When Amy Bechtel Didn’t Come Home
When a promising young runner went missing in Wyoming's Wind River Range, everything changed for the community of athletes she left behind.
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Gatorade was on sale at Safeway for 89 cents a 32-ounce bottle, and Mr. D’s, just along Main, had knocked down country-style ribs to $1.39 a pound. The school district and the Gannett Grill needed cooks. It was Thursday, July 24, 1997, in Lander, Wyoming, and the twice-weekly State Journal had thunked onto porches the afternoon before. Its lead story: Police Chief Dick Currah was pressing the city council to crack down on street parties. Jesse Emerson of the Spirit Freedom Ministries would speak that evening about family alcoholism and drugs. Here was a one-bedroom apartment for rent: $350 plus utilities. No pets. Someone in northern California wanted a nanny. By midafternoon, thermometers would crawl toward ninety. It would be lip-cracking dry, under a ferociously blue sky. Clouds big as counties would bunch up to the northeast, where the Owl Creek Mountains meet the Bighorns, and just west, in the Wind River Range, Lander’s backyard. They might shape themselves into massive anvils and shoot lightning down to the high plains. Or they might just light up gold as the sun fell away and be gone by morning.
To all appearances, it was going to be a spectacularly ordinary high-summer day.
What happened instead was something strange and nightmarish, the kind of nightmare that begins with innocuous moments that become harrowing only in hindsight. A casual good-bye kiss. Three quick glances at a wristwatch. A cheery wave.
It would be the day that a Lander resident named Amy Wroe Bechtel—24 years old, five-foot-six and 110 pounds, Olympic marathon hopeful, amateur photographer, friend, employee, daughter, sister, wife—fell off the face of the earth.
At the northwestern edge of Lander, past the Toyota dealership, on a rise above the tidy town, ten identical frame houses face the Wind River Range. Small and scraped-looking—former company houses from some gone-bust outfit in Rock Springs—they line one side of a street called Lucky Lane. The residents, many of them, are young, ardent, competitive rock climbers. An intense little bohemia of mountain-town athletes.
Todd Skinner, their de facto captain, lives in number ten with his wife, Amy Whisler, also a climber. Skinner, 39, has led four of the most notable first free ascents of recent years: Half Dome’s northwest face, the Salathë Wall of El Capitan, Proboscis in the Yukon, and the Nameless Tower in Pakistan’s Karakoram Range. Mike Lilygren, who accompanied Skinner on that 1995 Pakistan climb, lived last summer in number seven. (He recently moved in with his girlfriend down in town.) Skinner’s sister Holly lives in number eight. And until July 24, Amy Wroe Bechtel lived with her husband, Steve, one of Skinner’s Half Dome and Nameless Tower partners, in number nine.
In the early nineties, the rock climbers began to arrive in Lander, drawn by some of the most difficult walls in America. An intense little bohemia of mountain-town athletes—young, ardent, and competitive—lived on Lucky Lane, among them Steve and Amy Bechtel.
When they woke on that morning, Steve and Amy faced a busy schedule. They had the day off from Wild Iris Mountain Sports, the local outdoor equipment store where both had part-time jobs. Steve’s plan was to drive with his yellow lab, Jonz, to Dubois, 75 miles north, meet his friend Sam Lightner, and scout some possible new climbing routes at Cartridge Creek.
Amy drove her white Toyota Tercel station wagon to the Wind River Fitness Center, another of her part-time employers, and taught an hour-and-a-half kids’ class in weight training. She was upbeat, says owner Dudley Irvine, though “a little high-strung because she had a lot to do.”
Indeed. Three days earlier, Amy and Steve had closed on a new house a mile toward the center of town from Lucky Lane, and she was busy organizing a 10k hill climb, scheduled for September 7. The runners would puff up a series of switchbacks not far out of town and then jump into Frye Lake and finish up with a picnic.
Her to-do list was long: run & lift, recycling, call phone co., electric, gas, insurance, get photo mounted or matted, flyers for race, get more boxes, mow lawn, call Ed, close road?, have Karn do drawing.
We know this: Amy taught the fitness class and picked up the center’s recycling. She contacted the phone and electric companies. She stopped in at the Camera Connection on Main and asked owner John Strom about several photographs she planned to submit in a competition.
She was 11 days short of her 25th birthday, 13 months into her marriage—a radiant young athlete, small, lithe, determined, thoughtful, even-tempered, trusting. That’s the capsule description and it varies not a whit, whether the describer is an acquaintance, like Strom, or a family member, or a close friend.
Strom, reserved and bespectacled, remembers that Amy was in running togs: yellow shirt, black shorts, running shoes. That she seemed cheerful and busy. That he sent her to the framing shop upstairs to see about matting. That it was midafternoon.
She talked with Greg Wagner at Gallery 331 about her photos. He says that in the course of 20 minutes or so, she looked at her watch two or three times. She left the store. Call it 2:30.
At this point, while quotidian life went one direction in Lander—while the shopper at Safeway reached for discount Gatorade and the fisherman eyed the gathering clouds and the golfer double-bogied the difficult fourth hole at the local municipal and Jesse Emerson rehearsed that evening’s presentation—life for Amy went another.
At this point, everything about Amy Wroe Bechtel—her movements, her well-being, her very existence—becomes subject to speculation.
Lander is one of those pleasant, historically undistinguished western towns that borrows most of its reputation from what it is near and what it is not. It is 7,500 souls living a mile above sea level. Butch Cassidy was once arrested here. Its most famous resident was an old buckaroo, Stub Farlow, whose image atop a sunfishing bronc adorns Wyoming’s license plates.
