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Season 1, Episode 4 – Long Gone Girl

My guest on this episode is Jon Billman, who authored this excellent piece on Amy’s disappearance in 2016.

His was among the first to detail the possible connection of Dale Wayne Eaton.

Other links from this episode:

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Frozen Truth Episode 4: “Long Gone Girl”

Scott: “Long Gone Girl” by Jon Billman. Thursday, August 18, 2016, Runner’s World Magazine:

“The day is filled with possibility: Steve is off from his part-time job at Wild Iris and Amy has her shift at the fitness center before she is off too. The morning sunshine tugs at both of them to get outdoors. Steve’s plan is to go scout some dolomite bands with Sam Lightner in the mountains above Dubois. It’s grizzly country, so he’s taking guns, bear spray, and Jons, the couple’s dog. Amy is going to take care of some errands, including scouting the course for her 10K in September. Wow, is it only 2 months away? And she still needs to design the flyers, plan the road closure, measure the course. She sits down to make a list. The last thing she writes is run. Amy would never check it off. Why not? If Detective Jon Zerga finds out, by way of a Dayle Wayne Eaton confession, we may also learn why Naomi Lee Kidder never came home. Why Belinda May Grantham never came home. Why Janelle Johnson never came home. Why perhaps at least 9 other young women never came home. The question persists obscured in a Great Basin haze. Why didn’t the runner come home?”

Today will try to get the author himself to answer that question, or at least get us all closer. This is Frozen Truth, Episode 4. I’m Scott Fuller.

Music

Scott: One of the definitive pieces of journalism in the Amy Wroe Bechtel disappearance was written by Jon Billman, my guest on this episode. Jon’s writing a book right now on mysterious cases of people who go missing in the wild. You’ll find a link to his article on Amy’s case for Runner’s World Magazine in the show notes for this episode at frozentruthpodcast.com.

Jon Billman: My wife and I were living in Kemmerer, Wyoming, which is 3 hours South and West of Lander, and I was following it from the Wyoming Media. I mean, it was just high drama. Wyoming is one of these places where, you know, geographically it’s huge and population wise, it’s tiny, so if you don’t know somebody directly you know somebody who knows somebody. It just felt like a story unravelling in, you know, in our backyard, essentially. But I still have a lot of friends back there, and I would check in, you know, on these updates, and I read the Casper Star Tribune every morning on my phone, and that’s how I heard about Dale Wayne Eaton.

Scott: We cover Dale Wayne Eaton in Episode 2. Jon’s article was the first to take a look at Eaton, not only as the possible so called Great Basin Killer, but also as a suspect in the disappearance of Amy Wroe Bechtel.

Jon Billman: I think you laid it out extremely well in Episode 2, you know, what are the chances again that, you know, he’s lived in all the states that they assign homicides to the Great Basin Serial Killer. He lived in those states and when he was detained, incarcerated, the serialized murders in that geographical region pretty much shut off. You know, you mentioned Moneta, and I think you did a great job of describing the landscape there, and one of his…There’s a rest stop there and near there is a junkyard where his…he’s got a pickup truck there. And I pulled over and just through the cyclone fence looked at his vehicle, and it is just chilling, it’s just eerie. I took a photograph of it and then I erased it. I didn’t want it on my phone. I just felt like it was bad energy.

Scott: Eaton’s truck is still on the side of the road?

Jon Billman: It’s kind of impounded in a private junkyard, but it’s still there, yeah.

Scott: I know that Kimmell’s family got the property in a settlement.

Jon Billman: Right, they burned it to the ground, and more irony, I guess, is that vehicle is very near that rest stop where…where she was kidnapped.

Scott: You know, that’s bothered me too. How did her car get to his place?

Jon Billman: Yeah, I’m not sure. That’s another good question.

Scott: How far is that rest stop from his property, do you know?

Jon Billman: I want to say less than 20 miles. I’m guessing now, but I’m going to say less than 20.

Scott:. Okay. That would be a long walk.

