Over two decades, four women disappeared and one was raped off the same stretch of road in rural Oregon.
Their stories have another connection: One man is linked to all five crimes.
This spectral photograph opens “Ghosts of Highway 20,” a stunning multimedia narrative series published last December by The Oregonian/OregonianLive. It was produced by senior staff writer Noelle Crombie, videographer Dave Killen and photographer Beth Nakamura, who worked side-by-side for nearly two years — an unusual arrangement given the buyouts and layoffs that have hollowed out America’s newsrooms, including those in Oregon.
Theirs is a cold-case mystery that began with a tip about a possible serial killer. It ended with a gripping five-part, 7,000 word narrative, a gallery of haunting photos and a heartbreaking documentary that leave no doubt about the guilt of a serial killer, but precious little solace for his victims.
From a writer’s perspective, the story behind the story is almost as fascinating. In late 2016, then-director of news Therese Bottomly was presented a freelance story about a retired prosecutor who ran every Christmas Eve in memory of a murdered jogger whose killer he helped put behind bars for life. In passing, the piece mentioned that the killer might have been involved in other murders. His name was John Arthur Ackroyd, who would join the ranks of Ted Bundy, “Green River Killer” Gary Ridgway, and other notorious predators who have trolled the Pacific Northwest for vulnerable and marginalized women.
“It was just a hell of a story. And it had not been told,” said Bottomly, now the Oregonian’s editor. “We went back in our clips. One of the best investigative reporters in the state had written episodically about it, but nobody had put it all together. And this guy basically got away with it.”
The freelancer’s anniversary story, she realized, opened the door to more; he agreed to take a substantial kill fee so The Oregonian could pursue that more complicated piece. Crombie was just wrapping up a four-year stint on the cannabis beat she had created when Bottomly called her into her office and told her about the case. Bottomly teamed up Crombie with Killen and Nakamura to run the mystery to ground.The Oregonian went to court to open a sealed case, revealing for the first time that Ackroyd had entered a no-contest plea in the murder of his 13-year-old stepdaughter.
They tracked down Marlene Gabrielsen, who easily could have been the killer’s first victim but managed to escape after Ackroyd brutally raped her in 1977. The police didn’t believe Gabrielsen’s accusation at the time and her case, which bookends the series, is an example of justice long overdue in the #MeToo era.
The reporting team pored over thousands of police reports and court records, interviewed dozens of witnesses, survivors and investigators and traveled out of state to confront a critical source who hadn’t responded to their requests for information.
In the end, they identified four victims who investigators believe died by Ackroyd’s hands, and documented a history of police and prosecutorial incompetence that allowed Ackroyd to go on a killing spree for two decades. Investigators believe he killed an unknown number of other victims whose remains are scattered off Highway 20, a two-lane road that crosses central Oregon west-to-east, often disappearing into the shadowy maw of dense evergreen forests.Five women’s stories forged the chronological spine of “Ghosts of Highway 20.” The highway is a character in its own right, a through-line that takes the reader on a journey as full of twists and turns as the blacktop.
Crombie’s lean prose, set off by stretches of staccato dialogue between investigators and their elusive suspect, relentlessly draws the reader into the mystery and misery behind Ackroyd’s killing spree. But the story can’t be fully appreciated without viewing Killen’s gripping documentary; so far its YouTube views top 847,000 hits and 22.6 million minutes of viewing time, Bottomly said.
The story, photos and documentary took home five Northwest Regional Emmys, the Bruce Baer Award for Oregon’s best investigative reporting, and was a finalist for the Scripps Howard multimedia journalism award. The project won the integrated storytelling award from the national Society of Features Journalism, while The National Women’s Coalition Against Violence & Exploitation awarded it the National Journalism Impact Award. It also won best special section in the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s annual awards.
Seven months after it ran, Crombie continues to receive emails and letters from readers grateful that these forgotten women have been remembered.
“You were able,” one wrote, “ to give voice to so many people who have largely gone unheard (until now). It seems clear that for many of those involved, including most importantly the victims and their families, the system (and to a larger extent society) failed them. These are heartbreaking stories of isolation.”
We asked Crombie to tell us about the process of producing the project, and the emotional toll it took, and then to help us annotate the reporting and writing of “Ghosts of Highway 20.”
Each of the multimedia elements in powerful in its own right. Can you describe the collaboration between you, Dave Killen and Beth Nakamura?
Dave Killen was the video editor and genius behind the documentary series that accompanied the stories and Beth Nakamura was the gifted photojournalist whose work captured the subjects and remote landscape where these crimes took place. We spent countless hours together on this project. Both were present for almost every interview.
Our partnership was the project’s secret ingredient. Marlene Gabrielsen, who survived her encounter with John Ackroyd, told us at one point how Ackroyd had dragged her from his truck. She talked about how it was late spring. She remembered looking up to see small flowers in bloom. It was a poignant detail in a horrifying account. On one of our many reporting trips along Highway 20, the three of us tracked down the approximate location of the attack based on Marlene’s account and police reports. Dave worked the drone and Beth wandered off alone to look for a way to capture what Marlene saw that early morning 40 years ago.
So while I did the interviews, reporting and wrote the stories, their work helped elevate the project into something pretty special.
The subject matter is horrific. How did it affect you?
It was a real weight. You felt a tremendous obligation to the victims and their loved ones in telling this story. There were days when we were depleted after doing interviews or looking at these files and crime scene photos. We coped with it in our own ways, but we relied on each other. We were in the car a lot, a lot of very long road trips. And a lot of time in the woods together and that bonded us to one another.
How many documents did you compile?
Several thousand when all was said and done. I made paper copies of everything. I hired a high school student to come in and Bates stamp them. I put them in binders and then entered them in a spreadsheet. This took months of work. I tell new reporters not to do what I did; it’s a ridiculously inefficient way of amassing documents for a big project like this. But it works for me.
What was your greatest writing challenge?
Narrative is not typically what I’ve done. I was punching way above my weight from the start. That was something that kept me up at night, having to describe this landscape, these small towns, how to breathe life into people who died a long time ago, these investigations that were very old. To do that in a way that was going to keep a reader’s interest through five installments was herculean.
In your Emmy acceptance speech, you singled out your editor, Margaret Haberman. “Anyone who is reporter,” you said, “knows that a good editor is hard to come by. When you have one you really hang tight to them.” What role did she play?
It was essential. Margaret runs a very busy team that does all breaking news, all crime and justice coverage and enterprise. She cleared the way for me to be able to do this on a day-to-day basis. It meant losing me in the rotation. She always made the project a priority and didn’t make me feel like, Oh, God, I’m not contributing or my colleagues are having to pick up the slack. In fact, when she didn’t feel I was doing enough on the project, she made that clear. She’s an extremely meticulous editor who was always pushing me for the extra detail, to make the extra call. If we said we really needed to go to California, she said yes. She understood how ambitious we were trying to be and was really supportive of that.
What allowed you to finally crack open a story that had been lost for 40 years?
We encountered a lot of resistance from sources in the county that investigated the disappearance of Ackroyd’s stepdaughter. He was the main suspect, but the case had vanished from local news reports even though her disappearance triggered one of the largest search efforts in the county’s history. The case went cold. I kept approaching the local cops, detectives, some quite elderly, retired. There was a tremendous amount of secrecy. The district attorney said he was unable to talk about it — something was prohibiting him. There was something really hinky about it. Then Ackroyd died and I approached folks again. This time, the DA says come on down and I met with him and his chief deputy and they basically walked me through the grand jury presentation. I was so bewildered by this — I was unclear where this was going — and then he said, “And when he entered his plea.” You can hear me echo him on my recorder, ‘When he entered his plea?’ I was so stunned that (Ackroyd) had done that, a no contest plea, and that there was no record of that in the court system. Now we knew that he was definitively linked to this little girl’s case. It was shocking.
Besides the journalism awards, what was the reaction?
On a personal level, after the project ran, the Northwest Film Center hosted a free screening of the documentary. There were 300 people there and Marlene Gabrielsen came. At the end, we took questions from the audience and I introduced Marlene. She got this sustained ovation from the audience. I was taken aback by how much emotion and support there was for Marlene in the room. This is a woman who has suffered in silence, alone, for decades, and here she was getting this kind of delayed justice. It was moving and unexpected.
The annotation: Storyboard’s questions are in red; Crombie’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu, or at the top of your mobile screen.
Story by Noelle Crombie
Photography by Beth Nakamura
Video by Dave Killen
THE OREGONIAN | OREGONLIVEHow and why did you decide on the title? It was pure serendipity. Early on in the project videographer Dave Killen and photographer Beth Nakamura were riding together on Highway 20 on one of our many reporting trips. I was riding in another car with a couple of investigators. Killen had Lucinda Williams’ “The Ghosts of Highway 20” among the songs on his phone and it just happened to come on as the two of them drove through a particularly fog-socked stretch of the highway. They were floored and practically burst out of the car when I saw them an hour later. We began the process of securing the rights to use the song in the project immediately. The song has a haunting quality. Her lyrics — “If you were from here, you would fear me/To the death along with the ghost of highway 20” — seemed a perfect match for our story. Lucinda agreed to let us use her song in our documentary series and it seemed like the most fitting title for the whole project. It evokes the lives taken and the enduring sense of loss and imperfect justice felt by the ones left behind. Plus it offers a powerful sense of place. All were important to our approach. (Editor’s note: Here is a Twitter thread Killen wrote about hearing that song during the reporting trip.)
Trigger warning: This story includes details of a rape. If you have experienced sexual violence and need support, contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. Resources and contacts also are listed at the end of the story.Why did you include a trigger warning at the top of the story? Laura Trujillo’s piece about her mother’s suicide published in USA Today in November, around the time our series was in high production mode. Several of us had read Laura’s story and were struck by her inclusion of a trigger warning. It was a thoughtful touch on a story that could be difficult for some readers. We believed such a warning might be valuable for some of our readers given the sexual abuse and violence throughout the series.
PART 1 OF 5Kaye Turner vanished 40 years ago while running along an empty road in a rustic central Oregon retreat. She was kidnapped and killed, her remains dumped in the deep woods.
Then Rachanda Pickle went missing from the desolate highway compound where she lived, never to be seen again. She was 13.
It wasn’t long before teenagers Melissa Sanders and Sheila Swanson disappeared from a camping trip to the coast. Their bodies were found off a logging spur. Your lead is a classic roundup that focuses on several people or events. Why did you open the series this way? I burned through so many leads before landing on this one. Most of what I came up with centered on Ackroyd. For a long time, the lead was a scene from his cell immediately after his death. But none of these seemed to work. The focus seemed wrong. So I shifted to the women he encountered. This let us quickly introduce the five women we write about but also put them first in the mind of the reader. Our overarching purpose was to hold their rapist/killer accountable in public for the first time. They had to be named first — it should be a shock to the conscience that women were vanishing like this and someone was getting away with it.