What it is near is the spectacular eastern front of the Wind River Range—fierce, sharp peaks that give onto gentler ones that give, in turn, onto the oceanic high plains. It is terrain of such starkly heroic proportions that it can make other American vistas—the silo-anchored fields of the Midwest, the nubby Appalachians, even the punched-up Pacific Coast Ranges—seem like the Land of Toys.
And what is Lander not? It’s not rich-thick Jackson, 160 road- miles northwest—though like many small western towns with a view, it fears it may become that. Landerites cast wary glances at Jackson’s log palaces, its sleek fleets of celebrities and wannabes and wealthy kids who fall from the sky in western costumes and $300 haircuts for some quality mountain time.
In the early nineties, the rock climbers began to arrive, drawn by some of the most accessible and difficult walls in America.
But truth be told, that’s a transmutation Lander won’t have to worry about any time soon. It has no downhill ski area and no prospect of one. Its snowfall, relative to much of the mountainous West, is sporadic and undependable, and its periodic winds are the kind of hellers that make it sad to go outside. (“Due to high winds please return carts to corral in parking lot,” pleads a sign outside the Safeway.) Fishing is fine, but hardly world-class. Hunting is seasonal. Snowmobilers have been part of things for a long time, and the hipness quotient, measured in the New West by the ratio of cappuccino to Folgers, is negligible. The modest Magpie is still the only sit-down coffeehouse in town.
What else is Lander not, besides Jackson? It is not the gritty, extractive, assault-and-battery West of, say, Rock Springs. Or the university-town West that is Laramie. Or the strafed and struggling Indian West of the Wind River Reservation, just north of town.
Lander was the original home of High Country News, the feisty biweekly environmental newspaper (it moved to Colorado in the early eighties). In 1965, the National Outdoor Leadership School, which trains about 2,800 students each year in outdoor skills, was established in Lander. A few years before that, prosperity had descended on Lander in the form of a U.S. Steel iron-ore mine. In 1985, increasing foreign imports and other economic woes, so said U.S. Steel, prompted the company to pull out, putting 550 people out of work. The streets were suddenly dense with For Sale signs.
Lander, however, took stock. Regrouped. Hired some crackerjack community resource personnel and realized that its big selling points were its size, its civility, and its proximity to forest, wilderness, and mountains. NOLS stayed and prospered. The town promoted itself as a friend of small business. It aggressively advertised for “vigorous retirees.” It expanded the golf course. It upgraded and modernized its sewer and water systems and remodeled Main Street with tasteful streetlamps, flower boxes, and litter baskets.
In the early nineties, the rock climbers began to arrive, drawn by some of the most accessible and difficult walls in America—notably the two-mile-wide dolomite, sandstone, and granite cliffs of Sinks Canyon, nine miles from town, and a higher area known as Wild Iris, with its 200 bleach-white climbing routes (featuring difficulty ratings from 5.9 to 5.14), 26 miles from town.
Business is good now, based mostly on recreation and light industry; growth is steady and calm. Lander keeps its boots shined and its troubles to itself.
The town’s resident climbers—perhaps two-thirds of them male, most of them from west of the Mississippi—are a furiously healthy, adrenalinized, unironic group. They describe themselves as factionless middle-roaders of the sport—not the somber Brahmins, forever talking about how it used to be done, and not the young punks who scramble up the rock walls, headphones blasting, knocking a cliff all to hell in search of a few kicks.
The Lucky Lane bunch appears to waste little time on bad habits or generalized angst. Any outright oddnesses or furies seem to get channeled into climbing, and what’s left over is small-town camaraderie (potlucks, fireworks on the Fourth), lots of rock-talk, and the edgeless high jinks of a platoon in the movies, of the spirited kids on the team bus. They tend to keep their doors unlocked and share equipment, climbing plans, social lives, workplaces. Skinner and Whisler are part owners of Wild Iris, the outdoor-gear store where Amy and Steve Bechtel and Mike Lilygren were on the payroll, and they own the house that Steve and Amy were renting. (Steve also works as a sales rep for DMM, a climbing hardware company, and for Stone Monkey action wear.)
At times, the in-without-knocking, post-collegiate communalism wore against Amy’s need for privacy and order, according to Jo Anne Wroe, her mother. She wanted a home of her own and couldn’t wait to move into the crisp ranch-style house they had just bought—an in-town place with flowers, a lawn, space for a darkroom. In fact, Amy’s original plan for July 24 was to drive three hours north to her parents’ home in Powell, Wyoming, to pick up furniture that her father, Duane, had been refinishing for the young couple.
Jo Anne remembers that Amy called the night before and said, “Would you feel really bad if I didn’t come tomorrow? I’ve got about a million things to do, and it’s my only day off.” Jo Anne, her voice taut, adds, “Later I thought, Why didn’t we just make her come that day? Those ‘almost’ moments. They’re the things you think about.”
Steve Bechtel says he returned from his rendezvous with Sam Lightner about 4:30 that afternoon to find the house empty. He and Amy were not in the habit of leaving notes about their whereabouts, and anyway, Steve had returned earlier than he’d planned. No reason for alarm. After a bit, he spoke with Todd Skinner and Amy Whisler next door, but they hadn’t seen Amy since midday. He turned down an invitation to go for pizza with some of the Lucky Lane bunch, and waited. Had she gone climbing? No, her gear was still in the house. Had she gone to take some photographs? No, her camera was in the house. Her jeans and T-shirt were on the bedroom floor, and her running shoes were gone.
