Murder at the North Pole – Readers and Writers Book Club

Murder at the North Pole

After a string of murders of young women near Fairbanks in the late 1970s and early ’80s, the abductions and murders mysteriously stopped. Troopers didn’t believe the vicious killer had suddenly halted his murder spree, but they feared the predator had moved somewhere else. Unfortunately, at the time, they had no database to track the killer’s movements beyond Alaska. Only the deductive reasoning and hard work of seasoned investigators traced the monster to his new hunting grounds, four thousand miles away.

Before the FBI’s combined DNA Index System (CODIS), and before VICAP (the Violent Criminal Apprehension Program), states had no systematic method of sharing the evidence from violent crime scenes. No national database existed, making it difficult for investigators to track vicious predators who crossed state lines.

The North Pole is where Santa and Mrs. Claus live and where busy elves build toys for good girls and boys around the world, or so the legend goes. The city of North Pole, Alaska, is seventeen hundred miles south of the geological North Pole, but the townsfolk take full advantage of the town’s moniker. Many streets have holiday names, and stores sell Christmas-themed items year-round. The town’s biggest attraction is a large gift shop named Santa Claus House, which boasts the world’s largest fiberglass statue of Santa. North Pole sits south of Fairbanks and stretches between Fort Wainwright and Eielson Air Force Base (AFB) and between the Cheena and Tanana Rivers. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, murder shattered the innocence of the town Santa Claus calls home.

Nineteen-year-old Glinda Sodemann vanished from her home in North Pole on August 29, 1979. Glinda was a newlywed and was also the daughter of an Alaska State Trooper. Glinda and her husband had a small baby. According to her husband, when he arrived home on August 29, the baby was in the crib, but Glinda had disappeared. By all accounts, Glinda was happy and had no reason to run away from her home, but investigators found no evidence to suggest foul play.

Two months later, in October, Glinda’s decomposed body was found in a gravel pit near Moose Creek on the Richardson Highway, not far from Eielson AFB and twenty-two miles south of Fairbanks. Someone had shot Glinda in the face, and troopers found a .38-caliber pistol cartridge near her body. The medical examiner discovered no evidence to suggest that the murderer had sexually assaulted Glinda, and suspicion fell on Glinda’s new husband, who had failed a lie detector test. Even Glinda’s father suspected his son-in-law of the crime, but troopers found no evidence to arrest the husband.

On June 11, 1980, eleven-year-old Doris Oehring and her older brother were riding bikes together on the roads in North Pole. Doris cycled ahead of her brother, and when he caught up with her, he saw his sister talking to a strange man standing next to a blue car. The man had propped open the car’s hood and appeared to be having engine problems. When Doris’s brother pulled alongside her, the man quickly shut the hood, jumped in his car, and sped away. The brother was later able to describe the man to a police sketch artist, and he told the police that he thought the man’s blue shirt looked like an Air Force uniform.

Two days after her encounter with the man in the blue car, Doris disappeared, and her bicycle was found hidden in the bushes along Badger Road near her home in North Pole. A witness reported seeing a small blue car tear around the corner at an intersection near Badger Road. The driver had seemed preoccupied and was wrestling with something or someone in the seat next to him. The police believed the attacker hid in the bushes on the side of the road and waited for Doris to ride her bike past his hiding spot. Once she got close, he jumped out of the brush, grabbed her off her bike, and tossed the bike into the nearby ditch.

Because Doris’s brother thought the man he’d seen talking to his sister might have been wearing an Air Force uniform, and because the witness described the driver of the speeding car as having a military-style haircut, state troopers asked security at Eielson AFB for a list of blue cars registered to drive on the base. The Air Force handed the troopers a list of 550 names of people who owned registered vehicles that were a possible match for the rough description of the car the troopers had provided them. Investigators were desperate to find Doris, but with no fingerprints or other forensic evidence, they didn’t know where to begin.

