The Woods

Two young girls vanish into thin air along the boundary of Glacier National Park in Montana. Their disappearance plagues a small Montana community for years, until a ruthless predator strikes again, leading authorities to the doorstep of a sadistic man who claimed to have no memory of his horrific deeds.

The Episode

Hi park enthusiasts…

I’m your host Delia D’Ambra.

And the story I have for you today is about two girls who disappeared one summer day from their small Montana town near the boundary of Glacier National Park.

The case takes place in Northwestern Montana in and around the town of Marion which is located about an hour southwest of Glacier. This whole area shares similar terrain with the national park– rural, mountainous, and filled with dense forests.

According to The Montana Standard, Marion’s population in 1973, when this story took place, hovered around 150 people…so really small.

It was the kind of town where everybody knew everybody and families felt safe letting their children ride their bikes a lot of places, including Bitterroot Lake.

On July 31st two best friends spent the day swimming and having fun at the lake and then stopped at a local store to buy some candy before they headed home.

But… they never made it.

Their disappearance remained a total mystery for years…until a woman who narrowly escaped the clutches of a ruthless predator helped authorities catch a break and put a sadistic killer behind bars.

This is Park Predators.

On July 31, 1973, Ben Westphal got home around 3:30pm after a typical summer day swimming at Bitterroot Lake, which was right by his hometown of Marion, Montana.

According to reporting by Cheryl Sabol, when Ben’s mother realized his 9-yeear-old little sister Jessica wasn’t with him, she sent him right back out the door to go and tell her it was time to come home.

Ben did as he was told and rode his bike back to where he knew his sister last was – which was the Marion General Store less than a mile from the lake. When Ben had last seen Jessica she’d been with her best friend, 11-year-old Karen Tyler.

When Ben got to the store though, Jessica told her brother that she and Karen weren’t ready to come home yet and that they wanted to get some more candy and continue hanging out.

When Ben came back home without his sister for a second time and told his mom what Jessica had told him, their mom once again sent him back out and essentially was like, I don’t care what she wants to do I said it’s time to come home.

It’s not clear from the research material that’s out there exactly how far the Westphal’s house was from the convenience store and the lake, but the town of Marion was really small and the lake literally sat right next to it on U-S Highway 2, so even though I don’t have the exact mileage, it’s safe to say it was a short enough distance from the house to the store in order for Ben to go back and forth on his bike.

When Ben arrived at the store for the second time to convince his sister it was time to come home it was just after 4:00pm in the afternoon.

When he looked around the shop’s parking lot, he didn’t find Jessica or Karen anywhere. Knowing he couldn’t go home for a third time without his sister, Ben walked along the side of the road to look for them, thinking it would only be a matter of minutes before he would run into the duo and tell them it was really time to go home now.

But after walking a half a mile away from the store along the highway, Ben still hadn’t bumped into the girls. Then, just as he was about to give up, he noticed something strange.

In a ditch near the side of the road Ben spotted Jessica and Karen’s bicycles tossed to the side.

Immediately he knew that was a sign that something wasn’t right. Neither of the girls would just leave their bikes abandoned like that. Ben hurried back home to tell his mom what was going on.

The Westphal’s didn’t panic right away when they learned what Ben had seen. They were worried, but they chose not to call police. Instead, the family sent Ben and his older brother, Creed, to go back out and search for the girls. That was around 6:00 PM…but after roaming all around the general store and the popular swimming spots on the lake for a few hours, the brothers still couldn’t find any sign of Jessica or Karen.

It was at that point that both girls’ families knew they had to alert the authorities. According to The Missoulian sometime between 9:30 and 10:00 PM on July 31st Jessica and Karen’s families officially reported them missing to the Flathead County Sheriff’s Office.

It’s not clear from my research when Karen’s family was notified, but since the girls are repeatedly described as being best friends, I tend to think that as soon as Jessica’s mom knew Jessica and Karen were missing, she would have quickly contacted Karen’s mom to let her know what was going on .

Whatever the sequence of events was, I know that Karen’s mom Vivian was somehow alerted, and both girls were reported missing at the same time to the same law enforcement agency.

When they were last seen, Jessica was described as having long brown hair, hazel eyes and was wearing distinctive pink striped pants.

And Karen was described as having medium length blonde hair, blue eyes, and was last seen wearing the eyeglasses she always wore, as well as equally distinctive purple striped pants.