It now appears their killer was the same man. The breadth of his crimes has never been revealed until now.
John Arthur Ackroyd was a longtime state highway mechanic whose route along U.S. 20 wound through some of Oregon’s most spectacular scenery from the Cascade foothills to the coast.
From the outside, Ackroyd seemed to lead an ordinary life: Raised in small-town Oregon, he hunted and fished, held a steady job and married a woman with a couple of young kids.
But detectives long suspected Ackroyd preyed on women who disappeared along or around Highway 20 from the late 1970s through the early 1990s. They could prove only a single case — Turner’s 1978 murder. The rest haunted investigators who had pursued him through the years.
They were still after him when Ackroyd died alone in his prison cell two years ago. You shift now to the killer. Structurally, what was your intention? In a 7,000-word series, it’s important at the start to clearly establish who and what readers will encounter as they stay with an unfolding narrative. You aim to anticipate the next question they’ll have. So here: Who’s responsible for this carnage? Ackroyd obviously is the catalyst of destruction. We needed to say that. And to explain why this story has currency and impact today.
By then, The Oregonian/OregonLive also was investigating Ackroyd.
We interviewed key witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of police and court records, some of them previously secret, to hold Ackroyd accountable and give some measure of justice to the women he attacked.
We went back to 1977.
That’s when Ackroyd picked up a woman from the side of the road, dragged her into the woods and raped her. The young mother managed to survive.
She was his first known victim.
If police had believed her, she might have been his last. Do you consider this your nut graph? The nut graf is: One woman was raped, four others disappeared. One man committed all the crimes and he is held responsible for the first time here. This is a kicker to the intro and sets up the only survivor’s story that immediately follows — but it surely is the series’ emotional center of gravity: The dismissal of Marlene’s account by police had tragic consequences. It was Marlene Gabrielsen’s first night away from her baby girl. I would imagine there were several possible structures for the series. Why did choose to organize by chronologically, by victim? Were other approaches considered? This story is complicated and confusing. The conference room where we met to discuss this story features a wall-sized whiteboard. In our meetings early on, I filled every square inch of the board with dates, victims, themes, etc. We had multiple victims across a large swath of rural Oregon and crimes that covered a long period of time. We sought ways to simplify and streamline. It made sense to make Highway 20 a central theme and to tell the story chronologically, using the highway as a guide.
She hadn’t been out since her daughter was born three months earlier. It was late spring. She and her husband planned to spend a night at the Sisters Rodeo. Marlene found a friend to care for her baby, pumped breast milk and wrote out a napping schedule.
That day, she tied her hair back and pulled on her green Levi’s. She wore the buckskin boots her husband bought her even though the couple couldn’t afford them.
“Mommy loves you too much,” she whispered to her daughter, asleep in a bassinet. “Be a good girl.” The details throughout are extraordinarily vivid. How did you find out she tied her hair back and that the couple couldn’t afford the buckskin boots she wore, and what she told her daughter? At one point, Kelley Benham French was a consultant on the series. She read some drafts early on. I had some of these details from my initial interviews with Marlene, but Kelley pressed me to go back for more, to really flesh out that evening in detail. So I went back to Marlene and slow-walked her through her preparations for going out that night. She was patient as I drilled down into the particulars of what she wore, her hairstyle and what it was like to leave her baby girl behind for the night.
The couple drove about 90 miles from their home in Lebanon and set up camp near the rodeo grounds. They sat around the fire drinking beer. Later that night, Marlene and her husband argued when he said he wanted to head off with a couple of friends.
Marlene, then 20, got up to leave. She wanted to go home to her baby.
It was dark, around midnight. She was looking for a ride and wandered out of the campground onto Highway 20, the route that leads through the heart of Sisters, back then little more than a dusty outpost amid pine forests in central Oregon. Most of your sentences are short and simple; subject-verb-object, short sentences, short paragraphs. Why? Now and then, like here, you use complex sentences. Why the shift? I wanted the story to be easy on the reader. There was so much information to move through. I looked for ways to make that as seamless as possible. My editors advised me at one point to look for ways to mix things up with more complex sentences and longer graphs. It’s a combination of rhythm — the variety is more interesting — and simply finding ways to weave in the necessary details of who, what, when, where and why without overwhelming readers.
She returned to the campground, where a stranger said his buddy, John Ackroyd, could give her a lift. Marlene had hitchhiked plenty and didn’t think twice as she squeezed into the front seat between the men.
As the truck motored west, the man in the passenger seat wanted out. Marlene, dizzy from alcohol, watched as he reached through the open window to unlatch the door from the outside. He rolled up the window and slammed the door.
Marlene glimpsed a .22-caliber rifle on a rack in the cab and a hunting knife stuck in the lid of an old coffee can near the driver’s seat.
She was alone with Ackroyd, a big man who reeked of sweat and freshly cut wood. Sense of smell is so evocative, yet writers rarely take advantage of its power. Was it important to use it here? Why? I asked Marlene to describe what she saw and smelled when Ackroyd yanked her from the truck. I asked her about his clothing. She talked about how she thought he was a logger or someone who made a living in the woods. Her description provided a distinct sense of place. I wanted the reader to feel rooted in that time and place.
She was trapped.Marlene was still asleep when, about an hour into the drive, Ackroyd turned off Highway 20 and onto an old wagon road.
She woke to find his fingers squeezed tight around her legs as he dragged her out of the truck. Her head slammed into the door frame. She gasped.
She felt the cool blade of Ackroyd’s hunting knife against her neck.
“You’re going to do what I tell you,” Ackroyd said, speaking for the first time, his low, raspy voice laced with a bit of a drawl.
He ripped off her jeans with such force, the pants split from the waist to the ankle along the inseam. He sliced off her boots and her underwear and threw her to the ground. You don’t describe the rape, instead skipping over graphic details. What lay behind that decision? I’m not sure what the reader gains from reading a detailed description of a rape. The details surrounding the assault are terrifying enough.
After the rape, Ackroyd slapped the knife against his grimy jeans held up by orange suspenders. Marlene slowly stood, wearing only her T-shirt and jacket.
He glanced around the dark woods.
“I’m not sure what to do with you.”
“You could take me home,” she said.
“I don’t know if I want to do that.”
“I have a baby that’s not even a year old,” she pleaded. “Please take me home.”
Ackroyd considered her for a long moment, then reached into the back of the truck and held out a dingy pair of plaid pants. Marlene put them on, holding tight to the waist to keep them from slipping off.
They climbed back into the truck and continued west on Highway 20.
He made a brief stop at the house he shared with his mother in Sweet Home, his hometown. He went inside to get a soda and use the bathroom.
Marlene waited in the truck, afraid to move. She’d need evidence so police could find him later. She couldn’t see the house number from the truck.
When he returned, she asked for his phone number to help identify him but also to make him think she liked him. She wrote it down on a pack of cigarettes.
“Maybe we can see each other again,” Ackroyd said.
He drove another 12 miles down the road and stopped in front of her mother-in-law’s house in Lebanon, where she’d asked him to drop her off.
Marlene flew out of the pickup, a blur moving toward the house. He drove off as she banged frantically on the door. She clung to her boots, which she’d grabbed from the clearing. Her hair was matted with sticks and dirt.
“Oh my God,” her mother-in-law said, opening the door. “What happened?”
“Call the police,” Marlene said. How did you reconstruct the details included in this long section about Marlene’s rape and the aftermath? Some of these details were included in police reports. For instance, Ackroyd told police he drove to his mother’s house after raping Marlene. The dialogue and scene-setting details — how Ackroyd tapped his leg with his knife, for instance — came from interviews with Marlene. Trauma had seared these details into her memory. Ackroyd told police that Marlene had seduced him in the front seat of his dirty truck.
He said he gave her a pair of pants because she had torn hers while taking them off.
His mother told a detective that she’d peeked out the window that night and seen Marlene in the front seat of her son’s truck. She said her son was shy around women.
The other man in the truck told police that Ackroyd wasn’t the violent type and the woman was drunk.
Investigators talked to Marlene’s mother-in-law, too. She recalled how Marlene had arrived at her house, sobbing, saying something terrible had happened.
She handed police a brown paper bag with clothes Marlene wore on the night of the attack. At the hospital, an officer noted scratches on Marlene’s back. A doctor identified bruising on her back, legs and knee.
Still, police seemed skeptical. Why do you suppose that was the case? The reports don’t shed light on why they doubted her. Marlene suspects it was rooted in their bias against Native Americans. She had been drinking and her husband was known to local cops in their small town. She thinks those factors played a role in their handling of the investigation. Also, Ackroyd was a local guy whose mother worked at the police department as an office worker. That may have also played a role in their response. The police detective who originally investigated the rape was long dead, so we couldn’t ask him. The sheriff declined to comment last year and has since retired.
Marlene and Ackroyd agreed to be polygraphed.
A couple of weeks later, Marlene sat in the back of an unmarked police car as two officers drove her to the lie detector test. They led her into a small room with a desk. An examiner asked a series of questions: Did she tell the truth about being raped? Did she feel she’d been raped? Was there a question she was afraid to answer?
A sergeant’s conclusion went into a typed report, which was placed in a file: Marlene was lying. He offered no explanation.
Cops asked Ackroyd four questions.
“Did the girl ask you to pull over and have some fun?”
Yes, he said.
The others: Did you force her to have sex at knifepoint? Did you have a knife in your hand when you had sex? Did you tear off her bra?
No, said Ackroyd.
No deception detected, the polygraph examiner determined.
What followed likely altered the path of Ackroyd’s life, along with those of at least five young women and everyone who loved them.
The district attorney delivered his decision on whether to prosecute. It was a single handwritten sentence.
Ackroyd would face no charges.
More than two years later, another set of investigators went looking for the police report detailing Marlene’s account. What triggered the new investigation? At this point in the story, I didn’t want to reveal too much about why the cops were taking another look at Marlene’s rape. They were there because they were investigating the killing of Kaye Turner, the woman who is the subject of Day 2. For now, I just want the reader to know something triggered their interest in what happened to Marlene and leave it at that. Kaye’s killing serves as the cliffhanger at the end of Day 1.
A state police sergeant and a lieutenant from a local sheriff’s office tracked down Marlene at home. She recounted the attack in detail, how the man cut off her underwear and boots. She’d hung onto the damaged boots and showed them to the men.