Since the troopers had not cleared Glinda Sodemann’s husband for her murder, they decided to question him about the abduction of Doris Oehring. They gave him another polygraph test, and this time, the examiner found the test results inconclusive. The test results frustrated the troopers. They had no physical evidence pointing to Sodemann, but he could not pass a lie detector test when questioned about the murder of his wife or the abduction of young Doris Oehring. The troopers decided to bring in a polygraph expert to question Sodemann. After ten minutes, the expert left the examining room and told the investigators that Sodemann had an irregular heartbeat, and someone with such a heartbeat could never pass a polygraph. The test results from someone with a heartbeat like Sodemann’s would always be classified as inconclusive or failing. Since the troopers had no reason other than his lie detector test results to suspect Sodemann, they had to dismiss him as a suspect in the disappearance of Doris.

On January 31, a little over seven months after someone had snatched Doris Oehring, twenty-year-old Marlene Peters disappeared. Marlene was last seen trying to hitch a ride from Fairbanks to Anchorage to visit her father, who was sick with cancer. The police considered Marlene’s disappearance suspicious, but they didn’t know if someone had abducted her near Fairbanks or if she had disappeared somewhere else between the two cities. Troopers did not immediately link her case to Doris Oehring or Glinda Sodemann.

Five months after Marlene disappeared, sixteen-year-old Wendy Wilson also vanished. Wendy was last seen hitchhiking, and a witness saw her climb into a white pickup truck in Moose Creek, near Fairbanks. Three days after she disappeared, her body was found near Johnson Road, thirty-two miles south of Fairbanks, near the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. Wendy’s killer had strangled her and then obliterated her face with a shotgun blast.

Nine weeks after the discovery of Wendy Wilson’s body, Marlene Peters’s remains were found. The killer had also dumped Marlene near Johnson Road, only two miles from where he’d left Wendy. He’d also strangled Marlene and then shot her in the face with a shotgun.

In May, two days after the police recovered Marlene Peters’s body, they were notified of the disappearance of nineteen-year-old Lori King, last seen walking in Fairbanks.

The Fairbanks police and the Alaska State Troopers now knew they had a serial killer operating in and around North Pole, outside Fairbanks. Soon, the news media labeled the string of murders the “Fairbanks serial murders.”

The police, as well as civilian and military volunteers, searched for the bodies of Doris Oehring and Lori King near the Johnson Road area, where the remains of Wendy Wilson and Marlene Peters had been discovered, but they found no sign of either victim.

On September 2, 1981, four airmen on a hunting trip came across the remains of Lori King in a wooded area near a missile site off Johnson Road. Earlier searches had somehow missed this area. The killer had done nothing to hide Lori’s body. As with Wendy and Marlene, the killer had strangled Lori and then shot her in the face with a shotgun.

The FBI then joined the case because Lori’s body had been found on a federal reservation. Various agencies formed a task force consisting of FBI agents, Alaska State Troopers, the Eielson AFB Office of Special Investigations (OSI), the US Army’s Criminal Investigation Division from nearby Fort Wainwright, the Fairbanks Police Department, and the North Pole City Police Department. Investigators now knew they were hunting a dangerous predator who struck frequently, somehow convincing girls and young women to climb into his car. He then murdered the young women and shot them in the face. The bodies of some, but not all, of the women showed signs of sexual assault before they were murdered.

To better understand how to organize an investigation of this magnitude, Alaska State Trooper Investigator Sam Barnard flew to Atlanta, Georgia, where a joint federal and state task force was searching for the serial killer who was murdering young black men in Atlanta. Barnard watched and learned how the Atlanta task force used computer technology to manage and organize the leads in the case. Next, Barnard flew to Quantico, Virginia, where he met with experts at the FBI Behavioral Sciences Division to form a profile of the serial killer operating near Fairbanks.

When Barnard consulted with them, the FBI Behavioral Sciences Division boasted an 85 percent success rate for creating accurate profiles of unknown serial killers. The psychologists in the unit must have seemed like wizards, but humans are not machines, and law enforcement agencies soon learned that while FBI profiles could be a helpful tool, they were only one of many tools and should not be relied upon entirely.

The profilers told Barnard that the Fairbanks serial killer was probably single and lived alone. They said they believed the perpetrator had a hard time holding a job, and even though Doris Oerhing’s brother stated he thought the man he’d seen talking to Doris wore an Air Force uniform, experts said they believed the murderer was a civilian. Barnard returned to Fairbanks with the unknown killer’s profile, and task force members thought they now had something solid for the foundation of their investigation.