Authorities quickly learned from speaking with Ben and other family members that Jessica and Karen had spent the hot July day just like every other kid in Marion – swimming at Bitterroot Lake.

They girls both swam with their siblings and friends and soaked in the sun until it was time to head home around three o’clock in the afternoon.

When police interviewed Ben Westphal, he told officers that last time he saw the girls they’d stopped off to get a snack at the general store before promising to come  home. And after that… it was like they just vanished.

The next morning– August 1st, Flathead County authorities began an extensive search for Jessica and Karen beginning at where their bikes had been found in the ditch not far from the convenience store.

From there, deputies canvassed the entire area looking for more clues.

Detectives who were initially assigned the case didn’t automatically leap to any conclusions like stranger abduction or foul play, but according to The Independent-Record the initial police report filed by department staff list the girls’ disappearances as quote – “a possible abduction” end quote.

I think they gave the case that classification for two reasons…

Number one, no one seemed to believe the girls were runaways, and even if they were, that wouldn’t explain why they left their bikes behind in the ditch…and two, an eyewitness came forward within 24 hours of the girls being missing and told authorities he’d spotted them on the side of highway 2 just before they went missing.

This eyewitness was a local minister from the area who said he’d seen the girls close to 4 o’clock…and when he’d spotted them, they weren’t alone. Jessica and Karen were on their bikes talking with a white guy who looked to be in his early 20’s and was around five feet ten inches tall.

The minister told police that the mystery man probably weighed around 150 to 160 pounds and had light colored hair tied in a ponytail. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and driving an older-model red Chevy or GMC pick-up truck.

The minister said he noticed the girls speaking to the man and thought about the sighting again when he drove back through the area a little while later and saw the girls’ bikes in the same spot, but no sign of Jessica or Karen.

Police knew they needed to speak to whoever the mystery man was… because at the very least, he seemed to be the last person to interact with the girls before they vanished.

Authorities told the public to be on the lookout for the guy and his pickup truck but while they waited for leads to come in, they couldn’t just sit on their hands and do nothing. Montana authorities contacted agencies across the Pacific Coast and in the Canadian provinces to make sure staff with those agencies kept an eye out for the girls and the potential suspect vehicle.

Detectives and volunteers spent the rest of August 1st searching all around Marion for Karen and Jessica but unfortunately nothing of any value turned up.

According to The Daily Inter Lake, specially trained bloodhounds were flown in from Idaho to help track down the girls’ scents. The hope was that the dogs would lead investigators to an area of woods or the lake where the girls had gotten lost or just wandered too far into…but the results of running the dogs, confirmed authorities growing suspicions that they were more than likely looking at an abduction scenario.

The bloodhounds picked up the girls’ scents at their bikes, then followed the odor trail a short ways up onto the side of the road but then it abruptly disappeared. That made authorities believe the girls got into – or were forced into a vehicle and driven off.

By Thursday August 2nd, detectives with the Flathead County Sheriff’s office had made little to no progress in the case and were facing increasing public pressure, so they decided to call in the FBI for assistance.

Search parties, alongside federal agents, continued conducting exhaustive ground searches for Jessica and Karen but the big challenge they faced was that the terrain around where they girls disappeared was vast and hilly. There were also several small bodies of water and a lot of wetlands around, so, ensuring no clue was overlooked proved to be a daunting task that took a lot more time than police expected it to.

Authorities also went door to door canvassing nearby neighborhoods asking local residents if they’d seen anything unusual or heard any kind of sounds that were out of the ordinary – but nothing came from that effort.

According to several news reports, by August 3rd hundreds of phone calls from local residents trying to give authorities something to go on had flooded tip lines, but not one of those calls gave police a solid lead to follow.

No one living near the lake or the general store had seen the girls or the mysterious man with the red truck. No one had reported hearing any screams or seeing the girls being ripped from their bikes.

According to The Missoulian the ONLY lead authorities had to go on was that strange young man in the red pick-up truck… and until they could definitively rule him out, they had to assume he was involved.

The sheriff at the time told The Missoulian quote—“We had hoped if the man in the pickup was not involved in the disappearance of the girls he would come forth and say so. Since we have heard nothing from him, we have to assume he is involved in the abduction of the two girls.”—end quote.

Detectives once again turned to the public for help. They handed out the girls’ information and the description of the mystery man, and his truck to every service station and media publication in the area.

