Note: episode transcripts are radio scripts - please keep that in mind as you come across notations and errors in the text. Click here for the audio version of the episode.
Most stories like to be told chronologically. This happened, and then this happened, and so on.
But in so many ways this is not your typical story. The narrative arc is more like a four-dimensional maze, one that bounces around through time and around the country. It’s all connected… but it’s hard to know where to start. The beginning, middle, and end - they change depending on where you come in.
All of which is to say: we’re going back to the 80’s again, to another beginning of this story. To another mystery, that by the end will lead us back to our beginning... in the woods of Bear Brook State Park.
*** An Unofficial Adoption ***
In 1986, a man calling himself Gordon Jensen arrived at an RV park in Scotts Valley, California. He had a five year old girl with him - a girl he said was his daughter. Her name was Lisa.
Gordon Jensen and Lisa lived out of a small truck camper at the RV park, which was called the Holiday Host RV park. The owners called it that because it was on the site of what used to be a weird theme park named Santa’s Village. In its heyday, Santa’s Village was 25 acres of Christmas on steroids. There were gingerbread houses, a toy factory, even a refrigerated North Pole that kids could stick their tongues to.
But the theme park went out of business and all that had been left to rot. By the time Gordon Jensen and Lisa arrived, it was like a Christmas ghost town in the woods.
Also at the Holiday Host RV park in 1986 was an elderly couple, Richard and Katherine Decker. They were from San Bernardino, California about 7 hours south. They were only staying for a few months - Richard had landed a temporary job with the state.
The Deckers became friendly with Gordon Jensen and Lisa. They had a grandson... he and Lisa became playmates. Before long, the Deckers started keeping an eye on Lisa while Gordon Jensen was busy. They grew fond of Lisa, started to really care for her.
Years later, a detective named Peter Headley would tell the Deckers their relationship with Lisa… probably saved her life.
[Headley] “She did. They did. If they hadn’t been there at that particular time, said the right things, she would not be here today.”
Headley works in the Crimes Against Children Detail at the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department. It’s a line of work that he sums up in his characteristically terse way.
[Headley] “It can be very difficult.”
[JM] “What do you mean?”
[Headley] “How do I put that in words?… Just seeing the effects on victims -- it’s tough.”
Detective Headley’s understated style strikes me as being at odds with the rest of his life, which involves chasing criminals and his favorite hobby, skydiving.
I should say that Detective Headley would eventually come to play a pivotal role in Lisa’s life… and today, he’s one of the only people who is alive and willing to tell this part of the story. But back in 1986, when Gordon Jensen and five-year old Lisa first came to the Holiday Host, he had nothing to do with it.
In any case, Detective Headley says that back then, the Deckers were becoming concerned about Lisa. They noticed how thin she looked; that she didn’t seem to have any toys. And living out of that tiny truck camper -- it was hard living for a five year-old.
Gordon Jensen told the Deckers that Lisa’s mother died of cancer when Lisa was just a baby. In fact, Katherine Decker would later tell reporters that he openly cried about it. She says she felt horrible for him. And Gordon Jensen also admitted to the Deckers that he was having trouble raising Lisa on his own.
One day, the Deckers shared with Gordon Jensen that they had an adult daughter back in San Bernardino. She was having a hard time having kids and was considering an adoption. It was a gentle suggestion; a way to subtly suggest that Lisa might be better off with a different parent. Gordon Jensen took the hint and ran with it. A few days later, he offered Lisa up for what he deemed a “trial adoption.”
The idea was that the Deckers would take Lisa to their daughter and her husband down in San Bernardino for a period of three weeks. If things went well, they would come back to the RV park with an attorney and make the adoption legal.
It wasn’t the most well thought-out plan. But Gordon Jensen seemed eager to get Lisa off his hands and the Deckers were confident their daughter could offer Lisa a better life than the one she had. So they went ahead with it. The Deckers headed south to San Bernardino with Lisa. With their new granddaughter.
[Headley] “They were just down here a matter of weeks and they realized that something was very wrong and the she had been molested.”
Away from Gordon Jensen and the RV park, Lisa started showing signs of abuse. She started touching the Decker’s son-in-law inappropriately. And she was beginning to talk about the things Gordon Jensen had done to her.
I don’t know the exact details of the abuse. But one police department would later describe what happened by saying that Lisa was -quote- “severely molested and tortured.”
Getting Gordon Jensen to sign legal adoption papers now seemed more important than ever. But the Deckers soon realized that was no longer an option.
[Headley] “When they tried to re-contact him, he was gone.”
Gordon Jensen had vanished from the Holiday Host RV park.
The Deckers didn’t know what to do. But eventually, they decided to turn to the police. In the summer of 1986 they brought Lisa to the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department. Detectives questioned the Deckers and Lisa.
Then, they took Lisa into protective custody. The Deckers had to say goodbye. Even if they had rescued her, had saved her life, she wasn’t legally their child.
[JM] “As far as you know have they ever reconnected?”
[Headley] “I don’t know if they have. I have talked to Mrs. Decker and told her what had happened afterwards. And I passed on information to Lisa about Mrs. Decker. I don’t know if they ever connected or not.”
Lisa went into foster care and was eventually adopted.
Today, she’s married with three children of her own. She has asked for privacy from reporters, but in a statement released through law enforcement she says she’s living a -quote- “happy and secure life.”
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. Back in 1986, after the Decker’s handed Lisa over to the police, a warrant was issued for Gordon Jensen’s arrest. It was for two charges: child molestation and child abandonment. But when detectives tried to track him down, they quickly hit a dead end. All of the records he left behind at the RV park were fake.