The investigators left.
They noted in their report how the original officers had failed to pursue the rape case even though physical evidence corroborated Marlene’s account.
But the rape allegation wasn’t their priority that day. They were investigating the killing of a young woman on an isolated stretch of road outside Sisters.
The area was about a half-hour drive from where Marlene was raped.
The suspect: John Ackroyd.
PART 2 OF 5Kaye Turner threw on a T-shirt, long-sleeved pullover and yellow shorts, then laced up her Nikes.
She stepped into the sunshine, the frosty air heavy with the scent of ponderosa pine. It was the day before Christmas. Her Timex wristwatch read about 8:15 a.m. This detail is so specific. Where did it and the other information about Kaye’s run come from? Police and court records. The Turner case file filed a metal file cabinet and was a reporter’s dream as far as narrative details. Cops did a thorough timeline of Kaye’s morning so that detail came from those records. The lead prosecutor has a formidable memory and kept meticulous notes that were part of the case file. Among the files were details from grand jury testimony, which included precise accounts of Kaye’s state of mind and the days and hours before and after her disappearance.
She planned an 8-mile run. She’d be back in an hour, in time for breakfast.
Kaye and husband, Noel, had joined friends on a holiday getaway at Camp Sherman, a vacation and fly-fishing retreat along the pristine Metolius River off Highway 20 with a two-room school, country store and 200 year-round residents. The friends shared a meal the night before, then sang carols. Christmas presents Noel bought for his wife were wrapped and in the car.
The Turners lived in Eugene, where Kaye, 35, had worked at Planned Parenthood and then as a manager at a local public health agency. Raised in southern Oregon, she was an only child who remained close to her parents and had recently returned from a visit. Before she left, she had slipped into her father’s workshop in the garage, writing “Hi Dad, I love you, Kaye” in neat cursive on a yellow legal pad for him to find later.
Earlier in the year, she’d finished a marathon, run two half-marathons and climbed Mount Washington and Three Fingered Jack.
She talked about her plans to run in Camp Sherman, inviting a friend to join her that morning. The woman demurred. Kaye headed out alone, her feet pounding a two-lane camp road tinged red from volcanic ash.
She hadn’t been out long when a state highway worker named Thomas Hanna spotted her, running south, alone. Hanna was returning to his place in Camp Sherman after working the night shift.
He saw another highway worker driving through Camp Sherman that morning.
It was John Ackroyd.By 10 a.m., Kaye hadn’t returned.
Noel Turner drove through Camp Sherman to look for his wife. Finding no sign of her, he panicked and called police.
The memory of an infamous crime, one year earlier, was still fresh in central Oregon. A stranger had driven his pickup over two young women as they slept at Cline Falls State Park, less than an hour southeast of Camp Sherman. Armed with an ax or hatchet, he attacked the women, both students at Yale University. They were critically wounded but survived. No one was ever charged. You use just 67 words to effectively condense the details of a crime that must have been full of detail. Was the passage longer and, if so, how did you revise it? During the course of my reporting, I heard several references to this infamous Cline Falls attack, which took place around the time of Marlene’s rape and Kaye’s murder. It was a sensational crime that remains unsolved. One of the victims, Terri Jentz, wrote a book about what happened and her search for her assailant. I read the book while reporting this story and we made a trip to Cline Falls park during one of our trips to central Oregon. I knew all along I wanted to make a passing reference to this crime because it was such a horrible act that touched on some of the same themes as Ackroyd’s crimes. But I had to keep it tight so I tried to convey the crime and its horror as succinctly as possible.
Now, a woman had gone missing, triggering a massive search that made headlines clear to Portland: “Husband fears kidnap: Turner searchers losing hope,” one read in The Oregonian four days later.
Ackroyd’s name emerged early on. Hanna told police he’d seen both the highway worker and the runner in Camp Sherman that morning.
Ackroyd had indeed come across Kaye but didn’t go to police, even though he saw posters with her picture at the nearby Santiam Junction highway compound, where he lived. He mentioned it only after a pair of state police troopers approached him a couple of weeks later.
Then 29, Ackroyd had worked for the highway department for nearly a year. He was raised in Sweet Home, a modest logging town along Highway 20. Constant references make Highway 20 a character in its own right? Was that a conscious decision? Yes, we saw Highway 20 as its own theme and character. It provided readers with a sense of place but also helped propel the story along.
He was the only son of an office worker at the local police department and a maintenance man. He was the middle child between two sisters.
Ackroyd earned low grades in school; his high school diploma was marked “special education.” He was a loner, bullied and beaten by classmates.
Accused of felony theft as a teen, he opted to enlist in the Army and was stationed in Korea, Thailand and Germany, where he worked as a mechanic. Overseas, he was investigated for selling marijuana and going AWOL. He was caught trying to steal equipment and supplies.
He showed signs of a disturbed mind. An acquaintance told a detective how he once watched in horror as Ackroyd, then a young man, hacked up puppies using a machete, saying the dogs were his and nobody else could have them. Later, Ackroyd would drive back roads, shooting squirrels and cutting off their tails.
Once home from the Army, he got a state job, where he earned generally positive reviews, though supervisors noted his occasional laziness and frequent time off.
Burly and barrel-chested, Ackroyd favored jeans and blue work shirts from the local Sears.
His work meant long hours alone on Highway 20, the route that bisects Oregon from east to west. His stretch of it twisted through Bend, logging towns, Corvallis and on to the coast. Even today parts of the road are so narrow and quiet the highway has the feel of a country lane. Structurally, why did you decide to break here for a biography of Ackroyd? By this point, it was time to flesh him out. Who was this guy and what made him tick? I relied on hundreds of pages of transcripts from police interviews with Ackroyd for some of these details. I had his work, schooling and military records. I spoke with his coworkers and friends. Police had done extensive interviews with his supervisors and friends as well. I built this profile from those various sources.
Back then, if traffic was light and his window was rolled down, Ackroyd would have heard the South Santiam River rushing alongside the highway as he headed west out of Sweet Home. “Would” is a conditional verb indicating the consequence of an imagined event or situation. How can you say with certainty that he would have heard the river? I knew from his coworkers that his truck likely didn’t have AC. On one of our reporting trips along Highway 20, I spent the ride focused on the road, what he would have seen from his truck. I heard the river on one of those trips and took the liberty of saying he would have heard it too if his windows were rolled down.
He knew how to navigate the hills and hairpin turns during winter, when fierce storms swept through the Cascades.
Ackroyd knew, too, the dirt spurs that led off the highway and into the forest.
It was on one of them that he’d raped Marlene Gabrielsen a year before Kaye Turner disappeared.Ackroyd’s first statement to investigators on the Turner case was spare.
He was based in Santiam Junction, about 25 miles from Camp Sherman, and said he’d gotten off work at 6:30 a.m. A while later, he drove through the camp, planning to hunt coyotes. Why don’t you quote directly from his statement? The report was a summary of what he told police. It’s not a transcript. I had to rely on their description of what he said.
He passed by a runner, he told police.
Detectives didn’t dwell on the highway worker. Instead, they focused on Kaye’s husband and possible ties between Kaye’s disappearance and extramarital relationships she had with two men at the time. Her calendar at work noted recent liaisons with the men.
The day after Christmas, experienced trackers who’d joined the search made a disturbing discovery in a clearing near the area where Ackroyd saw Kaye.
The trackers noticed two sets of footprints preserved in the frozen ground. One resembled the waffle soles of Kaye’s Nikes. They mingled with another set that belonged to what appeared to be a large man.
The markings indicated a scuffle.
The larger person had dragged the smaller person away.
Local police didn’t put much stock in the accuracy of the trackers’ findings. The men were told to drop it.Eight months later, one day in August, Ackroyd walked into the Camp Sherman Store. You handle time very effectively, jumping from minute to minute, day to day, month to month and year to year, eliding what came between without the reader feeling a sense of having missed something. What lay behind this approach? This is a messy story that jumps around in time. My goal all along was to limit reader confusion. I tried to give quick references to time to guide without distracting the reader.
He was anxious and beaded with sweat even though the afternoon heat had faded.
The shopkeeper, Christine Weston, recognized him. He’d stopped by a half-dozen times since Kaye had gone missing. One of those visits stood out: She’d discovered him fondling himself while looking at Oui, an explicit men’s magazine sold at the store. Disgusted, Weston went to find her husband, but Ackroyd was gone by the time the couple returned to confront him.
That late summer day, Ackroyd headed straight for Weston.
He announced that he’d found Kaye’s remains in the nearby woods while hunting rabbits with his dog, though as a seasoned hunter, he must have known the area was an unlikely choice for spotting rabbits.
“I’m in real trouble,” he confided. “I was the last one to see her alive.”
Alarmed, Weston went to get her husband, who called state police.
Ackroyd led investigators into the brush, about a half-mile off the road where Kaye had gone running the previous winter.
How odd, they thought. A hunter would likely overlook the bits of cloth and bone as nothing more than trash and animal carcasses. What had led Ackroyd to conclude the items in the ponderosa pine thicket were Kaye’s?
Forensic experts and search-and-rescue workers spent nearly a week looking for her remains. They found her lower jawbone and yellow shorts. A scrap from her blue pullover, her underwear and a remnant of the heel from one of her Nikes. They found the other sneaker, mostly intact. Kaye’s gold Timex watch with the vinyl band was there, too. Something, likely a struggle, had knocked out the stem, stopping the watch.
The time and date stood still: 9:27 a.m. on Dec. 24. You mentioned the watch earlier. Why? I wanted to pick up the watch detail again because we first saw Kaye wearing the watch as she heads on a run and now the watch is a detail in her killing. Police photos showed her watch in the woods near where her partial remains were found. The time had stopped. The watch played a key role in helping to pin down when she was killed. It was so essential to the chronology that the cash-strapped county that tried Ackroyd years later flew in a Timex exec from the East Coast to testify about the watch and its timekeeping. It was one of those details I tucked away knowing I’d use it somewhere. Plus, in an era of smartphones, a Timex wrist watch gives readers the sense that this crime happened in another era.
As investigators scoured the woods for clues, a state police trooper rested against a tree. He glanced skyward.
High in the lush canopy, he noticed a bird’s nest perched on a branch.
Something was tangled in the twigs and sticks.
It was Kaye’s blond hair.Ackroyd became the prime suspect in Kaye’s abduction and murder.
Investigators’ suspicions deepened as his story began to shift.
Initially, he told police he’d passed Kaye without stopping. Now he admitted he’d not only stopped but also had spoken with her.
