The body lay undisturbed, the ground only now starting to thaw in the morning sunshine. Temperatures had dipped below freezing overnight and there were still patches of dirty snow in the shaded spots beneath the spruce and birch. The grizzlies and wolves had somehow not sniffed out the body, the bugs had not gotten to it yet. It was a perfectly preserved corpse, left literally on ice.
A winding road brought Michael Gephardt to the death scene. A foreman for the Chugach Electric Association, Gephardt and his partner Morris Morgan began their day forty miles away, at the substation in Cooper Landing, a small town at the confluence of the Russian and Kenai rivers. In the summer, the annual runs of sockeye and coho salmon bring hordes of weekend anglers, backing up traffic for miles; but on this Thursday morning in early May, Gephardt had the highway to himself, mindful only of the black ice that could send his truck skidding.
Gephardt and Morgan drove northeast along the Sterling Highway, stopping periodically to read electric meters. They turned left at a spur road, crossed a bridge and headed down a winding road that dead-ended at the settlement of Hope, Alaska. A former mining town that lays claim to two gold rushes, one before and another after the Klondike strike of the late 1890s, Hope spent the better part of the last century fading away into a dim memory, the only remnants of its boom years a few weathered buildings, a collection of rusted mining equipment and about two hundred hearty souls, most of them retirees, some of them still prospecting. Although a place of history and wild beauty, located only ninety miles from Anchorage on the sportsman’s paradise that is the Kenai Peninsula, Hope gets little love from the guidebooks. “It’s at the end of a 16-mile spur road,” observes Fodor’s
, “so it’s not on the way to anywhere—you really have to go there on purpose.”
It was routine electrical service work that took Gephardt and Morgan to the Hope Spur Road, known to some as “The Road to Nowhere.” At least one other crew from the Chugach Electric Association had been here earlier to repair the lines damaged in the winter storms. With each turn, the road descended, the men’s truck passing the mile markers on the shoulder and the occasional cabin.
By mile marker 10, the trees cleared and a turnout emerged, offering a spectacular view of the Turnagain Arm, the shallow expanse of water that churns and roars from some of the world’s biggest tidal surges, or bores. At low tide the Turnagain Arm is a plain of muddy silt, acres of deadly quicksand, before the tide rolls in with a vengeance, a two- to six-foot wall of water funneled between the high, rocky walls on either side. During new or full moons, when the bore tides are at their most powerful, the waves roar like locomotives. It was about this same time of year, in May of 1778, that British explorer Captain James Cook pushed his leaky vessels the Resolution
toward where Hope now is located in his quest for the elusive Northwest Passage, only to hit the channel’s fierce winds and tides. Two shore boats journeyed farther, but rather than finding a waterway to the Old World, the explorers encountered only the mouth of a river. They called the river Turnagain and went back again.
From Hope, the city of Anchorage sits just fifteen miles across the Turnagain Arm, but no ferry service exists, so Alaska’s largest city is accessible only by a ninety-minute drive all the way around the arm. Isolated and part of a history marked by disappointment, the old mining town has a name that suggests irony but is really a quirk. Founders called it Hope, not for joy and inspiration, but after the name of one of the early gold miners.
Just past mile marker 13, about three miles before the end of the road, Gephardt veered left onto a gravel and dirt access road that dipped then rose steeply into a hillside of Sitka spruce. After pulling the truck to a stop, Gephardt got out, his rubber boots crunching into the half-frozen dirt. His partner stayed behind. One hundred yards up the access road, behind a chain-link fence, stood an old microwave tower built by the RCA Corporation when it controlled Alaska’s telecommunications in the 1970s but now the property of AT&T Alascom. The Chugach Electric Association services the two meters on a building next to the tower. Gephardt’s job was to read the meter.
By now it was about 10:15 a.m. and sunny on May 2, 1996, the temperature having risen to about forty degrees, about two degrees warmer than the setting on refrigerators, thawing the ground and turning it to mud. Gephardt trudged up the hill toward the tower and its meter, walking to the side of the road in the grass so he wouldn’t track mud back to his truck. The road had deep ruts left by the heavy equipment from the crew recently repairing the wooden poles and crossbars of the overhead high-voltage lines damaged by the winter storms.
About two hundred yards up the road Gephardt saw something red and bulky on the ground. He thought at first it could have been equipment that had fallen off one of the repair trucks. He took several steps closer and saw that it was a person dressed in a red jacket lying on the ground.
“Hey, is something wrong?” Gephardt yelled.
The person didn’t move. Gephardt walked closer, still staying to the side of the trail. Now Gephardt saw that it was a bearded man dressed in a red jacket, blue jeans, and white tennis shoes. The man lay on his back, his head turned to the left, his arms outstretched and his right ankle positioned over his left awkwardly.