They also put a lot of effort into getting the information into the hands of loggers, long haul truckers, U.S. Forest Service officers, and game wardens hoping someone working in one of those professions had seen something or would keep their eyes open for the red pickup truck.

It’s not explicitly stated in the source material, but I tend to think investigators’ reason for giving that information to U.S. Forest Service personnel and game wardens who might be in the backcountry of Montana is because Marion is quite literally SURROUNDED by either national forestland, rural wilderness in the southwest boundary of Glacier National Park.

Investigators knew just based on the geography of the area that if the girls had been abducted on Highway 2, that meant they could have been taken into one of several vast forests in a matter of minutes.  So, people like loggers and game wardens needed to be aware of anything that seemed out of place in those areas.

The shock of Karen and Jessica’s abduction started to sink in by day three of the search…because a lot of time had passed since anyone had seen them. The prognosis that they were still alive was looking bleaker and bleaker.

Everything about the sequence of events surrounding their disappearance was highly suspicious.

Even more worrisome to Karen and Jessica’s families and the general public was that they were NOT the first little girls to go missing in this part of Montana in the summer of 1973.

There was another case that investigators couldn’t help but keep in the back of their minds…

The Montana Standard reported that on June 25th, 1973—just a month before Jessica and Karen vanished—a seven-year-old girl named Susie Jaeger had been kidnapped while on a family trip about four hours away from Marion, in Three Forks, Montana.

According to an article by Strange Outdoors, Susie was camping with her family at Missouri Headwaters State Park when her kidnapper sliced through her tent and snatched her while she slept just feet from her brothers and sister. No one saw the abduction happen and Susie had not been seen or heard from again.

Although Susie, Karen and Jessica were all similar in age and appearance, the Flathead County Sheriff told reporters that the detectives and federal agents working on Karen and Jessica’s case did not believe the disappearances were linked.

I’m not really sure what information investigators had to support this statement, but maybe it had something to do with the distance between the two abductions. Missouri Headwaters State Park is roughly 300 miles away from Marion.

By the end of the first week of the investigation into Jessica and Karen’s case, authorities were taking all the help they could get from search and rescue units from as far away as Washington state and Idaho. In just those first few short days, volunteers, police and the FBI had put in over 10,000 hours of manhours into finding Karen and Jessica.

An Army Reserve Company drained a ditch near where the girl’s bikes were found, but nothing was recovered. No clothing, nothing.

Searchers also made sure to check cabins in rural parts surrounding Marion and traveled over gravel or unpaved backroads. If you do a quick Google search you can see that Northwestern Montana has a huge logging industry. A lot of times drivers for logging companies create makeshift rugged trails wide enough for trucks and other cars to get through. These paths are not suitable for most cars, but if you have the right kind of vehicle, like a pickup truck for example, they are drivable.

So, in addition to checking all the paved roads, investigators thoroughly checked along these logging roads in the hopes of finding SOMETHING. But, again, nothing surfaced that got them any closer to figuring out what direction the girls’ abductor could have taken them or even if they’d remained in Flathead County at all.

According to The Missoulian, divers joined the search and checked the swimming area at Bitterroot Lake as well a bunch of other shallow bodies of water in the area.

Authorities also asked local ranchers to keep an eye out on private property for any sign of the girls, either in fields or buildings on their property—but just like every other effort so far, nothing turned up.

On August 8th—about a week after the girls vanished— the FBI announced both Karen and Jessica’s families were offering a $5,000 reward in exchange for information that could help authorities find the missing girls.

But even the promise of a monetary reward didn’t move the needle in the case. Authorities were essentially at the same place they were on July 31st. They had a confirmed last sighting, they had the girl’s bikes abandoned like an ominous bread crumb on the side of the road, and they had a strong suspicion their abductor was driving a red pickup truck. But beyond that, they had nothing to go on.

Sheriff Snyder told The Daily Inter Lake quote “We’ve fanned every square foot in that vicinity and now we’re expanding it still further. Most of the search has been along the roads. Now we’re covering the brush and terrain away from the roads looking for one small sign that could break the stalemate in which we find ourselves.” end quote.

According to an article by that same news publication, Jessica’s 10th birthday came and went with no update in the investigation. Jessica was the only girl in her family with five brothers and her mom told reporters they didn’t always have much but they always made the most out of birthdays.