Jon Billman: Yeah, yeah.

Scott: After Lisa Marie Kimmell’s family buried her, a strange note was found on her grave. It was signed Stringfellow Hawke. This is what the note said, “There aren’t words to say how much you’re missed. The pain never leaves. It’s so hard without you. You’ll always be alive in me. Your death is my painful loss, but heaven’s sweet gain. Love always Stringfellow Hawke.”

A handwriting expert testifying at Dale Wayne Eaton’s murder trial said the handwriting on the Stringfellow Hawke note found on Lisa Marie Kimmell’s grave matched the handwriting of Dale Wayne Eaton. Dale Eaton vehemently denied being the author of the note, but at his murder trial, not only did Eden’s lawyer present this strange Stringfellow Hawke note as evidence of his client’s remorse for killing Lisa Marie Kimmell, but he also chose not to cross examine the prosecution’s handwriting expert.

This led to an outburst from Eaton in open court. “I can prove where the #### I was that day, and you guys won’t do nothing!” Eaton screamed. The judge immediately ordered a recess. During recess, the judge asked Eaton’s lawyer why he’d refused to cross-examine the prosecution’s hand writing analyst. Eaton’s lawyer told the judge he was not able to find a handwriting analyst who would testify that the note was not written by Eaton. The federal judge who eventually overturned Eaton’s death sentence said in his ruling that “the Stringfellow Hawke note found on Kimmel’s grave, being used to argue remorse, was minimal at best.”

Stringfellow Hawke, of the same spelling, was a character played by Jan Michael Vincent on the CBS television series Airwolf. It was on the air for the 4 years prior to Lisa Marie Kimmell’s murder. The show centers on a high-tech military helicopter, codenamed Airworlf  and its crew as they undertake various missions, many involving espionage, with a Cold War theme.

From Airwolf:

“And here we are, Mr. Hawke, at last. Surely you did not expect a simple deception to throw me off the scent.”

“Who tipped you off?”

“Oh, I can’t tell you that.”

Scott: Like polygraphs, handwriting analysis can sometimes be a subjective science, but unlike the results of a polygraph, expert testimony from handwriting analysts is admissible in most every criminal proceeding. At trial, the handwriting analyst testified that Eaton’s misuse of punctuation and the combination of print and cursive used in the note when compared to Eaton’s known handwriting samples, were among the criteria he used to match Eaton’s handwriting to the note. He testified in court that Eaton was quote “almost certainly the author of the note found on Lisa Marie Kimmell’s grave.” As far as we know, the Stringfellow Hawke note left on Lisa Marie Kimmell’s grave has never been examined by a second analyst.  

Scott: Let me throw at you my biggest problem with Eaton. He doesn’t seem to have been very careful with bodies – with Lisa’s body, any of the other four that were found, now it’s possible there are others that were never found. So I mean, he looks very good for it, but then he’s just throwing these women off of bridges.

Jon Billman: Right, that’s…and that’s an excellent point. Richard, his brother, and his niece, now it’s…there’s some, there’s some…it’s fuzzy around the edges, but they put him in that general area at that time. Where Amy’s car was found, at the junction of the Loop Road and the Burnt Gulch Road, that’s one-half mile away from Dale Wayne Eaton and his family’s elk hunting camp. And, you know, people in Wyoming will tell you that your elk camp is sacrosanct. That is an important marker on the map. Just the coincidence that the car is found half a mile away from this murderer’s elk camp – there’s a lot of coincidence there to dismiss.

Scott: What do you think happened?

Jon Billman: Well, you know…at that time, living in Wyoming, I just loved it. I look back on it with a special… it was a special time in my life where you could go park on the Shoshone National Forest and leave the keys on the seat and go for a run, go for a climb, go for a bike ride, and come back and nothing’s going to be touched. You know, it was a, perhaps naively, it felt like a very, very trusting part of the world, very safe, peaceful part of the world at that time. But obviously, things do happen. You know, if I had to gamble on it, I would say, it was Eaton. But do I know for sure it was Eaton? Absolutely not. Are there other possibilities? Certainly.

