"It's easy to get away with murder," says Kip Hollenbeck, one of Spokane's most respected homicide detectives, as he cracks open a fat file of unsolved cases. His admission is not one most cops are willing to make. It's bad P.R. "It's not just Spokane. I think there are serial killers in every town. We just don't know it."
Hollenbeck, with buzzed hair and a wrestler's build, pulls out a batch of papers from his file and spreads them across a table. Crime scene photographs capture the women as they were last found, beaten and raped, strangled and stabbed. One photograph shows the body of a 33-year-old woman dumped in an alley, her trousers pulled to the ankle. Another contains the busted-up face of a 62-year-old woman killed in High Bridge Park. And yet another reveals the sad resting place of a 27-year-old woman found not far from a manure pile.
The similarities between the cases are so striking that Hollenbeck now believes the same man murdered at least five, maybe six women in Spokane. Yes, a real live serial killer -- a human predator, the detective tells me. But look closer at the timeline, he says, pointing to a page in the case file. There are huge gaps -- years before the killer arrived in Eastern Washington, years when he lived in other states. Five of the Spokane women were killed in 19 months during 1986-87. The sixth died in 1995. And in between, what happened?
"There's no way a guy like this just stops. You don't kill six women in Spokane and then stop," Hollenbeck says. "When you get a taste for murder, you don't give it up easily."
Hollenbeck hasn't spoken publicly about the case until now, and during our first meeting in March he's reluctant to say too much. He's still connecting all the pieces; some things he's sure of, some things he's not. His file contains details from all six murders: The last one, chronologically, shares some similarities, but Hollenbeck's not ready to swear it's connected. The first five murders, however, were done by the same man -- that much he's confident of.
The first to die was Ruby Jean Doss, 27, known on the street as "Memphis" (although she was apparently from Detroit). Her strangled body was found Jan. 1, 1986, in a field about 50 feet from the intersection of Fiske and Ferry, an area where she worked as a prostitute. She was small -- 5 feet 3 inches and 90 pounds. Investigators found her black wig and rabbit-fur coat a distance from her body, as well as other evidence indicating she tried to run for her life. A Spokesman-Review article a few days after the killing didn't parse words, describing Doss in the headline not as a slain woman but simply as a prostitute.
Then came Mary Ann Turner, 30, strangled with her scarf and sweater on Nov. 4, 1986. Police said it would have taken 5 to 10 minutes to kill her that way, and they found signs of a violent struggle. Dirt was jammed beneath Turner's fingernails. She was discovered next to a garage near Ivory and Sprague, where she trolled for johns.
Next: Dorothy Burdette, 62, found strangled in High Bridge Park on Christmas Day 1986. The night before, she went to the Mayfair Lounge on Washington Street and met a man who said Burdette reminded him of his dead mother, witnesses later told police. The man offered to buy her dinner and the two left. A clump of hair thought to be Burdette's was found 80 yards from her body.
Next: Rochelle English, 22, found strangled and stabbed in a friend's apartment on April 21, 1987. She and an unidentified man went to the Sundowner Tavern at Boone and Monroe about 3 pm, bought a six-pack of Budweiser to go and left. English had gotten out of jail about two weeks earlier after serving time for prostitution. After leaving the bar, English apparently forced the lock of a friend's nearby apartment. Her friends discovered her body when they came home. Investigators released a description of the man she was with. "He was described as white, 32 to 35, 6 feet and medium build. Detectives said his most distinguishing characteristic is his sandy blond, wavy hair worn over the ears. He wore brown pants and a white shirt," a Spokesman article reads.
Next: Kathleen Dehart, 37, found strangled in an unfinished basement on July 5, 1987. Dehart, a topless dancer, was staying at a friend's apartment on the southeast side, and an 11-year-old girl in the home discovered her brutalized body.
These women lived on the margins and, it appears, many of them had lost touch with their families. Most news articles about the deaths did not include any comments from grieving relatives. My search for their kin -- some 20 years later -- largely came up empty.
However, Burdette's daughter, Linda Iwanow, still lives locally. She told me recently that she hasn't heard from police in about 15 years and for some time, she's wondered if anyone still cared about her mother's death. "Because she lived downtown and didn't have a nice home, it still doesn't give someone the right to take her life. ... No one should die like that," Iwanow says.
"I always wanted to know what happened," she adds, "because if someone did that to her, he probably did it to someone else, too."
Two months after Dehart's murder in 1987, the Spokesman published a front-page story about the series of strangulations. The article also included the case of Nadine G. Johnson, who worked with the poor at the House of Charity. Police at the time said they had no evidence of a serial killer or any sign that the cases were connected.