Over time, Ackroyd added incriminating details to his account. In one stunning development, he revealed that he’d seen Kaye’s decomposing remains two months after her disappearance but never thought to call police. He said her body was lying in the same wooded area where scraps of her clothing and bits of bone were found.
Her breast had been punctured by a bullet, he said, and her throat was slashed. He claimed he’d reached down to touch the slain woman’s arm and hair.
The gruesome details implicated Ackroyd and suggested to investigators that he’d returned to Camp Sherman weeks after the killing to check on Kaye’s remains.
Ackroyd disclosed yet another curious detail: He hadn’t been alone on Christmas Eve morning.
He said he was with his friend and hunting companion, Roger Dale Beck. The men at first said they’d hunted coyotes but later changed their stories to say they were poaching deer.
Despite all the tantalizing coincidences and Ackroyd’s apparent eagerness to place himself at the scene of the crime, investigators could find no physical evidence definitively linking him to the killing. He steadfastly maintained his innocence, admitting only that he had seen Kaye that morning and found her remains.
Then a confession by a convicted murderer sidetracked detectives before they determined he was lying. I know from watching Dave Killen’s powerful documentary that much of what you summarize in the story, especially people’s voices, appears there instead of the print narrative. Without the film, do you think you would use more voices? Yes, you’re right. Some of the most important sources never appear in the print component of this project. I sought to write a driving narrative that relied on detail, dialogue and description with a bedrock of reporting and research. It felt clunky to me to stop and quote a source. I knew those important voices would have their say in the video so it liberated me to write with more authority. I produced a separate online version of the story with more than 150 footnotes showing the interviews and records that supported crucial passages.
Eventually, the investigation stalled. Ackroyd returned to the periphery.
It seems remarkable in hindsight that he managed to elude police despite such compelling circumstantial evidence and his rape a year earlier of another woman off Highway 20.
Yet Ackroyd went on working for the state, responding to broken down cars, clearing wrecks and fixing state rigs along the highway, alone.
He married a local woman named Linda and they lived with her young kids, Byron and Rachanda.
Beck left Oregon. He was convicted of a sex crime in Minnesota, served seven months in prison, and moved to California.
Kaye Turner’s killing became a faded memory. Her case remained unsolved. Detectives moved on.
Then Rachanda Pickle, Ackroyd’s 13-year-old stepdaughter, disappeared. Several parts conclude with a cliffhanger, effectively designed to keep the reader reading. How did you decide on these and did they form part of the narrative strategy? My editors, Therese Bottomly and Margaret Haberman, told me over and over to think about scenes and to identify cliffhangers. When I outlined each day’s story, I focused on cliffhangers, kickers and which scenes could propel the narrative.
PART 3 OF 5Rachanda Pickle’s stepfather could turn angry in a flash.
Once, when a clock fell off a shelf, he beat her with a homemade paddle. When it snapped, he smacked her repeatedly with his open hand. At other times, friends saw her with a black eye and a wound from where he’d ripped out a patch of her hair. What was your source for this description of Ackroyd’s temper? Interviews with Rachanda Pickle’s brother, Byron, and one of her childhood friends. My footnotes for this passage: Oregonian interview with Byron Pickle: “They had paddles. We were smacked by paddles and a lot of people who are are like, ‘Oh big deal, a paddle.’ No, there was paddles that were designed with holes drilled in them and stuff and they would brag about it helps cuts through the air and you get a harder spanking.” Ackroyd was “very predominant in discipline. … If I put 50 dollars on a gamble that there wasn’t punishment in a week I would lose that 50 dollars.” … “When John snapped, it was scary. I remember him spanking her over one of those old school windup alarm clocks and it got broke and he was trying to fix it in and stuff and him and mom were talking about it and they were both getting heated…mom said to line them up and spank them until (one confesses) … They were getting ready to line us up. My sister was denying it. … She admitted it could have been her. That beating she got was over, over the top. It was scary. My mom was yelling at John to stop. It was scary. He was using a paddle at that time. They were thin slats of wood. It took a lot of force to break them. That’s when it got broken, over her rear. Then he started swinging at her with his hand.”
She was 13.
The family lived at the state highway division compound at Santiam Junction, where U.S. 20 and Oregon 22 meet. Stockpiles of cinder rock towered near the buildings inside the complex. Plows stood ready to rumble onto the mountain pass during winter storms. It was a 30-minute drive to the nearest store for milk. How do you know how long it took? Google says its about a half-hour to Sisters, the nearest town where the family would have bought groceries. I checked that with Byron, Rachanda’s brother. It seemed like decent shorthand for conveying the remoteness of this area.
A dozen or so work crews called the junction home. Few kids lived there and the ones who did weren’t Rachanda’s age.
John Ackroyd had an unusual arrangement with Rachanda’s mother, Linda. The couple married in the mid-1980s but divorced after a year. They continued to live together, though, raising Linda’s two kids, Rachanda and her older brother, Byron.
Rachanda was a good kid, helping around the house and taking care not to stray far. She rode her bike in the lane just outside the door and took a bus to grade school in Sweet Home. She listened to pop stars Debbie Gibson and Wilson Phillips in her bedroom and teased her brother, who was her protector and playground companion.
Her family called her Channy.
To some, she seemed lost, almost invisible. When parent conferences rolled around, no one showed up.
In fifth grade, something shifted. She seemed withdrawn and tired. In class, she counted down the minutes, a sense of dread rising as the end of the school day approached.
She confided in two girls who were sisters. She cried as she told one of them that she was terrified of returning to the junction alone. She asked if she could sleep over. One time, she made a scene when it was time to go. Another time, they snuck her into their bedroom closet.
The sisters knew why she was afraid. Was it difficult to have to summarize so much of the story when your reporting had turned up more than enough details to dramatize the action? Yes and it was something I struggled with. But these are long stories and I didn’t want to lose readers, so it was a question of using scenes and descriptions that were most telling. My editor tells me I usually write with economy and directness, so it was also more of my natural style to hone and hone some more.
Ackroyd was molesting Rachanda.On the morning of July 10, Rachanda was awake early to help her mother get ready for the day. She French-braided her mom’s hair, then settled on the couch to watch cartoons in her pajamas.
Linda and John Ackroyd left for work, she as a housekeeper at Black Butte Ranch, a resort community about 30 minutes away, and he as a highway mechanic. They weren’t expected back until afternoon.
Her mother left behind a short list of chores. Load the dishwasher. Vacuum the house. Take hot dogs out of the freezer.
Later that morning, the door to the house opened unexpectedly.
John Ackroyd was back.
Rachanda was never seen again.
Ackroyd spun the same story from then on.
He dropped off Linda at the resort and continued east on Highway 20 to the state maintenance shop in Bend. He’d planned to fix snowplows but decided to take the day off after learning parts hadn’t arrived, a claim that baffled his supervisor, who said there was plenty of work to keep Ackroyd busy.
He said he returned home to find his stepdaughter under a blanket on the couch. The television was on. The family’s kittens were curled up on the girl’s lap, he said.
He claimed he invited her to join him on a drive to photograph deer on back roads near the junction.
Rachanda declined, citing the chores her mother expected her to finish, he said. Then he said he left.
By his account, Rachanda was gone when he returned a couple of hours later.
Ackroyd did little to look for her and later picked up Linda from work.
When the couple pulled into the compound that evening, Rachanda wasn’t hanging around outside like she had the day before.
The home showed no signs of foul play. Rachanda’s green nightgown was on her bedroom floor. Her mother noticed the girl’s hairbrush, makeup and earrings were still there. The dishes weren’t in the dishwasher and the floor wasn’t vacuumed.
The girl who was good about leaving notes if she headed out to play Nintendo at a neighbor’s house hadn’t left one.
The couple ate; then they had sex, significant because they almost never did. Ackroyd’s low libido was the source of such open conflict that Linda’s teenage son, Byron, knew of their troubles. The language of the story is spare and lean. How much was revision involved in accomplishing this? A spare style is my natural tendency. The editing and revisions were often focused on fleshing out an idea and switching up styles so it wasn’t all spare and lean if that makes sense.
“It was great,” Ackroyd would later tell detectives.
“Where is she?” Linda asked Ackroyd as darkness enveloped the highway compound. “You should know. You were here with her.”
He said he didn’t know. He told Linda to wait until the next day to call police.
In the morning, she dialed 911.
She was calm as she told the dispatcher that her daughter, a homebody, had gone missing. When the dispatcher asked why she hadn’t called sooner, Linda said she assumed she had to wait 24 hours to report a missing person.
“No,” the bewildered dispatcher said, “that’s not true, not with children.” How were you able to describe the dispatcher as “bewildered? I can hear her bafflement on the 911 audio, which I’ve listened to over and over. At first, she’s just taking the info from Linda Ackroyd. Then Linda tells her that Rachanda has been gone for 24 hours and the dispatcher stumbles a bit. She clearly is trying to process why a mother would wait so long to report that her child has disappeared from a remote highway compound.
The dispatcher asked: “Who was the last person that saw her, do you know?”
Linda’s reply was matter of fact.
“Her stepdad.”Police swarmed the highway compound.
Word that Ackroyd’s stepdaughter had vanished spread quickly to neighboring Jefferson County, where Kaye Turner had been killed more than a decade earlier.
Bill Hanlon, the district attorney in Jefferson County, wasn’t surprised when the call came from a prosecutor in Linn County, where Ackroyd lived.
“Ever heard of John Ackroyd?”
Hanlon, who’d spent his career practicing law in rural Oregon, knew of Ackroyd from reading a slim three-ring binder stashed in a cardboard box left behind by his predecessor.
He’d pored over Ackroyd’s police interviews from 1979 when the highway worker admitted he was the last person to see Kaye Turner. He knew it was Ackroyd who had eventually led police to her remains.
The DA knew Ackroyd had changed his story and admitted he had talked to Kaye the morning he encountered her on a run.
Sure, he knew of Ackroyd.
“John Ackroyd killed Kaye Turner,” he replied. This time you use a direct quote? Why? I like how direct, clean and certain Hanlon’s quote is here. It lets the reader know that this could be an important turning point in the story.
The next day, Hanlon hopped in a car with a Jefferson County deputy for a briefing on the search for Rachanda. The men drove by Santiam Junction, slowing as they passed the eastern edge of the highway compound where Ackroyd’s manufactured home backed up to the woods.
There was Ackroyd, standing at the back of his Ford pickup. He was painting the tailgate.
Covering his tracks, thought Hanlon.
