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Season 1, Episode 3 – Lander SAR

Lander, Wyoming is a great place to get lost. It’s home to some of the best search and rescue volunteers in the country.

Despite a 10-day initial search involving hundreds of volunteers, dogs, aerial support and the latest technology, Amy Wroe Bechtel was never found.

My guest on this episode is Dr. John Gookin, Ph.d

He was the Operations Chief and Deputy Incident Commander for the Amy Wroe Bechtel search in 1997.

He’s also the Curriculum & Research Manager for the National Outdoor Leadership School in Lander, which instructs thousands of students each year in leadership and outdoor skills.

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Frozen Truth Episode 3: “Lander SAR”

Steve: Just last month in February, the Washington Post ran a sort of fluffy story asking the question, “Where is the middle of nowhere, exactly?” So they used all kinds of analytics and geographical data, all kinds of different quantitative mathematical things and they found Glasgow, Montana was the most remote part of the United States. Coming in second, was an area of the Shoshone National Forest in Wyoming. In cold cases, probably the most overused clichés are that a person disappeared without a trace from the middle of nowhere. 2 aspects of the Amy Wroe Bechtel disappearance have fascinated me from the start, and one of those is that Amy disappeared, literally without a trace, from just about the actual middle of nowhere. But those interesting aspects of the case also make it extremely frustrating to research. And I’m sure extremely frustrating for law enforcement to investigate. For as infamous as Amy’s disappearance is in cold case circles, there’s relatively little source material to work with, beyond just the basics, which we’ve already covered. We’re going to have to talk to local experts, the actual people who have been involved in some aspect of Amy’s case to learn as much about this case as we can.

Adding to Amy’s mystery is not just the remoteness of the area where she went missing, but also exactly where she went missing. You see, there’s something very unique about Lander, Wyoming. Because if you had to choose any place at all to get lost in the wilderness, Lander would be an excellent choice. As 2 journalists for Outside Magazine put it, “Getting lost or injured near Lander is like having your house catch on fire next to a fire station.” Lander is a great place to get lost. And that’s not my opinion, but that of the man whose job it is to find you. The man you’ll meet on this episode. Despite how remote it is, when a person goes missing, the mountains around Lander are filled with some of the best search and rescue volunteers in the entire country.

Lander is home to the National Outdoor Leadership School, which instructs thousands of students a year in outdoor skills. Lander is far from a tourist trap, but it is a staging area of sorts for people seeking outdoor adventure in the surrounding National Forest and Wind River Mountains. Adventure seekers from all over the West and all over the country come to Lander for the outdoor experiences. And when people go into the mountains, sometimes they go missing. Often, they’re found alive. Less often, they’re found dead. And very rarely, are they never found. And almost never, do they go missing forever without any trace as Amy Wroe Bechtel did in 1997. The search for Amy consisted of thousands of person days, tens of thousands of man hours. It used then cutting-edge technology. It utilized search dogs, aerial search. There was nothing skimpy or small about the search for Amy Wroe Bechtel. It’s been referred to as a Rolls Royce of a search and rescue operation. And yet no trace of Amy was ever found. And today, we’re going to try to find out why. This is Frozen Truth: Episode 3, I’m Scott Fuller.

Music

Scott: Dr. John Gookin is my guest on this episode. He’s been involved with Fremont County Search and rescue for 32 years. He was the operations chief and deputy incident commander for the Amy Wroe Bechtel search in 1997.

Dr. John Gookin: And so that means I actually managed the search. There was an incident commander, Chip Williams who was in charge of the overall. Our whole command team made key decisions together, but I was the actual strategist who, you know, requested search resources, and then told them what to do. And I maintained a map that documented where we had already ruled out, so that we could move to the, you know, next most likely area.

Scott: John is a management instructor for the National Association of Search and Rescue and a FEMA Incident Command System Instructor.

Dr. John Gookin: Well, I’ve been here in Lander since 1981. I think it was about 1985 when I went and helped with a search for a little kid, and it was just run so poorly I…I was just shocked, and so I went to school in search management and joined the local search and rescue team just to fix that.

Scott: So that’s where it all started?