At times, the in-without-knocking, post-collegiate communalism wore against Amy’s need for privacy and order, according to Jo Anne Wroe, her mother.
At about 10 P.M., he called her parents to see if perhaps Amy had driven there on the spur of the moment. When they asked him if anything was wrong, Steve, who later said that he was starting to worry at this point, replied with a casual white lie: “No.”
Skinner and Whisler had gone to the 8:45 P.M. showing of Con Air, and they arrived home around 11 to find that Amy still wasn’t back. By this time, Steve had called the Fremont County sheriff’s office, which sent two deputies to the house, alerted the night shift, and began to organize a search-and-rescue team to head out at daybreak. Skinner and Whisler, meanwhile, went to look for Amy’s car. They drove downtown, turned right at the Safeway, and followed what’s known locally as the Loop Road, a 30-mile affair through the Shoshone National Forest.
At about one in the morning, Whisler used her cell phone to call Steve: They had found Amy’s white Toyota Tercel station wagon at a place called Burnt Gulch, up in the mountains about 45 minutes from town. The car was unlocked. The keys were under Amy’s to-do list on the passenger seat, next to her $120 sunglasses. Her wallet was not in the car. Nothing—except Amy’s absence and the wallet’s absence (she never carried it running)—seemed awry. It was as if she had simply parked the car and stepped away for a breath of night air.
Steve and his friend Kirk Billings grabbed lanterns, a sleeping bag, and matches and drove to Burnt Gulch. The little group arrowed flashlights past tree trunks, into blurry undergrowth. They called and called Amy’s name, were answered with wind through the trees. They summoned more searchers.
Long before dawn and the arrival of the official search party, a dozen friends were looking for Amy-with-a-sprained-ankle, Amy-with-a-broken-leg, or Amy-attacked-by-a-bear. No attempt was made to preserve the integrity of what would later be presumed to be a crime scene. This was merely a lost runner. “I expected her to come stumbling out of the woods,” said Billings. In retrospect, that assumption would seem disastrously naive.
Certain couples can look to outsiders like some platonic combination of health, beauty, and uncomplication. There is Amy in their wedding photo, smiling serenely, almost remotely—as if she’s listening to a happy story she’s heard before. Her pale blond hair is a shiny cap, her skin golden, her carriage slim and erect, her dress a simple, sleeveless column of white.
And there is Steve, strong-jawed and smoothly handsome in a tuxedo. And shorts. And Tevas. He’s the cut-up, the counterpoint.
Steve and Amy met at the University of Wyoming in Laramie in December 1991, took exercise physiology classes together in the spring, and were dating by the fall of 1992.
Amy is the youngest of four closely spaced siblings, allies and friends during their growing-up years. Their father, Duane Wroe, 66, is a retired city administrator—intelligent, gaunt, testy, chain-smoking, a former big-time drinker (he gave it up 20 years ago). The family moved to Jackson in 1973, not long after Amy was born, and Duane was city manager there and later in Douglas and Powell. These days he keeps his hand in politics—he’s been spearheading an initiative that would codify ethics requirements for Wyoming officeholders—and he tinkers with furniture and works on his and Jo Anne’s modest house.
Jo Anne Wroe, 12 years younger than her husband, quiet-voiced, is a dark-haired version of her three tow-headed daughters. She can seem tentative, forthcoming, and insightful, almost in the same breath. She worked as a teacher of handicapped preschoolers for many years and now substitutes in the Powell school system.
A large photograph of Amy in kindergarten, part of the hallway display that Jo Anne calls her “rogues’ gallery,” shows a canny, appraising child of five, looking out from under a shock of white-blond hair. Even then, her parents say, she was thoughtful, orderly, highly focused—the kind of kid who sets goals and when she does, says Duane, “you better get flat out of her way.”
Amy got the running bug in sixth grade. She wasn’t, by all accounts, very good, but she kept at it through high school in Douglas and at the University of Wyoming. By her junior and senior years in college, Amy started winning everything in sight. She was captain of the UW cross-country and track teams, got named to the Western Athletic Conference’s all-star team, and still holds the UW record in the 3,000 meters: 9:48.9. After college, she continued to compete in both regional and national competitions. In 1996, she ran the Boston Marathon in 3:08:33. Though Amy finished 41 minutes behind winner Uta Pippig, and though her time was 33 minutes behind the 1996 American Olympic marathon qualifying time, Steve Bechtel would matter-of-factly tell anyone who asked that his wife was hoping to qualify for the 2000 Olympics. He and her friends pointed to her heart, her drive. What, in the face of willpower like Amy’s, is 33 minutes?
Positive mental attitude. Focus. Your mind on the task, on the problem and nothing else. Quitting is not an option.
Steve, 27, grew up in Casper, the son of Thomas Bechtel, an architect, and Linda Bechtel, who is the director of a school for developmentally disabled children. Steve has a younger brother, Jeff, and an older sister, Leslie.
In his teens, Steve turned his back on team sports and skiing and pointed himself at rock-climbing, the sport that has obsessed him since. And like Amy, he progressed through sheer doggedness.
Getting lost or injured near Lander is like having your house catch fire next to the fire station. Scores of rescuers—fit and mountain-wise—live within rifle shot of city hall, and Amy’s disappearance prompted an all-out response. She should have been found.
“Steve doesn’t have the natural build of a climber,” says Mike Lilygren, who was his college roommate. “You want to be lean, skinny, wiry, small, compact, like me. Steve is big, barrel-chested, and he’s got those big legs to haul around.”