Scott: As you probably heard at the very end of the last episode, I reached out to Steve Bechtel for an interview. He was not shy. He was very polite,but as you heard in the episode, in the email he sent me, he ultimately declined. Jon Billman actually spend a great deal of time with Steve Bechtel. Together they drove the Loop Road where Amy disappeared. They spent time at the business that Steve now owns in Lander. As I likely won’t have a chance to talk to Steve for this project, maybe the next best thing, when it comes to insight, some insight anyway on Steve Bechtel, is Jon Billman.

Jon Billman: Steve is very generous with his time. He, you know, he’s a pillar in the community of Lander right now. He’s a business person. He’s a family man. He very graciously took time out of his life and showed me everything. We spent hours together. He took me up the mountain. We met at the café. I get the sense that he’s still, all these years later, he’s still pained by Amy’s disappearance too. In the 90s, you’d have, you know… I love Lander, it’s an interesting town, but you’ve got to, you’ve got essentially the cowboys and you’ve got the climbers, and the climbers are an elite group. And they’re a bit insular, and they really rallied around Steve and protected him. They didn’t cooperate with law enforcement. They felt that law enforcement was after Steve. Lines were drawn. Statistically, it’s likely to be the husband in these cases. You know, for years, you know, Steve moved away, down to Salt Lake City briefly, but then, you know, his heart was back in Lander, and he moved back. And I think it took a lot of courage. You know, as far as his family life, he’s moved on, but I think emotionally, he…he still grieves for the loss of Amy. To tell you the truth, I think he’s as perplexed as anyone. I don’t think he had anything to do with it.

Scott: The 10k that Amy was planning when she disappeared eventually happened, obviously without her, but in her honor. Steve Bechtel, Amy’s family, and several of Amy’s friends were a big part of making that event happen. And it just so happens that Jon Billman, intrigued by the case and living in Wyoming at the time, was at that event.

Jon Billman: You know, I wanted to go up there and size him up and look at this guy that may have done something to his wife, and you know, I just don’t see it now. I just think that, you know, he was just a…full of testosterone and just a young athlete and was lauded in the magazines and got a lot of that rock star attention, and I think that’s just how he exercised that, regarding that phone call and the way he dealt with law enforcement and the media at the time. You know, unless you’re subjected to that situation, I think you can only imagine how that would manifest.

Scott: Numerous witnesses claimed to have seen Amy that day both in town, and some even say they saw her jogging throughout different parts of that day. Some of the witness testimony helps us establish a timeline for Amy, but as with all witness testimony, it can be difficult to decide which witnesses to weigh-in, which to weigh heavily, which to weigh at all. In the course of writing a story, Jon Billman talked to many of those first-person witnesses who said they saw Amy on that day she disappeared in 1997.

Jon Billman: There was a surveyor, and then you’ve got to consider Lonnie Slack at the photo store, so you…you’re right.  The respective timelines don’t mesh. And that’s another thing in these cases where that’s not unusual, and, you know, you’re dealing with memory and false memory. You know, I’ll tell you Scott, if you asked me what I had for lunch yesterday, I’m going to have a hard time getting it exact. And 2 days ago, I’m going to tell you right now, forget it. I kind of get that, and what’s difficult for investigators and for someone like us in the media trying to put this puzzle together, they’re all credible. They all saw something, and I believe them, but when you start doing the math of the timeline, it’s, you know, it’s a puzzle for sure.

Scott: This is a witness timeline of those who claim to have seen Amy on the day she disappeared: Earl Osborn is a mechanic employed by Fremont County. At about 10:30 AM, he drives past a woman matching Amy’s description running up the loop road. The woman is blonde, blue-eyed, and wearing a light-colored singlet, black shorts, and a fanny pack. She smiles and waves at Osborne has he drives by. Lonnie Slack, then a part time employee of the Camera Connection in Lander, reports Amy was in the store between about 2:15 PM and 2:30 PM. She was dropping off photographs to be matted and framed for an entry in a local photo contest. She’s in good spirits and she’s dressed as though she’s about to go for run. According to early news reports, witnesses place Amy’s car 10 miles South in the Shoshone National Forest shortly after 3 PM.