Mrs. Westphal told the newspaper that the family had big plans for Jessica’s birthday. Karen was scheduled to come over and celebrate with Jessica and all her siblings. There was a tradition in the Westphal household that if little Jessica couldn’t quite blow out all of birthday candles in one breath, that one of her brothers would help her so that her wish would come true.

Her mother told the reporter that until, Jessica came home, the family would not have a party for her. She sincerely believed her daughter was alive and would eventually be found safe and sound.

Unfortunately, as is common with a lot of cases, things started to slow down in the investigation after the first week or so. Days turned to weeks and despite search efforts continuing in full force, credible leads dwindled.

To be honest, I don’t think it was for lack of trying on law enforcement’s part. According to several news reports on this case, the Flathead County Sheriff’s office was so dedicated to finding answers about what happened to Jessica and Karen that they canceled all vacation requests and time off requests for deputies in their agency until they caught a break.

The problem was, they weren’t catching any breaks.

In September—two months after the girls vanished— authorities put out a plea to hunters who were going to be in the wilderness for the upcoming big game season, which was scheduled to open in mid-October.

The sheriff’s office asked hunters to please look for any sign of the missing girls and report anything that looked suspicious.

According to The Independent Record, on October 2nd, just over two months since the girls were last seen, Governor Thomas Judge of Montana asked 10 other governors of western states to alert their state law enforcement to be on the lookout for any sign of Jessica, Karen, or the man investigators believe abducted them… but still, nothing seemed to materialize that pushed the case forward.

Then, on October 7th, —a tangible lead came in that shook up the investigation for the first time in months.

A man came forward and told police that he’d abducted the girls, killed them, and buried them somewhere near Marion. However, police quickly realized this guy’s confession was completely bogus because authorities concluded he was not even in the area at the time of their disappearance.

News reports state that for his interference with the investigation, that man was sent to Warm Springs state hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

Sadly, the time it took detectives to investigate and rule out his false confession was one of the last breaks that surfaced in the case. After October of 1973—the investigation came to a screeching halt and pretty much dead ended.

It also didn’t help that investigators and search crews could only do so much canvassing during the brutal winter months. Between fall of 1973 and spring of 1974, the land surrounding the abduction site was covered in feet of snow. Everything froze over and it made it nearly impossible to do any kind of extensive field searches.

Once the winter months were behind authorities, crews renewed searches. According to an article published in early April of 1974 by the Daily Inter Lake, the Flathead County sheriff told reporters quote– “any lead which develops, the sheriff’s office follows out to the end. It’s completely frustrating, after more than eight months to have so thoroughly scoured a search area and have so little to show for it” –end quote.

Even though police and the families never gave up hope, it must have been devastating when July 31st, 1974, rolled around and everyone was reminded that a full year had passed without so much as a clue as to where Jessica and Karen were.

According to reporting by Joann Speelman for The Missoulian around the one-year anniversary of the girl’s disappearance, both of their mothers expressed their belief that the girls were still alive somewhere.

One comment from Vivian Tyler, Karen’s mother, that really struck me was when she told the reporter that she and Karen’s other two siblings were fully convinced that Karen was going to return home safely. She even went as far as saying that she was worried because she knew at the time Karen disappeared, she was desperately in need of new eyeglasses and needed to have dental work done. Vivian told the newspaper that she wanted her daughter to be able to see and get her dental work completed.

Vivian also indicated that she felt like both girls would probably have fought against their captor by now if they were still being held somewhere against their will.

She kind of had a point too—I mean—it’s not like Jessica and Karen were too young to know they’d been abducted.

Vivian told the newspaper quote— “I don’t know how one can could handle two girls that old in such a short time without anyone noticing. They are old enough to create a commotion and would be tough for one person to handle alone.”—end quote.

Sadly, despite the revived interest in the press and the family interviews, the one-year anniversary came and went with no news of what happened to Jessica or Karen and things once again went quiet in the case.

Then, in October of 1974—a strange twist came across investigators’ desks.

A self-professed murderer who’d voluntarily confessed to four child murders in neighboring Gallatin County, Montana caused everyone to pause and consider whether or not he COULD be the same man who kidnapped Karen and Jessica.

According to a Great Fall Tribune article, 25-year-old David Meirhofer, who was from Manhattan, Montana straight up confessed to authorities that he was responsible for four horrific murders that took place in the late 1960 and stopped in 1974.