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah. We get, 40 or 50 missions a year for search and rescue. We had one just a few days ago. This young couple, just like, disappeared in the desert with their truck and 3 dogs, and about 24 hours later we found them. Stuck in snowdrift 13 miles from the nearest pavement, and, you know, like, they’ve been aggressively pushing in through the snow in. Pretty understandable why they were stuck, but I would say half of our missions start as searches, so we get one or two dozen a year of just overdue person.

Scott: Walk me through what happens when you’re called on, if there is such a thing, a typical operation.

Dr. John Gookin: There is a call in the middle of the night, and the deputy goes and just sees if their car is there.  

Scott: How does the escalation work if after a period of time, you haven’t found the person?

Dr. John Gookin: We usually start by sending a hasty team to get there quickly, and we just send a couple of runners up the trail to see if they’re sitting next to the trail, and, you know, either just getting back late or maybe sitting there with a sprained ankle. While that hasty team heads out, a bigger group is getting organized – set up a command post where one of us acts as incident commander and starts setting up a strategy for how that first shift is going to work. What… that first shift really varies with who the person is, what the weather is, a bunch of circumstances that tell us, generally, what the urgency is of the situation. If it’s someone like an advanced runner, we’re never going to send a couple runners. You know, maybe we’re going to get some folks on ATVs to go way down the trail – well beyond…further beyond where the runners could get in a day. And then, if it’s higher urgency, we’re going to get us a small plane, like we did that the other day, because it was out in the desert. So planes can see a lot, and then someone takes on the job, like in this last search, I was in charge of planning, and so while we’re hearing what’s going on, I’m planning the next shift.

Scott: So you’re sort of going in waves. But even as the first, very first hasty team is up there, you’re setting up a command post in the assumption that, maybe, this is going to go on for a few period of time.

Dr. John Gookin: Oh yeah, we always start gearing up as if this will keep going on for a long time. I’ve had to tell a few families why we’re going to stop searching for their family member who’s missing. And I’ll tell you what, if I’m going to maybe do that in a week or two from now, there are lot of things I want to be able to say that I did early on in the search to cover these bases, or it’s pretty hard to explain to them.

Scott: What would you say is the most common result of a search and how long it takes from that first team to the time when somebody is found? Typically, is there an average?

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah, I would say that most of our searches are over in 24 hours. One way or another, we send resources in and find the person. And it’s always a crapshoot. There’s no pattern to it. You know, our best people aren’t comfortable with the chaos to go in there and just, kind of look at the situation and… so we kind of get lucky. Even the way I put it is, is if they’re complaining, that’s a great sign. You know, if there standing there, shivering, all wet in the snow, and we find them and they can tell us how uncomfortable they are, boy, that’s good news in our book.

Scott: You know, I wouldn’t think they’d be doing a whole lot of complaining at that point.

Dr. John Gookin: Some of them are. We’ve had people complain that it took us so long to get there.

Scott: Really?

Dr. John Gookin: That’s, that’s not normal. That’s not normal.

Scott: Okay. I hope not.

Dr. John Gookin: We had these two guys, their cell phone works where they were, and they were in a truck stuck out in the desert. And they called and they said they were on – on a road that their GPS told them to take from a shortcut, and this is in the winter, and the road was called Pony Express Road. And I said, “That’s not a road. That’s the Pony Express Trail.” Which it really was. Our guys busted trail out there. It was blowing like crazy, so you couldn’t keep your tracks. They found them at four in the morning, and pulled them out, and they were are all pissy and complained that it took them so long to get them out of there. I couldn’t believe it.

Scott: So, some of the people you find are… know what they’re doing, and some it’s like they pulled them out of the movie City Slickers.

Dr. John Gookin: That’s right. That’s exactly right.

Scott: Of the people you find who end up deceased – First of all, what percentage of all searches would you say that result would be?

Dr. John Gookin: Maybe 5 or 10%. Most of these people we find.

Scott: Have you ever found someone who you know was killed by an animal?

Dr. John Gookin: It’s hard to tell. I’ve pulled out some body’s that were eaten by animals.

Scott: Right.