Why did the murderer shoot the women in the face after strangling them? Psychologists suggested that perhaps the killer was repeatedly murdering someone from his past, and he shot his victims in the face to wipe out their identities. Whether accurate or not, this analysis made it no easier for investigators to find the elusive killer.

Troopers Jim McCann and Chris Stockard undertook the massive task of organizing and entering two and a half years’ worth of information, tips, and physical evidence into the state computers. Stockard, who had computer training, then developed a program to cross-reference the items in the database, prioritizing valuable leads and suspects.

An investigator on the task force from the Eielson AFB OSI reported that he had identified three people on the base who had acted inappropriately toward women. One of the three men he’d pinpointed was Technical Sergeant Thomas Richard Bunday, a thirty-three-year-old electrical expert. Coworkers said Bunday repeatedly showed disrespect toward women, and one woman who worked with Bunday said he was verbally abusive, and she was afraid of him.

The task force didn’t dismiss Bunday as a possible suspect, but he was not high on their list because he did not fit the FBI profile in several ways. The profilers believed the murderer would prove to be a civilian who was single, lived alone, and could not hold a job. Bunday was married, had children, and was enlisted in the military, maintaining a good job as an electrician. The task force identified several suspects who fit the profile better than Bunday, so they considered him a possible but unlikely suspect.

After Lori King’s murder on May 16, 1981, the abductions and murders mysteriously stopped. One and a half years later, in November 1982, the task force concluded that the murderer had died, was in prison, in the hospital, or had moved somewhere else. The task force decided they needed to look at military personnel who had transferred outside the state in the past eighteen months. They began scouring the records of recent transfers from Eielson AFB, and they also contacted police agencies near other US Air Force bases around the world and asked them to be on the lookout for and to report any murders similar to the ones perpetrated near Fairbanks.

The list of transferred Air Force personnel included the name Thomas Richard Bunday. Bunday had transferred to Sheppard AFB near Wichita Falls, Texas, and the transfer happened on September 9, 1981, one week after hunters discovered the body of Lori King near Johnson Road. The Wichita Falls police reported they had recently investigated a murder similar to the ones that had occurred near Fairbanks, but the police in Texas believed the woman there had been killed by a drug dealer who also now was dead.

The task force noted Bunday’s resemblance to the drawing made from Doris Oehring’s brother’s description of the man he’d seen talking to his sister. Young Oehring immediately identified a photo of Bunday in a line-up, and he had no trouble picking out a picture of Bunday’s car as the vehicle whose driver he had seen talking to his sister two days before her abduction. Troopers interviewed Bunday’s Alaska neighbors and coworkers, and most painted an unflattering picture of him. They described him as an unlikeable loner. Bunday had a variety of shotguns and pistols registered in his name.

In January 1983, Trooper Sam Barnard flew to Sheppard AFB and interviewed Richard Bunday. While Bunday agreed to answer Barnard’s questions, he refused to take a lie detector test, allow a search of his home, or give samples of his hair. When Barnard told Bunday that Doris Oehring’s brother had identified a photo of him as the man he had seen talking to his sister, Bunday didn’t respond.

Barnard returned to Fairbanks and said he didn’t believe they had solid evidence against Bunday, and since Bunday didn’t fit the FBI profile, he felt they should investigate other suspects. Most of the task force, though, felt Bunday was their man, and they believed it was time to take a closer look at him.

On March 7, 1983, McCann and Stockard flew to Texas, where they met with Texas state and federal police, as well as the Air Force OSI. The OSI agreed to place loose surveillance on Bunday.

McCann and Stockard rented two rooms at a local motel for their headquarters. They then called Bunday, identified themselves as Alaska State Troopers, and told Bunday they were investigating a string of murders near Fairbanks. They asked Bunday if he could stop by their motel room so they could talk to him. Bunday willingly spoke to McCann and Stockard and seemed to like the two troopers. The troopers noted that Bunday provided only vague responses to their questions, but he never denied killing the women near North Pole. At one point, Bunday made the strange comment, “I had trouble with girls in Alaska.”

McCann and Stockard invited Bunday to return the following day so they could continue their conversation, and Bunday agreed. This time, the troopers punched harder. They told Bunday they knew he’d killed the women in Alaska, and they knew how and when he had killed them, but they didn’t understand why he had killed them. They told him they also knew he had killed a woman in Texas. They knew he was guilty, and they told him he would either spend the rest of his life in an Alaska prison or a cell in Texas, where he was likely to face the death penalty. Bunday said little, but he began to cry by the end of the four-hour interview.

