prison. In the case of Dale Wayne Eaton, Wyoming authorities have chosen to pursue that Avenue. This to me seems rather rare and the reason that matters, whether or not there is a ton of precedent or not, the less precedent there is, the longer the legal fight will last.

Scott: There’s question too about the state’s appetite for the death penalty at all. Every year, a bill is introduced in the Wyoming State Legislature that would repeal the death penalty entirely for the state of Wyoming. Every year so far, it has failed to pass, most recently just a few weeks ago in February 2018. Since that higher court ruling overturning Eaton’s death sentence in 2014, state officials have chosen to pursue his execution for a second time. In 2016, a federal judge in Cheyenne ruled the state of Wyoming can continue its pursuit of the death penalty for Dale Wayne Eaton, for a second time. It’s not clear from a legal standpoint if they’ll be successful in this effort. There is virtually no chance of Dale Wayne Eaton ever being released from prison. So why would prosecutors so aggressively pursue a death sentence for a second time, against the only inmate on Wyoming’s death row?

There’s presumably only one practical reason for this. They believe that Eaton may be responsible for other murders. As does just about everybody else. Prosecutors are probably hoping that someday they can use the thread of execution as leverage in extracting a confession from Eaton revealing other victims he may be responsible for. Possibly the 4 other unsolved cases from central Wyoming in the early 80s, or possibly the 1997 disappearance Amy Wroe Bechtel. There were thousands of tips called into the Fremont County Sheriff’s office in the 12 months after Amy disappeared. One of those phone calls was from Richard Eaton, the brother of Dale Wayne Eaton, conveying his suspicions that his brother might have been involved.

Belinda Grantham was last seen at the Natrona County Fair in Casper. Like Dale Wayne Eaton’s confirmed victim, Lisa Marie Kimmell, her body was found in the North Platte River. And as with Kimmell, her body was found near a bridge. The body of Naomi Kidder was also found in Natrona County 3 months after hitchhiking from Rawlins. The following February, Janelle Johnson left Riverton for a modeling interview in Denver. On her way home, and low on money, Janelle hitchhiked to a truck stop near Rawlins, where she was last seen. Her body was found a few weeks later in Shoshone, Wyoming.

The town of Shoshone is not actually in the Shoshone National Forest, but the shortest route to Shoshone from Rawlins is via the Loop Road where Amy Wroe Bechtel disappeared. In fact, while we’re thinking about loops, State Highways 26, 287, and 30, along with Interstate 80, form a loop of their own across the central part of the state. Towns along that big loop include Casper, Shoshoni, Riverton, Lander, and Rawlins – And also the unincorporated town of Moneta, Wyoming where Eaton’s uncle’s property was, where Lisa Marie Kimmell was tortured, and eventually where her car was found buried. Moneta is between Casper and Shoshone on Highway 26.  

For a few years in the early 80s, that larger loop in central Wyoming was practically a circle of death for young women between the ages of 18 and 24 traveling those desolate highways alone. It’s where Dale Wayne Eaton lived, and it’s when he lived there. According to Radford University in Virginia, which compiled much of the information on Eaton used in this episode, the peak decades of serial killing in the United States were the 1980s and 1990s. I can’t remember the context of when I first heard that a serial killer was a theory in the disappearance of Amy Wroe Bechtel, but I do remember my reaction, which was basically one of incredulity: “Oh, come on. A serial killer. Really?” But as I glanced into the rabbit hole, I began to come around a little. And the further down a rabbit hole you go, the more interesting things tend to get. 4 young women were abducted and murdered inside or around the Wind River Basin, 5 if you count Amy. Zoom out to a larger area, and we find at least 9 cold cases, which have been attributed to a so called Great Basin Killer. Depending on how you categorize the victims and how far you extend the timeline, the total might be as high as 20 victims. The women were shot, strangled, stabbed, many were stripped nude and aggressively sexually assaulted. The victims went missing in Utah, Wyoming, Nevada, and Idaho. While it’s worth noting that multiple killers are probably responsible for most of those crimes, this is also worth noting. Dayle Wayne Eaton spent at least a year of his life in each of those 4 states.

Lisa Marie Kimmell’s mother wrote a book in 2005. In it, she wrote “The Utah Criminal Tracking Analysis Project suggested that the Great Basin murders stopped around 1997.” That’s about the time Dale Eaton went to prison. Despite his arrest in 1998, the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office didn’t begin to take seriously Dale Wayne Eaton as a suspect in Amy’s disappearance until 13 years later when a new lead investigator took over the case. Other members of Eaton’s family are convinced he’s involved in Amy’s disappearance as well. They say they’ve heard Eaton describe the camping areas around where Amy disappeared in detail. As with the only other official suspect in Amy’s disappearance, Steve Bechtel, there is no physical evidence linking Eaton to the disappearance of Amy, just circumstantial possibility. Steve Bechtel himself, along with his father, reportedly went to the Natrona County Sheriff’s Department in 2002 asking about Eaton and whether that agency had collected any information related to Amy’s case. Dale Wayne Eaton surely killed 2 people: Lisa Marie Kimmell and his cell mate. But he is has confessed to neither crime, not even with dead-to-rights evidence against him in both cases. We don’t know what led Eaton to turn himself into authorities in 1986 when they were unaware of any crimes he might have committed, but we do know that he didn’t confess to any murders then and he’s never confessed to the murder, we now know he committed 2 years later. Theoretically, if Eaton were to finally confess to Lisa Marie Kimmell’s murder today, it would likely have no legal bearing on future court proceedings. But it’s probably safe to say that a confession in any of those open cases in question from Dale Wayne Eaton is not likely unless maybe if Wyoming prosecutors are somehow successful at again hanging the death penalty over his head. And even then, who knows at that point if Eaton wouldn’t just prefer death.

Today’s episode opened with a question, and now that you know what you know, we’ll close today’s episode by revisiting the same questions: As Dale Wayne Eaton abducted and murdered Lisa Marie Kimmell, is it possible that that crime was the only crime of such a horrendous nature he ever committed? And if not, how many more were there?

Transcribed by Charles Fournier

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