Dr. John Gookin: You know, you can’t tell whether they died of hypothermia first and then got eaten.

Scott: Well my research that I’ve done for this project tells me that there have been, documented, there’s probably been more, but there have been 5 fatal animal attacks, all by bear, in the entire state’s history.

Dr. John Gookin: I believe that, and probably none from mountain lions.

Scott: None from mountain lions. None from wolves either.

Dr. John Gookin: Right

Scott: OK.

Dr. John Gookin: I believe it.

Scott: I’m trying to put myself in Dr. Gookin’s place when it comes to where to start for a search. Sometimes a person goes missing from a group of people in the outdoors, and you have a starting point. But what happens when, as in Amy’s case, someone goes missing by themselves? Say a solo hiker? And how much more of a challenge would that present a search and rescue operation.

Dr. John Gookin: That’s a lot harder because the person who went out solo could go really far off where anybody could guess. We’ve had some solo hikers we just never found.

Scott: Steve Bechtel says he returned home from Dubois to an empty house. Amy sometimes went rock climbing herself, but not on that day. Her gear was at the house. Amy was an avid photographer and was last seen at a local camera shop but Amy wasn’t out taking photographs on that day either. Her camera was still in the house. Her running shoes were not. Steve Bechtel spoke with his climbing friend and neighbor, a man named Todd Skinner. Todd and a few others in their circle of climbing friends, they called themselves the Lucky Lane Bunch, they went out for pizza and a movie, but Steve didn’t. Steve stayed home. He says to wait for Amy. At 10 PM, Amy was still missing, which is when Steve Bechtel called Amy’s parents in a different part of the state. Maybe Amy had gone home to see them or maybe they somehow knew where Amy was. But they didn’t know where she was. They asked Steve if something was wrong. Steve said no, nothing was wrong.

But by 11 PM, he had called the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, and two deputies had responded to the house. Immediately, plans were made for a search and rescue operation to begin before daybreak, the next day. Todd Skinner and his girlfriend returned home where Steve told them that Amy was still not back. They volunteered to begin searching for Amy while Steve stayed home. At 1am, Skinner called back down the mountain to Steve on his cell phone.  Skinner and his girlfriend had found Amy’s car. At this point, Steven and a third friend collected some supplies and went to meet at Amy’s car. Eventually, a dozen of Amy’s friend,s along with Steve Bechtel, were searching in the area before anyone from law enforcement had arrived at the scene.

They were looking for a friend. A friend who had fallen and broken an ankle or gotten lost somewhere or maybe even had been attacked by an animal or something, but what they were actually doing is contaminating a crime scene. When people went missing around 1997, even young women. The first assumption was not usually what it is today and especially in Wyoming. And specifically Lander where people have gone missing in the outdoors all the time.

Dr. John Gookin: There was no bad blood between any of us out there. You know, we were all working our butts off. And scratching our heads trying to figure it out. So, you know, we were a good team in terms of challenging each other to work on this.

Scott: Certainly, in that time-period and in that part of the country, the first thing people are thinking of is not what they might think of today.

Dr. John Gookin: That’s a great point. It’s a different world now.

Scott: Let’s go back to Amy’s search. When did the search begin?

Dr. John Gookin: Well, her car got found that night, and so we got paged during the middle of the night. Chip was organizing things from a forward command post, and that was first thing on, you know, what was day one for us.

Scott: Okay, so about 7-9 o’clock in the morning, the search is well underway?

Dr. John Gookin:  Oh, at 7am, it was going full tilt. We tend to not have people show up at 3 or 4. We want them to get a good night’s sleep, and then work hard all day. So they started at 7, and then when I got back to the command post that afternoon, I took over operations and started scaling things up.

Scott: So you’re starting on the roads yourself, which seems logical because if I’m lost, I’m going to try and find a road. The search

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah.

Scott:  The rest of the search started from Amy’s car, I guess. Is there an epicenter that you start from?

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah, and I started at her car. I mean, that’s where the command post was. I trailered an ATV up there because we knew she was scouting for possibly setting up a new 10 K run. And so we wanted to look at some of the roads on the map that she might have considered using for this trail run.