"There are no positive indicators to date that would give grounds to a serial [killer] theory in the unsolved strangulation homicides," then police Chief Terry Mangan said.
It's not clear why no one connected the cases before, but Hollenbeck is quick to defend his colleagues. The department was different then. Technology has changed, and our understanding of serial murderers -- what drives them to kill -- has improved dramatically over the years.
"I know from my experience that strangulations are unique," he says. "To have that many happen with the same type of victim -- all within that short of a time period -- that was a light bulb moment for me. I realized there was something more."
Strangling, as a mode of murder, falls low on the list, dwarfed, of course, by gun deaths. But when it comes to serial killers, strangling has some advantages. It's quieter than a gunshot, and for someone who enjoys killing, it's more personal and more satisfying, says Robert Keppel, a serial-murder expert who helped track Ted Bundy and Green River Killer Gary Ridgway. "The hands-on emphasis is there with most serial killers," Keppel says.
Another fact about the Spokane strangulations makes them stand out: They stopped. All of sudden after Dehart's death in July 1987, the string of killings came to an end. The trail grew cold and the police investigations stalled. From what Hollenbeck now believes, the killer didn't die, or give up killing, or go underground out of fear the cops were closing in. Instead, it appears he simply left town for a while and headed south.
But while some killers may take a break for a while -- because of illness, injury or relocating to a new town -- "the need to kill never goes away," Keppel says.
Hollenbeck has had one other brush with a serial killer -- the now infamous Robert Lee Yates, Jr. It was back in 1998. He was a brand-new homicide detective and went to the murder scene of Michelyn Derning. She was shot in the head, dumped in the city's East Central neighborhood and concealed beneath a hot tub cover. Hollenbeck was not a big player in the case, just collecting evidence at the scene, but he felt charged-up. The detectives knew they were chasing a serial killer (Derning turned out to be Yates' last known victim, one of 15 for which he was later convicted). The work felt important, urgent. Someone was out there preying on women and dumping them like trash. Hollenbeck examined the crime scene and attended Derning's autopsy. "It was just interesting observing," he says now. "I learned a lot."
In 1995 -- a year before Yates arrived in Spokane -- another woman died by strangulation. Linda Lewis, 48, a part-time prostitute and suspected drug dealer, was found in her bathtub on Easter, April 16. She had a white, athletic sock tied in a knot around her neck and showed signs of being beaten with a blunt object. When her adult sons discovered her, she was naked, lying on her side in a fetal position. From the start, police had no motive, no suspects and, like the earlier cases, their investigation hit a wall.
But a year later, police caught their first break.It came in the 1987 murder of Rochelle English, who was last seen buying beer at the Sundowner tavern. A fingerprint was left on a Budweiser can in the apartment where she was killed. Police had run the print against the state's database before, but in 1996, during another check, they got a match. The print belonged to a man named Robert Clark, a laborer living in his truck and working at a Salvation Army in Escondido, Calif., 30 miles north of San Diego.
Clark's fingerprint was in Washington's database from a 1988 forgery case in Grant County. By itself, it wasn't enough to tie him to English's murder; all it proved was that he probably drank beer with her. Detectives needed more. As it turned out, Clark had failed to pay court-ordered fines after the forgery conviction, so police used that probation violation as the pretext to arrest him in California and bring him back to Washington for a closer look.
"He wasn't on anyone's radar before then," Hollenbeck says.
But once in custody, in March 1996, Clark confessed, handing police the only solid evidence against him. He told detectives that English pulled a knife on him when he refused to pay $200 for sex. They started fighting, and Clark strangled her with a piece of cloth and stabbed her after she was dead.
Not surprisingly, Clark's arrest raised questions about the other unsolved cases. Did he also murder some of the other women? Was there any connection between the victims? No, police said, the cases aren't connected, Clark isn't responsible for any other murders, there is no serial killer.
Clark ultimately pleaded guilty to second-degree murder to avoid trial and was sentenced to 14 years. (The sentence would later be cut to about nine years.) No one -- not the police, not the prosecutors -- apparently noticed the problems in Clark's confession. In recalling how he killed English, Clark told detectives that he had come to town for the weekend and strangled her. He also noted how hot it was. Neither fact was true. English was killed on a Tuesday, and it was overcast and cloudy.
Nevertheless, Clark went off to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. He was still there, five years later, when Chicago police came looking for him. Detectives in the Windy City had long suspected Clark was involved in the 1978 murder of Ruth Arambula, who was beaten, sexually assaulted and strangled. She and Clark had been neighbors, and the two of them were seen hanging out on a porch before her death. Clark initially told police he had fallen asleep on the porch, woke up and went inside, leaving Arambula. But when investigators came back to ask follow-ups, Clark had disappeared.
