Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Cold Case Gets a Boost from Local Television News Station

KIRO 7 reporter Chris Halsne has done a brilliant job of developing a story that could very well put a serial killer in prison.  Over thirty-five years ago, three seemingly unrelated disappearances went from baffling to cold cases, leaving families and investigators frustrated.  Now, with the unlikely help of a news reporter, cold case detectives may have another chance to close these long cold cases after all.

In 1973, a woman and her young son disappeared from the small town of Port Townsend, across Puget Sound from Seattle. A roommate told people the woman and son had left, and no missing persons report was ever filed.  Three years later, in 1976, a mother of five living in Kent, a suburb just south and east of Seattle.  As with the disappearance of the woman and her son from Port Townsend, the woman left home for a routine activity (studying for a college exam) and never returned.  Both families have wondered for more than thirty years just what might have been the fate of their loved ones.

Halsne has spoken with investigators in both Kent and Port Townsend about the cases, and about the man police are calling a suspect: Glenn Bagley.  Bagley is a retired civil engineer who worked for the Jefferson County managing roads projects at the time of the two cases.  He left “suddenly” shortly after the disappearance of the second woman, moving to the Philippines and earning a living as a freelance engineer. 

How did the original detectives link Bagley to the cases?  In the case of Althea Blankenship and her son Jeffrey, Bagley was sharing a home with Blankenship as his roommate.  They developed a romantic relationship.  Bagley was separated from his soon-to-be ex wife – the woman who would go missing three years later – at the time.  She was last heard from at the home and Bagley is believed to have been the last person known to have seen the woman and son.  Bagley has claimed that he drove the two to Seattle Tacoma International Airport, where they planned to take a flight to Greece.  No records document the pair leaving Sea Tac on any flight, and customs doesn’t have a record of them leaving the country.  The Kent woman who disappeared three years after Blankenship and her son was called Esther Mae Gesler.  She had left home saying she was going to study for a college exam over the weekend.  Her ex-husband was Glenn Bagley.  Shortly after Gesler’s disappearance, Bagley left the country “abruptly”, according to the Jefferson County Sherriff’s investigator.  When contacted about the disappearance, Bagley said he didn’t see Gesler and that he had an alibi for that weekend.  His girlfriend was willing to give a statement saying that Bagley had been with her in Port Townsend building a cat house in his garage.  It was enough at the time.

Years later, though, the woman came forward and told investigators that she had lied.  She claimed in 2004 that Bagley had threatened to kill her if she ever revealed the false alibi, and that she’d “end up in the same culvert in Quilcene as Esther”, according to Halsne.  The accusation rang true to investigators, who knew that Bagley’s job as a roads project engineer would have given him local information and cover for disposing of remains in hard-to-find places throughout the county. 

At some point after Bagley’s former girlfriend had recanted her alibi, cold case investigators discovered that Bagley’s name came up in both cases.  Bagley claimed that he’d not had any contact with his ex-wife in the months prior to her disappearance, but after determining through phone records that Bagley had called her, police connected the two cases and Bagley became the prime suspect.  As Kent Homicide Detective Wayne Himple told Halsne,  “What are the chances? What are the odds of one person being associated with the disappearance of three people? And not just three people, but of people he was closely related to or in proximity of. They lived with him. The odds have to be astronomical, in my view…”

The Port Townsend paper interviewed a number of people who knew Bagley, including another ex-wife.   He was described as a good engineer, organized and neat professionally, but with a more exotic personal life.  One person said he was ‘weird’ and that no one who knew him would be too surprised if he is guilty of three murders.

When interviewed in Port Townsend regarding his ex-wife’s murder, Bagley appeared nervous to detectives.  His girlfriend provided an alibi, and not long thereafter Bagley was on his way to the Philippines.  Detectives have not been able to speak with Bagley in person since 1976.  When they began looking for Bagley in 2004 following the recanted alibi, he was nowhere to be found. and Kent did not have the cold case budget to send detectives to Manila to interview Bagley now.  Fortunately, as KIRO News investigative reporter Chris Halsne contacted investigators about the cases, as well as surviving family members and the ex-girlfriend who recanted the alibi she’d given Bagley, Halsne was able to track down Bagley in the Philippines.  Moreover, Halsne was able to arrange a trip to do what police couldn’t afford.  Interview Bagley.  It is worth a look at the video of the report to watch the suspect’s demeanor and answers to questions.

After several days of street surveillance and some encounters Halsne describes as ‘unpleasant’ with armed men guarding Bagley’s residence, he was able to speak with Bagley in person.  Some excerpts are available in the link below, as well as photos, a timeline and transcript of the interview.  His answers, at least to me, are consistent with a man who could kidnap and murder two women and a small child.  He chuckles when discussing the disappearances, and is rather blase about them, but shows discomfort and perhaps a stronger emotion when told what his ex-girlfriend had said in recanting her alibi of him.  Word is that investigators are surveying culverts in Jefferson County to see if they can locate any remains.  At 69, Bagley may have thought he’d gotten away clean (if he is guilty of these crimes), but for the first time in thirty plus years he must look over his shoulder to find close pursuit.   Halsne has put together a top-notch report, and KIRO has not only pursued a fascinating story, but may end up helping to solve three very old, but no longer cold cases.


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