Bunday returned to the motel the following day for another meeting, but he didn’t stay this time. Instead, he handed the troopers a note denying he had murdered any women in Alaska. The following day, McCann, Stockard, an FBI agent, an OSI agent, and a representative from the Wichita Falls district attorney’s office presented the Bundays with a search warrant and spent twelve hours searching their home and vehicles. They found ammunition consistent with the ammunition used in the Alaska murders, newspaper clippings about the Alaska murders, and surveillance-type photos of young girls.

Bunday agreed to again meet with the troopers at 9:00 a.m. the following day, but instead, he showed up at their motel at 8:00 a.m., an hour early, catching the troopers off guard. Bunday confessed to murdering five women in Alaska, including Doris Oehring, whose body still had not been found. He said he had discarded her body in a remote section of Eielson AFB.

McCann and Stockard felt helpless. They had no authority to arrest someone in Texas, and the Texas police needed a warrant to arrest someone for crimes committed in Alaska. Bunday told the troopers he would voluntarily return to Alaska with them, but they dared not escort him to Alaska until they had the proper paperwork. Without a warrant for his arrest, they could not restrain Bunday. If he suddenly changed his mind during a stopover in Seattle and walked out of the airport, they would have no authority to stop him, and they might never be able to find him again. Bunday promised McCann and Stockard that he would return to their motel room the following morning once they had the proper warrants.

The following day, the troopers had arrest warrants in hand, but Bunday failed to show up at the agreed-upon time for their meeting. The troopers called Bunday’s house, and his wife said Richard was riding his motorcycle, but she expected him to meet her at one o’clock that afternoon at the local H&R Block office to work on their tax return. The OSI surveillance team waited for Bunday outside the H&R Block office, but when Bunday and his wife left the office, the OSI team mistakenly followed her car instead of pursuing Bunday on his motorcycle.

McCann and Stockard waited impatiently for Bunday to arrive at their motel room or for local police to call and say they had Bunday in custody. Dark clouds rolled in over Wichita Falls as they waited, and the skies burst with a heavy downpour.

Bunday sped out of Wichita Falls on his motorcycle, but when it began to rain, he turned around and started back toward town. He stopped under an overpass, pulled McCann’s and Stockard’s business cards from his wallet, and placed them carefully on a rock. He then continued on his way, driving at a carelessly fast rate of speed in the pouring rain. When he swerved in front of a large dump truck coming toward him in the other lane, the truck driver tried to avoid the collision by turning away from Bunday, but Bunday pursued the truck and crashed into it just behind the cab. Bunday died instantly, and the search for the North Pole serial murderer came to a dramatic end.

Analysis of the forensic evidence found in the Bunday home indicated that some of the hairs collected from Bunday’s truck belonged to Wendy Wilson, and the shotgun shells found in his home had been manufactured in the same bunch as the shells used to obliterate the faces of Lori King and Wendy Wilson.

In 1986, three years after Bunday’s death and a few months after Doris Oehring should have graduated from high school, Doris’s skull was found in a remote section of Eielson AFB.

Although behavioral profiles often prove valuable in identifying a murderer, in this case, the profile provided by the FBI did more harm than good. If not for the misleading psychological profile handed down from the behavioral scientists at Quantico, troopers likely would have identified and captured Bunday much sooner than they did, and possibly even before he left the state of Alaska. This case demonstrates that while a behavioral profile might be helpful, it is only one tool, and nothing beats hours of investigation, careful data collection, solid forensic evidence, and a healthy dose of common sense.

Despite a faulty profile, no DNA database, and no national database to compare similar crimes, the dogged investigation by Alaska State Troopers and other authorities involved in this case caught a vicious predator in the time before DNA evidence became king.

Robin Barefield lives in the wilderness on Kodiak Island where she and her husband own a remote lodge. She has a master’s degree in fish and wildlife biology and is a wildlife viewing and fishing guide. Robin has published three novels, Big Game, Murder Over Kodiak, and The Fisherman’s Daughter. She draws on her love and appreciation of the Alaska wilderness as well as her scientific background when writing.