Steve is talkative, quick, and according to his friends, engagingly zany. He knows by heart the lyrics to the complete works of They Might Be Giants. He programmed his computer so that when it came on, it screamed out one of Holly Hunter’s lines from Raising Arizona: “Where’s Junior?” By Lucky Lane standards, these are examples of full-frontal madcappery.
When it comes to his sport, however, Steve is known for a singularity of purpose unusually intense even for a big-wall climber. When Skinner began assembling a five-member team for the celebrated 1995 scaling of the Southeast Face of Pakistan’s Nameless Tower—a 3,000-foot granite spear, also called Trango Tower—he picked Steve for his bulldog tenacity, his “mono-focus,” his ability to Be Positive.
“An expedition team is an organic unit,” Skinner says. “I guess I’m the mind; Lilygren, the good spirits, the sense of humor. Steve is the heart.” Skinner speaks emphatically and with much eye contact. He is often out of town, giving motivational speeches to various organizations, corporate and noncorporate.
Steve was dropped from the expedition at base camp because of a severe sinus infection and eye hemorrhages. It was a bitter disappointment. The rest of the team spent two months on the Tower, waiting out storms in hanging tents or on narrow ledges, before completing an ascent in which they relied on no climbing aids—only their hands, their feet, and safety ropes.
If there is a moral to their adventures—and you hear it from the Lucky Lane climbers again and again—it is that tenacity buys victory, that you can hang for a long damn time four miles above sea level and still make the top, that hopelessness, failure of will, can be lethal.
Positive mental attitude. Focus. Your mind on the task, on the problem and nothing else. Quitting is not an option. Those were the mantras at Lucky Lane, even during the best of times. When Amy disappeared, climbing a cliff became finding a person.
“Amy is the summit,” said Skinner, the motivational speaker, during the early days of the search. “We’re trying to get to that point.”
Getting lost or injured near Lander is like having your house catch fire next to the fire station. Scores of rescuers, fit and mountain-wise, live within a rifle shot of city hall. Amy’s disappearance prompted an all-out response from the county’s search-and-rescue volunteers, many of whom are NOLS staff and students; from Lander’s extended climbing community; and from Amy and Steve’s family members and a number of their college friends. By the weekend, the company of searchers grew to nearly 200.
“We know what we’re doing,” says Dave King, the Fremont County sheriff’s deputy who became the case’s lead investigator. “We have 50 activations a year. We have specialists in steep-angle searches, swiftwater searches, cave rescues. We have trackers, air spotters, and what are called cadaver dogs, which supposedly can catch scents even under water. We can bring people out via Life Flight or horseback or on a stretcher. Me? I round up the volunteers. I provide the authority, and I take the blame for bad decisions, but I’m not the expert. I feel foolish sometimes—directing traffic that includes people who have written books about mountain search and rescue.”
King is 41 years old, squarely and solidly built, with a spiky haircut that looks like something his 13-year-old daughter urged on him in the interest of with-it-ness. He’s Lander born and bred, with such an engaging lack of bluster or antagonism that it’s easy to overlook the fact that he keeps his cards very close to the vest. He summarizes, he confirms, he returns calls, he expresses his frustration at being literally clueless.
Investigators had discovered, on the bottom of the to-do list found in Amy’s car, a milepost description of landmarks that she apparently jotted down, while referring to her odometer, along the first section of the proposed 10k race route—one more indication that Amy herself drove the Toyota up into the mountains before she disappeared. Therefore the search centered on the upper sections of the Loop Road, which begins as a paved highway flanked by ranchettes on the immediate outskirts of Lander. It parallels the Popo Agie River through Sinks Canyon State Park, where visitors can watch the river vanish into a mountain cave and then walk a quarter-mile to watch it emerge at a quiet pond called the Rise of the Sinks. Water should make this underground trip in a few minutes—instead it takes two hours. More water emerges than has disappeared. Go figure.
Beyond Sinks Canyon, the pavement turns to gravel and switchbacks, rising 1,500 feet in six miles to Frye Lake—the hill climb Amy was scoping out for her 10k.
Still heading up through the Shoshone National Forest, the road passes campgrounds, firewood-gathering areas, Louis Lake, snowmobile and hiking trailheads. It crests above 9,000 feet and then descends to connect with Wyoming 28 near the skeletal mining hamlets of Atlantic City and South Pass City.
The Loop Road is essentially a horseshoe tipped on its ends. A vehicle has one way in, one way out. During the day, traffic is sporadic but not infrequent. At night, the Loop feels very empty, very close to the stars, suspended in a soft rush of treetop wind. About halfway along the road, in the westward shadow of Indian Ridge, the loop passes through a fire-thinned forest of lodgepole pines. A rutted side road used by firewood cutters heads off into the trees toward Freak Mountain. This is Burnt Gulch, the place where Skinner and Whisler found Amy’s Tercel.
In the days that followed, searchers painstakingly staked out and scoured roughly 20 square miles around Amy’s car. They almost literally combed the five-square-mile area closest to the Toyota. They walked, four abreast, the length of the Loop. It was both a “wallet toss” search—covering the distance that someone could discard a wallet—and a “critical separation” search, in which volunteers, depending on the terrain, maintain only enough distance between themselves so as not to miss anything: The “critical separation” might be ten yards on a sandy plain, ten inches in a rainforest.
Horses joined the hunt, and then the cadaver dogs and the national guard. ATVs scampered over the land. A search plane buzzed overhead. Helicopters, including one equipped with infrared sensors, thwacked over the mountains for hours, days. Radios crackled. Passing motorists were stopped and questioned. It went on from dawn to dusk for more than a week.
