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Bringing Chris home

How a woman solved her sister's 39-year-old murder case

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Serial Killer

A field along Interstate 80, peppered with sagebrush, stretches into the distance on Nov. 1 outside Granger. In 1982, a woman’s body was found in the field by a farmer. It remained unidentified until 2015, when investigators determined it belonged to Christine Thornton. She had been missing since 1977.

Her search ended in a softly lit funeral home chapel. At the end of the aisle, on a long rectangular table, waited the bones of her sister.

The remains lay on a cloth, vaguely arranged in order. A tangle of hair, partially decomposed, rested near the end.

Here was Christine, the sister Kathy Thornton had been looking for most of her life.

Mixed with Christine’s bones were those of her unborn child — tiny, unidentifiable pieces of a life that would never be. It was a small miracle among a large horror that so many bones had been recovered after a serial killer left her body on the windswept plains of southwest Wyoming, not to be identified for decades.

The funeral home brought in extra people to catch Kathy in case she fainted at the sight of her sister’s remains.

But Kathy is not the fainting kind.

For 39 years, she looked for her sister. She scoured death records and stitched together YouTube videos asking for information. She visited old addresses. She wrote to the director of the FBI.

For 39 years, police departments and government agencies responded: “Sorry, but we can’t help you.”

Last month, in that chapel of a Rock Springs funeral home, she found an answer.

She reached out and touched Christine’s bones. The abstract of a person, of a death, that had always flitted at the edges of Kathy’s life became tangible.

“These are her bones,” Kathy, 57, thought to herself. “She was here.”

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Serial Killer Family

A box containing the remains of Christine Thornton sits next to a bouquet of flowers from the funeral home in Rock Springs on Oct. 22 in Rawlins. Two yellow roses rest among the other flowers, one for Christine and one for her unborn child.

After the remains were cremated, Kathy and her sister Mary Ann took the ashes in a small, plain white box to their R.V.

It was time — finally — to bring their sister home.

The search

Christine was never in one place for long. She befriended everyone with her warmth, and her vibrant presence was impossible to ignore, her sisters said.

In the summer of 1977, she set out from Texas with her boyfriend to pan for gold in Montana. She’d be back to San Antonio soon enough, her family thought. Her mother made plans to visit Christine after the baby was born in the early fall.

The hot Texas summer rolled on and the family heard nothing from Christine. Weeks went by, then months. Nothing.

Christine’s mom knew something was wrong. She knew it in her gut.

Kathy felt the same her entire adult life. The sense of knowing something bad had happened to her oldest sister fueled her unyielding search.

“When something affects other people and I think that resolution is called for, then I’m like a dog with a bone,” Kathy said.

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Kathy Thornton

Kathy Thornton sifts through documents she has collected throughout her 39-year search for her sister, Christine Thornton, inside her sister Mary Ann’s RV home on Oct. 22 in Rawlins. Christine Thornton disappeared during the summer of 1977 after leaving Texas on a road trip with her then-boyfriend to pan for gold in Montana.

What Kathy didn’t know is that Christine and her boyfriend had gotten into a fight around Green River and split up. She didn’t know that at some point, Christine met a young photographer and went with him to a patch of desolate sagebrush plain outside Granger. She didn’t know that he killed her there and left her pregnant body to the animals and Wyoming wind, not to be discovered until a rancher stumbled upon some of her bones five years later.

Kathy didn’t know that Christine had become one of the man’s many victims. She wouldn’t know for decades.

Kathy had just graduated from high school when Christine disappeared, but memories of her sister, 11 years older, always lurked at the edge of her thoughts.

She remembered Christine joyfully running down the street to share the yogurt she had made. She remembered Christine’s creativity, how she would sew her own clothes for special events.

When Christine disappeared, Kathy watched her mother struggle with the loss. She watched her mom ask the San Antonio police for help and receive none. She watched her mom helplessly, endlessly, look for her lost child.

Kathy took up her mother’s job and started digging. Even as she married, earned a degree in business administration, raised four children and worked full-time at various jobs, Kathy picked away at her investigation in quiet moments.