David said his first victim was 13-year-old Bernard Poelman who he’d shot in 1967. Then there was 12-year-old Michael Raney who was a Boy Scout he stabbed to death inside his troop’s camping tent in 1968 near a campground in Three Forks, Montana.

David’s third known victim was 7-year-old Susie Jaeger who David claimed he’s strangled to death and then dismembered at an isolated ranch in the northwest part of the state. He said he ultimately hid Susie’s head in an outhouse and burned the rest of her remains and scattered them on the isolated property. If Susie’s name sound familiar, that’s because she was the little girl who’d been ripped from her family’s campground tent in June of 1973 at Missouri Headwaters State Park—a month before Karen and Jessica vanished.

Lastly, David confessed to abducting and killing 19-year-old Sandra Smallegan in February of 1974, Sandra lived in the same neighborhood as David. He confessed to breaking into her apartment one night and attacking her. He later said he dismembered her body just like he’d done to Susie.

All of the murders David claimed to have committed took place within four or five hours of one another. His hometown of Manhattan, Montana was only about five hours driving distance from Marion.

If you remember, initially, authorities didn’t think that Susie Jaeger and Karen and Jessica’s cases were connected, BUT now that they had David spilling the beans about all his crimes against children and teens in Montana… some detectives in Flathead County’s wondered if he was their man.

The whole reason investigators with the FBI and in Gallatin County even came across David was because after Sandra Smallegan disappeared, they’d quickly identified David as a potential suspect in her case. When they got a search warrant for his home and went inside they’d found gruesome evidence that confirmed the young handy man was in fact a serial killer.

Thomas Beam reported for The Great Falls Tribune that while authorities were searching David’s house they found a human hand and several fingers that belonged to Sandra Smallegan.

They also discovered several pairs of boots and pieces of clothing that were soaked in blood. Officials never said whether or not those items were linked to the other murders David confessed to but I guess it didn’t really matter since he’d already taken credit for those crimes.

According to several news reports, Flathead County authorities learned that David was close to Marion for sure on July 26, 1973—just six days before Jessica and Karen vanished. He’d delivered a large piece of farm equipment to a business just outside the town of Kalispell– which is about 20 miles east of Marion.

Unfortunately, before Flathead County detectives could interview David for themselves, he took his own life in his jail cell.

According to reporting by the Associated Press, David gave full confessions to the four murders he was suspected of…but he did not admit to being involved in Jessica and Karen’s abductions.

He spent four hours with FBI agents detailing how he killed Michael, Bernard, Susie and Sandra, but nowhere in that transcript did he mention the Marion girls.

When David died, Flathead County authorities were in the middle of looking into his whereabouts in the days after he delivered the piece of farm machinery. Specifically, they wanted to find out where he was on July 31st, 1973 and IF he drove a red pickup truck.

What is a little confusing from the research material is that the Flathead County sheriff at the time was quoted in two separate news stories published on the same day about David and the sheriff gave some conflicting statements…

According to Great Falls Tribune, Sheriff Snyder told reporters that his agency had been actively looking into David as a possible suspect in Jessica and Karen’s case for several weeks leading up to his eventual arrest and then subsequent death.

BUT—when the sheriff spoke to  The Missoulian, he told reporters with that publication that his detectives didn’t have any reason to suspect David was involved or visited the Marion area after selling that piece of farm equipment near Kalispell on July 26th.

Unfortunately, despite how good David looked for the crime, investigators in Flathead County and with the FBI ended up eliminating him as a viable suspect and moved on.

I think one reason investigators believed he wasn’t their man was because once he’d been caught for his other crimes, David had been so forthcoming about all the murders he was linked to…  if he had done something to Karen and Jessica, many of the FBI agents working the case said they felt like he would have admitted to their murders as well and taken credit….but he didn’t.

Also, something that didn’t quite fit into investigators timeline was the fact that David’s bank records showed that after he’d delivered the farm machinery near Kalispell on July 26th, he’d been paid with a check. Receipts from his bank in Manhattan—some five hours away from Marion—indicated that he deposited the check on July 27th. So, if he had done something to Jessica and Karen, that meant he would have had to have driven back to Marion on July 31st, in order to abduct them …and authorities felt that just wasn’t likely.

The last thing that convinced FBI agents David was not the suspect in Karen and Jessica’s case was because David’s victims were either kids or young adults that he either knew personally or randomly abducted from isolated campgrounds…not children on their bikes on the side of the road.