The truck camper he and Lisa had lived out of had a Texas license plate, but it was registered to an address that turned out to be a motel room. The social security number on his job application to work at the RV park was fake. And even the name he’d been using at Holiday Host, Gordon Jensen, was also phony.
Detectives were able to pull a fingerprint from the RV Park. It came back with a different name: Curtis Kimball.
At first they thought they had caught a break. Curtis Kimball had an arrest record from a few months before he arrived at the RV park. It was from Cypress, California near LA. Curtis Kimball was pulled over for drunk driving. Lisa was in the car with him at the time.
But that was it. Beyond that one arrest, the name Curtis Kimball didn’t seem to go anywhere. There was no driver license or real social security number attached to it. Nothing that could tell detectives where he was from. Peeling back one fake name seemed to lead to another. Which left detectives with no idea how to find him.
[Headley] “And it wasn’t until 1988 that those charges were brought up to him.”
In 1988, two years after abandoning Lisa, Curtis Kimball was arrested again. But not because police had tracked him down. He was pulled over for driving a stolen car in San Luis Obispo, California, about three hours south of the RV park. At the time, Kimball gave police another phony name: he said he was “Gerald Mockerman”. Again, here’s Detective Peter Headley.
[Headley] “They got his fingerprints. He was still in custody for the stolen vehicle. So when the prints came back he was still there. And that’s when they found the previous warrant under the other name Curtis Kimball.”
So in 1988, police had figured out that Curtis Kimball and Gordon Jensen were the same guy. And they had him in jail, facing charges for molesting and abandoning Lisa and for a driving a stolen car.
This is an important moment in the timeline, because it’s here that detectives came so close to figuring out the truth. So close to establishing the fact that, as we learned in the last episode, Lisa wasn’t actually his daughter. That she had been kidnapped.
In 1989, an investigator working the child abandonment charge told a reporter -quote- “my guess is he picked her up somewhere and was keeping her as a sex slave.” One prosecutor even said he would try to force Curtis Kimball into taking a paternity test to establish their relationship once and for all.
But that paternity test never happened. At least not all the way. They got as far as taking a blood sample from Lisa, but they never got one from Curtis Kimball.
I’m not sure exactly why that paternity test was never finished. But my best guess is that it was because Curtis Kimball took a plea deal. In 1989, he plead guilty to child abandonment. In return, the child molestation and stolen vehicle charges were dropped.
This is pretty standard, in case you’re wondering. The vast majority of convictions in America -over 90%- are the result of plea deals. It helps prosecutors avoid lengthy trials and work through more cases, more quickly. In this instance, it worked out pretty well for Curtis Kimball, too. By avoiding a trial, he avoided that paternity test and further scrutiny into his past.
Curtis Kimball was sentenced to three years in prison for child abandonment. In 1990, about halfway through his sentence, he was released on parole. He fled almost immediately, and became a fugitive. The next time police had him custody was in 2003 … after he had changed his identity once more, to Larry Vanner, and murdered Eunsoon Jun.
It’s hard not to wonder how things might have gone differently if that paternity test had been finished back in 1989. Prosecutors could’ve charged Curtis Kimball with kidnapping and child abduction. Charges which could have put him away for a lot longer than a few years. Maybe most importantly, the investigation into Lisa’s true identity could’ve gotten started right away.
Instead, it wasn’t until 2003, some 14 years later, that the investigation into Lisa’s identity began. And if not for Contra Costa County detective Roxane Gruenheid, it might never have began. Remember she was investigating her own case, the murder of Eunsoon Jun, when she first learned about Lisa. For whatever reason -a hunch, an intuition- she decided to finish that paternity test that detectives had began so many years earlier.
[Gruenheid] “And I got the report back that was scientifically definitive: this person is not biologically related to this person. And I’m like holy moly! This is crazy right now! San Bernardino has like an Elizabeth Smart. Who is she?
Once Roxane saw the results of the paternity test, she called the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department. That was the police department where the Deckers had brought Lisa back in the 80’s, so they had jurisdiction over the case.
But by 2003, the detectives in San Bernardino who first worked on the Lisa case, who had spoken to the Deckers, were gone. The new detectives didn’t know that their predecessors had once openly speculated that Lisa was a sex slave. Roxane says all they knew was the official story that ended up in the case file.
[Gruenheid] “They had a little girl. Her father hurt her, gave her away to this couple. He went to prison. Her mother is purportedly deceased. She goes to foster care and is adopted. For all intents and purposes, back then, their case was closed. And so here I am calling from 20 years later going ‘hey you guys have a -- you gotta work this! You gotta find out who she is.’ And the response at first was like ‘we don’t have an open found child case,’ and I’m like ‘yeah, you do.’”
Remember, at this point, Kimball was serving 15 years for the murder of Eunsoon Jun. So once Roxane convinced police in San Bernardino to reopen the Lisa case, she decided to have one more conversation with Curtis Kimball. She went to the Pleasant Valley state prison in Coalinga, California, and asked him point blank - where did Lisa come from? Where were her real parents?
[Gruenheid] “He knew exactly what he was doing and basically he was just playing us. He was saying stuff like ‘they said I had a daughter back in the day but I don’t remember. They said I gave her away but I can’t imagine I would’ve done that. I’m an alcoholic and I drank a lot and my memory is shot.’ I was just thinking ‘you’re lying your left foot off right now,’ you know what I mean.”
Roxane didn’t get anything useful out of Curtis Kimball. And no one ever would.
That’s because In 2010, Curtis Kimball died at the High Desert State Prison in northern California. According to his death certificate, the cause of death was a mix of pulmonary emphysema, pneumonia, and lung cancer.