She always asked herself: “What more can I do?”

Every few years she’d check with the IRS to see if Christine had used her Social Security number. Nothing.

She called hospitals and searched birth records, looking for the baby that was to be born the fall Christine disappeared. She’d ask, was there a baby with the last name Thornton? Nothing.

She tracked down Christine’s last known address in San Antonio. Nothing.

She wrote to the director of the FBI for help. She contacted “America’s Most Wanted.” She created a Facebook account asking for help — a tip, any tip.

After a few years, she knew Christine was dead. Christine wouldn’t stay away from the family. If her sister was still alive, wouldn’t she be able to sense it? Wouldn’t she be able to feel that Christine was out there somewhere?

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Serial Killer

Sgt. Joe Tomich sits next to the box of materials for a case on the body of an unidentified woman found on public land outside Granger in 1982. The body was identified in 2015 after a comparison of mitochondrial DNA was matched to Christine Thornton.

She thought Christine’s ex — the boyfriend who had gone with her on the road trip — had killed her somewhere along the way. She was sure he had done it.

In 1993, she tracked down his phone number and called. He told her about the fight in Green River. He told her that he too had wondered what happened to Christine. He didn’t have any answers.

She was shaken by the call, still not convinced he hadn’t killed her. Her notes were sparse, mostly illegible.

She continued her search, collecting her evidence in a manila folder: newspaper clippings about missing people, notes scribbled on the back of receipts and napkins, articles about databases for missing people, responses for law enforcement agencies saying they had no information.

For 39 years, she hit dead end after dead end.

Then she received an email.

A twist of chance

During the summer of 2013, Kathy decided to take a break from her work as a caregiver at a nursing home and return, briefly, to her roots.

She rented a room in a house near the family’s hometown of Hancock, Michigan, and relaxed. Hancock always pulled at Kathy, often drawing her back into the woods and lakes she had known as a child.

On a unusually chilly and drizzly day that July, Kathy checked her email between episodes of “Downton Abbey.” She found an email from her son, with “hi” as the subject line.

“Not to stir the pot or anything,” her son wrote, “but i know you are always looking for closure and came across this photo gallery of a serial killer...if you recognize any of them then maybe that’s a little closure. If not then I am sorry for stirring up old memories and pain…”

Included in the email was a link to a gallery of photos published by CBS News. The story explained that the photos were found among the possessions of a convicted serial killer. Investigators believed some of the women and children photographed could be more victims and were asking for help in identifying them.

Kathy scrolled through the photos, not expecting to find anything useful. She clicked through the entire album before returning to the 86th image, the only one that had stuck out to her. She enlarged the photo.

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Serial Killer

Sergeant Joe Tomich with the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office holds up a photograph of Christine Thornton taken by serial killer Rodney Alcala (left) next to a photograph Tomich took in the presumed location (right) on Nov. 1 in Rock Springs.

There was Christine, grinning astride a blue-and-white motorcycle. Her pregnant belly was masked by a loose yellow top, but Kathy saw her crooked pinky toe and knew.

A pale horror washed over Kathy along with the revelation. She re-read the small piece of text that accompanied the gallery.

Then she searched the name of the man who had taken the photo: Rodney Alcala.

Her stomach dropped.

The Dating Game killer

In 1978, Alcala appeared as a contestant on “The Dating Game.”

The host introduced him as a “successful photographer” who loved skydiving and motorcycles. The host did not know that by the time Alcala appeared on the show, he had murdered two women and raped an 8-year-old girl.

A student of film and photography, Alcala often approached women and asked to take their photo. He took hundreds of photos, and at least eight lives.

Alcala was out on parole during the summer of 1977. His parole officer gave him permission to travel, and he roamed from California to New York, Illinois, Washington, D.C., and Mexico.

Alcala killed a New York woman, 23-year-old Ellen Jane Hover, while traveling that summer. Over the next two years, he killed 18-year-old Jill Barcomb, 27-year-old Georgia Wixted, 31-year-old Charlotte Lamb and 21-year-old Jill Parenteau. In 1979, he raped and killed 12-year-old Robin Samsoe.

