On a smoky, eerie night last month, a determined detective and a relative of a homicide victim retraced the steps of two young women who were murdered almost four decades ago.
Asotin County Detective Jackie Nichols and Gloria Bobertz, of California, slowly walked around the former Lewiston Civic Theatre, where they believe Kristina Nelson, 21, and Jacqueline “Brandy” Miller, 18, encountered a suspected serial killer on Sept. 12, 1982.
“This is where I think he loaded the bodies,” Nichols said, pointing to a boarded-up window at the back of the condemned theater on Normal Hill. The large window was low enough to make such a grisly task feasible, and it wasn’t highly visible from the street.
A third suspected victim, 35-year-old Steven Pearsall, was last seen at the theater on the same night. His body has never been found, adding to the mystery of several Lewiston-Clarkston Valley unsolved murders that are still under investigation.
On the anniversary of the civic theater disappearances, the valley was cloaked in wildfire smoke. The thick haze, darkness and quiet streets cast a sinister pall over the scene as the detective and Bobertz, who is a cousin of Nelson, went over the details and timeline of what may have transpired.
Nelson and Miller, who both lived in Normal Hill neighborhood apartments, walked downtown to a grocery store on that September night. Nichols believes they crossed paths with a person they knew and trusted, and that person lured them to the theater and ultimately killed them. Pearsall had gone to the theater to do laundry, likely stumbling upon a horrific scene and losing his life as well, she said.
The cases have been turned over to the FBI, but Nichols continues to work in conjunction with the federal agency, and keeps in touch with some of the victims’ family members. Her tenacious efforts have been highlighted in several documentaries, including a two-part series, “Cold Valley,” which is now available on Hulu.
“We’ll never ever give up,” the detective said. “We do have a person of interest who is a main focus, but I’m not going to rule him in or out, until we have the physical evidence that rules him in or out. My belief is if these cases are going to be solved, it will be through DNA.”
Bobertz, who met Nichols in 2009, makes periodic visits from her home in Crescent City, Calif., to the presumed site of her cousin’s murder in Lewiston and a hillside near Kendrick where the bodies of Nelson and Miller were found in 1984. They also explore other places of interest that are linked to the suspect.
Whether she is in the area or not, Bobertz constantly relives the awful crime that shook her family to the core.
On her most recent visit to the valley, she ran her fingers over the cold stones of the old theater, a landmark and former Methodist church, which is now locked and falling into disrepair. She hopes the building can be saved from demolition and something “good and light” will someday overshadow everything bad that has happened there.
“I come up here and sit on these steps to get a vibe,” Bobertz said. “This building has an eerie beauty to it, but it’s also the last place three people were alive. It’s so emotional to be back here, knowing somebody died inside those walls 38 years ago tonight.”
Bobertz has a developed a keen interest in the region’s cold cases, including the disappearance of Christina White, a 12-year-old Asotin girl who vanished on the weekend of the Asotin County Fair in 1979, and the 1981 unsolved murder of Kristin David, a 22-year-old Moscow woman, whose dismembered body was found along the Snake River.
The suspect in the civic theater cases lived in the house where the young Asotin girl was last seen alive.
While here, Bobertz arranged for a cadaver dog and handler to assist her on the latest hunt for evidence, information and possible closure to cases that have haunted the valley for decades. She also runs a Facebook page, Lewis Clark Valley Serial Killer, that’s focused on her quest.
“I’m going to keep looking at cases this person may have been involved in,” she said. “Then I contact law enforcement in those areas and just hope we can link him through DNA. I spend at least 20 hours a week doing research, reading and looking at serial killer cases. Sometimes, when I feel my brain is getting too saturated, I pull away. I started in the mid-’90s and really went hardcore into this around 2003.”
Bobertz said she tries to remain calm and factual when she talks to law enforcement about the cold cases. It’s tough to appear unemotional, but “they’re not going to listen, if you are slinging snot,” she said.
As for the person of interest, Bobertz said she’s tried to call him but has never been successful in contacting him. He is not named in Lewiston Tribune coverage, because formal charges have never been filed.
“I’m after him,” Bobertz said. “He refuses to talk to me, but I want to hear his side of the story.”
The Tribune also attempted to contact the man, who reportedly lives on the other side of the country now. Phone calls, emails and texts were not returned.
As she walked by Nelson’s former apartment, Bobertz said she remembers exactly where she was standing and what she was wearing when she heard the news about her cousin’s disappearance.
“My grandmother told us,” she said. “She was old school and said it so matter of fact. We were in shock. Kristina had a job and was going to school. She wasn’t out running the streets or anything like that.”
During the California woman’s visit, Nichols and Bobertz drove to Kendrick where the bodies of Nelson and Miller were found. They timed the drive from the theater and noted the mileage, speculating on why the rural site along a highway was chosen by the killer.
Later in the week, they joined Florence Dickens, of Rupert, and her cadaver dog, Cayven, at a dome-shaped house in the Clarkston Heights where the person of interest once lived. Retired Lewiston Police Detective Alan Johnson, who worked on the cases for many years, stopped by to observe the latest search, along with Asotin County Sheriff John Hilderbrand.
“It’s so weird to be here,” Bobertz said through tears. “I’ve wanted to do this for so long, and it’s finally happening. I feel like this place holds a lot of secrets.”
Nichols said the cadaver dog showed interest in a few spots at the Fifth Avenue property that will be further explored. In addition, Dickens and Cayven were taken to an Asotin house, once owned by the person of interest, where the dog again displayed interest in some areas.
“You have to interpret what the dog is telling you, and it doesn’t necessarily mean a body is buried there,” Nichols said.
The detective holds out hope for a shred of evidence or discovery that will blow the cases wide open and lead to an arrest and closure for the families.
“I think about these cases all the time,” Nichols said. “Every time I drive to Asotin, I think about Christina White and where she is. The FBI is continuing its efforts to resolve these cases, and I’m still working on them, whenever I can. This is not over.”