In his years driving the treacherous Sterling and Seward highways of the Kenai Peninsula, Gephardt had frequently come upon traffic accidents. He would report them over his cell phone or truck radio, then direct traffic until Alaska state troopers arrived. He had seen people killed in bad ways, and he knew by this man’s gray pallor and gaping mouth that he was dead.
“Don’t come up!” he yelled to his partner. “We have a body.”
Gephardt walked back to his truck, careful to retrace his steps so that he didn’t interfere with the scene.
In the warmth of his cab, he called 911 on his cell phone.
* * *
In May of 1996, state trooper investigator Ron Belden was two years away from retirement. His twenty-one-year law enforcement career had all been in Alaska: patrol in the Anchorage suburb of Palmer, then various jobs in the remote hamlets of St. Mary’s and Aniak and the commercial fishing village of Dillingham near Bristol Bay before transferring to his current job doing investigations out of the station in the Kenai Peninsula town of Soldotna, known for its salmon fishing and clam digging. It was a typical career for a veteran Alaska state trooper, known as the toughest of the tough. Their agency employs just three hundred officers to enforce laws and investigate crimes in a land mass twice the size of Texas.
Ron Belden had just arrived at work around eleven a.m. when a sergeant informed him that two troopers had responded to a 911 call about a body being discovered in Hope, some ninety miles away and still part of the Soldotna station’s turf. Belden’s orders were to drive to the scene and determine the cause of death.
When he arrived in Hope at 12:46 p.m., two troopers met him at the base of the side road. One of the troopers had gotten close enough to see that the dead man had not been there long, the clothing was untainted by the elements, and the flesh was untouched by insects, wolves, or bears. The trooper had spotted what appeared to be a wound on the side of the face and, nearby, brass shell casings, shiny, as if recently ejected.
Walking up the hill, Belden could see that the man was bearded and bald and appeared to be in his mid-thirties. He had a long, lanky frame and lay on his back in the red coat and blue jeans. His fingers had formed fists, which meant that rigor mortis had just begun, another sign he had not been here long. Belden noted that the man wore a gold necklace and wristwatch, maybe valuable, maybe not, but certainly not taken. On the right side of the man’s whiskered jaw was an apparent bullet wound. Looking over the rest of the body, Belden also noticed what appeared to be a second bullet hole through the man’s shirt near the second button up from the belt. Two shots, to the face and belly: an obvious homicide.
A supervisor was en route. Soon a coroner’s van would arrive. The afternoon sun had brought temperatures close to 50 degrees Fahrenheit and the ground was mush.
* * *
Sergeant Steven C. DeHart had been with the Division of Alaska State Troopers nearly as long as Ron Belden had, his nineteen years on the force putting him three years shy of retirement. His career sent him all over Alaska: academy training in Sitka, two and a half years in the inland city of Fairbanks, and eight years in tiny Talkeetna, before being transferred to the major crimes unit of the troopers’ criminal investigative bureau in Anchorage. A promotion four years later made him a supervising sergeant running investigations out of the Soldotna station, working with Ron Belden as one of his investigators.
When DeHart arrived at the station at about noon, the dispatcher told him about the body in Hope and that investigator Belden was on his way. By now one of the troopers there had noticed the gunshot wound to the victim’s face and the shell casings, and DeHart didn’t wait for Belden’s homicide conclusion. DeHart got in the station’s crime scene van and set out for Hope.
He arrived at two p.m. Belden had been at work for more than an hour, assisted by troopers arriving from stations all over the region, searching the area for evidence, photographing the scene. The investigators huddled, then went up to the body. By now troopers had found one more brass shell casing—a total of three—all located a few feet from the body. They marked their placement first with yellow proof-of-auto-insurance forms from their patrol cars, later replaced with official crime scene flags from the investigation van. Shell casings meant a semiautomatic pistol instead of a revolver. That they were left at the scene meant the killer was careless—or confident.
The only other physical evidence that troopers immediately found were impressions in the mud near the body. Some of the impressions seemed to match the victim’s muddy tennis shoes; the rest were indistinct indentations in the sludge—impossible, DeHart felt, to trace to any particular footwear or tire treads. The impressions were not measured, nor were casts made of them; their only evidentiary relevance was to indicate that the killing must have taken place when the ground was at least partially thawed, in the morning, day, or evening. Overnight, the freezing temperatures would turn the ground to rock. That meant the murder could have taken place at least the evening or afternoon before the body was found, which was consistent with the slow onset of rigor mortis and the fact that scavengers had not yet ravaged the corpse.