He’d been convicted of all their murders, but authorities suspected him in the deaths of more than 140 women. He had been living on California’s death row since 1979.

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Serial Killer

Sgt.Joe Tomich leaves his office at the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office on Nov. 1 in Rock Springs.

Kathy was sick after reading about the man. Her mind raced. She called the Huntington Beach Police Department in California and told them that she had identified one of the women in the photos they had released. The department told her that it was busy with active cases but would try to do something.

A few months later she and Mary Ann submitted their DNA to the University of North Texas to be included in NAMUS, a national database of missing peopke.

It was a long shot, but so was everything else she had done over the years.

A match

Hundreds of miles from the Michigan house, a Sweetwater County detective was rifling through a dusty, crumbling box of old evidence. In the moments between his daily duties, he was trying to make sense of what happened to a woman whose body was found on public land outside Granger in 1982.

Jeff Sheaman had few clues to work with. Decades of intermittent investigation of the cold case had turned up nothing. But among the heavy folders of paperwork, a few bagged personal items from the woman remained: a brown wristwatch, two rings.

The detective — a slim man who was only a young child when the body was found — wasn’t confident he’d be able to make anything of the evidence. Many other detectives had spent countless hours poring over the the box. What more could he do?

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Serial Killer

Det. Jeff Sheaman, right, and Sgt. Joe Tomich, left, look through a collection of files inside a box labeled “unidentified body- granger” Nov. 1 at the Sweetwater County Sheriff’s Office in Rock Springs. Sheaman submitted mitochondrial DNA from the unidentified female to the University of North Texas database, ultimately leading to the identification of Christine Thornton.

Jeff had just completed a class on solving cold cases and decided to submit samples from the Granger remains to the University of North Texas for mitochondrial DNA testing and entry into a missing persons database. The university told him it could take years to get results, if they ever came at all.

“I figured I’d be 20 years retired before I got the call,” he said.

Jeff was lounging about his house with his wife on a day off about three months later when he decided, uncharacteristically, to check his email.

A match had been found. Buried in dense scientific jargon was the name of the woman found outside Granger: Christine Ruth Thornton.

He Googled her name and found the photo of Christine astride the blue motorcycle. He found a Facebook page Kathy had made asking for information about her sister. He read about Alcala. He called his boss, who called Kathy a few days later.

Finally — through a detective in southwest Wyoming — Kathy knew where her sister was for the first time since she was a teen.

But there was still work to be done.

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Caught

Jeff and a colleague, Sgt. Joe Tomich, started pulling together evidence. They needed to prove that Alcala had been in the area during the summer of 1977.

They gathered documents from other law enforcement agencies. Joe took the photo of Christine on the motorcycle to the spot where her remains were found. He compared the subtle terrain markers – a slight rise on the horizon, a sunken patch of grass – to those in the photo. It was the same place. He found documentation that Alcala had traveled the county the same year Christine went on her road trip.

But Sweetwater County Attorney Danny Errasmouspe had one last task before filing the charge. He wanted to talk to Alcala.

The attorney and the two deputies left Rock Springs at 6 a.m. on Sept. 6 and flew to California to visit Alcala in his cell. They had no idea what to expect. Jeff spent the flight anxiously scribbling notes on a pad.

“How the hell do you interview a serial killer?” Jeff said. “None of us had done it before.”

But those notes went out the door when they arrived at the Corcoran State Penitentiary. Prison staff told the three men that Alcala was feeble, possibly experiencing dementia or another illness. They decided to interview him anyway.

They found Alcala lying in a medical bed in his tiny, peach-colored cell. A fly buzzed around the room, periodically landing on Alcala’s face before he lazily waved it away. A single window let in a sliver of sunlight, but it was on the wall behind Alcala’s bed, making it impossible for him to see out. The sound of old, heavy locks clanking shut reverberated down the hallways.

When they showed Alcala the photo of Christine astride the motorcycle, his eyes scanned the image he had taken so many years ago. He traced the outline of her body with a finger.

“You could see him replay that day in his head,” Jeff said later. “He knew what happened out there.”