Late in the afternoon, a camper reported seeing a man driving a truck similar to Steve Bechtel’s on the Loop Road. What’s more, the witness reported seeing a blonde woman in the passenger seat. This woman roughly matched Amy’s description. It’s probably unlikely the woman in the truck was Amy, and it’s almost certain that the male driver was not Steve. The witness said the sighting took place at the same time when phone records indicate that someone was using the Bechtel’s landline phone. This coincides with Steve Bechtel’s story of making calls between 4:30 and 4:45 PM upon returning home from his climbing trip.

A local business owner and his wife reported seeing a blonde woman jogging along the loop road at about 5 PM. It was noted by the 2 that she was running very fast, as though running from someone, the wife later commented. Another unnamed witness claimed to have heard a gunshot at a lake not far from the Loop Road. It’s not clear which lake they might have been referring to, and there are several small lakes in the Burnt Gulch area. Then came the sightings of Amy from other states. Sightings of Amy alive. Amy was reportedly spotted in Salt Lake City, Utah six weeks after she disappeared. A businessman and his secretary in Sarasota, Florida were convinced they’d seen Amy there. Investigators flew to Florida, and that lead eventually turned out to be a homeless woman from Washington state. There was a different sighting of Amy in the Tampa metro area. And there were many others from many other places.

Scott: Did anything else pop up? Any other possibilities of what might have happened that you either discounted or weren’t strong enough to end up including in your story?

Jon Billman: Yeah, the theory that a Native American had perhaps hit Amy accidentally on the road and then buried her out somewhere on the Reservation. I know that Fremont County and, working with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the law enforcement on the Reservation, I know that’s something they did look in to, and they took it seriously for years. And there are still some rumblings, some conjecture and rumors about it on the ground there, but I think that’s not real likely. And every once in a while, too, someone will try to throw somebody under the bus, and they’ll call Fremont County and say, “Hey, I know what happened to Amy Bechtel.” And they’ve run down several of those types of leads, and nothing ever panned out.

Scott: At about this time in our conversation, Jon and I started discussing search dogs. In search and rescue there are 2 kinds of dogs utilized by searchers and law enforcement. Search and rescue dogs are the dogs who track your scent. The handler will prime a dog by giving it a sniff of your shoe or your hat or some of your belonging. And though we don’t know how the dog does it, at least not fully, that dog is able to track your sense through the air, sometimes for miles.

And there are also cadaver dogs, those dogs are specifically trained to identify and alert to human remains. And there again, while we’re still trying to understand the science behind how it works, cadaver dogs have been known to identify human remains which have been decomposed for decades. Astonishingly, cadaver dogs have alerted to human remains that were submerged in lakes. They can sometimes identify human remains, which are nothing more than a skeleton. Two kinds of dogs were used in the search for Amy Wroe Bechtel, both search and rescue dogs and cadaver dogs. And not just once on the initial search, but dogs have repeatedly been brought back to the area where Amy went missing to try to identify human remains. And they just might have.

Jon Billman: They had sniffer dogs that took them to a recess in the ground. It looked, you know, it was about the size of a grave. And Zerga told me they thought, “Oh, boy, we’ve got it now,” and they dug down and literally the only thing they found at the bottom of that recess was a bread wrapper, and it was not evidence of anything to do with Amy. And, you know, so dogs were on that and it looked like they were getting really, really close, and that sort of ghosted away. And we’re just left with the invisible now.

Scott: I know that’s in your article as well, but geographically, where was that hole?

Jon Billman:  That was, from what I understand, was very close to the campground in Burnt Gulch.

Scott: Well, those cadaver dogs’ll hit if a body has been there and maybe has been moved

Jon Billman: That’s possible from what I understand with the dog science, yes.

