Robert Hansen was a quiet, unassuming man who owned a bakery in Anchorage. He had a wife and two children, and made a name for himself as a big game hunter. And from 1971 to 1983, Robert Hansen abducted, raped and killed as many as 30 women in and around Anchorage, earning him the sobriquet “Butcher Baker.” And if not for the tenacity of a young prostitute named Cindy Paulsen, Hansen’s reign of terror might have continued far longer than it did.
Hansen’s everyman persona certainly played a role in his ability to fly beneath the radar of local law enforcement, but there is another reason that it took so many years for police to realize they had a serial killer on their hands: the Butcher Baker targeted sex workers.
In Vancouver, multi-millionaire pig farmer Robert Pickton killed more than two dozen women over a period of several years. Like Hansen, Pickton was considered a respected member of the community. In 1998, an attempted murder charge against Pickton was stayed because prosecutors called the victim “crazy” due to issues with drug addiction. For Hansen and Pickton, law enforcement’s hesitation to believe the accounts given to them by sex workers or drug addicts allowed each men to take more lives.
As we continue to look into the numerous missing and murdered women in Alaska, it is clear that life is as dangerous for sex workers now as it was during Hansen’s time. Could it be possible that there is another serial killer in the Anchorage area killing women involved in prostitution? Several recent cases make the possibility one that law enforcement needs to consider once again.
In the early hours of October 9, 2012, Mary Anne Alexie placed a phone call to friends, telling them she was lost in the Spenard area of Anchorage. Mary had come to Anchorage to attend EMT training school, and had been in the city for only a day. That phone call was the last anyone ever heard from her.
A deeper look into her case reveals that she had lived in Anchorage before while married to a man named Robert Alexander McNeil, Sr. The couple seem to have had a troubled marriage, with domestic violence charges filed against each of them. And it is under her married name of Mary Anne McNeil that we discover that Mary had been charged in 2006 with practicing prostitution. That charge was not reported in any of the stories that came out when she disappeared, but given that the area she was last known to be in is a notorious part of town for prostitution, that information could be a vital clue to the circumstances of her disappearance.
In our recent look at Jael Tiara Hamblen, who disappeared in 2014, we discovered a comment by her roommate and ex-girlfriend indicating that Jael had been involved in prostitution. Again, this was not something reported by the media at the time, but if true means that Jael was another current or former sex worker to go missing in Alaska.
Jessica Lake, whose body was found in 2014, was also allegedly an occasional sex worker. Lake’s case is particularly troubling, because not only was that not reported, other information about Lake’s death has never appeared in media reports, including that Lake was found naked below the waist. Our sources tell us that immediately after Jessica was found, law enforcement put out warnings that there was a killer targeting sex workers. The medical examiner, however, refused to call the case a homicide.
The idea that an unknown serial killer might be terrorizing the women of Anchorage was raised in a 2009 story by Andrew Holland of America’s Most Wanted, who wrote of the horrific murder and dismemberment of Desiree Lekanoff and Michelle Rothe, whose dismembered torsos were found washed up on the shore of Turnagain Arm in 2003. Both women had been sex workers. Names of missing women who police have stated may be possibly linked–Robin Vansickel, Jeri Brommels,Samantha Kent, Tracie Vicent and Kelly Sue Dunn–are all women who were involved in the sex trade. Disgraced businessman, drug addict and pedosadist Josef Boehm claimed to have information about the torso murders, but nothing seems to have come of that report. We can only speculate as to why there was no follow-up.
It is, of course, completely possible that each of these unsolved cases are unrelated, but the possibility that these women have disappeared at the hands of someone like Robert Hansen, someone who sees sex workers as easy targets, must not be discounted. All too often, it seems that law enforcement hasn’t investigated the disappearances and murders of sex workers as actively or as thoroughly as they might people who aren’t involved in the sex trade. But it should not matter at all how these women made their money–what matters is that they are missing or murdered and have not received justice.
Killers like Robert Hansen and Robert Pickton both flew under the radar as they killed scores of women. The reason they were able to do this is that they were held up as being above reproach, while the women they murdered were simply denigrated, devalued and dismissed. The irony is that the monsters were believed and excused because society considered them upstanding businessmen, whereas sex workers they hunted and preyed upon were dehumanized. The murdered and missing cannot speak for themselves, while the perpetrators seem to be protected by their reputations and status in society. This is a mentality that must change, not only for the sake of sex workers in Alaska, but for the sake of women everywhere.