She should have been found.
If she had been attacked by a mountain lion or a bear, searchers should have found disheveled underbrush, scraps of clothing, blood, remains. If she had become injured or lost, the searchers—who went everywhere she could have managed to take herself—should have come upon her, and come upon her fast. It was a Rolls-Royce of an operation—nothing haphazard or skimpy about it—and it yielded not a flicker of Amy Wroe Bechtel.
Beneath Lander’s just-folks exterior is a town that has not been able to fence itself off from trouble. Still, the piney mountains have always seemed an antidote to human poisons and sorrow.
The first day, the second day, the fifth day. Searchers returned to camp exhausted, pained, and baffled. There was not, according to King, a snip of cloth, a drop of blood, a single verifiable track, a sign of a scuffle—anything to indicate unambiguously that Amy was physically present, alive or dead, on the mountain. There were only a car, some keys, sunglasses, and a to-do list, with four of its 13 items checked off.
Landerites like to say that they live in a town that’s free from big-city crime—the kind of random or serial mayhem that seems most possible when everyone’s a stranger. But that’s not strictly accurate. Beneath Lander’s just-folks exterior is a town that, like most others, has not been able to fence itself off from trouble. A terrifying series of break-ins and rapes that began in the fall of 1993 prompted women’s self-defense classes. In 1995, a self-described “hobo” was committed to the state hospital after being convicted of four of the attacks.
In February 1994, a local teenager was shot five times in the head and torso in the Sinks Canyon parking lot by a drug dealer who thought the victim was a police informer. The editorial headline: “Have Big-City Problems Invaded Our Secure Little Mountain Town?”
There have been unsolved murders. A woman and two children disappeared in 1980, and her blood-spattered car was found 30 miles outside of town; the bodies were never found. There was a brawl after the Lander-Riverton football game a few years ago. Shots were fired. Authorities confiscated bats, metal pipes, and a nine-millimeter pistol.
Still, Lander retains a sense of itself as a friendly, essentially innocent sort of place. Its motto could be “bad things happen, but they are not who we are.” And always, the piney mountains just outside town have seemed some kind of antidote to human poisons and sorrows. That’s where you could go to relax, to breathe in deep, to listen to your best self.
Beneath Lander’s just-folks exterior is a town that has not been able to fence itself off from trouble.
So, five days after Amy disappeared, when the search turned into a full-blown criminal investigation—when 25 FBI agents arrived from Denver and Virginia and from elsewhere in Wyoming, set up shop in the sheriff’s office, and began to question anybody who knew anything about the young woman who seemed to have evaporated from their midst—Landerites reacted with fresh shock, followed by the scramble to impose some kind of logic on an inexplicable event. Very quickly, everyone seemed to have an opinion: the skinny, insistent drunk at the Gannett Grill who said the husband did it; the hacker on the 12th hole who was sure that someone with the wiles of a Ted Bundy had taken her away; the customer at a restaurant who said Amy was at the bottom of a nearby lake with a chain around her neck; the store owner who wondered if “maybe she just ran away.” There was the half-remembered story of another young, athletic, blond woman named Ann Marie Potton, who vanished without a clue in British Columbia three years earlier after setting out for a hike on Whistler Mountain, and vague recollection of the “mountain men” who abducted a young blond athlete named Kari Swenson while she was jogging on a Montana mountain road in 1984. (In a curious coincidence, it turned out that one of Swenson’s cousins is married to the owner of the Wind River Fitness Center, where Amy worked.)
Hikers and runners in the Lander area and beyond, especially women, began to look over their shoulders, to run in pairs or with dogs or with pepper spray.
And then the yellow ribbons appeared. Yellow ribbons on parking meters, on telephone poles, on trees, on tee-marker signs at the golf course: Come home, Amy. We’re here. Come back, and the mountains will be safe again.
There are no yellow ribbons anywhere on the Wind River Reservation, which begins a few miles north of Lander. It is as if the Shoshone/Northern Arapahoe reservation occupies another country and another time, and the drama of Amy Bechtel plays faintly, far, far away.
Captain Larry Makeshine, at tribal police headquarters in Fort Washakie, heard about Amy’s disappearance soon after it happened, but Fremont County authorities never contacted his office directly. Makeshine also heard that the FBI had sent in 25 agents, and he was mystified.
“I’m not questioning it,” he said, several weeks after the FBI had come and gone, “but if I’m going to be quoted, I’d say I’ve never seen it done that way before.”
Makeshine, a wry and circumspect man in his forties, said two agents from the FBI office in Riverton conducted interviews after several mysterious deaths on the reservation during the past year, including the hit-and-run homicide of Daniel Oldman Jr., the teenage son of another tribal policeman. But Makeshine said that he doesn’t know the status of those investigations, because “they didn’t keep us posted.”
Not far out of Fort Washakie, there is a little cemetery on a hillside where the Shoshone say Sacagawea, the heroic guide and interpreter for the Lewis and Clark expedition, is buried. A number of historians say otherwise—that the evidence points to an early death at Fort Manuel, far to the east in the Dakota Territory—but the Shoshone story is that she wandered for years after the expedition and came home finally to her people, who had long given her up for dead. They called her Wadzi-wipe: Lost Woman.
A month has gone by. Thousands of man-hours have been expended on generating publicity and following up on the hundreds of tips that have come in. By now, Steve and his friends have learned to discriminate between the promising and the ludicrous.
