In the mid-1970s, construction of the trans-Alaska pipeline brought swarms of people to Anchorage, turning it into a boomtown of oilmen, construction workers and a vice economy of illegal drugs and sex.
A frontier town in the Last Frontier state, Anchorage was being settled by people who’d left it all behind: those without roots or community ties, those starting afresh. Those whom—if they disappeared from their new Alaskan homes—would hardly be missed.
So when Anchorage’s sex workers began disappearing in the late 1970s, it went unnoticed. But on September 2, 1983, state troopers were put on alert. That’s when the body of 17-year-old exotic dancer Paula Goulding was found on the banks of the Knik River by a road construction crew. She’d been missing for five months, and her remains were found near those of 23-year-old exotic dancer Sherry Morrow. There were .223 shell casings near the bodies of both women; ballistics reports showed that they’d been fired from the same high-powered hunting rifle.
Far from the burgeoning city where they’d lived, out in the Alaskan wild, they’d been hunted down like wild animals.
The Land of the Midnight Sun had a serial killer on its hands.
Who Was Robert Hansen, the ‘Butcher Baker’ Serial Killer of Alaska?
There was nothing on the surface that raised red flags about Robert Hansen, the unassuming Anchorage native who eventually confessed to killing 17 women in the Alaskan wilderness. He’d moved to Alaska from Iowa in the 1960s, before the pipeline boom. He was married with two children. He was a successful small business owner, having opened a bakery in the city’s downtown.
“The cops went there for coffee and doughnuts all the time,” Frank Rothschild, the assistant district attorney who tried Hansen’s case, tells A&E Real Crime.
If anything, Hansen came across as mousy: a scrawny man with a stutter.
It was the stutter that made it hard for Hansen to talk to girls during his adolescence. He found an outlet for his feelings of sexual rejection and frustration through criminality—first via smaller displays of power like kleptomania, then graduating to arson, burning down a school bus garage in his hometown of Pocahontas, Iowa in 1960, a crime for which he served 20 months in prison.
He was also an avid hunter. And after marrying and resettling in Alaska, he got his pilot’s license and purchased a small airplane, ostensibly for hunting in the Alaskan bush.
Although accused of rape as early as 1971, Hansen didn’t really come onto the police radar until June 13, 1983—when Cindy Paulson, an Anchorage sex worker, was picked up half-naked and handcuffed, hitchhiking and hysterical, on an Alaskan highway.
How Was Robert Hansen Caught?
When police questioned Paulson, she described an abduction that seemed too horrific to be true: She’d been picked up in the car of a wiry, scruffy man soliciting her for sex. Paulson said she was handcuffed to the vehicle and threatened with a revolver, and then taken to the man’s home, where he chained her from the ceiling of his den, then raped and tortured her repeatedly. From there, Paulson was brought to a small local airport, where she made her escape while her perpetrator loaded up his bush plane.
When police took Paulson to the airport, she identified Hansen’s plane. A security guard there corroborated her story and said he’d taken down the license plate of the perpetrator. That vehicle belonged to Robert Hansen, and when police went to the address listed on the vehicle registration, the interior of the home matched the description Paulson had given.
“We had him pretty cold on a kidnapping and rape case,” says Rothschild. “A case… which was eerily like what we were suspecting was happening to all these other women.”
FBI profiler John Douglas took information that troopers had gathered about those other known victims and developed a criminal profile of the suspect: The perpetrator would have low self-esteem, he surmised, and would likely suffer from a speech impediment. The description matched.
Rothschild obtained a search warrant for Hansen’s home. There they discovered jewelry from several of the missing women, a rifle that matched the bullet casings found at the murder scenes and a map of the Alaskan bush, with dozens of X marks, stored in the headboard of Hansen’s bed.
At Hansen’s interrogation, Rothschild said he and another DA explained to Hansen their plan: to wait until the spring thaw, go with tracking dogs to every spot on Hansen’s map and search for bodies and bullet casings that matched his weapons.
“As I sat there watching Hansen, there was a transformation that took place that was just amazing,” says Rothschild. “His face got really red, and—literally—the hair on the back of his neck stood up. And that was when he changed, to my eye, from Bob the Baker to Bob the Serial Killer. And all of a sudden I’m looking at this guy, thinking: there’s the guy who killed all those people.”
What Was Robert Hansen’s Sentence?
Realizing the jig was up, Hansen confessed to 17 murders in exchange for an easier time through the criminal process. Alaska didn’t have the death penalty, but Hansen requested that he be imprisoned out of state (to lessen the chance of running across people who knew him or his victims) and that his case be kept out of major media. Rothschild’s office agreed to the terms, and Hansen was sentenced to life plus 461 years. He died in 2014 at the age of 75.
Rothschild said he doesn’t regret being unable to pursue the death penalty.
“I would’ve wished every breath he took had an element of pain to it… But here’s how I thought about it—here’s a guy whose passion in life is going out into the wilderness and hunting, the great Alaska wild. Instead of being able to do that, he was put in a cell with no view of anything—forget the mountains—with rancid air and horrific people around him. That, to me, is supreme punishment.”
As for his own life path, Hansen’s case marked the end of Rothschild’s career in criminal law.
“When you’re doing that kind of work, you’re seeing a portion of the world that’s pretty dark… You’re just so involved with all these horrible life situations. And it wears on you. And the ultimate was the Hansen case. It doesn’t get any darker than that.”
Soon after the case resolved, Rothschild packed up his belongings and moved to Hawaii.