His body was cremated. And his ashes were thrown into the ocean off the coast of Santa Cruz.
Curtis Kimball had no visitors while he was in prison. Not even a single phone call. He never tried to make a deal with prosecutors with the information he had. He never bragged about it to other inmates. As far as we can tell, he never told anyone the truth about his life.
Whatever he knew about who Lisa really was or what happened to her mother, he kept it to himself. And when he died, it was gone.
In 2003, when the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department opened a new investigation aimed at finding her true identity, Lisa was 22 years old.
But that investigation quickly went nowhere, for all the same reasons the Bear Brook investigation did. No identity of the victim, nowhere to begin.
For 10 years, there was little movement on the case. Then in 2013, when Lisa was 32 years old, detective Peter Headley took over the case. He’s the understated skydiving detective we heard from earlier.
When detective Headley took over, the road to solving th e case was as steep as ever. Nearly everything Curtis Kimball had said to anyone was a lie. And Lisa was so young when she was abandoned, she couldn’t offer much help to detectives.
Meanwhile, Lisa’s identity wasn’t the only mystery detectives were trying to look into. When case was reopened, detectives had looked back over the story of Lisa’s abandonment with the knowledge that Curtis Kimball was capable of murder. Under this new light, new questions arose. Like, where was Lisa’s mother? Had Curtis Kimball killed her?
And there was also a story that five-year-old Lisa had told detectives back in the 80’s when the Deckers brought her in. A story that in retrospect, seemed much more ominous than it had when Lisa was a child.
[Headley] “When she was first recovered she was asked about other siblings. And she had said that she did have other siblings but they had died while they were out camping from eating “grass mushrooms.”
[JM] “So as an investigator who works in crimes involving children, when you hear that story from Lisa as a child about the mushrooms, what do you hear as an investigator when you hear that?”
[Headley] “There’s more victims.”
So, not only were they searching for Lisa’s identity but for evidence of other potential murders.
Detective Headley started his work on the case by doing pretty much the same thing his predecessors had: trying to find a missing persons reports from somewhere around the country that matched Lisa. Anyone who fit the right age range, who could’ve possibly been in the path of Curtis Kimball at before he pops up in California in the mid 80’s.
Detective Headley found a handful of missing toddler cases from around the country that might be matches. He reached out to the families of the missing children and asked for DNA samples to compare against Lisa. One by one, he ruled them all out.
Detective Headley wondered if maybe the problem was that Lisa had been abducted somewhere outside the U.S. and that’s why she wasn’t showing up in a missing persons report. One of the stories Curtis Kimball had told about Lisa’s mother was that she was a nurse from Canada. Maybe there was some truth in there. So detective Headley reached out to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who told him they had a case of a missing toddler that might match. Again, Headley tracked down a family member, got a DNA test, and ruled it out.
Detective Headley tried switching tacks and turned his focus to Lisa’s mother. At different times, Kimball had told people her name was either Donna or Denise. Headley pored over thousands of records of Canadian nursing licensing boards looking for either of those names. But again, nothing.
Detective Headley tried switching focus again, this time to Curtis Kimball. With him at least there was some sort of paper trail, even if it was full of aliases and fake social security numbers. Detective Headley thought if he could just find one kernel of truth in there, it might eventually lead back to the real Curtis Kimball. His best lead was a set of phone records.
[Headley] “He had made some phone calls from the RV park where he abandoned Lisa. One of them was to an RV park in Texas. And I actually found the previous owner of that RV park and he kept all the records for the park -- all the people that had stayed there. And I figured if he made a phone call there, somebody there knew him and that was a piece farther back in time to track him.”
This could be big. If detective Headley could find somebody who knew Curtis Kimball before he arrived in California, maybe they would know something about where he was from and who he was with.
The former owner of that Texas RV park told Detective Headley he had sold the park to the company Kampgrounds of America. Detective Headley reached out to the company, only to learn they after they bought the RV park, they had thrown away all the records from the previous owner.
[Headley] “So it’s been a very frustrating case, when you’re going back in time on a cold case, cause records are gone, people are deceased, and just can’t remember.”
[JM] “Yeah that must’ve been a rough day, when they told you they’d thrown all those records away.”
[Headley] “I thought I had it. It was a step further back in time and then, yeah, it was a big letdown.”
Throughout all these frustrating dead ends, Detective Headley had been in touch with Lisa.
[Headley] “I have talked to her numerous times during this investigation and she really wanted to know who she was.”
It was during one of these conversations, in 2014, that Lisa offered up a new suggestion to Detective Headley: why not try one of those genealogy websites, like 23andMe or Ancestry.com? One of those sites where you send in a DNA sample, and they tell you where your ancestors came from, and connect you with long lost relatives.
At first, detective Headley dismissed the idea. Genealogy websites probably seemed a little amateurish to him. Something meant for hobbyists and retirees. They had never been used in a criminal investigation, the way Lisa was suggesting.
[Headley] “One day I was just talking to Lisa again and I had made her a promise that I wasn’t going to give up, that I was going to keep trying. And she brought up, again, the genealogy sites. And I said, ‘alright, let’s try it.’ And we put her on several different sites and we started getting a hit of a fourth cousin, a fifth cousin, and I’m like ‘this might just work.’”
Lisa and detective Headley didn’t know it yet, but what they were doing would soon change the face of forensic investigation. It was the beginnings of an investigative technique that would solve not only the mystery of Lisa’s identity but also cases from all around the country -- some of which had baffled police for decades.
