THE INEXPLICABLE disappearance of Amy Wroe Bechtel, on July 24, 1997, near Lander, Wyoming, awakened the town's close-knit outdoor community to a frightening realization: that a disturbed sociopath could be lurking in the trailside shadows.
On the morning of her disappearance, Bechtel, a 24-year-old runner and Olympic marathon hopeful, said goodbye to her husband, climber Steve Bechtel, and drove into town. The last verifiable sighting of her was in a local art gallery at about 2:30 p.m., wearing a yellow shirt, black shorts, and running shoes.
When Amy hadn't returned home by 10 p.m., Steve called her parents to see if she was with them. She wasn't. Shortly after, he called the sheriff's office. Amy's car was found at about 1 a.m. on Loop Road, which runs through the mountains of the Shoshone National Forest just outside of town. The car was unlocked, with the keys under Amy's to-do list on the passenger seat. She had been planning a 10K race in the area, and it is suspected she was scoping out the course. Before dawn, a group of Steve and Amy's friends began scouring the nearby woods but turned up nothing. As continued searchesinvolving horses, dogs, helicopters, the FBI, and the National Guardcame up empty, theories proliferated: She'd been a victim of a hit-and-run, and the driver had buried her body or sunk it in a nearby lake; she'd been attacked by a mountain lion or bear; or she had run away.
The authorities, faced with few other plausible options, began to focus on her husband. Steve Bechtel, now 33, says he was rock-climbing with friend Sam Lightner 75 miles north of town on the day Amy disappeared; Lightner backed up this alibi. But some, including Amy's mother, JoAnne Wroe, continue to suspect that he may have been involved. Steve, who has never been charged, has steadfastly maintained his innocence and has remained active in ongoing efforts to find Amy. The most recent twist in the case is the pending trial of Dale Eaton, a Wyoming man accused of the 1988 sexual assault and murder of an 18-year-old Montana girl whose car was found buried on his property, north of Lander. Fremont County sheriff's sergeant Roger Rizor, the lead investigator in the Bechtel case, has declined to comment until Eaton's trial is resolved.
"None of us are ever going to have all of our questions answered," Steve says. "That's going to be a really hard thing to deal with for the rest of our lives."
Amy's mother disagrees. "We will find out," Wroe says. "Whoever is responsible is going to make an error at some point that will lead us to answers."