This time, the DA — and the cops who believed Ackroyd had gotten away with Kaye Turner’s killing — were determined to get the highway worker off the street for good.Ackroyd didn’t seem bothered that Rachanda was gone and spoke about his missing stepdaughter in a way no panicked parent ever would. He rattled off the girl’s weight and bra size but couldn’t remember her birthday.
He thought she was pretty, he said, and noticed that she’d begun to develop.
Over the course of the investigation, he acted strangely. He appeared to become sexually aroused when shown a pair of pants that police had found in the woods and initially suspected belonged to Rachanda.
He basked in attention from police. He even pretended to aid in the fruitless search for the girl.
Ackroyd’s grim speculation about the harm that had likely come to Rachanda echoed gory stories like the ones he’d replay over and over in “Friday the 13th” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
Once, he invited neighbors over to watch horror movies, becoming so animated over scenes of women being chopped up that he’d hit rewind again and again. His friends became sick at the sight and left.
He wondered aloud if Rachanda had been dumped and buried in the woods or threatened with a knife, tied up and gagged, her body rolled in plastic.
Maybe it was the girl’s development, he told police, that drew a predator to the junction.
“Somebody could have just come in,” he said, “knocked her over the head, throw her over the shoulders and just walk out without anybody seeing her. … Maybe they just walked in, seen an opportunity and grasped at it.”The officers assigned to interrogate Ackroyd were direct:
The highway worker had hurt Rachanda, stuffed her into a garbage bag and hauled her away, Linn County Sheriff’s Detective Jim Salsbery said during one of their interviews. His partner, Detective Will McAnulty, sat nearby. The men spent hours talking to Ackroyd.
By now, investigators knew who they were dealing with. Ackroyd would recycle the same stories. They kept their exasperation in check, rarely raising their voices as they combed fine details for any new revelation.
For a man suspected of murder, Ackroyd was impassive under intense grilling by Salsbery and McAnulty.
Occasionally, Ackroyd would reach for one of the Fireball candies he carried in his pocket. This is a such a powerful, almost poetic detail. What was your reaction when you discovered it? Did you assume readers would know what a Fireball is? Like Kaye’s watch and her hair in the bird’s nest, this Fireball detail is one I knew I would use. A cop once mentioned to me that Ackroyd always had a bunch of these candies in his pocket and would pop them into his mouth during interrogations. It was a great detail that I needed to work into the story. I wasn’t sure what to call it. A cinnamon candy? I asked my colleagues if they thought readers would know about Fireballs and the consensus was yes.
“You know,” he said, “both of you sitting there pointing your fingers at me, and I didn’t do nothing.”
“Didn’t do anything to Kaye Jean Turner?” McAnulty asked, his voice cool.
“Didn’t do anything to Channy?” the cop pressed.
“Didn’t do anything to anybody else?”
“No, what do you think I am?” Ackroyd said, his voice rising in rare agitation. “A sadistic killer goes around killing people, taking girls off somewhere? … I did not do nothing. At the wrong place at the right time.”
“A bunch of times,” McAnulty said.
“Twice,” Ackroyd snapped.
“Twice that we know of,” said McAnulty.
Wasn’t it strange that he was the last person to see Kaye and Rachanda alive?
“You could win the lottery four or five times before something like that would happen,” Salsbery said.
The interview sputtered to a halt. Within months, without a body or physical evidence implicating Ackroyd, so did the investigation.
But they knew Ackroyd was a killer. They had to get him.
They returned to Kaye Turner.Detectives dug into Kaye’s killing once more and soon stumbled on their biggest breakthrough. Did you have any models in mind, any that you studied before or as you were writing? I did not have any models in mind. I read “In Cold Blood” and watched “The Keepers” while working on this series. But neither served as models.
It started when a supervisor in the Linn County Sheriff’s Office assigned McAnulty to organize press clippings from the early days of the investigation. It was the kind of menial task you might give a rookie detective. McAnulty, who’d been promoted to detective just 10 days earlier, dutifully examined old newspaper articles and reports.
He read about how Ackroyd had been with an old hunting buddy on the morning of Kaye’s killing.
That friend was Roger Dale Beck. Beck and his wife lived in a trailer not far from Camp Sherman, where Kaye had disappeared. His wife, Pam, said the two men were around the trailer for most of the morning, which helped give Ackroyd an alibi.
He read about how Ackroyd had been with an old hunting buddy on the morning of Kaye’s killing.
The couple had since divorced and Pam had moved to California.
McAnulty wondered if an ex-wife might see the events of the distant past in a different light.
He talked his boss into letting him drive 750 miles to California to find out.
By then, Beck’s ex-wife had lost touch with Ackroyd but remained fond of him. The two had history that extended to childhood. When she was 12, Ackroyd tattooed his initials on her arm. Two years later, at age 14, she married Beck.
Time had fogged her memory, but on one point she was clear: The men ordered her to lie if police asked where they were that morning.
“I lied like hell back then,” she told McAnulty. Why did Pam Ramirez lie when first interviewed by the cops? She was married to one suspect and romantically involved with the other. But those relationships shifted over time. Her husband was abusive and she drifted from Ackroyd. When cops went back to her years later, she apparently felt more at ease talking about what really happened.
The truth, she said, was this:
On Christmas Eve morning, Ackroyd showed up at the house. The men ate and left to poach deer, not returning until the next day, she said. Their clothes were spattered with so much blood that she got rid of Beck’s jeans and shirt.
Later, the men told her that they’d mistaken Kaye for a deer and fatally shot her.
Over time, the story took on even darker tones.
Kaye had been raped and shot, Beck told Pam. She said he threatened to “do to me exactly what they did to Kaye Turner.”By early 1992, investigators were closing in on Ackroyd. Did you and your colleagues ever worry whether readers would care about cases that happened so many years before? We worried about this constantly. So we had to make clear to the reader why we were telling these stories. Why do these victims matter now? They matter because some of their stories have never been told. Their connections to Ackroyd were never made public. And Marlene was the victim of police malpractice, which had lethal consequences.
He’d returned to Sweet Home to live with his mother and split for good with Linda. After Rachanda’s disappearance, Ackroyd was transferred out of Santiam Junction, where his connection to the case and his behavior made women uncomfortable.
Ackroyd worked out of Corvallis and continued to roam the highway.
Sometime after he moved, Ackroyd was in his truck with the daughter of an old friend. She spotted two young women she knew. Ackroyd stopped. She introduced the women to him and they climbed in.
Melissa Sanders was 17 and from Sweet Home. Sheila Swanson was 19 and from nearby Lebanon.
They were restless and broke, living an itinerant existence, drinking too much and keeping dangerous company.
Most nights, the pair could be found at Shari’s in Lebanon, where teens and adults gathered to talk on CB radios and drink coffee.
Ackroyd, too, hung out there. He was drawn to Melissa and Sheila, making a point to chat them up.
At the same time, a dozen investigators working the Turner case seized on Ackroyd’s shifting accounts. They pressed him again and again about his interactions with Kaye.
Cops went to search a storage unit Ackroyd had rented the year before, only to find he’d cleared it out days earlier.
Ackroyd was a prime suspect and he knew it. A grand jury would hear the case.
His arrest was imminent. The style of the series is elliptical in that it leaves out information, such as dialogue, names of source and other details. How and why did you settle on that approach? I was working with a massive amount of information, a long span of years and a huge slice of Oregon geography. It made sense to strip it down. I wanted to absorb all of the material I had collected and then tell the story with authority. It’s also a newspaper story, not a book. We gobbled up newsroom resources and space online and in the paper, but there’s a limit — and that’s the reality of the job and format. I also was liberated by knowing the companion photos and video would fill in many of the details in a different way. The project was a true collaboration.
Within weeks, Melissa and Sheila were dead.
PART 4 OF 5Melissa Sanders and Sheila Swanson made their final call from a pay phone in the dark, the sound of the Pacific Ocean churning in the background. An ominous lead. How did you settle on this entry point to their story? On one reporting trip to the Oregon Coast, I walked the campground and stood in the area where the women made their final call. I tried to picture this scene. The idea of two young women standing in the dark in a woodsy campground steps from the Pacific Ocean heightened their vulnerability. I wanted the reader to grasp the precarious position these women were at the time they disappeared.
The two friends had gone camping with Melissa’s family at Beverly Beach State Park, a windswept strand of sand and headlands on the central Oregon coast. The restive pair quickly grew bored and wanted their boyfriends to pick them up. When the men turned them down, Melissa and Sheila said they’d hitchhike instead.
The teenagers had met six months earlier. They grew up in small towns about 90 minutes inland on Highway 20 and shared a history infused with drugs and alcohol.
They were scrappy and streetwise high school dropouts. Sheila often slept away from home but stayed in touch with her mother. Melissa had a turbulent life, too. She once showed up at Sheila’s with bruises on her face and asked if she could stay.
The two spent evenings at a Shari’s restaurant along Highway 20, where they hung around with other teens and locals, including a state mechanic named John Ackroyd.
By then, Ackroyd was a suspected killer who had frustrated police for more than a decade. He had raped a young woman, led detectives to a runner’s remains off an isolated road in central Oregon and was the last person to see his stepdaughter alive.
Vulnerable and adrift, Melissa and Sheila knew nothing of Ackroyd’s sinister background when he entered their lives.
Sheila, then 19, was the older of the two but seemed younger. She carried her baby book as a reminder of a time when she was happy. She often wore a black leather jacket that her parents paid for on installments.
At 17, Melissa was tough-talking and independent. The spring camping trip to Newport was supposed to mean time with family, but she and Sheila took off the first chance they got.
Melissa’s parents awoke to find the young women gone, their tent empty. They assumed the two had gotten a ride from friends.
When the family returned to Sweet Home later that week, Melissa wasn’t there. Her father waited a few more days before calling police, then the FBI. Word reached police in Lebanon, Sheila’s hometown, that she, too, hadn’t shown up.
Local cops tracked down Sheila’s mother. She’d gone around town hanging missing posters but hadn’t called police.
What they didn’t know: The teens likely were already dead.Around that time, Marvin Laront was working the graveyard shift at the state highway shop in Sweet Home. Ackroyd would park his personal truck there before taking a state rig to work in Corvallis. How did you track down Laront? Was it easy to get him to talk to you? I think I just ran him through one of our databases. He was willing to talk. He seemed almost relieved to be able to talk about what he’d seen.
Laront and a coworker sat on seats salvaged from old vans, talking about the night ahead. They’d noticed that Ackroyd’s truck was still parked outside and his work rig wasn’t there. That meant he was on the road unusually late.
The men heard a truck pull into the yard.