To understand how Lisa’s suggestion led to all that, you need a brief overview of the ways police use DNA testing in criminal investigations.
And just know that we’re going to explore some of this in greater detail in the next episode, so for now we’re just going over the basics.
Let’s start with the kind of DNA test that you’re probably most familiar with. The kind you see in TV cop shows all the time. Police have a DNA sample from a crime scene, they run it through a database to see if they find a match.
[Computer voice] “Processing...DNA match.” [dramatic music]
This type of standard DNA matching test landed its first conviction in 1987 and has been a mainstay of criminal investigations, and TV shows, ever since.
Then there are paternity and maternity tests. Pretty straightforward: investigators have two samples, they want to know if they are related. This kind of test is also on TV a lot.
[Maury] “When it comes to one-year-old Isaiah... Jay, you are not the father. [screams].”
This is the type of DNA testing that told us that the three of the four Bear Brook victims are maternally related.
There’s one other kind of DNA test that some police departments have at their disposal. It’s called familial DNA testing. This kind of testing searches a police DNA database for near misses instead of exact matches. The basic idea is that if police don’t find a match for a suspect’s DNA in the database, a familial search might find someone related to the suspect, who is in the database. Generally speaking, familial testing can detect relatives only as far as the immediate family.
And that’s pretty much it for law enforcement. They have their standard matching tests, maternity-paternity tests, and in some states they can run familial tests that can identify close relatives - mainly brother and sisters… maybe an uncle or aunt.
But over the last ten years or so, a newer and more advanced kind of DNA test has been developed and honed by people outside of law enforcement. This new test comes from a world with its own separate interest in DNA testing -- genealogy.
Genealogists study family lineages by researching ancestors and descendents, and building out broad family trees. And they were quick to realize the potential for DNA testing in their work. By around 2007, genealogy websites were offering direct-to-consumer DNA kits.
[23andMe ad] “23andMe is reinventing the way you look at your ancestors using the science of genetics, your DNA. With just a small saliva sample...”
Commercial DNA testing turned out to be a huge hit. Today as many as 12 million people have sent in their DNA to a genealogy website, according to an industry estimate.
At first, the kinds of DNA tests genealogists were using were the same ones police had. Mainly they were using paternity and maternity tests to trace those lines of a family tree.
But over time the commercial DNA tests grew more advanced as companies like Ancestry.com and 23andMe competed with each other to squeeze mo vre and more information out of each DNA sample. Before long, the commercial databases made a big breakthrough.
[23andMeExplainer] “Until now, DNA tests could only trace teeny fragments of your family tree. But, with 23andMe’s Relative Finder, you can discover ancestors from all branches of your family tree.” [23andMeExplainer] “George found out that Renee could be his fifth cousin. This means that George and Renee could share great-great-great-great grandparents. I’ll show you how cousins work.”
What 23andMe calls ‘Relative Finder’ is a new kind of DNA test called an autosomal DNA test.
It works on the same principle as the familial DNA testing that some police departments use -- it searches a DNA database for relatives instead of exact matches. But the big difference is that autosomal DNA tests are much, much more sensitive.
When police run a familial DNA test they are usually examinin g 20 different genetic markers to see how well two samples match. Think of it like a low-resolution photograph. It’s why familial testing can only detect close family members.
By contrast, the autosomal DNA tests being offered by genealogy companies today examine more than 700,000 markers on each DNA sample. With this high resolution test, genealogists can detect relatives as distant as 4th, or even 5th cousins.
[23andMeExplainer] “George found out that Renee could be his fifth cousin. This means that George and Renee could share great-great-great-great grandparents. I’ll show you how cousins work.”
Speaking of cousins, you have a lot more of them than you probably realize. Let’s assume you have a really simple family tree where each set of parents has just 2 or 3 kids. In that scenario, you have 4,700 fifth cousins. Combine that with the millions of people who are in the genealogy databases, and your odds of finding a match, of finding some link to your family tree, is really high.
[23andMeExplainer] “Which means that you may have loads of fifth cousins out there waiting to be discovered. Your family tree is probably a lot more interesting than you thought it was.”
So this is where things were at in 2013 when Lisa suggested a genealogy website as a way to find her family.
The matches were a starting point. The first blood relatives Lisa had ever known about. But they were distant relatives -- people so far removed, they didn’t know anything about her parents, or or what her real name might be. Think about it - do you know any of your 5th cousins? Do you know the names of your great, great, great, great grandparents?
To go from these distant relatives to finding Lisa’s immediate family, Detective Headley would have to climb all the way up the family tree find the common ancestor between Lisa and her fifth cousin, then travel back down the tree, search through all the connected generations, down every branch, looking for the one that Lisa belongs to. It’s like trying to find out where one particular leaf grew on a tree -- after that tree has been cut into pieces and piled in a heap.
To do this, you need more than just a match in a database. You need to be well schooled in the ways of traditional genealogy: birth and death records, wedding announcements, obituaries, social media. Detective Headley realized he was going to need to some help.
Headley reached out to a non-profit called DNAAdoption.com which had been using genealogy for years to help adoptees find their biological parents. Which is how he met this woman.
[Rae-Venter] “I’m Barbara Rae-Venter and I’m a genetic genealogist and search angel.”
That’s genetic genealogist and “search angel”. Barbara is originally from New Zealand though she now lives in California. Today Barbara is a star in the world of genetic genealogy. And she’s pretty popular around some police departments, too.
She picked up genealogy as a hobby in retirement, like so many others do. Barbara had a long career as a patent attorney before all this.