When they finally got a chance to question him in Walla Walla, Chicago police still didn't have any hard evidence connecting him to Arambula's death. But once they started pressing him, Clark simply confessed. He was later transferred to the Cook County Jail and is now serving a 40-year sentence at Lawrence Correctional Center in Sumner, Ill.
Detective Hollenbeck grew up in Spokane Valley and got his first police job in Ellensburg in 1987. After two years, he came back to Spokane and took a job in patrol. In 1998, he went into homicide. He's worked dozens of murders in the past decade and in 2002 he was named the department's Officer of the Year. A father of three, Hollenbeck is known by his colleagues as "an absolute bulldog," says Sgt. Joe Peterson, supervisor of the major crimes unit. "If someone happened to murder one of your loved ones, you'd want Kip to catch the case."
Last fall, Hollenbeck was in court for one of his murder cases. During a break, a man named Brett Krop approached him in the hallway and said his mother, Nadine Johnson, was murdered in 1987, but her death was never solved. Being a cop, Hollenbeck hears all sorts of crazy theories, but he took Krop's comments seriously. He called his sergeant and asked him to look into it.
Then, during another encounter at the courthouse, Krop showed Hollenbeck a Spokesman article about the string of murders in the late '80s -- a story that examined questions surrounding Nadine Johnson's death.
OK, let me take another look, the detective told him. Hollenbeck started digging, pulled out the old files and compared them. Nadine Johnson's death didn't fit -- investigators still think she likely died of natural causes -- but the other cases were eerily similar.
A crime analyst began to examine the files, looking for connections. The analyst created a map, a timeline, a chart detailing all the cases. He then analyzed Clark's confession in the English murder and discovered the problem. Clark had said the weather was hot. It wasn't. He said it was the weekend. It wasn't.
"He got them confused," Hollenbeck says. "He got them mixed up. ... He was actually confessing to the murder of Dehart" -- the woman strangled in an unfinished basement in July 1987.
The closer he looked, the more convinced Hollenbeck became that Clark didn't just kill English in Spokane and Arambula in Chicago. He says Clark is a suspect in the murders of Doss, Turner, Burdette and Dehart. He lays out his case: The women all came from similar backgrounds -- leading "high-risk lifestyles" -- and frequented places that Clark is known to have gone. The murders share the same M.O. as the killings of English and Arambula: blunt-force trauma, apparent sexual assault, strangling. The murders occurred when Clark was in the region; they stopped when he left. A footprint the size of Clark's was found at Doss' murder scene. Then there's Clark's violent criminal record, which dates back to 1957 and includes several kidnapping and rape arrests.
And don't forget the confession. "He can't keep the women straight," Hollenbeck says.
But as convincing as the detective's case against Clark might sound, it remained circumstantial. Hollenbeck had no concrete, physical evidence -- no hair or semen -- linking Clark. A condom was found at one of the scenes, but it was in an area known for prostitution and there was no way to connect it conclusively to the crime. Other evidence is in the process of being examined again for DNA, but ultimately, Hollenbeck needed more. He needed another confession. In January, he and Peterson went to Illinois to get one.
On his way to see Clark in Illinois, Hollenbeck is optimistic. This might actually work, he thinks. Clark might simply confess. He's done it before, and now, with a long sentence ahead of him, he might figure he's got nothing to lose.
Hollenbeck gives the following account: He and Peterson are brought to a small room in the corner of the prison. It's gray and drab with a couple of chairs and a table. The men pull out their notebooks and sit. A guard walks Clark into the room and he takes a seat. He's 72, his hair all white and his mouth devoid of any teeth. Clark's face reveals nothing. No sign of alarm or emotion whatsoever, Hollenbeck recalls. "He's kind of protective, arms folded across his chest, measuring us up."
The detectives introduce themselves and ask a few basic questions. Clark's answers are short. They don't wait long before getting to the point -- when you confessed to killing Rochelle English, did you confuse her with Kathleen Dehart?
Clark doesn't budge, so the detectives push him harder. Clark answers, "I don't think I was there."
This guy is so close, Hollenbeck thinks. "'I don't think I was there. I don't think I was there.' ... If you are an innocent guy and the police were sitting there asking questions about a murder, you wouldn't say, 'I don't think I was there.'"
The detectives change directions. Sometimes you want to cozy up to suspects, sometimes you want to piss them off. Anger, says Hollenbeck, is a sign of truthfulness. The detectives try everything. They talk about the victims, how they were brutally killed. Hollenbeck then brings up Clark's own daughter.