Scott: Did you have any other information at that point from anybody other than she was maybe along a road, this route planning this 10K?

Dr. John Gookin: No. No, not at all. No.

Scott: Except that she was in good physical shape, and she was probably running.

Dr. John Gookin: That’s right and I was a runner back then. I’m not now, but, you know, I’d be…I would run 10 or 15 miles. I mean 20 would be a chore, but, I mean, I’ve done marathon length sporting touring meets. I mean, you know, so in terms of how far we were going to go, we, you know, we went pretty far out.

Scott: How far in that first day would you say that you searched?

Dr. John Gookin: We search the roads for probably 10 miles in every direction that first day. You know, it’s easy to do with dirt bikes and ATV’s.

Scott: It’s hard to miss somebody I’m guessing on a road, right? So you know they’re there or they’re not.

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah, but these are just little Jeep trails that I’m thinking of. You know, there is one main road, and then there are these little 2 tracks, and the Forest Service gives them numbers, but they’re just, you know, there just like, it looks like two little trails through the woods – right next to each other. You know, she would tend to stay on those things if she’s a runner because if you get off trail, you, you know, you really have to slow down. You can’t, kind of, keep your pace going.

Scott: And if you were running along a road and you twisted your ankle, you would think you would not wander off into the woods.

Dr. John Gookin: You might take a shortcut if you could see a shortcut, but I would think you would stay on the road. That’s what we assumed.

Scott: But at some point, the search goes more off road as those roads are cleared, right?

Dr. John Gookin: You know just like geographically you start checking the likelier it is, and you try to rule them out, so you can eventually end up at that less likely area where she actually is. It’s the same with scenarios where, you know, at first we’re thinking, “oh, she sprained ankle.” You know, and then we start thinking well, maybe an animal got her because there had been those cases down in the Front Range where mountain lions were attacking joggers.

Scott: Right by my hometown in Idaho Springs. Yeah. About that time.

Dr. John Gookin:  That’s right. And it was…That was on our mind. And so…so you start thinking of, you know, less likely scenarios. And then, you know, I’ve been trained as a search manager, so when we have some in-staff meetings, we’re talking about, “Gee, do you think this person has a gay lover in Tijuana that they ran off with?” You know, you got all these, kind of, rest of the world scenarios that get you thinking out of the box that you start with.

Scott: By the end of the first, say, 48 hours, where is the search in the mindset at that point?

Dr. John Gookin:  You know, that first day that we were all kind of formic step. We didn’t find her, ‘cause it’s…I mean, how-how could she not be there. So it got us thinking out of the box more, and so we asked for lots of help the very next day. And so beginning on Day 2, you know, we went from a couple of dozen searchers to 100 plus. I think on Day 3, we had, you know, over 200. You know, really scaled up. And I was comfortable doing that…

Scott: At about this time in our conversation, Dr. Gookin began describing a technique that the search team was using in Amy’s disappearance. If 2 search team members were walking side-by-side and laying between the 2 was an item as small as a pen, that if they were spaced properly, both search members would see the pen.

Dr. John Gookin: When you’re walking through the woods if there’s a pen laying there, we really are looking for a green pen, if there’s a pen laying there and it happens to be exactly in between 2 of you, you need to both see it. And so if you’re in really thick woods you need to be closer together, and if it’s wide open and like a tennis court then you can get further part. But that’s a critical separation search, and so we did that on both sides of the Loop Road for 26 miles.

Scott: Now I don’t know if you caught it just now, but it went by so fast I almost missed it.

Speech in Rewind

Dr. John Gookin: When you’re walking through the woods if there’s a pen laying there, we really are looking for a green pen. This very distinctive green pen was missing and we found a pen just like hers, but Steve says it was the wrong color, but that’s a great sign that we found that pen.

Scott: So you found a similar pen that was a different color?

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah, and so I mean, that’s kind of a clue for me. That was just a couple of miles from where her car was found.

Scott: When you say that was clue, what do you mean?

Dr. John Gookin: Well, it’s like it’s all we had, I mean, you know it’s, it could have been from her. You know, we bagged it and tagged it and gave it to the evidence people, but they, you know, didn’t find her fingerprints on it or anything like that.