She put her own DNA online in 2012 and found a cousin from the U.K. she’d never met before. The cousin was a 70 year old man who told Barbara he had just learned from his DNA test that the man he’d always thought was his father wasn’t.
[Rae-Venter] “And so, I had no idea how to help him. And so what I did is, I went online and found an online course that was offered by DNA Adoption and I took that class. And that’s actually the technique that I use for all of the work that I’m doing now.”
From one online class, Barbara quickly rose to become an expert in the field. Her PhD in biochemistry, which she has in addition to her law degree, may have helped. Barbara started volunteering with DNA Adoption.com and before long she was teaching that class she took, along with other duties like answering all the emails that came in to the site.
[Rae-Venter] “And so back in March of 2015 there was a webmail that came in from Peter. And he basically asked the question: is the technique that you are teaching to adoptees to find their birth relatives, could that be used to find to identify somebody who didn’t know either who she was or where she was from?”
[Headley] “And she said ‘yes, but since you don’t have any geographical information it’s going to be a lot harder.’ Usually with an adoptee, they’ll know that they were from this state or this area just from where they were adopted. And with Lisa, we had nothing.”
The task was daunting. It would be a real test of what genetic genealogy was capable of. But detective Headley was out of options and Barbara enjoys a good challenge. So they dove in. And together, they formed a new kind of investigative team. Part civilian, part law-enforcement. Part cutting edge genetic genealogy, part old-school detective work. A soft spoken genealogist and an understated detective. They were made for each other, really.
Barbara started by building out a family tree of Lisa’s distant relatives.
[Rae-Venter] “The first step is you’re building these trees. The second step is, once you’ve identified who the common ancestor is, you then build down from the common ancestor. Because you know if these folks are sharing DNA, then they share that common ancestor, then that person has to be a descendant of that common ancestor.”
Meanwhile, Detective Headley followed behind making phone calls.
[Headley] “As she followed the family trees down, I would contact the living-folk. Call them up and say ‘you are related to our victim, we don’t know how close or how distant, will you test?’”
Will you test? Asking that question became a big part of detective Headley’s job during the search. As Barbara followed out the family trees of Lisa’s fifth cousins with traditional genealogy, she would run into what genealogists call a ‘brick wall’, basically a dead end in the records. Whenever that happened, detective Headley would try to get those people nearest the brick wall on the tree to take a DNA test with one of the genealogy sites. The new matches from those people would help Barbara get around the brick wall and continue building Lisa’s family tree.
But just getting those tests proved to be a big challenge.
[Headley] “It was difficult. People would think it was a scam. There was some people who just flat -- ‘no way.’ I changed my approach as I went, depending on the feedback I was getting. And I ended up telling people please contact your local department and have them verify me.”
Earning people’s trust was one challenge. Another hurdle was the sheer size of the family tree they were dealing with.
[Rae-Venter] “Well there were actually two trees. So there was a maternal tree and that one ended up being something like eighteen thousand people in it.
Add that to the other side of the family tree… and that makes 25,000 relatives to sift through. Twenty. Five. Thousand.
[Rae-Venter] “I mean my own time, I think had spent something like three thousand hours on it. Basically I would get up in the morning, I would starting working on it and I would work on it all day until late into the night. I was just determined that I was going to figure this one out.”
[JM] “Why do you think you were so driven to work like that on this case?”
[Rae-Venter] “Oh, I do that with everything. I guess I’m a little obsessive.”
Barbara wasn’t paid for any of this, by the way. To her the project was just like any of the dozens of adoption searches she had done using the same basic technique.
[Rae-Venter] “Although of course there was, in the back of everybody’s minds, that Lisa’s parents may not be alive, that she may have been killed at the time that Lisa was abducted. We weren’t really sure what we were going to find. So there was sort of that lurking in the background.”
Barbara didn’t do all of this work alone alone. She had help from volunteers at her local genealogy society. And she also picked up new volunteers along the way from an unexpected source. From Lisa’s extended family. As Lisa’s family trees grew, some of her newfound cousins offered to help Barbara with the project.
[Rae-Venter] “And so she had a number of cousins in New Hampshire. And a number of them volunteered. So we probably had over 100 people who were actually helping build trees and do research and brainstorm and so on.”
It took a little more than a year, and what they estimate was about 10,000 hours of work, but in the summer of 2016 Barbara Rae-Venter and her army of volunteers did it. They narrowed down the genealogical possibilities of who Lisa’s mother was to just one person. Barbara immediately called and left a message with detective Headley.
[Rae-Venter] “And he called me back a couple of hours later and he said ‘mmm- no such person, she doesn’t exist.’ We knew that she did exist because we had her grandmother’s obituary and we had her brother’s obituary and of course immediately Peter figures out what it is. Unfortunately it meant that she was probably deceased.”
The police databases detective Headley was looking at are made up of things like DMV and voting records. So if a person hasn’t been driving or voting in a long time, they’re not likely to show up.
Detective Headley contacted the closest living relatives of Lisa’s mother that he could find. And for the first time, he spoke with someone who could remember Lisa herself.
[Headley] “I was talking to one of her relatives and they remembered her mother and her moving away and they never heard from them again. That’s when the pieces fell together. And it felt great.”
[JM] “What was their reaction? Were they happy to hear that there was some information about that baby in the family that had gone missing?
[Headley] “Actually, when I explained the circumstances she was very shocked. And horrified.”
30 years after she was abandoned at the Holiday Host RV park, Detective Peter Headley called Lisa to tell her her real name.
[Headley] “Just being able to tell Lisa who she is, that was tremendous. That was tremendous satisfaction. It made it all worth it.”
Her name was Dawn. Dawn Beaudin. She was from New Hampshire.
