Robert Hansen was a small business owner and family man in Anchorage, Alaska. He was married with two children and ran the downtown’s local bakery. Cops would frequent his establishment for coffee and doughnuts. Later, Hansen would admit to hunting and killing 17 women in the Alaskan wilderness.
Hansen was described as a scrawny man; he also had a stutter. It was this speech impediment that made it difficult to interact with peers his age growing up, especially girls. Constantly feeling rejected, both socially and sexually, Hansen would let out his frustration through seemingly small-scale crimes. What started out as occasional instances of stealing would later graduate to arson, even burning down a school bus in his hometown of Pocahontas, Iowa in 1960, a crime which he served 20 months in prison for. Eventually, his thirst for crime would turn into something much, much more sinister.
Aside from running his bakery shop and spending time with his wife and two children, Hansen was an avid hunter. He even obtained his pilot’s license and bought a small airplane shortly after relocating to Alaska, which he would use to scout hunting game from a bird’s eye point of view.
Despite his early history of crimes, and even being accused of rape in 1971, Hansen seemed to always fly under police radar. It was not until 1983 that the Alaskan man would catch the authorities’ attention, this time for good.
Cindy Paulson, a sex worker in Anchorage, was seen half nude, handcuffed, and screaming on an Alaskan highway. After police brought in Paulson for questioning, they realized they had something much more menacing on their hands than a hysterical sex worker. Paulson described being abducted after a man solicited her for sex. The man handcuffed her to the vehicle before threatening her with a revolver. The man took Paulson to his home, where he chained her to the ceiling, raped, and tortured her.
The man then brought Paulson to a small local airport, where he kept his airplane. While he was preparing his airplane, Paulson escaped.
Police then took Paulson back to the airport, where she pointed out her attacker’s place, which was identified as Robert Hansen’s. After obtaining Hansen’s home address from the plane’s registration, police visited the home, which matched Paulson’s description.
Paulson’s close call with kidnapping wasn’t the first instance of attacks on sex workers in Anchorage. In the late 1970’s, handfuls of sex workers started to go missing, but their disappearances were ultimately ignored. In 1983, the same year as Paulson’s attack, the body of a 17-year-old exotic dancer, Paula Goulding, was found in the Knik River. The body of a 23-year-old exotic dancer, Sherry Morrow, was found near Goulding’s. .223 shell casings were discovered near both women’s remains. Forensic reports confirmed they were fired from the same rifle.
Drawing similarities between Paulson’s case and those of Goulding and Morrow, FBI profile John Douglas was able to create a criminal profile of the suspect. He would have low self-esteem and probably suffer from a speech impediment. The profile matched Hansen. Police obtained a search warrant for Hanse’s home, where they found jewelry that belonged to many of the missing women. They also discovered a rifle that matched the shell casings from the crime scenes in the Knik River. Perhaps most eerie of all was a map of the Alaskan wilderness with X marks scattered throughout. It was found in the headboard of Hansen’s bed.
Investigators told Hansen their plan to wait for Spring for the snow to thaw, and take tracking dogs to each X mark on Hansen’s map. One of the investigators described a chilling interaction. “As I sat there watching Hansen, there was a transformation that took place that was just amazing. His face got really red, and, literally, the hair on the back of his neck stood up. And that was when he changed, to my eye, from Bob the Baker to Bob the Serial Killer. And all of a sudden I’m looking at this guy, thinking: there’s the guy who killed all those people.”
Hansen would eventually confess to 17 murders. With no death penalty in Alaska, he was sentenced to life plus 461 years. In 2014, he died at the age of 75.
Frank Rothschild, the assistant district attorney of Hansen’s case, said he doesn’t regret not being able to pursue the death penalty. “I would’ve wished every breath he took had an element of pain to it…But here’s how I thought about it. Here’s a guy whose passion in life is going out into the wilderness and hunting the great Alaska wild. Instead of being able to do that, he was put in a cell with no view of anything—forget the mountains—with rancid air and horrific people around him. That, to me, is supreme punishment,” Rothschild explained.
The Hansen case was the last of Rothschild’s career. Shortly after the sentencing, he retired in Hawaii.