Agency's databanks have nothing on file that is similar to brutal slayings
HAMILTON - They gather over coffee every morning in the detective division of the Ravalli County Sheriff's Department to talk about what comes next in the Florence murder cases.
The sheriff, Perry Johnson, runs the meeting, but everybody involved in the case - detectives, patrol officers, a data processor, the office manager - gets a chance to talk. They brainstorm. They divvy up new leads. They talk about tomorrow, the next day, the next week.
And then, sometimes, they pray.
"It's kind of spur-of-the-moment," Johnson said recently. "I'll just say to one of the folks, 'Would you ask a blessing on the men and women here?' "
In a room full of different faiths, the prayers tumble out, sometimes short and to the point, sometimes wise and elegant. Prayers for victims - Dorothy Harris, Brenda Patch and Cynthia Paulus - prayers for family. Prayers for safety, for courage, for wisdom.
"Sometimes it's just a prayer for joy and grace for all these families," said Johnson, a Lutheran. "We're just asking God to keep us all under His watch."
A smattering of amens closes the prayer. Then, the work starts again. The effort to make sense of what seems senseless, the quest to find a man who for a short while on Nov. 6 seemed to be everywhere in Florence and now may as well be invisible.
No one calls him the suspect. He's become, after repeated media stories, the "oddly dressed man." On the morning of Nov. 6, as Brenda Patch, Cynthia Paulus and Dorothy Harris made their separate ways to the Hair Gallery, Harris' shop in the middle of Florence, the man's out-of-place formality made an impression on those who saw him.
He wore a dark suit, perhaps a duster, with a black hat, a short top hat, maybe, or a fedora. At times, people thought he might be carrying something. He was young, in his 20s or 30s, with narrow features that have led some to suggest he might not be a man at all.
In the minutes before and after 11 a.m. - the time a startled customer found the 62-year-old Harris dead just inside the salon's back door - the man caught the attention of nearly a dozen people. He walked north through the dirt parking lot of the Wild River, a bar and restaurant just south of the Hair Gallery.
He was seen on the grass in front of the salon, again just south of the business, then walking through the alley west of the business. Based on sightings, the man snaked his way through the town's back streets and across a school bus parking lot before disappearing near One Horse Creek Road, about four blocks from the murder scene.
As he moved away from the area of the salon, he appeared to be "walking with a purpose," the sheriff said.
A police dog from Missoula tracked what investigators believe was the man's path, dead-ending at One Horse Creek Road. A second dog, a bloodhound, made more progress a day later, trailing a scent to a home on the other side of the road. That home was searched Nov. 8, but Johnson said the resident is housebound and was cleared as a possible suspect. Ravalli County District Court authorities refused Friday to release a copy of the warrant used to search the home, but Johnson said the warrant was based on the bloodhound's work.
Sketches of the man have been broadly circulated in newspaper and television reports - "America's Most Wanted" even did a show on the case - but he remains a mystery. He is suspicious in every way - proximity, timing, clothing and, most importantly, his unknowable-ness. The simple fact that he hasn't stepped forward to explain himself makes him all the more furtive.
And he may be the single most important clue - as least of those authorities have revealed - to the resolution of what Johnson calls the most gruesome, violent and bold Bitterroot Valley crime in recent memory.
Gruesome and violent, he said, because the women's throats were slashed with a knife, bold because the murders were committed in the middle of the business day on a busy highway that links the valley to Missoula, Idaho to Montana.
Investigators are roughly split into two theoretical camps about the murders. One camp, which includes the sheriff, believes the killings were committed by someone who knew at least one of the women. The second camp sees a randomness to the crime, a sort of drive-by stabbing.
Generally, the use of a knife suggests intimacy and some knowledge of the victim, though knives have certainly been used in random crimes, homicide investigators said.
"With a knife, you put your hands on people," said Johnson. "It doesn't give you the ability to be a bystander at your own crime. You have to be personally invested. … It's a whole different element than with a firearm."
Beyond the knife, the killings were shockingly brazen. The salon, which for many years was the Florence Post Office, is lined with windows and easily viewable by passers-by. The shop was open for business, with the 71-year-old Paulus already getting her nails done by Patch, 44. A second appointment was only minutes away, and Harris was known to encourage walk-ins.