After eliminating David… the investigation into Karen and Jessica’s disappearance grew ice cold…again.

The only attention the case got was in July 1975 and 1976, the two-year and three-year anniversary of the girls’ disappearance. By that time, a new man had taken over as Flathead County’s sheriff and Sheriff Snyder was long gone.

Three months after the THREE-YEAR anniversary—in November 1976– a hunter walking in the woods just two miles from where Karen and Jessica were last seen stumbled across what looked like human bones.

And that discovery blew the case wide open.

According to reporting by Kyle Johnson for The Daily Inter Lake, a hunter walking in the woods not far from the Marion convenience store where Ben Westphal had last seen Jessica and Karen…stumbled upon what looked like human remains and clothing.

He immediately alerted law enforcement and within minutes Flathead County Sheriff’s deputies arrived on scene.

And just to clarify, the article that first reported on this find noted that pieces of jaw bone and human teeth were found along with two pairs of girls pants and two pairs of small shoes. The items were not all discovered together in like a single area. They were scattered in the same general vicinity. Clear signs that animal activity had disturbed their original resting place.

Deputies with the Flathead County Sheriff’s office collected all of the bones and articles of clothing and sent them to a criminal pathologist in Great Falls whose preliminary exam indicated both victims appeared to be young girls who had suffered multiple gunshot wounds.

Though they couldn’t immediately confirm the remains were Jessica and Karen, both girl’s families confirmed that the clothing and shoes that had been find belonged to their daughters. Jessica had been wearing distinctive pink and brown striped pants and Karen had been wearing equally distinctive green and purple striped pants. Those items all but solidified everyone’s fears that Karen and Jessica were gone, forever. Within a day or two, dental records officially confirmed the remains were that of the missing girls.

What stands out to me is like how searchers missed their remains during all those ‘extensive search efforts’ they did for three years? According to Kyle Johnson’s reporting, authorities confirmed they did search the area where the remains were found, several times…but yet no one ever came across what the hunter had found.

What’s really mind-blowing to me is that one of those intense ground searches reportedly took place less than two months prior to the discovery of the remains. To make matters even more puzzling, neither of the girls’ remains or clothing had signs of being buried. Their remains were out in the open.

I guess they were just tragically overlooked. I don’t know. I still can’t understand that detail.

From my research, it seems like Flathead County Sheriff’s office did their best to finds Karen and Jessica, so I’m not suggesting they didn’t– but it just blows my mind that the girls bodies were two miles from where they’d last been seen all this time and no one found them.

According to the Missoulian authorities launched a quote “inch-by-inch” search of the area where the remains were found hoping to uncover more evidence that might point them to whoever killed Karen and Jessica. Even though detectives now had the girls’ bodies, they still weren’t any closer to finding out who killed them.

Officials used metal detectors hoping to find shell casing, the murder weapon, Karen’s eyeglasses… anything that could help point them in the right direction. Thankfully, their hard work paid off because according to several news reports, detectives did find what they referred to as quote– ‘articles of new evidence’—end quote but exactly what that new evidence was, has never been made public.

By mid-November of 1976, Jessica and Karen’s families were finally able lay them to rest in a proper joint memorial service.

In the spring of 1977, The Missoulian reported that to be extra sure of both Karen and Jessica’s causes of death, a coroner’s jury was called together to review the girls remains. After a few days of examining the forensic reports and pathology findings, the entity definitively ruled that there was no doubt…both Jessica and Karen had been shot at least six times each and their manner of death was most certainly homicide.

Authorities urged anyone with information to come forward and told the public that they would be hunting down every lead and re-checking all the information gathered so far in order to finally get justice …but despite their dogged determination, months passed by and still Flathead County could not get any traction in the case.

But then, just as hope was fading fast… a completely separate attack in the summer  of 1977 led authorities to a new suspect…and an arrest in Jessica and Karen’s case that shocked the Marion community.

According to the Daily Inter Lake a nineteen-year-old Glacier National Park employee named Janet Miller was hitchhiking to work in late July of 1977. At the time, Janet lived in Kalispell which is super close to the entrance of Glacier National Park.

As she was walking down Highway 2, a clean-cut looking guy in a green pick-up truck stopped and offered her a ride.