Strange hour for company, they thought.
It was Ackroyd.
His shirtsleeves were rolled up. Dried blood covered his arms and hands.
“What the heck happened to you?” Laront asked.
“Ran into a deer,” Ackroyd said. “I had to gut him out.”
Laront asked what Ackroyd had done with the carcass.
“Threw him into the brush,” he said.
Bewildered by the explanation, the men watched as Ackroyd washed up. Then he left for home. This time you dramatize the action instead of summarizing it. Why? This is a dramatic scene — Ackroyd walks into the Sweet Home shop spattered with blood and offers a strange explanation. I knew this would be an essential scene. It’s damning circumstantial evidence linking Ackroyd to the deaths of these two women, Melissa and Sheila. I was able to reconstruct this scene based on a detailed interview with Marvin Laront .
Later, they mentioned the bizarre encounter to a foreman, but the anecdote never made it past shop gossip.
Laront didn’t think of it again until that fall when he heard the news on the radio. Hunters had found the bodies of two young women who had vanished during a camping trip on the coast. They’d been dumped off the highway along Ackroyd’s route from the coast to Sweet Home. Sheila’s ankles were bound with leggings. Her sneakers and socks were still on her feet.
A used rivet was discovered near her body. Investigators suspected the rivet — a quick fix used in field repairs — had fallen out of the pocket of her attacker.
Parts of Melissa’s body were gone, probably dragged away by animals. She was nude. Was the use of such sickening details debated before the story ran? What was the justification to go ahead and use them in a “family newspaper?” Pretty much all the details of the attacks and deaths are sickening in the series. It’s ugly to describe and imagine these killings. We talked all along about how graphic to be. These particular details are important as circumstantial evidence. They show similarities with the other attacks — off the highway in the woods, restraints or some sort of overpowering, abuse and then stashing the women’s bodies out of the way, leaving them for the elements and animals to destroy. It’s definitely hard to read but written, I hope it’s seen, with deliberation and circumspection.
The medical examiner speculated that the young women had been strangled, but the condition of their remains made it difficult to determine a cause of death for either.
Laront remembered the night when a bloodied Ackroyd came into the shop. It was earlier in the year, though he couldn’t recall the date.
“Wait a minute,” Laront thought, “how come he is coming back so late at night?
“How come he had all this blood on his hands?”Melissa and Sheila vanished as police closed in on Ackroyd in the killing of Kaye Turner, who had disappeared 14 years earlier on a backroad near Highway 20.
Weeks after the teens disappeared, Ackroyd was finally arrested for Kaye’s murder and booked into the Jefferson County jail in Madras. Detectives wondered if he took a chance to kill again before his arrest.
Kaye had been an avid runner with deep ties to Eugene, where she worked as a manager at a local public health agency. On Christmas Eve morning in 1978, she went out for a run in Camp Sherman, where she, her husband and friends planned to spend the holiday.
She encountered Ackroyd and his hunting partner on a deserted road. Months later, the highway worker led police to the wooded area where scraps of her clothing and her jawbone were found.
Ackroyd dodged the accusations at the time, but police revived Kaye’s case in 1990 amid an unsuccessful investigation to solve the disappearance of Rachanda Pickle, Ackroyd’s 13-year-old stepdaughter.
Now, two years after Rachanda went missing without a trace from the family home, the young women who left a camping trip were dead. Within days of the discovery of Melissa and Sheila’s bodies, police zeroed in once again on the highway worker.
Even before hunters had stumbled upon the teens’ remains, Ackroyd told a friend: “They are assuming it’s me.”
Police scoured his work truck. One detective took time to sketch Ackroyd’s loose connections to Melissa and Sheila — how he and the teenagers knew some of the same people in Sweet Home, his hometown.
While recordings from his earlier police interrogations on the Kaye Turner and Rachanda Pickle cases filled hours of tape, Ackroyd was silent on Melissa and Sheila. Did you have to listen to them to be able to write that sentence? I listened to them all, some multiple times.
A detective reached out to request an interview. This time Ackroyd’s lawyer responded. The answer was no.
Just as before, police turned up no physical evidence linking him to Melissa and Sheila.
Ackroyd was one of many leads they pursued. The teens had managed to build a sordid social circle in their young lives, so investigators had plenty of violent men to consider. Police at one point speculated that Melissa’s alleged theft of glassware from a local meth cook might have gotten them killed.
None of it went anywhere.Two decades passed.
Sheila’s parents had died, leaving her younger brother to carry on alone with his grief. Melissa’s mother died, too. Her father, Richard Sanders, kept her jewelry box, which looked like a miniature china cabinet, under a counter in the old trailer where he lived outside Sweet Home.
Melissa and Sheila joined a list of girls last heard from or seen late at night in coastal Lincoln County. In all, five teens disappeared on or around highways in the county from 1984 through 1995.
Their cases lingered in the community’s collective memory, and the local district attorney decided to reopen them in 2012, eager to identify potential suspects. Why after two decades? I think the local DA wanted to take another look at this cluster of unsolved cases involving young women, and Melissa and Sheila were among them.
The unglamorous task fell to Ron Benson, an investigator for the district attorney, and Linda Snow, a retired legal assistant. They complemented each other: Benson, a veteran cop who’d had a hand in investigating some of Lincoln County’s most memorable and notorious crimes, and Snow, a quick study with an impressive memory and a knack for spinning a mountain of clues into theories.
They met once a week in Benson’s office to dive into thousands of pages of old files, spending hours devouring details about the case.
What had the original investigators overlooked?
A lawyer from central Oregon heard the cases had been reopened and called with a suggestion: Take a look at an old highway worker named John Ackroyd. It’s amazing how much serendipity plays a role in this story, isn’t it? Yes! But it’s worth noting that it took many years for this particular serendipity to play out. It’s a testament to taking a second or third look with fresh eyes and newer forensic techniques at old crimes. It’s also a testament to the human need to find answers and how these disappearances and Ackroyd himself affected people who knew there had to be a connection.
Benson made a four-hour trek to a courthouse three counties away, where a metal filing cabinet held Kaye Turner’s case. Snow worked the phones, digging up numbers for highway workers, many of them long retired.
Over time, the two made painstaking progress. They located the woman who had introduced Melissa and Sheila to Ackroyd. She told them how Ackroyd had once offered the young women a ride.
The anecdote revealed that Ackroyd knew Melissa and Sheila and that the young women were comfortable enough with him to climb into his truck.
Others told the investigators that Ackroyd started hanging around the Shari’s in Lebanon after he met the teens. It was there that witnesses heard Ackroyd try to lure Melissa and Sheila to a party he said he’d planned to host in Newport — just down the road from where they would be camping.
Old coworkers told Benson and Snow how they’d seen Ackroyd around a highway project near a gravel logging road off Highway 20. It wasn’t far from where the teens’ remains were found. Ackroyd was spotted there at least three times after they went missing.
The investigators sifted through the evidence collected from the woods where hunters came across Melissa and Sheila’s bodies. There was the rivet found near Sheila and a beaded seat cushion used at the time in cars and trucks.
Highway workers told them the rivet was a common part they carried on the job. And a seat cover, they said, could have been in Ackroyd’s state rig. Some workers used them to keep cool in summer months.A whiteboard went up in Benson’s office. Why did you decide to use Benson and Snow as a vehicle to transmit all this background? The series linked Melissa and Sheila’s disappearances to Ackroyd for the first time. Their deaths exposed Ackroyd as a serial killer and raised the possibility of other killings. The cold case investigation was current and provided real-time detective work that was an aspect of the story that we hadn’t yet explored. Most of the narrative was constructed looking back. This was looking forward. And narratively, the detectives and their work showed connections among all the cases.
He drew an orange grid, each column dedicated to a victim assaulted or killed, likely by Ackroyd.
First: Marlene Gabrielsen, raped in 1977.
Kaye Turner was killed in 1978, followed by Ackroyd’s stepdaughter, Rachanda, in 1990.
Then Melissa and Sheila in 1992.
The two investigators crowded Benson’s office with more whiteboards, scribbling fine points from each case. They looked for similarities — how none of the victims had been buried, for example. Ackroyd had once speculated to police that his stepdaughter might not have been buried either. Her body had never been found.
And then there was Ackroyd’s eerie talk of hunting. He told police he was poaching when Kaye was killed. He said he’d gone to photograph wildlife when Rachanda went missing. His excuse for his bloody arms and hands around the time Melissa and Sheila vanished was that he’d just gutted a roadkill deer.
They wrote down his habit of taking time off around the disappearances, as he’d done with Kaye and Rachanda. He took off a couple days the week Melissa and Sheila had gone camping.Late in the investigation, they heard the strange tale from a few of the old highway workers about Ackroyd’s bloody arms. The story was secondhand and not in any of the police reports.
Too good to be true, Snow thought. But what if the case turned on that clue?
Benson and Snow set out to find the men who had the strange encounter with Ackroyd. Highway worker after highway worker said they weren’t there that night, they couldn’t vouch that it had happened.
Then one finally offered: Try a woman who worked at the Sweet Home shop back then.
It took weeks — the woman had changed her name since the early 1990s — but she remembered the men and their names.
The investigators called Marvin Laront. His voice came through the speaker. He recalled the blood, Ackroyd’s unlikely story and the odd timing. In a separate call, his old coworker told the same story.
Of course they remembered. How could they forget?
The investigators glanced at each other, stunned by the damning account all these years later.
It was as close to a breakthrough as they’d get.
Four years after they started, Benson and Snow had strung together enough evidence to take the double murder to a grand jury.
Melissa and Sheila had waited until dawn to leave the family’s campsite. They began walking along U.S. 101, covering more than six miles to the turnoff to Highway 20, then headed east. Ackroyd, going to Newport for work that day, encountered the teenagers somewhere along the highway and offered them a lift, just as he had in the past. This time, he drove them up a logging road and into the woods.
The body count tied to Ackroyd was now up to four. You end this section by withholding what happened with the grand jury. Why? The state didn’t take the case to a grand jury. They simply felt they had enough. It was my way of saying the state felt they had enough to prove this case and that’s as close as this case would get to justice.
PART 5 OF 5John Ackroyd had nothing left to say when he finally went on trial for abducting Kaye Turner 15 years earlier as she was out for a winter run along a backwoods road off Highway 20.
He had done all his talking to investigators during hours of interrogations after Kaye vanished. Those contradictions, discrepancies and outright lies had led him to this moment.
All these years later, the Turner trial would be the first step in bringing the killer to justice.
“This day,” prosecutor Bill Hanlon told jurors, “has been long in coming.”