Scott: If you’re reaction to hearing that is, “What pen?” That makes 2 of us. Not only had I never read or heard anything about a pen being lost or being found, I was unaware of any possible evidence of Amy’s being found in that initial 10 day search. And when Dr. Gookin told me that initial search had resulted in finding possible physical evidence of something that might have been Amy’s, and in hindsight, something so obvious – the pen Amy would’ve been using to cross items off her To Do List, I was shocked.

Scott: I have to be honest. I was unaware of the pen. I didn’t know about the pen that was found.

Dr. John Gookin: Steve says that that pen was not hers because it was wrong color. You know, it’s a pretty specialized pen, and, you know, my attitude is like well if she – if she had a green one, then she had a blue one, you know.

Scott: Right. Huh. About where do you… would you say in relation to her car was that pen found?

Dr. John Gookin: I know exactly where it was – in the Meadow by Sawmill Canyon. And that’s just like a mile or two. North of where her car was.

Scott: How far off the road?

Dr. John Gookin: Oh, just within throwing distance. The fire people found it.

Scott: That’s a really interesting bit of information. The pen was the same model pen that Amy owned, but Steve Bechtel says it wasn’t hers:  found was a blue pen; Amy’s was green. The pen would have cost Amy about $6, a fairly distinctive and expensive model. It was found only about a mile from Amy’s car, into the Burnt Gulch Road. Amy’s car was found parked at the turn off for that road.

Steve Bechtel says the pen wasn’t hers. Still, one can’t help but wonder, what are the odds of that pen not being Amy’s? A relatively expensive pen, distinctive model, found so close to Amy’s car, and in such a remote area? Did Amy keep a spare pen of the same model and different color in her car? Maybe she kept a spare in her wallet. Having overlooked the pen, I then ask Doctor Gookin if they’d been looking for anything else other than just the pen and the missing wallet: a fanny pack, a headband. The answer was no. In all, that initial 10 day-search for Amy yielded more than 700 items, mostly trash, cigarette-butts, fast food wrappers. Each one of those 700 plus items were tagged and bagged, but none are believed to have had any evidentiary value in Amy’s case, except maybe the pen.

Whether or not the pen was Amy’s, we now know that it was missing from the car and can be added to our list of items. Found in Amy’s car were her car keys, a pair of expensive sunglasses, and a To Do List. Missing along with Amy were her wallet and a pen. 6 years after Amy disappeared, an athletic sports-style watch was found in the general area where Amy went missing from. Investigators hopes were raised when bones were also found nearby. Those bones proved to be animal, and while police took the watch lead seriously, there was no link to Amy other than it was similar to a watch that she is said to have owned and might have been wearing at the time, but it was a very popular model of watch, especially among athletes and a relatively inexpensive one.

Dr. John Gookin: I remember something about a watch, but…and that was found along the Middle Fork, right? I don’t think that was hers. I-I think that was ruled out. You know, if we thought that was hers, we would have followed up. Even if it was 20 years later.

Scott: That was the only possible trace of Amy that was ever found, at least I thought it was. Apparently, a pen that might have belonged to Amy, one very similar to one she owned, and the one that was found on the side of the road where she went missing, only a mile from her car, can be added that list as well.

Scott: Were you involved in any other searches after that first week?

Dr. John Gookin: Oh yeah, we came back probably a month later. We invited Teton County Search and Rescue to come down and help us check a big rocky high spot, and just kind of clear this kinda funny terrain. So we did that and then we did some-some other follow up stuff where we searched some lakes. I went in this, like, giant irrigation culvert, checked it. There were a bunch of things like that. We went…there was…I don’t know if you know this, there were some confessions from different people on the reservation that they had killed her and put her body somewhere. And I think these guys were just, like, you know, wanna-be gangsters or something, but we searched one reservoir based on one of those confessions.

Scott: I think the authorities actually forensically examined a car related to that too, or a truck. Was the claim that it was a hit and run or was the claim that it was an abduction?