As soon as Janet jumped inside the cab, the man swerved off the main road and drove Janet down a back trail towards a lake. When they parked, he threatened her with a gun. He forced her down on the floor of his car and sexually molested her.

According to reports, Janet said her attacker then got nervous and began second guessing himself. At that point, Janet SOMEHOW had the presence of mind to reason with the guy and get him to agree to calm down and just talk to her.

Once his guard was down, Janet said she jumped out of the truck and ran for her life. She eventually made it back to Highway 2 where she was able to get help. Thankfully, her attacker just turned his truck around and took off.

Before seeing him speed away, Janet had also done one the smartest things she could have, which was take down the license plate number.

Once she got to the sheriff’s office and reported the incident and provided authorities with the plate number of the man who’d attempted to abduct her, it was only a matter of hours before police had the guy’s name and information in front of them.

26-year-old Karl Randall Bachman who lived in Kalispell was their guy.

According to the Daily Inter Lake as Janet described her attacker to a Flathead County Sheriff deputy named Larry Merical, but before Karl had officially been I-D’d, Janet told Larry that the man who’d taken her was around 5’9, had a slim build, brown hair, dark rimmed glasses and had fair skin

As he listened to Janet, Larry couldn’t help but notice the man she was describing sounded an awful lot like an acquaintance of his…a guy he’d casually run into around town and chit-chat with… someone who fit the profile of who Janet was describing to a T.

Larry immediately made a connection in his mind that guy Janet was describing was a man he knew as ‘Randy’…and the thought sickened him because not only did Larry know this Randy fairly well, Randy had actually been hanging out in Larry’s patrol car 20 minutes before Janet claimed she was attacked!

It was Larry who’d driven over to his friend Randy’s house to see if his license plate number matched up with the numerics Janet had reported.

And wouldn’t you know it, when Larry drove past Randy’s house, the plate number Janet gave to him was just one number off from the digits on the plate on Randy’s green pick-up truck.

Larry, who hadn’t lived in Northwest Montana very long, was shocked by this discovery because to him this guy he knew as Randy seemed like such a good dude… but as it turned out, not everyone who worked in law enforcement in Flathead County was as surprised as Larry was about Karl ‘Randy’ Bachman.

News reports state that Karl was questioned by authorities in the early days of Karen and Jessica’s abduction investigation. In fact, the article reports that he wasn’t just a random citizen who had to be cleared…BUT Karl was actually one of the prime suspects from the very beginning.

Turns out, that shortly after the girls vanished Karl had come forward to Flathead County officials and reported seeing both Karen and Jessica on the day they disappeared. Because of that, he gotten on police’s radar early on.

According to The Missoulian, Karl being considered a suspect was never reported on because nobody, but police knew about him. Apparently at some point in late 1973 investigators had him take five polygraph tests, three of which he passed, and they really pressed him for an alibi. The pressure got so overwhelming between 1973 and 1974 that Karl hired an attorney and filed a restraining order to keep authorities from repeatedly questioning him.

Because of the restraining order and complete lack of physical evidence tying him to Karen and Jessica’s case authorities had to back off until they had reason to question Karl further. Unfortunately, they didn’t get the chance to corner him again until he attempted to kidnap and sexually assault Janet Miller.

On July 22, 1977, Karl was arrested for Janet’s attempted rape and just three days later while in custody, he was also charged with the murders of Karen and Jessica.

According to several news reports, Karl was transported to Warm Springs hospital for psychiatric evaluation and then ultimately returned to Flathead County jail to await his official arraignment.

There was some back and forth on which charges should be filed against him because of new criminal codes that had been adopted in Montana after 1974 but that essentially just boiled down to a lot of courtroom back and forth on how to charge him properly.

After all of that was settled in early October of 1977, prosecutors officially charged Karl with two counts of second-degree murder for the deaths of Jessica and Karen.

Now— second degree murder surprised me when I first read it too, but according to reporting in The Missoulian, the head prosecutor on the case told reporters that based on a lot of evidence they’d gathered circumstantially against Karl and the results of his psychological evaluation, they felt the only charges they could file against him to ensure he would be convicted were second-degree and not first degree.

The lead lawyer told the newspaper that the state was going to have a very hard time proving premeditation and malice if they charged Karl with first-degree murder. They didn’t want to run the risk of trying to get him for first-degree murder and he beat the charges or get acquitted.

