The Snake River winds through Hells Canyon – low this time of year, the middle of summer. Inaccessible by road, virtually untouched by time, the canyon is narrow, creased with pillars of basalt. Thick stands of coyote willow and thistle mark the shore. The hillsides are brown, bunch grass parched. It’s hot, and the river reflects the sun.
A few miles downriver, in Asotin, Christina White was the first to disappear. She has been missing since 1979, and since then the small community in the southeastern corner of Washington State hasn’t changed much. Population 1,100, there’s a gas station and grocery store, a couple of schools and a handful of churches. Restaurants and bars come and go.
The missing girl, Christina White, smiles in the photograph, her long brown hair parted down the middle. Twelve-years-old when she disappeared on April 28, 1979. The carnival was in town, and at 2:00 that afternoon, Christina called her mother from a friend’s house, because she didn’t feel well. The day was warm, temperatures in the low seventies, and the girl had a predisposition for heatstroke, so her mother told her to put a cool cloth on her neck and rest. She’d pick her up at the bottom of the hill. Christina had a ten-speed bicycle with a basket in front. Her mother watched for her, but the girl didn’t come.
The Lewis-Clark Valley is six miles downriver from Asotin. It is here, at the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake Rivers, where Lewis and Clark camped on their westward journey, where Lewiston, a city of 32,000 people, sits on the Idaho side of the river, and Clarkston, a town of 7,000, sits on the Washington side.
July 4, 1981. A hot Saturday evening. Near the industrial port district, downriver from Red Wolf Crossing, fishermen noticed a plastic bag bobbing near the north shore. They pulled their boat alongside the bag, dragged it closer. A woman’s headless torso, naked, punctured with wounds. Twenty-two-year-old Kristin David.
The search had started June 27, the day after Kristin was reported missing. Photographs were posted: almond-shaped eyes, full lips and shoulder-length hair feathered away from a pretty face. She was a student at the University of Idaho in Moscow, a senior majoring in broadcast journalism and political science, last seen riding her ten-speed bicycle south along a thirty-mile stretch of highway, from Moscow to Lewiston. Kristin had a summer job at Lewiston’s pea processing factory, but she didn’t make it to her shift. Under hypnosis, a man heading north on June 26 remembered seeing a brown van stopped along the highway, assisting a young woman on the side of the road.
September 12, 1982. Three college students disappeared from Lewiston. In the newspaper photo, twenty-one-year-old Kristina Nelson smiles, light brown hair wavy, a strand of pearls clasped around her neck. Jacqueline (Brandi) Miller, Kristina’s stepsister, was eighteen with dark shoulder-length hair and big brown eyes. Steven Pearsall, a former air force corporeal, was thirty-five; in his photo, he’s in uniform and wears black-framed eyeglasses.
Sometime after 10:00 p.m., Kristina left a note at her apartment for her boyfriend: she and her sister were walking to the grocery store, then over to a friend’s to do laundry. Police believe the girls ended up at the Civic Theatre, a stone church built in 1907 that resembles a Scottish castle, a building they passed on their way to the store.
Steven was last seen at midnight when his girlfriend dropped him off at the theater where he worked as a custodian, so he could do his laundry and practice his clarinet. Steven and Kristina knew each other; they lived four houses apart on the same street. She used work at the theater, and they took the same college art classes. He was initially considered a suspect, but when he could not be found – when police discovered his clarinet at the theater, an un-cashed paycheck at his apartment, when they learned that he didn’t have access to a car – his status was changed from wanted to missing.
Two years later, March 19, 1984 – the girls’ bodies were found on the grade just two miles outside of Kendrick, a sheltered town of 350, 30 miles north of Lewiston. A sixteen-year-old boy collected cans along the highway on Bear Ridge, two miles out of town, when his hat blew off. Near a pine tree, he found a human skull.
Police are certain they know who did it: the same man who abducted Christina White and Kristin David is responsible for the three who disappeared from the theater. But there’s not enough evidence for an arrest. The man stayed in the Lewis-Clark Valley until 1999, threatened to sue the police for harassment, then moved across the country.
Over thirty years have passed since the first murder, and while new technologies enable police to retest evidence, the cases are still unsolved. Occasionally, the local newspaper reprints the stories; perhaps as reminders that after all this time, the families are still here. They still grieve. In some ways, they have moved on – they’ve grown older, some have died, they’ve raised children and grandchildren. But, in other ways, time has stood still.