Two or three dozen psychics have offered their services. Some want money up front. Some just offer their insights. Some of the insights are theoretically helpful. “Let’s say someone says, ‘Check out a yellow mobile home off the highway ten miles from Lander,'” Steve says. “We can do that. If someone says, ‘I see a white pickup in Utah,’ well, tell me another.”
Jim and Wendy Gibson, owners of Lander’s Pronghorn Lodge, have told investigators they passed a slender blond woman wearing dark shorts running in the same direction they were traveling on the Loop Road—away from town—late on the afternoon of July 24. They had taken some visiting relatives, Nebraska flatlanders, up to the mountain for some predinner sightseeing.
“That’s unusual,” Wendy recalls saying as they drove by. “Someone running, way up here.”
The runner was swift, swifter than any town jogger clomping the pounds away. Jim made a little joke: “She looks like she’s running away from something.”
On the way back to town, at Burnt Gulch, Wendy noticed a “dirty white vehicle” but had no reason to connect it with the young runner they’d seen earlier. Wendy remembers seeing “something red” in the car, something that reminded her of camping. A little farther toward town, they noticed a gray truck with half a load of logs and a man standing nearby, shirtless, holding a plastic container.
There was a report of gunfire on the night of July 24 at Louis Lake, eight miles from Burnt Gulch, and a voice yelling, “Come on, you sissy, do it, do it!”
A kid found a bottle in the river near Main Street in Lander. Inside the bottle was a note: “Help. I’m being held captive in Sinks Canyon. Amy.” The handwriting, predictably, was not Amy’s.
Wavery memories, contradictory as dreams. Dots to be connected. Frail clues. Cruel hoaxes. Shadows demanding to be tackled, to be pinned in place.
It is the end of August, then early September. Search headquarters has moved from the mountains and into town, and the taciturn, professionally noncommittal FBI agents, after an investigative blitz that lasted a week and a half, have returned to Denver and Cheyenne and Quantico.
A room in the sheriff’s office has become the new command post. The walls are thick with time lines and topographic maps. In one corner sit three computers; in another, a small table with a pair of size-eight Adidas Trail Response running shoes and a mannequin torso wearing a yellow Stone Monkey T-shirt and black running shorts.
The concrete world of a physical search—gullies, cliffs, thick copses—has given way to the more abstract realm of an investigation: theories, networks, possible sightings, criminal profiles.
The vast majority of violent crimes against women are committed by a friend, an acquaintance, or a relative of the victim. The authorities quickly became interested in Steve and in a small number of men who had exhibited particular interest in Amy or her running career, but no one has emerged as anything approaching a clear suspect. Sam Lightner, the climber whom Steve drove to Dubois to meet on July 24, corroborated Steve’s account of his whereabouts that day; still, no third party as yet has provided firm independent corroboration of the two climbers’ account.
Meanwhile, Steve Bechtel and Amy’s friends and relatives are doing what they compel themselves to do, acting as they have trained themselves to act.
They have converted Todd Skinner’s garage on Lucky Lane into a search headquarters. The place is hot, cluttered, airless. Two women, including Steve’s sister Leslie, stuff envelopes with canary-yellow flyers—a photo of Amy, her vital statistics, the date and place of her presumed abduction, a phone number to call, a heading: HAVE YOU SEEN AMY? $10,000 REWARD.
The group has mailed out or directed “satellite” volunteers to mail out more than 80,000 flyers. Addresses are gleaned from E-mail chain letters and Internet phone directories: bars, pawn shops, convenience stores, truck stops, motels, bus lines, Adopt-a-Highway sponsors, film processors. There is an Amy Web site; more than 200 other Web sites have links to it, and there is a goal of 1,000 links. The search is out of the woods, onto the computer screen.
Aphorisms are handwritten on the garage walls: “Miracles come after a lot of hard work.” “You wouldn’t want to quit and then find out later you only had inches to go…” Kipling’s “If” is taped to a cupboard door.
A separate room at the back of the garage is the Lucky Lane climbing gym. One wall tips forward in a dizzying replica of an overhang. Mattresses cover the floor. On a side wall, scores of routes are listed by category: Easy, Tricky, Hard, Desperate, Savage, Hoss. Scattered randomly are yet more aphorisms: “Die Young! Die Strong!” “Life is Pain / I want to be insane.” “No prisoners / No Mercy!” “You must Get Weak to get strong!”
In Steve and Amy’s house, across the street, taped to the group’s central computer, is another: “You’ve got a date with the ultimate burn.”
There are few mysteries more potent than that of someone who vanishes without a clue, who seems to inhabit an ordinary day and then does not, who becomes the presumed victim of a crime only because the other alternatives seem less likely.
A missing person is not fully alive or fully dead. She does not age. She exists in a shadow land that we, the waiting, invest with both our fantasies and our nightmares. What if she simply slipped out of her life and started another from scratch? It’s a theme that runs deep in America—the idea of leaving behind the complications and sorrows of one’s day-by-day existence to make a fresh start as someone new, to lose one’s past.
The FBI’s National Crime Information Center listed approximately 35,000 adults missing at the end of 1997. But if history is any guide, the majority will return on their own or will otherwise be accounted for. Only 2 or 3 percent of the missing will turn into outright, long-term mysteries involving assumptions of foul play.