The detectives questioned him for more than two hours. But Alcala, his short black hair now peppered with gray, played games. Though cordial, he would sometimes pause for minutes before responding.

The detectives showed him a photo of the area where Christine had been found and asked if Alcala had been there.

“It’s part of my area,” he responded.

They asked if he had taken the photo of Christine. He said he had. Over and over they asked Alcala if he killed Christine.

“Are you crazy?” Alcala repeatedly answered the detectives, refusing to confirm or deny it.

After more than two hours, the men decided they had gathered all the information they could from Alcala. They left the prison but with the information they needed. Two weeks later, Danny charged Alcala with first-degree murder.

Kathy finally felt that justice was being done. She wanted Alcala extradited to Wyoming to face the charge, but Danny feared Alcala was too frail to make the journey and wait through the legal proceeding.

It would be an expensive gamble for the state, he said. Plus, waiting out his life in the California prison was far worse than anything Wyoming could do to him, he said.

“He can die there,” he told Kathy before publicly announcing his decision to not extradite Alcala. “He doesn’t deserve to breathe Wyoming air ever again.”

With the case as closed as it will ever be, all that was left was to move Christine’s remains from her unmarked grave on the outskirts of Rock Springs. It was time to bring her home.

Finally

Few things except the wind and time pass by the spot where Christine died.

The two-track road near where she was found is rutted and meandering. There is nothing but a burned-out wooden bridge and dried-up sagebrush stalks, pale and scattered like so many bones. The distant sound of trucks whizzing down Interstate 80, about 6 miles away, occasionally reaches over the otherwise silent plain.

When Kathy and Mary Ann stepped onto the plain in October, their minds swam with the images of what had happened out there.

What had brought her out to this patch of scrubby Wyoming soil? What had their sister thought in her last moments? Did she know that she was so loved?

“She was left there alone, like a piece of trash,” Mary Ann said. “It’s a miracle more of her didn’t get blown away.”

Then they climbed back in the car and traveled back to the R.V., where Christine’s ashes waited to travel the 1,400 miles back to Michigan.

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Serial Killer

An unmarked grave that was exhumed to retrieve the remains of Christine Thornton is covered with sod Nov. 1 in Rest Haven Memorial Gardens in Rock Springs.

It was odd having Christine’s ashes in the R.V.’s bedroom during the two-day journey, Kathy said, but also comforting to feel her sister there. The drive — through the rolling fields of the country’s heartland — gave her time to process what she had experienced the past few days.

“Closure” isn’t the right word for what she’s feeling, Kathy said. The death of her sister is not something that can be reconciled so easily – it is not a book you can simply shut. Instead, she feels that the sense of responsibility she has carried all these years has been lifting slowly from her shoulders.

But Kathy said her work isn’t done. Theories of what happened to her sister no longer plague her, but the images of the dozens of other girls photographed by Alcala flicker at the edges of her mind.

A woman posing in a white sundress. A smiling mother, holding a baby to her chest. Two grinning toddlers. The little girl in her white communion dress, being held in Alcala’s arms.

The possibility that there are likely other victims – perhaps other women who also have families that have searched for them for decades — looms over Kathy.

In some form, she’ll probably keep doing what she’s done her entire adult life. Every so often, she’ll take out the photos and see what she can do.

“There’s part of me that hopes for all of those dear people in those pictures, that something like this will happen for them,” she said.

Kathy and her siblings held a Catholic funeral mass for their sister. Kathy didn’t speak at the service — for once the pragmatic and thoughtful woman wasn’t sure she’d be able to maintain her composure.

They buried Christine in the family plot next to her dad and her mom on a gray, drizzling Michigan Saturday. Her parents died never knowing what happened to their free-spirited daughter.

After the graveside service, Kathy and her three living siblings gathered to remember the sister they had lost so many years ago. One of the sisters had brought a suitcase of old photos and they pored over them in a relative’s living room. They reminisced about the joy Christine embodied, the pranks she had played, the boys she had wooed.

It was cathartic, Kathy said. She felt warm to be with those who had known and loved her sister. Christine was home.

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