That’s the end of part one of this episode of Bear Brook.
If you want to keep going, part two is available in your feed right now.
########################### INTERMISSION ##########################
*** Denise Beaudin ***
In January of 2017, something happened that, to be honest, I didn’t think ever would.
I was sitting in the New Hampshire Public Radio newsroom when I got an email from the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office, announcing that there would be a press conference -the next day- to discuss new information in the Bear Brook case. The email cryptically mentioned something about a missing persons case from New Hampshire, a murder case from California, and how they were both connected to the Bear Brook murders.
At that point, in 2017, I’d been working on a story about the Bear Brook murders for about a year-and-a-half. All I knew was one child not related and the results of the isotope testing. The names Eunsoon Jun and Lisa didn’t mean anything to me yet.
As far as I could tell, the Bear Brook investigation didn’t really seem to be going anywhere. I figured, whether I finished my story in a month or in six months, the facts of the case probably would be the same. Then I got this email.
The press conference was scheduled to take place in an auditorium at the New Hampshire DMV office. I think it was the largest space for a press conference that they could come up with. A sign that they were expecting a lot of reporters. In other words, that this was something big.
The morning of the press conference, I arrived early and found maybe 40 people already there. Reporters and cops milling about, talking in low voices. Close to a dozen TV cameras lined the back of the room, which felt a lot like a high school auditorium.
I scanned the crowd for faces I knew. There was retired trooper John Cody, who found the second barrel speaking with a handful of other police officers. And sitting about five rows back from the stage, I spotted Ronda Randall and her brother Scott Maxwell. The amateur investigators who had invested so much of themselves in the case.
[Ronda] “I’m mostly just curious. You know, I don’t even know how to feel about it cause I don’t know what the information is.”
[JM] “How early did you guys have to wake up to drive down here?”
[Ronda] “Well actually I came down from Maine last night and slept in Manchester so I could be here good and early. You know pretty hopeful that this is it.”
[JM] “I’m nervous. I imagine you guys must be nervous.”
[Scott] “That’s one word for it.”
From up on the auditorium stage, Jeff Strelzin, a prosecutor with the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office, began the press conference.
[Strelzin_presser] “We’re here today because in almost every homicide case that we work on, probably the most important starting point that we have is the identity of the victim or the victims. It’s that information that usually leads you to the killer. In the case involving the four murder victims in Allenstown, we believe we’ve identified their killer.”
Over the next hour and a half, investigators laid out four stories.
The Bear Brook murders in Allenstown, New Hampshire.
The murder of Eunsoon Jun in Richmond, California.
The abandonment of five-year-old Lisa in Scotts Valley, California.
And the last story, the one that would tie them all together: the disappearance of a woman named Denise Beaudin from Manchester, New Hampshire.
Denise was Lisa’s mother. She was last seen in 1981 with Curtis Kimball... though she knew him by a different name: Bob Evans.
[Strelzin_presser] “This man Bob Evans is not only connected to Denise Beaudin’s disappearance and the California murder of Eunsoon Jun, he’s also connected to the four Allenstown murder victims. Through DNA testing, we’ve determined that this man, this killer, Bob Evans, is the father of the middle child victim in Allenstown. This young girl. He is not the father or related to the other victims, but he is in fact that father of this middle child victim.”
The middle child. The three year old girl who wasn’t related to the other victims. Whose isotope results showed she had lived the majority of her life in a different climate. She was the daughter of Bob Evans. Of Curtis Kimball. Of the man police now believe killed all four of the Bear Brook victims.
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So how, after so many years, did police finally figure it all out?
A few weeks after that big press conference, I met with prosecutor Jeff Strelzin and a New Hampshire state police detective named Mike Kokoski to talk about how all the pieces finally came together.
Strelzin has been with the New Hampshire AG’s office since 2001. He’s handled some of the more high-profile murder cases in the state over the last 15 years. Remember the Danny Paquette case that pulled resources away from the Bear Brook investigation? Strelzin prosecuted the murderer after the case was reopened.
Strelzin is slender, with dark, close-cropped hair and facial features that make it hard to guess his age. He told me he first learned about the Bear Brook murders as he was getting ready to leave the office one day to go mountain biking. A colleague asked him where he liked to ride. He said Bear Brook State Park.
[Strelzin] “And she said ‘oh, be on the lookout for some barrels with bodies in them.’ And I was like ‘what are you talking about?’ And she told me the story. I had never heard it before. I was amazed I’d never about it before. Ever. And I’d lived in New Hampshire my whole life.”
The breakthrough in the Bear Brook case ultimately came from forensics. From the genetic genealogy work that Barbara Rae-Venter and detective Peter Headley had done on the Lisa case. In 2016, when they found out that Lisa’s mother, Denise Beaudin, was from New Hampshire they contacted New Hampshire state police.
New Hampshire detectives then interviewed some of Denise Beaudin’s relatives, the ones Barbara Rae-Venter had found with genetic genealogy. One of them was Denise Beaudin’s grandfather. He said he had last seen Denise on Thanksgiving in 1981 in Manchester, New Hampshire.
She was 23 at the time. She a had a 6 month old daughter, that’s Dawn/Lisa. And an older boyfriend named Bob Evans. When detectives showed the grandfather a mugshot of Curtis Kimball, he recognized him as Bob Evans.
No one in Denise Beaudin’s family ever saw her again after that Thanksgiving. But despite that, they never reported her missing to police.
After the Lisa was connected to New Hampshire in 2016, a missing persons case on Denise Beaudin was finally opened, more than 30 years after she disappeared.