And yet, without being seen going into or out of the building, someone took control of Patch and Paulus, shepherded them into a small utility room and slashed their throats. Johnson said the victims have "other injuries," but won't elaborate except to say that the death scene is "dynamic."
Harris was found lying across the rear doorway in a puddle of her own blood.
It's not uncommon for police to keep secret aspects of both death scenes and investigations. The primary reason is to be certain that if a suspect is developed - or even if a confidential informant comes forward who may have spoken to a suspect - there are things known only to the killer and the police.
"I think it's one of those situations where we just don't want to disclose some of those things that we need to hear from a viable suspect or from a viable witness," Johnson said. "If it's something that I haven't disclosed or I've held back comes back to us, now I already know about the control of that issue."
So, while Johnson has disclosed that investigators have a palm print from the murder scene, he won't say anything more about it - where it was found, was it bloody, could it be a suspect's or is it more than likely a customer's.
A first step in almost every investigation is to blanket the country with teletypes to other law-enforcement departments in an effort to find similar crimes. The crime was entered into the FBI's databank, a national catalog of crime. Johnson and his staff also looked back at their own unsolved crimes, two of which involved knives.
They spent hours on the phone talking to FBI profilers, looking for similarities. And what they found was that the Florence murders are an anomaly. There's nothing like them.
"There may be triple homicides and there may be cases that look and sound like this, but there are no cases like this," the sheriff said. "The dynamic just doesn't exist anywhere around. We haven't found a sister case, a twin case, any kind of case that comes right back to us and says you guys should be looking in this direction."
Much has been made in the past two decades about the so-called "profiling" of killers. The FBI, where the pioneering work was done by John Douglas and Robert Ressler, specializes in profiling in its Behavioral Sciences Unit.
Generally, a profiler produces a sociological and psychological portrait of a killer - what his home life may be like, what sort of job he may have, how he may relate to others. Profilers routinely are sought in cases where the killer is assumed to be a stranger, less so in cases where the murderer is somehow related to the victim. In fairness, those cases usually are resolved more easily by local authorities.
Ravalli County sought the assistance of the FBI's profilers, and one of the things they were most interested to get was an opinion on the use of the knife, which the killer apparently brought to the salon. Beyond the fact that the knife suggests knowledge of a victim, county authorities wondered whether they ought to look for someone trained with knives - a military person, perhaps.
"It may be somebody with efficiency, who has training, but it may not, and they were very adamant about that," Johnson said. "It doesn't have to be someone with special training, just someone who was invested, and who was a cool, calm person to begin with. That might be one of those personality traits."
However, the valley historically is an agricultural community, where many are more than familiar with using knives. It's also home to hunters who know their way around knives.
The profilers also emphasized that while the oddly dressed man may be involved, he may not be. Or, perhaps he was working with someone else, maybe as a lookout.
"That was good advice and it's still good advice," the sheriff said.
In the end, the profile produced by the FBI was interesting and informative, but of no particular help.
"They don't offer us a lot, but I don't know that I can expect that of them," Johnson said.
As Jerry Crego, a retired Missoula County sheriff's captain who briefly helped Ravalli County with the Florence case, said: "I've used (profiles) and, you know, they're pretty fascinating. The problem, though, in the end, is that they don't have the name of a suspect at the bottom. You still don't have anybody to arrest."
The street lights were just flickering to life on Nov. 6 when Perry Johnson walked out to the alley behind the Hair Gallery to talk with two Missoulian reporters waiting in the cold dusk. The talk fell immediately to the what reporters call the five W's of journalism: who, what, when, where, why. They're equally applicable to police work.
What, when and where are always the easy parts.
"I just have the feeling that this is going to be somebody we know, somebody who's probably close by right now," Johnson said.
It almost always is.
By early the next day, detectives were fanning out to learn everything they could about Patch, Paulus and Harris - their home lives, their business lives, their friends and family. The work was complicated to an almost unfathomable degree by the number of victims and the unnerving fact that authorities didn't know who was the killer's target.
Was it one of the women? Two? Were they simply in the wrong place at the wrong time? Had one of them angered someone enough to precipitate a murder?