Scott: This week, I spoke via Skype with a search and rescue expert in the area. He was involved in a search for Amy Wroe Bechtel, and he asked that I keep his identity a secret. His voice has been disguised, and I’ve beeped out specific information that might be used to identify specific areas. We’re looking at documentation of the results of multiple cadaver dog searches in the area where Amy went missing.

SR Expert: What we’re looking at is, where those 2 areas are, we ran into this phenomenon called, sink honing, so if a body is buried around trees, and the root systems actually bring the scent through the trees and shoot them out the top.

Scott: You’re saying, these two markers could be almost triangulated to represent where the actual remains might be because of the travel of the scent.

SR Expert: Right. Once you find you’re in watershed, where the water goes, you have to look at it through the topographical or geographical layout of the land, so #### as you can see is higher up than #####.

Scott: Mhm.

SR Expert: So, that scent is going to roll downhill based on rain, floodwater, you know, whatever’s up there, wind. That’s the kind of patterns we’re looking at, but as you look, there’s another several that says ####.

Scott: Yeah.

SR Expert: There’s another alert.

Scott: ‘Kay.

SR Expert: So, you have 3 alerts in that area. Presumptively, what you could say, coming off of this map, is there are human remains somewhere within that diameter or that radius of that triangle.

Scott: Well, you know, I’m aware of false positives on cadaver dogs. I’m not aware of anything that would cause 2-3 dogs to indicate at the same spot, other than human remains. Like, I’ve never…

SR Expert: I’ve never heard of it.

Scott: Like a natural geological something. I’ve never seen that, so I, you know, I have seen dogs be wrong, but when you get to 2 or 3 of them. This is proof that there is or was a body in the ##### area.

SR Expert: There’s something there.

Scott: In Episode 3, we brought you Dr. John Gookin, who was one of the leaders of the Search and Rescue operation for Amy in 1997. During the course of our conversation, I learned that that initial search had found a very distinctive pen. It was the same model pen that Amy owned, but Steve discounts it as being hers. He says it was a different color, but it was found so close to Amy’s car, in such a remote area, I don’t want to overplay the pen, but I’ve also had a hard time discounting it. During his investigation, nobody told Jon Billman about the pen either. As he listened to episode 3, I was curious what he thought of the pen.

Jon Billman: Pens certainly were important to her. You know, she obviously kept to-do lists and checked them off as her day developed, so I certainly wouldn’t discount that at all. Detective Zerga did not mention that. I don’t recall John Gookin mentioning it either, to me.  But it certainly, you know, it certainly could be a clue.

Scott: Within 2 weeks of Amy’s disappearance, the criminal investigation had begun. The investigation had shifted entirely, and local and federal authorities were treating Amy’s case as a criminal abduction. And they were likely right about this. The problem was, they didn’t have any evidence to go on. The crime scene had never been secured.

Jon Billman: You’re right, too. It was a dumpster fire. But I’m telling you, most of these missing persons cases start out as dumpster fires because there not…it’s not a criminal case to begin with. It’s, “Hey, someone, someone that we love is missing. We’ve got to find them.” And, you know, it’s a lost person case. It’s a sprained ankle case. It’s not a homicide case or a kidnapping case for hours or days or weeks after the event. It was Keystone Cops for a while, but that’s the case in many if not most of these cases.

Scott: One can only imagine how infuriating this whole thing would have been to Amy’s family, on top of everything else, especially since Amy’s father, who is now deceased, was a police officer at one point. Within 6 months, the general consensus coalesced. It was not very likely that Amy got lost in the woods or was eaten by a bear. The search for Amy was after all impeccable, and much of the town had volunteered for the search. They’d been there.

