Into the Path of a Killer

Los Angeles Times
March 10, 2007
By Alex Tizon

SEATTLE – His wife and daughter were murdered last summer on a remote hiking trail 70 miles from home, in the middle of the day, at the height of their lives, among mountains they had always regarded as a sanctuary. David Stodden doesn’t know who did it or why. He doesn’t know whether his wife and daughter were beaten, raped or mutilated; whether they fell quickly or fought to the end. He knows the essentials, that each was shot in the head and left just off-trail where anybody could see them. He knows detectives have made no arrests, and hikers all over the region remain shaken. For many, the wilderness itself was desecrated.

“I don’t know where this is all going,” Stodden says, referring to the mystery that has enveloped his life. “I’m feeling my way through it.”

He is 58, lean and strong, with graying hair and mustache, and a thin, angular face that is at once open and reserved. He smiles easily. When emotion rises up, he pauses mid-sentence and clenches his jaw until the moment passes, then resumes in the easy, cordial way that friends describe as “just David.”

On this overcast day, nearly eight months after the killings, Stodden is about to trek into those same mountains, to get as close as possible to the spot on the Pinnacle Lake trail where the bodies were found. The purpose is practical: to check whether the reward posters he put up in the fall are still in place. He had checked them every couple of weeks until the weather turned cold and snow covered the trail. He’s hoping some of the snow has melted. It gives him something more to do. It keeps him moving. Movement has been a salve.

A contractor by trade, he has taken time off work to fix up the modest wood-frame house in North Seattle where he and his wife raised three daughters during 28 years of marriage. “It’s still hard,” he says, referring to being in the house. “It’s getting better, but still hard.”

Stodden strides through his yard carrying a stack of posters under his arm. The posters show a photo of Mary Cooper, 56, and Susanna Stodden, 27, on a hike two years earlier. They stand side by side in the sun, T-shirted, backpacks slung over their shoulders, much the way they would have looked on the day they died. Mother, fit and sturdy with curly red hair, stands almost a head taller than her dark-haired daughter whose youthful face could easily belong on a teenager. Each wears a distinctive smile: Mary’s exuberant, Susanna’s slightly shy.

The reward of $26,000 — for key information — was raised mostly by friends, of which the family had an abundance. About 1,500 people attended the memorial service at a high school where a line of speakers affirmed what most already knew, that Mary and Susanna were the kind of people others aspired to be: kind, peaceful, socially conscious, giving; salt-of-the-earth individuals who lived quiet but fruitful lives.

Mary, an elementary school librarian, loved books and children and managed to craft a life surrounded by both. Teary students put up a cardboard sign at the school’s front entrance that read “Mary in the library — the nicest person in the universe.”

Susanna was the oldest daughter. She was a month away from a teaching internship at a private school and was excited she could commute from her apartment to the school by bicycle. She’d adopted a lifestyle based on simplicity, and she enjoyed nothing more than spending time in the wilderness.

Mary and Susanna did not make enemies, says family friend Steve Spickard. They were “card-carrying optimists” who sought the best in people and gave strangers the benefit of the doubt.

Spickard suspects what happened on that trail was a chance intersection of light and dark, “of the very best kind of people and the very worst.” Investigators, refusing to publicly rule out any scenario, say they are studying the possibility it was a random act. Whoever did it, in any case, is still out there somewhere.

Stodden carefully places the posters in the back seat of a dark purple Dodge Caravan. He climbs in. “Mary’s van,” he says simply. The same one she and Susanna rode in their last morning, July 11, a typical summer day in the Northwest. It began mostly sunny and ended mostly cloudy, not unlike this day. Stodden follows the same route.

THE van chugs north to Everett, then east toward the Cascade Mountains, the landscape turning greener and more rugged with each milepost. In the gritty little town of Granite Falls, Stodden slows to spot the posters one by one.

It’s still there at Bob & Carol’s Deli, just above a sign for night crawlers. Still there at the Spar Tree Tavern. Still there at Deb’s Country Barbershop — “The Best Little Hair House in Granite.”

Farther east, as the road climbs, he spots a poster that has curled at the edges. It’s on a bulletin board at a roadside establishment called Green Gables General Store. Stodden parks, rustles up a hammer and pounds two new nails to hold down the corners. For a split second he is face to face with Mary and Susanna.

Inside the store, at the espresso bar, he orders a tall Americano from the cashier-barista. Mary would size up a barista before ordering, he reminisces. The more capable the barista, the more complicated her order. He laughed at the memory. That was Mary. One of their favorite routines was spending Sunday mornings sipping coffee and reading the newspaper at a bakery on Lake Union.

“You working up here?” asks the young woman at the counter, Lana O’Grady.

“We’re putting up posters,” Stodden says. “My wife and daughter were killed last summer. You may have heard about it.”

O’Grady stops for a moment. “I’m so sorry about that,” she says.

