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COLUMN ONE

Cast into the path of a killer

David Stodden's wife and daughter were slain as they hiked in Washington state. His search for clues keeps `a man of action' going.

March 10, 2007|Tomas Alex Tizon | Times Staff Writer

Seattle — HIS wife and daughter were murdered last summer on a remote hiking trail 70 miles from home, in the middle of the day, at the height of their lives, among mountains they had always regarded as a sanctuary.

David Stodden doesn't know who did it or why. He doesn't know whether his wife and daughter were beaten, raped or mutilated; whether they fell quickly or fought to the end. He knows the essentials, that each was shot in the head and left just off-trail where anybody could see them. He knows detectives have made no arrests, and hikers all over the region remain shaken. For many, the wilderness itself was desecrated.

"I don't know where this is all going," Stodden says, referring to the mystery that has enveloped his life. "I'm feeling my way through it."

He is 58, lean and strong, with graying hair and mustache, and a thin, angular face that is at once open and reserved. He smiles easily. When emotion rises up, he pauses mid-sentence and clenches his jaw until the moment passes, then resumes in the easy, cordial way that friends describe as "just David."

On this overcast day, nearly eight months after the killings, Stodden is about to trek into those same mountains, to get as close as possible to the spot on the Pinnacle Lake trail where the bodies were found. The purpose is practical: to check whether the reward posters he put up in the fall are still in place. He had checked them every couple of weeks until the weather turned cold and snow covered the trail. He's hoping some of the snow has melted. It gives him something more to do. It keeps him moving. Movement has been a salve.

A contractor by trade, he has taken time off work to fix up the modest wood-frame house in North Seattle where he and his wife raised three daughters during 28 years of marriage. "It's still hard," he says, referring to being in the house. "It's getting better, but still hard."

Stodden strides through his yard carrying a stack of posters under his arm. The posters show a photo of Mary Cooper, 56, and Susanna Stodden, 27, on a hike two years earlier. They stand side by side in the sun, T-shirted, backpacks slung over their shoulders, much the way they would have looked on the day they died. Mother, fit and sturdy with curly red hair, stands almost a head taller than her dark-haired daughter whose youthful face could easily belong on a teenager. Each wears a distinctive smile: Mary's exuberant, Susanna's slightly shy.

The reward of $26,000 -- for key information -- was raised mostly by friends, of which the family had an abundance.

About 1,500 people attended the memorial service at a high school where a line of speakers affirmed what most already knew, that Mary and Susanna were the kind of people others aspired to be: kind, peaceful, socially conscious, giving; salt-of-the-earth individuals who lived quiet but fruitful lives.

Mary, an elementary school librarian, loved books and children and managed to craft a life surrounded by both. Teary students put up a cardboard sign at the school's front entrance that read "Mary in the library -- the nicest person in the universe."

Susanna was the oldest daughter. She was a month away from a teaching internship at a private school and was excited she could commute from her apartment to the school by bicycle. She'd adopted a lifestyle based on simplicity, and she enjoyed nothing more than spending time in the wilderness.

Mary and Susanna did not make enemies, says family friend Steve Spickard. They were "card-carrying optimists" who sought the best in people and gave strangers the benefit of the doubt.

Spickard suspects what happened on that trail was a chance intersection of light and dark, "of the very best kind of people and the very worst." Investigators, refusing to publicly rule out any scenario, say they are studying the possibility it was a random act. Whoever did it, in any case, is still out there somewhere.

Stodden carefully places the posters in the back seat of a dark purple Dodge Caravan. He climbs in. "Mary's van," he says simply. The same one she and Susanna rode in their last morning, July 11, a typical summer day in the Northwest. It began mostly sunny and ended mostly cloudy, not unlike this day.

Stodden follows the same route.

THE van chugs north to Everett, then east toward the Cascade Mountains, the landscape turning greener and more rugged with each milepost. In the gritty little town of Granite Falls, Stodden slows to spot the posters one by one.

It's still there at Bob & Carol's Deli, just above a sign for night crawlers. Still there at the Spar Tree Tavern. Still there at Deb's Country Barbershop -- "The Best Little Hair House in Granite."

Farther east, as the road climbs, he spots a poster that has curled at the edges. It's on a bulletin board at a roadside establishment called Green Gables General Store. Stodden parks, rustles up a hammer and pounds two new nails to hold down the corners. For a split second he is face to face with Mary and Susanna.

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