After the police stopped searching, Dolly and Heidi kept the case alive. The two women plastered the communities along the Sterling Highway with missing-person posters. They interviewed friends and acquaintances police had overlooked. Dolly recruited snowmobilers and pilots to go over the search area again and again. She even consulted psychics. One, a British woman who lived in Anchorage, told Dolly that two men had been nearby as Rick was dying, that they had rifled through his coat for drugs and then left, and that Rick had frozen to death. The two women came to believe she was closer to the truth about what had happened to Rick than anyone else, certainly closer than the Alaska State Troopers.
She said it would be 10 years before they found Rick. When they let their minds go there, the possibilities multiplied, became endless. They tried to block those thoughts, but they never went away completely. Yet the two women would keep searching for the next 10 years.
The e-mail appeared in my inbox in September There was something about them that stayed with me, growing more vivid as the years passed and I suffered losses of my own. The image of two women studying a map, a single light overhead, spoke to me of an inner toughness rising to the occasion. A resilience equal to the worst thing that can happen.
She and Dolly took turns filling me in. They told me a body had been found, and that its DNA had been tested. For the next hour, Dolly and Heidi described a series of events that I could barely follow. They were still piecing the narrative together themselves. The three of us would wind up having regular phone conversations, trying to make sense of what had happened. Four months later, in January of , I flew back to the Kenai Peninsula. I arrived 10 years to the month after my first trip and found Soldotna exactly as I remembered it: a gritty little village trying to be a town, drab in its winter coat of month-old snow and ice.
Dolly and Heidi had obtained a thick stack of official case files, many of them marked privileged. Among a hodgepodge of field reports, lab results, correspondence, handwritten notes, and transcribed witness accounts dating back to was a two-page letter from the director of the Alaska State Troopers, Colonel James Cockrell, dated August 28, The letter had been hand-delivered by Captain Andy Greenstreet, the commander of the detachment that covers the Kenai. Only Dolly was home. She called Tom and Heidi and told them to come to the house.
When everyone was settled around the dining-room table, the captain started reading. Captain Greenstreet paused without looking up from the letter. He was just the messenger. By the time he finished, Dolly and Heidi were weeping. He was home alone that day; his wife, Bette, was sick and being cared for by relatives in Washington State. Delivery of the letters had been coordinated so that they would get the news at roughly the same time. In early , I traveled to Lake Havasu City to meet the other family that had gotten a knock on its door the previous August. Leon sat with his elbows propped on a small table, his hands clasped as if in prayer.
He spoke slowly, his voice like gravel. A retired contractor in his early 70s, Leon is a compact, sturdily built man, naturally reserved but with a lot on his mind. Bette Bennett was in the last stages of a terminal lung disease.
She was at home when I visited, only partially lucid, so I spent two days with Leon at the house of his sister, Jane Potter, who lives down the street. Jane and her husband, Leroy, are snowbirds, Alaskan residents who winter in the Southwest. His name was Richard too.
He and Rick Hills must have crossed paths many times—at the Safeway and the hardware store, at gas stations and stoplights—given that they lived only a few miles apart along the same highway. But they traveled in different circles, and no evidence exists to suggest they knew each other.
He preferred to stay outside, on the front steps. Richard was most comfortable in the wilderness. The boots are too big; the tops reach all the way to his crotch. The boy is grinning from ear to ear. He did auto-body repair, but so did a lot of other people on the Kenai.
They were startled to find the trailer completely cleaned out. Jane called Leon, who was living in Bremerton, Washington; he flew to the Kenai the next day. Several large Rubbermaid bins were each labeled with the name of a friend or relative. A few were marked for Jane, with whom Richard had always been close.
Inside she found household items: coils of rope, a few tools, frying pans, spatulas, mismatched bowls. On a shelf were the titles to two old pickups, which Richard had signed over to her. But seeing all his things packed up and labeled, the trucks signed over, it looked like he got his affairs in order. Nothing was certain, however.
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Nancy said that Richard had come over in March or April to use their fax machine to send out job applications, and that he had seemed despondent about his prospects. In mid-May, the Kufels noticed he was burning a lot of stuff in a large metal barrel.
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Every seasoned Alaskan knows that a large number of ravens and eagles circling in one area means a carcass below, but Frank and Nancy assumed it was a moose or a caribou or some other large animal. The morning after they talked to the Kufels, Leon, Jane, and Leroy went into those woods, a dense forest of spruce, alder, and birch.
They proceeded slowly, scanning their eyes over everything. After almost four hours, Jane entered a meadow and peered into a small, shaded clearing. Off to one side, next to a rotting log, something caught her eye. Jane felt her heart pound. The men rushed over, and the three stood in silence. It was a human skeleton, minus a head.
Richard always wore blue sweats. Leon can barely talk about the scene now, but at the time, he kept his emotions in check.
He looked at the skeleton and thought it seemed about the right size. He felt the urge to touch it. The Alaska State Troopers came to the same conclusion. But the lab warned that the test could take up to 18 months, and the Bennetts wanted to bury their son. Richard had fractured his shin and calf bones in a motorcycle accident.
On June 23, , the family held a memorial in Anchorage. Bette was still healthy enough to make the minute hike from the highway to a picturesque clearing between two large birch trees. Jane placed a wreath on the freshly turned soil. Under a blazing sun, Leon said a short prayer and bid farewell to his son. They could begin to move on. Jane felt relief too, but something nagged at her. I guess if he did it, he did it. But in the back of my mind, there were still questions. Lieutenant Kat Shuey says it with the practiced detachment of a year police veteran.
Shuey spent 14 years as a trooper in the field. Last year, 2, people were reported missing in the state. Many were runaways who eventually returned home, but some were people who will never be seen again. She understands why they ask. About a third work in and around Anchorage, the only Alaskan community that can pass as a city.