Jon Billman: And that was one of the criticisms in the Search and Rescue camp is, you know, they were tossing footballs and playing guitars and laughing and, you know, other people that were not inside that circle thought that was really suspicious. You know, why would they be…how could you be laughing? You’re looking for this person’s missing wife, and I really believe elite athletes know how to relax. They know how to focus, and I think that’s really what it was. And John Gookin had talked to me about that as well. And they’re really good under pressure, and they know how to rest and take care of themselves mentally and physically. They’re going out there, and they, I mean, they’re checking every cliff. They’re checking every chasm, every mine shaft on that mountain, and, you know, not a clue.

Scott: And so, Amy must have been abducted, many thought, and so if it wasn’t there already, this thrust the spotlight squarely onto Steve Bechtel. It wasn’t until recently that Dale Wayne Eaton became a possibility in Amy’s case. But some, including Amy’s brother, Nels, who now lives in Colorado, have lingering doubts about Steve. Nels was the only member of Amy’s family I’ve reached out to in this podcast. I’m very sensitive to the privacy of those who were very close to Amy, and I only reached out to Nels because of how vocal he’d been about Amy’s case in the past. We’re now friends on Facebook, but he never did get back to me about an interview. Jon Billman interviewed Nels for his article.

Jon Billman: You know, he’s a great guy. He’s a smart guy. He’s a considerate guy, and it pains him every day that they don’t know what happened to Amy. You know, there was a lot of friction early on, and this is all…this is all in the archives in the newspaper. Friction between Nels and Steve. It made for high drama, good reading, because they were sparring in the paper, and, you know, this really split the families. And, I’m not sure Nels has gotten over it, you know. He’s still very passionate about this, and, you know, he’s certainly aware of Dale Wayne Eaton, but I’m not sure that he’s ready to just assign Amy’s disappearance straight to him.

Scott: About 2 months after Amy disappeared, the FBI learned that the Russian Space Station MIR was photographing the United States on the day that Amy disappeared. Some investigators thought they might be able to get their hands on those photographs. Though certainly an interesting and unusual lead, it ended up being a dead end, and we’re not really sure why. Some say the day was too cloudy, which part of it was. Some say the photos never existed in the first place. This does lead us to an item we should probably look for, though. What were the weather conditions on that day, in that year, in that place?

National Weather Service data from the reporting weather station in Lander for the day that Amy disappeared: Most of the morning was cloudy. Light rain and some thunder storm activity were reported between 10:49 AM and 2:15 PM. Partly cloudy conditions at 2:30. Skies were clear by 3 PM. Two-tenths of an inch of rain were reported for the day. Conditions when Amy likely went running right after the rain were low 70s and a light breeze.

In November, about 4 months after Amy disappeared 3 witnesses were subpoenaed, and a grand jury was convened in Casper. The subject was a man who some say was a little too interested in Amy while she was a waitress in Laramie, while attending the University of Wyoming. Initially, this man couldn’t be found. He shortly located himself, though. Kelly McCloud was arrested in Oregon on an outstanding warrant. Fremont County authorities interviewed him there and became convinced McCloud was on the East Coast when Amy disappeared.

Jon Billman:  I think if it is solved it’s because somebody is somewhere very improbably, and they stumble across some evidence. I don’t think it’s going to come from Eaton. I think he’s going to die in Rawlins without confessing to anything, anything at all. So, I think it’s just going to be an accidental, stumbling across something, if at all.

Scott: Jon Billman, whose piece on Amy’s disappearance is linked in the show notes for this episode at frozentruthpodcast.com and watch for his book on people who go missing in the wild. Should be out in the next 18 months or so. The stories in it are absolutely fascinating.

And now you and I, 4 episodes in, have come to a crossroads. I’ve gone just about as far as I can go in Amy’s case from where I sit right now. I really do believe that to get to know story, really, you need to be there. You need to listen to locals. You need to make yourself available for anyone who wants to help you with your story. You need to talk to the first-person sources, and you need to do so in person. You get different answers from people in person. And people notice the time you’re spending and the effort your making, and they become more likely to help you in your story. And that’s where we are now. This is as far into this case as I can go from this studio, so it’s time to hit the road.

Alright, Wyoming here we come.

Transcribed by Charles Fournier

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