No one who has known Amy Bechtel seems to believe that she would simply cut all the traces and disappear, that she could impose that kind of open-ended pain on those she left behind. And so the imagination moves into a more dire realm, but one in which it is still possible to invest the missing person with the qualities of one’s own, most survivable self. Maybe she is a prisoner, waiting for her chance. Or she is wandering in an amnesiac state but will someday recall her name and her history and reclaim them in triumph after a strange, long time in which she was lost to her searchers and to herself.
Beyond that, there is murder. That is the first terror-dream when a person is missing, and it is linked to a second: that of dying in such a way that one is never conclusively missed, never completely mourned.
Steve Bechtel enters the garage from across the street. He is wearing a T-shirt, shorts, sandals. In the weeks since Amy disappeared, his perennial tan has faded, though his face remains preternaturally smooth and unlined. His demeanor has taken on the alert exhaustion of an air traffic controller. With reporters, his manner is energetically neutral, like a young surgeon describing a harrowing operative procedure. A fancy new anesthetic gets the same buoyant description as the details of sawing through a limb. His cheerful tone of voice, his amiability, remains constant, whether he’s talking about the details of rock climbing or the possibility that his wife has been raped and murdered.
“He’s hurting,” says his friend Marit Fischer, in Denver. “But he will never show them he is.”
“Them” could be the reporters, or the volunteers in the garage. Or they could be those who are angry and confused by Steve’s refusal to take a lie detector test.
Early on, the authorities—the FBI, chief investigator Dave King, sheriff Larry Matthews—and many townspeople and even Amy’s parents took the position that if Steve was innocent, he had nothing to lose by sitting for a lie-detector test. Steve, most of his intimates, and his lawyer—Kent Spence, stepbrother of one of Steve’s climbing acquaintances and son of that Spence, Gerry—felt quite differently. They said that Steve had already submitted to four formal interviews with the investigators, and they pointed to study after study about the unreliability of polygraph tests.
Further, Steve and Spence accused the cops of picking at straws in the wind, of relying on “profiles” of perpetrators, of wasting their energy badgering and frightening Steve when they could be tracking down potentially fruitful leads and suspects.
“The FBI in their usual sensitive manner attacked Steve Bechtel when they became frustrated with their failure to come up with any clues,” Spence said shortly after taking on Steve as a client. “They pointed their cannons at him and accused him of being involved, when they had no evidence whatsoever.”
Steve speaks of an FBI agent who he says told him, point-blank, just two weeks or so after the search for Amy began, “We have evidence you killed Amy.” Steve uses the words “preposterous” and “unbelievable” to describe the situation. What he seems to be saying is that he has been put in a predicament in which he has to bear not only the loss of his wife, but the open-ended suspicion that he was her killer.
“This sounds strange, but we hope that she’s been abducted,” he says. “With that option, there are unlimited scenarios. One is that she was grabbed, raped, and killed…” He clears his throat. “We think that is unlikely. We think she’s still alive, being kept alive, and has left the area. Maybe she has amnesia. That she is being kept by someone infatuated, obsessed with her. That is why we’re making this a nationwide search.
“She’s a very trusting person. She thinks that people are generally good. I think her thinking will change, has changed.”
Nine miles from town, in the Sinks Canyon State Park Interpretive Center, among other exhibits, is a mounted photograph of a rock climber. The photo, shot by Amy Wroe Bechtel, placed third in the action category in a local contest. The climber, leaning against air, seems to be hanging onto the mountain by his very fingernails.
Two months after she disappeared, the Amy Bechtel Hill Climb took place. One hundred and forty-six runners stretched and shivered and high-stepped in a parking lot not far from Sinks Canyon State Park. Soon they would head off, climbing past killing switchbacks, toward Frye Lake, ten kilometers distant.
You know the drill: large dogs barking, tights, running shorts, sweat pants, ski caps, singlets, gloves, Marmot, Columbia, Patagonia, The North Face, pre-race babble.
There was Steve, greeting friends, being hugged. There were Jeff, Steve’s brother, and Jo Anne and Duane Wroe, and Todd Skinner. There were Tom and Linda, Steve’s parents, and Casey and Jenny, Amy’s sisters.
Steve, in shorts, bareheaded, raised his hands and quieted the crowd. “Amy has wanted to do this race for a couple of years,” he said. “She was always told the only people who would show would be eight of her former track teammates.”
“We’re in this together. We know Amy’s alive.”
“OK…” His voice quavered. He paused. When he spoke again, it had returned to full strength.
“One last thing: Please wait for me after you get to the finish line.” Laughter.
Ray Candelaria, Lander Valley High School cross-country coach, said, “Runners, on your marks,” and pointed his starter’s gun to the sky.
We are not an especially admirable species. We are suspicious, violent, maladroit. We leave unholy messes wherever we go, despite our best intentions.
By the start of the hill climb, everyone was tired. They had been a long time on the mountain. Things had gone wrong. The original 800 number on the missing posters—all 120,000 of them—turned out to be invalid when dialed from out-of-state. Todd Skinner and Steve blamed the cops. The cops expressed surprise at this, claiming that Steve and Todd had told them the mistake wouldn’t really matter, since a correct local number was also printed on the poster.
While the climbing community in Lander remained solidly loyal to Steve, things had unraveled badly among the family. Tempers had shortened. Alliances had frayed. A few weeks before the race, Amy’s parents and siblings met with the FBI and the Fremont County sheriff’s office and poured out their anxiety. Why were they so focused on Steve? Where was the investigation leading?