For more than a month in late 1993, Ackroyd sat impassively in a courtroom at the historic Jefferson County Courthouse in downtown Madras, about an hour’s drive across the high desert from where Kaye had disappeared.
Ackroyd, an opportunist who preyed on women, had worked for more than a decade as a state mechanic along the last 170 miles of Highway 20 from the Cascade foothills to the coast.
He eluded police even as their suspicions about him deepened. He had already raped a young mother by the time he happened upon Kaye the day before Christmas in 1978.
Ackroyd’s explanations of his encounter with her never added up, but detectives found no physical evidence directly tying him to the killing.
They filed it away, unsolved.
Then Ackroyd’s teenage stepdaughter disappeared and a new group of investigators reopened Kaye’s case. Two more young women disappeared about a month before Ackroyd was arrested and charged in Kaye’s death.
The murder trial made headlines around the state. Kaye’s mother attended, but her father, shattered by the loss of his only child, didn’t live long enough to see the case come to a close.
The jurors listened attentively and scribbled notes. They didn’t hear from Ackroyd, who had decided not to testify. But they heard about forensic testing on Kaye’s clothing. The testing, unavailable at the time of her killing, showed she’d been shot and stabbed. Prosecutors said she also had been raped.
Among the witnesses was a young woman who was running in Camp Sherman on the same day as Kaye. It turned out that Jane Morris had an earlier brush with Ackroyd as well, months before Kaye went missing.
Jane, then 24, was on her bicycle, headed home from a waitressing job when she noticed Ackroyd standing near his pickup parked along the side of the road in Camp Sherman. He pointed a handgun at her and ordered her to stop.
Jane’s heart raced as she crouched over her handlebars and sped toward the nearby country store, listening for the sound of the truck behind her.
In the courtroom, she turned to face Ackroyd. It was the first time she’d seen him since that summer morning. For a moment, she considered how lucky she had been to escape unharmed. Did you discover Jane Morris in the trial transcript? How did you locate her? Court and police files contained several references to Jane. I found her through Nexis, I think. She answered right away and was willing to tell me about her experience so the three of us headed to Salem to interview her.
The trial came to a close and Ackroyd, dressed in cowboy boots, jeans and a studded belt with “John” in silver letters, Great details, especially the belt. Source? A report from the trial in the Bend (OR) Bulletin. sat and waited to hear his fate.
It took the jury just four hours.
Guilty. What sources did you rely on to reconstruct the events of your trial? The prosecutor, Bill Hanlon, and newspaper accounts. Even with the verdict, investigators would never really know what unfolded the morning Kaye died.
Ackroyd had offered his hunting buddy, Roger Dale Beck, as his alibi, but another jury found Beck guilty of murder in the Turner case, too. Beck had bragged to family members about killing Kaye. Both men received life sentences.
Yet neither man confessed to police. Kaye’s final hours remained a mystery.
At one point before the trials, investigators had returned to Camp Sherman to re-enact theories of what had happened.
A young deputy played Kaye. In scene after scene, over a couple of long days as the Christmas holiday approached, the investigators playing Ackroyd and Beck would snatch her off the road. Sometimes they would drive away and turn back to get her. In other scenes, Beck grabbed her as Ackroyd looked on.
The deputy ran at a steady pace, the thrum of the truck approaching her from behind. She thought of how Kaye must have felt, the air so cold she could see her breath.
She fought back in every scene, but they all ended the same.
Then it was time to go. Will McAnulty, one of the detectives, suggested they run through the scene one more time. For Kaye.
Again, the investigator playing Ackroyd tried to grab the woman, only this time she wrestled the gun from his grip and pretended to fire a single fatal shot to his heart.
The killer was dead. The cops cheered. You could, I assume, have used sources to describe this scene. Why did you decide to tell it in the omniscient third person as you do so much of the story? I relied on interviews with a detective and the woman deputy to reconstruct this scene. This scene has a cinematic quality — cops gathering on an empty road days before Christmas reenacting an abduction using a woman deputy and then deciding to give the story their own happy ending. I knew I wanted to use this somewhere in this series. It moved around a bit until it landed here. It’s got humanity and poignancy but it also lets readers know that ultimately some questions about the Turner murder were never answered. Just like with Kaye, detectives would never know what had happened to Ackroyd’s stepdaughter, Rachanda Pickle.
The girl, 13 years old, had never been found. She went missing in 1990 — 12 years after Kaye’s killing and just down the highway.
The prime suspect all along, Ackroyd wasn’t charged in the case. Was there ever a concern about libeling Ackroyd before he died and rendered the question moot? I don’t think we talked about that because he died so early in my reporting.
His story about inviting the girl to photograph wildlife that morning never made sense to Rachanda’s family and friends. He seemed to relish gruesome speculation about what harm had come to her. Though investigators were certain he was behind her disappearance, they couldn’t prove it.
The girl’s mother eventually moved to California and remarried. Linda Ackroyd, who now goes by the last name Monville, says she doesn’t know if Ackroyd molested her daughter. She denies that he beat her kids.
Rachanda’s brother struggled to cope with the loss of his sister. The detectives who handled her disappearance retired. Then, two decades later, in 2010, another detective picked up the file.
Mike Harmon, a longtime investigator with the Linn County Sheriff’s Office, worried Ackroyd had a shot at parole. If you had to characterize the way the system worked in the Rachanda Pickle case, what words would you use? I would describe it as unsatisfying and extraordinary. Unsatisfying because he pleaded no contest but his sentence was suspended as part of the plea so he was never formally convicted and his plea deal didn’t require him to reveal what he’d done with Rachanda. Extraordinary because the court sealed the plea and effectively silenced Rachanda’s brother. The process compounded his grief.
Harmon wondered if time had softened the old highway worker. Was he ready to talk?The cop arranged to meet with the killer at Oregon’s maximum-security prison in Salem in the fall of 2012.
Harmon’s manner was low-key and friendly as he tried to gauge Ackroyd’s interest in pursuing parole. Ackroyd wasn’t sure. He had diabetes and a bad heart. He worried he’d become a burden for his family.
Harmon kept the tone conversational as he directed Ackroyd back to Rachanda. He took out an envelope of old photos of Ackroyd, his pickups and Santiam Junction — all from the original police file. Ackroyd, now 63, went over the timeline of the day Rachanda disappeared, spinning the same old lies.
Harmon tried to nudge Ackroyd. He got creative: What if cops and prison officials arranged for Ackroyd to share a Christmas or Thanksgiving meal with his family on the outside? Would he give up the body?
Ackroyd wasn’t interested.
Harmon was more direct when he returned to the prison a second time.
“I work for Channy,” he told Ackroyd. “Something bad happened to her. The prosecution is going to progress in this.”
Ackroyd was in no mood to talk this time.
“I am totally innocent,” he said, his breathing labored, “and I’ll say that until the day I die.” How were you able to describe his breathing? Why was it important to do so? I can hear him on the recording that the detective made. He struggles to breathe and it’s clear he takes time to move around. I wanted to show that at this point Ackroyd was a very sick man. Harmon thought back to the handful of cases from the 1970s that remained unsolved: the bodies or clothes of women and one young man found in the isolated wilderness of Linn County, not far from Highway 20, the route Ackroyd spent years traveling for the state.
Two were Jane Does. Another, a young woman from Lebanon named Elizabeth Mussler who disappeared when she was 22, was discovered in a shallow grave.
Two more teens disappeared but their bodies never turned up.
Karen Lee, 15, and Rodney Grissom, 14, were friends. They ran away from home with plans to make it to California.
Their final call in the spring of 1977 came from a pay phone in Lebanon. Later, Karen’s jeans, pages of her journal and the blouse she’d sewn for a school project were found off a logging road.
Her jeans appeared to have been cut. The clue bore a chilling similarity to two of Ackroyd’s earlier assaults: Rape victim Marlene Gabrielsen’s boots and underwear were sliced and so was the waistband on Kaye Turner’s yellow jogging shorts.
Karen’s mother, Violet Gillmore, long believed Ackroyd was behind her daughter’s disappearance. Gillmore knew Ackroyd had abducted a runner near Highway 20. She also knew he was from Sweet Home, not far from where Karen had used the pay phone to call a friend in the Midwest, just one year before Kaye Turner died.
She was never heard from again.
Karen’s case and the others from that era were all but forgotten. No evidence, physical or otherwise, ever linked Ackroyd to any of them, but their timing and proximity to Highway 20 prompted investigators to wonder if the mechanic had a hand in them.
In prison that day with Ackroyd, the detective took one last shot.
“What about the other ones?” he asked.
“What other ones?” said Ackroyd.
“The other ones.”
“What you talking about?”
“Talking about some other people that are dead up in that area.”
“Oh,” said Ackroyd, “now you’re trying to lay some others on me?”
“No, I’m just asking you,” the detective said. “I’m just asking you.”
“I have never killed anybody in my life,” Ackroyd said. “I thought about it, but I never done it.”
Harmon returned to Rachanda.
“So you don’t know where she’s at,” he asked. “Is that what you’re saying?
“I wish I knew,” Ackroyd answered.
“Oh, I think you do,” Harmon said softly.
Ackroyd heaved his body out of the chair.
“If you change your mind and want to show me,” Harmon called out, “let me know.”
The aging killer headed to the door and returned to his cell. This is another of the few times when we read extended dialogue, a hallmark of classic narrative. What was your source and why did you use it when so many other times you chose to paraphrase speech? This is a crucial moment where Ackroyd is confronted with one of these crimes, in this case Rachanda’s disappearance. I have the audio of this conversation. It’s dramatic and I wanted to draw it out for the reader. I wanted the reader to hear Ackroyd’s reaction when confronted with the detective’s suspicions. It was the last time any cop talked to Ackroyd.
A few months later, in 2013, the Linn County district attorney took Rachanda’s case to grand jurors.
Prosecutors didn’t have a body. And Harmon hadn’t uncovered any physical evidence linking Ackroyd to Rachanda’s disappearance. But, worried about the possibility of parole in the Turner case, they took their chances.
Enough time had passed to conclude Rachanda was dead. A Forest Service ranger’s account of seeing Ackroyd that day in a sno-park near Santiam Junction — hours later than Ackroyd claimed — blew a hole in the highway worker’s alibi.
And, most significantly, the teen’s friends confirmed what investigators had long suspected: Ackroyd had been sexually abusing the girl before she vanished.
The circumstantial case rested on a basic theory: It was unlikely that anyone but Ackroyd, now a convicted killer, had harmed the girl.
The grand jury returned an indictment on a single count: murder.