About a week later after that announcement, Karl spared everyone the ordeal of going to trial and took a plea deal for both murders. His attorneys had asked for leniency from the court when it came to sentencing but ultimately the judge in the case sentenced Karl to two life sentences that he was required to serve concurrently.

According to reporting by Joann Speelman for The Missoulian the details of how Karl committed the crime did not come out until after he entered his plea and was sentenced.

During several interviews with investigators and in a few written statements, Karl confessed to a wildly bizarre story of why he ended up in Marion in the first place on July 31st, 1973….and how he abducted and killed the girls.

He told authorities that he was doing some concrete work at his parent’s cabin in Marion on that day and had been overcome by a very bad headache. He claimed his entire life he’d suffered from debilitating migraines that he was prescribed medication for. To help soothe his pain he said he’d stopped his work and decided to go home and shoot some gophers with his .22 pistol to relax…but on his way back to Kalispell he’d seen Jessica and Karen walking with their bikes on the side of Highway 2.

He said he pulled over and started talking to them about fishing because they were obviously locals and he quote– “never fished Bitterroot Lake before” – end quote.

Karl went on to tell authorities that as he and the girls were chatting about fishing his mind and memory suddenly went blank and he didn’t know what happened after that. He said he had no clear memories of what he’d done while he’d blacked out, but when he got home later that day it was like nothing even happened.

He explained that for a long time during the evening of July 31st and into the first few days of August he didn’t have any memories of how he’d spent the previous afternoon…but said slowly flashes of images started coming back to him.

He said he remembered that he’d come to in a wooded area and he’d remembered in bits and pieces of seeing the girls laying in front of him dead. He told investigators quote– “I don’t know how I knew, it was just a feeling, just a kind of gut-feeling, I just knew they were dead” end quote.

He said after he came out of his blackout, he remembered running leaning against a tree and hearing the sound of his own feet shuffling through the woods. He then admitted to tossing the .22 caliber pistol he’d used to shoot the girls into the Flathead River.

To this day, that firearm has never been recovered.

Here’s the thing with Karl’s story…despite admitting guilt and taking full responsibility for brutally murdering two young girls, he did not provide any reason for WHY he did what he did. He also never explained how he got Karen and Jessica into his truck.

Authorities really didn’t buy his whole ‘I blacked out and can’t remember anything’ story. They felt deep down that Karl was a sadistic predator who specifically targeted Karen and Jessica because they were young and vulnerable.

None of the research material specifically says whether either of the girls was sexually assaulted prior to their deaths, likely because the state of their remains made it impossible to prove that, but some investigators strongly suspected that Karl’s motive had always been sexual…just like it had been in Janet Miller’s case.

What’s really interesting to me is that around the time Karl took his plea deal and the public learned the details of his crimes…authorities announced that Karl did not match the description of the young man with the light-colored hair and red pickup truck that the Marion minister had spotted talking to the girls around 4:00pm on the day they vanished.

In fact, law enforcement said that in the years since Jessica and Karen’s disappearance they’d actually tracked down that young man and his red pickup and eliminated him as a suspect. They just never told the public that.

Which I find kind of annoying, but either way, that’s how it happened.

So, not only did that guy talk to Jessica and Karen on the side of Highway 2 on the day of their deaths…but so did their real killer, Karl Bachman.

The thing that plagues me most about this case is that Karen and Jessica’s families were left with so many unanswered questions. Karl never expressed remorse or provided any closure to the families explaining his actions.

Today Karl Randall Bachman remains incarcerated at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge, Montana.

In the years since his arrest and conviction, Jessica’s brothers, aunt, and Karen’s friends have been very vocal at every single one of Karl’s parole hearings, the first of which rolled around in 1991.

Community members and the family fought tooth and nail in 1991, 2005, 2013 and most recently in 2019 to make sure that Montana legislators and parole board members denied Karl the option of early release.

With help from attorneys and friends sending letters of opposition, every single one of Karl’s early release requests has been denied.

The next time he’s up for parole will be in October of 2025…He’ll be 75 years old.

And I’m willing to bet at that next hearing, the same determined advocates for Jessica and Karen will be front and center. They will always be the voices for two girls who never got to grow up and become the people they were supposed to be.

Two girls whose lives were stolen from them by a predator who roamed freely around Glacier National Park without remorse for what he was and what he did.

Park Predators is an audiochuck original show.

So, what do you think chuck, do you approve? *howl*