The authorities produced Steve’s journals, or portions of them, selectively highlighted (or not—it depends on who’s telling the story). As volatile and intriguing as the journals may be, they have not been made public, and the import of their contents varies wildly with the account of each possibly unreliable witness. Nels Wroe, Amy’s brother, and his wife, Teresa, who is the director of a center for domestic-abuse victims, were shocked at what they felt were indications of violent tendencies in the writing, of obsessive thinking on Steve’s part. Soon after, Nels restated—for a reporter from the Casper Star-Tribune and on a Wyoming public radio news program—his fervent wish that Steve would take a polygraph test. Duane Wroe agreed. Jo Anne said little. Amy’s sisters, on the other hand, remained publicly loyal to Steve.
“It’s not within me to be angry at someone for having feelings or thoughts and for dealing with them by placing them on a piece of paper,” Casey Wroe-Lee told the Star-Tribune.
Nels said that Steve denied the journals’ currency, that Steve said they were written in high school. Steve denied Nels’s version of his denial and stated that while the entries do run up to a week or so before the disappearance, some of the disturbing entries were only gonzo song lyrics, written in high school.
Nels pointed out, as an example of Steve’s obsessive jealousy, that Steve had refused to accompany Amy to Nels and Teresa’s wedding because of the likely presence of a possible former boyfriend of Amy’s.
Nels and Teresa didn’t attend the hill climb. They said they didn’t want to cause a stir, to have the families’ choppy sorrows upstage an event that should focus exclusively on Amy.
So, as the runners headed toward Frye Lake, what had been envisioned as a day of sad but positive solidarity, of communal bolstering, had become—certainly for the families of Amy and Steve—grim, stiff, heavy, angry. The grand blue Wyoming skies had curdled.
Winter would arrive.
Steve would start working again at Wild Iris, and he would begin fixing up the house he and Amy have yet to occupy together. He described himself, wearily, as “functioning, able to work and continue living.” When asked about his anger at the cops, at Nels, he said, “I don’t really have the energy to get pissed-off at anyone these days.”
The mouth of the Sinks was searched by divers. Old mine shafts in Atlantic City, Wyoming, were explored.
At a University of Wyoming football game, the scoreboard lit up with Amy’s photo, the familiar phone number, the request for any information.
Todd Skinner and Amy Whisler headed south to their winter climbing headquarters in Texas. Skinner went on to Mali to climb Fatima, a 2,000-foot quartzite tower.
In mid-November, Skinner was asked about “Amy as the summit,” about never giving up. He replied that in the absence of new clues, the primary task had become supporting Steve. “We never really started climbing anyway,” he added. “We were stuck at the base of the mountain, walking in place.”
Steve and Nels met at a race for Amy held in Laramie. They spoke briefly, cautiously, civilly.
Dean Chingman, a young Indian from Ethete, on the Wind River Reservation, went missing in early November. The search-and-rescue effort included search dogs and one airplane. Two FBI agents were assigned to the Chingman case.
Everyone waited for news from NASA on whether photographs that might have been taken by Russia’s Mir space station on the day of Amy’s disappearance would reveal new clues. Eventually word came that no such photos existed.
In mid-October, the FBI and the local investigators, having dropped their demand that Steve Bechtel submit to a polygraph test, asked him to come in for another general interview, but on the advice of Kent Spence, his attorney, he declined. “They’re just trying to poke and poke, and hope that they get something,” Spence said recently. “They’ve made it look like Steve has something to hide.”
The Bechtel case was on the docket of a grand jury, convened in Casper in late November. Grand jury proceedings are unnervingly secret affairs. None of the officials involved would comment on the deliberations, though one of the subpoenaed witnesses said that the jury was mostly interested in a former acquaintance of Amy’s whom authorities have been unable to locate.
The reward for information leading to the recovery of Amy Wroe Bechtel now stands at $100,000.
All these strands, these smears, shadows, whispers, shards—they have come to naught.
Early storms arrived, left. Deer hunters—objects of an intensive, dedicated, but fruitless flurry of Have You Seen Amy? publicity—came and went.
The Loop Road became impassable and was closed.
Winter lasts a long time in Lander. Forget the brochures, forget Jackson Hole. It is a punishing time. It is not the winter of whooping skiers and snowboarders, of fresh flocks of pink-cheeked tourists. It is unfathomably cold. It is knife-blade winds. It is the season of iron silence. Time to take shelter. To regroup. To gain faith—faith that the snow, the cold, will vanish. It has to.
It is also the season of memory’s distortion. The golds of autumn become more golden; the greens of summer, greener; the warm, clear days, warmer, clearer.
But not this year, not in Lander. A woman is still lost. Friends and loved ones still grieve, wonder, rage: Where is Amy? And so her life, and the lives of those who care most about her, are suspended. In place of logic, movement, and resolution, there is stasis: a young face on a poster, a dusty Toyota station wagon, blinking cursors.
These won’t do—not at all. They don’t recall Amy, and they don’t convey the knee-buckling anguish of this bottomless mystery. To glimpse even a measure of these things, you could return, perhaps, to a moment in September, nearly three hours after the first runner in the Amy Bechtel Hill Climb crossed the finish line at Frye Lake. The last four walkers are approaching the line as one, holding hands: Amy’s mother, Jo Anne; Amy’s sister, Casey; Casey’s young daughter, Jillian; and Jillian’s friend, Hanna.
Jo Anne Wroe’s face is pulled long. She is limping. Strands of her rich black hair stick wet to her face. She looks bewildered, beyond exhaustion, like death itself.
Montana-based Bryan Di Salvatore and Deirdre McNamer are both completing books. His is a biography of John M. Ward, the nineteenth-century baseball player and union organizer. Her third novel will be titled My Russian.