She had heard all about it. As had everyone who lived around here. The local news media covered it with fervor. On the Internet, hiking and camping websites based in western Washington buzzed with speculation that continues to this day. Did the two women see something they shouldn’t have? Did they stumble upon a marijuana or meth operation? Is there a psycho survivalist loose in the forests of the Cascades? Why was there no attempt to hide the bodies?

MARY had been in a happy mood that morning, Stodden recalls. She and Susanna were close, teachers at heart, sharing passions for music and nature, but their schedules didn’t allow them to go hiking together — just the two of them — very often. Mother and daughter wanted to hike at least once before Susanna started her new job. The plan was to go on a day hike to Mt. Pilchuck, a 5,324-foot peak with a panoramic view of the Cascades, Olympics and Puget Sound.

Before Stodden left for work at 7:30 he told Mary to be careful – there could still be snow on the mountain — but he wasn’t overly worried. The family had hiked or camped in the region dozens of times over the years. Stodden had carried a young Susanna on his shoulders through countless trails in these mountains.

Based on the time Mary and Susanna are believed to have started their hike, Stodden estimates Mary left the house around 8 a.m. and picked up Susanna at her apartment. The drive would have taken them about two hours.

Stodden says he spent the day working on a house on the west side of Green Lake, which is corroborated by a fellow worker (investigators would not comment). He says he became a little concerned when he got home about 5:30 and Mary had not returned. She and Susanna were supposed to have been home an hour earlier. Maybe they stopped to run an errand or pick up groceries, he thought.

As planned, Stodden went on a bicycle ride with a friend to Seward Park — part of his training regimen for a 200-mile cycling event called STP, or Seattle-to-Portland. During the ride, and just after, Stodden repeatedly called Mary’s and Susanna’s cellphones — no answer. He told his cycling friend he was worried.

Shortly after he returned home at about 8:45 p.m., he began calling authorities in the region. They told him nothing. At about 10 p.m. he was about to jump into his pickup when detectives pulled up. Stodden, braced for the worst, heard words difficult to comprehend.

The detectives said Mary and Susanna were found dead on a trail leading to Pinnacle Lake, which was southeast of Pilchuck. All day, Stodden recalls, he thought they were hiking Pilchuck. Had he gone searching, he would have gone up the wrong trail.

The detectives told him it might have been an animal attack – bear or cougar. The wounds were not immediately identifiable. Mother and daughter apparently decided to hike Pinnacle at the last minute. Two days after the killings, a man who identified himself only as “Witness” wrote an intriguing post on nwhikers.net, a popular online forum. Although investigators would not comment, the posting has been generally accepted by friends and family as authentic.

“My wife and I were the last normal people to see Mary and Susanna alive,” Witness wrote. “They and we arrived at the trailhead at the same time [about 10 a.m.] and we had a pleasant conversation with them before we headed up the trail.”

Witness described mother and daughter as “exceptionally nice.”

Witness and his wife then hiked beyond Pinnacle Lake, a picturesque tarn nestled among alpine forests, and stopped to eat lunch before heading back to the trailhead. “On our way down, we came upon the scene” — the bodies of Mary and Susanna — which he said he was not at liberty to describe.

“We have never spent a more terrifying half-hour than our hike back to the trailhead,” he wrote. “We had one ice ax between us which I held at the ready the entire time, not knowing if we would be attacked by a killer still lurking in the area.”

Witness did not know at the time that another couple had discovered the bodies earlier and reported the find to authorities about 2:20 p.m.

According to one news account, this other couple didn’t know at first what they were seeing. They thought maybe they had come upon two people squatting or hunched over along the trail. As they got closer, they realized the two were dead. The couple, for reasons not clear, couldn’t discern the victims’ gender.

Investigators soon after confirmed the women died of gunshot wounds but would not say how many shots were fired, what caliber weapon, what part of the head or whether the shots were point-blank or long range. The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, the agency in charge of the investigation, has since refused to disclose, or even confirm, other details.

IN January, Stodden took a lie-detector test at the sheriff’s request. He tried not to take it personally, knowing spouses are routinely suspected. Just before the test, Stodden says, he rose to his feet in front of the administrator and solemnly rang a small metal gong that Susanna had given him from her trip to Nepal four years earlier. He did it to honor his daughter.

The result came back inconclusive. The test, measuring physiological responses to pointed questions, can be thrown off by stress or illness, and Stodden says he was fighting a cold that day. He took a second test but has not been informed of the result. “I’ve nothing to hide,” he says. Investigators say they’ve ruled out no one, but friends dismiss the idea that Stodden could have had anything to do with the crime.

“Mary was the love of his life,” says friend Spickard, who has known the family since the 1980s. He and Stodden coached soccer together and are still part of the same over-55 soccer team.