In January of 2017, police went to the house where Denise Beaudin and Bob Evans had lived together in Manchester. With the murder of Eunsoon Jun in mind, they did a thorough search of the basement.
Other local outlets reported on the search, though no one outside law enforcement knew it was connected to all the other cases yet.
[WMUR] “Manchester police along with state police are searching a home on Hayward Street in relation to a woman who was last seen decades ago. It was just last month, December 28th, that investigators announced a new investigation in the search for Denise Beaudin…”
Police didn’t find Denise Beaudin’s body in the basement. That might sound like good news, but really it was a disappointment, because now it’s unlikely police will ever find her remains.
[Strelzin] “We’re confident that he killed Denise at some point. The question is where. Did he arrive in California with her or not? But we know he arrived out there with Lisa.”
We may never know exactly what happened to Denise. But her story does tell us something about the Bear Brook case that’s been bothering me, ever since I first learned about it. Something that’s been bothering a lot of people.
[Strelzin] “How is it four people could go missing? And we say, well, Denise Beaudin did. I know, for me, I think I’ve come to realize that people can go missing and nobody says a word and Denise Beaudin is living proof that that can happen.”
“People go missing and nobody says a word.” It seems crazy until you think about it. A lot of people have a sibling, or cousin, or great-uncle that hasn’t been heard from in years. Families can become estranged. Friends can lose touch. Especially in the world before Facebook. Before email. Before cell phones.
So if you - like me - couldn’t help but ask: Why didn’t Denise Boudin’s family report her missing? The answer is, it’s complicated.
[Strelzin] “That question has come up a lot and I think the fairest way to say it is: there are different dynamics in families and there was a dynamic with this family and because of that dynamic they never officially reported her missing. She had a child, she wasn’t married. I think her life had gone off in a little bit of a different direction than her parents expected.”
I wasn’t able to find any of Denise Beaudin’s family in New Hampshire who would talk to me. Maybe that had something to do with those ‘family dynamics’ prosecutor Jeff Strelzin told me about. Maybe they just didn’t want to talk. I don’t know.
But when I heard Strelzin obliquely describe Denise Beaudin’s strained relationship with her family, I couldn’t help but think of Eunsoon Jun and her family. How Bob Evans, living then as Larry Vanner, managed to drive a wedge between Eunsoon and her cousin, Elaine Ramos. How he wrote fake emails pretending to be Eunsoon.
It’s a tactic employed by many abusers - to isolate and estrange the victim from the people who might help them. To cut them off from the outside world so the abuse seems more normal.
Bob Evans excelled at this. In part because he was somehow able to present dramatically different personas depending on what he wanted from a situation. To most people who met him, Evans was repellant. He looked dirty, even threatening. So they kept their distance. But to the people he targeted, who he wanted to bring in close, Evans had another side. A side with sparkling blue eyes that spun gripping tales about his life history. Who could summon tears about the woman he had murdered, whose child he kept captive.
San Bernardino detective Peter Headley called Bob Evan an incredibly good conman. New Hampshire prosecutor Jeff Strelzin has another name for him.
[Strelzin] “I said Chameleon just in the way he’s able to adopt different names and kind conform himself around the people he’s with to ingratiate himself around those people. I mean, this is a guy who was able to pick his targets and get what he wanted and that says that that is someone of terrifying intelligence.”
By this point, investigators had connected three of the four mysteries with each other. Eunsoon Jun’s murder, the identity of Lisa, and the disappearance and presumed murder of Denise Beaudin. But as far as investigators knew, the Bear Brook case was still completely unrelated to the other three.
Then a case manager at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in Alexandria, Virginia noticed something. NCMEC had been involved with the Lisa case. And as they learned that Lisa had been taken from New Hampshire, the case manager looked at a map. Manchester, where Denise Beaudin was last seen, was only about 25 minutes from Bear Brook State Park, and another case that NCMEC had worked on. The case manager checked the dates again. Denise went missing in 1981. The first barrel was discovered in 1985.
At first they thought Denise Beaudin might be the adult victim from the first barrel. But after that test came back negative, they ran another test using the DNA of Bob Evans.
This is when everything finally came together - when they figured out that the middle child victim was Bob Evan’s daughter… and eventually concluded that Bob Evans had been behind the Bear Brook murders.
By the time this DNA test came back, Bob Evans had been dead for seven years, so investigators will never be able to question him about the Bear Brook case. But the evidence connecting him to the Bear Brook murders goes beyond his relationship to one of the victims.
We’ll dig into this in some more detail next week, but for now here are the important highlights of what investigators unveiled in 2017.
Bob Evans arrived in New Hampshire in the late 1970’s. He got a job as an electrician helping to shut down one of the old mill buildings in downtown Manchester - removing electrical equipment and cleaning out old debris.
He worked on that job with a man named Ed Gallagher. Remember him? He’s the owner of the property where the Bear Brook camp store used to be in Allenstown. The property where the barrels were found. Investigators learned that Gallagher had allowed for some of the waste from the mill, including old barrels, to be dumped on his property in Allenstown. Gallagher also hired Bob Evans to do some electrical work at the Bear Brook store. So there’s a direct link between Bob Evans and the site where the bodies were dumped. He knew that area. He knew Allenstown.
Then there’s the fact that the cause of death in the Bear Brook murders was the same as in Eunsoon’s - blunt force trauma to the head.
And perhaps the most chilling detail linking Evans to the crime scene is that the plastic bags the victims were wrapped in were tied up with electrical wire.
This was the story laid out at that press conference in 2017. That finally, after all these years, we had learned who was behind the Bear Brook murders. That he was a chameleon, a serial killer likely responsible for at least six murders: Eunsoon Jun, Denise Beaudin, and the four victims found inside the barrels.