Dr. John Gookin: There was one that said that they hit her and they, like, stopped and picked her up, and then they put her body somewhere. There were at least 2 on the Res where people said that they had been in the car or they took her away.

Scott: Yeah, I had heard, though not in real specific detail. I was aware of those.

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah, this stuff’s new to me. It wouldn’t cross my mind that someone would lie. Confessing to…

Scott: Bragging to friends I guess, not wisely.

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah.

Scott: I think I would know the answer to this question, but are you pretty confident that Amy was not to be found in the area that you searched?

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah, I’m a pretty comfortable with that. I understand that, you know, when you have hundreds of searchers for 10 days or so, that’s thousands of person days that, you know, someone could have cut a corner in there somewhere. You know, yeah, I-I mean you know that they did. You know, we had so much redundancy with things like search dogs. You know, it’s just – it’s just such a fat chance and especially the closest few miles. I mean, out to about 5 minutes, I mean, we just searched so carefully. And if there is any sort of place people couldn’t check, we’d send a special team to go repel down the hole to see what’s in there, or you know, go crawl in a crack or go up a cliff, and, you know, we just covered it so well.

Scott: So based on that, the extensive nature of the search, she probably left the area by car, you would say?

Dr. John Gookin: I think so. I think it’s much more likely that…that some bad guy abducted her and took her away. And did bad things, and she may have been dead before we even started looking for her.

Scott: I’d promised Dr. Gookin 30 minutes of his time, and at this point in the conversation we were pushing 45, but things been flowing rather nicely. He didn’t seem reserved at all in his answers, and it occurred to me that not only is Doctor Gookin a specialist in search and rescue, but he’s also a deputized member of the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office, and most importantly, he’s been living in Lander for just about 3 decades. So I thought I’d take a flier and ask him what he thought happened to Amy. It’s at this point, I have to tell you something about this case that I haven’t told you yet. I told you there were 2 things about the Amy Wroe Bechtel disappearance that fascinated me, that really hooked me in. The second thing is that Steve Bechtel still lives in Lander all these decades later. Not only did he not move away, but Steve is a prominent member of the community, he’s a business owner, and he’s remarried with children. But it adds a layer to this case now. In a town so small, you can imagine what’s being said. That’s why I started this line of questioning with Dr. Gookin by asking him this:

Scott: Feel free and not answer this, but as you live there, and have for a long time, what would you say is the tenor of the community in terms of this case?

Dr. John Gookin: Well, there are real mixed opinions. It’s been its been a long time. And you know just like wine in a bottle, think, I mean, you know,  ideas mature over time and may change, Some good and some bad, and I think there are people who thought the husband probably did this and we just can’t prove it. In the way things got handled by the cops, they really focused on him at first, and, you know, these guys are my dear friends and I gave him grief for not being open minded enough about other possibilities. And I wasn’t-wasn’t saying, “Don’t consider the husband,” because it, you know, categorically that’s where you better look first, but you better put energy into investigating other options.

Scott: Yeah, the sheriff at the time was on the record in saying he was pretty sure who it was and that it was the husband.

Dr. John Gookin: I was at the 2 year follow up meeting and the sheriff, whoever it was, said, “Hey, I just want you to know that I think Gookin’s right. We haven’t been open minded enough about this, so let’s talk about what else we should be considering here.” So..

Scott: Well as he didn’t solve the case, I guess he was starting to come around to that idea.

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah? Yeah, you know about Dale Wayne Eaton and he abducted people.

Scott: Yeah, I was going to ask you about his…he’s obviously, I think, pretty justifiably suspected to have done some other things over the decades in…

Dr. John Gookin: Absolutely.

Scott: … in part of the state

Dr. John Gookin: Absolutely. There’s even a name for a certain serial killer that he might be. Like the Prairie Killer or something like that, but there’s…. or some…High Desert Killer or something like…

Scott: Some have called him the Great Basin Killer.

