Elephant in Room With Control Freak

Robert Hansen was repeatedly asked to explain his interactions with the women of Anchorage. Women he kidnapped, raped and often killed. He told investigators it was a matter of control. That exercising control over these women made him feel he had control over his own life. Because, you see, he felt he had no control over his own life, over his impulses, his wandering thoughts of doing evil things to young women. That was elephant in Robert Hansen’s room.

But these women were not mere robots. They had dreams and agency and will. They did not always sit and stay like dogs at Hansen’s command. They could not be expected to. Hansen had an answer for that, too.

Six of Hansen’s 17 known victims (courtesy AST)

Frank Rothschild: “And when asked, well, what happened, Mr. Hansen, if they didn’t go along with the program? ‘Well, then they stayed.’ Those were his words. He would even tell them if things don’t go right, boy, this is where you’re going to stay. To scare them.”

Fact or Assumption?

It is at this point in his disquisition that Frank Rothschild makes what would become a stunning assertion. This is the other elephant in the room.

And while he doesn’t talk about it or admit to it, it’s obvious from reading through and looking at where thing started, and where the women ended up, he hunted them down, Judge.

Assistant D.A. Frank Rothschild

Not content to let that statement lay, Rothschild went on, in explicit detail, about what he imagined went on out there, in the Alaska Bush, between Robert Hansen and his young victims.

Frank Rothschild: “He let them run a little bit and then he enjoyed a little hunt just like with his big game animals. He toyed with them, he wanted to scare them, he got a charge out of all of this. They weren’t shot right where it all started, he let them run, he grabbed them and they’d claw a little bit and he’d let them run a little more and played with them.”

Frank Rothschild is a primary source, then, of the notion that Hansen was the serial killer who hunted his victims like animals. Is it true?

Robert Hansen, big game hunter (copyright Anchorage Times)

Going After The Prize

People who hunted with Robert Hansen spoke of him as a relentless, single-minded hunter. He was after the big game, full stop. You can’t toy with a wild animal. They’ll outrun you, they’ll outwit you. They know their territory better than the hunter does. And they’re better equipped for that territory.

The same cannot be said of the young women Hansen abducted and dragged into the wilderness. This was decidedly not their territory. But they did know one thing. They were in grave danger.

Faced with danger, human reactions reduce to their essence. Just as with any animal faced with threats, humans instinctively go into what is called “fight or flight” mode. What Rothschild describes is exactly that. Fight or flight. And everything Robert Hansen did up to that point put these women in exactly that position. Fight or flight.

He didn’t have to “hunt them down” in some literal version of The Most Dangerous Game. It wasn’t necessary. He had conditioned them to act like any other cornered animal. And they did. He was, after all, a hunter through and through. Maybe not an elephant hunter, but a hunter nonetheless.

Dall Sheep, Hansen’s den (copyright Leland E. Hale)

Splitting Hairs

Perhaps, you think, I’m splitting hairs. Fair enough. I am making a fine point distinction between willful intent and inevitable outcome. Let that be another elephant in the room.

It’s worth stipulating, too, that by the end Hansen knew these women had to die. The women in the clubs recognized him. The world was on to him. He also knew what he was doing was wrong. Rothschild makes a point of that. How, then, did he rationalize what he was doing? Did he even bother?

I’ll say this: Robert Hansen constructed a reality that blamed the victim for a fate that he owned. Not unheard of. All too common. Let me repeat: In Hansen’s warped construction, if they disobeyed him, they stayed. That was a logically, if not morally, consistent way of absolving himself. They did what they did, so he did what he did. And the “genius” of his rationalization was that it was predicated upon a simple rule of nature. Fight or flight.

The elephant is starting to come into focus.


Complicating this algorithm somewhat, however, are the details of what happened. Details about some of the killings. Details about the women who got away. Reality is never as simple as conjecture. And we all know the story of the blind men and the elephant.

  • Hansen’s first known encounter in Anchorage was with Susan Heppeard. Intent on kidnapping her, Hansen put a gun to her head and said he’d kill her if she screamed. She screamed anyway. She did not obey. It saved her life.
  • Hansen’s second known “misadventure” was with Patty Roberts. She survived the encounter because he seemed to have found a third way. Part of it was by “obeying” Hansen. But more than that, it was her quiet defiance. Hansen wanted to slash her bra. She calmly said, “No.” Hansen stopped at the side of the road, because he wanted sex. She said, “No. Not in the car.” At one point, after sex in a motel, he drove a lonely road into the Bush. They saw a snowplow. Hansen said he couldn’t take her back. She’d tell. It looked like he was going to push her over the bank. “I won’t tell anyone, honest.” He believed her. It saved her life.
  • Dancer Christy Hayes also survived her encounter with Bob Hansen. When Hansen failed to get her to The Bush — when she refused to go where he wanted to go — when she, finally, refused to relinquish herself to him — that saved her life. It was classic fight or flight, perhaps a bit of both. She managed to clamber through the cab window of Hansen’s truck. And lock all the doors. She was stark naked and Hansen went into a panic. He broke the driver’s door window. Christy Hayes ran. It saved her life.
  • Sherry Morrow did not, unfortunately, survive her encounter with Robert Hansen. She was found in a shallow grave, her head covered by an Ace bandage — he didn’t want her to see where she was.
  • Hansen had taken Sherry to the Knik River, where he’d built a lean-to. But it was a potholed mess of a road and just before they reached the lean-to, his Subaru got stuck. Knowing that three-wheelers often came out there, even in mid-November, Hansen panicked. He tried to take her to the lean-to, where he could hide her. Sensing a moment of weakness, she turned and attacked him. They never got to the sex part. He shot her. Killed her, half facing him, half running away. Still in a panic, he dug a shallow grave, shoved her in and tossed gravel over her. He left the scene, still in a panic. And almost got stuck again. This wasn’t a cold, methodical hunter. This was a scared little boy.
Cindy Paulson (courtesy AST)

And then there was Cindy Paulson.

Cindy schemed ways to escape throughout her ordeal. She was in constant flight mode. Hansen seemed to thwart her at each and every turn. And then, spotting a weakness in his defense, she bolted. Escaped Merrill Field before he could load her on his plane. Barefoot. Handcuffed.

A rational actor might have seen Cindy running and let her go, making a quick scramble to escape the scene of the crime. You have to know when it’s worth it to flee. But Bob Hansen reverted to type.

It was if they were in the Bush. Cindy started to run and he chased her. With a gun. In a panic. Only when the truck stopped to pick her up did he flee. In those few minutes, the real game became clear. This was a scared little boy. Walter Gilmore used a better term. He called him a “chicken killer.”

The elephant is finally out of the room.

Copyright Leland E. Hale (2021). All rights reserved.


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