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Terror in a Top Hat Undoes Town

Murders: A stranger walks into a Florence, Mont., shop, slashes three women's throats and disappears.

November 09, 2001|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FLORENCE, Mont. — There are few clues, except the most unsettling one: a tall man in a long, dark coat and a black hat who walked through this small Western town in the Bitterroot Valley one morning this week, and then brazenly walked out again. When he left, three women in the local beauty salon were dead, their throats slashed.

So far, a witness who saw the hatted man near the scene of the killings is the only lead Sheriff Perry Johnson has. There was no apparent robbery, no argument that anyone knows of.

It is a case that has terrified this community and mystified police, who are tracking down sightings of the man all up and down the valley--before he disappeared, it seems, off the face of the earth.

"We're trying everything and anything," Johnson said Thursday. "There were people out and about that saw this man afterwards. He went into an alley, out on the road, down another road, and eventually across country," where he seemed to slip into the wind. A dog lost his scent down on One Horse Creek Road.

A customer stumbled on the bodies of the Hair Gallery's owner, Dorothy Harris, 62; the manicurist, Brenda Patch, 44; and 71-year-old Cynthia Ann Paulus, a customer. The woman said she had seen a man in a dark coat and hat outside the salon before she entered.

In a town like most small Western towns, where everybody knows almost everybody else, there is a feeling not only of fear--will he come back?--but invasion. Sudden, violent death is a part of the landscape in this land of ranchers and hunters, but not random death, not three ladies gossiping over nails and hair on the main street of town on a bright Tuesday morning.

"It's like this terrorism thing, in a way. It's on your mind all the time. Everything is unraveling," said Joanne Watling, who lives on a rutted residential street behind the Hair Gallery in a small house with pumpkins on the front porch.

"In 12 years of living here, I've never locked my door. Now, I've had to look around for my key. The fact that it seems like it was almost a random type thing--that's what's so scary," Watling said.

Police say they are not ruling out any possibility. They are carefully debriefing relatives to explore the possibility of someone having a grudge, scrutinizing similar crimes from the past, looking at robbery as a motive.

The problem, said Johnson, is that nothing appeared to be stolen from the small beauty shop--no cash, no equipment--except for two things: a pair of smocks, the kind that get draped around a customer's shoulders to collect falling hair.

"The family when they looked around said there were a couple of them missing: one gold and one black," the sheriff said. His comment on that clue was a raised eyebrow.

Neighbors said Harris had owned the building on U.S. 93--the main highway that bisects the Bitterroot Valley out of Missoula--for years. She had tried to make a go of it as a second-hand shop, one neighbor said, but that was before all the wealthy transplants from California and Washington started building big houses out in the valley.

Harris turned it into a beauty salon a few years ago, and contracted with Patch to do nails. She put a red, white and blue barber's pole outside, and a lighted yellow highway sign: "HAIR CUTS. $10 AND UP." Since Sept. 11, she'd had a poster of the American flag in the window.

Patch moved out toward Stevensville to get away from the bustle of Missoula, 16 miles north of Florence, said her friend, Joanette Thies. In the house she shared with her husband of 24 years, you could sit outside and watch the summer thunderstorms rage over the top of the Bitterroots. "Oh, God, it was our own theater," Thies said.

Patch had two grown children and a 2-year-old grandson who adored her, who called her "Maga."

Thies remembers just last week, when Patch was working late, waiting for a customer after dark. "I said, 'Aren't you afraid to be in here alone?' She said, 'No, nobody's going to hurt me.' Brenda wasn't afraid. She just didn't have that mentality that someone would do something like this. But she was a fighter. She didn't give any [trouble], but she didn't take any either. I figure Brenda put up a good fight."

Paulus' family also describes her with a similar kind of energy. She was 71, but she golfed regularly, raised quarter horses, gardened. She never left home without a fishing pole in her trunk, and when she'd spot a good hole alongside the road, she'd look over longingly.

She never missed a University of Montana game--in fact, she may have rescheduled her regular Friday nail appointment to Tuesday so she could look nice for Tuesday night's basketball game, said her daughter, Cindy Shannon, one of four children and four stepchildren Paulus left behind.

Thursday afternoon, the family gathered and tried to understand what had happened.

"The detective said yesterday this guy definitely isn't from here," said son Bub Hobitt.

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