Notorious Alaska killer gets small-screen treatment
THE CAMERA TRACKS an actress running through the forest. She's frightened, and not dressed for the woods, wearing pumps and a short blue dress. A long bandage that once served as a blindfold has unraveled from her head, but she's in too much of a hurry to untangle it from her shoulders. Behind her in the woods, the camera captures a thin white man wearing horn-rimmed glasses. It's Bob Hansen, Alaska's most famous killer. He is dressed for the outdoors and he carries a rifle.
That's one of the recreated scenes from a true crime program produced for the TV channel Investigation Discovery about Hansen, Alaska's most infamous killer, and how he was brought to justice. Publicity for the show describes it as a one-hour "special" to air on ID Wednesday, January 25, under the title Alaska: Ice Cold Killers. (It's scheduled to lead into a new true crime series about serial killers called Dark Minds.) The publicists allowed the Press to screen via internet an early edit of the show that ran closer to two hours and was unfinished. (Note to producers: "Knik" has two syllables-add a hard "K" up front.)
Ice Cold Killers is true crime played for detective work, suspense, strip-club voyeurism, FBI-inflected psychobabble and sado-masochistic gross-out, (or titillation, depending on the viewer). It's accurate, at least as a thumbnail-sketch of the Hanson case, but the re-created scenes make no attempt to make the crime labs, cop cars or anything else in the picture appear to be Alaska in the 1980s. The actor playing Hanson looks like the real-life photos, but his late-model Chevy Silverado with giant built-in cup holders is no pipeline-era pickup truck.
The production has not applied for state of Alaska film incentives program. From the look of the screener shown the Press, the production did not likely spend $100,000 in state, one of the legal requirements to qualify for subsidies.
The unfinished cut of Ice Cold Killers relies heavily on stock wildlife footage. Much is made of the fact that a crime scene in the wild can be fragile. Viewers are reminded time and again that animals-coyote, fox, bear, wolf or eagle-may devour or scatter the evidence. The scene described at the top of this story appears to be shot Outside. Actors run through the woods unimpeded by bogs, alder thickets or devil's club.
SOME ALASKANS sat for interviews, notably long-time journalist Tom Brennan, whose work compiling Alaska true crimes can be fairly described as ambitious. Brennan has compiled two volumes of true crime in Alaska books, Murder at 40 Below and Cold Crime. Brennan serves the TV program well as a person familiar with late-1970s and early-80s Alaska. In contrast to the stock footage of wildlife and mountains, he talks about the human landscape and influx of greed and ambition to Anchorage that came with the era. "We had an awful lot of money flowing around because the oil was flowing," Brennan says in one clip.
The program proposes a West Coast-to-Alaska-to-Hawaii "triangle" route for sex industry workers, with transportation paid for by pimps or dance club owners. The young women who work in the trade are described as willing to come to Alaska because the state that provided relative anonymity and big money.
Former Anchorage Police officer Wayne Vance sat for interviews and his small-screen presence is that of an informed armchair cop critic. Vance comes off as a guy who knows-someone-who-knows-someone, and not a cop close to the case. He admits as much. He currently lives in Willow and retired from APD as a lieutenant in 2003. In a short phone interview with the Press, Vance said he was a patrol officer when the Hanson case was active. He suspects the investigators directly involved in the case may have signed contracts with the feature film On Frozen Ground, also based on the Hanson crimes, and may have not been allowed to speak with the TV production.
But the Vance interviews provide compelling insight into two things about police culture that stalled the investigation, even as more women were being reported missing. The first was that police have trouble counting sex-trade workers as "missing" because the women were known to be both transient and anonymous. The second is that while Alaska State Troopers were investigating bodies found in their jurisdiction, Anchorage police officers were the ones taking reports of girls gone missing in town and complaints about Hanson himself. Sadly, the two departments did not have a co-operative relationship.
"The officers on the street [co-operated], but there was nothing in between the two departments," Vance told the Press. "It is not that way now. But in the eighties it really was true-and I don't know where that culture came from, on the part of either department."
Each department had policeman who believed the other department was manned by amateurs, Vance said. On the phone, the retired APD lieutenant sounded relieved to have worked long enough to see that culture fade. "That's all changed," he said.
THE EARLY EDIT of Alaska: Ice Cold Killers includes a storyline about the still-unidentified Jane Doe who came to be known as Eklutna Annie. It would be fitting if these segments make final cut. Annie's murder is one of four Hanson was convicted of after a plea deal in which he provided information that allowed investigators to close 17 cases. Hanson, despite the conviction, could not identify "Annie" by name for the cops. Her case is a reminder of how difficult a real crime is to solve and how fragile criminal evidence can be. That's important; the current crop of fictional TV cops wear both lab coats and holsters, and make it appear science will provide an answer to every mystery.
The producers of Ice Cold Killers have adopted true-crime storytelling techniques NBC News brought to its long-story programs years ago. The script reaches for suspense by implying new information will be revealed soon, (sometime after a commercial break) and by selecting parts of the story to withhold. That protracted storytelling can drive people batty if they already know the story, but it glues other viewers to their TV. After each break, just as in NBC's template, the narrator retells a few key elements.
Some repetition may have been due to the unfinished edit screened at the Press, but repetitive flashbacks are too common in commercial TV documentaries. Here it's presumably done for the benefit of viewers who walk past the TV mid-program and want to know why the hell a frightened woman is chained to a post wearing nothing but her lacey bra and panties.
Robert Hansen is a very bad man, and this is not ignored by Ice Cold Killers, but the show is not for everyone. It allows the viewer the indulgence every work in the true-crime genre is compelled to allow-to revel in dark deeds until they wonder if, just by staying tuned, they've crossed some moral line. ◆
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