Dr. John Gookin: Yeah, that’s it, that’s it. Yeah, and I’ve actually talked to the…to Eaton’s lawyers a couple of times and kind of gotten on their case and I’ve talked to the governor’s office about this. About – “Why aren’t we making this guy a deal, giving him a better life in jail, and trade for information?” And don’t even say who you’re looking for. I mean, if you…if you just look at the pattern of this guy’s life, he has clearly abducted and killed other people. And just…just the way he’s done it so methodically, like, he has done this before. They should have traded information to this guy for quality of life in jail. Just, you know, let the guy have a milkshake once in a while or something, you know. The first lawyer told me, well, he’s scared even talk to Dale…

Scott: (Laughing) Geez,

Dr. John Gookin: He’s scared to even just be in the room with the guy.

Scott: Yeah, yeah.

Dr. John Gookin: So this gal who is his lawyer, I talked to her about – “Well do you mind if I just go talk to the guy?” and she said, “Well I don’t…I’d rather you didn’t if you’re trying to get him to admit to a crime.” And I was like, well…he’s on death row. What? I…I talked to people at the jail, and what they said is that the guy is really insane now, Just from being in solitaire for so long, and that you can’t really talk to him. Even, you know, even the nurse said, “It’s hard to communicate with him about ‘How’re you doing Dale?”

Scott: Well he’s not young either.

Dr. John Gookin: No.

Scott: As it relates to Eaton, have you ever seen a trace in your work, have you ever seen a possible trace of something that might be connected to him or somebody like him committing acts like that in the central part of the state?

Dr. John Gookin: I don’t think so, not through search and rescue.

Scott: My thanks to Dr. Gookin for his time and also to the National Outdoor Leadership School where Doctor Gookin teaches. You can find more information at NOLS.edu. We’ll also link in the show notes at frozentruthpodcast.com.

In the course of researching this project, I found the story of somebody who was a bit on the outskirts of this case, but who’s story captivated me so that I wanted to share it at some point in the project but didn’t quite know where to put it. And now seems to be the right time to bring you a brief story of Todd Skinner, who seems from the outside now, to be a true Wyoming original. Todd Skinner was the friend who, along with his girlfriend, were the first to look for Amy that night, they were the ones who found Amy’s car. I mentioned in Episode 1 that both Steve and Amy Bechtel were world class athletes in their own rights, and so was Todd Skinner, maybe even more so.

Skinner was a Wyoming native, a one-time bull rider, and after attending the University of Wyoming, he opened the Wild Iris Mountain Sports in Lander. From 1985 to 2004, Skinner became a prolific rock climber. He was the first to free ascend hundreds of climbing routes around the world and was the first climber on the planet to free ascend a grade 7 climb. In 2006, Todd Skinner was attempting to free climb a route called Jesus Built My Hot Rod up the face of Leaning Tower in Yosemite National Park. It’s one of the most difficult climbs Skinner had ever attempted. The belay loop of his climbing harness failed and he fell 500 feet to his death. The fall sent shockwaves throughout the climbing community across the globe.

Skinner was one of the friends who, after Amy went missing, organized their own sort of search operation. They mailed out more than 80,000 “Have you seen Amy?” flyers, and in the very early days of the internet, they set up a website dedicated to finding Amy.

Amy Wroe Bechtel’s disappearance has not been widely covered, but it has been very well covered. Most people are introduced to Amy’s disappearance through an episode of the TV series Disappeared on the Investigation Discovery Network, but 2 excellent pieces of journalism have covered Amy’s disappearance and I’d recommend them both to you now. You have listened to these first 3 episodes of the podcast. You’ll find a link to both of those pieces in the show notes for this episode at frozentruthpodcast.com. Jon Billman wrote a story for Runner’s World about Amy’s disappearance in 2016. Another great piece of journalism on Amy’s case was written for Outside Magazine. In it, Brian Di Salvatore and Deirdre McNamer write this: “A missing person is not fully alive or dead. She does not age. She exists in a shadow land that we, the waiting, invest with both our fantasies and our nightmares.”

Email just came in from Steve Bechtel: “Hello Scott, I don’t do interviews on the case any longer. I’ll refer you to John Zerga, who is the lead investigator on the case. He has the best grasp of the details of the investigation. Respectfully, Steve.” Alright. Reply: “I understand. Thanks for getting back to me.” Alright then.

Transcribed by Charles Fournier

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