"I keep coming back to some of these comments these profilers have made," Johnson said last week. "They said, 'We believe you will be surprised at what it may take someone to kill three people.' It could be just about anything. It may not be some smoking-gun issue. It might be something real subtle."
To that end, detectives have sought financial statements, insurance records, telephone records, DNA samples and palm prints from family members and friends.
"I want to characterize the whole financial picture," Johnson said. "I want to see if anybody benefits from the result of the death. We're looking for anything, any kind of a tilt that would give us another direction to look at."
Even though detectives have explored the business and personal relationships in all the families, including a contentious business arrangement between Harris and a relative, the families have offered nothing but cooperation, Johnson said.
While they haven't been eliminated as possible suspects, Johnson said nothing has surfaced to link any family member to the killings.
"I feel pretty comfortable at this point that we have done what we can to develop any family members as a suspect and we've not been successful doing that," he said. "Have they been completely eliminated? I'd say absolutely not. They won't be completely eliminated until we've got a signed and sealed confession on our desk."
Motive creates direction in murder investigations. Find one and you've got something to work with, a potential pool of suspects, a pattern of behavior that's likely been acted out before.
Because the murders took place in a business, robbery was an obvious possible motive. But nothing of value was taken. In fact, the only thing that appears missing from the shop were two plastic capes - one black, one gold - the kind hair stylists put around customers' necks to keep hair from going down their shirts.
Harris, whose shop was closed Sunday and Monday, routinely did her banking on Tuesday morning. She did the same on Nov. 6, making a deposit about 10:30 a.m. at her Stevensville bank, about eight miles south of the salon. She then headed into Florence.
About the same time, Cynthia Paulus arrived for a manicure from Brenda Patch. Paulus, her son Bub Hoblitt has said, usually got her manicures on Friday mornings, but may have gone that Tuesday because she wanted to look nice at a University of Montana basketball game that evening. She rarely missed a Grizzly game.
When the customer who found the bodies arrived about 11 a.m., her car became the fourth in the lot. Moments later, she had to step over Dorothy Harris' body to get into the salon and call 9-1-1.
Within minutes, downtown Florence was awash in the surreal specter of spinning lights - deputies' cruisers, the Florence Volunteer Fire Department, ambulances. Reporters, television trucks. Technicians from the State Crime Lab in Missoula.
Florence came on foot to gawk and wonder. What happened? Whose car is that? Are they dead? All of them?
Deputies started walking the streets, house to house, talking to neighbors and anyone on foot. A lab tech swabbed something off a wooden fence behind the shop. Another made casts of a couple of footprints.
Inside, officers did their best to disturb nothing yet find something. They found little - a pair of black-rimmed sunglasses in what Johnson will describe only as "the middle" of the murder scene.
For the site of a triple murder, the salon was curiously undisturbed, except for the utility room, which Johnson once described as a "battle scene." One investigator familiar with the case said Patch and Paulus may have been forced to their knees and executed.
As officers started processing the scene, stunned relatives arrived and were whisked inside the crime scene tape to talk with authorities. Mostly, they stood in huddled groups, the shock on them like winter coats.
As night fell, Dorothy Harris left her business for the last time. Hours later, they carried away Brenda Patch and Cynthia Paulus.
And the sheriff came out to talk to the newspaper people.
Nobody can accuse Perry Johnson of playing turf games. Rather than insulate his department and remain secretive about his case, as sometimes happens in law enforcement, he has been a veritable road show. He sought the help of the FBI and the state. He went to Missoula and addressed a combined force of 50 or so officers from the Missoula County Sheriff's Department and Missoula Police Department.
He didn't just ask for help. He asked for ideas, inspiration, anything to make the case.
Said one investigator who listened to Johnson: "I don't know that I would have done what he did. He sat there and asked to tell him if we thought he was screwing up. I thought that was pretty stand-up."
Johnson shrugs off the suggestion that he did anything other than what he should have.
"When you start to look at the aggregate value of that experience, we're talking centuries here," he said. "The discussion has been very open, candid and I can't begin to tell you how much I value how they've partnered up with us and stepped forward and said, 'Hey we don't want it, we don't want to take it away from you, but we sure want to help,' and the door's open."