It was a huge break in the case. But it wasn’t everything. Ronda Randall, the amateur investigator who had been on the case for years, remembers how she felt that day.
[Randall] “You know we went to that press conference and even though it was tremendously exciting to hear the backstory and get an ID, I have to tell you, I walked out of that press conference kind of feeling kicked in the stomach that we still didn’t know who they were. It was fascinating about Lisa um... and to know his other life but to still not know who they were and know so much was difficult.”
After everything: decades of work by half-a-dozen law enforcement agencies, cutting edge isotope testing, and a revolutionary new genetic genealogy technique, the only new information we have about the Bear Brook victims is that one of them was the daughter of a serial killer. We still don’t know who they are.
Ronda isn’t alone in trying to keep the focus on the victims. In November of 2017, several months after that press conference, on the 32nd anniversary of the discovery of the first barrel, Ronda and about a dozen others held a vigil at the cemetery in Allenstown where the first two victims were once buried. Their bodies were still being held by authorities, so we were standing over an empty grave. It was on a night that a cold front swept in. It was barely 20 degrees. Colder when the wind blew.
[Ronda_vigil] “We didn’t have anything big or fancy planned for tonight. We just really wanted to be here to honor their memory, to think about them, to send the message that they aren’t forgotten in the Granite State.”
A few work lights were aimed at the headstone and several people in the group held candles. But otherwise it was pitch black that night. It was hard to make out the faces of the people gathered in a half circle around the gravesite.
Ronda said a few words, thanking people for coming out. She played a Billy Joel song on her phone (or boombox?) that she said always reminded her of the young girl victims. Lullabye. A song he wrote for his daughter.
The whole thing was a little awkward, there were times when no one knew quite what to say. But it was earnest. During one moment of silence, a voice from somewhere in the group asked if it was ok to pray.
[Woman] “Father in heaven, we ask you to please, please shed some light on this story. These girls deserve to have their identities known. There are people out there, there has to be somebody out there that loved them. Somebody out there that wonders, ‘whatever happened to my girls?’ Please, Father in heaven, you are the one who can put the power to this and to please have these girls…[fade under]
15 minutes in, we were all shivering from the cold and the group decided it was time to go. As the gathering broke up, I turned to the man who’d been standing next to me in the circle.
[JM] “Could I get your name?”
[Paul_vigil] “Paul Chevrette.”
[JM] “You live in Allenstown?”
[Paul_vigil] “I did. I lived, in the late 70’s I lived about 300 yards from where the first barrel was found.”
[JM] “No kidding. In Bear Brook Gardens?”
[Paul_vigil] “Yes. And then in 2000 when the second one was found I lived about a quarter mile up the road in a farmhouse.”
[JM] “I can’t imagine what that must’ve felt like - to be so close.”
[Paul_vigil] “Well, yeah, cause as early teenagers we all played in the woods there. And we never saw anything. To know that they were there, it was kind of...unsettling.”
[JM] “Why is it important enough for you to come back here and be at this vigil?”
[Paul_vigil] “Um...I have four daughters and three step daughters and I couldn’t imagine a day without any of them. And here we have this woman and these three children and nobody knows who they are. And it’s just, like I said, unsettling. You know this is a small town. Back in the day, everybody knew everybody, everybody what everybody was doing. When this happened, it was a shock.”
Everybody knew everybody in Allenstown. It made me think of all the theories that people had about the case. How the theories either seemed to hinge on the idea that the crime was so heinous it couldn’t possibly have been someone from Allenstown. Or that because of where the barrels were dumped, it had to be someone local. And in the end, it was kind of both. Evans only arrived in New Hampshire in the late 70’s as far as investigators can tell, and in so many ways he was an outsider - using a fake name, a fake history, and disappearing a few years after he arrived. But on the other hand he knew people in Allenstown. He worked at the convenience store a short walk from where the barrels were found. Remember when Anne Morgan, who lived in the trailer park, talked about two worlds? The one before and the one after the first barrel was found. Bob Evans lived in both.
As it turns out, he lived in a lot of other worlds, too. In places like Virginia, Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Oregon and more. As investigators tried to piece together a timeline of Evan’s life, they began to suspect there could be even more beginnings to this story. More murders that bore the fingerprints of a chameleon.
To help solve them, and to learn who Bob Evans really was, authorities turned to genealogist Barbara Rae-Venter. When she identified Lisa, she had accomplished what seemed impossible. Now police wanted her to do it again. Within a matter of months, she did. And in doing so she would bring us as close as we’ve ever been to the Bear Brook victims. To meeting one of their living relatives.
That’s next time on Bear Brook
END OF EPISODE
Bear Brook is reported and produced by me, Jason Moon.
Taylor Quimby is Senior Producer.
Editing help from Cori Princell, Todd Bookman, Lauren Chooljian, Sam Evans-Brown, Britta Green & Annie Ropeik.
The Executive Producer is Erika Janik.
Dan Barrick is NHPR’s News Director.
Director of Content is Maureen McMurray.
NHPR’s Digital Director is Rebecca Lavoie.
Photography and Video by Allie Gutierrez.
Graphics and interactives by Sara Plourde.
Original music for this show was composed by me, Jason Moon, and Taylor Quimby.
Additional music in this episode by: Blue Dot Sessions, Lee Rosevere, Podington Bear, and Daniel Birch.
To see a timeline of the cases mentioned in this episode … go to our website: bear brook podcast dot org.
Bear Brook is a production of New Hampshire Public Radio.