Another Oregon courthouse provided the backdrop for Ackroyd’s second prosecution. Rachanda’s mother, Linda, didn’t make the trip and the girl’s father wasn’t around.
The responsibility of speaking for Rachanda rested with her brother, Byron Pickle, then 37. The district attorney asked Byron if he supported a plea deal or if he wanted Ackroyd to stand trial.
If a jury acquitted Ackroyd, it could clear the way for him to seek parole.
Byron needed a moment to think.
He and his wife walked out of the county courthouse, where he paced and wept. He hadn’t told his wife the full story of Rachanda’s life and how he remained tormented that he hadn’t hugged his kid sister the last time he saw her.
Their childhoods had been nightmarish under Ackroyd’s roof. Byron recalled regular beatings. Rachanda was so uneasy living at Santiam Junction that she routinely brought a change of clothes to school hoping to stay with friends. Though Ackroyd offered their mother stability, the teens dreamed of the day they could leave home for good. This is heartbreaking. How did it affect you and your colleagues? Reporting on this series was emotionally grueling. Dave, Beth and I spent a lot of time deep in the woods where these women were assaulted, killed and abandoned. We talked to grieving loved ones. We spent time with Marlene, the lone survivor. We felt and processed their profound grief. Secondary trauma from reporting stories like this is real. But the work of discovery keeps you going — as well as the realization (maybe anxiety) that you must make a fair and supportable case and do justice to the time involved, the expense and most of all, the material. We relied on each other for support. We talked about this stuff pretty much nonstop at work and when we hung out together outside of work. I moved my desk next to Dave’s. We bounced ideas off each other and checked facts. The three of us had a favorite restaurant on the road. Dave listened to a lot of Bruce Springsteen.
Now the district attorney could use his sister’s death to keep Ackroyd from hurting anyone else.
“I am not going to gamble this guy getting away with it,” Byron thought.
And so the case reached a quiet end in the fall of 2013. The story reaches its powerful chronological conclusion. Did you use an outline or timeline to keep things straight in this convoluted case? I used a massive spreadsheet for reference. It is a very convoluted story with a blizzard of facts, dates, people, incidents, etc. Organization, extensive footnoting and a decent system for records that involved seven three-ring binders helped me keep it all straight. Plus reading it aloud again and again — and producing a condensed online timeline — helped uncover themes and discrepancies.
Ackroyd shuffled into the courtroom, where Byron sat in the gallery clutching a photograph of his sister. His wife sat by his side. Harmon, the investigator who spent hours interviewing Ackroyd, was there, too.
Ackroyd entered a no contest plea to his stepdaughter’s murder. He wouldn’t admit to killing the girl, but he wouldn’t deny it either. In exchange, he agreed never to seek parole.
The extraordinary arrangement meant Ackroyd would die in prison.
As for what happened to Rachanda’s body, Ackroyd gave no clue.
The hearing lasted about seven minutes. When it concluded, the judge sealed the court records. The reason for concealing the documents and who insisted on secrecy have been lost to time. Do you or any of the detectives have any suspicions why it was sealed? I spent considerable time trying to answer this very question. I never got a clear answer about why it was sealed or who made that request. The judge didn’t remember the circumstances and the lawyers for each side pointed fingers at one another. There was nothing in the record that showed where this request came from or why it had been sought.
For years, only those in the room would know what had happened.Three years later, by the end of 2016, the two investigators who had carefully stitched together a case against Ackroyd for the killings of Melissa Sanders and Sheila Swanson considered the work done. They believed Ackroyd picked up the teenagers sometime after they walked away from a family camping trip on the coast.
The district attorney said they had enough to take the case to a grand jury. But Ackroyd was already serving a life sentence. A new prosecution would be too expensive.
In late December, as the case wrapped up, the investigators read the news: Ackroyd was dead. The cause: heart disease.
The state police detective assigned to investigate the killer’s death found Ackroyd on the floor of his cell, his sleep apnea machine still whirring and the breathing tube stuck in his throat, left over from last-ditch efforts to save him. His false teeth had been knocked to the floor.
The state had continued to pay out Ackroyd’s $3,624 monthly public employee pension even while he was in prison. He stuffed his cell with food from the prison commissary — dozens of packages of processed meats and cheese, candy bars and beans. He was beset with chronic health problems and hadn’t left his cell much. His confidants were a pair of child molesters serving long prison sentences.
That morning, the detective looked around the disheveled cell and surveyed what was left: Ackroyd’s stash of food, a cane and his prison-issued clothes.
For decades, investigators wanted peace for Rachanda, the lonely girl who was unhappy and out of place at the highway compound.
Had Ackroyd left a note telling them where to find her?
There was nothing.
EPILOGUEThis is a messy story with loose ends and unanswered questions.
It doesn’t conclude with a dramatic trial in a packed courtroom. There were no somber words from the bench about justice served, no deathbed confessions. Is this the theme of the story? I don’t know that it’s the theme. It was my way of acknowledging to the reader that this has been an epic tale that won’t have a Hollywood ending.
There was no chance to give Rachanda a proper burial. Kaye’s remains sat forgotten in the Jefferson County Courthouse until three years ago when court staff came across them. They were turned over to her husband and cremated.
Mystery still shrouds much of what happened during Ackroyd’s final encounters with his victims, and that’s not likely to change. In that way, the story feels unresolved. This section could perhaps have served as a nut graf, placed much higher in the story. Why did you write it and place it here? We had a lot of discussion about the ending. Actually, the beginning and the ending were the most rewritten parts of the series, as we knew they would be. The beginning because you have to engage and explain but not overpromise, all the while getting the tone right. The ending because you want to leave readers with a meaningful and hopefully memorable coda, the lasting impression. The two camps on the ending: Stop at Ackroyd’s death with a scene of a cop looking around the killer’s cell for a confession but finding nothing. Pretty bleak. Or go back to the people left behind, particularly Marlene, who had lived to tell her story and felt heard for the first time. We chose to go with the legacy of the investigation.
Maybe that’s why these are the cases that stuck with investigators.
Like Mark Foster, one of the cops who worked on the Kaye Turner investigation. He returned to duty last year as a volunteer deputy with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office. He spent Christmas patrolling Camp Sherman, quietly marking Kaye’s disappearance decades earlier.
And Bill Hanlon, the prosecutor who helped put Ackroyd away. He runs in Kaye’s memory every Christmas Eve.
Two of the victims’ brothers have quietly suffered for years.
Today, both men insist they should have done more to protect Sheila Swanson and Rachanda Pickle from a killer.
Once in a while, Bart Swanson makes his way to the isolated logging road where Sheila’s body was found just feet from her friend, Melissa Sanders. He lies down in the dirt and stares up: Is this what his sister saw before she died?
Rachanda’s brother, Byron, still sees her so clearly, her sweet features framed by brown hair. Her face and name are tattooed onto his left bicep, a memorial to the aunt his children never knew. The last time the two saw each other, Rachanda was in the backseat of a Chevy Blazer headed home. How did you decide which characters to include in the epilogue? These are key characters in this story. There was stuff I wanted to say about them that didn’t really fit in elsewhere so this seemed like a good spot for that. A father himself now, Byron gets a catch in his voice when he talks about it.
Kaye’s husband Noel remarried. He’s a grandfather now. Though they had grown apart in their marriage, he remembers Kaye with fondness. She was a bright and witty woman who seemed destined to live a full life. Was it difficult to learn about Kaye Turner’s husband since her murder? At the beginning of my reporting, I wrote a letter to Noel Turner, the husband of Kaye Turner who had disappeared on the Christmastime run. I asked him for an interview. He didn’t respond. Months later, I wrote him another letter. I wanted him to know that the reporting was continuing and that a story would likely appear sometime in the coming months. Again, he didn’t respond. I understood how painful it could be to have us revisit this traumatic time in his life so I respected his decision. But as we approached publication, Therese (Bottomly) said I needed to connect with Noel. She wanted to make sure he knew what was coming. So Dave and I drove a couple hours south to the Turner home — Noel had remarried in the years after Kaye’s death — and knocked on the door. Sandy Turner, Noel’s wife, answered and greeted us warmly. She invited us in and we waited for Noel to return from running an errand. When he got home, I explained the purpose of our visit, what the series would report and how it would include details about his wife’s killing that would be upsetting. He listened quietly and wept. He said very little that day but thanked us for making the trip. A few days later, I received a handwritten letter from Noel. In it, he thanked me for telling the stories of Ackroyd’s other victims. “These are important stories to be told,” he wrote.
Then there’s Ackroyd’s first known victim.
Marlene Gabrielsen is the one who got away.In 1977, she told police that Ackroyd had raped her and they didn’t believe her.
She lives in Hillsboro with her husband. They raised three kids. She went on to work at a local bank.
She didn’t talk much about what had happened. Why bother? No one listened all those years ago.
Then she agreed to tell her story.
Over the course of hours of interviews with The Oregonian/OregonLive, she unburdened herself of every ugly detail.
She was at turns enraged and guilt-stricken. She had tried to warn police about Ackroyd.
Now Kaye, Rachanda, Melissa and Sheila are dead.
Victims of sexual assault often ask to remain anonymous. They don’t want the stigma and the shame associated with these crimes.
Marlene K. Gabrielsen wants you to remember her name.
She told the truth all along.
It’s 41 years too late, but finally she is believed. Why did you choose to end the narrative with Marlene Gabrielson? Marlene started this series and it seemed fitting to end with her. I knew from the time I’d spent with her that she’s a strong person, and Day 1 of this series didn’t capture that. Ending with her in this way allowed me to highlight her resilience. I also wanted to touch on the idea that this story served as a form of justice for Marlene. She’s finally believed and there’s satisfaction that comes with that. Seemed like the most hopeful note on which to end a series that didn’t offer much light.
The Oregonian/OregonLive’s five-part series on John Ackroyd details crimes that include sexual abuse, rape and murder. If you have experienced sexual violence and need support, please call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE. The Oregon Department of Justice has additional information and resources for survivors of sexual violence. The story also features an annotated version using footnotes identifying all your sources? Why did you go to this trouble? The annotated version that ran online was a much shorter version of my own footnoted drafts of this story. Those footnotes helped me sleep at night. Kelley Benham French read one of those footnoted drafts and suggested that we publish them all. She saw it as a way of letting readers know how much work went into this series. At a time when journalists’ credibility is under assault, extensive footnotes seemed like a compelling way to show our work. Margaret (Haberman) agreed and suggested that we pare them down to a manageable number for publication. So instead of hundreds of footnotes, we ran about 150 in a separate version of the story that also links to original source material.