"Your daughter would want you to do this," he tells Clark.
Clark says his daughter is the most important thing in the world to him. His lips quiver, his eyes tear up. The detectives hold their breath. This is it.
Then Clark composes himself. No, he says. If he hadn't opened his mouth in the first place, he wouldn't be in prison right now. He'd be a free man. His attorney made that clear, he says, and by his count, he's getting out in 2016 -- after credit for good behavior and other sentence reductions. Besides, he says, his pending appeal might come through.
The detectives know it's over. There will be no confession today and when they return tomorrow for another round, they don't push for one. They just try to draw out information, any information that Clark will share, so they can begin building a better timeline and, ultimately, a case. "They're going to say something. They're going to mess up and you lock them into a story," Hollenbeck explains.
Clark's more than happy to talk about his life in broad terms. He tells the detectives he grew up in Wisconsin and first got in trouble around 16. He and a friend crashed a wedding and got kicked out. They ended up slashing tires and cutting the ragtops of convertibles parked outside the party.
Not long after, Clark says, he left home and joined the Navy. After a stint in the military, he moved to Chicago. He worked odd jobs, as a machinist and at a box manufacturing company. He drank in bars every night. He was accused of rape several times, but got off. ("Clark told us the victims wouldn't show up for court or they didn't have the evidence," Hollenbeck recalls.) Clark married and divorced. Then, he left Chicago for the Cicero suburb, where he met a woman in a bar and moved to Tennessee with her. They had two children, a son and a daughter. The woman left him when he was in jail for drunk driving and took the kids to Ritzville, Wash. That's where Clark eventually found them. He got a job at a Perkins restaurant there and often took the bus to Spokane, where he went to bars on East Sprague and hired prostitutes. He left for California for a time and returned to Washington in the mid '90s. Finally, in 1996, he was charged in English's murder.
When the detectives leave Illinois and begin the trip back to Spokane, they are exhausted. They have notebooks filled with things Clark said, but they don't have the one thing they came for -- the confession.
For this article, I wrote Clark in Illinois three times requesting an interview. "Police detectives here paint a pretty disturbing picture of you," one letter reads. "I want to hear your side of things. You're the only one who knows the truth about your life, how you grew up and how you lived. ... This is your chance to clear your name." Clark never responded.
Marie Washburn, who met Clark in a bar in the '70s and later had his two children, says he's innocent. Although he was a heavy drinker, Clark never hurt her or their children, she says. "I lived with him. I know the man. I know he couldn't do it. ... He never drew a hand back to me, and I was hell to live with," Washburn says by phone from Tennessee.
When they were together, Clark didn't talk much about his youth, except to say he had a stepfather, was abused by his mother and left at 16, Washburn says. When he became a father himself, Clark wouldn't punish the children. "He'd say, 'Y'all better stop that. Your mother's going to be here in a minute,'" she recalls.
And when Clark confessed to murdering English in Spokane, he did it for his children, Washburn says, "so they wouldn't have to put up with bullshit that went through the newspapers. He said it was too much of a burden on them."
Washburn says she writes Clark in prison and has asked him about the murders. He's told her he didn't kill English, but hasn't answered her questions about Arambula. "I think the police couldn't find the real person and they found someone to be their scapegoat," she says of Clark.
Indeed, Clark has not been charged, let alone found guilty of any of these unsolved murders in Spokane. Yet Hollenbeck tells me he's as certain as ever that Clark is a serial killer. He saw it in Clark's eyes, he says. Clark showed no emotion when they talked about the women and their violent deaths. Then there's the way his lip quivered, his denial ("I don't think I was there") and the fact he placed himself in the area during all the murders. "I'm quite confident," he says, "but I can't prove it yet."
Hollenbeck's now going back through all the files. He wants to solve these murders, give the women's families closure. More to the point, he wants to ensure that Clark dies in prison. Busy handling fresh murders, Hollenbeck often takes his six-inch-thick file home to read it at night. He's also called several police departments in states where Clark is believed to have spent time -- California, Utah, Illinois and Tennessee -- and told cold-case detectives about Clark. "He could have been killing women all over the place," the detective says.
Hollenbeck wonders aloud if anyone still cares about the case, then opens his file again. He has so much more to do, but it feels right.
"This," he says, "is the type of work I want to be doing."
Anyone with information about the unsolved murders is asked to contact Spokane police Detective Kip Hollenbeck at (509) 622-5849 or, to remain anonymous, Crime Stoppers at (800) 222-8477.