Steven DeHart took control of the murder investigation, assisted by Ron Belden.
Over the next five hours, as the mild Alaskan spring day turned back to a frigid night, troopers scoured the crime scene. Near the communications tower, they found bottles, empty bullet boxes, and other debris, but it all appeared to have been old and left there by somebody else and unrelated to the killing. Belden handled the photography, shooting 121 frames, then logging each picture.
It was one of the troopers processing the crime scene who made the first important observation. The brass shell casings were large, apparently coming from a .44—a powerful weapon. The trooper happened to be an instructor on the firing range and noted that it was highly unusual to find ejected .44 shell casings. Forty-fours were the ammo of revolvers, heavy-duty Dirty Harry–style guns that don’t spit out the shells after firing. This meant the killer used a pistol armed with .44 bullets. The trooper who was a firing-range instructor knew of only one firearm in the entire world that fit that description: the Desert Eagle.
Manufactured in Israel and marketed and sold stateside by an American company, the Desert Eagle was as rare as it was deadly. A hefty four pounds when fully loaded, it could bring down a charging bear with one shot. Relatively few were sold in Alaska, and none of the troopers on the scene had ever handled a case involving a Desert Eagle .44.
The second noteworthy discovery came from a search of the body. The pockets of the victim’s blue jeans were stuffed with papers. In this wad was a checkbook from the National Bank of Alaska, Eagle River branch. The checks were imprinted with cartoon characters, the account in the names of Mechele Hughes and Kent Leppink, with an address in Wasilla, an Anchorage suburb near Palmer.
Also in the front jeans pocket was a New York Life Insurance Company change-of-beneficiary form. It read that Kent John Leppink had amended his life insurance policy to now name his father, Kenneth James Leppink, as first beneficiary for 100 percent of the payout, followed by his mother, Betsy Lou Leppink, as second beneficiary and brother Ransom Gordon Leppink as third. The form bore the date April 26, 1996—one week earlier. With it was a business card for a New York Life Insurance company agent named Steven Leirer in Anchorage.
Another set of papers related to somebody named Scott Hilke. There were two business cards bearing his name with different addresses in California; a luggage tag with his name; a slip of paper with an address for a Scott Hilke in Paradise, California; a Social Security number that apparently belonged to him; and a reservation form in Hilke’s name and dated almost a year earlier, August 15, 1995, for a place called Plantation House in Natchez, Mississippi. An accompanying brochure showed it to be a stately two-story home with white pillars converted to a hotel and restaurant in a resort town on the Mississippi River north of Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Also in the pocket were a set of keys with a Dodge insignia on the key chain, a piece of paper with the name Pat Giganti, and a United States Postal Service receipt for something sent at 2:29 p.m. on April 30, 1996—two days before the body was found.
Finally, there was a folded-up letter, an apparent email from an AOL account that had been printed out that spoke of a computer. The email was signed “Mechele,” the same name on the checkbook.
“I think it is finally working, but I am not sure so let me know if you get this, OK?” Mechele wrote. “I’ve got the rug so don’t worry. I was going to have them cleaned, but something came up. It was going to be a surprise.”
Mechele went on to request that $3,200 be put into a banking account with an explanation to follow when she got back that night or in the morning. The email ended on a sour note, with Mechele apologizing for “just leaving like that,” but saying she “couldn’t find you anywhere” since the person had left no messages.
“I drove out to the valley and you were not there. I was a little pissed off,” she wrote. “Well, still don’t know where you are and I think it’s rather immature when you pull these stunts.”
There was a postscript with an even angrier tone, with Mechele saying she “did not mess up” the computer she borrowed. “I knew you were smoking pot, taking those pills and drinking,” Mechele wrote. “If you were trying to piss me off it worked. But you hurt me more because you damaged the agreement we had about drugs and hurt our trust. I do not want to talk about it again.”
* * *
After the items were bagged and logged into evidence, the body was ready to be taken away. Now in full rigor mortis, the body was zipped into a coroner’s bag and loaded into a coroner’s van at four p.m., then driven off to Anchorage for autopsy. A pool of cooled blood was all that remained.
DeHart ordered a canvass of the few buildings that made up Hope, Alaska. They included some cabins and a diner called the Discovery Café, named after Captain Cook’s boat, but nobody had seen or heard anything about a murder committed on the side road. They had never heard of Kent Leppink, Mechele Hughes or Scott Hilke.
DeHart worked the radio and cell phone. He wanted to get an investigator to that address in Wasilla printed on the victim’s checkbook.
Copyright © 2011 by Michael Fleeman
MICHAEL FLEEMAN is an associate bureau chief for People magazine in Los Angeles and a former reporter for The Associated Press. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children.