Even with all that help, Johnson and his team have no motive. They have no physical evidence that identifies a suspect. They have walked the valley from Florence south to Bass Creek and west to the Bitterroot River. They have heard rumors, taken suggestions and paid heed to every conspiracy theory people can imagine.
They have taken their case to television's "America's Most Wanted," which characterized the case as a random robbery despite their urging otherwise. Even that was worthwhile, Johnson said, because it yielded 150 tips and took the case nationwide.
They have hired an Arizona company to help them catalog their wealth of information.
On Dec. 2, almost a month after the murders, about a dozen officers canvassed areas as far as five miles south of Florence, knocking on doors, looking for "the littlest thing."
"I've worked a lot of homicides," said Undersheriff Bill Buzzell. "It's always amazed me what it takes to solve one. Sometimes just the little detail and sometimes it's just handed right to you."
They have questioned schoolkids and bus drivers. They've talked to everybody up One Horse Creek. They've taken every phone call, no matter how bizarre the information or suspicion.
"We treat each one of those like a big fish, and I think if you fail to do that you've left something on the table that we don't want to leave there," Johnson said. "We either want to develop these leads as a viable suspect or we want to eliminate them as something not worth looking at any further."
Sometimes, when he thinks about the women killed in Florence, Perry Johnson pictures his mother. She's about Cynthia Paulus' age.
"Could that have been my mom? Yeah," Johnson said. "If I didn't do everything I could, drive every road to the end, to clear up the death of my mom, and I don't do that for someone else, then I haven't done a very good job."
Somewhere, sometime, someone is going to count up the number of hours necessary to do that job. In government, hours are money, but for now, Johnson can't be bothered. He won't do anything to jeopardize the case.
"I've stayed away from the money," he said. "I'm personally invested in this. I think we have to spend the money."
Money to keep people in the field. Money to make sure every lead is tracked down. Johnson couldn't care less if his theory, of a killer known to the victims, proves true. Theories are free. If the random theory proves right, fine. Johnson has encouraged freethinking in the department, and he's surprisingly free of attachment to his own theory.
"I've been wrong before. I would never discount their opinions and I think that it lends itself to a more successful investigation the fact that people have the ability to speak their mind," he said. "Just because I'm the sheriff doesn't mean that I'm right. I don't have a crystal ball."
But if he did, he'd be tracking down his mystery man, the man he can't call a suspect but nonetheless is a linchpin of the case.
"I do not think we're there yet and I don't know when we would get there," Johnson said, "But I think we have to identify him."
The book on homicide is this: If you don't have a suspect in 72 hours, the chance of solving a case slides by 50 percent. After that, the chance slips about 5 percent a day.
Johnson and Buzzell know the rule, know the odds. They know their physical evidence may amount to nothing. The oddly dressed man is gone, his identity a puzzle. They don't have a who. They don't have a why.
"I can safely tell you right now we haven't developed a motive," Johnson said. "We haven't developed that scenario yet that is going to allow us to clear this case up. … We've had the last eight weeks to eliminate those (leads) and we'll take however many weeks it takes to eliminate every one of them."
The case is there every morning, Saturdays and Sundays included. Everybody on the case has been given a bit of time away from it, but they all keep coming back.
"It's not that it happened on my watch, yet it is," said Buzzell. "It's hard for me not to personalize it. When you're invested in the community, it's tough not to."
"Nobody deserves to die like that," he said. "Nobody deserves what those people got. I don't think I've had a three-hour block of time that I haven't thought about it."
Neither has Johnson.
"We're not going to quit following every lead and I'm not going to quit hoping," he said.
He points to a stack of folders 18 inches thick on a shelf behind his desk, information he still has to track down.
"This is a big deal," the sheriff said. "This is somebody's grandma. This is somebody's sister. This is somebody's mom."
And so they gather, as many as can, for the morning homicide meeting. Work over the leads, chart the coming course. Do everything possible to be in the right position when, and if, the big break comes.
One recent morning, as the homicide task force wrapped up its meeting, one of the officers said the prayer. He asked, optimistically, for a "quick resolution" to the case.
"I had to tell him, 'It's too late for that,' " Johnson said. "Let's just pray for resolution. I don't care when we get it."
Reporter Mick Holien can be reached at 523-5262 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter Michael Moore can be reached at 523-5252 or at email@example.com.