“He liked the life they had,” Spickard says. “They worked the garden together. David had the vegetable half, Mary had the flower half. He felt lucky to be with someone like Mary. She was the smartest person he knew.” Spickard says some people are bothered by Stodden’s demeanor. “They want to see someone devastated and angry. But that isn’t David,” he says. “He’s had his moments, but he is not a man who dwells. David is a man of action. He needs to move forward. If he could solve the case by walking around the planet six times, he would do it. If you asked him to think about what happened to his wife and daughter, he’ll say, ‘I won’t go there.’ ”

Even if, hypothetically, Stodden wanted to get rid of his wife, Spickard muses, why would he also kill a daughter whom, from every indication, he cherished? Stodden’s surviving daughters — Joanna, 22, and Elisa, 24 — for the most part have kept their grief private, declining interviews. He says they are increasingly frustrated by the lack of discernible progress in the investigation. Stodden, who at first met with detectives weekly, now meets with them once or twice a month. He too has begun showing signs of impatience.

The optimistic speculation is that detectives have identified a suspect — or suspects — but still need evidence to ensure a conviction. The more skeptical believe detectives have hit a dead end.

“I understand the frustration,” says sheriff’s spokeswoman Rebecca Hover. “Because we don’t have new information to release doesn’t mean we’re not working on it. We definitely are.”

The murders occurred on public lands, part of the 1.7 million-acre Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which stretches from Mt. Rainier to Canada. The Forest Service patrols the region, but major investigations fall to the counties, many of which are inexperienced in remote terrain. The main reason is that homicides in the wilderness don’t happen very often. Investigators also run up against the challenges of weather and accessibility — lugging equipment to locations reachable only by foot, for example — and scouring the infinite number of escape routes.

Longtime employees recall only two confirmed murders on Forest Service lands in Washington: A man pushed his wife over a cliff in 1992 in the Olympic National Forest, and three men killed a woodcutter in 2004 after he stopped to help them in the Okanogan National Forest in eastern Washington. Alan Gibbs, spokesman and 33-year veteran of the Forest Service, says — aside from the Pinnacle Lake case — he knows of no other homicides in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, which is visited by 5 million people a year.

Before last summer, violence from humans barely registered among local hiking groups as a concern. Now, if online discussion groups are an indication, more hikers — especially women — are taking precautions, including packing guns and traveling in numbers. Kim Brown, a Seattle woman who backpacks solo, says the murders indeed “felt like an invasion of evil” but adds: “I don’t want to be hysterical.”

THE first sign of snow appears alongside the highway. About 16 miles east of Granite Falls, Stodden pulls the van onto an unmarked Forest Service road that leads to the trailhead. A snow bank, 4 feet high, blocks the path.

He parks and gets out. He circles the bank and heads up the road, shoes crunching the snow, eyes scanning the hemlocks and cedars that rise 100 feet or more into the sky. The air is crisp. He appears full of thoughts. Within minutes, he spots a batch of bullet casings. He gestures at the ground, where a couple dozen casings — from a 9-millimeter gun — lay in the snow next to a crumpled cigarette butt.

“That’s what they do,” Stodden says. “They shoot, then they smoke.”

Target shooting and hunting are legal in national forests, and signs of gunfire lay scattered throughout the road. Farther up, Stodden finds .40- and .45-caliber casings and shotgun shells of various gauges strewn among empty beer cans.

Last fall, he had put up a reward poster at the trailhead and returned weeks later to find bullet holes over Mary’s and Susanna’s faces. Their photo had been used as a bull’s-eye. He replaced the poster. He realizes now that he won’t be able to check that poster today. The snow gets deeper farther up the road; it could be several feet deep at the end (a ranger later said Pinnacle was covered by 8 feet of snow).

Mary and Susanna hadn’t encountered this. They’d driven six miles up this winding gravel path to an elevation of 2,700 feet, where the trailhead to Pinnacle Lake opened up like a cave amid lush green. A thousand feet past the entrance, the trail forked to the left, then zigzagged through creaking timber before leveling off.

The lake glistens at the end of 1.9 miles, but Stodden doesn’t know whether Mary and Susanna made it to the lake and turned back or got no farther than the place where they were found. The spot, at about 1.5 miles, lies on a natural overlook, above a small valley. It was a natural place to stop, to look around, rest or have lunch.

“Another month,” says Stodden, already thinking about the next time he returns. “Another month and all this will have melted.”

He trudges back down the road and into the van. Driving back through Granite Falls, Stodden turns onto a side street and parks in front of a small blocky building, the Granite Falls Police Department. Inside, Officer Rich Michelsen works the front counter.

Stodden hands him a poster. “Have you heard anything?” he asks.

The officer shakes his head. “County’s not telling us a thing,” Michelsen says. “But we got people out there listening. If there’s anybody talking, we’ll hear about it. OK?”

“Thank you,” Stodden says with an expression half-polite smile and half-something else. Anguish? The drive home takes longer than the drive up. The cloudy day has turned rainy. The van swishes through the water, through the city where Mary and Susanna made their way, finally slowing to a stop in front of the house where so many memories still live.