Gary Zieger, a brutal serial killer, stalked the streets of Anchorage in the early 1970s. We’ll never know how many people Zieger killed, but eventually, the psychopath made a fatal mistake.
During the period when serial killer Robert Hansen terrorized Anchorage and Southcentral Alaska, another brutal murderer roamed the same area. While Hansen selected and hunted his prey, Gary Zieger used women and men for his satisfaction and then simply discarded them. Zieger seemed unwilling or unable to control himself and was sure to self-destruct.
When two hikers discovered the body of Celia Beth Van Zanten at McHugh Creek State Park south of Anchorage, they knew she had suffered a horrible death. Someone had gagged her and tied her hands behind her back with speaker wire; her body was naked below the waist. The pathologist later determined Beth had been raped and her chest slashed with a knife. She was still alive when she was either thrown or fell into a ravine. She apparently tried to climb out of the steep-walled crevice, but with her hands tied behind her back, she had no way to pull herself up the cliff, and she repeatedly fell until she froze to death in the frigid December weather.
Investigators discovered tire tracks turning lazy circles in the parking lot of the campground, and they deduced Beth escaped her attacker, ran down the steep slope, and probably fell into the ravine. Her abductor circled the parking lot waiting for her to reappear, but when she never did, he finally left.
Beth disappeared on December 23, 1971, while walking from her house to a local convenience store. What happened during her short walk down the street?
Soon after the hikers discovered Beth Van Zanten’s body on Christmas day, 18-year-old Sandra Patterson, the daughter of an Alaska State Trooper, came forward to report her abduction on December 19th. Sandra worked as a prostitute to support her heroin addiction. She was working in the parking lot of the Nevada Club in Anchorage when a man pointed a gun at her and told her he would kill her if she didn’t do what he wanted. She described her attacker as a slender man in his mid-twenties wearing horn-rimmed glasses. The man drove Sandra to a motel on the Kenai Peninsula, nearly one-hundred miles south of Anchorage and raped her. On the drive back to Anchorage, he threatened to kill her if she reported him to the police. Sandra complied with his demands to remain silent until she heard about Beth Van Zanten’s murder, and then she knew she had to come forward and tell authorities about her abduction.
Police asked Sandra to study a book of photos of known sex offenders to see if she could pick out the man who had kidnapped and raped her. She immediately identified her attacker as Robert Hansen. Hansen’s photo was in the book because he was awaiting trial for the attempted kidnapping of a young Anchorage woman.
Hansen was initially charged with kidnapping and raping Sandra Patterson, but prosecutors considered Patterson an unreliable witness, and the charges were eventually dropped. Meanwhile, nothing tied Hansen to the murder and abduction of Beth Van Zanten, and to this day, authorities remain unsure whether Beth was murdered by Hansen, by someone she knew, or by another brutal killer named Gary Zieger.
Brennan, Tom. 2005. Alaska’s Billy The Kid Brennan, Cold Crime. Epicenter Press.
Butcher Baker: Lonesome Death of Beth Van Zanten: The Killer is Killed by Lealand E. Hale
Turnagain Currents: The Hired Gun by Mike Gordon
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Robin Barefield is the author of four Alaska wilderness mystery novels, Big Game, Murder Over Kodiak, The Fisherman’s Daughter, and Karluk Bones. Sign up to subscribe to her free, monthly newsletter on true murder and mystery in Alaska.